The English certainly do things in style. They have always done so, even if as Colonial Masters they beggared many countries in the process. I was reminded of this during the past week, much of which I spent in the English Public Records Office at Kew Gardens, London. There you will find all of the records so carefully prepared and retained by successive administrations stretching back through the centuries and all now readily available to anyone with the time, patience and interest to flesh out the bones of history. Naturally enough I was interested in checking out certain aspects of Athy’s history but my searches took me into hitherto unknown archival material with some surprising results.
The resources which successive Governments have put into the preservation and maintenance of Public Records in England is in mark contrast to our own miserly efforts in that regard. I have often felt ashamed at the niggardly response of successive Irish Governments including the present incumbents to the financial and staffing needs of such important institutions as our very own National Library and Public Records Office. Ireland has a long and honourable history but the resources we make available to these institutions is minimal and probably eclipsed by the amounts spent on special Ministerial Assistants and Advisers as well as on Public Relations’ Spin Doctors.
The Kew Gardens Archives are readily accessible and a readers ticket is to be had with the minimum of fuss or delay. Armed with a little plastic card I was able to access, if I had the time to do so, any of the millions of historical records retained within the English Archives, many of which relate to our own country. Indeed many of them specifically relate to Athy as for example the 1841 plan of Athy Barracks surveyed and prepared by Captain Tucker and Lieutenant Remington on 31st March, 1841. Described as an Army Barracks occupied alternatively by Cavalry and Infantry it had an Officers Quarters separated by stables and Barrack Rooms from the Soldiers Quarters.
Opposite the stables were to be found Bedding Stores, Barrack Master Stores, Guard Room, Cells, the Cooking Room and the Barracks Sergeant Quarters. A further plan prepared following a survey in 1865 under the direction of a Captain Wilkinson was amended in 1883. It showed the same buildings as in 1841 but with the addition of a Coal Yard and a Forage Barn. The previous Bedding Store had been converted into a Hospital to accommodate 514 patients and some additions had been made to both the Officers and the Soldiers Quarters. The Barracks was still lit internally by candles and externally by oil and in 1883 accommodated three Officers, a Staff Sergeant and 27 non-commissioned Officers and Privates with stabling for 34 horses.
With the closure of the Army Barracks the vacant building was used as a local Police Station, the previous Police accommodation in Whites Castle having been condemned in a report prepared in 1889. The Army Barracks was renovated at a cost of almost £500 prior to the transfer of the local Police and on completion of the work it provided accommodation for 7 married Policemen and their families and 4 single Policemen. Athy’s Town Commissioners were upset at the removal of the Constabulary from their previous central location and began a long and ultimately unsuccessful campaign to have them removed back to White’s Castle from the Barracks in Barrack Lane. The Policy Authorities rejected the Town Commissioners request and in this were supported by the Local Police Inspector who claimed that despite the move to Barrack Lane “the peace of the town was well maintained with no inconvenience to the public”.
Returning to my Searches in the English Public Records Office I was intrigued to come across the file for the “Irish Sailor and Soldiers Land Trust Athy Urban District Scheme”. This file related to the building of the Soldiers houses at the Bleach about which I have previously written. Following the article I was roundly abused by a good lady of the area who took exception to my noting a letter from Major Lefroy of Cardenton in which he condemned the houses “as small and inferior”. Apparently Major Lefroy sought to have bigger and better class houses built for the former Soldiers of World War I. The file which I perused showed that the London Office of the Trust was not prepared to proceed with the Athy Housing Scheme unless Lefroy withdrew his comments. In the end the Irish Trustees expunged his comments from their records and the houses were completed in 1926. The houses described as “wet” houses with electric light were also provided with portable “larders” which were hung outside the houses on brackets.
While the building work was proceeding O’Brien Thomas & Co., Ironfounders of London received an Order for Ranges and Mantel registers from D. & J. Carbery, the Contractors. The London firm refused to supply the material unless payment was guaranteed by the Trust and eventually the Order was placed with them by the O.P.W. Apparently the London Ironfounders would not be satisfied as to the connection between the building firm and Brendan Carbery, Building Contractor, Athy who had sometime before made an arrangement with his creditors. This despite the unqualified reference given for D. & J. Carbery by the O.P.W. “as a firm we have no hesitation in recommending.” The Local Soldiers Trustees were also required to check out the matter and advised that the Contracting Firm was controlled by Daniel Carbery, a brother of Brendan Carbery who had no connection with the firm. The eight houses were built for the sum of £4,665 which included the site purchase, legal fees and the Clerk of Works’ Salary.
Another interesting document held in the London Public Records Office is a list of compensation claims lodged by the residents of County Kildare for damage caused to property during the War of Independence. Claims were lodged by private individuals as well as the Postmaster General in respect of damaged wires and poles, the Canal Company and the Great Southern and Western Railway Company. A reference to a fire in the Courthouse in Celbridge in September 1919 when equipment used in Domestic Economy classes was damaged disclosed that the County Kildare Technical Department was at that stage based in Athy. This of course was the predecessor of the County Kildare V.E.C. I propose to deal at length with the War of Independence Compensation Claims in a future Eye on the Past.