This week I want to bring together a few notes from my scrap book of local history culled from many sources over the years. These bits and pieces have an interest which merit their inclusion in the Eye on the Past column and I hope you will agree after you have read what follows.
Did you know that an Athy man once held the British Heavyweight Boxing Title. That man was Peter Corcoran born in our home town in 1740. He was the son of a local farm worker and Peter as a teenager also worked on local farms. At twenty years of age he got into trouble when it is believed he was involved in a drunken brawl which resulted in the death of another local man. Peter Corcoran immediately left Athy and travelled to England, first settling in Bermingham where he was employed as a Coal worker. He later moved to the harbour Town of Portsmouth where he worked as a sailor. At the same time he became involved in prize fighting and after some initial success moved to London to further his boxing career. He took up the tenancy of “The Black Horse Inn” in London’s East End while continuing his boxing activities under the management of Colonel Denis Kelly, then a well known racehorse owner and gambler.
At 29 years of age Corcoran secured his first major boxing success when he defeated one of England’s leading boxers, Bill Turner in Hyde Park. He then went on to meet and beat a number of leading contenders including Tom Dalton, Joe Davis and Bob Smiler. As a result Corcoran got a chance to fight for the British title and he took on the British Champion, Bill Davis at Epsom Downs racecourse on the 18th May 1771. Corcoran won easily knocking out his opponent within one minute of the first round thereby becoming the undisputed British Heavyweight Champion.
Peter Corcoran defended his title on several occasions over the next five years but was to lose in controversial circumstances on the 16th October 1776. The Athy born champion and Harry Sellars boxed for the title outside “The Crown Inn” in Middlesex in a contest which lasted for 32 rounds. At the end Corcoran was defeated in a fight which he was expected to win. It is believed that Corcoran who was heavily in debt prior to the fight won substantial amounts of money by betting on his opponent in what was to be the Irishman’s last fight. He passed out of public notice thereafter and it is not known if he ever returned to his home town of Athy.
Did you know that Terence Rattigan, English playwright and author of “The Winslow Boy” was a great grandson of Bartholomew Rattigan who was born in Athy in 1812. Bartholomew married an English lady, Sarah Abbott and joined the East India Company. The Rattigan’s remained in India and it was their son William who returned to England in 1900. William married twice and by his second wife Evelyn Higgins he had three sons, the first of whom Frank Rattigan was the father of the future playwright. Terence Rattigan, born in London in 1911 was one of England’s leading authors with over thirty plays to his name. I have been unable to locate where in Athy his great grandfather Bartholomew Rattigan was born in 1812 or where he lived before he emigrated to India.
The next story also has an East Indian connection and concerns Anthony Toomey a Catholic who married Martha Cross, a Protestant of Rathconnell, County Kildare in or about 1780. Anthony secured a post in India and went overseas while his young wife stayed behind to await the birth of their first child. Shortly after the birth she received notice of the death of her husband in Bombay. Estranged from her family on account of her marrying a Roman Catholic, Martha became housekeeper to a local Athy Merchant by the name of Purcell. Some fifteen years or so later, Purcell who was quite a wealthy man and accustomed to entertaining officers from the local Military Barracks invited to dinner some officers who had recently arrived in Athy with their regiment from India. During the course of after dinner conversation, Mrs. Toomey’s name was mentioned prompting a reference by one of the officers to his old friend based in India General Toomey. Further enquiries elicited the information that the General’s wife and child had died in England soon after he had arrived in India. Mrs. Toomey, housekeeper to the Purcell’s instinctively knew that the General referred to was her husband who like her had received notification of the others death. Matters were eventually put to right and contact renewed between Martha and her husband Anthony who made arrangements to return to Ireland. Sadly he died a short time before embarking for his native country. Mrs. Toomey received the proceeds of her late husband’s substantial estate and was able to live in comfort for the rest of her days. Mrs. Toomey’s grandson, Mark Toomey was a Solicitor whom I believed established a legal practise in Athy.
I wonder if there is any connections between the former Martha Cross of Rathconnell and Walter Cross whom many of my readers will recall was a Master Plumber who once lived in a little house at the bottom of the Barrow Bridge. Walter or Watty as he was better known locally was a Dublin man who came to Athy in 1925 and who moved to number 23 Duke Street fourteen years later. The little house used in later years by Tom McStay as a Butcher’s Shop was Watty Cross’s Sweet Shop and Ice cream Parlour for many years. I received a lovely letter some time ago from Watty’s daughter Beta who now lives in Scarborough, England in which she gave me the words of a song often sung by her father who had served in the Dublin Fusiliers during World War 1. I will finish this week with the opening lines of “The Dublin Boys”.
“We are the Dublin Boys
We are the Dublin Boys
We know our manners
We earn our tanners
We are respected whereever we go
When we’re marching down O’Connell Street
Doors and windows open wide
With our packs on our backs
And Maxwell in the rack
Shouting left, right, left, right
We are the Dublin Boys”.