I was recently invited to join a small group of local historians from the County of Kildare in a Millennium venture initiated by Seamus Cullen of Donadea. It’s purpose was to identify the notable Kildare persons of the last 1000 years, a task which in truth will be extremely difficult to accomplish. If you have been in any of the Dublin book shops recently you could not have failed to notice the plethora of books recently produced dealing with the 20th century in photographs and news reports. The nostalgia factor has been well built into these books clearly designed to strike a cord of recognition in the minds of the readers who want to re-visit scenes of times which had slipped from memory. In a way I suppose the availability of these books serve to open up to the scrutiny of a wider public than is usual, times past which a column like this seeks to do each week. Even if the general readers’ attention span goes no further than the last 100 years that in itself may serve to kindle an interest in a life and a society which has passed on. What better compliment to pay to the books produced for the Millennium than to acknowledge their usefulness in possibly encouraging a reader or two to delve further into the past of their own area or country.
Having been invited to join those brave local historians from North Kildare and the County’s mid-regions I am prompted to turn my mind to the notable personalities of County Kildare over the past 1000 years. The problem with such a quest is one of definition. Does one consider only persons of Kildare birth or should those who spent parts of their lives in the County be included? For myself I feel one should be flexible in setting out the parameters of definition in relation to what constitutes a Kildare person. For instance one man who spent a very short period in the County would in my opinion be regarded for all the wrong reasons as a notable Kildare personage of the past. I refer to Thomas Reynolds, informer and traitor to the United Irishmen of 1798, who during a short sojourn in Kilkea Castle managed to deprive the Republican movement of many of it’s leaders. He was not born in the County. He lived here for less than 1 ½ years, yet the effect of his unscrupulous work was so far reaching as to justify his inclusion in any list of notable persons of the County.
The average person asked to name the most notable Kildare persons of the last 1000 years might be hard pressed to come up with more than three names. Lord Edward Fitzgerald would undoubtedly be on most peoples short list and as he was a former Member of Parliament for Athy we locals must take great satisfaction in his association with our town. St. Laurence O’Toole, another South Kildare man born at Mullaghacreelan, Castledermot would also immediately come to mind, as would Cardinal Cullen, the first Cardinal of the Irish Catholic Church.
The three I have named all have connections and links with South Kildare so perhaps I should confine myself to searching out only those men or women with similar links. Mary Leadbetter, Quaker and author would be included if only for the fact that her writings have survived and kept her name before the public 170 years following her death.
Less well known would be Peter Corcoran, born in Athy who won what was effectively the world heavy-weight boxing championship in 1771 at a time when the competition was confined to Ireland and Great Britain. Corcoran is believed to have fled Ireland after killing a man and his subsequent boxing career in London was dogged with controversy. He is reputed to have “thrown” a fight for betting purposes, thereby losing support and face before the boxing public. Nevertheless he has to be included in any list of County Kildare notables of the last 1000 years.
Another sporting hero from Athy and one whom I have yet to include in an Eye on the Past must be Paddy “Darkie” Prendergast. Regarded as Ireland’s greatest horse trainer in the 1950’s, “Darkie” achieved success in Ireland and in England which marked him apart as a master of his craft. His achievements including the winning of English and Irish Derby’s and St. Legers must justify his addition to the list of notable County Kildare personages.
My own personal favourite for inclusion must be Reverend Thomas Kelly who although a Ballintubbert, Co. Laois man served as a Minister in Athy and elsewhere for many years prior to his death in 1855. He was a noted composer of Church hymns and only recently and after a long search have I succeeded in acquiring a copy of his “Hymns on Various Passages of Scripture”. Some of his hymns are still included in Church hymnals today and for this and for his founding of the Kellyites puts him in the frame for inclusion.
Another local man who like Thomas Kelly is remembered in the Heritage Centre in Athy must also be included in the select band of notable people of the last Millennium. He is of course Ernest Shackleton, Antarctic Explorer, born in Kilkea. Two other local men whose achievements were so different yet worthy of comment were John Vincent Holland and Juan Greene. Holland won the Victoria Cross for Courage during the First World War and for that joined the most exclusive world-wide band of men and women. Juan Greene spent his early adult years as did Holland in Argentina and like him returned to Ireland. Holland returned to enlist in World War I while Greene, in a different era, returned to take up farming on the family estate in Kilkea. One of the most important leaders of Irish farming he founded the Beet Growers Association and was first President of the National Farmers Association. His place in the history of Irish farming is assured.
Another man, is there no woman?, for inclusion in the list of South Kildare notables surely must be Patrick O’Kelly of Coolroe. Leader of the United Irishmen in South Kildare in 1798 he later wrote of his experiences as well as producing a number of other historical tomes. What then of the men of freedom of later generations like Eamon Malone who although born in Cork spent much of his early life in and around Athy. Commandant of the Carlow/Kildare brigade during the War of Independence he was lodged in Mountjoy Jail, went on hunger strike and later died a relatively young man. Unlike Patrick O’Kelly he did not have the opportunity to write of his experiences but nevertheless his inclusion in the list of South Kildare notables is justified.
But where I hear you ask are the female representatives of a people who endured much in the 1000 years which commenced 14 years before Brian Boru went into battle with the Danes at Clontarf? Maybe the answer lies in the oft repeated and somewhat cliched saying :- “Our wives and sweethearts, are, all of them the best in the world”. The poor mothers of 1847 who saw their children die of starvation left no record of their sufferings. To them must go the enduring remembrance of a time and a place when poverty and hunger stalked the Irish countryside. That they suffered so much is a testament to the harshness of our history’s past and the reason why the unknown women of “Black ‘47” must forever be counted amongst the Kildare people of note.
To travel back in time is to visit the heroes and heroines which time has not forgotten. The imprint of ink upon paper preserves a past for future generations but many are the good and noteworthy who have passed on unnoticed. They are soon forgotten, their good deeds lost forever, never to be retraced. History can only touch on the fringes of society at any time and the search for notable Kildare people is less a review of distinction and honour than the cut and paste of a written past.
Nevertheless, who would you include in the list of notable Kildare people of the Millennium?