Friday, November 19, 2021

Soccer Clubs in Athy

The game of soccer in Athy has a history dating back to the mid 1920s. The first club, known as ‘The Barrow Rovers’, was started by men working on the Barrow Drainage Scheme which had its headquarters in Athy. The club apparently went into immediate decline with the ending of work on the Barrow drainage. Three years after the ending of World War II Athy Soccer Club was revived. Matt Tynan of the Leinster Arms Hotel is credited with bringing together the men who would guide the club over the next 12 years. It was during the second coming of Athy’s Soccer Club that the club obtained use of the former hockey club pitch which is still in use by the Soccer Club. In the summer of 1952 the Soccer Club organised its first street league which attracted teams representing Barrack Street, Pairc Bhride, Leinster Street and St. Joseph’s Terrace. The street league created a lot of interest and attracted a large number of spectators to the final between Barrack Street and Pairc Bhride, which the former won. At the end of the 1959/’60 season Athy Soccer Club for the second time went into terminal decline. For the next 4 years the club was inactive. A public meeting was called for the Town Hall on 3rd December 1964, following which Athy Soccer Club was organised for the third time in forty years. Brendan O’Flaherty was elected chairman, with Denis Smyth as secretary and Mick McEvoy as treasurer. Committee members elected included Jim Dargan, Ernie Henderson, Mick Godfrey, Brian O’Hara, Mick Aldridge, Mick Eaton and Paddy Chanders. The club revived in December 1964 continues to enjoy much success and has in excess of 300 members. It caters for male and female players from senior level to youth teams. The two photographs accompanying this Eye are of soccer teams, one of which is definitely an Athy Soccer Club team. It features Jim Dargan as the non team member standing at the back on the right. The famous Golly Germaine is the goalie in the centre back row. Can readers give me the names of the other players and the year of the photo? The second photograph has Bob Kelly of Geraldine Road standing on the right at the back. His presence suggests it’s an Athy team photo. Can any reader help me identify the team and its members?

Tuesday, September 8, 2020

Athy in the 1860s

The Leinster Express reported in September 1861 that Athy had 44 public houses. The town population that year was 4,113 housed in 745 houses which gave a ratio of a public house for every 17 private homes. Little wonder that the Temperance campaigner, Fr. Matthew, visited Athy in 1840 and again in 1842. A total Abstinence Society was formed in the town in May 1861 and was reported as progressing favourably some months later. Earlier that same year the newspaper reported that due to the bad weather a large number of unemployed men gathered at the local workhouse during the course of a meeting of the Board of Guardians. They petitioned the Board members for some measure of relief for themselves and their families. The Guardians agreed to employ 30 men with dependent families to work on the workhouse farm and pay 1/= per day per man. The employment offered was of benefit for within a few weeks the local press reported:- ‘In Athy large bodies of labourers were saved from starvation or the poorhouse by work at a low rate of wage provided for them.’ Local employment in the 1860s was largely confined to seasonal work on neighbouring farms. The local workhouse employed a master tailor and a master shoemaker to train inmates, especially young boys. Many of those trained would in time leave the Workhouse. The number involved is not known but Athy’s Town Commissioners were moved in November 1861 to direct the Town Inspector to remove cobblers who were working on the streets. Three years later the Commissioners refused an application from a local cobbler anxious to resume work in some public part of the town. Apparently he had worked in the doorway of the Courthouse for upwards of 20 years before the 1861 Order was implemented. In January 1862 the Town Commissioners felt it necessary to convene a public meeting in the Courthouse to consider adopting measures to relieve distress amongst the ‘labouring classes’ and the families who suffered from recent flooding of the Barrow at Rathstewart. It was agreed to make a collection in the town and on the following Saturday, 17 women from Rathstewart were given three shillings and six pence, while over 80 labourers were employed breaking stones and cleaning the streets at a daily cost of £8. It was claimed that local distress was a perennial issue, only that year it was aggravated by the unusually wet weather. But amidst the hunger and the poverty there were occasional glimpses of people enjoying life if sometimes it prompted critical letters in the local press. On 30th July 1859 an anonymous letter of complaint to the Leinster Express read:- ‘Nuisance of a most dangerous character carried on every Sabbath day on the road from Kilberry to Dunrally Bridge, that of throwing large metal balls. A number of men and boys regularly spent the whole of the Lords Day at that disgraceful and dangerous amusement, almost in sight of a police station.’ More local excitement was generated when in the summer of 1861 two local men held a race on the main street of the town of Athy. Michael Melay, a gunsmith and William Cullen, also a gunsmith, were summonsed under the Town Improvement Act arising out of a race between them in Duke Street. Cullen, riding his own invention, a hand driven machine which he called ‘The Patent Ziranza’ raced against Mealy who was riding a Velocipede. This early example of a cycle race did not find favour with the Town Commissioners who prosecuted both men. The case against them was dismissed. 1860 saw the opening of the Provincial Agricultural Implement Depository in Leinster Street by William O’Neill who four years later would open an iron foundry on the premises. It would later become O’Neill Telford and subsequently Duthie Larges. This was also the year the first steam powered boat passed down the Canal, watched by a large crowd of onlookers at Athy. The death of the local rector Rev. Frederick S. Trench following an accident at Preston’s Gate was perhaps the most noteworthy item of the year. The press reported on 28th December 1861 that ‘a beautiful stone pulpit was erected in the Athy Church as testimonial to memory of the late Rev. F.S. Trench’ and that the Duke of Leinster had built a handsome enclosure wall and improved the Church grounds. Four years earlier the press claimed that the Duke had built ‘a mansion for the Roman Catholic clergy’. The year concluded with the holding of the Kildare Queens County and Carlow Horticultural Association Show in the People’s Park after a lapse of seven-eight years. In the following year the Horticultural Show was held in Athy’s Corn Exchange which is now the Courthouse.

Tuesday, September 1, 2020

An Tostal Athy 1953

It was reported in the local press as one of the biggest parades and pageants seen in Athy in living memory. The occasion was the inaugural An Tostal Festival which was held throughout Ireland between 5th and 26th April 1953. The festival was an idea borrowed from the 1951 Festival of Britain and was planned to attract overseas visitors to Ireland during the off-peak tourism season. The festival organised in most Irish towns throughout the country opened with parades and as one could expect the principal parade on that Easter Sunday, 5th April, took place in Dublin. Here in Athy the An Tostal organising committee was chaired by Fr. Patrick Crowe C.C. who had been transferred to St. Michael’s Parish two years previously. In nearby Castledermot Fr. S. O’Sullivan C.C. chaired the local committee with the Church of Ireland Rector, Rev. W. Moncrieff Cox as the vice chairman. Tadgh Hayden, principal in the local Vocational School, was the committee secretary and thanks to him the An Tostal Festival in Castledermot in 1953 was marked with the production of a handsomely printed souvenir brochure and programme. The Castledermot booklet set out the festival programme comprising concerts, a billiard tournament, a historical tour, a children’s fancy dress parade, football matches and a grand parade to open proceedings on the first Sunday. The only record I have of Athy’s celebration of An Tostal is the press report which under the heading ‘From the reaping hook to the tractor’ gave an account of the first week’s events. The Sunday afternoon parade attracted close on 2,000 spectators, with over 150 vehicles extending for a mile taking part. Music was provided by no less than three local bands, St. Joseph’s Boys Band, St. Michael’s Fife and Drum Band and St. Dominic’s Band. The parade comprised four sections, the first consisting of local clubs and organisations preceded by a colour party. Next came the agricultural section, showcasing a pageant depicting the evolution of harvesting machinery in south Kildare from 1853 when the scythe and the reaping hook were used up to the time of the combine harvester. Representing the two final sections were the industries of south Kildare and nearby counties and approximately 25 local businesses. The parade which assembled at the Showgrounds travelled through the town, turning around at Pairc Bhride before returning to Emily Square. Organisers of the parade were the local Young Farmers Club and the Athy Show Society in collaboration with the town’s An Tostal committee. The press report named J.J. Bergin as the chief steward, with Thomas McDonnell, Michael Rowan and Ivan Bergin as section stewards, helped by members of St. Joseph’s Welfare Club, the Knights of Malta and Athy F.C.A. I’ve had for several years a number of photographs which I was unable to identify until I read the press report of the An Tostal Parade. I am now satisfied that those photographs are of the ‘biggest parade and pageant’ held in Athy that Sunday in April 67 years ago. The days events concluded with a clay pigeon shooting competition in the Show Grounds, organised by Athy Gun Club. Fr. Padraig Crowe was responsible for organising a choral and instrumental concert involving pupils of the local Christian Brothers school and the Convent of Mercy later that same week. On the Tuesday night an An Tostal Ball was held in St. John’s Hall, while on the second Sunday a River Gala was organised by St. Joseph’s Welfare Club. During the week the Social Club Players put on the play ‘The Barretts of Wimpole Street’ in the Social Club in St. John’s Lane. The Social Club Players had put on the play in the Town Hall a month previously and in the cast were what the Nationalist and Leinster Times described as ‘veteran players’ Liam Ryan, Tadgh Brennan, Tommy Walsh, Ken Reynolds, Tom Fox, Florrie Lawler Nellie Fox and May Fenelon. The press report of the Town Hall performance also made reference to Mary Harrington, described ‘as a pretty brunette teenager ….. who infused a light heartedness and gaiety of spirit that could scarcely be excelled by an experienced professional actress.’ Sadly, Mary was to die with her friend Breda Kennedy in a road traffic accident on the Dublin road a few years later.

Tuesday, August 25, 2020

The old laneways, alleyways and courtyards of Athy

It all started with a query concerning Carrs Court, a small courtyard of houses at the back of Leinster Street with an entrance off Mount Hawkins. Who was Carr was the question which prompted me to consider the number of laneways, alleyways and courtyards in Athy named after landlords of previous generations? Athy, long a garrison town but soon to lose whatever economic advantage accrued from having a cavalry barracks in the town, was in the early decades of the 19th century a typical poor Irish provincial town. Unemployment and poverty went hand in hand and a countryside reeling from the devastation of the Great Famine held few opportunities for its people. The medical officer of the Athy dispensary, Dr. Edward Ferris, reported to the Town Commissioners in September 1873 that ‘the dwellings of the labouring population of this town and still more the yards attached to them are for the most part in a very bad state.’ Another 40 years were to pass before the first local authority houses were built in Athy. Prior to that housing for what was always referred to as the poorer classes was provided by private individuals. Houses of the most basic type were built to rent to local families. Those same houses were the subject of a report submitted to the local Town Council in 1932 by Dr. J.L. Kilbride in which he claimed that 1,292 persons were living in 323 houses containing ‘no more than two rooms and devoid of any sanitary accommodation whatsoever.’ In Barrack Street he found 11 people including married couples living in a two roomed house. On Canal Side there were four houses with no yard and in one lived ten people and another house had six occupants. This state of affairs, he claimed, was a strong indictment against the landlords even though he acknowledged the rents charged were as small as 10 pence a week, but generally ranged from one shilling to one shilling and six pence a week. The local Urban District Council which succeeded the Town Commissioners and the much earlier Borough Council were the first local authority for the town of Athy to provide local authority homes. The first housing scheme was completed in 1913 and comprised eleven houses in Mathews Lane, later renamed St. Michael’s Terrace, five houses in Meeting Lane and six houses in St. Martin’s Terrace. Although the houses were built following the Council’s adoption of the Housing of Working Classes Act of 1890 the Town Clerk reported that while there were 33 applicants for the 22 new houses ‘the houses are occupied principally by artisans. None of the tenants belong to the working class.’ No doubt the rents changed, ranging from 2/6 to 5/= per week were too expensive for the largely unemployed families whose men folk would enlist in large numbers during the first world war. The Urban Council would continue with its house building programme and gradually removed from the town landscape the privately rented houses which for so long accommodated many local families in unfit and unsanitary conditions. The local Slum Clearance Programmes of the 1930s saw the demolition of these small unfit houses built in the previous century by private landlords. With their removal was lost also the local names of laneways, alleyways and courtyards first noted on maps of Athy prepared by Clarges Greene in 1825 and later by the Ordnance Survey Office of Ireland. Carrs Court, Kellys Lane, Butlers Row, Baxters Lane, Higginsons Lane, Connollys Lane, James Place, Meirs Lane, Coopers Lane and Plewmans Row were all reminders of the landlords of another era about whom we now know nothing. They were probably men or women of wealth and importance in Athy of their time, but now in 2020 their names and the houses they built have disappeared. Some Athy local authority housing schemes bear the name of locals honoured for their involvement in public affairs. Michael Dooley’s Terrace, opened in 1934, was named in honour of a former member of the Town Council and the one time Chairman of the local Sinn Fein Club. Carbery Park was named to honour Tom Carbery, a town and county Councillor who died in May 1974, while Plewman’s Terrace honours Thomas Plewman, a former Chairman of the Town Council. Malone Place remembers Eamon Malone, local Old I.R.A. leader during the War of Independence, while Minches Terrace was so called in tribute to the local firm ‘so long connected with the public and industrial life of the town.’ Contrary to some peoples belief Pairc Bhride was not named after Bridget Darby, Cumann na mBan member and Gaelic League Secretary as well as town and county Councillor but like St. Patrick’s Terrace and St. Patrick’s Avenue, was named after the Irish saint. Bridget Darby it must be said was deserving of the honour and perhaps she will be suitably honoured in the future.

Tuesday, August 18, 2020

Dominicans in Athy

The ceremony of thanksgiving held in the Church of the Priory of St. Dominic’s on Sunday, 22nd November 2015 was the last Mass celebrated by a Dominican priest in the town of Athy. The first Mass by the newly arrived Dominicans in the medieval village of Athy took place just thirty-three years after the Dominicans came to Ireland. Those first Dominicans were Normans and spoke Norman French. We know little or nothing about the early years of the Dominicans in Athy except that their first church and all subsequent Dominican churches in the town were dedicated to St. Peter, Martyr of Verona, one of the earliest saints of the Dominican order. The Dominican Provincial, Fr. Gregory Carroll, issued a statement on 27th October 2015 announcing the Order’s long association with Athy was about to close. He continued:- ‘The Irish Dominicans are saddened that declining numbers have forced them to recognise that they cannot remain in all the centres in which they have been serving. The purpose of the reorganisation now under way in the Irish Province is to concentrate in fewer locations so as to make the work of the Dominicans more effective in the core ministries of preaching, primary pastoral care and youth formation, while providing for the formation of those joining the Order, and at the same time respecting traditional postulates’. He expressed gratitude that the church which represented a significant development in church architecture in Ireland and was opened on St. Patrick’s Day 1965, would be available as a public amenity for the people of Athy. Speaking at the final Mass the former prior of Athy, Fr. John Harris, explained that the Dominican friars had made the decision to close the Athy priory with ‘heavy hearts, and we can’t blame Henry VIII or Cromwell this time’. His reference was to the suppression of the Dominican Priory in Athy in 1539 and the subsequent withdrawal of the prior, Fr. Robert Woulff and his small community of Friars from the town. Oliver Cromwell invaded in Ireland in August 1649 and gaining his first military victory against the Catholic Confederates in Drogheda had the entire garrison slaughtered, amongst their numbers being six priests, one of whom was Fr. Richard Ovington, sub prior of Athy. Other members of the Athy Dominican community were subsequently imprisoned including Fr. Redmond Moore, prior in 1661/’62 and Fr. Joseph Carroll, prior of Athy in 1664. When the Dominicans left Athy almost five years ago they left us with a beautiful building which has since been adapted for use as our town library. Within the former church the Dominicans also left a church organ which had been installed in the 1980s. It was intended that it would remain in the building, but Kildare County Council had the organ removed and I understand it has been donated to another church. The bell tower attached to the previous small T shaped Dominican church was built in 1898 and it remains part of the building landscape of the new town library. The small church was erected in 1850 and the bell tower housed the bell presented to the Athy Dominicans 48 years later. The inscription on the bell records that it was presented by ‘the Rosary Confraternity and other kind friends’. It was cast by M. Byrne of the Fountain Head Bell Foundry, James Street, Dublin and brought to Athy by canal boat. The Dominican bell on the west side of the River Barrow has an older church bell companion on the opposite side of the river. This latter bell can be seen high up on the front of the Town Hall. It came from the Anglican church which was once located at the rear of the Town Hall. When the new church at the top of Offaly Street was consecrated in September 1841 the old church was demolished and the church bell which bears the date 1682 was removed and was later placed on what was then the Courthouse in July 1860. Perhaps the most important legacy of the Athy Dominicans is the Lay Dominicans who meet on a regular basis for prayer and study in groups which are called Chapters. The Dominican laity were involved with the local priests in saying the divine office in the Dominican church from about 1992. This coincided with the opening of a novitiate in the Athy priory but unfortunately the Athy novitiate did not last for very long. One of the few visible reminders of the Dominican Order’s long association with Athy is the plaque which was unveiled by Sean Cunnane, Chairman of Athy U.D.C. on Sunday, 7th October 2007. It is located on the small wall at the entrance to the present town library and reads:- ‘This plaque is dedicated by a grateful townspeople to the memory of the friars of the Order of Friar Preachers who since 1257 have faithfully served the people of this town and district’.

Tuesday, August 11, 2020

Mike Robinson's account of leaving Athy in 1960

Mike Robinson, born in this parish 77 years ago and now a long-time resident in Australia, sent me an email on 7th June which read:- ‘Today is the 60th anniversary of my daring escape from Athy in June 1960.’ What followed was an account of that ‘escape’ which brought him to England and then a year later to Australia by way of an assisted passage scheme. With Mike’s permission I have edited his account and hand over this week’s Eye to a former classmate. ‘Back in those days I was working in the offices of Smiths of Cavan, a car/tractor dealership next door to the IVI in Leinster Street. When I finished work on Saturday June 5th I had a blazing row with my mother ….. in my anger I jumped on my NSU auto-cycle and headed for Kilrush, County Clare ….. John Purtill, who used to be the garage manager at Smiths of Cavan in Athy, returned to his native Clare and opened a garage in Kilrush ….. in my blind faith and ignorance I was sure he would give me a job ….. the trip to Kilrush turned out to be an overnight one. The top speed of the NSU was about 25 miles an hour, and after an hour or so riding at top speed the tiny engine overheated and had to be rested for half an hour. By nightfall I was still in Tipperary and less than half way to my destination. Around 11pm I pulled over and slept in a ditch while a gentle summer rain pitter-pattered down on me ….. around midday on Sunday I reached Kilrush. I asked around for John Purtill and was told he had gone away for the weekend ….. I turned the bike around and headed back towards Athy. Sunday night was again spent sleeping in a ditch in the middle of nowhere ….. I decided early on Monday morning to pack my bags, meagre as they were, and leave Ireland. England it would have to be, but I didn't know anyone there except my uncle John, and I had no idea where he lived in England ….. I went to my grandmother's house to get uncle John's address in England ….. she didn't have his address ….. however, she had an address for an Irish woman she used to work with in years past ….. the address she gave me was in Surrey ….. I went home and quietly packed a few belongings into an old cardboard suitcase that belonged to my sister. Then I zipped down to the post office on my bike and cashed in my savings stamps, which amounted to about £12, giving me £18 to finance my new start in life. I hitched a lift to Dublin from where I caught a bus out to Dun Laoghaire to board the overnight cattle boat to Holyhead. The boat was packed with Irish labourers returning from short summer holidays in Ireland. Many of them were drinking heavily ….. at Holyhead the boat passengers disgorged into a waiting train that soon departed for London. It was a restless night for me surrounded by drunks. At Euston Station early on Tuesday morning I found scenes that were totally foreign to me. The scale of activity at the train station dwarfed anything I'd ever seen in my life and I knew I might never again live in a place where I knew everyone either by sight or by name. [Mike safely reached the address given by his grandmother and there met her old friend and her husband who lived in the basement of a large house. Both were in service with responsibility of keeping the house boilers stoked with coal.] ‘For the next three months I slept on a sofa in the basement of that magnificent house ….. despite living in a sooty-black basement with my grandmother’s friend, her husband and an incontinent hen named Polly, things were looking up. There was a London Transport bus depot in Reigate so I applied for a job there as a bus conductor. What I didn’t know was that the minimum age for London Transport bus conductors was 19. I was only 17 years and one month old at the time ….. at this remove I can't recall how or why I persuaded myself that I could get someone I hardly knew back in Ireland, a person of utmost respectability and public piety, to provide me with a falsified birth certificate. But that's what I did ….. I wrote a short letter to the sacristan in Athy telling her the predicament I was in and asking her if she could get me a birth certificate stating I was born in 1941. The certificate arrived almost by return post and I became a London Transport bus conductor before the end of June 1960, probably the youngest bus conductor in the history of London Transport.’ Mike emigrated to Australia the following year where he had a successful career. That same June 1960 some of Mike’s former classmates sat their Leaving Certificate exams in the C.B.S. school in St. John’s Lane. Many of them were destined to follow in Mike’s trail and take the emigrant boat.

Tuesday, August 4, 2020

The 150th Anniversary Celebration of Irish Christian Brothers in Athy

On 24th February 1994 seven local men and women met in Athy to discuss ways of marking the 150th anniversary of the death of Edmund Ignatius Rice, founder of the Irish Christian Brothers. At a subsequent public meeting held in the Town Hall a committee was formed to make arrangements to celebrate the event and to record and commemorate the Christian Brothers’ presence in Athy as the intended departure of the Brothers from the town had in the meantime been announced. The committee, chaired by Frank McNulty, principal of St. Patrick’s School, Monica Langton as treasurer and this writer as secretary, arranged a series of events which took place on Friday 23rd September 1994 and the following day. A memorial plaque commemorating the Christian Brothers was unveiled on the Friday evening in the car park which the Urban District Council re-named Edmund Rice Square. This was followed by a reception and a musical recital in the nearby St. Patrick’s School. The following day the Christian Brothers attending for the weekend were given a civic reception by the Urban District Council. This was followed by another reception and a musical recital in Scoil Eoin. The ceremonies concluded that Saturday with Mass in the Parish Church celebrated by Bishop Eamon Walsh followed by dinner in the GAA clubhouse. A small booklet outlining the history of the Christian Brothers in Athy following their arrival in the town on 8th August 1861 was published. In a copy of that booklet members of the organising committee signed their names during a dinner which was held in the Castle Inn on 21st January 1995. It was the final get together of the committee members and was organised to coincide with the departure of Brother John Murphy from Athy and the planned departure of Brother Joe Quinn two weeks later. They were the last two Christian Brothers of the many members of Edmund Rice’s foundation who had come and gone from the Christian Brothers monastery in Athy over the previous 134 years. That final dinner was remembered by me on a note which I inserted in the earlier mentioned booklet, which booklet each of the committee members at the dinner signed. Amongst the signatures were those of Maureen Dowling and her husband Patrick. I wrote: ‘the dinner party held in the Castle Inn Athy on 21st January 1995 broke up at midnight. Maureen Dowling, on reaching home, suffered a stroke from which she died on Monday 23rd January at 12.40pm. Brother J. Murphy left Athy on Monday at 12.50pm for Dublin, travelling with Brother J. Quinn in the community car. Maureen Dowling was buried on Wednesday 25th January in St. Michael’s cemetery.’ Later that month I wrote the following in the Athy newsletter which the late Noreen Kelleher edited and printed on a monthly basis: ‘Death comes to all of us. In old age it is often greeted as a welcoming release while for the young it is an intruder stalking prey never destined to grow to maturity. Its ravages are to be seen everywhere but its immediacy is not always appreciated even in a community where we share in the grief and sorrow of others. Last Saturday evening a small group of men and women who had worked throughout the summer to commemorate the Christian Brothers in Athy met to give a final send-off to Brother J.D. Murphy and Brother J.F. Quinn. Brother Murphy was to leave Athy for St. Patrick’s, Baldoyle two days later, while Brother Quinn will leave for Naas Christian Brothers within weeks. There were twelve of us and two Christian Brothers gathered at the private meal. Formalities were shunned as we sat around the table swopping stories and sharing our appreciation of the good work of the Christian Brothers in our town over many years. With us was Maureen Dowling and her husband Pat, both of whom had thrown themselves enthusiastically and with dedication into the Committee’s work over the long summer months of last year. Maureen spoke thoughtfully and eloquently of the Christian Brothers in Athy and was in good form throughout the night. Within an hour of leaving that gathering she suffered a fatal illness and died on Monday last, as Brother Murphy was on his way to his last posting in Dublin. The shock of Maureen’s passing stunned all who knew her, especially those people with whom she had shared her last social evening on this earth. Reflecting on her death I could not but feel the tragedy of a loss the immediacy of which was heightened by our mutual association just a short time before. Nothing brings home more effectively the transitory nature of life’s pleasures than the passing of a friend and colleague whose time has been cut short.’ I was reminded of the events of 25 years ago on reading an account of the commemoration held in Athy in 1944 for Edmund Rice’s centenary. The opportunity will be taken in a future Eye to write of that celebration.

Tuesday, July 28, 2020

The early years of Athy's Museum

Thirty-seven years have passed since Athy Museum Society was founded following a public meeting in the local Courthouse. The building which accommodated that meeting and several subsequent meetings has had a chequered career since the day in 1857 when it was opened as Athy’s corn exchange. Looking back at the story of Athy’s Museum Society and the many changes in venues used as the museum room I note that it happily mirrors the awakening amongst the people of Athy of a deeper knowledge and understanding of the town’s past. The once hidden gems and forgotten persons of past Athy generations are now being recognised and with that recognition comes an understanding of many past achievements and an appreciation of the contribution made by so many to the development of our town. Even the Museum Society itself has shown remarkable growth and has made quite extraordinary progress over the 37 years of its existence. The Sunday afternoon opening of a room in the otherwise vacant St. Mary’s Secondary School to display local historical artefacts was followed by a transfer to a side room in the Town Hall. This was facilitated by the then County Manager Gerry Ward who followed with interest the founding of the society and encouraged its development. Incidentally, the room allocated to the Museum Society was the former Town Hall Caretaker’s accommodation in the 18th century building, and when the society moved in was also home to the local fire brigade. The first opportunity to upgrade the museum came with the departure of the local fire brigade to a new fire station at Woodstock. A comprehensive historical review of Athy’s history submitted to Bord Failte resulted in the designation of Athy as a heritage town. As a result, substantial funding was made available by Bord Failte to redevelop and fit out the entire ground floor of the Town Hall as a Heritage Centre. The expansion of the once simple museum room required the employment of staff and the Centre was generously grant aided by Kildare County Council in recognition of its importance in promoting learning, creativity and inspiration through engagement with the past. Athy’s Museum Society, a voluntary organisation, then gave way to a company limited by guarantee, Athy Heritage Company Limited. It’s directors were and still are community volunteers, but today the Heritage Centre about to embark on the next stage of it’s development has been renamed The Shackleton Museum. It will continue to be responsible for presenting the story of Athy and its people, but the Shackleton theme will form a large part of the proposed redevelopment of the Town Hall and the Museum. The museum which has now re-opened following the Covid-19 closedown, is staffed by long time staff members Margaret Walsh and Sinead Cullen, assisted by local volunteers and a C.E. worker. The volunteers include Clem Roche, who provides a first-class genealogical research service for anyone with south Kildare connections, while Mark Guernon provides a walking tour of Athy for visitors. Bethany Webb McConville is another who volunteers in the museum and her Masters Degree in Library and Information Studies is of particular benefit to the museum where she has charge of the museum’s website. Another volunteer was genial ex-army man Jack Davis who retired recently after many years greeting visitors to the museum. Jack was a wonderful ambassador for the museum and for his native town and did much during his several years with us to enhance the museum experience for overseas visitors. Kathleen Murphy is currently working in the museum on a C.E. scheme and with the manager Margaret Walsh and the Care of Collection Officer Sinead Cullen, forms a formidable team which keeps the working of the museum up to the standards required by an accredited museum. I mentioned earlier the museum’s website and if you visit it’s site you can go on a virtual tour of the museum. The innovative 3D virtual tour is the work of Oliver Murray of who gave his expert services free of charge to the museum. The 3D virtual tour gives an amazing view into the extensive range of museum exhibits and being available worldwide is a huge advancement on the facilities the Museum offered in the early years of its existence. Many persons have facilitated the development of the museum over the years. Many others have encouraged the work of the museum, while there are many who worked sometimes in the public eye but more often without public recognition over many years to give Athy not only a first class museum, but also an annual international polar event which is recognised as one of the world’s foremost events of its kind.

Tuesday, July 21, 2020

Car owners in Athy 1911/'12

The Gordan Bennett race of July 1903 made Ireland, for a short time at least, the epicentre of the motoring world. The race took place seven years after the speed limit on public roads was increased to 12 miles per hour from the earlier limit of 4mph which originally applied to steam driven locomotives. The Gordan Bennett race was run over a figure of eight course centred around Athy and the huge national and international interest in the race brought many visitors to south Kildare. The race won by the Belgian Mercedes driver Camille Jenatzy in the German colours was regarded as a highly successful event which went from strength to strength until abandoned in 1906 in favour of the Grand Prix. One young onlooker in Athy during the 1903 race was William Ringwood McCulloch from Sawyerswood whose livelong interest in motor cars was formed as he watched the dare devil drivers from Germany, France, England and America drive at an average speed of 45 – 49mph over three laps of the Gordan Bennett course. His interest in cars was sustained throughout his adult life and it was William Ringwood McCulloch who rescued and restored the 1902 Arrol Johnson car which is on display in Athy’s Heritage Centre. 1903 was also the year the Motor Car Act increased the speed limit to 20mph with provision for a 10mph limit if any local authority wished to apply it. Motors cars were expensive and invariably owned by the well to do. The Irish Motor Directory for 1911/’12 gave a list of car owners and bicycle owners for County Kildare. There were a total of 316 cars registered in the county, with 173 bicycles or what we would now describe as motor bikes. Those early motor bikes were spindly motorised bicycles with large, yet generally unreliable engines. Rev. P.T.S. Large of Carnalway, Kilcullen, registered the first motor car in county Kildare and so secured the unique registration no. IO 1. Dan Carbery of Athy was the owner of car IO 3. He was the founder of the building contractor firm D&J Carbery & Co. Ltd. Also registered as the owner of the motorbike IO36 was Daniel Carbery, whom I assume was a son of the car owner of the same name. Reginald Alvey of Rockhouse, Fontstown and George Ash of Narraghmore were also bike owners registered IO 53 and IO 71 respectively. Who was F.R. White of Athy, another bike owner whose machine was allocated the registration no. IO 105? Hugh Hurley, with an address in Duke Street, registered a motor bike IO 83. It has often been claimed over the years that Hugh Hurley was the first car owner in Athy. It would appear that Dan Carbery held that honour. Another bike owner was Francis Jackson of Leinster Street who was the owner of IO 91. Many of the registered owners for both cars and motor bikes in the county of Kildare would appear to have been members of the military based in the Curragh, several of whom gave their UK addresses. S.M. Telford of the Abbey, Athy, registered his car IO 135, while his near neighbour John A. Butler of Emily Square was the owner of car IO189. Coursetown resident Henry J. Hosie was the owner of motor bike registration no. IO 210, while car registration no. IO 280 was registered in the name of James Duthie, the Foundry, Athy. This was obviously Duthie of the firm Duthie Large which emerged some time later. Not to be outclassed by his brother, W.B. Jackson registered his ownership of motorbike IO 303, while another Jackson, this time William, again of Leinster Street, registered motor bike IO 351 in his name. A name which would feature in Athy’s commercial life for many decades was that of J.S. Maxwell whose car IO 357 appeared on the list with the address 50 Duke Street. Another person, once very prominent in this area, was T.A. Lumley who from his home in Holmcroft registered his car IO 394. Matthew J. Minch of Rockfield acquired his car not too long after Lumley and was allocated the registration no. IO 458. The last Athy person to register a car for inclusion in the 1911/’12 listing was James Duthie, owner of IO 495. With an address at Leinster Street, was he I wonder the same James Duthie who registered the car IO 280 from an address at the Foundry? The number of cars registered in neighbouring county Kilkenny came to 57, with 35 bicycles, while the vehicle numbers for county Kildare were about six times higher. The number of British officers in the Curragh involved in acquiring cars and/or bikes in the early years of motor travel would appear to explain the huge disparity. Recent years has brought car ownership within the reach of most people and in the process has changed the landscape and the way we live. Those early pioneers of car ownership in Athy could hardly anticipate the way in which modern motor traffic has impacted on all our lives in the early decades of the 21st century.

Tuesday, July 14, 2020

Fr. Mathews Temperance Campaign Medals and Ballylinan Carnival prize medal

In a recent Eye on the Past I made reference to Fr. Mathew’s Temperance Campaign and his visits to Athy in 1840 and 1842. The earlier visit had been noted in the diary of local man, Michael Cleary, while the second visit was mentioned in the book ‘Footsteps of Fr. Mathew’. Since then I have rediscovered a reference to Fr. Mathew’s temperance meeting in Athy which I had previously mislaid. That reference was in the Annals of the local Sisters of Mercy whose annalist referred to the temperance meeting held before a large crowd of local people in the ‘commons of Clonmullin’. Following the publication of the article in which I referenced Fr. Mathew’s visits to Athy I received a phone call from Denis Smyth who is one of the many local persons who makes valuable contributions to my ongoing search for the hidden gems and forgotten people of Athy’s past. Denis had three temperance medals which were handed down through the Smyth family and which he has since kindly donated to the local Heritage Centre. One of those medals had been presented to his grandfather, Patrick Smyth, by Fr. Mathew at one of the temperance meetings in Athy. Patrick Smyth, who was born in 1832, was a young boy on the occasion of Fr. Mathew’s second Athy visit and he would go on to survive the Great Famine which ravaged Irish towns and the Irish countryside between 1845 and 1849. The identity of those presented with the other two medals is not known but it may be presumed that the recipients were other members of the Smyth family. The burnished pewter medals manufactured in their thousands in a Birmingham factory cost 3½ pence each and were intended to be sold at one shilling each at every temperance meeting. We are told that Fr. Mathew gave the medals away ‘with a prodigal hand’. Apparently silver medals were also manufactured but were reserved for what were described as ‘distinguished persons who joined the temperance society and priests.’ A happy coincidence saw Vincent Carmody of Listowel, author and local historian, phone me around the same time as the Fr. Mathew medals were brought to my attention. Vincent had been given a silver medal inscribed ‘Ballylinan carnival 1939’ by Cila Browne of Listowel who was unaware of its provenance but wished to present it to Athy’s Heritage Centre. The Ballylinan carnivals have been the subject of previous Eyes on the Past and I have carnival programmes for 1937 and 1939. I have not seen the carnival programme for 1935, the first year the carnival was held. I would like to hear from anyone who might have a copy of that carnival programme or indeed any Ballylinan carnival, if held after 1939. Returning to the medal it was presented either for a boxing tournament or a football match between Leix and Offaly, both events which were listed as part of the 1939 carnival programme. The boxing tournament was the only competitive event for which the programme named the competitors. These included A. Shelly, T. Hynes, M. Keenan, T. Murphy, J. Conroy, J. Keane, B. Hinds and J. Keenan, all of Portlaoise Boxing Club. T. Smith, C. Lewis, G. Mulligan and M. McKeever represented Phoenix Boxing Club. Locals involved included M. Day, W. Hovington, E. Nolan and P. Vaughan of Ballylinan Boxing Club. I wonder if J. Hegarty representing Catholic Boy Scouts or J. O’Neill, C.B.S. Boxing Club were local boxers from this area? I would be surprised if the 1939 carnival boxing tournament did not have a number of young boxers from Athy as Sydney Minch had started a boxing club in the town in the 1930s. Athy’s temperance meetings remind me that excessive alcohol drinking in pre famine days was facilitated by the many illegal drinking houses, otherwise called ‘shebeens’ which were a common feature of those times. ‘Shebeen’ is a term which has today been appropriated by top class restaurants and liquor stores, especially in countries other than Ireland. Athy, the home of the Irish malting industry, witnessed the opening of its own ‘Auld Shebeen’ on Thursday 9th July. Intrigued by the extensive building works which commenced in the pre Covid 19 shutdown days I ventured into the ‘Auld Sheibeen’ in William Street before it opened. The public house once owned by generations of the Purcell family has been transformed and extended with style and panache. Great credit is due to Dan Curtis and his wife Edwina for creating a very noteworthy addition to Athy’s hospitality sector.

Tuesday, July 7, 2020

George Wyndham and the Fitzgerald Connection

The extraordinary connections in Irish history were brought home to me as I read the ‘Life and Letters of George Wyndham’ who served as Chief Secretary of Ireland for five years from 1900. Wyndham, described in the Oxford ‘Companion to Irish History’ as ‘a colourful liberal Tory’ and ‘an ambitious reformer’ was responsible for the Land Act of 1903. That Act, generally called Wyndham’s Land Act was the fifth piece of legislation passed by the English House of Commons in 33 years in an attempt to resolve the vexed question of land ownership in 19th century Ireland. The Act of 1870 passed by Gladstone’s government was an attempt to give legal status to the ‘Ulster custom’ by providing compensation for evicted tenants other than those owing rent and compensation for improvements by tenants relinquishing their tenancies. Gladstone’s second Land Act eleven years later was more successful in accepting Irish tenants demands for fair rents, fixity of tenure and freedom of sale while at the same time establishing the Irish Land Commission. In 1885 the Purchase of Land Act increased the loans available through the Land Commission for land purchases. Six years later another Purchase of Land Act established the Congested District Boards and land bonds were introduced as an alternative form of payment for landlords selling lands to their tenants. It was George Wyndham’s Land Act of 1903 which more than any other piece of English legislation broke the Irish landlord’s hold on power which had existed for centuries. The Act was the product of a compromise between Irish landlords and their tenants even though it was opposed by the founder of the Land League, Michael Davitt and to a lesser extent by John Dillon, leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party. Wilfred Scawen Blunt, an Englishman, acting as an intermediary between John Dillon and his cousin George Wyndham helped bring about the 1903 Land Act. Wyndham’s father was a first cousin of Blunt who supported the Plan of Campaign for which he, Blunt, was imprisoned in 1887. Wilfred Scawen Blunt, the one time lover of Lady Gregory, supported the evicted tenants of Luggacurran and was on the platform with William O’Brien, prior to the laying of the ‘foundation stone’ of the first huts built in Campaign Square Luggacurran for the evicted tenants. The passing of Wyndham’s Land Act of 1903 led within ten years to almost 75% of former Irish tenant farmers owning their own land. The shift in power from the absentee landlords to the former tenant farmers was promoted by George Wyndham, an Englishman whose mother was a granddaughter of Lord Edward Fitzgerald and his young wife Pamela. Wyndham’s father Percy first met Madeline Campbell, a granddaughter of Lord Edward at Palmerstown House, Naas where his sister Lady Mayo resided. The young couple married soon afterwards. But George Wyndham was not the only English establishment figure connected by marriage to a member of Lord Edward Fitzgerald’s family. Lord Edward’s eldest daughter Pamela married Sir Guy Campbell, whose father had played a prominent part in suppressing the United Irishmen rising and defeating the French. Colonel Colm Campbell was the Officer commanding at Athy during the early part of the 1798 Rebellion. He was the man who raided the home of Thomas Fitzgerald of Geraldine, Athy and claimed to have found ‘suspicious papers’ showing Fitzgerald’s involvement with the United Irishmen. Campbell’s troops lived at free quarters in Fitzgerald’s house for some time thereafter and the calvary corps which Fitzgerald captained were publicly disarmed in the Market Square, Athy in April 1798. Fitzgerald, who was a Catholic member of the extended Duke of Leinster’s family, was imprisoned for some time as a result of Campbell’s suspicions and unfounded claims. How strange to find that Lord Edward Fitzgerald’s eldest daughter should marry the son of the man responsible for the pacification of south Kildare during the ’98 rebellion and the imprisonment and execution of so many of Lord Edward’s followers. Equally surprising is to find the great grandson of the United Irishman leader Lord Edward Fitzgerald presiding over English administration in Ireland at the start of the 20th century. George Wyndham, the so called ‘liberal tory’, the son of a granddaughter of Lord Edward, , was very aware of his great grandfather’s place in the annals of Irish history. Writing to his mother on 29th April 1902 he noted, ‘some days ago I was given a beautiful green enamel and rose diamond pin of Lord Edwards. Yesterday an unknown - letter enclosed and please keep it - sent me a beautiful seal that belonged to him.’ The family link between the British diplomatic servant and the Irish rebel of a previous generation was obviously cherished by the Irish Chief Secretary based in Dublin Castle.

Tuesday, June 30, 2020

An Garda Siochana

The shocking murder of Garda Horkan while he was on patrol in the County Roscommon town of Castlerea is a grim reminder of the dangers that face all members of the Garda Siochana as they go about their duty as ‘guardians of the peace’. In two years’ time the Irish nation will celebrate the centenary of the establishment of the Garda Siochana. The Treaty which marked the end of the War of Independence provided for the disbandment of the R.I.C. on 20th February 1922. However, it was not until the 9th of February that Michael Collins arranged for a police organisation committee to meet under the chairmanship of I.R.A. veteran Michael Staines. Even before the committee reported on 27th February recruits were received into the new Irish police force to be known as Civil Guards at their temporary base in the R.D.S. Dublin. The R.I.C. originally intended to be disbanded on 20th February were still in charge of Dublin Castle until the 17th of August when the new Irish police force, the majority of whom were without uniforms, took control of what had been the centre of English policing administration in Ireland. The Black and Tans and the Auxiliaries had earlier been disbanded and returned to England on 18th February. The Minister for Home Affairs was reported in the Irish Independent of 8th March 1922 as saying of the Civic Guards: ‘it will be the duty of the new force to protect the lives and the property of all Irish citizens irrespective of their political views.’ The anti-treaty followers led by De Valera through their spokesman Austin Stack, claimed ‘the setting up of this new force is not calculated to promote order, but rather suspicion, discontent and disorder.’ Stack’s intervention did not auger well for the acceptance of the new policing force by the substantial minority on the losing side of the Civil War. The Civic Guards to be renamed ‘Garda Siochana’ following a Temporary Provisions Act of 1923 were an armed force replicating in many ways the R.I.C. which they replaced. The strength of the R.I.C. prior to disbandment was approximately 14,000 men, while the new policing force comprised approximately 4,000 men including some former R.I.C. officers whose presence led to the infamous Kildare barracks mutiny of May 1922. It was following that mutiny led by former I.R.A. men who objected to former R.I.C. officers being promoted within the ranks of the Civic Guards that a Kevin Sheils chaired enquiry recommended that the Civil Guards be unarmed and that a politician should not head up the force. The resulting resignation of the first Commissioner Michael Staines led to the appointment of Eoin O’Duffy who would serve as Garda Commissioner for the next 11 years. The Kildare mutiny of May 1922 was followed a month later by the start of the Civil War. In the meantime armed Civic Guards have been dispatched to towns and villages throughout the 26 counties occupying where possible former R.I.C. barracks. However, up to 75% of the country’s R.I.C. barracks had been destroyed during the War of Independence so that in many towns, private houses were occupied by the Civic Guards. The new police force had no duties relating to the Civil War which were the responsibility of the 50,000 strong Irish army. Despite this the first fatal casualty of the new police force was a young County Laois man, Henry Phelan who was shot and killed in Mullinahone on 14th November 1922. He was the first of nine policemen killed in the first four years of the new force. The lawlessness which marked the Civil War years was again evident when two Gardai were killed on the night of 14th November 1926 by the I.R.A. That night the I.R.A. attacked 12 Garda barracks throughout the country. Attacks on members of the Garda Siochana continued throughout the 1930s and 1940s, resulting in the death of 21 Garda members between 1922 and 1949. Garda Horkan is the 89th member of the force to die in the line of duty since its foundation in 1922. As the son of a Garda sergeant whose first station was Cloonfad, Co. Roscommon, where the alleged killer of Garda Horkan last resided, I was particularly moved by the brutal killing of a lone Garda going about his duty. The Garda Siochana police by consent and have done so for almost 100 years, having replaced the R.I.C. whose members during the War of Independence were at first ostracised and later subjected to constant attack. It took a number of years for the Gardai to overcome the colonial legacy of the R.I.C. years and to gain acceptance within the communities they served. The 1950s and the 1960s were in terms of community integration the decades which confirmed that the Garda Siochana were respected and committed to serving the public. The members of today’s Garda Siochana have a very difficult crime detection and prevention role to play amongst the communities they serve. Garda Horkan’s death highlights the dangerous job every Garda undertakes every day. They are brave men and women and they deserve our gratitude, our respect and our cooperation.

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Some books from my shelves

During the Covid 19 lockdown I had the opportunity of re-acquainting myself with some of the books I acquired over the years. Many of those books, long unnoticed, had interesting provenances indicated by inscribed names. One of the most interesting books was O’Donovan Rossa’s ‘Recollections 1838-1898’ in which O’Donovan Rossa signed his name in New York on 6th January 1905. That same book was later signed by Michael Collins. It sits on my bookshelves, not far from Katherine O’Shea’s ‘Biography of Charles Stewart Parnell’ which she signed and presented to her daughter Norah. A sorrowful period in more recent Irish history is captured in Carlton Younger’s book ‘Ireland’s Civil War’ which bears the signature of Richard Mulcahy who was Commander in Chief of the Free State army during the 1922-23 conflict. Not too far away on an adjoining bookshelf is another book with a note signed by John O’Connell of the Mental Hospital Mullingar dated 11th September 1945 and addressed to Dan Breen Esq. T.D. which reads ‘I feel sure you will enjoy reading the enclosed. William was the noblest Roman of them all.’ The book was written by Michael McDonagh and published 17 years previously on the life of William O’Brien, the Irish Nationalist. O’Brien who died in 1928 was an unusual combination of politician, journalist and land agitator who on the invitation of Charles Stewart Parnell edited the United Ireland newspaper in the 1890s. He was the author of the No Rent Manifesto and was imprisoned with Parnell in October 1881. Following the Kitty O’Shea divorce controversy O’Brien supported the Anti-Parnellites and later went on to establish the United Irish League. Dan Breen was a republican soldier and politician, famous for his exploits with the third Tipperary Brigade of the I.R.A. during the War of Independence. His book ‘My fight for Irish Freedom’ published in 1924 is a colourful account of his activities during that period. The book which Dan Breen received from John O’Connell was annotated by him, or at least that part of it which he read, with notes in the margins which he signed ‘Dan Breen’ occasionally inserting the date, ‘28th August 1946’. At page 60 McDonagh wrote of Parnell’s offer to Gladstone to retire from politics following the Phoenix Park murders on 6th May 1882. Breen wrote on the side of the page ‘How did Kitty O’Shea fit into Parnell’s release. Did Parnell give way to human weakness. Which is the crime? Dan Breen.’ On the same page McDonagh described O’Brien’s abhorrence of the killing of Cavendish and Burke in the Phoenix Park to which Breen added this note: ‘Yes, the publicans who were in the pay of the enemy would have got men to lynch the Fenians. Why not give Joe Brady credit, I did the same in 1919.’ Breen’s reference to 1919 was to his involvement in the Solohead ambush which resulted in the killing of two RIC constables on 19th January of that year. On the next page of McDonagh’s book Breen wrote: ‘I was taught to kill the enemy by any and every means, I got a medal for trying the same act in 1919.’ Later on in dealing the Invincible conspiracy McDonagh described the Phoenix Park murders as ‘an inexplicable deed’ and questioned as to who could be the perpetrators. ‘Surely not Irishmen’, he suggested, to which Breen added at the side of the page the word ‘yes’. McDonagh referred to the Invincibles as the type of men ‘who must invariably emerge from the lowest deeps of revolutionary movements’, to which Breen added the note ‘it was Mick Collins, Sean Treacy etc.’ and again signed his name as he had done with all previous notes. Dan Breen may have put the book aside at this stage as no further Breen notes were found. He apparently finished his perusal of McDonagh’s book with the following note written on a small white envelope which he gummed to the top of a page: ‘Why did Parnell want to get out of jail? I suggest it was to see Kitty O’Shea. Well why should Ireland sit back became of any man’s desires. He wanted Kitty O’Shea, brave men wanted Ireland free and rid of the castle gang – so the Park execution. Dan Breen 28-8-’46.’ An unusual item amongst my history books is a novel by Maxwell Gray ‘The Last Sentence’. A 1912 printing in the Heinemann’s Seven Penny novel series, it was once owned by the Irish patriot Roger Casement who signed his name on the flyleaf. I also have a two volume biography of Lord Randolph Churchill, authored by Winston Churchill which bears the signature of Erskine Childers and the note ‘read with M.A.C. April 1906’. The M.A.C. referred to was Mary Alder Childers, or Molly as she was known, who was Erskine Childer’s wife. History books are the voices of the past and especially so where they are personalised by the hand of the author or by a famous figure from the past.

Tuesday, June 16, 2020

Kilkea Castle Auction Catalogue 7th December 1947

The sale of the entire contents of Kilkea Castle took place over four days starting on Wednesday, 5th December 1945. Advertised as an executor’s sale the auctioneers were Greene Bros. and Duthie Large Ltd. of Athy. I have before me the supplementary catalogue of the books from Kilkea library totalling approximately 2,500 volumes which were sold on Friday, 7th December. Kilkea Castle was not sold until 15 years later after the Marquess of Kildare, Gerald Fitzgerald, had concluded a deal with the family of Harry Mallaby-Deeley. Mallaby-Deeley, a wealthy businessman, had in 1919 paid the debts of Gerald’s father, Edward Fitzgerald, on condition that if Edward ever became Duke of Leinster the income from the family’s estate would be paid to him, less £1,000 a year which the Duke could retain. Edward Fitzgerald’s two older brothers died before their father and the title passed in 1922 to the improvident gambler, Edward. He would live until 1976 to be succeeded as Duke of Leinster by his only son Gerald who had earlier agreed to the sale of Carton House, Maynooth for the benefit of the Malaby-Deeley family in return for Kilkea Castle remaining in the ownership of the Fitzgerald family. Gerald Fitzgerald lived in Kilkea Castle for a number of years following his second marriage in 1946. A considerable amount of the land which formed part of the Kilkea estate was compulsory acquired by the Irish Land Commission and the remaining land was farmed by Gerald. He also established an aviation business based in Dublin called ‘Vigors Aviation’ which proved to be much more profitable than farming in the 1950s. The aviation business moved to Oxfordshire and this precipitated the sale of Kilkea Castle in 1965 to the American businessman William Cade. The catalogue for the Kilkea Castle library auction is a bibliophiles wish list with several special editions of famous Irish history works described as ‘Printed for the Marquis of Kildare and presented to him by the editor’. Also for sale were many books by the Bronte sisters, Charles Dickens and local Ballitore author Mary Leadbeater, all of which I recognise as first editions even though none were so described. What a wonderful opportunity that December auction offered to anybody interested in Irish history or English literature. In the spring of 1946 the student magazine of St. Patrick’s College Maynooth ‘The Silhouette’ included an article which the author using the nom de plume ‘Knight’ claimed was based ‘on actual facts’. Outlining the story of the fairy Earl of Kildare who dabbled in black magic, he explained how the Earl was able to transform himself into a blackbird. However, following an incident with a cat the Earl, now a blackbird, was unable to revert back and tradition related that the blackbird lives on as a captive of ‘the good people’. The article then related how the auctioneers at Kilkea ‘last December’ sold a portrait of the fairy Earl and a cut glass bowl of which the Earl was especially fond. At the end of the auction the Castle was locked with the sold items stored inside. The next day when the buyers returned to Kilkea Castle to collect their purchases the auctioneers found that the Earl’s portrait had fallen from the wall and was lying face down on a table. The canvas was slashed right down the centre as if with a sword. All the glass items on the table were intact, except for the fairy Earl’s bowl. It was smashed to pieces. The story of the slashed painting and the shattered glass bowl is just one of the many stories which have gathered currency over the years in relation to the Fitzgerald family and Kilkea Castle. The clerical student who penned the article in 1946 insisted that the story he related was based on actual facts. However, the fairy Earl he referred to has been generally known as the wizard Earl. The auction of 74 years ago no doubt saw the contents of Kilkea Castle dispersed far and wide. I would expect that some of the items sold during the auction are to be found today in many households in south Kildare. The books from the Kilkea library had been collected over many years by several of the different generations of the Fitzgeralds including Lord Walter Fitzgerald. Lord Walter was a true Irish patriot whose love for Ireland, its history and its antiquities inspired him to research and write on subjects which showed his remarkable scholarship. His writings are to be found in the pages of the early volumes of the Kildare Archaeological journals and the Journal of the Association for the Preservation of the Memorials of the Dead in Ireland. But where now, I ask, are the books sold at the Kilkea auction on 7th December 1945?

Tuesday, June 9, 2020

The Railway comes to Athy [2]

John Lord Solicitor in his letter to the Railway Company on 30th May 1846 wrote:- ‘The Town Commissioners hereby require you to make or construct the high road which runs over the railroad in Athy through Leinster Street ..... in a straight line on or over the high road ..... without any diversion or curve from the original line of the said high road ..... and take notice that if you refuse to comply with the terms of this notice or persist in or attempt to raise, sink, embank, obstruct or stop up or divert so much of the high road as leads through the said town and borough of Athy or alter the levels of the same otherwise than as the said plans and specifications allows such proceedings will be taken against the directors and others concerned in the said railway or branches as counsel may advise.’ The Minute books of the Town Commissioners do not indicate how the matter was resolved but the present twin level approach roads separated by a wall at the top of Leinster Street apparently satisfied the Commissioners who wrote to the Railway Company on 5th March 1849 expressing satisfaction with ‘the permanent useful and ornamental wall’. Several local land owners were handsomely compensated by the Railway Company, including Edward Dillon who received £460 and a Mr. Bradley who was paid £600. Bothair Bui, the area through which the railway line passed, had cottages on both sides of the road and these cottages had to be demolished. Local lore claims that the families whose cottages were removed to accommodate the railway line and the bridge emigrated to America where they named the area they settled as Bothair Bui. The Athy resident, Michael Carey, noted on 18th July 1846: ‘Row between railway people and the townspeople at the Convent’. The reference to ‘the Convent’ was to the Dominican Convent then located at one end of Bothair Bui and would appear to confirm difficulties between the Railway company and the Bothar Bui householders whose cottages would eventually be demolished in May 1849 almost three years after the first train travelled through Athy. Railway stations were built at Clondalkin, Lucan, Hazelhatch, Straffan, Sallins, Newbridge, Kildare, Athy, Maganey and Carlow to plans submitted to the Railway Company Board by MacNeill. The Athy station like all the other stations on the Dublin Carlow line was designed in the Elizabethan style. Denis Cogan, former Kildare County Architect, described Athy’s railway station ‘as a good example of the Elizabethan building style and marks the civic spirit of the Railway Company in giving to Athy a well designed building of quality and presence meeting the Vitruvian commandments for good architecture – firmness, commodity and delight.’ Praise for the Elizabethan style railway stations was not universal as evidenced by the Carlow Sentinel which described them as ‘gloomy looking edifices’ in which ‘the taste partook of barbarity’. The first train journey on the new railway line took place on Monday 3rd August 1846 when the Railway Company directors and guests took two first class carriages on the 56½ mile trip to Carlow. There is no indication that the train party which included amongst others the engineer John MacNeill, William Dargan the contractor and Alfred Haughton of Carlow stopped at Athy. Three years later Alfred Haughton was to begin work on building Ardreigh House, Athy from where I am writing this article. Later that month John MacNeill, who had previously worked with the renowned English engineer, William Telford, was knighted by Queen Victoria. The Dublin Carlow railway line was opened for public traffic on the following day, Tuesday 4th August 1846 to facilitate race goers travelling to the first day of the Carlow races at Ballybar. There were two trains a day each way. From Dublin at 9.00 a.m. and 5.00 p.m. and from Carlow at 9.30 a.m. and 5.00 p.m. The first train to stop at Athy Railway Station was the 9.30 a.m. train from Carlow which was scheduled to arrive in Athy at 10.08 a.m. The train fares from Dublin in 1846 were six shillings and six pence for first class, five shillings for second class and two shillings ten pence for third class. Early third class carriages on the Dublin Carlow line were roofed unlike similar class carriages on other railway lines where the passengers had no protection from the elements. Third class carriages were finally removed from service in 1956, while first class travel on the current Waterford Dublin line was abolished in more recent years. The original railway line to Carlow was double tracked but in September 1918 was single tracked from Cherryville junction to Athy to provide rails for the railway line between Castlecomer and Kilkenny. The double line from Carlow to Athy had earlier been reduced to a single line and the lifted rail used in the construction of a new branch line which opened on 24th September 1918 to serve Wolfhill colliery. Today rail travel is more popular than ever before with rail users at Athy Station served by a station staff of one where sixty years ago upwards of 44 men were employed.

Tuesday, June 2, 2020

The Railway comes to Athy [1]

The first railway line in Ireland was opened on 17th December 1834 when a steam powered train travelled from Westland Row to Kingstown (now Dun Laoghaire), carrying the railway company directors and their wives together with the railway contractor, William Dargan. The journey of 6½ miles lasted for 19½ minutes. It followed on nine years after the world’s first railway line was opened between Stockton and Darlington, England. Plans to build a railway line to serve Athy and further south were proposed by the Great Leinster and Munster Railway Company as early as 1836. The directors of the company promoted the passing of an Act of Parliament to allow the railway to be built. However, the Barrow Navigation and Grand Canal Company raised objections to the proposal and successfully petitioned the Standing Orders Committee of the House of Commons to stop the Members of Parliament considering the matter. In the meantime several Irish railway companies were formed and numerous surveys carried out with a view to building railway lines throughout Ireland. There were so many railway construction proposals a Royal Commission was established to recommend which lines should be built. The Great Leinster and Munster Railway Company succeeded in getting an Act of Parliament passed in 1837 to allow its railway line to be constructed but decided to await the Royal Commissions report. The report when published did not recommend the line proposed by the company and the plans were shelved. Another Parliamentary Act was passed in 1844 which authorised the building of a railway line by the Great Southern and Western Railway Company between Dublin and Cashel, with a branch line through Athy to Carlow. Michael Carey of Athy noted in his Journal on 1st April 1844 ‘Measuring for the railway’. The line of the proposed railway was surveyed by John MacNeill who was Professor of Engineering in Trinity College Dublin. On 26th October 1844 Carey noted ‘railway through Bottoms’ and the following year without specifying the exact date ‘railway bridge at Athy Station finished’. The work on the new railway line coincided with the early years of the Great Famine. The failure of the 1845 potato crop appears to have had less serious consequences for the south Kildare people than elsewhere in the country. Athy’s workhouse which opened the previous year with a capacity of 360 adults and 240 children housed 269 inmates in November 1845. Of those inmates only 2 were able bodied men, while 38 were female adults and the rest children. The low number of male inmates was no doubt due to the work available during the building of the Great Southern and Western rail line to Carlow. The work continued throughout 1845 and up to August 1846. The contractors William Dargan and William McCormack employed a huge local workforce, described as men ‘who never handled a pike or a shovel, never wheeled a barrow and never made a nearer approach to work than to turn over a potato field with a clumsy hoe.’ A letter written by William Taylor, Secretary of the Railway Company to Dublin Castle on 25th September 1846 hints at difficulties experienced by the company during the building work in the Athy area. ‘I beg to inform you that the object for which additional police force was required at Athy has been affected and the works of the company quietly completed in the town in consequence of their presence there.’ A permanent reminder of the difficulties facing the Railway Company in Athy remains to this day in the twin level approach roads from the town centre to the railway bridge. Athy Town Commissioners were somewhat at sea in relation to the construction of the approach road to the bridge and on 1st September 1845 they sought the Duke of Leinster’s opinion as to how they should act. The advice received is lost in time but on 7th May 1846 the Commissioners chairman, Patrick Commons, wrote to the Railway Company stating; ‘The Commissioners now see what is intended to be done and are of opinion that it is the worst plan that could be adopted in as much as it injures the property on the opposite side of the street and entirely disfigures the principal entrance to the town.’ The Railway Company appears to have ignored the Commissioner’s letter for on 30th May 1846 the Town Commissioners solicitor, John Lord, wrote to the Railway Company upbraiding them for attempting to construct a road from the railway bridge into the town, contrary to the plans and specifications which the Railway Company had previously lodged with the Clerk of the Peace for the county of Kildare.

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Extracts from Michael Carey's Diary 1823 - 1867

Michael Carey, a resident of Athy in the first half of the 19th century, kept a journal in which he made short entries noting events of interest in the town. The first entry was dated 14th May 1823 and the last November 1862. It is possible that some of the earliest entries were made many years after the events to which they referred. The entries were made in alphabetical order without comment. The letter B takes up eight columns over four pages and include journal entries such as ‘Barrington C appointed to Athy School Nov. 19 1827’, ‘Beards, three young, went to Van Diemen’s Land April 19 1833’ and ‘Bell first ring at the chapel for the death of a man – Bradley Baker March 7 1830’. On 25 June 1834 and again on 26 June 1836 he noted ‘Gideon Ouseley was preaching in Athy.’ Ouseley was a Methodist preacher who had been invited by the Irish Methodist Conference to be part of a three many Irish speaking evangelist mission to the Irish poor. Ouseley sang and preached, mostly in Irish, to outdoor gatherings at fairs and markets. It was often claimed that evangelical preachers were not usually welcomed by Catholic clergy or provincial townspeople, but I had found no reports of any difficulties arising from Ouseley’s visits to Athy. Perhaps his evangelical meeting in Athy was not an open air event and may have been held in the Methodist chapel which was then located in the former Quaker meeting house in Meeting House Lane. Gideon Ouseley who made a remarkable contribution to the growth of Methodism in Ireland died in Dublin in May 1839. He was a native of Co. Galway, born of Anglican parents and had intended to become an Anglican minister. His conversion to become a follower of John Wesley occurred when he was 29 years old and the rest of his life was devoted to evangelical preaching throughout the length and breadth of Ireland. Another Irishman who spent years travelling up and down this country while taking journeys to England and America was the Capuchin Friar Fr. Theobald Mathew, often called the Apostle of Temperance. Michael Carey records on 23rd August 1840 ‘Father Mathew in Athy.’ Athy, once the home of breweries and distilleries and even now the home of malting, was a soldiers town and almost inevitably developed a reputation as a hard drinking town. The founding of the Ballitore Temperance Society in the 1830s by some of the Quaker residents of the village did not prompt a similar response from the people of Athy. This despite an apparent attempt to start a Temperance Society in the town when a local man, a self declared ex drunkard named Daniel Connolly, addressed a gathering on the evils of drink. ‘When I was a united Irishman ..... I was sent with a party of twelve men to attack the enemy ..... we went into a public house and got something to drink ..... it left me so insensible that the enemy came upon us ..... I alone escaped.’ As to Fr. Mathew’s arrival in Athy on 23 August 1840 his visit is dealt with in Fr. Augustine’s book ‘Footprints of Father Mathew’ in a single line ‘from Cork he went to Naas on the 14th and thence to Athy, Durrow and Freshford where on the 25th he added 10,000 to the Society.’ Some years ago I came across an account of a Temperance Society meeting in Athy addressed by Fr. Mathew which was held outdoors in the Commons of Clonmullin. I can’t find that particular reference as I write, but of interest is another reference to Fr. Mathew stopping in Athy quoted in ‘Ireland Sober, Ireland Free’ by Elizabeth Malcolm published in 1986. On a journey from Dublin to Cork the coach carrying amongst others Fr. Mathew stopped in Athy to allow the passengers to breakfast. ‘A few of the crowd that invariably watched the arrival and departure of the mail recognised Fr. Mathew and in a minute or two the cry went out on all sides. "Fr. Mathew is at the hotel." At once a crowd gathered around the coach and a hundred voices clamoured for the pledge ..... Fr. Mathew immediately began to give the pledge ..... but fresh accessions arrived every few minutes and it was not until five hours had passed that the Royal Mail was allowed to leave Athy.’ Fr. Mathew again visited Athy in October 1842 where it is claimed ‘he gained 12,600 recruits on the 21st and 22nd’. Strangely Michael Carey’s journal makes no reference to this second Temperance meeting of Fr. Mathew. The visits to Athy of the Methodist evangelist and the Capuchin friar were noteworthy events of their time, but remained unrecorded like so many other elements of the town’s story in the absence of a local press.

Monday, May 25, 2020

Michael Wall's Memoirs

During the past week I read a publication edited by Kildare poet, Ann Egan, in which a number of our senior citizens published their memories of times past.  Among the contributors was Michael Wall of Chanterlands. 

This week I am giving over the Eye on the Past to some extracts from Michael’s memories of when he was a young boy in County Mayo.

“In the early twenties the War of Independence was raging and like most people of that era, my father was an ardent supporter of Sinn Fein.  To counter the British hold on the country, Sinn Fein set up their own Courts and administered justice, the best possible.  The Court for South Mayo was in Claremorris and my father cycled to these Court sessions.  The Judge was a local Solicitor – later to become Lord Chief Justice for Ireland – Conor Maguire.  My father and one other acted as his Court clerks.  When a client was convicted for some offence he was hooded and kept “incommunicado” for one week and was fed bread and water.  Prisoners were never molested in any way.  After one week they were released and warned to behave themselves.  As a result of these courts there was very little crime in the area.

As a result of my father’s activities he became known as the local Sinn Fein activist.  To use a mafia term, the local R.I.C. Sergeant put the finger on him and he became ‘a marked man’.  One night they raided the village and searched the house looking for my father.  My mother was terrified but they pushed her aside and felt the bed clothes.  ‘The bed was warm but the bird had flown’.  He took to the hills and was ‘on the run’ for a few days.

My next memory as a child was being taken out of bed and being hoisted up by a dark stranger.  He tells me I’m a grand wee lad.  I tell him – you’re a ‘quare aul lad’.  He tells me I have great use of my tongue.  There is also another stranger present.  He is the leader of the South Mayo Flying Column.  Men from this column used to train in one of our sheds and used dummy rifles.  Both these men were involved in a major ambush in West Mayo.  Some weeks later sadly the ‘quare aul lad’ was killed.” 

Michael’s grandmother had a grocery shop in Ballinrobe and here he takes up her story.

“Business was booming during the War years.  She sent one son to train in Edenderry as a cabinet maker;  another went to Rome to train as a Franciscan.  The third and youngest son she kept at home and bought a car for him for hire work.  Around about 1920 number two son was being ordained in Killarney and the family set off for Kerry.  To get there was just a nightmare journey as the War of Independence was at its height and many bridges had been blocked or blown up.  They criss crossed from one county to another but finally got there.  Number three son was just sixteen at the time.

Often in those days the ‘Black and Tans’ called to the bar for drinks and failed to pay.  The Granny let them know what she thought of them.  One day when my uncle was out on a call he was captured by them and for one week he was forced to drive them around the country.  He returned safely however, much to the relief of the family.  Some weeks later the I.R.A. called him in and told him that they knew of his exploits with the Tans.  He replied that it was at the point of a gun.  He drove them around for another week.  During the Civil War both Grandad and Uncle were captured and taken prisoner for one week by the anti-treaty factions.  Grandad always called them – the Bolshevics.  They were not harmed but the car was burnt out.

Tension was very high in that part of South Mayo in 1923.  The local Parish Priest spoke out against them (I.R.A.) at all parish functions, much to their great discomfiture.  As a result of such opposition they torched the local Post Office and then proceeded to the church armed with tins full of petrol.  The Parish Priest met them in the Church and threatened them with ‘fire and brimstone’ so that they moved on.  About that time the Anti-Treaty Group (I.R.A.) made an attempt to torch the local workhouse.  My Grandad and Uncles were making hay in a field close by and seeing smoke issuing from the building they rushed in and were lucky enough to extinguish the fire.  They certainly weren’t ‘flavour of the month’ in certain quarters in South Mayo.”

In 1929 Michael’s parents bought a farm in County Laois and the Wall family moved to Mountmellick which Michael described as “a colossal house, single story in front and rising to two stories at the back.”  It was, he later discovered, a safe house for Republicans during “the troubles” and during the Civil War was often home to anti-treaty forces.  During the 1926 election the Mountmellick house, which the Walls were to take over three years later, was district headquarters for Fianna Fáil.  De Valera was a frequent visitor, while Countess Markievicz and Terence McSweeney’s widow stayed there for the duration of the election campaign. 

Another important episode in Irish history was recalled when Michael wrote of his grandmother who as a youngster going home from school one day saw a man surrounded by soldiers being escorted to the local R.I.C. Barracks.  He was Captain Boycott of Lough Mask House and on the next day the man who gave the word “boycott” to the English language departed from the local railway station for his home in England.

Recalling such memories gives an immediacy to the re-telling of Irish history which academic theses can never hope to do.  My thanks to Michael Wall for allowing me to share his very interesting memories of times past with my readers. 

May I take the opportunity of wishing the readers of “Eye on the Past” a very happy Christmas and every good wish for the New Year.