Last week I talked to a group attending the South Kildare Local History Summer School which was based in the Crookstown Heritage Centre, Ballitore. Locating a Local History School in a mill was an excellent idea. Jim Maher, it's owner, has managed to refurbish a derelict mill of a bygone age and while retaining it as a mill has intelligently used it as a backdrop for the interesting artefacts which he has accumulated over the years.
It was in this setting that the twenty or so persons interested in the history of South Kildare came to hear a number of speakers talk on various aspects of local history.
Most of the participants were primary school teachers and their involvement is an indication of the increasing interest by the general public in the history of place and people.
We have all come to recognise that history is not restricted to the wars and battles of long ago or to the lives of Kings and Queens of other eras. The history of the ordinary people whose life styles were far removed from those of the leaders of the day provide far more interesting and relevant material for study than the regal lives of foreign potentates whose schemes and achievements scarcely touched the lives of ordinary folk.
The vast amount of local history material now being produced is a reflection of the general public's interest. It is also the result of the extensive and sometimes intensive research over long hours by individuals and groups who have blazed a pioneering trail through the archival material stored for the most part in the various public repositories in Dublin.
How nice then to see that here in South Kildare in the week that saw the 90th anniversary re-run of the Gordon Bennett Race over the Athy circuit that the Local History Summer School was taking place. While it was not the first such school it was certainly an early incursion into a field which will inevitably spawn many imitators in other Counties in the future.
Perhaps the idea can be used to reactivate the local history talks which Athy Museum Society put on in the Council Chamber some years ago. I can recall with some disappointment the sometimes excellent topics and excellent speakers where the audiences were so small as to raise doubts as to the publics interest in local history.
The resurgence of interest owes much to the personal interest in the subject of teachers who in turn pass on their enthusiasm to their pupils. I still remember after the passage of more years than I care to acknowledge the history lessons of the late Bill Ryan in the Christian Brothers School in Athy. Unfortunately local history was then unrecognised and unchartered but even in relation to national or international history Bill Ryan's infectious enthusiasm for his subject sparked a response in his listeners which in at least one young student has survived the passing years.
I often regret that a lack of information on local aspects of history in those days meant that so many of us were never able to grasp the significant part which our place and our townspeople played in important historical events. It is sometimes only when one realises what happened in Athy during a particular period of Irish history that there can be an understanding of the significance of what happened nationally.
History is all around us. In the stones of the buildings we pass unnoticed every day. In the experiences of old people and in the visible remains of buildings crumbling and neglected. They all have a story to tell and in it's telling the past comes alive and relives experiences long forgotten. We should study the past because we are the heirs to the wisdom of the past.