Thursday 19 September 2019

Willie Kealy: 'Two soldiers and one shared fate...'

When the guns fell silent 100 years ago today, many young Irishmen never came home. Willie Kealy remembers two of them

FALLEN: Willie Kealy with the plaque that was given to every bereaved British Army family. Photo: David Conachypoint
FALLEN: Willie Kealy with the plaque that was given to every bereaved British Army family. Photo: David Conachypoint

Those who began to come back to Ireland 100 years ago today, after fighting in World War I had ended, were not all welcomed as returning heroes.

When some of them joined up, they had been cheered for answering the call by nationalist leader John Redmond, to protect the freedom of small nations, in the belief that this would help the cause of Irish Home Rule. But after their departure, the 1916 Rebellion had taken place, and with the execution of the leaders, the public mood had changed.

And this did not just apply to the returning soldiers. The fallen were thought of no better.

One such was my grand-uncle - William Kealy, a young man from Newtown in Trim, Co Meath.

Legend says his family had some money but lost it all due to an uninsured fire. Whatever the truth, young William found himself in Dublin looking for work. Finding it scarce, he joined the British Army.

In fact, he joined up before war was declared in 1914, so when he was sent to the Front, he probably saw it as just going to work, and believed what he and his comrades were told - that they would be home for Christmas.

Another young Meath man who joined the Army was poet Francis Ledwidge from Slane. He too came from humble circumstances, but his path to war was different. He was one of nine children but most of the rearing was left to his mother when his father died prematurely.

She laboured in the fields for local farmers and took on knitting, washing and sewing to pay the family's way. When Ledwidge's elder brother also died, they lost another breadwinner.

By the time war broke out, Ledwidge had worked in a number of jobs and was an elected local councillor as well as an established poet, having come under the patronage of the local Lord Dunsany who had introduced him into Dublin literary society.

And it is this association which led to him later being castigated for going to war. The unfair myth that he betrayed those who fought in 1916, including his friend, Thomas MacDonagh (he wrote Lament for Thomas MacDonagh after the executions) and only went to war as he felt obligated to his aristocratic patron when Dunsany formed the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers.

In fact, when John Redmond first called on Irish men to join up, Ledwidge opposed him. He was called "pro-German" when he was the only member of the Navan Rural Council to vote against a motion supporting Redmond, because he believed Home Rule was as far away as ever. And when he eventually joined the Inniskillings it was, he said, "because [Britain] stood between Ireland and an enemy common to our civilisation and I would not have her say that she defended us while we did nothing at home but pass resolutions".

If all war is horror, the 1914-1918 conflict was especially so and Ledwidge experienced the worst of it - he was in Gallipoli and Salonica (Thessalonica), being invalided out to Cairo before being sent back to Manchester. Back in Richmond Barracks, he had a rough exchange with an officer when he told him he was fighting on two fronts - the second being for Ireland's freedom.

This won him a court martial in Derry and he was then sent to France and on to Ypres in Belgium where, on July 31, 1917, an exploding shell killed six men, one of them the young Meath poet.

William Kealy's end was equally tragic. His regiment, the Connaught Rangers, became involved in fierce fighting in April 1915 at Turco Farm just north of Ypres, trying to dislodge a German force entrenched on Pilckem Ridge. They fought alongside the Manchesters and the Lahore Division from India, "most gallantly", the official history records, and adds that "true to their splendid reputation, (they) never faltered".

But this was the first battle in which gas was used as a weapon of attack, and the Rangers lost 15 officers, two of whom were decorated posthumously for "an exhibition of sheer valour and indomitable tenacity". The Rangers also lost 351 "other ranks" in five hours of fighting. William Kealy was one of the 351.

Today it would be fashionable to dismiss these young casualties of war as "cannon fodder" in a battle between empires, none of which realised their day had come and gone. Francis Ledwidge is remembered as a pastoral poet - not a war poet, just a poet who happened to write during wartime.

William Kealy is remembered only by his few descendants who look occasionally at the small metal plaque, sometimes disparagingly referred to as the "dead man's penny", given to the family of every man killed in action.

They think of him as a youth who, whatever the circumstances, went willingly into battle to fight for a cause he believed to be worthy. And, as with Francis Ledwidge, that makes him a real hero.

More than 30 years after the death of William Kealy at just 19 years of age, with World War I over and World War II put away as well, I was born and named after my granddad's brother whom I would never meet, this young man who died in a foreign field on April 26 - the date on which, a generation later, I was born

Sunday Independent

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Don't Miss