I visited the British Library’s Newspaper in Colindale, London last summer so that I could see for the first time the few printed copies of two local newspapers which were sold on the streets of Athy in 1849. Many years ago I had inspected microfilm of The Irish Eastern Counties Herald and its competitor The Kildare and Wicklow Chronicle in the National Library in Dublin, but the trip to Colindale in the outer suburbs of London gave me the opportunity to hold two newspapers which were printed and published in Athy just a few months after the Great Famine had passed its peak.
Every copy of these two newspapers bears a stamp showing that the relevant newspaper tax had been paid and each is signed at the bottom of the last page by its editor. In the case of The Irish Eastern Counties Herald this was J. Leech Talbot, whose paper was first issued on Tuesday, the 13th February 1849 and sold for the yearly subscription of £1.1.8. It consisted of four pages with a mixture of local news and advertisements supplemented by what appears to be material culled from the London newspapers of the day. An advertisement under the name of J.B. Pilsworth, Clerk of the Union, Athy, advised that:
“A Meeting of the rate-payers of the electoral division of Narraghmore will be held at Narraghmore Schoolhouse on the 26th day of February 1849 at the hour of twelve o’clock for the purpose of taking into consideration an application for the raising of a rate to assist emigration.”
This is the earliest reference I have found to the orphan emigration scheme subsequently put into place whereby young female inmates of the Athy workhouse were sent to Australia.
Another advertisement inserted by Capt. Chegwin of Ballylinan was for the sale of coal and culm from Modubeagh and Ballylehane collieries, ‘now fully at work’. There were references to Athy’s Literary and Scientific Institute and to the Ballytore Agricultural Society which was holding its twelfth annual ploughing match in James Kavanagh’s field at Crookstown. An advertisement for ‘Athy Drug Hall and General Seed-Ware House, S. Connelly, Proprietor’ was also in the first issue of the newspaper, alongside the following notice of a concert :
“For one night only, extraordinary musical attraction at the Courthouse, Athy, on Wednesday the 14th of February 1849 … Celebrated cantatrice and pianist Madame Castaglione, assisted by Mr. William Macarthy, national Irish ballads. Doors open 7.30. Concert 8pm. Boxes 2 shillings. Stalls 1 shilling. School and children half price.”
The second issue, dated the 20th of February, gave the following account of the concert, which was:
“Numerously attended. The entertainers were received with great eclat and seemed to give much satisfaction to the audience. Madame Castaglione’s voice is a great contralto over which she has considerable power but we think somewhat more feeling might be infused into her style of singing with effect. Mr. Macarthy’s Irish humour added not a little to the night’s amusements.”
An interesting news item was that relating to John Kelly, described as: ‘an industrious and struggling eccentric who eked out a scanty subsistence through the means of his favourite ass drawing mould and turf from the bog’. Apparently, Kelly left his ass in a field on the Friday and returned on the following Sunday to find it dead with its throat cut. He reported the matter to Bert Police Barracks and Constable Brownlow kept watch over the dead ass, late at night witnessing: ‘Jack Gorman, an Athy ragman … who skinned the ass, put the pelt into his bag … flayed the flesh off the bones, making several piles of it …’ before the constable put an end to his nocturnal activities by arresting him.
The Irish Eastern Counties Herald of the 20th of February reported another animal killing: ‘On Saturday night two sheep, the property of Lewis Perrin, Leinster Lodge, were killed, the entrails left behind and the carcasses taken away’. The Great Famine had not then run its final course and the desperation and sense of helplessness engendered by poverty can be readily understood by anyone who has watched television images of famine in today’s world.
The Athy workhouse statistics for the weekend of the 10th of February 1849 which were published in the local newspaper show that there were 1,334 inmates of the workhouse, with 212 persons confined to the workhouse infirmary and a further twelve in the adjoining fever hospital. Seven deaths were recorded that week in the workhouse, while a total of 951 persons were receiving outdoor relief in the Athy Poor Law Union area. Figures published for the week ending the 7th of January 1849 reported thirteen deaths in the workhouse, of which two were persons over sixty years, one was aged forty-six years, and the remaining ten were children aged between two and six years. Dr. Kynsey of the local workhouse was reported as saying that: ‘Most of the deaths occurred amongst those who came in with smallpox, measles, dysentry, etc. caused by their having remained out [of the workhouse] until they were in a state of starvation’. Another report of the 5th of March hints at the desperation of a hungry people: ‘Michael Butler and Pat Nolan were sent forward to the Assizes charged with breaking open a potato pit, the property of William Caulfield, of Levitstown, and taking potatoes.” Evidence was given that the offence was committed on the night of February the 21st and that on February the 26th a workman found some potatoes concealed in a fox cover, which on examination he knew to be the same as those stolen. He lay in wait and arrested Butler and Nolan as they were carrying the potatoes away.
The third issue of the newspaper, dated the 27th of February 1849, referred briefly to the ‘Athy Readings Rooms’, which may also have been known as ‘Athy Newsrooms’. A report of its doings appeared under the latter title in The Kildare and Wicklow Chronicle of the 23rd of February 1849:
“On Monday night last the members of the society had an excellent supper in their rooms in Stanhope Cottage. About thirty gentlemen sat down and evidently with good relish partook of oysters, wild fowl, ham and concomitants. Mark Cross occupied the Chair and A.G. Judge acted as Vice-Chair. The supper things being removed and the ‘sparkling glasses’ introduced, the wit and friendship seemed to reign supreme in the hearts of all present and of course produced the usual happy effects as pleasure beamed from their eyes and humour flowed from their lips. Some comic and other national songs were sung in capital style and the company separated at a late hour, highly delighted with the festivities they enjoyed and determined to uphold the Newsroom and place it on a more permanent and, if possible, better basis than heretofore.”
What a contrast that makes with the reports of deaths in the local workhouse, of animals killed in the fields, with accounts of potato pits raided at night by a hungry and desperate people.
There were only five issues of The Irish Eastern Counties Herald - the first dated the 13th of February 1849 and the last issue appearing on Tuesday, the 13th of March 1849. All were published from the “General Printing Office”, which I now know was located at Market Square, Athy.