Many writers have in the past been kind to Athy its people and the surrounding countryside. It is forty years ago since I came across the first of many books written by authors familiar with the locality. Ann O’Neill Barna the American born wife of John Ranelagh who fought in 1916 had her book “Himself & I” published in 1958. In it she gave a warmly amusing account of life in Kilberry and Athy in the 1950’s. Her descriptions of the different aspects of local country life were funny and remain delightful to read even today. Who can forget her account of an Athy character from the past known only as Mary who once manned the fish and vegetable stall in Emily Square. Here is part of what Ann O’Neill Barna wrote:
“The one elaborate stall which had place of honour in front of the Square was run by Mary from Dublin …. She was a scrawny dark little thing with snapping black eyes, lank black hair and a toothy but engaging smile. She wore a shapeless overcoat and an ancient cloche hat … She controlled everything with a loud sharp voice …. Chanting ‘cahbages and tomahtoes, ahpricocks, ripe bahnanhnas’ ….. ‘Never mind the green dearie it is only the outside. I’ll peel one for you.’ She took up a banana and held it high and with dramatic gestures peeled four strips until it was half done. The banana was unripe and hard as a rock. ‘I’m sorry it is not ripe enough I said feeling very embarrassed at the wretched banana which looked so exposed and at the silent crowd watching all this with bated breath. Mary snorted ‘not ripe sez she’ to the crowd in a voice that carried for miles, ‘not ripe! after me stripping me bahnahna for her”.
O’Neill Barna lived in Kilberry for a few years in the 1950’s as did at an earlier time, poet, playwright and fiction writer Winnifred M. Letts who was married to W.H. F. Verschoyle. Born in England in 1882 Winnifred wrote extensively between 1907 and 1941 producing many works of fiction and some plays which were put on in the Abbey. She wrote of rural Leinster and two of her books of poetry were titled “Songs from Leinster” and “More Songs from Leinster”. In 1933 she published a book of reminiscences titled “Knockmaroon” which was illustrated by Kathleen Verschoyle. A book of wistful charm Knockmaroon deals with her life in Ireland and of Kilberry she wrote “the stones of this place are very deep in history and I feel often as if the past possesses it and will not let it go. Ivy and nettles are so quick to cover up the stones and to make raids upon all that we would make of a garden. We are surrounded by little stumps of castles, one in the farmyard proudly rules the hayrick. Another, Castle Redy, in a field has its legends of buried treasure and of the old La Rede family who once rode about their fields, now given up to grazing beasts. Just by the avenue gate lies the old churchyard and the ivy buried nave of the church of St. Bride who has become “Berry” in these days. Ruins of the Abbey stand close to the house”.
Another female writer who may have lived in the Kilberry area was Dorothy M. Large. Born Dorothy Lumley in 1891 she is believed to have been a daughter of Mr. Lumley a tailor of Duke Street and that she married a Large of Castle Rheban. However, Tullamore where another branch of the Lumley family were living is sometimes stated as her place of birth and I have made certain assumptions regarding her link with the Larges of Rheban on the basis of her writings. In her book of short stories “The Kind Companions” published in 1936 one of her stories was called “The Cloney Road” and the place name “Cloney” is used in more of her stories. Indeed in 1934 she published a small book of poetry titled “The Cloney Carol and Other Verses”. “Talk in the Townlands” a book of short stories published in 1937 had its story centred on “Rathberry Football Club” an obvious reference to Kilberry. Dorothy Large wrote humourous novels and short stories but her sketches of country life however tended to be sentimental and heavily stage Irish.
It is quite an extraordinary coincidence that Kilberry should have been home to the three eminent female writers of the century. The works of Dorothy Large and Winnifred M. Letts were once extremely popular but are now out of print while Ann O’Neill Barna’s only contribution to the literature of the area is also difficult to find these days. However, antiquarian bookshops can still turn up copies of these writers’ works which are guaranteed to give a fascinating glimpse of Irish country life of a couple of generations ago.
If the Kilberry countryside and its people held a special fascination for these writers the same can be said for the contemporary writer John MacKenna whose love affair with Castledermot and South Kildare is well documented. John who had already written a social history of Castledermot of 1925 has managed to keep South Kildare and his native village especially at the very centre of his fiction writing over the last few years. His first book of short stories “The Fallen and Other Stories” published in 1992 won the Irish Times fiction prize the following year. This was followed in 1993 by his first novel “Clare” which dealt with the life of the English rural poet John Clare. Two years later his second book of short stories “A Year of Our Lives” was published by Picador to critical acclaim earning for the author the description of being “one of the most individual prose writers in Ireland”.
On the 23rd January in the Town Hall, Athy his second novel set in Castledermot and the South Kildare countryside will be launched by Mary O’Donnell the writer and poet. Entitled “The Last Fine Summer” the book will excite and delight those who have been observing MacKenna’s sure rise in the Irish literary world. He is an able writer of considerable stature and everyone with an interest in good writing should come along to the Town Hall on the 23rd January at 8 p.m. to show support for a local writer whose work is gaining in importance with each new publication.