Thursday, January 22, 1998

The Gaelicisation of Athy - Success in Glor na nGael Competition

The one time garrison town of Athy has achieved success in the Glor Na nGgael competition for 1997 the results of which have just been announced. The winners of “An Bord Trachtala” prize for the promotion of Irish in Athy joins an illustrious group of past winners.

Reflecting on the town’s success brought home to me its uniqueness especially given the largely un-Irish history of our town. We have become accustomed to hearing of our Anglo-Norman foundation and the subsequent fortification of the town which was located on the “Marches of Kildare”. Indeed the English had a military presence in our town from as early as 1417 right up to 1878. The last regiment stationed in the army barracks in Barrack Street was Prince Charlottes’ 5th Dragoon Guards which itself had an association with Athy going back to 1716. It was that same regiment which last occupied the Army barracks in 1878. It is no wonder then that over time our town became known far and wide as a garrison town.

The Glor Na nGael success has been a long time in the making. While the Black and Tans were still controlling our streets a meeting was called in the local Technical School in Stanhope Place to revive the Gaelic League. Amongst those involved in calling that meeting was Bridget Darby, John Bradley, John Gibbons, Michael Dooley, James Kealy, Tadgh O’Shea, and Misses O’Loughlin, Kealy and Timmons. The meeting elected Michael Dooley of Duke Street as President, Ms. Darby as Treasurer and James Kealy as secretary. Within a short time Irish classes were being held in the town with Jim Tierney of Woodstock Street as the Irish teacher.

This was at a time when a local Justice of the Peace had imposed a fine at the petty sessions in Athy on a teacher in the local technical school who had insisted on signing his name in Irish. The action of the local JP was understandably condemned by the Urban District Council. The local branch of the Gaelic League in its efforts to spread the use of Irish urged the local Council to print its headed notepaper in the Irish language. They also requested that the names of the streets in the town be displayed in Gaelic but all to no avail. No that it was any lack of interest in the native language amongst members of the Council but in all probability a lack of finance dictated their response.

The Athy branch of the Gaelic League continued to hold meetings in the town and for a time used the premises of the Ancient Order of Hibernians in Duke Street for that purpose. It organised a Feis in July 1919 which was scheduled to be held in the Gaelic football pitch on the Dublin Road. The efforts of the Gaelic leaguers did not find favour with some of the local men who had served during the 1914/18 war and who had been de-mobbed at the end of hostilities. Without provocation some of these men went on a drunken rampage on the night of the feis destroying bunting and decoration which had been erected in the town. The premises of Ms. Darby in Leinster Street now Conroy’s shop was especially targeted apparently because of her involvement in the Gaelic League. Bridget Darby was a formidable lady who was later to become a Fianna Fail member of Athy Urban District Council and Kildare County Council and who stood on three occasions as a candidate for Dail Eireann.

The advent of the Civil War appears to have brought the work of the Gaelic League in Athy to an end. It was not again to be revived until the late 1940’s when Kevin Meaney and others came together to reform the Irish language organisation. For how long it continued I cannot yet say but no doubt their efforts played some part in fostering the language amongst local men such as Seamus Glespin and John Birmingham. Both men were later to be better known by their Irish names. Seamus Mac Giolla Easpaig wrote the first full length biography of the 1798 Patriot Thomas Russell which was published in Irish in 1957 as “Tomas Ruiseil”. Sean MacFheoreis otherwise John Birmingham published books of poetry in Irish from 1954 onwards. Both these men lovers of their native language and fine writers in Irish are now dead. Their writings remain on as evidence that the work of the Gaelic League in Athy was not without success.
In 1956 Michael O’Neill a young school boy and a native speaker from Co. Kerry who had arrived in Athy a year or two earlier founded Cara an Irish language organisation for young people. As a member of that organisation I remember how enthusiastically we grappled with the finer elements of Irish as we practised the cupla focla with the girls from St. Mary’s. Ceilis organised to help us find our feet in a cultural pursuit which was distinctly Irish were attended with regularity and a joy without the solemnity normally associated with such events.

Paddy Walsh a gaelic speaker from Ring in Co. Waterford who came to Athy in 1950 was one of several people who in the 1960’s and later came together each week in a further revival of the Gaelic League. Others involved with him were Kevin Meaney, Mick Kelleher, Maisie Candy, Dorothy Mullin and Peader O’Mhurchú. Their efforts in keeping the Irish language alive in Athy helped to obtain sixth place in a Glor na nGael competition for the town in the 1960’s.

The most recent effort to restore interest in the Irish language was initiated by Kathleen Robinson when she was President of the local Chamber of Commerce in 1994. Kathleen who like myself has a great love of the Irish language which is unfortunately not matched by our verbal ability in the native tongue organised the first Seachtain na Gaeilge in Athy. The aim was to encourage local shopkeepers to make use of the Irish language for one week in May during the course of their businesses. Advertising signs in Irish coupled with an effort to speak in Irish was to be the aim of the Chamber of Commerce sponsored Seactain Na Gaeilge over the following few years. Each year a perceptible improvement has been noticed in the use of Irish and in 1997 no less than 70 shopkeepers got involved in the competition. The success of Seachtain na Gaeilge owes much to the efforts of Kathleen Robinson and David Murphy who have both spent much energy in the last three years to secure the success achieved this week.

The settlers town of Athy often referred to as a Garrison town has this week earned the right to be regarded as an Irish town one which is proud of its Irish heritage and language.

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