Friday, October 30, 1992


Halloween has its roots in the pagan Celtic festival of Samhain. The last day of October was the new year's eve of the Celtic calender and was traditionally an occasion for celebration and family reunion. It marked the end of the crop season which by tradition began on St. Patrick's Day. The crops had to be all gathered in by Halloween and no fruit could be picked because after Halloween the "puca" fouled all unpicked fruit on bush and tree alike. The return at Halloween of the livestock accompanied by their herders from their summer grazing was an occasion for family rejoicing and thereafter the cattle and other stock were free to roam the unenclosed lands which villagers shared on the rundale system. This they did until the following St. Patrick's Day when the livestock and herdsmen would depart yet again for the high ground of the summer booleying. October was also traditionally the potato month when potatoes were dug, sorted and placed in pits of straw and earth for future use. Any not dug out before the end of the month were destined to stay in the ground.

As part of the Celtic tradition associated with Halloween, fires were lit on prominent ground to mark the end of the growing season, and to symbolise the purification of the land. Great quantities of old straw and other combustible material were carried to the chosen site and set alight as darkness approached. The villagers or townspeople gathered around the fire and Autumn fruits such as hazelnuts and apples were roasted and eaten. Dancing and games went on throughout the night.

The games associated with Halloween have nowadays degenerated into pranks and horseplay but in other times they were played with a genuine and serious intent. Games of divination were particularly popular for on the night when the spirits were about people were anxious to know what the future held. Young people engaged in these games to find out their future, particularly where love and marriage were concerned. One such game was the placing of nuts near the fireplace, one for a girl the other for a favoured man. If they burned quietly together marriage was expected but if they blazed up or burst then the courtship was doomed. Another divination game was to peel an apple in a continuous strip. At midnight the peel was thrown over one shoulder and the initial of the future lover's name was read from the shape it took. The now traditional barm brack with the ring is a modern version of the old divination games.

Halloween is also associated even in modern times with other well known games in which autumnal fruits such as apples and nuts are prominent. Ducking for apples is one such game while ducking for money has the additional claim that the person who retrieves the coin from under the water will be lucky in money matters during the coming year. Suspending an apple from a cord and attempting to bite it as it swings is also a variant on the same game.

Halloween was also a time when pranks are played on other people. Nowadays that tradition has given way to the wearing of disguises by young children who go from door to door collecting for their Halloween party. They sometimes have a hallowed out turnip on which a face has been cut with a lighted candle inside. The children involved do not realise that they are carrying on a tradition stretching back centuries, the origin of which was the impersonation of the dead who on Halloween night were abroad. Tradition was that impersonating the dead afforded protection from the spirits.

Halloween for all its traditions, games and jollity has always been associated with death, ghosts and spirits. The christian churches commemorate their dead after Halloween and traditionally it has been the time for families to remember their dead relations and friends. As one would expect the association with death has led to an extensive folklore concerning the movement of spirits at Halloween. It was the day when the spirits of the day were believed to revisit their homes. It was once thought unlucky not to leave the door open and set a place at meal for the departed. These customs have long since been forgotten but some elements of the pagan Celtic festival are perpetuated today in association with the Christian celebration of All Souls Day on the 2nd of November.

Friday, October 23, 1992


The Society of Friends whose members are commonly referred to as Quakers was founded in England in 1647 by George Fox. First established in Ireland in 1654 by William Edmundson the Society grew to prominence with the visit to this country in 1669 of its founder. The Society's structure was based on weekly local meetings of which one was founded in Athy in 1672, predating the better known Ballitore meeting by 35 years. Little is known of Quakerism in Athy until the latter part of the 18th century. The earliest extant record is of a Quaker provincial meeting held in Richard Boyes house in Athy on the 20th May, 1706. Some of the Quaker families of that time were the Jessops, the Skellys, the Hudsons, the Rushworths and the Haughtons of Rheban.

Quakers were generally merchants, a commercial activity favoured by Dissenters and Catholics alike who were denied access to the professions and State employment. Thomas Rushworth, a Quaker merchant of Athy who died in 1675 was perhaps typical of his time. He owned three tenements in the town and when he died he left in addition to shop goods, 36 barrels of malt, 19 dozen tanned calf skins, goat skins and pelts. Another local quaker was Thomas Weston who died in 1709 leaving a mill and millhouse in Athy to his son Thomas, together with "a field called Moneene near Athy". Graham Bradford was another Quaker resident of Athy whose name is recorded for posterity in the records of the Borough Council of Athy. He was a Freeman of the town who was deprived of his office in 1738 for committing perjury. He was pilloried and subsequently transported to the American colonies. The pillory was an instrument of punishment consisting of a wooden frame with holes through which the head and hands of the offender were placed. The culprit had to stand up while in the pillory where he was at the mercy of the local people who could throw rubbish at him or otherwise ridicule him. It was generally used as a punishment for such offenses as forgery, perjury or cornering the market and putting up the price of goods.

Although established in Athy since 1672 the Society of Friends did not have a permanent meeting house until 1780 when one was built on the site of the present Dispensary in Meeting Lane. Thomas Chandlee, whose wife Deborah was a sister of Mary Ledbetter of Ballitore literary fame, was the prime mover in the building of the Athy meeting house. Having moved to Athy from Dublin in 1775 to establish a linen drapery business in Duke Street he encouraged his fellow Quakers to provide a permanent meeting place in the town which was completed in 1778 at a cost of £129=5=10.

The erection of the meeting house did not make any appreciable difference to the continued development of Quakerism in Athy. Indeed the Quaker community was soon to go into decline and in 1812 the last annual collection for Quaker purposes was taken up in the town. It amounted to a mere 15/2 while a similar collection in Ballitore Village where there was a vibrant Quaker community amounted to £9.17.0. Quaker records make no reference to Athy after that date. The legacy of the Quaker community has long vanished from the area but in nearby Ballitore the Society of Friends have recently re-commenced its meeting which is held on the first and third Sunday of every month.

Friday, October 16, 1992

Sisters of Mercy

In the Spring of 1843 some local people and clergy came together in the Parish School at the corner of Stanhope Street and Stanhope Place to discuss the possibility of bringing the Sisters of Mercy to Athy. The first Sisters of Mercy had been professed 12 years earlier and already a Convent had been established in the neighbouring town of Carlow. Those who played a large part in organising that meeting were Miss Anna Gould of Stanhope Place, Rev. W. Gaffney C.C., the Fitzgerald family of Geraldine House and Patrick Maher of Kilrush. It was agreed to take up a weekly collection in the town of Athy to finance the building of a Convent for the Sisters of Mercy. By the 12th of May, 1843 £150 had been collected but an approach to the Duke of Leinster for a site was unsuccessful. Undaunted the fund raising continued and in August 1844 the Parish Priest of Castledermot, Rev. Laurence Dunne, laid the first stone of the future Convent on marshy ground to the west of the Parish Church.

The building work continued throughout 1845 and 1846 but stopped in 1847 because of lack of funds. The weekly town collection was not taken up during the Great Famine, but restarted in 1848, this time under the direction of Rev. Thomas Greene C.C. in whose memory a beautiful Celtic Cross was many years later erected in the grounds of St. Michael’s Parish Church.

Dr. Paul Cullen, appointed Archbishop of Dublin in 1852, was born in Prospect in the Parish of Narraghmore in the year of Robert Emmet’s Rebellion. Understandably he took a keen personal interest in the completion of the Convent in the South Kildare town of Athy, which was located just six miles from his ancestral home. Mother Mary Vincent Whitty of the Sisters of Mercy Dublin advanced £300 to the local people to have the building completed and on 10th October, 1852 Mother Vincent, who earlier had been responsible for building the Mater Hospital, Dublin, took charge of the new Convent accompanied by two sisters. They remained in Athy for two years after which time the Sisters of Mercy in Carlow took over the Athy Convent as a branch house and sent Sister Mary Teresa Maher and Sister Mary Xavier Downey in their place. Sister Mary O'Grady Dillon and Sister Mary Joseph later joined them from the Baggot Street Convent.

Sister Mary Teresa Maher was daughter of Patrick Maher of Kilrush who was one of those responsible for bringing the Sisters of Mercy to Athy. She was also a first cousin of Archbishop Cullen. Sister Mary Vincent Whitty who opened the Athy Convent in October 1852 was the first Sister of Mercy to go on missionary work to Australia where she was later to be joined by a number of nuns and postulants from the Athy Convent.

In 1861 an appeal was made by Rev. Andrew Quinn P.P., Athy, to Rev. Mother Teresa Maher on behalf of his brothers Rt. Rev. James Quinn, Bishop of Brisbane and Rt. Rev. Matthew Quinn, Bishop of Bathurst, Australia, for nuns for their respective missions. In 1865 a postulant from Athy’s Convent, Catherine Flanagan, travelled to Brisbane and in the following year four more postulants left the local Convent in Athy for the Australian Missions. One of the many nuns and postulants who left Athy for Queensland was Sr. Mary Patrick Potter who entered the Athy Convent on the 8th of June, 1866. She and four others left for Brisbane on the 26th of February, 1868. They were the last Athy nuns to leave Athy for Australia. By then Athy had become known as the Mother House of Queensland, having sent so many Mercy Sisters and postulants to that Province over the years.

In 1879 Mother Mary Patrick Potter was appointed Superior of the Congregation in Brisbane, a position she held until her death in 1927. She established many convents and schools throughout Queensland while the building of the Mater Hospital in Brisbane was another of her many achievements.

Over the 140 years of their life in Athy the Sisters of Mercy have worked amongst the people, providing help where required and responding to the spiritual, educational and sometimes material needs of the people of the area.

Friday, October 9, 1992

1414 Charter of Athy

On October 7th 1515 the 24 year old King of England Henry VIII granted a Charter to the town of Athy enabling the townspeople to "erect, construct, build and strengthen the same town with fosses and walls of stone and lime". Located on the Marshes of Kildare and outside the English Pale Athy was of strategic importance to the English settlers yet vulnerable to attack from the dispossessed Irish. The English settlers of the developing town welcomed the opportunity which the King's Charter afforded them to fortress the town. The work on the town walls was to be financed by customs collected by the Town Provost on all goods sold within the town. These ranged from one penny for a horse or cow to half penny for a hide or any goods worth 2/- or more.

The Charter provided for the yearly election of a Town Provost, the modern equivalent to a Mayor, who was to be responsible for governing the town. He also combined this duty with that of Coroner, Justice of the Peace, Weights & Measures Inspector and Clerk of the town market. He was clearly a man of considerable power and influence in sixteenth century Athy.

An important privilege granted by Henry VIII to the townspeople was the right to hold a market in Athy every Tuesday "in a place deputed or ordained therefor by Gerald Earl of Kildare". 477 years on, the market in Athy is still held every Tuesday in what was formerly known as Market Square and now Emily Square.

Customs continued to be collected on goods sold in the Athy Market up to the 19th century. In latter years the right to collect the customs was let out to the highest tenderer until they were eventually abolished in 1824. By then the market was held on Tuesday and Saturday but business had fallen off because of tolls imposed on goods passing through the toll gates on the Dublin Road and the corner of Duke Street on their way to the Athy market. These additional tolls were collected to finance roadworks in the area.

The Duke of Leinster, who claimed the right to the market customs "suggested" that the Borough Council abolish the customs in an attempt to revive the town market. The local Council which always acted as directed duly dropped the market customs except in relation to coal and culm where the custom was doubled because of the extensive trade in Athy between the local Collieries and Dublin. The coal and culm customs were also eventually abolished but the wheel has now turned full circle with the local Urban Council considering the feasibility of imposing charges on market traders in Athy on Tuesday to help to defray the cost of street cleaning.

The market tradition in Athy continues undiminished and seems on the evidence of recent years to have taken on a new lease of life, bringing colour and a change of scenery to the Emily Square area every Tuesday morning.

Friday, October 2, 1992

Michaelmas - 29th September

The feast of St. Michael or Michaelmas falls on the 29th of September. Traditionally St. Michael is known as Judge of the Dead on Judgment Day and he is usually depicted with flaming wings symbolising his status as Archangel, carrying a sword representing his power over evil.

For the Anglo Norman settlers of the 12th and 13th Century both Michaelmas and Easter marked important periods in the yearly calender. Athy in common with other Irish and English towns regarded September 29th as a day for settling rent accounts, hiring labourers and the beginning of Autumn. It was a day marked with celebration, the centre piece of which was the Michaelmas goose, geese generally being in plentiful supply at that time of year. Michaelmas was the day when tradition decreed that a farmer should kill an animal and give meat to the poor. The custom, according to Keating in his History of Ireland, arose when Aongus, wife of King Leary, in thanksgiving for her son's restoration to health killed one sheep out of every flock she owned. It was decreed that all Christians should follow the custom on Michaelmas Day and give a portion to the poor.

The Hiring Fairs were another Irish tradition centred around Michaelmas Day. Those seeking employment came to town on September 29th, stood in the Hiring Fair wearing the recognised sign of their skill. Once agreement had been reached with a farmer the hired hand received a coin as an earnest of his future wages. He was free for the rest of the day until the evening when he left the fair with the farmer for the farm which was to be his home for the next six to nine months.

The Charter of Athy granted by Henry VIII in 1515 provided for the election of a Town Provost on the feast of St. Michael. The later Charter of 1613 granted by James I stipulated that the town's sovereign elected annually on the 24th of June was to be sworn into office on Michaelmas Day. In 1746 Athy Borough was rocked by a scandal when Thomas Keating, one of the twelve Burgesses of the town, was charged by the Corporation with impersonating the Sovereign and while doing so calling a meeting for the Queen's Head in the town to elect a Burgess in place of John Jackson who had died. Keating who had not been sworn into office on Michaelmas Day as required by the town Charter was removed from his office as a Burgess of the town as were Robert Percy and Nicholas Aylward, both of whom attended the meeting called by Keating. The tradition of swearing in the Sovereign on the 29th of September survived until 1840 when the Borough was dissolved. The tradition of killing an animal to share with the poor and the Hiring Fair survived for a few more years but they too have long gone the way of other old Irish traditions.
Part time amateur enthusiastic students of local history have never been as numerous as they are today. Their work has spawned a multiplicity of publications ranging from substantial academic texts to the numerous books and pamphlets published by individual local historians and Historical Societies.

Genealogical research into ones own family is generally an initial step into a field of study which is both varied and extensive. The next step is inevitably the study of the history of a particular locality. However one enters into local history studies one thing is certain; the student will go to his local Library, look at what is available in the reference section or local archive material section and embark on a life long study which will never lose its interest.

The growing interest in local history and the awakening of interest in their own place amongst school children has created a huge demand for research material in our local libraries. Our national archives are not always readily accessible to the country based researchers but unfortunately our local libraries do not seem to be able to keep pace with the needs for basic research material even of a secondary nature.

The recent opening of the new vastly improved library service in the Town Hall under the guidance of the dynamic and resourceful County Librarian Breda Gleeson will hopefully lead to a dramatic improvement in the availability of research material in Athy. Success in local history work requires active co-operation between local libraries and national archives, local History Societies and the schools. Never before has there been such a need for all these bodies to collaborate more and more with each other to meet the every growing and popular demands of local history studies.

Eye on the Past will each week deal with a topic of interest from the History of South Kildare when we will delve into the rich vein of local History which remains to be discovered and related in future articles.