Thursday, August 23, 2007

Where is the memorial to the People’s Revolution?

Last year, the town council, and in particular its then chairman, Richard Daly, paid a long overdue tribute to the men of this town who died in the First World War. The council commissioned and erected on the facade of the 18th century town hall a plaque commemorating the 219 or so men from Athy and district who never had the opportunity of returning from service overseas to walk again the streets of their home town. They were a part of our history which remained neglected for decades, but an even more serious omission is the complete absence of anything in the town to recall the local men and women who before, during and after the 1798 Rebellion bore the brunt of the oppressive measures taken to quell what was effectively a people’s revolution. The ‘missing’ Memorial is in fact in safe keeping and has been for the last nine years, for it was commissioned and delivered in 1998 in time for its expected erection as part of the Irish nation’s year-long commemoration of the ’98 Rebellion. Regretfully, the Memorial, which was consigned to the town council’s stores, has languished there for so long that I sometimes wonder if it is being held in readiness for the 300th anniversary.

The late Lena Boylan of Celbridge, a wonderful local historian who was always ready and willing to share her extensive knowledge of Irish history, passed on to me some years before she died copies of some letters received by the Duke of Leinster during the Rebellion period. One such letter which I re-read with interest this week was written by Thomas Rawson on 13 June 1799, apparently in response to the duke’s demand that he step down as a burgess of Athy Borough Council. In the opening lines of the letter, Rawson, who up to the previous year lived in Glassealy House but moved to Cardenton after his home was burned by Irish rebels, referred to the duke’s call on him to resign.

There had been many complaints about Rawson’s behaviour during the ’98 Rebellion and the duke’s cousin, Thomas Fitzgerald of Geraldine House was particularly scathing in his criticism of Rawson, whom he once famously described as ‘a man of the lowest order, the offal of a dung hill’. Fitzgerald had particular reason to dislike Rawson. The cavalry troop of which Fitzgerald was captain was disbanded for alleged dis-loyalty, while Rawson headed up the newly-formed Loyalist Infantry Corps, which was less than gentle in its treatment of locals suspected of having arms or pikes. Rawson was also involved in public floggings, of which William Farrell of Carlow gave the following account.

‘The triangles were set up in the public streets of Athy ... there was no ceremony in choosing victims, the first to hand done well enough ... they were stripped naked, tied to the triangle and their flesh cut without mercy.’

The earlier mentioned Thomas Fitzgerald, writing in December 1802, pinpointed Rawson as the ring leader of the floggings in Athy, claiming that the Glassealy man

‘had every person tortured and stripped as his cannibal will directed. He would seat himself in a chair in the centre of a ring formed around the triangle, the miserable victims kneeling under the triangles until they would be spotted over with the blood of the others.’

It is no wonder then that the Duke of Leinster whose own son, Lord Edward Fitzgerald, was one of the ’98 leaders felt obliged to request Rawson to resign as a member of Athy Borough Council. The grounds for the request seemed to relate to Rawson’s involvement in erecting structures on the bridge of Athy without the permission of the duke, who was landlord of the town. However, the expected resignation did not materialise. Instead, Rawson defended himself with a spirited explanation of his actions which any neutral would find more than reasonable given the circumstances of the time. In doing so, Rawson gave an interesting account of some of the measures taken by the local loyalists in preparing to defend themselves against the Irish rebels. He wrote :

'This history of any and every barrier in the town of Athy is simply this and the truth can be proved by thousands. When Campbell commanded this garrison, he caused barriers of hogs heads, sods and earth to be made on the different approaches and on the centre of the bridge - he was ordered to evacuate the town and it was left for a long time to the sole protection of the yeomanry - weak and threatened as the town then was, a large body of rebels having the next night approached within 100 perches of it, I considered it absolutely necessary to put up temporary gates and a pailing at an expense of upwards of 50 pounds out of my own pocket - the town was protected. In November last, Captain Nicholson and a company of the Cork City Militia were sent here, he saw the sod work going to decay, he applied to General Dundas and by the general’s special directions (the inhabitants at large having subscribed a larger sum) strong walls of lime and stone were added to my gates - two large piers and a strong wall and platform were erected on the centre of the bridge under the direction of Captain Nicholson. In the beginning of May last, General Dundas inspected the Athy Infantry. New-made pikes had been recently found in the back house of a rebel captain of the town, several new schemes of insurrection were discovered for which many have since been convicted by court martial - the large house in the Market Square was occupied by a noted rebel from the County of Carlow and it appearing to the general that the barrier on the bridge could be commanded from the house, he was pleased to approve of the building of a second wall to cover the men ... I had temporary walls ran up, merely doubling the former barrier, and recollecting that for four months last summer we had lain on the flag-way on the bridge in the open air with stones for our pillows - I covered the walls with a temporary skid of boards which are not even nailed on.’

Rawson’s account of the bridge fortifications gave an interesting insight into the measures taken by the loyalists during the rebellion and suggest, as I have previously claimed, that the town of Athy consisted of the English town on the east banks of the Barrow and the Irish town on the opposite side.

The bridge fortifications referred to by Rawson could only provide protection from attack by Irish rebels who lived in and around the Irish town and particularly in the area known to many of the older generation as ‘Beggars End’.

Apart from the floggings on the streets of Athy, 1798 witnessed the public execution in June of seven young local men who had been imprisoned for a while in the lock-up in White’s Castle. Six of these young men were from Narraghmore, the seventh a Curragh man.

Another hitherto forgotten local massacre was referred to by Colonel Campbell, who commanded the 9th Dragoon stationed in the Military Barracks in Athy. In a letter he wrote on 2 June 1798, advising of troop movements against a body of rebels in Cloney Bog, Campbell reported:

‘The troops moved in three columns, the right by the east of the bog, the centre by the Monasterevin Road and the left by Ballintub-bert ... the left column passed the lawn at Bert and meeting with enemy on the way drew it and being closely pursued about 100 of them were killed’.

These accounts of what happened in and around Athy, all contemporary with the events they described, are good and sufficient reason for our present generation to commemorate the men of ’98 with a suitable monument in our town. There must be no further shilly-shallying about the matter. The monument created by Brid ni Rinn should be erected in a prominent position in the centre of Athy without any further delay.

If, as expected, the ’98 Monument is erected in Emily Square in front of the town hall, it will provide a fitting companion for the memorial erected last year to our townsmen who died fighting in France, Flanders, Gallipoli and other distance places during the 1914-18 War.

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