Thursday, July 29, 1999

Pitch and Toss School

I haven’t seen a pitch and toss school for many years. How or why the gathering of men and youth pitching and tossing coins was dubbed a school I cannot say. Nothing could be more removed from the organised seats of learning of our young days than the mix an gathering of working men, long term unemployed and just out of school boys who came together on Sunday mornings at various points throughout the town. I last recall such a gathering in the late 1950’ or early 1960’s when the corner of the park joining the I.V.I. Foundry was the meeting place for those skilled, some more than others, in the art of pitch and toss. And it was an art, one developed and nurtured in the days before T.V, to fill the time between morning mass and the pub opening hours. At least that’s when I recall pitch and toss was at it’s height - mid Sunday morning when the pennies and sometimes the odd ten shilling notes were bet on the toss of the coins.

Apart from the park, pitch and toss schools were also to be found in Shrewleen Lane, near to Doyle’s pub and at the ball alley off Barrack Lane. Another school but not as popular because it was too visible to passing traffic, was the corner of Kirwan’s Lane and Mount Hawkins. In the days when the local Gardai spent much of their time ensuring that only bone fide drinkers were imbibing in the local public houses of Athy, they had time to close any Pitch and Toss schools they encountered on their perambulations. I gather however that by in large the local Gardai left the locals to their Sunday morning gambling pleasures, only moving to act if a distraught house wife complained of her man losing his weeks wages at Pitch and Toss. Then the local Sergeant issued instructions to his men to close down the Pitch and Toss schools, making it more important for the locals to have a good lookout as the Pitch and Toss games progressed. For that reason the Pitch and Toss sites were carefully chosen to allow the participants to scatter in at least three different directions should a Gardai make an appearance.

For those brought up in the flickering shadow of computer games the very idea of a Pitch and Toss school might seem some what archaic and simplistic. Indeed it was the epitome of simplicity allowing men to pit themselves against each other in a game which required accuracy and some skill coupled with the heightened uncertainty of the straight forward gamble. Each of the men involved stood eight or nine yards away from the “Mottie” which was invariably a medium sized stone placed on the ground. All took turns in “pitching” a penny coin to the “Mottie” with the object, as in Meggars, of being nearest to the target. Accuracy brought with it the right to toss the coins upon which those in attendance could bet heads or harps. The coins tossed straight up in the air to land on the ground were almost always half pennies referred to in the language of the Pitch and Toss school as “Gilleens”. On the balance of probability coins tossed in this way had a fifty fifty chance of turning up heads or harps, but it was the uncertainty which fed the feverish gambling instincts of the men who watched with mesmeric gaze the coins tossing and turning on the way up and then down finally to rest near their feet.

Everyone felt he had the knack of tossing the “Gilleens” so that they ended up heads or harps as desired but in truth there was no skill on earth which could bestow this gift on anyone. Most men balanced the half pennies on their straightened fore fingers before flicking the lucky coins in the air - everyone had his lucky half pennies always kept as an act of blind faith which rational experience could never hope to dispel.

Some did not leave matters to chance but attempted “sweat” their “Gilleens” a procedure which was extremely difficult to achieve and highly dangerous to ones well being if found out. “Sweating” a coin involved removing the “Head” by some means or other allowing the “head” of another coin to be soldered back in it’s place. The result was a coin which was heavier on one side and which would invariably turn up heads, when used. Others trusted what they referred to as a “Fecker” - a simple small narrow piece of stick on which the “Gilleens” were placed rather than on the fingers before being tossed. Years of use had given the “Feckers” a patina of polished sweat and dirt which ennobled the simple piece of timber and raised it to the ranks of a venerable antique. Did it ever make a bit of difference as to whether the half pennies turned up heads or harps? - not a blind bit of difference but those who used the “Feckers” needed the comfort of the little home made gadgetry as they laid down their bets in six pences or shillings.

The bets were won or lost depending on whether the two coins turned up heads or harps. Another toss was required if the coins at rest showed a head and a harp. Bets were placed on the ground, each bet being covered by someone else and there could be up to twenty or thirty men betting at anyone time on the next toss. The school tended to break up, when the pubs opened or because there was a football match to go to in the afternoon. Then the men would each give a small coin to the “Boxer” - the unemployed man or the youth who’s job it was to pick up the tossed coins or “Gilleens” each time and to hand them on to the next tosser.

So there you have an idea of the Pitch and Toss schools of almost forty years ago, where the “Fecker” the “Boxer” the “Gilleen” the “Mottie” were words in common usage and understood by everyone.

In Eye On the Past No. 66 I wrote of my mass serving days and of James McNally Sacristan of St. Michaels Church for decades up to the 1950’s. I noted that he was buried in the local graveyard in an unmarked grave, and wondered how we had forgotten a man who had made such a life long commitment to the church in Athy. I am delighted to report that his grave is now marked with a fine head stone and arrangements are in hand to have a dedication ceremony at his grave side on Sunday the 22nd August at 3 p.m. If you remember James McNally why not come along and pay your respects.

Thursday, July 22, 1999

Early Medieval Athy

The Development of Athy as a military stronghold at the beginning of the 15th Century followed 200 years of its development as a village settlement. This latter development reflected the failure of the anti Irish laws to force the hostile Irish into submission. The Anglo Norman authorities had looked with disfavour on the ever strengthening links between the Irish and the early settlers and it sought to maintain a division between the two by passing anti Irish laws from a very early date. The Parliament of 1297 convened by Sir John Wogan gave expression to the first Anti Irish decrees of the new Rulers.

“English men who have become degenerate in recent times dress themselves in Irish garments and having their heads half shaven, grow their hair from the back of the head which they call the “culan” confirming themselves to the Irish as well in garb as in countenance whereby it frequently happens that Englishmen reputed as Irishmen are slain, although the killing of Englishmen reputed as Irishmen are slain, although killing of Englishmen and of Irishmen requires different modes of punishment. And by such killing matter of enmity and rancour is generated amongst many. The kindred also, as well of the slayer as of the slain, are often by turns struck down as enemies. And therefore it is agreed and granted that all Englishmen in this land wear, at least in that part of the head which presents itself most to view, the mode and tonsure of Englishmen”.

An interesting account of the disabilities endured by the native Irish is given in a petition of the Irish Chief addressed to Pope John XXII in the latter part of 1317. In the petition the Chiefs complained that the English Courts in Ireland were not available to Irishmen except where the cause of action lay against them, and that the killing of an Irish person, whether lay or religious, by an Englishman was not punishable by the Courts. Even more offensive to the Chiefs was the assertion by the none Irish religious that it was “no more sin to kill an Irishman than a dog or any other brute. And in maintaining this heretical position some monks of theirs affirm boldly that if it should happen to them, as it does often happen, to kill an Irishman, they would not on that account refrain from saying mass, not even for a day”. The Statutes of Kilkenny 1366 were the most outstanding effort by the English rulers to regulate the relations of the Irish and the settlers in Ireland. The Statutes were at once an acknowledgment of the isolation and vulnerability of the strongly fortified Anglo Norman towns and an attempt to regulate their future development untainted by Irish influences. The Anglo Normans were forbidden to marry the Irish, to use Irish laws, or to receive Irishmen into their monasteries. They were enjoined to use English speech and to have English surnames under penalty of attainder. The statutes failed in their purpose because the Anglo Norman towns could not survive without commercial or social intercourse with the native Irish. However, the anti Irish measures did prove detrimental to the growth of the provincial towns. Laws forbidding the sale of corn, salt, iron and victuals to the Irish without a licence served to dampen the enterprise of the early 15th century town merchants while a 1431 Act forbidding them to frequent Irish fairs or markets attempted to cut them off from much needed and readily available sources of supply. While the use of the anti Irish laws fell into disrepute, Athy appears never to have lost its Anglo Norman influence, no doubt due to the oligarchic control of the town which was so typical of Anglo Norman towns of the time. This Anglo Norman influence is reflected in the numerous occasions on which the Irish saw fit to attack its inhabitants. The fact it was an Anglo Irish foundation without any prior Irish influence prompted the Irish to seek its destruction instead of its assimilation into Gaelic Ireland. The isolation of the manorial town of Athy and its proximity to the lands of the O’Mores undoubtedly created a special difficulties for the early Anglo Norman settlers. However their success in maintaining a clear division between themselves and the Irish can be measured by the non gaelic traditions and outlook to be found in the town of Athy long after other similar towns in Ireland had succumbed to Gaelic influences.

Thursday, July 15, 1999

John MacKenna Writer

For many readers in Athy it comes as a profound if pleasant shock to find that we have a writer in our midst. Not the kind of writer most incurable readers at times hope themselves to be, but the real thing - and a successful one at that. Local man John MacKenna has produced a body of work in recent years which is both compelling and readable. His latest novel is to be launched on the 10th of August in the Town Hall and will be a further addition to the chronicle of local life which is slowly being amassed in various forms by him. Strange perhaps to claim such a personal and individual body of writing for a chronicle, but it is indisputably that, because where local histories and records can give us the body of this area’s past, only in imaginative fiction can we perhaps reclaim its invisible, private life - and take measure of its present. And for all the re-invigoration of the town which has taken place over the last ten or fifteen years, it was also a stroke of unsurpassable good fortune that a local writer of talent should attract the attention that John MacKenna has; and of even more good fortune that he should deserve it.

His success in the literary world is evident from his collection of prizes, the backing of a prestigious publisher and numerous translations of his work for the foreign market. However, what will prove to be his most lasting success is of quite another order, and despite the advantages to be gained from a high profile, of immeasurably more importance to the reader.

Though MacKenna’s writing, from “The Fallen” to “Clare”, to “A Year of Our Lives” and “The Last Fine Summer”, most often takes a confessional form, its introspection masks a social awareness with a collection of personal testaments which implicitly reinforces the value of stories and personal narratives which form the small change of social life. Though the historical novel is becoming fashionable once again, (think of the success of Pat Barker’s “Regeneration” trilogy, or stretching the definition a little, Don DeLillo’s “Underworld”) it is John MacKenna’s distinctive blend of the personal and historical, together with an ability to be both blunt and lyrical, that sets him apart. More specifically (and more pertinent to his local readership) this results in the kind of piercing narrative which has a very particular social and historical setting - very often ours - but with that humane centre which qualifies it as universal. And if it horrifies you to think that the whole world can be contained in what he calls the ‘Bermuda Triangle’ of Athy, Carlow and Castledermot, then you should read his work, or read it again, and read it a little closer because the world isn’t getting any bigger than this.

Ezra Pound claimed that “the life of a village is narrative”, a view that John MacKenna echoes in the opening of “The Lost Village”, a semi-historical account of life in Castledermot in 1925.
“The news was spreading, from the Square in all directions, to Dempsey’s
Row, to the few men at Carey’s Corner, to Dalton’s pub and Doyle’s and to the
billiard hall. The relieving officer had been nobbed on his way back to Athy.
His car had been stopped beyond Kilkea and his money taken from him. Was
he hurt? No one was sure. He might even be dead …”

Fortunately, the cause of the delay was a car breakdown rather than a Bonnie & Clyde style misadventure, but the life of a small village hangs on the talk that grows out of pubs and football fields and markets, and this aspect of the public life of a town is admirably captured throughout. Conventional histories do not attempt to recreate - this aspect of social life, hence the value - and the perils - of re-imaginings in works of fiction.

However, the romantic notion of village life touted in the cute talk of shop doorways and football pitches has a necessary counterpoint in MacKenna’s later stories. For example, increasingly, throughout the stories in “The Fallen” communication fails. MacKenna’s fondness for first person narration allows a certain freedom with style and even perhaps, a place for the author to hide (although, travelling incognito, he invevitably trails his peculiar brand of poetry behind him) yet conveys an inevitable sense of solitude. Although two of the stories from “The Fallen” - “The Unclouded Day” and “The Fallen” itself, have been adopted as voiceplays, their roots are closer to lyric poetry than drama. Their narrators are adept at storytelling, and at times declamation, but though narrating voices cross each other, they rarely respond to one another. So, with little opportunity for exchange or resolution, communication is frustrated by the fact that it is undirected. Many of these characters seem to be speaking into nothing. These soliloquies provide a tiny indictment of the loneliness that sprouts in a community where everything is known, but only half-known; and where communication is forestalled by the familiarity that assumes too much and knows too little.

It is this which I take to be John MacKenna’s success as a writer. Despite the evocative sharpness of his language, or even his honesty (strange - or sentimental - as it must seem to attribute this virtue to a writer of fiction) it is his ability to reveal startling personal vistas in such a familiar landscape which is most affecting. And it is enough, simply, for one character to assume that “what you want is my story” .. for it to be true.

The launch of John MacKenna’s novel, which is set in Athy, will take place in the Community Library of our Town Hall on Tuesday 10th August at 8pm. “A Haunted Heart” published in hardback by Picador is the story of a woman in her twilight years telling of her involvement with Joshua Jacob and the White Quakers, sixty years previously. The action in the book is centered in Athy of 1959 with flashbacks to 1895 and the activity of the White Quakers in South Kildare.
As you might expect from MacKenna this is a masterfully crafted tale and one which will add to his growing stature as a writer.

Everyone is invited to come to the book launch on Tuesday 10th August which is being held in the Library with a wine reception kindly sponsored by Lawler’s builders of Athy.

Thursday, July 8, 1999

Patrick O'Kelly

Many years ago at a time when my research into the history of Athy was still at an embryonic stage, I first encountered the name of the writer Patrick O’Kelly. It was in the context of his history of the Rebellion of 1798 published in 1842 that O’Kelly is generally known, if he is known at all to the modern reader. My interest in O’Kelly stemmed from a conversation I had in the early 1960’s with the late Kevin Meany, then the Librarian of Athy’s small Library housed in the Town Hall. Kevin, who like myself, had a great interest in history, especially that of our own locality, drew my attention to O’Kelly’s book on the Rebellion which was then, and still remains, a rare item, seldom, if ever, seen in private libraries. Many years were to pass before I acquired a copy of O’Kelly’s work and the long search for the book proved worthwhile when the small tome revealed much of what we know today about the 1798 Rebellion in Athy.

O’Kelly himself was a man of mystery and over the years knowing that he was from South Kildare I’ve sought out any and every piece of information about him. At the end of his book on the 1798 Rebellion, O’Kelly gave some information on his family background. His father was Sylvester Kelly of Kilcoo, a tenant of the Duke of Leinster, occupying two firms at Kilcoo and Coolroe close to the town of Athy. O’Kelly claimed to have descended from Fergus O’Kelly of Luggacurran Castle which we were told was positioned close to the chapel at Luggacurran. Fergus O’Kelly was murdered by the 11th Earl of Kildare on top of Kilkea Castle sometime prior to 1585 following which Kelly’s lands were taken over by the “Wizard Earl” as the 11th Earl was known.

Patrick O’Kelly states in his book to have been 17 years of age when, in 1798, he led the United Irishmen of South Kildare in an aborted attempt to seize the town of Athy. He was also involved as one of the Irish leaders in agreeing terms between the Irish rebels and Generals Lake and Dundas at Knockallen on Whit Monday 1798. Whatever the nature of O’Kelly’s involvement in the Rebellion, he seemed well-positioned to later write of the activities of the time and his many references to Athy are both informative and important. He recounted how, on the 23rd of May of that year, the Captains appointed to command the United Irishmen of South Kildare, received orders to assemble their men in three units. One of to attack Athy from the Geraldine side, the second to march from Cloney and Kilberry while the third unit was to attack the town from the Laois side. The last group assembled in strength on Silverhill close to Kilcoo armed with pikes and muskets. The subsequent failure of the Colliers to join those assembled on Silverhill prompted the United Irishmen to abandon the attack on Athy.

O’Kelly gave his age as 17 years when he commanded the United Irishmen in 1798 but in his obituary notice in The Freeman’s Journal of the 19th July 1858 his age was given as 82 years. This would mean he was 22 years old in 1798 and possibly even 25 years old if the records of Dublin Catholic Cemetery’s Committee are to be believed where his age is given as 85 years.

Following the suppression of the United Irishmen Rebellion, O’Kelly relates that he returned to Kilcoo where “I remained tranquilly at home with my father”. Patrick O’Kelly was expected to succeed his father following the latter’s death in 1803 but apparently the farm leases were instead given by the Duke of Leinster to Patrick’s brother John. The former Colonel of the United Irishmen now married with 3 young children emigrated to America where he set up a private academy in Baltimore. He spent 20 years in America returning home to Ireland following the death of his brother John. His mother, who was then in her 85th year, wrote to him to return so that the farm leases due to expire in 1825 could be renewed. However, Patrick O’Kelly’s involvement in the 1798 Rebellion was to prove a stumbling block insofar as his hopes of getting the lease of the family farm was concerned. He worked the lands for a short period prior to the expiration of the lease on the 1st May 1825 and on giving up peaceful possession found, to his consternation, that neither the Duke of Leinster or his agent Harry Hamilton, favoured his application for renewal. Hamilton is reputed to have told O’Kelly that he would never get a perch of the Duke’s Estate.

Disillusioned, O’Kelly and his family now emigrated to France where he remained for 7 years working as a Professor of Language in Versailles. While in France, he translated Abbe Mac Geoghegan’s History of Ireland first published in Paris between 1758 and 1762.

O’Kelly returned to Dublin in 1831 and lived for a while at number 20 Greville Street off Mountjoy Square and that same year the first volume of his translation of Mac Geoghegan’s work was published. Volumes 2 and volumes 3 were published in 1831 and 1834. O’Kelly, who was described in the Dublin directory as a Professor of Languages lived for a while in Number 3 Lower Cumberland Street and later still on the North Strand. Further editions of his translation of Abbe Mac Geoghegan’s history were published in Dublin at different dates up to 1868 by which time he had also published his General History of the Rebellion of 1798 and, in 1838 his edition of ‘Historica Descriptio Hiberniae’. Another lesser known work attributed to O’Kelly was the 1834 publication entitled ‘Advice and Guide to Emigrants, Going to the United States of America’.

The parish priest of Athy, Reverend John Lalor, wrote on the 16th September 1841 a testimonial for O’Kelly which he produced in his history of the 1798 rebellion. It read “I have known the bearer Mr. O’Kelly for several years. He is a member of one of the most respectable families in the parish of St. Michael’s in Athy of which I am the pastor. He wishes to return from this country together with his excellent family to France where he lived for some years. I am also happy to state as to his high character as a scholar and a gentleman which he possesses in an eminent degree”. Whether he went to France in 1841 I cannot say but he was certainly living in Dublin in 1844 where he remained until he died at 3 Margaret Place on the 11th July 1858. He was buried at Golden Bridge Cemetery.

The Athy man, who played a very significant part in the 1798 Rebellion in South Kildare and an even more significant part in Irish publishing in the second quarter of the last century is today an almost forgotten footnote in Irish history. I would like to hear from anyone who may have any further information on Patrick O’Kelly or his family formerly of Kilcoo and Coolroe.

Thursday, July 1, 1999

Luggacurran Evictions

The Luggacurran evictions which resulted in over 60 families losing their homes and their small holdings understandably hardened the attitudes of the people of South Kildare. Nowhere was this more evident than at a meeting of Athy Board of Guardians held in the workhouse on the 22nd October 1887. At its October the local relieving officer sought to have admitted to the workhouse a young man named Patrick D.______ and his two brothers. Their parents and three younger children had been admitted to the workhouse at a previous Board of Guardian meeting. It transpired that Patrick D. _____ had worked as an emergency man during the evictions in Luggacurran earlier that year. His father, who worked for a local farmer, lost his job as a result and hence his subsequent admission to the workhouse.

James McLoughlin, a member of the Board of Guardians was reported as saying in response to Patrick D. _______ application to enter the workhouse “let him and his brothers go back to Landsdowne and get their earnings as they did during the evictions”. Another Board member was quoted as saying “let them go to hell” before the Board decided to discharge the entire family from the workhouse. Quite clearly it was not to one’s advantage to be associated with the Landlord’s side on the eviction issue.

With the re-commencement of evictions on the Luggacurran estates in May 1889 local animosity was rekindled. The Kildare Observer reported in its issue of the 29th June 1889 of a police prosecution for boycott and intimidation. William V ¬¬¬¬¬¬_____ gave evidence that he took a farm from which a tenant had been evicted. Since then attempts had been made to boycott him. One day while at the fair of Athy he saw Patrick K. ______ selling gates. He purchased four gates at three shillings each and as he prepared to pay for them a local man rushed up and said to Michael K. - “what are you doing selling gates to a boycott”. The transaction was terminated on the claim that the gates had been bought by another man. Patrick K ______ who was called to the witness box denied the previous witnesses evidence but nevertheless the resident magistrates were satisfied that the prosecution’s case was proved. As it was a first case of its kind to come to their attention, they agreed to deal with the defendant rather more leniently than they might and imposed a one month’s prison sentence. As the same time the magistrates issued a warning that any further similar cases would result in a much heavier sentence.

Even the language used by a local newspaper while reporting matters arising within the Luggacurran area clearly showed on whose side their sympathy lay. For instance on the 1st May 1897, The Leinster Leader headlined a story on an inquest on the body of a newly-born male infant. “A Luggacurran Planters Daughter Charged with Concealment of Birth”. Can anyone imagine a more pejorative term to describe a young girl. Clearly feelings were running high on the evicted tenants side and as a nationalist newspaper The Leinster Leader spoke the feelings and the language of those evicted.

Another report in the Kildare Observer of the 3rd September 1887, outlined how a woman living in Shruleen Lane, Athy, was threatened with boycott because a man who had worked on a Luggacurran evicted farm was seen in her house.

Local hotelier Alicia Kavanagh of the Hibernian Hotel, Leinster Street, Athy was refused a certificate to renew her hotel licence in September 1887 after objections by the local constabulary. The District Inspector Mr. Newell had called on Mrs Kavanagh to supply houses and carts for the constabulary on the 21st March in connection with the Luggacurran evictions. She refused claiming that the horses and carts were pre-booked for guests arriving next day from Castlecomer. Asked to show evidence of the booking, she produced a telegram dated 21st March which read “have dinner for us and beds”. Mr. Newell claimed that he went to the Hibernian Hotel in the company of his head constable Mr. Bodley and not satisfied us to the explanation offered advised Mrs Kavanagh to send the horses and carts to the barracks at nine o’clock the following morning. They did not arrive. The court found against Mrs Kavanagh and refused her hotel certificate. A similar case against Patrick Moore of the Nag’s Head was terminated when Moore withdrew his application for a hotel certificate.

The evictions at Luggacurran had a knock-on effect in Athy as business people for whatever reason felt compelled to show solidarity with those ejected from their lands. This extended even to the Board of Guardians as is apparent from the earlier mentioned report on the application of Patrick D ______ for indoor relief . A similar conclusion can be drawn from a report concerning the application of an old woman who applied for outdoor relief. A native of Ballylinan, she had been evicted by Sir Anthony Weldon of Kilmoroney House. Sir Anthony, who presided at the meeting of the Board of Guardians objected to the granting of outdoor relief to the old woman. However, the member of the Board of Guardians ignored their Chairman’s advice and granted the woman 2/6 a week when it transpired that her son had been told by Weldon’s son to go and work in Luggacurran for £1 a week. The old woman would have nothing to do with the Luggacurran evictions a sentiment obviously approved of by the Board of Guardians hence the award to her of 2/6 a week.

The watching and besetting of people involved in the Luggacurran evictions was a role adopted by members of the National League, a branch which had been founded in Athy. In November, 1887, a controversy arose at a meeting of the Athy branch when Mr. Byrne alleged that James Murphy had supplied meat to the Luggacurran people. The reference here is obviously to the emergency men working on the evicted farms. Murphy denied the charge claiming he was a responsible and honest gentleman and was not to be treated in the same way as those who were boycotted and ostracised.

The effect of the evictions was felt for decades after the last of the tenant farmers were evicted in 1889. In November of the following year, during the Athy pig fair, twenty policemen in plain clothes and about fifteen in uniform, were lined up along the main street of the town. Half a dozen men from Luggacurran, and several farmers from Narraghmore were shadowed throughout the day, one or two constables following each farmer wherever they went. The local press noted, “much indignation was felt at the conduct of the local police authorities and the town commissioners are to have a special meeting to protest against this unwarranted interference in the business affairs of the local people.”

The scars left by the evictions in Ireland during the Land League campaign were slow to heal. Athy and Luggacurran were no different in that regard. I have before me as I write, a letter from the Evicted Tenants and Land Settlement Association dated the 11th October 1922 to a south Kildare man in which reference was made to his lands taken to make room for “a grabber and emergency men”. Today, one hundred and ten years after the last of the Luggacurran evictions, I am keenly conscious of the strength of feelings still aroused in people long removed from the events in which Lord Landsdowne and his agent John Townsend Trench played a major part. Some of the families evicted were later to return to Luggacurran. Many families did not do so and the bitterness felt at the injustice and resultant hardship still lingers to this day.