Writing a weekly column can be a tortuous experience, especially when you meet a disgruntled reader who, because you have gone into print, feels obliged to set you straight on some matter or other. It is then you must accept the inevitable, yet unproven claim that what you wrote was wrong. “You’re wrong, my grandmother told me that the Quaker Meeting House was at the end of our yard,” was one reader’s response to an article I wrote some years ago after a most detailed and careful examination of all the records relating to that 18th century building. Such research was quite worthless when faced with granny’s claim of 40 years ago. “Dúirt bean liom gur dúirt bean léi” is, in some quarters, apparently, a more acceptable basis for establishing historical claims than any canter through the public record repositories.
On the other hand, there is the response from the many, many readers who enjoy a look back and the writer’s attempt to bring the past into the present. For them, the effort is worthwhile and the appreciation expressed is more than adequate compensation for the writer.
During the past year, I have been continuously amazed at the co-operation of those approached by me for interviews. I can only recall one failure when a reluctance to speak “on the record” meant that a potentially generous nugget of local knowledge and lore had to remain untapped, destined never to find its way into the public domain. More is the pity but the kindness of the many people who gave of their time and knowledge so unstintingly and so generously fuelled the desire to continue the search to tell the people’s history of the locality.
For all of us, whether we went to school and perhaps even university for those lucky enough to get there, history seemed to centre around battles and the reign of kings and queens. This history of our place and the story of the people apparently never merited more than a brief or cursory reference in the annals. But it is the townspeople and the country folk living out their lives at work and at play to whom we must turn if we are to fell the pulse of the locality and re-create times past.
The Mary Carrs, Florrie Penders, Tosh Doyles and Ger Moriartys of this world are the stuff of life to which we can relate and through their experiences share in the past which would otherwise be beyond our ken. To those men and women whom some would call “the ordinary people” but whom I regard as “extraordinary people”, we are indebted for their contributions to the history of life of our locality.
Looking back over the 52 articles which have appeared since Christmas 1993, there are some which have given me more satisfaction than others. To chat to a legendary figure like Mrs. Hester May was a privilege, knowing her involvement in the War of Independence. During the year the events of that period provided articles on Tom Flood and Eamon Malone, two men whose involvement in the fight for Irish freedom should never be forgotten. Other Athy men who fought a different struggle during the First World War were again remembered in November when detailed research during the year gave an opportunity for a reassessment of Athy’s contribution to that conflict. I fear that as a community we have, up to now, never fully realised the impact World War I had on south Kildare in general, and Athy in particular. There is recently a growing understanding of the social and economic effects which a lost generation had on those who were left behind. We should never feel that the men of World War I are any less deserving of our thoughts and admiration than those men who served Ireland well during the period to 1923.
To unearth nuggets of history never before mined by other hands is a rare occurrence. The unfolding story of Athy Workhouse and its link with the Luggacurran evictions might not necessarily fall into that category but next week’s article on Jane Austen and her Athy connections is one which surely does.
To everyone who has co-operated in the telling of our town’s story may I say a big thank you. The story is not finished and in its future telling it will be of necessity to call upon many of you to help me put together the jigsaw of lore and fact which makes up the story of Athy and its people.
Happy Christmas to you all.