AUGUST is generally one of the quieter months around the town of Athy as the schools have yet to re-open.However in August of next year we can expect a plethora of events both in Ireland and abroad marking the centenary of the outbreak of World War I .
Some of the dominant images of the war are conjured up for us by the Great War poets such as Siegfied Sassoon and Wilfred Owen and the number of very fine Irish poets such as Francis Ledwidge and T.M. Kettle. It led me to wonder whether or not Kildare had made any such contribution to the canon of Irish War Poetry.
Alas to date I have been unable to identify any particular “Soldier poet” from Kildare. The only Kildare poet linked to the War is Winifred M. Letts. Although English born she grew up in Ireland and lived in Kilberry with her husband W. H. F. Verschoyle from 1926 until his death in 1943. During the war years she served as a nurse and the publication which brought her to the public’s attention was her book Halloween and Poems of the War published in 1916. Her writing was clearly inspired by the scenes she encountered daily in the military hospital in which she worked, such as the following extract from the poem Screens” (in a Hospital).
“They put the screens around his bed;
A crumbled heap I saw him lie,
White counterpane and rough dark head,
Those screens – they showed that he would die.
They put the screens about his bed;
We might not play the gramophone,
And so we played at cards instead
And left him dying there alone.
The covers on the screen are red,
The counterpanes are white and clean; –
He might have lived and loved and wed
But now he’s done for at nineteen.
Our near neighbours in Carlow can claim to be the birthplace of a war poet. John P O’Donnell was born in Tullow on 8 December 1890, one of a set of twins to T.H. O’Donnell being the manager of the National Bank in Tullow. In or about 1911 O’Donnell and his brother, Thomas, emigrated to Australia. They both worked as bank clerks in the Bank of New South Wales and at the outbreak of the war in 1914 John enlisted in the Australian army serving in the 10th Battalion, 3rd brigade, 1st Division of Australian Forces.
His first experience of war was when the combined Australian and New Zealand forces (Anzacs) landed in Gallipoli on 25 April 1915. While the Carlow man was fighting his way off the beach of this Turkish Peninsula Athy men were dying on the Western Front. Joe Byrne of Chapel Lane, a sergeant in the Royal Dublin Fusiliers was killed in action in France on 26 April while his brother Anthony, a private in the Leinster regiment, would also die in France two days later.
On 25 April, at Cape Helles, again in Gallipoli, the First Battalion of the Dublin Fusiliers landed. Many men from Athy were amongst their ranks and although none would die on that day, five days later John Farrell, Christopher Hannon and Larry Kelly, all from the town, were killed in defending the beachhead from a ferocious counterattack by the Turks
Patrick’s brother, Thomas Henry, did not enlist until 1916 and served in a different battalion in the same regiment as his brother. It is believed that they met briefly in France in 1917 but sadly Thomas Henry died at Westhoek, Flanders on 28 September 1917. While recuperating from war wounds in Netley hospital in Hampshire in the UK in 1918 O’Donnell wrote a poem in memory of his twin and the concluding lines recall their emigrant life in Australia and the sacrifice of many in the war to end all wars.
Do you recall way back on sunny shores,
The grand old gumtrees by McCarthy’s creek;
The Kookoburas laughing in the trees,
And all the world asleep.
Sometimes I think I hear your merry laugh,
As down the gully distant hoofs drew nigh,
And all around the wondeous tropic night
And starry sky.
But when again the Spring in France shall break,
With scarlet poppy and wild Somme flowers,
Perchance some little sky lark’s note shall shake
Departing Winter’s stillness in the bowers.
And when the tempest of my life is o’er,
And night draws nigh – may I so hope to chance
To sleep as peaceful, when my Spring shall break,
As those who fell for France
On his return to Ireland in 1918 O’Donnell published this poem and others in a slim, attractive volume titled Songs of an Anzac. He married, had children and farmed in Wicklow but in later life returned to Australia where he died in 1958