Thursday, May 6, 1999

May Day in Athy and Athy's link with Aran Islands

On May Day long regarded in history and folklore as the first day of summer I travelled to the West of Ireland. It was a gloriously warm day and I fell to thinking of past May Days in Offaly Street when it was a street of young families. It was the day when Paddy Doody ably assisted by his numerous brothers and sisters put up a May bush on the pole at the entrance to Janeville Lane just off Offaly Street. Paddy was observing an old Irish tradition in which the summer was welcomed in a simple yet symbolic way with the hanging of an whitethorn bush decorated by ribbons and egg shells. The May bush with its colourful appendages hung at the top of Janeville Lane throughout the first day of the month to disappear just as mysteriously as it appeared as night descended.

My thoughts of Paddy Doody and the street happenings of over 40 years ago were prompted by the flowers and small furze bushes I saw carefully laid on the doorsteps of houses as I passed through Ballinasloe. Here again was a centuries old Irish tradition which required the man of the house bring a twig of furze or sometimes hawthorn into the house on May Day to welcome in the summer. In some areas the furze was placed over the front door or hung in the roof rafter but last week in Ballinasloe the furze and sometimes little bunches of colourful flowers were placed on the doorstep. Those who follow the old tradition believe that the custom brings good luck and I have no doubt but the simple belief brings with it contentment and a fair measure of luck for everyone involved.

The purpose of my journey to Galway was to visit a part of the county I have never before set foot on and the omission was corrected when I alighted from the boat onto the pier of Inishmore, the larger of the Aran Islands. My first encounter with the Aran Islanders saw me eyeing up a line of touring vans drawn up on the pier each with its driver sitting behind the steering wheel with his head and shoulders leaning out of the side window. The uniform pose of perhaps fourteen or fifteen drivers neatly lined up one after the other each canvassing for the day trippers custom reminded me of a carefully choreographed line-up from a song and dance film of the 1950’s.

The only true way to see the island on a day the sun was reaching out to warm bone and stone alike was by bicycle or so I was told. Despite not having sat on one for some considerable time I nevertheless pushed caution aside and set out to discover Inishmore on two wheels. It was a very pleasant experience well worth the disproportionate effort needed to propel my bulking frame up and down the hills which made up the roadway system on the island.

As always I had to ferret out an Athy connection and for a long while I thought I would do no better than a County Kildare connection which I found when I stopped off at a cottage built in 1932 Robert O’Flaherty’s film “The Man of Aran”. It is now a restaurant and guest house with a fine herb garden overlooking the sea which is carefully tended by its owner Ballymore Eustace born Joe Mulvey. The Athy connection made itself known later on in the day after I had visited the famous site of Dun Aonghus. The final half mile to the prehistoric fort is travelled on foot. As I solely wound my way up the incline between the stone wall I could see ahead of me my final destination. It was above me at the end of a winding twisting stone enclosed walkway and what I saw put me in mind of the Great Wall of China as one views it from one of its awesome parapets.

Dun Aonghus is an extensive cliff top fort perched at the edge of sheer sea-cliffs on the south-west side of Inishmore. Roughly D-shaped it is enclosed by two semi-circular dry stone ramparts of massive proportions. The featureless interior of the fort is the most visited site on the Aran Islands and while there I was in the company of Americans and an extraordinary large number of oriental visitors from China and Japan.

As for the Athy connection with the Aran Islands, same was revealed on reading of Queen Elizabeth’s grant of the Island in 1587 to an Englishman on condition that he kept foot soldiers garrisoned there. The garrison was to remain for another 350 years but the original grantee was in time replaced by the Digby family of County Kildare who were absentee landlords for the Aran Islands up to the last century.

The Digby family were descendants of Sir Robert Digby originally from Coleshill, Warwickshire, who came to Ireland as a young man. He was knighted in Dublin in 1596 and soon after the accession of James I to the English throne was called to the Privy Council of Ireland. He married Lettice, daughter and heiress of Gerald, Lord Offaly the eldest son of the 11th Earl of Kildare. Lord Offaly died before his father the 11th Earl and William the 13th Earl was lost at sea in 1599. Lettice was the senior living female representative of her grandfather. She laid claim to the Barony of Offaly and other estates belonging to the Fitzgeralds and her husband Sir Robert Digby claimed the Manors of Athy and Woodstock which his mother in law Lady Offaly had been granted on marriage. During the early part of the 17th century there was much litigation between the Fitzgeralds and the Digbys concerning the manors of Athy and Woodstock which James I finally resolved. He created Lady Digby as Baroness of Offaly for her lifetime thereby allowing Sir Robert Digby to retain possession of the Athy and Woodstock manors.

In 1613 Sir Robert Digby was Member of Parliament for Athy and he is credited with obtaining the new charter for the town of Athy granted by King James in that year. Under the charter which replaced an earlier charter granted to the town by King Henry VIII, Athy was established as a borough governed by an annually elected town sovereign with the right to send members of parliament to the House of Commons. Athy remained a borough until 1840. Sir Robert Digby died in 1618 and soon after we find references to Walter Weldon as a tenant of the manor of Woodstock.

This then was a man whose descendants in centuries following were the landlords of the Aran Islands.

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