by ehistoryadmin on February 12, 2016

Belgian blues: war-time refugees hosted in Celbridge.

Liam Kenny

The gloomy days of early winter were enlivened in Celbridge with flags of red, yellow and black flying from vantage points throughout the town in the October and November of 1914. The flags were the national colours of Belgium and they were on display in Celbridge to welcome a party of Belgian refugees who had fled when their country was invaded by the Germans in the early weeks of the conflict of what became known as the First World War. A Kildare Observer correspondent described the scene by contrasting the normally plain aspect of the Liffey-side town with the splash of colour and the excitement among the inhabitants as expectation of the Belgian arrivals reached a climax. Describing Celbridge as “normally a rather sluggish little village” he described the riot of colour as the locals pulled out all the stops to welcome their guests from the war-torn continent: “Belgian flags floated everywhere on the breeze, from windows, lamp-posts and gates with here and there a Union Jack …”.

The waiting yielded to reality when shortly after 10’o clock a motor charabanc (an open-topped bus) from Dublin passed through the village and discharged its complement of twenty-seven male refugees at the door of the Workhouse in Celbridge. A little later another motor-car came along with four women and five men, bringing the total arrivals to 32 men and four women. The people of the village had congregated at the doors of their houses to cheer the refugees as they passed through and to wave Belgian flags in friendly greeting.

Anticipation ahead of the arrival of the refugees had been building in north Kildare when in late October 1914 an inspector of the Local Government Board told the guardians of the workhouse in Celbridge to prepare for the arrival of a small party of refugees. The local population did not need much persuasion in terms of extending a welcome to potential refugees. Almost right from the outbreak of the conflict in August 1914 the suffering of Belgium was at the forefront of war news. The justification for the United Kingdom to go to war in the first place had been the gross breach of Belgium neutrality by the Germans. Ironically, this had a particular resonance in Ireland which was on the cusp of wresting a measure of independence from the United Kingdom. Leaders of public opinion in Ireland saw many parallels between Belgium and the independent Ireland which they sought. “Defending the rights of small nations” was the catch cry from the Irish politicians and press as they urged Irish men to join the British army to put a stop to the German war machine.

That Belgium was a Catholic country reinforced the empathy of the Irish population. Quickly the Irish Catholic church began to swing its considerable might behind the effort to provide succour for the Belgians. Church collections were taken up and sermons delivered which stressed the need to support the Catholics of Belgium. Typical of the church’s response was a collection for the Belgian Relief Fund taken up in the parish of Clane which raised £22; Staplestown, £10 17s 2d; and Rathcoffey, £5 11s 2d. Other Kildare parishes were similarly involved and a report in the Kildare Observer records that: “On last Sunday a collection was made in Caragh and Prosperous R.C. churches for the relief of distress in Belgium. The collection has been sent by the Priest to the bishop, the Most Rev. Dr Foley, to be forwarded by him, with other diocesan collections, to the Archbishop of Malines in Belgium for distribution among those who have suffered through the war.” Close on £20 was raised from a collection in Celbridge and similar collections were made in the churches of Leixlip, Maynooth and Lucan with good responses from the congregations. Fr Rice, curate in Clane, urged parishioners to contribute with the plea that Belgium was “a little buffer state between two great powers.”

Meanwhile the members of the Belgian “colony” in the Celbridge workhouse were experiencing the rituals of life as with any small community. One of the happier days was a wedding which took place between two of their number. The Kildare Observer reported that: “the wedding took place in Celbridge Parish Church between Gustavo Eggermont and Irma Hoare, who are from among the Belgian refugees staying in Celbridge Workhouse. The parties had been employed in a flax mill in Ghent when the war broke out. The ceremony was performed by a Belgian priest assisted by the Rev.J. Dunne, P.P., Celbridge.”

The Celbridge colony of refugees experienced all facets of the human condition. In February 1915 one of their number passed away and was interred in Donaghcomper cemetery outside Celbridge – his burial being honoured with the distinctive burial customs of his native place. |Jean de Knock, a painter, left a wife and five children, who were among the refugees in Celbridge workhouse. His funeral to Donaghcomper was described as being very imposing with “the Belgian customs being strictly adhered to”. A Belgian priest arrived from Dublin to officiate and in the service was assisted by Fr Dunne, P.P., and Fr McGough, curate. The cortege from St Patrick’s church to the cemetery included the Belgians staying in the workhouse and those in a private house in Killadoon, together with a large contingent of local people. When the coffin was lowered two orations in the French language were read by members of the Belgian community. Then in a notable gesture from their own traditions, a copy of each oration was cast into the grave, the originals being handed to his wife. Another custom observed was that of every Belgian present throwing a handful of clay into the grave.

The stay of the Belgians was relatively brief – by the spring of 1915 they were transferred to the workhouse outside Dunshaughlin. However they left behind a permanent legacy of their presence in the north Kildare town – the grave of one of their own — Jean de Knock, painter and refugee. To paraphrase a war-time poet: “a little corner of Kildare forever Belgium shall be”. Leinster Leader 7 November 2015, Looking Back Series no: 406.

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