As we career towards the end of the second Millennium I will take the opportunity of looking back over the past year as captured in the weekly Eye on the Past. The first week of the new year saw my pen take up, not for the first or last time, the subject which exercised many minds during the year. I refer of course to the controversy concerning the Inner Relief Road. Just twelve months ago I mentioned the Government Report on Local Government in Ireland which emphasised the need for local communities to be fully involved in influencing major decisions by public representatives. Strange to relate that only this week the much criticised Councillors on Athy Urban District Council agreed by a majority vote to disregard the locals’ call for a plebiscite on the issue ….. more about that again!
January 1999 saw the passing of an old IRA man, Jack MacKenna of Castledermot and as we witnessed possibly the last old IRA funeral in these parts I recalled the days of the Graney Ambush. “The volleys fired over the coffined remains of Jack MacKenna echoed across the countryside which had once resonated to the sound of ambush fire during the Irish Civil War. The date was October 24th, 1922 and the fratricidal war which gripped the Irish countryside was to have three more young martyrs before the evening shadows lengthened over the Graney countryside”. I expressed the hope that the older generation like Jack MacKenna whose lot was the hungry ‘30’s and ‘40’s would never be forgotten for the part they played in building the Ireland of today.
A February journey in two parts through St. Michael’s Graveyard was the focus for further forays into local history. The Scottish Presbyterian families who settled in South Kildare from the 1850’s onwards were mentioned for the cultural and religious diversity which they brought with them and with which they enriched this area. The tombstones in St. Michael’s Old Cemetery tell the stories of the different families involved in the migration from Pertshire in Scotland to this country. The second part of the St. Michael’s cemetery article was postponed for a week to facilitate an article on the then man of the moment Patrick Shaffrey, Architect. Shaffrey was and may still be employed by Kildare County Council to sweeten the “bitter pill” of the Inner Relief Road. His first attempts at this exercise early in the year were not so successful but having retreated, regrouped and recharged his batteries and his answers he came across somewhat better in some circles at least towards the end of the year. This was the same man who some years ago wrote a book on Irish towns which included such unforgettable passages as:- “By far the most satisfactory way to resolve traffic problems is to provide for a by-pass”. How about this for another Shaffeyian nugget:- “In the smaller towns the need for a by-pass is equally pressing from the environmental point of view”. No doubt Mr. Shaffrey we shall have reason to revisit again the views you once held with such passion.
The Luggacurran evictions were the subject of an article in March when I asked without success for the present whereabouts of the Athy Land League flag which was last known to have been in the possession of Peter P. Doyle of Woodstock Street in or about 1948. The flag had on once side a portrait of Charles Stewart Parnell and on the reverse the words “United we Stand, Divided we Fall”. Maybe second time around someone, somewhere might throw light on the subject.
A centenary noted in my Articles, even if not otherwise celebrated in Athy, was the setting up of the Urban District Council in 1899. It’s predecessors included a Town Commission which held it’s first meeting on 16th June, 1856. It’s functions were of a most rudimentary nature compared to those of the current Council. It provided lime for whitewashing the homes of the poor, maintained the towns water pumps and weighing scales and paved the footpaths. How different from the Local Authority today which presides over the towns affairs with a wide ranging and comprehensive list of functions all geared to improving the life of the local people.
One of the early overseas visitors to Athy in 1999 was Marguerita Germaine of Florida, formerly an Orford of Foxhill House and later still of 10 Woodstock Street, Athy. Then aged 77 years she travelled to Foxhill House to meet it’s present owners Mr. and Mrs. Gerry Moloney and there recalled her childhood which she did with remarkable clarity. There are no members of the Orford family now living in Athy, yet almost 70 years after her father sold the Foxhill farm Mrs. Germaine recalled with uncanny accuracy the names of people and places of her childhood.
“Who by Fire”, the remarkable new work by John MacKenna which opened to full houses in April was the theatrical highlight of the year in Athy. Just a week before the play opened I had visited Terezin, near the Czech border with Germany, which had been a holding camp for Jews during World War II. My subsequent viewing of “Who by Fire” dealing as it did with the horrors of Auschwitz Concentration Camp evoked in me a response similar to that experienced when I interviewed Zolton Zinn Collis some years ago. I shall never forget his description of how as a young boy he watched his distraught mother resisting a German soldier’s attempt to wrest her dead child from her arms during a stopover on a train journey to Belsen. John MacKenna’s play which he directed himself was a moving and compelling theatrical experience.
It was in mid-April also that I wrote of memoirs privately printed and penned by a daughter of Rev. Thomas Kelly of Ballintubbert which gave me a rare insight into the character of this most remarkable man. Remembered in our local Heritage Centre, Kelly who died in 1855, continues to excite interest in this narrator at least. Another man still very much alive and whom I and many others have had an interest for some time is Mick Carolan, a sporting hero of Gaelic Football in County Kildare. Mick was the subject of an article following his retirement from the Garda Siochana in May. Away from the football field he went on to make a huge impact in his job as a Garda and within the community of Clondalkin where he lived for many years. Sporting success was also noted when Frank Boyce and his team mates on Athy Badminton’s Team brought home the All Ireland Title following their success in Galway in mid-May. At the same time the local St. Michael’s Boxing Club recorded 17 Kildare titles, 9 Leinster title and a plethora of other Boxing titles at provincial and club level. The Club established under the leadership of Dom O’Rourke has had remarkable success over recent years and every year goes from strength to strength.
For the first time in over six years the Eye on the Past did not appear for two weeks leading up to the local elections in June. I knew nothing of it’s absence until on opening the Nationalist found that the space occupied by yours truly was instead playing host to the advertising charms of the local Labour candidates. Clever stroke I said to myself - get your ad. into the best position in the Newspaper while at the same time dislodging the incumbent in case he should give vent to further outbursts on the Inner Relief Road which might prove embarrassing to those whose features now grace the page instead. Perish the thought, such Machiavellian schemes would never penetrate the inner regions of a political mind!
Writing of Machiavellian plots, let me conclude this weeks roundup of the first six months of the year by mentioning last weeks shenanigans in the local Council Chambers. The call for a Plebiscite would seem to have come unstuck [for a while at least] on the strength of a recommendation by an official whose library of Local Government law does not appear to extend beyond 1990. What also are we to make of the other man who changed his mind not once, but twice, and by so doing turned his back on the poor sods who took him at his word and elected him on a Plebiscite platform only five months ago. You live and learn.