Friday, January 29, 1993

St. Michael's Cemetery

St. Michael's Cemetery has been the principal burial ground for Athy people for hundreds of years. The signpost outside the Cemetery on the Dublin Road reads "St. Michael's Medieval Church". It appears to be a 14th Century Church built when the still young settlement of Athy already had two Monasteries. The Crouched Friars had a Monastery at St. John's while the Friars Preachers had theirs in an area to the south of the present Emily Square. Both Monasteries were manned by French speaking clerics who had come to the area at the invitation of the Anglo Norman settlers.

St. Michael's Church was built outside the town walls and leads me to believe that it was a Parish Church to serve the native Irish. The name St. Michael could be a reference to the St. Michael family who were Barons of Rheban and Lords of the Manor of Woodstock. It could also be a dedication to St. Michael who is usually portrayed as a dragon slayer and whose protection was often sought especially when Churches were being built on sites which had previous pagan associations.

The grounds around the Church were used for Christian burials from an early time. The antiquity of the site can be readily ascertained from the high ground on the south side of the church. This was the favourite place for burials because the north side of the Church was in shadow and where it was believed the devil lurked. Consequently the north side was reserved for criminals and unbaptised babies while corpses were piled on top of each other on the south side, gradually leading to a substantial increase in the ground level at that point.

Around the Cemetery we can see Irish Yew trees of uncertain age. Regarded as symbols of immortality it was Edward I who ordered Yew trees to be planted in graveyards because of the protection their close growth afforded Church buildings from storms. The Yew is also poisonous to animals and so acts as a deterrent to unscrupulous persons who might otherwise let their animals loose in a cemetery.

During the middle ages and up to the 18th century corpses were buried in linen shrouds rather than coffins. An Act of 1678 required woollen shrouds to be used so that the ailing woollen trade could be promoted. The rich were understandably the first to use coffins and the practice developed in time to include the less well off in society.

Inevitably the level of poverty which prevailed throughout the 18th and 19th centuries required the town Council to provide a parish coffin in which the unfortunate was brought to the gate of the cemetery. The lych gate at the entrance to the cemetery (which no longer exists) was a covered gateway where the coffin was rested on a table while the body was removed, placed in a shroud or sheet for burial and the Parish coffin returned ready for the next funeral.

Immediately adjoining the front wall of the cemetery and to the right of the gateway is the last resting place of possibly the only man in Ireland legitimately buried in his own back yard. Paddy Johnson lived in one of the small cottages which fronted onto the Dublin Road and behind which lay St. Michael's Cemetery. The Town Council extended the cemetery by taking over the ground occupied by the cottages and when Paddy died he was buried in what was previously his own back yard.

Around the Medieval Church can be seen a rich green and glossy plant which flowers every two years between April and June. Alexanders is a plant similar to the wild carrot and was grown in medieval times. It is not a plant native to Ireland and it's presence in the cemetery might indicate a medieval settlement on the site either before or after the Church was erected. Apparently the entire plant was edible, the stem like asparagus, the root like a parsnip while the flower buds were used in salads.

Walk around St. Michael's and look at the history to be found among the headstones. Look at the table tombs within and without the Church, look at the beautifully crafted headstones and the imaginative epitaphs to be found. And as you walk through the old cemetery note how the graves are orientated so that the corpses face the sun rising in the east. When the new St. Michael's Cemetery was opened in 1965 this tradition was overlooked so that when our time comes, unlike our forefathers, we will not face the rising sun. I wonder!

Friday, January 22, 1993

Handballers of the 1920s

The newly built handball court at the rear of Woodstock Street, Athy, attracts a lot of unfavourable comment. Cited as a waste of public funds it has failed to be used for the purpose intended and instead it's walls provide a readymade canvass for young graffiti artists. How times have changed. The town, which for years was the handballing centre of the County and which produced All-Ireland Champions up to 1946, cannot now find use for a handball court.

Athy boasted two handball courts at the start of the 19th century. One court was located on the southside of Leinster Street at the rear of a business premises. Barrack Lane, just off Barrack Street, was the site of the second court which the Military authorities may have built for the use of soldiers in the neighbouring Army barracks. When the army left Athy following the Crimean War, the Duke of Leinster leased the handball court to the Town Commissioners under a Lease dated the 14th of December 1856. Soon it became a popular meeting place for sport-minded men and in a few years a number of outstanding players emerged.

The best players challenged players from other towns for purses normally put up by their backers. Over time a system of rubbers consisting of eleven games or more played on a home and away basis evolved. Out of the challenge system there eventually emerged a player who was rated the champion and who remained so until he was challenged and defeated.

In the 1880's the man to beat was John Lawler of Dublin who went to New York and returned to Ireland in 1886 as the World Champion. On Lawler’s subsequent departure for the lucrative professional handball game in America, John Delaney of Athy was regarded as the man most likely to succeed to the Irish title. A challenge game was played in Athy and Tralee between Delaney and a young man named Tom Jones. In the first round played in Athy handball court Delaney won eight of the ten games played and needed just three more games to win the All-Ireland title. It was not to be as Jones in the return match in Tralee won the first nine games and with them the rubber and the Championship. Tom Jones, who shortly afterwards became a Catholic Priest is regarded as possibly the greatest handballer of all time.

In 1912 the Irish Amateur Handball Union was formed and the first All Ireland Championship under it's auspices was held in 1914. The players were still semi-professional and played for purses with side bets an important part of the sport. George Robinson of Athy with Paddy Coyne of Carlow were regarded as the best players in Ireland. However, it was Robinson of Athy and Paddy Lyons of Dublin who were matched for the Irish Championship in 1914. The first half of the rubber was played in Lyons' own alley in Ballymun in July 1914 and Lyons won on the score of 4-3. Robinson had an excellent chance of winning with home advantage in Athy and so securing the first Irish title for the town. Before the remaining matches could be played however World War I broke out and Robinson, an army reservist was called up. Wounded during the War he lost a thumb and part of the palm of his left hand. Despite this handicap George Robinson was to confound everyone when in 1917 he teamed up with another Athy man, Tom Aldridge, to win the Doubles title under the Association Rules by beating their Dublin opponents 5-2 in Athy and 3-2 in Dublin.

George was never again to challenge for an All Ireland title and played his last challenge game as a semi-professional when beating Terry O'Reilly of Dublin in 1920. He retired soon afterwards. George was referred to as a delightful player who in an Obituary notice written by F.D. (Frank Doran) was described as a "handball artist with a variety of strokes - he could take a ball with either hand behind his back and in close play ..... flick and kill a ball into the opposite corner to which his opponent ran". He died in 1950 aged 68 years having worked in the Asbestos Cement factory as a gateman from 1936.

Friday, January 15, 1993

Peter Halpin and Early Years of Technical School

A recent brief meeting with a retired teacher who once taught in the old Technical School in Stanhope Street, Athy, prompts this week's reflection on times past. Peter Halpin, a woodwork and mechanical drawing teacher, obtained his first teaching post from Kildare V.E.C. in 1936. He was taken on for the new Technical School which was scheduled for Castledermot but spent the first weeks of his teaching career in Athy before being transferred to Celbridge until required in Castledermot in 1938.

He remembered Athy and the teachers in the old Technical School in 1936 as if it was only last year rather than 56 years ago. T.C. Walsh whom he describes as "a great artist" was Headmaster and woodwork teacher while Tessie Morrin was commerce teacher. The school had approximately 60 pupils and the subjects taught included woodwork, metalwork, commerce and domestic science. Within weeks of his temporary assignment to Athy he was transferred to the Celbridge Technical School where his services were more urgently required. There is stayed until 1938 and left to take up his permanent full-time position in Castledermot where he was to remain for 15 years. In 1945 he replaced the first school Principal, Padraig O'Dalaigh, and was himself succeeded as Principal by Tadgh Hayden in 1953.

Peter remembers Michael Thorpe as the first and long serving Caretaker of the Castledermot School and recalled with pride his return to his old school in 1973 when the Minister for Education, Richard Burke, officially opened the present school. Stories of times past and times spent with his friends and acquaintances in the Castledermot area came flooding back. He recalled with particular fondness Una Bray who lived near the Technical School and whose homemade sweetcake was a particular favourite of Peter and his friends during the late 1930's. Una later married Jack McKenna who is still happily, hale and hearty living in Castledermot and whose son John is today one of the most promising young writers on the Irish literary scene.

The meeting with Peter Halpin was unexpected and unfortunately brief but his reminiscences of days spent in Athy and Castledermot created a feeling of guilt in his listener. Why you may ask but the answer is readily understood when I explain that so much oral history has been lost because of a failure to implement an ongoing systematic system of recording those men and women whose memory stretch back over events and times that are unknown to younger generations.

Meeting Peter Halpin has reminded me and hopefully others that within our community there is an extensive store of tradition and experience which needs to be recorded and retained. The recollections of the elderly members of our community are an essential part of the sense of who and what we are today. History is after all about people and the events they have shaped and the experiences they have shared.

Athy Museum Society will hopefully start in 1993 to record interviews with men and women of Athy and district in an attempt to recapture the past through their experiences. In the meantime we should never lose sight of the value of oral history particularly as a method of studying the recent past. The lives of ordinary people have so much to tell us of domestic life, work and experiences of childhood. To lose the benefit of these experiences would be to throw away much of what we are. Let 1993 be the year to change that.

Friday, January 8, 1993


The end of the Christmas festivities is greeted with relief by the womenfolk for whom the festival is one of almost a continuous round of food preparation. The twelfth day of Christmas is traditionally referred to as "Little Christmas" because the celebration meal is of less gargantuan proportions than that of Christmas Day itself. It was almost popularly known in Ireland as Nollaig na mBan (Women's Christmas) to differentiate it from Christmas Day which was known as Nollaig na bFear (Men's Christmas).

The name Epiphany which is a Greek word refers to the manifestation to the Magi as the three Kings and indicates the final day of the Christmas festivity. In the Eastern Church up to the 4th Century the combined celebrations of Christ's nativity and baptism occurred on January 6th. The severance of the two feast days occurred around the end of the 4th century and it was only then that the Epiphany became one of the most important festivals in the Eastern Church before later passing on into the Western Church.

January 6th is also traditionally acknowledged as the anniversary of the wedding feast of Cana and as one would expect the annual reenactment of the miracle at Cana figures prominently in Irish folklore. "On the night of the three Kings water is turned into wine" recounts the ancient proverb. Blessed wells which are to be found in almost every townland in the country are without exception thought to undergo a magic transformation on the dawning of the feast of the Epiphany when the water is miraculously changed to wine. Many a believer who has braved the winter cold to drink his fill of wine has come away a sorry and disappointed man. Such disappointment must be seen as an irrational disregard for the subtle requirements of taste needed to distinguish between water and wine especially when sitting outdoors on a cold winters night.

On the days following the Epiphany, Christmas decorations are by tradition taken down. The holly, ivy and other evergreens which decorated the house are by tradition disposed of by burning. In some areas it was a practice to retain the withered greenery for lighting under the pancake fire on Shrove Tuesday. If not retained for that purpose it is generally burned immediately rather than disposed of otherwise because of the reverence with which all things associated with Christmas are treated. The twelve days of Christmas are days of celebration and enjoyment generally. Even the normal superstitions of the people centred on ghosts and fairies are suspended during the season of goodwill of which Shakespeare wrote "No spirit dare stir abroad".

Friday, January 1, 1993

New Years Day

December 31st or January 1st were not traditional Festive days in Ireland. This is because until the British Parliament adopted the Gregorian calendar in 1752 New Years Day in Ireland occurred on March 25th. The passing of the Act resulted in the loss of eleven days, the Parliament decreeing that September 2nd was to be followed by September 14th. The change caused consternation more in anticipation than in reality; similar to that experienced in Ireland when we changed the decimal currency in the 1970's. The reaction of some communities caused riots in the streets with the demand for the return of the eleven days.

The original New Years Day of March 25th was formerly the occasion when people gave each other presents. The custom was changed to Christmas Day in the last century. For country people the calender change did not affect their way of reckoning the start of the working year. For them February 1st , the first day of Spring, was the commencement day of the farmers New Year.

One New Years custom first associated with the Methodist community was the holding of Watch Night Service in the local Chapel. The congregation gathered to see out the old year and to welcome in the New Year. First introduced in the 18th century the Watch Night Service saw the congregation in prayer until about five minutes to 12.00 and then in silence until midnight struck when the hour was greeted with hymns of praise. It was also generally but not always followed by the ringing of the Church bells. The custom later spread to the Anglican Churches and the Presbyterian Churches where in Scotland the New Year celebrations are far more important than those of Christmas Day.

In Ireland, as elsewhere, superstition and tradition plays an important part in the events of New Years Day. In folk tradition New Years Day was a very important indication of what the following twelve months would hold. The weather conditions on that winter's day were interpreted as a sign of the weather throughout the following year. Even the wind direction was seen by some as an important if strange indication of political developments in the year just commencing. A westerly wind gave a welcome boost to the cause of the Irish while an easterly wind favoured the English cause. One wonders why in a country with such a prevalence of westerly winds the Irish problem took so long to resolve, even if only partially.

A popular belief was that the first person to cross your threshold after midnight on New Years Day determined the extent of your luck or bad fortune in the ensuing year. A black haired man was the most welcome visitor to any house bringing as he did enormous luck to the household. Red haired women were not encouraged to be out and about on New Years Eve night for fear that they might upset their more superstitious neighbours.

The first entry to the house, or the "first footing" as it was traditionally called, inevitably gave rise to another example of Irish enterprise with the practice of rewarding dark haired men or boys who were the first to pass the threshold after midnight. Visits were frequently made in the neighbourhood by anyone fortunate enough to have the required physical attributes guaranteed to bring luck to each household. The reward, liquid for the men and coin for the young boys, profited all who participated.

Another custom peculiarly Irish and rooted in the fear of famine and hunger was once enacted throughout the country on New Years Eve. The woman of the house baked a large loaf or barnbrack which the man of the house threw against the door of the house while calling on the Lord to banish famine from Ireland for the next twelve months. The efficacy of these ancient and time honoured customs were never doubted by the people who practised them and who are we to doubt their usefulness at a time when to live in hope rather than in fear was the height of one's expectations.

Happy New Year!