Thursday, September 9, 1999

Rogues and Heroes of Athy's Past

I had to do some preparatory work recently for a talk on rogues and heroes from Athy’s past and never one to pass up the opportunity of using material a second time I gladly pass on to you some of my selections. When one comes to cull from local history those names which might fit into either hero or rogue category, then the shortcomings of the written record become all too apparent. History is written by those who have a vested interest in the subject - either they are the winners who want to reassure their place in history, or else if losers, want to redeem a lost reputation. Either way the history student is left wondering how to assess the truth or value of the written record, especially so when required to designate it’s participants as either rogues or heroes.

In some respects the task is made easier by the passage of time. No one would doubt the right of Ernest Shackleton, Antarctic Explorer, to be regarded as a hero. A native of Kilkea, near Athy, he spent his adult life in England, but is nevertheless properly and rightly claimed as one of our own. On the other hand his brother Frank who spent more time than Ernest in Ireland might possibly fall into the rogue category for his exploits which Sir Arthur Vicars claimed resulted in the theft of the Irish crown jewels. Frank was the principal suspect for the theft and to this day the jewels have never been recovered. Perhaps they lie buries somewhere in South Kildare in an area known only to Frank who died without passing on his secret.

The unchallenged rogue must be Thomas Reynolds, the 1798 informer and former resident of Kilkea Castle. A distant cousin of Lord Edward Fitzgerald he took a lease of the Fitzgerald Castle at Kilkea just in time to be appointed colonel of the United Irishmen in County Kildare. This of course gave him access to information concerning the organisation in the County which due to the efforts of Lord Edward Fitzgerald had developed quietly and quickly in the period prior to 1798. Reynold’s son, in his father’s two volume biography published after his death, sought to deflect blame from his father for the arrest of the Leinster Directory of the United Irishmen in Oliver Bond’s house in March 1798 but to no avail. There was and still is sufficient evidence to convince even the hardened sceptics that Reynolds who spent some time in Whites Castle gaol following his arrest in May 1798 was a notorious informer who breached confidence with those who trusted him. As a result of his treachery the people of Athy suffered enormously at the hands of government troops and militia alike and particularly at the instigation of my second nominee for the status of rogue Thomas Rawson of Glassealy House.

If one accepts the views expressed by Thomas Fitzgerald of Geraldine House and William Farrell of Carlow, perhaps rogue is too mild a term to apply to Rawson. Fitzgerald after the 1798 rebellion during which he was suspected of complicity with the United Irishmen wrote a scathing letter to Dublin Castle in which he referred to Rawson as “a man of the lowest order, the offal of a dunghill, had every person tortured and stripped, as his cannibal will directed. He would seat himself on a chair at the centre of a ring formed around the triangles, the miserable victims kneeling under the triangles until they would be spotted over with the blood of the others”.

Many attempts were made on Rawson’s life but he escaped any form of personal injury. However, his house at Glassealy was burnt by rebels who were subsequently captured and hanged from a tree in Glassealy near the scene of their crime. In favour of Rawson there must be put his undoubted ability as an agriculturist and as a writer for he it was who wrote the “Statistical Survey of County Kildare” published by the Royal Dublin Society in 1807. His activities during 1798 mark him out as a cruel individual and for that reason he must be placed in my gallery of local rogues.

Heroes are generally more plentiful than rogues and the list of local heroes inevitably includes those who were involved in the many uprisings and rebellions which were so much a part of our past history. Into that category I put Patrick O’Kelly, the young man who lead the United Irishmen in South Kildare, even if his and their efforts came to nothing in the end. I wrote of O’Kelly quite recently in an Eye on the Past, paying particular emphasis on his efforts at publishing books on Irish history. His right to be regarded as a hero stems solely from his exploits as the youthful leader of the United Irishmen in Athy and District before and during the 1798 Rising.

Another man with military involvement was Eamon Malone from Barrowhouse, the one time Commandant of the Carlow/Kildare Brigade IRA during the War of Independence. He is remembered in the name Malone Court, the last housing scheme built by Athy Urban District Council at the top of Woodstock Street. Malone who married Kathleen Dooley of Duke Street was imprisoned for his involvement as was his brother-in-law Joe May of Woodstock Street. These two men and the other Athy men who endured imprisonment for their beliefs are rightly entitled to be included in the gallery of local heroes.

The War of Independence also threw up the only female heroic representatives in Hester May and Kathleen Moloney. Both were Members of Cumann na mBan, while Hester May was Secretary to Piaras Breaslai and later General J.J. O’Connell. She played an active part in Irish national affairs when it was dangerous to do so, serving as Secretary to men who were on the run during the War of Independence. Hester was sister of the earlier mentioned Kathleen Dooley and both were daughters of Michael Dooley remembered in the name Michael Dooley’s Terrace, a scheme of houses built in the early 1930’s.

The Luggacurran evictions of 1887 to 1889 are a useful field of exploration for inclusion in the rogue’s gallery. Strangely my views of that traumatic time might not necessary find favour with everyone. For instance I would feel compelled to include Fr. John Maher CC, Luggacurran, Denis Kilbride and John W. Dunne as possible candidates for the non-hero roles. I desist from calling them rogues as it would seem particularly unfair to call them such, so non-heroes might be more appropriate. Fr. Maher, exercising strong clerical influence over the poor tenant farmers of the area, apparently badgered and provoked the local families into joining the Plan of Campaign. Rent reductions had been offered by the Landsdowne Estate but Fr. Maher, whose brother also a clergyman in the Kildare and Leighlin Dioceses had successfully extended the Plan of Campaign in his Parish, sought to emulate his sibling’s success. He wanted the same rent reductions extended to the Laois tenants as Landsdowne had given to his Kerry tenants. There were huge discrepancies in the quality of land in both Counties and Landsdowne felt, perhaps reasonably, that a smaller reduction for his Laois tenants was only justifiable. Fr. Maher thought otherwise and aided and abetted by Kilbride and Dunne who themselves held vast tracts of land from Landsdowne which they sub-let, embarked on the Plan of Campaign. It resulted in misery and hardship for many families in Luggacurran which in hindsight could have been so easily adverted. Lord Landsdowne and his land agent Trench who decided to evict the tenants from the Luggacurran Estates must join the rogues gallery.

On the other hand siding with the heroes must stand Vincent Cullinane, Vocational Teacher and founder of Athy Farmer’s Club which later evolved into Macra na Feirme. Cullinane first mooted the idea of a Farmers Club in the early 1940’s, following classes which he organised for young farmers. Later with Paddy Kehoe and others he worked to establish Macra na Feirme and it was in Athy that the National Organisation had it’s first headquarters. Sadly Stephen Cullinane died a young man, but not before he had laid the ground work for the organisation which he had helped to found.

No matter where one looks in today’s society there will be worthy representatives of what you and I might term heroes or rogues. Some will merit their claim to fame or infamy but few will be remembered after they have passed on. In that respect history can be kind to many in the veil of obscurity which it draws over events and people of the past.

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