Friday, December 15, 1995

Famine Losses in Athy coupled with piece on Tailoring Businesses

I attended the launch of a book by Kildare County Council as part of its contribution to this years commemoration of the Great Famine on Tuesday night in Naas Library. “Lest we forget - Kildare in the Great Famine”, comprises a number of essays dealing with various aspects of the Famine in Kildare. Yours truly contributed a chapter on the Famine in Athy, which in itself is not sufficient reason for deciding not to buy the book. It should be available in your local bookshop, and as it costs only £4.95 there is no need to raise a bank loan to buy your own copy.

Re-reading the Famine article which I had written earlier this year, I was reminded that the population of Athy had decreased by 825 in the ten years from 1841 to 1851. This did not take into account persons in the local Workhouse where 1205 paupers died during the Great Famine.

Earlier in the week I bought a copy of the 1911 Census report for County Kildare, which I will readily admit, would not be everybody’s favourite bedtime reading. However, the wealth of information it held concerning the residents of Athy 84 years ago was fascinating. The population of the town in 1911 was 3,535 persons, living in 691 houses. There were 64 uninhabited houses in the town, and only one dwellinghouse in the course of erection that year. The Census also disclosed that there were 26 one-roomed tenements in the town and in one unfortunate case there were no less than nine persons living in a one-roomed house.

What I found astonishing were the details of the previous Census results for Athy, which showed that in the ten years to 1901 the town’s population fell by 1287 persons to 3599. This represented a bigger decrease in the towns population, than that experienced in the ten years which spanned the period of the Great Famine. I must confess that I am puzzled as to the likely explanation for this relatively high population decrease. Is there by chance an explanation in the establishment of the Urban Council in 1898, and a possible reduction in the urban area compared to the town area over which the Town Commissioners exercised authority? If this was the case then the figures for 1901 and 1891 would not be comparable and might not necessarily indicate a decline in the town’s population.

As I write this article, I cannot possibly say whether this explanation is correct or not. Indeed, I had always assumed that the functional area of the Urban Council was coterminous with that of the earlier Town Commissioners, established in 1847, and with that of the Borough Council incorporated by charters in 1515 and 1613. If the figures in the 1901 Census returns do in fact reflect the loss of 1287 persons for Athy in the previous ten years, wherein lies the explanation? I have never before been alerted to any great population shift in the town at the end of the last century and cannot speculate as to the possible cause. However, more about this again when further research has been done.

John Craven, of Capanafeacle, Ballyadams, in a letter to last week’s paper mentioned J. W. Coote, Tailor, Out-fitters Athy and a purchase made by his mother in 1917 which came with a Coote coat hanger, which he still has. Coote’s had their premises in what their advertisements always referred to as Market Square, Athy. This was, of course, Emily Square. Mr. Coote, who operated what he called a “Fitting Establishment”, wrote to the local newspaper on 5th April 1902, criticising the destruction of the tailoring trade in Athy by the “greedy drapers who supply suits to measure made in London or in Dublin”. His fear, which was in time realised, concerned the possible demise of the master tailoring craft in Athy. Coote’s obviously continued in business until 1917 at least, as evidenced by Mr. Craven’s account of his mothers purchase that same year.

Another Master tailor’s establishment at the turn of the century was that of Thomas G. Lumley of Duke Street, where craftsmen such as Thomas Moran, Mick Egan and Paddy Bracken worked in the tailoring rooms. Returning to John Craven’s query as to where exactly in Market Square or Emily Square was Coote’s Fitting Establishment, I do recall an early Lawrence Photograph of the town showing Coote’s next door to Noud’s Corner Shop, which is now Winkle’s. This would make Anthony’s Auctioneers the present occupiers of Coote’s premises.

The mention of Master tailors prompts another query, concerning James Moses Kelly, a tailor who married Margaret Dunne of Athy, some time around the turn of the century. Whether he worked for one of the local tailoring establishments or worked on his own account, I cannot say. My interest in the man lies in the belief that he was the grandfather or possibly the father of Elizabeth Coxhead, a prolific writer amongst whose works was a book of particular local interest called “The House in the Heart”. If any of the readers know anything about James Moses Kelly or can help me track down a copy of Elizabeth Coxhead’s book, I would very much like to hear from them.