Thursday, December 30, 1999

Tommy Keegan

Some time ago I spent an enjoyable evening reminiscing with Tommy Keegan whose family has been in the South Kildare area for generations past. The wealth of historical material gleaned from Tommy filled many pages, the true value of which has only now become apparent as I check his many references against other sources, both written and oral. Tommy’s knowledge of the hidden past of this locality is quite extraordinary, but not surprising, given his interest in local history and the Keegan family connection which goes back centuries.

At least three generations of the Keegans stretching back to Tommy’s Great Grandfather are buried in Fontstown cemetery. This is one of the oldest cemeteries in the area and likely to remain so unless further research confirms the existence of cemeteries on two sites which have come to my notice. The medieval Dominican Priory of Athy which was sited in the area known as the Abbey at the back of Offaly Street had a community graveyard which may have been located at the rear of the two houses on the Carlow side of the Credit Union Office. This is yet to be authenticated but there is some evidence to support the claim that the Dominican Cemetery was in that area. The second as yet unconfirmed medieval cemetery location is the small piece of ground lying between St. John’s Lane and McHugh’s Chemist in Duke Street. However, more about both possibilities at a later date.

A sprightly 76 year old Tommy Keegan was born in Foxhill. His father Daniel was a farmer and carpenter, a craft which has now been passed on to Tommy’s own son Joe. Daniel Keegan’s father was a blacksmith in Blackwood while his Uncle Martin Keegan was the owner of Keegan’s brickyard in Churchtown. Tommy attended the Christian Brothers School in Athy during the superiorship of Brother Dolan and had as classmates Gerry and Dinny Moloney, Tim Dunne, Kevin and John Hyland and Eddie and Charlie Moore. Later apprenticed to his father Daniel he worked in the family sawmills in Foxhill making a variety of items including cartwheels, hay bogeys and trailers. He was a member of the Barrow Vale Athletic Club in the 1940’s, competing, he admits, not too successfully in marathon running. I understand the Chairman of the Club was Alfie Coyle, a butcher employed in Fingletons of Leinster Street. Tommy’s reference to Barrow Vale Athletic Club was the first and only reference I have ever come across of this Club of almost sixty years ago.

One of the old traditions passed down to Tommy was that the famous ballad Lanigan’s Ball was written by Alec Roberts, a signal man on the railways who lived in Leinster Street in the premises now occupied by Sunderlands Hardware Shop. Colm O’Lochlainn in his “Irish Street Ballads” published in 1939 mentions a full music sheet of the song published in the 1870’s where the words were ascribed to “Mr. Gavan, the celebrated Galway poet”. Sean McMahon in his more recently published Poolbeg book of Irish Ballads describes Lanigan’s Ball as an “Athy Ballad dating from the ‘60’s of the last century and taken to have been based on an actual rough evening near the town”. Whatever the right of Alec Roberts to lay claim to the authorship of this famous ballad there seems no argument about his responsibility for composing a song about the Publicans of Athy at the turn of the last century. It ran :-

I’ll describe to you in a verse or two
The Publicans of Athy
We’ll take them one by one
From Mrs. Silke of the Railway Bar
To James Brophy of the Grand Canal

The first we have is Mrs. Silke
Some say she’s nice and
Some say she’s very grand
But it looks so suspicious
The Pump is so close up to her hand

The next we have is poor Paddy Kelly
Whose fortune lies upon a hare
Then we have the two Christian Brothers
Master James and Master John
Who if they had their will
Would send poor Kelly back again.

It continues on in this vein listing the publicans of the town and remarkably not a single public house remains in the ownership of any of the family names mentioned in the ballad.

Tommy Keegan’s connections through his ancestors with some of the historical figures of the past brings to the fore names as diverse as Michael Dwyer, the 1798 Rebel and Dan Donnelly, Ireland’s most famous pugilist. The Bailey Family of Killart, Athy were noted pipers as was Tommy’s Uncle John Keegan who died in or about 1941. An elderly Mrs. Bailey presented Dan Donnelly’s pipes to John Keegan who later passed them on to his friend and fellow piper, the famous Leo Rowsome.

Tommy claims that his Great Grandmother Kate was a sister of Michael Dwyer of Camara in the Glen of Immal, the revolutionary leader of 1798 fame. She married Willie Keegan of Russellstown, a member of a coach building family which lived in the house now occupied by the O’Sullivan family on the Dublin road. The Keegan families in Russellstown, Geraldine, Churchtown and Springhill were all related and the family tradition notes that one member of the extended Keegan family had a distillery and a beer house in the Shambles at Market Square, Athy many generations ago. Talking to Tommy about the history and traditions of our locality was an invigorating trawl through a mixture of genealogical facts and long forgotten folklore, all of which deserved a home secured by pen and ink for future perusal.

Writing of such matters while a flu epidemic rages through the countryside prompts me to ask my readers for help in recording the cures of folk medicine practised in this area in the days before advances in medical science made us all so dependent on antibiotics. The subject came up recently when I shared the celebration of New Years Night with a few friends, nearly all of whom had personal experiences or knowledge of local cures for various ailments. Folk medicine has always played an important part in the lives of Irish people and even today in South Kildare it continues to play a not insignificant part in dealing with certain ailments. I would like to hear from anyone who has any information on the subject of cures and folk medicine in the locality.

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