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First Irish soldier to die in the Great War is commemorated in France
Wednesday 10 December 2014

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Remembering Private Kennedy: a centenary ceremony for a Ballina soldier

Father John MacLellan stood over the grave of Private Stephen Kennedy and addressed him directly, 100 years after Kennedy, who was born in Ardoughan, Ballina, Co Mayo, became the first Irish man to die in the first World War.

“Stephen, we are here for you today,” the priest from Co Meath intoned in flawless French. “You are what brought us together. I hope that wherever you are, you hear us, even see us.”

The priest broadened his remarks to all 76 men in the first World War plot at Athis-Mons cemetery, south of Paris: 70 French poilus, five British soldiers and Kennedy.

“We remember all of you young men who gave your lives for Europe, for peace.”

Kennedy had joined the second battalion of the Connaught Rangers before the war. He was wounded in Belgium on August 21st, 1914, and put on a train to the military hospital at Juvisy, next to Athis-Mons. He died there the following morning.
His brother William would die fighting in Basra, Iraq; their brother John at the Battle of the Somme. The Kennedy brothers were farmer’s sons.

“It was at the same time a family tragedy, an Irish tragedy and a European tragedy,” said Ireland’s Ambassador Geraldine Byrne-Nason.

Although Athis-Mons and Ballina have been twinned since 1993, the French town didn’t discover the soldier from Ballina in its midst until 2003.
PJ Clarke, a retired journalist for the Western People who has researched the war for the past 27 years, suggested to a colleague that he find Kennedy’s grave during a visit to Athis-Mons.
Remembrance Mass. While Athis-Mons was commemorating Kennedy yesterday, a Remembrance Mass was held in St Muredach’s Cathedral in Ballina for the brothers and 165 other men from the area who died in the war. Ballina sculptor Gerald Ginty is to engrave their names on a stone obelisk. 

The 1798 landing in Co Mayo, by French general Jean Joseph Amable Humbert, figured prominently in the tribute to Kennedy. Ten actors wearing the uniforms of the French revolutionary army fired a volley in honour of their “brother in arms”. Michel Borderas, a grenadier with Humbert’s recreated 70th company, sprinkled earth from Co Mayo on Kennedy’s grave, then placed an Irish clay pipe on the headstone. Solenn McCantrell (9), whose father is from Ballina and whose mother, Sandrine, is from Brittany, presented Borderas with a green and yellow “Erin go bragh” flag.

Fought together “Our presence symbolises solidarity between the French and Irish who fought tyranny together,” said Bernard Arana, a Humbert re-enactor.
When it was pointed out that the pikemen and French of 1798 fought against the British, while Kennedy fought with the British, Patrick Charlot, a re-enactor who has published a book on Humbert’s Irish adventure, said Kennedy “fought in an Irish regiment”.

Ambassador Byrne-Nason alluded to the long-obscured role of Irish men in the Great War.

“It is true that their history raised complex questions in Ireland, which was going through politically sensitive times. But today we are able to face up to our shared history.”
Fusion history

In Athis-Mons yesterday it was fusion history, in which the failed French intervention in the 1798 rebellion, the death of the first Irish soldier in 1914 and a wider celebration of Armistice Day melded in a ceremony organised by Cécile Déjardin, the head of Nos Découvertes Irlandaises club.

“The French went to help Ireland in 1798, and in 1914 the Irish came here,” Sandrine McCantrell said. “It’s our way of saying ‘thank you’.” 

PJ Clarke estimates some 750 men from Ballina fought in the first World War. He thinks the Kennedy brothers “joined for adventure”.

© 2014