Thursday, June 28, 2007

The Shopkeepers from the Red Hills

History, in all its manifestations, has held me enthralled for as long as I can remember. Many books on the subject have been bought by me over the years, some of which I must confess have not held my interest beyond a few pages. Other books thankfully have taken me on a journey of discovery, rewarding me in equal measure in terms of knowledge and enjoyment. One such book I came across some weeks ago. It was written and published by a Vincent Cleary and it tells the story of the Cleary family of Kildare. Beginning his account of the farming Cleary’s of Red Hills, Kildare whom he claims “emerged in the 1660’s from the cosmic smoke of Cromwell’s rampage”, the author gives an interesting and at times an amusing description of the various branches of the Cleary family. This is one of the better family histories I have come across.

Vincent Cleary, about whom there is no information available, writes with a deft hand, all the time informing us, yet seldom failing to please with his stylish prose. The general practice of parents in naming children after forbearers prompted Cleary to complain

“while family loyalty is admirable, the parsimony with Christian names when litanies were available is infuriating. The clusters of contemporaneous Daniels, Johns and others, all living within the same few square miles makes the task of identifying them as individuals sometimes impossible.”

Describing his own forbearers, the farmer Cleary’s of Knocknagallagh on the slopes of the Red Hills, he has this to say.

“Many aspects of their life were primitive. Drooping moustaches and bristling beards were the fashion. Shaving was rare and painful. Washing only affected the exposed parts of the body”.

The book is full of such wonderfully succinct passages which capture in a moment the images created by the writer’s admirable penmanship.

The Cleary’s, like many other Irish families of the time, suffered the loss of a family member during the first World War. Eugene Cleary died on the Somme in 1916 and Vincent Cleary writes “80 years passed before any member of his family located and visited Eugene’s grave”. His brother Kevin, a shopkeeper in Monasterevin with whom the Cleary family story in this book ends, “always bought a poppy and laid it gently on the counter out of sight of customers. It was done furtively because rabid nationalism was abroad and to display anything but animosity to everything British was to invite trouble”. It was a similar scene played out so many times in Athy by family members remembering loved ones lost in France or Flanders during the 1914-18 War. The Cleary family suffered a double blow with the loss of Eugene’s brother, Alfred, a seaman who went missing in 1923. He was listed on the “Register of Merchant Seamen Missing or Dead” but his fate remains unknown.

The Cleary story ends with Kevin Cleary, shopkeeper, hackney man and undertaker of Monasterevin who died in 1974. Vincent Cleary’s book is a well written account of almost 300 years of a farming family from Red Hills who became shopkeepers, prompting the book title “The Shopkeepers from the Red Hills”. I would urge anyone interested in family history to buy this book and even if your interests do not extend to that genre of local history, get the book anyway for you will enjoy the writing of Vincent Cleary.

During the week I was contacted by a reader who has in his possession a Sampler, worked by a Margaret Barrett at Levetstown in 1844. He is anxious to find out something about the presumably young lady who produced the embroidered piece of material displaying stitching skills in the years before the Great Famine. The richly decorated Sampler has the following quotation.

“O virgin mother ever meek
In our behalf to Jesus speak
That from our hearts all sin effaced
We may through you be mild and chaste”

The colourful work is completed with the following details.

“Margaret Barrett’s Sampler worked at Levetstown school – 27th January 1844.”

The present owner who has had the Sampler for many years made enquiries at our local Levitstown School without any success. It strikes me that Levetstown, spelled with an “e” rather than an “i”, might indicate a location other than the South Kildare townland. If anyone can help to unravel the mystery of Margaret Barrett I would welcome hearing from them.

Another reader passed onto me this week details relating to merchant seaman Stephen Glespen of Duke Street, Athy who was lost at sea on 15th June 1942. He was 26 years of age and the son of John P. and Agnes Glespen of Duke Street. The Glespen family will be remembered by the older generation but I had not previously known of the loss of a family member during World War II. He was remembered on the Tower Hill Memorial near the Tower of London. Can anyone who remembers Stephen Glespen give me some information on the seaman from Athy who lost his life when the SS Thurso sank in June 1942?

It’s a coincidence that recently I received information concerning two Athy men whose fathers were members of the R.I.C. based in Athy. John Patrick Murphy was born in Barrack Street in 1903. His father John was an R.I.C. constable based in the former military barracks in Barrack Lane and his mother was Mary Ryan. John Patrick attended the De La Salle novitiate in Castletown at 16 years of age and remained a De La Salle brother until his death in England in 1990. I first came across him perhaps 10 or more years ago when the late Tim O’Sullivan who had attended the De La Salle School in Waterford spoke of his teacher Brother Murphy of Athy who was responsible for Gaelic games in the school. During the late 1920’s and early 1930’s Brother Murphy bought school teams to Athy to play football with the local G.A.A. team. I wonder if there are any members of Brother Murphy’s family still living in Athy?

Following an article I wrote on White’s Castle last year I received a letter from Cheshire in England telling me that the writer’s grandfather was born in that early 15th century town house. Again the parent was a member of the R.I.C. whose barracks was located in the Castle up to about 1894. James Clandillon had joined the R.I.C. sometime between 1835 and 1840 and served in Roscrea before transferring to Athy where my correspondence grandfather, John George Clandillon, was born in White’s Castle in 1871.

To have been born in a castle which figured so prominently in the Confederate Wars of the 1640’s and the Rebellion of 1798 is a unique claim. The different stories which go to make up family histories are in themselves unique and give us a rare insight into the lives of those who once graced the streets of “our own place”.

No comments: