Thursday, October 25, 2001

Local Authority Housing in Athy

I had intended this week to write of a young man from our town who was recently ordained to the Priesthood but the time and opportunity to do so has eluded me but I will return to this story in the near future. Instead I will pass onto other mundane matters in the not so recent past. In particular Dr. Kilbride who on the 3rd November 1906 reported to the Urban District Council on the sanitary condition of the “houses of the working classes” in Athy. He was now about to embark on his second social campaign to improve the lot of the people living in Athy. In his report he stated:

The floors in many houses are lower than the laneway in front and the fall of the yard is to the back door, consequently the floors are wet and sodden in rainy weather and frequently are flooded. In the yards are found underground drains choked in most cases and quite ineffective. In less than a dozen cases was there found any sanitary accommodation … in some rooms the only light admitted is through a few (sometimes only one) small pane of glass found in the wall, sufficient light or air cannot find entrance to these rooms … there are many houses in more than one lane that if the poor people had other houses to go to should be closed as unfit for human habitation in their present condition… there is no main sewer in the west end of the town beyond Keating’s Lane… the Order of the Council with regard to the removal of manure heaps is not in force. In some yards there were accumulations for the greater part of the year.

Having started on the Water Supply Scheme for Athy just one month previously, the Urban Councillors probably felt justified in leaving Dr. Kilbride’s report aside without taking any further action. Instead, the Council renewed its efforts to persuade the Inspector General of the R.I.C. to have the local police barracks restored to the centre of the town, as it was felt that the old military barracks at Barrack Lane, to which the R.I.C. were relocated, was too far away. Their efforts were in vain and the local police were to continue to occupy the military barracks until the end of the British rule in Ireland.

Dr. Kilbride’s concern for the public health of the townspeople was supported by Lady Weldon of Kilmoroney who was instrumental in the formation of an Athy Branch of the Women’s Health Association in November 1907. A Tuberculosis Committee was also formed and a series of health lectures organised for the Town Hall. In December 1907, a Tuberculosis Exhibition was held in the same hall at which members of the Tuberculosis Committee were on hand to explain the various exhibits to the general public who were summoned to attend by the local Bellman. On 24th July, 1908, Lady Aberdeen, the Viceroy’s wife, visited the town to formally launch the newly-established Womans National Health Association for Athy. The Leinster Street Band met her at the railway station and paraded to the Town Hall where Lady Aberdeen was presented with an address of welcome.

By 1909 the Urban Council was in a position to address the need for housing in the town and appointed a committee to recommend an appropriate scheme under the Housing of the Working Classes Act. This committee when it met on the 26th February split into two groups to select suitable sites for housing in the east urban and the west urban of Athy. Within a month sites had been selected and the Council agreed to build three different classes of houses to be let at rents ranging from 2/= to 3/6 per week. The selected sites were at Matthew’s Lane (off Leinster Street), Meeting Lane and Woodstock Street. Public advertisements for plans for suitable houses for Athy elicited ten submissions and James F. Reade, already well known in Athy as the architect of the Water Supply Scheme, won the five guineas prize for the best design.

Within twelve months the Councillors were re-thinking the original house plans and decided to build “eleven better class houses” on the Matthew’s Lane site, five, “better class houses” at Woodstock Street and five “labourers houses” at Meeting Lane. A public enquiry was held in the Town Hall on 15th February, 1911 under the auspices of J. F. MacCabe, a Local Government Inspector to consider the Council’s proposed compulsory acquisition of lands for housing in Athy. Following that enquiry, an advertisement was placed in the local newspapers inviting tenders for the construction of twenty one Council houses - ten at Matthew’s Lane, five at Meeting Lane and six at Kelly’s field off Woodstock Street. The successful tender was received from H.A. Hamilton of Thomas St., Waterford, but when it was not acted upon after the lapse of ten months Mr. Hamilton withdrew. The Council re-advertised on 26th June, 1912, but not before Michael Malone, Secretary of Athy’s Town Tenants League had written to the Town Council protesting against “its inactivity in relation to house building”. Within a month Dr. James Kilbride had resigned as medical officer on health grounds.

It would be remiss of me not to bring to your attention the Ernest Shackleton Autumn School which is to take place in the Town Hall, Athy over next weekend. The Shackleton story of Antarctic Exploration between 1901 and 1922 is known to most people and especially those who live in the Kilkea area where he was born 125 years ago. The Shackleton Autumn School is organised by the local Heritage Company to celebrate the achievements of a man who lived his early life within a few miles of Athy. The lecturers for the weekend Seminar are of an extremely high calibre and include Jonathan Shackleton a direct descendent of the Explorer, Dr. Robert Headland of the Scott Polar Research Institute in Cambridge, Frank Nugent who was part of the team which re-enacted in 1997 the heroic voyage of the James Caird and Michael Smith the recent biographer of Tom Crean. I would urge everyone with an interest in the subject to come to all or some of the Lectures over the weekend.

As part of the weekend festivities, there will be a Concert in the Dominican Hall on Saturday, 27th October at 9.00 p.m. Liam O’Flynn and the Pipers Call Band will provide the musical entertainment and tickets can be obtained from the Heritage Centre or at the door on the night. However, early booking is advisable as this is the first Concert to be given by Liam O’Flynn in Athy and promises to be a sell out. Also entertaining those attending the Earnest Shackleton Summer School on Friday night will be Brian Hughes whose CD, “Whistle Stop” which issued some time ago by Gael Linn was a huge success. He is joining forces with Michael Delaney who will be singing some of the old forgotten ballads of Kilkea and South Kildare area which he has collected over the years.

See you there.

Thursday, October 18, 2001

Reburial of Kevin Barry / Frank Flood and Others

I wonder if those who watched the State funerals of the men executed in Mountjoy Jail realised that two Athy families were represented among the pallbearers. Peter Maher was one of the men who carried the remains of his grand-uncle, Kevin Barry, while Danny Flood helped to shoulder the remains of his uncle, Frank Flood.

Kevin Barry, the eighteen year old medical student from Fleet Street in Dublin and with family ties in Tombeagh, Hacketstown, Co. Carlow was the first person since 1916 to be executed by the British under the Martial Law Regulations. Despite worldwide appeals for clemency he was hanged on 1st November, 1920. Frank Flood from Summerhill Parade, Dublin who was also an active member of the Republican Movement was court martialled following his arrest and hanged in Mountjoy Jail on 14th March, 1921. Both Kevin Barry and Frank Flood had attended O’Connell Schools in Dublin and were believed to be friends. At the time of their execution both were university students and so far as I can ascertain they were the only students executed by the British during that period.

The late Todd Andrews in his autobiography, “Dublin Made Me”, published by Mercier Press in 1979 knew both Barry and Flood as students in University College Dublin and recounted how Kevin Barry’s execution after an intense campaign to save his life aroused bitter anti-British feelings throughout the country. He noted somewhat sadly however that “whilst Kevin Barry’s death passed into the Nation’s mythology, Frank Flood’s name is scarcely remembered”.

Both young men were from Dublin and the links forged between them as schoolmates and later as members of the republican movement were strengthened when members of their respective families came to live in Athy some years after their executions.

Kevin Barry was a good friend of Athy’s Bapty Maher, and several letters from Barry to Maher have survived to this day. In one of those letters quoted in Donal O’Donovan’s book, “Kevin Barry and his times”, reference is made to a visit which Barry and his older sister Kathleen attempted to make on Eamon Malone from Barrowhouse while he was a prisoner in Mountjoy Jail. Malone who later married Miss Dooley of Duke Street, Athy was the effective leader of the Irish Republican Army in the Athy and Barrowhouse area. Bapty Maher to whom Kevin Barry wrote that letter was an Athy man whose mother operated an undertaking business in Leinster Street. He was later to marry Kevin Barry’s sister Sheila and their grandson Peter Maher was one of the pallbearers for the removal of Kevin Barry’s remains last Sunday.

Frank Flood was a lieutenant in the Dublin Brigade and a former classmate of Kevin Barrys while both were attending O’Connell’s School in Dublin. Several of his brothers were also involved in the republican movement. Frank Flood was captured at Clonturk Park while attempting to leave the scene of an IRA ambush. He was subsequently court martialled and sentenced to death. The Court Order was carried out at Mountjoy on 14th March, 1921. One of his brothers, Tom Flood, was captured following the burning of the Custom House, Dublin on 25th May, 1921. Fortunately for him he suffered an acute appendicitis on the eve of his trial as a result of which it had to be postponed. A truce was declared some days before the date fixed for his trial and as a result Tom Flood escaped the fate which befell his younger brother Frank just months previously.

Tom Flood was later a Commandant in the Free State Army during the Civil War and played a very prominent part in military actions in the Munster area during the 1922/1923 period. He subsequently married and settled in Athy acquiring licensed premises from Mrs. Eileen Butler in March 1926. In the June 1934 local elections Thomas Flood was elected a member of Athy Urban District Council and was re-elected in 1942 and again in 1950. I have not found his name listed in the Minute Books of the Urban Council following the June 1945 Election but as I have only been able to locate the names of eight Councillors it is quite possible that Tom Flood was also re-elected that year. He died on 9th October 1950.

It was surely a happy coincidence which saw family members of Kevin Barry and Frank Flood living in the same town, long after the two patriots had passed on to their eternal reward.

During the week Kevin Myers wrote in his usual eloquent manner in the Irishman’s Diary in the Irish Times decrying the decision to grant a State Funeral to the ten men hanged in Mountjoy Jail over more than eighty years ago. He saw the ceremony as reviving the “myth of single-sided Nationhood” which failed to recognise the suffering and losses of the opposing side. During the course of the moving ceremony on Sunday last, Cardinal Cathal Daly acknowledged the double-sided nature of war when he prayed for the young British soldiers who were killed during the Irish War of Independence. This was I feel an honest acknowledgment that we Irish do not have a monopoly of suffering resulting from armed conflict and helped in a small way to address the feelings of those who might believe that we think otherwise.

Returning to the paths which brought Barry and Flood together both before and since their deaths, one cannot but be struck by the courage which marked their involvement in the fight against the greatest military power in the world. Britain had come through the first World War having suffered huge casualties but having at the same time revitalised and reshaped its military operations so as to better face future conflicts. Frank Flood and Kevin Barry and their colleagues in the Irish Republican Army showed enormous courage and bravery in opposing the British Army of the time.

Another brave man if in a strictly non military sense who died in 1922 was Kilkea born Ernest Shackleton, the great polar explorer. His exploits in the Antarctic during several expeditions beginning with Scott’s expedition of 1901 and ending with his own death at South Georgia in 1922 marked him out as a man of extraordinary courage. The Heritage Centre in Athy has been fortunate to have on display material and artifacts relating to Shackleton’s exploits and to have acquired even further Shackleton material in recent weeks. The weekend of 26th to 28th October will see the opening of an Ernest Shackleton Autumn School in Athy during the course of which a series of lectures will be given by a number of eminent speakers. Programme details are available in the Heritage Centre and I would strongly urge anyone interested in all aspects of our history to take the opportunity to attend the Autumn School which will be held in the Town Hall.

William Nolan wrote to me recently from England but unfortunately omitted to give his address. As I know he reads my column I would ask if he would contact me again.

Thursday, October 11, 2001

Athy's Military Barracks

Standing at the junction of Woodstock Street and William Street is a simple stone arch. This forlorn structure, close to Tully’s travel agents, is all that remains of the military barracks built in Athy in the 1700’s. The arch does not, however, stand in its original location. It was re-erected by Athy Urban District Council after languishing for many years in the Council’s yard. The barracks formerly stood in the area now occupied by part of the Greenhills estate and gave Woodstock Street its original name Barrack Street. The name was only changed in the late nineteenth century when the Town Commissioners, concerned with the streets association with “Ladies of the night”, who plied their trade near the barracks, re-named the Street Woodstock in an attempt to improve the areas image.

Permanent barracks for troops were established in Ireland, earlier than in Britain, from the late seventeenth century onward. This was a consequence of the instability of the country in the aftermath of the Williamite Wars and a desire by Parliament to provide centres for troops to aid the civil authorities in dealing with disorder particularly of a agrarian nature.

The actual date of the barracks construction in Athy is unknown but the Princess Charlotte of Wales Dragoon Guards are recorded as being stationed there as early as 1716. This regiment of cavalry would serve on a regular basis in Athy for the next 150 years. The earliest surviving description of the barracks is contained in a survey of the barracks of Ireland in 1729 completed by Major-General Honeywood. It noted that a troop of Lieutenant General McCartneys’ Regiment were in occupation of the Athy Barracks. The barracks were run down at the time as the report went on to describe its roof as being “out of repair” while the stables were considered to be “bad”. Otherwise the remaining buildings, which were not described, were in good repair.

A more complete description of the barracks was provided by Carleton Whitelock. He was commissioned by the British Government to complete a survey of its barracks in the south-west of Ireland. Arriving in Athy in the Summer of 1759 he found the barracks were “one of the oldest in the kingdom”. It consisted of three rooms for officers, one for quartermaster, four for privates, and one corporals room. Evidently the room occupied by the corporals had been adapted from a store. The barracks was completed by its square around which were grouped the remaining rooms such as the kitchen, infirmary, straw house and stables. The stables though stoutly constructed, were the oldest part of the building and in need of replacement. Whitelock found that its floors were worn out with its windows and their frames so dilapidated that their replacement was necessary. His recommendation in his report to Parliament was that the stables should be rebuilt while the total works to the barracks, he estimated, would cost £59.4s7¼d.

The barrack was important not only in military but also in economic terms to the town. The stabling of horse guaranteed a constant demand for forage. Though the horses were put out to grass from June to November they were stabled in the barracks for the winter months. The merchants of the town would also have sold provisions to the army including foodstuffs, clothing, leather, candles and all the supplies necessary to maintain man and beast.

Life within the barracks was ordered and regimented and for each horse soldier the care of his horse and the maintenance of his saddlery would have been his primary responsibility. The accommodation for the men was frugal and sometimes little better than that of the horses. The barrack regulations in the mid 18th century laid down that each man should have a minimum space of 450 cubic feet. This compared unfavourably with that of a prison inmate who could expect to have a minimum of 1,000. A map by Alexander Taylor of the military establishments of Ireland in 1790 noted the presence of only 36 soldiers in the barracks. But it was not unusual for the barracks in Athy to hold more than one hundred men at a time which was in excess of its intended capacity. A return for the barrack in 1811 listed its permanent occupants as 4 officers, 60 cavalry troopers and 52 horses while it also housed, temporarily, 86 infantry soldiers. This overcrowding would have resulted in squalid and cramped conditions in the accommodation in the barracks. One officer recalled the conditions in winter.

“The men would block up the ventilation with old sacking and when I had to visit the rooms in the morning the atmosphere was so nauseating that I felt disinclined to touch my breakfast afterwards”.

In the aftermath of the Napoleonic wars many temporary barracks which had sprung up around the country in anticipation of an unrealised invasion were closed. Athy retained its permanent status. It was the home for troops from a multitude of regiments in the 18th and 19th centuries including the 15th Hussars, 4th Royal Irish Dragoon Guards, 1st Royal Guards, 1st Royal Dragoons, Prince Alberts’ Own Hussars and Prince Charlotte of Wales Dragoon Guards. By the middle of the nineteenth century the barracks were not in permanent use. The Curragh became the focus for much of the army during the Summer months. However in winter many of the regiments moved into winter quarters. The 15th Hussars spread themselves in a number of different locations in the winter of 1863 including Kilkenny, Newbridge, Carlow and Athy. Although the barracks were not in constant use they were maintained by a skeleton staff at times. In 1846 the buildings were under the command of the Barrack Master, Major Peter Brown who was assisted by the Barrack Keeper Joseph Caher. The barracks also kept a fire engine which was used to assist the towns authorities at different times. Indeed, it was only when the military withdrew from the barracks that the Town Commissioners established a permanent voluntary fire service in the town in 1881. The last troops to serve in Athy in 1877 were the Princess Charlotte of Wales Dragoon Guards who were back in the barracks they first occupied 150 years previously. By 1889 the barracks had fallen into disuse and the Royal Irish Constabulary which had been based in Whites Castle moved to the barracks. This move was precipitated by a government report which had condemned the accommodation in Whites Castle as insanitary. The sum of £500 was spent on renovating the neglected barracks to house the seven married and four single men who were members of the local constabulary. The RIC occupied the barracks up until 1922 when it was taken over by the local IRA. Thereafter the Athy UDC housed some of its tenants there until it was finally demolished about thirty five years ago.

Thursday, October 4, 2001

Athy Regattas 1856-1861

Sport has always been an important element in the social life of Athy. For most of us, this encapsulated in the annual pilgrimages to Croke Park to follow the fortunes of the Lilywhites in Gaelic Football. However, in the mid Nineteenth Century before the establishment of the G.A.A., the people of the town found distraction in other public spectacles such as rowing and steeple chasing.

On Friday 15th August, 1856, the Athy Regatta, revived after a lapse of some years, took place on the River Barrow with six races. The important race for the Silver Challenge Cup was for 2 oared boats, the property of persons residing at least 1 year within the town boundary, to be rowed and steered by residents. With an entrance fee of 10/= per boat, clearly it was a gentleman’s sport! A press report of the 1858 Regatta noted that “the embarkments presented a thronged and animated appearance”. while the Athy Regatta Ball for 1859 advertised single tickets at 7/6, the patrons to be entertained by a sting band from 9.30 p.m. with Mr. Doyle, professor of Dancing, Baltinglass, as the Master of Ceremonies. As the Leinster Express of 30th July, 1859 with reference to the Ball stated;

“There is not in Ireland an inland town that can boast of more public
spirit than Athy or among whose inhabitants so many friendly
and social reunions are reciprocated”.

The public spirit so apparent in 1859 quickly dissipated when the Stewards of Athy Regatta procrastinated throughout the summer of 1861 with no prospect of the Regatta taking place that year. Much annoyed by this were local oarsmen Daniel Cobbe and Francis Dillon who had won the Silver Challenge Cup renamed the Corporation Challenge Cup the previous year.

Popular feeling apparently ran in favour of Cobbe and Dillon as evidenced by a ballad sheet printed and circulated in Athy during November and December 1861 titled “Athy Regatta Rhymes.” One such ballad ran :-

Oh! Remember, remember,
The Nineteenth of November
Frustrates a contemptible “do”;
I do not see why
The ONE sport of Athy
Should be stopped by the “whims or mean
schemes of A FEW.

The two local oarsmen inserted an advertisement in the Leinster Express on 9th November 1861 in which they announced the holding of the Athy Regatta on Tuesday 19th November “two challenges having been sent to the Secretary and the Committee not wishing to act in the manner we the present holders of the cups hereby appoint the above day. The cups have to be won 3 times successively and if successful we will claim this as our second year”. The intrepid oarsman duly won the race. Faced with the same official reluctance in 1862 Cobbe and Dillon acted as before. Challenged on this occasion by Delaney and Keefe, victory went yet again to Cobbe and Dillon in what was to be the last of the once popular Athy Regattas.

On 7 May, 1857, steeplechase racing was revived in Athy after a lapse of many years. Four races were held on the Bray course which attracted a total entry of 19 horses, a matter of some satisfaction to the Stewards, Thomas Fitzgerald, J.P., Thomas H. Pope J.P. Anthony Weldon, Hugh Maguire, Joseph Butler and A. Kavanagh, Race Treasurer. The local Newspaper Report catches the excitement of that day.

“Such a sensation was never yet seen in the quiet and unexcitable district of Athy and its vicinity as the dawning of this eventful day created.
………. the roads leading to the race course were speedily thronged with a motley crew of thimble riggers, card setters, trick a loop men, followed by the no less accomplished creed of roulette and shooting gallery proprietors, musicians and all those who imbued with a mercantile and enterprising spirit sought the most eligible position for their forthcoming avocations ……. the proceedings and amusements of the day came off satisfactorily ………. the racing was throughout contested with the greatest spirit.”

Even the local horse racing was not long in resurrecting its critics. On 27 March, 1858, a local correspondent with the name de Plume “short grass” drew critical comparison between the races of 1843 and the previous years’ races implying the reason in his comment “but always in those days the right men were in the right place.” In 1858 the races were held once again during which “disturbances occurred s with subsequent action taken against one of the stewards, he was fined.” The races were not held in 1859. In 1860 Thomas Fitzgerald J.P. was instrumental in reviving the races which were held on Friday evening, 20 April over the Bray course. About 1,000 people attended the meeting and enjoyed the main race for the Athy Cup over a three mile course. The 1862 meeting was run over “a small but well laid out course about 10 minutes walk from the town” but despite Fitzgeralds best efforts, Athy’s tenous claim to racing fame had slipped away.