Thursday, April 25, 2002

500th Edition of Eye on the Past

This week I had intended to complete the story of the Verschoyles of Kilberry, land owners of the last century whose lands extended over the area once occupied by the followers of St. Baire whose name gave us the anglicised placename, Kilberry. So much for my intentions. But you will no doubt forgive me if I instead indulge myself somewhat this week. After all this is the 500th edition of the Eye on the Past and as such worthy of some recognition, even if only by myself!

Eye on the Past No. 1 appeared in the Nationalist and Leinster Times on 25th September 1992, just two weeks before the Kildare Nationalist first arrived on the newsagent stands. The last paragraph of that first article promised that “Eye on the Past will each week deal with a topic of interest from the history of South Kildare where we will delve into the rich vein of local history which remains to be discovered and related in future articles.”

I wonder if I wrote that piece more in hope than in any real expectation that I could unravel the hidden stories of this part of County Kildare. After all, little or nothing had been previously put in print in relation to our local history. The one exception was Michael “Crutch” Malone’s “Annals of Athy”, published in the early 1930’s. Strangely I was to come across some years ago Malone’s manuscript notes for the Annals which had been incorporated into one of the many minute books of the Athy Urban District Council. Sadly those same volumes were water damaged during the time they were stored in the then dilapidated Town Hall in the years before that building was handsomely restored.

Whatever my expectations when I wrote that first article in 1992 I have to say that the intervening years have proved to me that there is an enormous interest in local history. Indeed it’s an interest which is growing apace fed on the burgeoning diet of books and booklets which are published every year on every aspect of Irish local history. To my shame I have not yet completed my oft promised History of Athy and as I write this article the manuscript of the town’s story on which I worked on and off for so many years still lies within the deep recesses of my desk. I must return to it again someday soon, if only to ensure that no-one else will be held responsible for my errors of omission or interpretation.

The public’s response to the Eye on the Past series has always been encouraging and nowhere is that more evident than in the many kindnesses shown to me over the years by those whom I have been privileged to interview. There have been many happy occasions when the interviewees have shared with me stories, some of which unfortunately could not be reproduced in print for one reason or another. There have been sad moments too, occasioned by memories of times past and events of another age. People’s memories of the hard times are not always recalled with nostalgia. There can sometimes be a trace of bitterness and of regret that the opportunities to work in one’s own town or country were not available when young men wanted to live out their lives with their own families. The result was a steady stream of emigration from the town of Athy - the same town which over the centuries had itself welcomed overseas settlers who were to make their home in the Anglo-Norman town on the River Barrow.

The story of Athy is a fascinating one. It’s a story of conquest and settlement, development and decline, but above all a history of a townspeople of different creeds and sometimes of different nationalities who over time found a common ground in their desire to develop and sustain an urban community. Local history for all its diversity can be broken down into the lives of the people who live, work and play in any one place, and Athy affords someone like myself a unique opportunity to delve into and record events and people. I have often wondered at the range of interest evidenced in the lives of the most humble of persons. Their life stories carry within them the nuggets from which local history is fashioned. I have been very fortunate in meeting and listening over the years to many men and women whose experiences of times past have provided an interesting and informative infill to my own generalised background knowledge of life in Athy in the 1940’s and 1950’s. Even more welcome was the opportunity to talk to those whose life experiences went back into earlier decades of the 20th century.

In the ten years I have been penning the Eye on the Past the cultural life of Athy has been enhanced by the opening of a heritage centre in the early 18th century Town Hall. More than anything else that centre was the realisation of a dream which originated in a meeting held in early 1983, attended by the likes of the late Pat Mulhall and the late Bertie Doyle with the then County Manager, Gerry Ward. It was Gerry Ward’s support for the newly established Athy Museum Society and his agreement to re-locate the local museum in a small room in the Town Hall which ultimately lead to the drive to have Athy designated as a heritage town. The Urban Council made the formal submission to An Bord Failte for the much sought heritage status and the funding which would follow. The town’s story stretching back to the 12th century provided an ideal historical framework to support that application. Almost inevitably, Bord Failte approval was received, ultimately resulting in the refurbishing of the ground floor of the Town Hall as a new heritage centre for Athy. We are extremely lucky to have such a fine facility as the Heritage Centre and with the ever increasing interest in local history, there is always an opportunity for local people to contribute in one way or another to the continuing success of the Centre.

I hope those faithful readers who each week read Eye on the Past have enjoyed the first 500 articles. I have certainly enjoyed researching and writing them. My thanks go to the many men and women who over the last ten years or so have given of their time to share their experiences with me and ultimately with the readers of the Kildare Nationalist. One final thank you and its to the lady who ten years ago while a reporter covering the Athy area asked me to write what was a new series for her Eye on Athy page. Barbara Sheridan is now news editor of the newspaper and it’s Barbara you have to blame if my weekly meanderings are not to your liking. By the way, if you would like to read the articles in book form, you can still get Eye on Athy’s Past - Vol. 2 which has articles published in the Kildare Nationalist between June 1995 and April 1997. Volume I is out of print but whatever copies are available can be obtained in the local book shops and in the local Heritage Centre.

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