Thursday, May 4, 2000

Athy's Courthouse

The building work currently going on in the Courthouse building in Emily Square turned up an intriguing item during the past month. A small piece of timber found behind an architrave bore the following message written in pencil :-
“This Courthouse will be the property of the Irish Republic very soon or else it will be up in the air again.
Rory of the Hill”

The Courthouse building was last refurbished in or about 1928 by a Contractor named Sheridan under the guidance of Architects Foley and O’Sullivan. The Building, first provided by the Duke of Leinster as a corn exchange for the town of Athy, was subsequently re-adopted for use as a Courthouse and as such was a prime target during the War of Independence. Almost inevitably the building was torched on the night of 15th July, 1921 just a few weeks after James Lacey and William Connors had been killed during what has since become known as the Barrowhouse Ambush.

The Athy members of the IRA had not been very active during the War of Independence. An attack on the Military Barracks and raids on a few private houses for guns were the most noteworthy of their activities. Some of the locals visited at night and “encouraged” to give up their firearms included Cootes Drapers of Leinster Street, the local Station Master O’Neill and Hegartys who lived in an isolated cottage at the rear of Offaly Street. These and other similar nocturnal raids involved Jack Bradley of Woodstock Street, better known as “Gay Leg” Bradley, Mick Dunne originally from Clonaslee in County Laois and Bill Nolan of St. Michael’s Terrace. The last named was an energetic member of the local IRA and is credited, if such is the right term, with torching the Courthouse in July 1921. The local IRA had not sanctioned this action in the same way as they had no involvement in Bill Nolan’s earlier destruction of the Post Office clock in Duke Street.

Clearly Bill was a man of action who did not feel himself in any way restricted by belonging to an organised resistance group. In any event Bill’s latest escapade which culminated in the destruction of the Courthouse was not overlooked by the IRA Group leaders and so Bill was court martialled. John Hayden, a teacher in the local Christian Brothers School who was then living with his brother Paddy in Offaly Street was appointed with Mick Dunne to prepare a report on the Courthouse incident. Following this Bill Nolan was suspended by his IRA superiors, but was subsequently taken back into the fold long before the Courthouse itself was rebuilt. Indeed the building, or what was left of it, remained an eyesore for about seven years, fenced off from the rest of Emily Square until Kildare County Council, suitably reimbursed for it’s loss, engaged Sheridans Building Contractors to restore the building.

It was presumably during that work that the piece of timber mentioned at the start of this article was inserted by one of Sheridan’s workman at the rear of an architrave. Bill Nolan is long dead but the events of almost eighty years ago are recalled with the discovery of the small piece of timber by one of Dan Carbery’s workmen last month.

One of the mysteries from the 1990/1923 period in Athy concerns the identity of two men recalled and remembered for me some years ago by older members of the local community who have since passed on. J.J. O’Byrne, a teacher in the Christian Brothers School, lived in Duke Street in the property now owned by Alan Grothier. Next door was the shop of Michael Dooley where the local IRA men met regularly and in whose yard and haybarn they paraded on occasions. O’Byrne is believed to have been married to a woman from Barrowhouse whose name is unknown to me. The School teacher was arrested on 17th August, 1918 after he had got up on a box outside his front door and read out a notice, the contents of which are unknown but which immediately lead to his arrest and imprisonment in Mountjoy Jail. So far as I can ascertain J.J. O’Byrne never returned to Athy and he remains to this day a man of mystery.

Equally mysterious was a young man named Horgan or O’Horgan, an active member of the local IRA who worked as a Chemist or a Chemist’s assistant in McHugh’s of Duke Street. His name was mentioned by several different sources as an IRA member of the time but no one has yet come up with his Christian name. He is believed to have been from County Kerry where he subsequently returned and I am told he was wounded in a shootout between the IRA and the Black and Tans in that county. Is there anyone out there who can throw any light on either of these two men? If so I would be delighted to hear from you.

Writing of the rebuilding of the Courthouse brings me rather sadly to the recent unexpected death of the local Court Clerk, Frances Behan. When the Court last sat less than two weeks ago in the temporary accommodation at the top of Offaly Street Frances was in her usual place in front of the Judge organising the Court’s business in her customary pleasant and efficient manner. Within two days she was dead, a tragic loss to her family and friends and to the Court Practitioners in Athy and Carlow who had come to appreciate her kind and considerate nature since her appointment nine years ago. Working within the Irish Court system, whether at District Court or at a higher level, is for practitioners, staff and everyone else involved a demanding and at times a stressful job and so it is that practitioners especially, appreciate the understanding and graciousness with which our demands on the District Court and particularly Frances Behan were invariably met. Frances was a considerate and helpful Court Official who will be sadly missed.

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