by ehistoryadmin on July 4, 2015


Don’t mention the war!

Liam Kenny

It seems as if we are in an era of saturation coverage of centenaries. For the past week it has been impossible to avoid media attention to the centenary of the outbreak of the war in August 1914. The television schedules brimmed with coverage of ceremonials and commemorations of the war and of its casualties. There were extensive documentary and debate programmes across the broadcast media. The press was similarly full of articles, photographs and features recalling the violent drama of August 1914.

Such extensive coverage was educational and enlightening and, in the Irish context, was welcomed in many quarters as a necessary catching-up after generations of a perceived neglect of the war and its Irish participants in the story telling of modern Ireland. All of this is true and it would be unthinkable not to give prominent attention to the anniversary of an event which claimed such a tragic toll on our forebears of a previous generation.

However historians – and that includes anybody interested in history – must be aware of context at all times. The war certainly had an immediate and significant impact on the lives of the people of Kildare and its environs in August 1914 – for example the price of sugar went up immediately war was declared. But it needs to be stressed that people on the home front had to get on with the business of their day to day lives. The realities of surviving and sustaining life in a country where want and ill-health were everyday realities remained just as real no matter what might be happening on distant battlefields.

Many organisations continued with their mandate of providing a service to the public with the war having relatively little impact on their operations. For instance Kildare County Council continued to meet and discuss local issues and while not entirely insulated from the conflict – some of its small staff complement joined the forces – it’s activity was recognisably familiar grounded in the small tasks and schemes that made a difference to peoples’ every day experience.

A report of a council meeting reported in the Kildare Observer of mid-August 1914 gives a useful balance to the perception that the war dominated everything in that month. Bear in mind that this was a fortnight after Britain had declared war, the first draft of troops had left the barracks in Kildare, the German onslaught was pulverising Belgium, and reports of fighting and atrocities were already filtering back. Yet the business of the council focussed entirely on local issues. The acting County Surveryor, Francis Bergin, reported to the councillors on road maintenance works in the county: “The county steam roller is at present working on the road between Athy and the Moat of Ardscull, the rolling of which is nearing completion so that the roller will shortly be able to commence work either on the road between the County Dublin boundary at Blackchurch to Naas, or on the road between the Shrubbery Gate, Kilcock and the Co Meath boundary at Cloncurry.”

The higher standard of road maintenance needed to cope with the increasing number of motor cars using roads on which loose gravel had sufficed in the era of horses-and-carts was clearly causing much difficulty for the council. The County Surveyor reported that he asked his area surveyors to take notes of any bends in the roads which appeared to be of a dangerous character. He told the council that among the hazards which made turns dangerous for the higher speeds of motor cars was that “Turns are, for the most part, rendered dangerous by hedges being allowed to grow so high that the occupant of a vehicle approaching in one direction cannot see a vehicle approaching in the opposite direction …”

Among other local maintenance concerns which might just as readily be raised at a modern meeting of the County Council, the Co. Surveyor had been instructed to complain to the Great Southern & Western Railway company about the “dirty condition during wet weather of the footpath to the railway stations at Kildare and Newbridge.”

Keeping track of road contractors and their diligence was another concern reported to the council. Mr. Bergin said that had to upbraid one George Cooney, contractor, for neglecting the road between the Carlow road at Grangemellon and the Kilkea road at Dollardstown. However the contractor had obliged by side-edging the road and doing such other repairs as “were possible at this time of year”.

No local detail was too mundane to make it on to the council’s agenda. The Surveyor told councillors that he had to rebuild the gulley on the road at Ironhills near Athy and had to get danger notices erected at each end of the road between Kildoon and Eaglehill to caution the public against using the route.

Extracting money from central government for road projects was a perennial concern of councils and the engineer spoke of how he had applied for a grant to steam roll the road between Celbridge and the County Dublin boundary at Backweston. However the National Road Board needed to know the usage of the route before it would consider a grant and the Surveyor had to employ a man at a cost of two pounds and nine shillings to count the traffic on this section.

None of the foregoing would hold a candle in terms of importance compared to the inferno of war erupting on the continent. However, the reportage of the council meeting in August 1914, as Europe was imploding, provides a necessary context to remind historians that the war was not always the dominant story of days as far as people on the home front were concerned. Leinster Leader 11 August 2014, Looking Back Series no: 396.

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