by jdurney on March 1, 2011

Troubles on the home front overshadow war’s end

The date line on this week’s issue meant that there was only one historical theme that could be considered in the column this week. The 11th November is a date that still has the capacity to send a frisson down the spine even if the anniversary it marks originated over eighty years ago in the Armistice which ended the First World War of 1914-18. Such is the enormity of the tragedy of the war and its consumption of many millions of lives that it continues to resonate through the decades. When the war erupted in the summer of 1914, the generals assured a trusting public that it would be over by Christmas of that year. Instead four Christmas seasons were to pass in an orgy of carnage in the trenches of Flanders and the arid shorelines of Gallipoli before Germany eventually buckled in front of the Allied onslaught. The ceasefire was to come into effect at 11a.m. on the 11th November 1918. It came too late for men like Denis Kelly of Athy, Larry Molloy of Rathangan and Mick Donnelly of Newbridge. Laurence Molloy, a private in the Royal Munster Fusiliers was killed in France in the final months of that terrible war. He died on the 21st of March 1918; his fellow Kildare man, Michael Donnelly, a Lance-Corporal in the Royal Dublin Fusiliers, lost his life on the same date. The Armistice was just six weeks away when Denis Kelly, a Private in the Leinster Regiment, died of his wounds in France on the last day of September 1918.

All three are numbered among the 30,000 or more Irish who perished in the catastrophic conflict between empires. No doubt they were not forgotten in their Kildare homesteads but reading the coverage in the local newspapers in the days after the Armistice the reaction in Kildare to the war’s ending was low key if not indifferent. The Leinster Leader of 16 November 1918 captured the sense of war-weary anti-climax: “The Great War, which for four years has continued with almost ceaseless slaughter, and brought in its train all the misery and horrors which are its usual accompaniments, has ended almost as suddenly as it broke off.’ There were some token official recognitions of the end of hostilities. The Kildare Observer reported that when news of the Armistice reached Naas the Union Jack was hoisted over the courthouse. A tinge of triumphalism appeared in the proceedings of Newbridge Town Commission which passed a resolution ‘of congratulation to the Allies and of satisfaction at the splendid triumph which had been gained’. There were sporadic episodes of celebration at the war’s end but no mass jubilation.  One of the few reports of prolonged celebration came from Celbridge where, according to the Leader, ‘bonfires were lighted on the streets, and dancing was kept up until the small hours of Tuesday morning.’ Perhaps a likely explanation for the indifference was the fact that those on the home front faced troubles of their own. Ireland was a disturbed place in November 1918 and had long stopped listening to the din of distant wars. The political energies unleashed by the 1916 Rising continued, two years on, to reverberate in the market squares and the parish halls. An election was due in Ireland in the autumn of 1918 and local conversation was more concerned with its outcome than with the cessation of a war many miles away.  Even more devastating was the influenza outbreak which tore through households irrespective of gender and age. The Leinster Leader of November 1918 recorded a grim procession of influenza casualties. In Celbridge ‘… a whole family named Dillon, of eight persons, were stricken with the disease. Five were removed to hospital where two of the sons have died. The mother died at her home and the other members of the family are in a critical condition.’  Thus it is not surprising that the men who had left three or four years past to fight a distant war were no longer to the forefront of the public mind as new and more immediate hardships made their presence felt.  Series no: 202.

Liam Kenny in his column ‘Nothing new under the sun,’ from the Leinster Leader of 11 November 2010 on the anniversary of the Armistice of 1918. Our thanks to Liam.

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