Two sol­diers and one shared fate...

When the guns fell silent 100 years ago to­day, many young Ir­ish­men never came home. Wil­lie Kealy re­mem­bers two of them

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - - Comment -

THOSE who be­gan to come back to Ire­land 100 years ago to­day, af­ter fight­ing in World War I had ended, were not all wel­comed as re­turn­ing heroes.

When some of them joined up, they had been cheered for an­swer­ing the call by na­tion­al­ist leader John Red­mond, to pro­tect the free­dom of small na­tions, in the be­lief that this would help the cause of Ir­ish Home Rule. But af­ter their de­par­ture, the 1916 Re­bel­lion had taken place, and with the ex­e­cu­tion of the lead­ers, the pub­lic mood had changed.

And this did not just ap­ply to the re­turn­ing sol­diers. The fallen were thought of no bet­ter.

One such was my grand-un­cle — Wil­liam Kealy, a young man from New­town in Trim, Co Meath.

Le­gend says his fam­ily had some money but lost it all due to an unin­sured fire. What­ever the truth, young Wil­liam found him­self in Dublin look­ing for work. Find­ing it scarce, he joined the Bri­tish Army.

In fact, he joined up be­fore war was de­clared in 1914, so when he was sent to the Front, he prob­a­bly saw it as just go­ing to work, and be­lieved what he and his com­rades were told — that they would be home for Christ­mas.

An­other young Meath man who joined the Army was poet Fran­cis Led­widge from Slane. He too came from hum­ble cir­cum­stances, but his path to war was dif­fer­ent. He was one of nine chil­dren but most of the rear­ing was left to his mother when his fa­ther died pre­ma­turely.

She laboured in the fields for lo­cal farm­ers and took on knit­ting, wash­ing and sewing to pay the fam­ily’s way. When Led­widge’s el­der brother also died, they lost an­other bread­win­ner.

By the time war broke out, Led­widge had worked in a num­ber of jobs and was an elected lo­cal coun­cil­lor as well as an es­tab­lished poet, hav­ing come un­der the pa­tron­age of the lo­cal Lord Dun­sany who had in­tro­duced him into Dublin lit­er­ary so­ci­ety.

And it is this as­so­ci­a­tion which led to him later be­ing cas­ti­gated for go­ing to war. The un­fair myth that he be­trayed those who fought in 1916, in­clud­ing his friend, Thomas MacDon­agh (he wrote Lament for Thomas MacDon­agh af­ter the ex­e­cu­tions) and only went to war as he felt ob­li­gated to his aris­to­cratic pa­tron when Dun­sany formed the Royal In­niskilling Fusiliers.

In fact, when John Red­mond first called on Ir­ish men to join up, Led­widge op­posed him. He was called “pro-Ger­man” when he was the only mem­ber of the Na­van Ru­ral Coun­cil to vote against a mo­tion sup­port­ing Red­mond, be­cause he be­lieved Home Rule was as far away as ever. And when he even­tu­ally joined the In­niskillings it was, he said, “be­cause [Bri­tain] stood be­tween Ire­land and an en­emy com­mon to our civil­i­sa­tion and I would not have her say that she de­fended us while we did noth­ing at home but pass res­o­lu­tions”.

If all war is hor­ror, the 19141918 con­flict was es­pe­cially so and Led­widge ex­pe­ri­enced the worst of it — he was in Gal­lipoli and Salonica (Thes­sa­lonica), be­ing in­valided out to Cairo be­fore be­ing sent back to Manch­ester. Back in Rich­mond Bar­racks, he had a rough ex­change with an of­fi­cer when he told him he was fight­ing on two fronts — the sec­ond be­ing for Ire­land’s free­dom.

This won him a court mar­tial in Derry and he was then sent to France and on to Ypres in Bel­gium where, on July 31, 1917, an ex­plod­ing shell killed six men, one of them the young Meath poet.

Wil­liam Kealy’s end was equally tragic. His reg­i­ment, the Con­naught Rangers, be­came in­volved in fierce fight­ing in April 1915 at Turco Farm just north of Ypres, try­ing to dis­lodge a Ger­man force en­trenched on Pil­ckem Ridge. They fought along­side the Manch­esters and the La­hore Divi­sion from In­dia, “most gal­lantly”, the official his­tory records, and adds that “true to their splen­did rep­u­ta­tion, (they) never fal­tered”.

But this was the first bat­tle in which gas was used as a weapon of at­tack, and the Rangers lost 15 of­fi­cers, two of whom were dec­o­rated posthu­mously for “an ex­hi­bi­tion of sheer val­our and in­domitable tenac­ity”. The Rangers also lost 351 “other ranks” in five hours of fight­ing. Wil­liam Kealy was one of the 351.

To­day it would be fash­ion­able to dis­miss th­ese young ca­su­al­ties of war as “can­non fod­der” in a bat­tle be­tween em­pires, none of which re­alised their day had come and gone. Fran­cis Led­widge is re­mem­bered as a pas­toral poet — not a war poet, just a poet who hap­pened to write dur­ing wartime.

Wil­liam Kealy is re­mem­bered only by his few de­scen­dants who look oc­ca­sion­ally at the small metal plaque, some­times dis­parag­ingly re­ferred to as the “dead man’s penny”, given to the fam­ily of every man killed in ac­tion.

They think of him as a youth who, what­ever the cir­cum­stances, went will­ingly into bat­tle to fight for a cause he be­lieved to be wor­thy. And, as with Fran­cis Led­widge, that makes him a real hero.

More than 30 years af­ter the death of Wil­liam Kealy at just 19 years of age, with World War I over and World War II put away as well, I was born and named af­ter my grand­dad’s brother whom I would never meet, this young man who died in a for­eign field on April 26 — the date on which, a gen­er­a­tion later, I was born

‘All war is hor­ror but the 1914-18 con­flict was es­pe­cially so...’

FALLEN: Wil­lie Kealy with the plaque that was given to every be­reaved Bri­tish Army fam­ily. Photo: David Conachy

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