Indulging myself for the second week in succession [some might claim I do so every week] I take a quick look back over the last six months of the second Millennium as seen through the Eye on the Past. In July I wrote of the conflict and turmoil as witnessed in the career of Patrick O’Kelly, United Irishman of Coolroe and of events in Luggacurran during the evictions at the end of the last century. O’Kelly remains an interesting individual for today’s readers, not least because of his role as a Colonel in the United Irishmen during the rising in South Kildare in 1798. He left a personal record of those difficult times in this locality in a book which was published some forty years afterwards. Interest in Kelly extends far beyond his rebellious activities or lack of them depending on how one views his ’98 record. The man once described by the local Parish Priest Fr. John Lalor as “a member of one of the most respectable families in the Parish of St. Michael’s, Athy” lives on in the books he wrote following his return to Ireland after exile in America and later France. Fittingly he is remembered in the local Heritage Centre in Athy.
The Luggacurran Evictions were recalled by me when writing of Rev. John Maher, the one time curate of Luggacurran and the man who spearheaded the Plan of Campaign in the County Laois village. By co-incidence the earlier mentioned Heritage Centre located in the ground floor of the Town Hall occupies a space which was once a dormitory for policeman brought in from outlying areas during the Luggacurran Evictions of 1887 and 1889. Fr. Maher addressed Land League meetings in Athy and he was supported by the people of Athy including the Catholic Clergy of the town. Maher was imprisoned in Kilkenny in May 1889 following a speech delivered by him during a public meeting in Luggacurran. On his release after one months incarceration he found the local’s attitude to the Plan of Campaign had changed and he himself was soon to feel the wrath of disillusioned campaigners. It is remarkable to note how active were the Clergy of the last century in supporting and in some cases leading their congregations in matters which would not now be considered inappropriate for their calling. A parallel could be drawn with the activities of the Free Presbyterian Church Ministers in Northern Ireland today.
During the summer a book of fiction was published by Picador Press with a story which had as it’s background Athy and the countryside of South Kildare. Inevitably it’s author was John MacKenna who has done much to make the South Kildare landscape as familiar to today’s readers as the Wessex of Thomas Hardy. “The Haunted Heart” had a particular interest for me as it’s narrator wrote her story and that of the White Quakers from No. 5 Offaly Street where I had lived for many years. That same house featured in an Eye on the Past I wrote later in the year when I dealt with my father’s involvement in the Garda Siochana. I was pleasantly surprised by the unusually large response I had to that piece, not only from persons who remembered by father but many who did not know him. Clearly it struck a cord with many people, some of whom passed on stories about their brushes with the Law. Indeed once such story concerning my father has reached me from Australia via the Internet.
It’s twenty-one years since my father died and during the past year many whom he knew have also passed on. Brother Joseph Quinn, the last Superior of the Christian Brothers in Athy died in Dublin and his funeral brought together past pupils from Athy, Tuam and elsewhere to remember a gentle giant of a man whose love for Gaelic football endeared him to everyone he came in contact with. Another man whose advice and friendship I valued was Tadgh Brennan. He passed away during the summer and in his passing Athy lost another link with the Social Club players of the 1940’s and the great local football team of 1942. Unfortunately the Eye on the Past which I had penned to reflect my admiration and respect for Tadgh was rather sadly strangulated in the printing by an excessive amount of typographical errors. Such problems I’m sure you’re glad to hear are now in the past as my copy can now reach the Editor’s desk and presumably the printed page exactly as it leaves my computer.
The past summer also witnessed the final stages in the towns remembrance of James McNally who had served the community as Sacristan in St. Michael’s Church for over sixty years from 1897. Some years ago I drew attention to the absence of a gravestone over the last resting place of this fine man who died over thirty years ago. Last August a group of sixty or seventy huddled together under umbrellas as the incessant rain beat down on the hollowed ground of St. Michael’s mediaeval cemetery. I had joined former neighbours of James McNally and members of his extended family as Fr. Tommy Tuohy, formerly of Offaly Street blessed a recently erected gravestone commemorating James. Fr. Tommy like myself served Mass in St. Michael’s Church when James McNally was Sacristan. Strangely the man who received the Papal Medal “Bene Meretti” in 1953 for services to the Catholic Church was not privileged to have any member of the local Clergy at his graveside during the blessing by Fr. Tommy.
A review of the last six months articles would not be possible without reference to the Inner Relief Road controversy which conspired to fill many Eyes in the Past during the year. Following the local elections I noted that the road plans for Athy had obviously determined the outcome of the summer elections. Like many others I was very happy after the election results were announced, particularly as the issue which the locals had before them was in danger of being side lined two weeks previously. Then the Local Government officials who in the past had shown little stomach for public debate on the issue sought to have the Town Development Plan adopted by the outgoing Council. Indeed you may remember that despite the changes brought about in the composition of the Urban Council following the election, those same officials arranged for the outgoing Councillors to meet three days after the election to adopt the Development Plan and of course the plans for the Inner Relief Road. The High Court saw fit to put an end to these shenanigans and I was prompted to note “democracy has prevailed ….. the people of Athy have spoken with a clarity which deserves to be listened to.”
Unfortunately events since have shown how fickle is human nature and how vulnerable is the human condition which relies on honour. Public accountability is one of the by words of the 19900’s but I’m afraid that in Athy we have yet to reap the fruits of the open society which cherishes and nurtures the twin aspirations of transparency and accountability.
Take heart, the New Year may bring a welcome change. Happy New Year to everyone.