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Local Studies Department

WORLD WAR I: Chapter 2 - The Home Front

Belgian Refugees

Mothers, wives and sisters at home would have been glad to know that their sons were being looked after in some measure by those they encountered other than the enemy. Numerous stories of the help that the French gave to Irish troops on their way to the front in August 1914 abound from soldiers returning home, many displayed souvenirs given to them by French people. In return it was only natural that any help at home would be much appreciated by those whose homes were in the direct path of the enemy.

In December 1914 twenty two wounded Belgian soldiers arrived in Celbridge Union and were housed in the workhouse there. They remained in the Workhouse for two weeks and were then sent to Glenbeigh, Co. Kerry; six to Sandycove, and six to Nenagh, where “hospitality was offered them during their sojourn in this country.” (Kildare Observer - 26 December, 1914) From then on county Kildare became a shelter for refugees in the years of the War. A Belgian Refugees Committee was formed for county Kildare with the object of providing them with various accommodation. Subscriptions were requested to be forwarded to Mr. F.V. Devere, Naas.

In December 1914 there were fourteen men and women housed in Celbridge from Belgium. Celbridge Workhouse accommodated the first batch of refugees and in order to maintain them, dances, collections etc. were organised to raise funds together with collections in various districts:-

“On last Sunday a collection was made in Caragh and
Prosperous R. C. Churches, for the relief of distress in Belgium.
The collection realised £31 15s. which has been sent by the
Parish Priest to the Most Rev. Dr. Foley to be forwarded by him.”
Leinster Leader -21 November, 1914

Colonel de Burgh at Oldtown housed eight as guests in 1915 as did many other County Kildare families throughout the war. The following appeared in the Kildare Observer, dated 9th January 1915:-

“Mr. F.V. Devere, Hon Sec. Co. Kildare Belgian Refugees’
Committee, has received the following letter from the Local
Government Board:- “With reference to previous correspondence
on the subject of hospitality for Belgian refugees, I am to inform
you that as a steady flow of refugees into this country appears
to have now commenced the Local Government Board will be
glad to receive as many offers of complete hospitality from Co.
Kildare as possible. Forms and full information were enclosed with
my letter of 3rd ult. to you -Yours, etc.,
E. W. Leech,
“Private Secretary”

Those wishing to offer accommodation in Co. Kildare should communicate as early as possible with Mr. Devere.”

By February 1915, 43 Belgian Refugees were housed in Celbridge Workhouse. The Refugees contributed as much as possible to the county for the kindness shown them during their stay here. Attempts were made to integrate the Belgians within the working community to cover any shortfall as a result of men joining in the war. The Wolfhill Colliery in Athy - a British coalmine - had trouble in meeting the coal requirements for its district, following the departure of 60 miners to join the Colours. The gaps were filled by Belgian refugees and others, with the result that the Colliery could remain open and its prices stay lower than previously expected.

The Refugees became as much a part of the community, especially in Celbridge, as could be expected. In fact the following appeared in the Leinster Leader dated 21st November 1914:-

“A touch of romance was lent to the interesting function
witnessed at Celbridge on Wednesday week when two of the
refugees - Gustavo Eggermont and Irma Heare - were married
in the local Parish Church. The parties had been employed in a
flax mill in Ghent when the war broke out and on their arrival
in Ireland had represented themselves as brother and sister.
The ceremony was performed by a Belgian priest, assisted by
the Rev. J. Dunne, P.R and on the following day the happy
couple left for Dublin on the honeymoon by authorisation of
the L.G.B. Relief Committee.”

Various Committees, Organisations, Associations etc. were set up in the years from 1914-1918, all with their own unique contribution to helping individuals- soldiers, wives, mothers etc.,- to come to terms with a new kind of life. No doubt the quaintly titled “Hot Bag and Cigarette Fund” did as much as any fund-raising organisation to help to try and normalise life for the recipients.