Thursday, January 24, 2008

Boom town runs risk of losing community spirit

With a population of 8,256 or thereabouts, the highest figure attained in its 800-year history, Athy has extended its boundaries into countryside which not so many years ago was farmed, ploughed and grazed. The once-compact market town - compact despite its medieval linear-type road pattern, which gave us a long, narrow high street extending from one side of the town to its furthest point - has been extended and reshaped almost beyond recognition. Housing estates have gone up, some with names that have no resonance with the ancient place names of South Kildare, making many of us strangers in our own place. I was embarrassingly made aware of this when, just before Christmas, a visitor to the town asked me for directions to a hitherto-unknown housing estate. I did not know where it was, whether east or west of the Barrow, that permanent watermark which once informed our sense of direction in a locality which we had grown to know so well. Not anymore. The Barrow, translated as ‘the dumb water’, meanders (or more correctly, given last week’s floods, rushes) between river banks that no longer have a close connection with every part of the township of Athy. Like ourselves, the river has lost contact with the newly-developed parts of the town and you know, as a community, we are all the poorer for that.

As the influx of new residents brings the town population figure to heights never before reached, many old and not-so-old bearers of family names which graced community life in Athy for decades have passed on. A month ago, Jack Brogan, whose father Bill came to Athy many years ago to work in his uncle’s forge, died at a relatively young age. John, who had retired as a prison officer, was a nephew of Tom Brogan, who is still remembered by the older generation and whose name is frequently referred to when people reminisce of Athy of 50 years ago and more. Brogan’s forge was an important part of the community life of Athy until it disappeared, as did all the other local forges, with the advent of the motor car.

Jack Brogan was a member of the Athy Photographic Society and the 2007 Calendar produced by the society had a very evocative photograph of Offaly Street by him.

MP Kelly of Booleigh House died last week at 88 years of age. His very active involvement in the local golf club saw him fill various officerships of the club which celebrated its centenary last year. MP was club president in 1978 and 1979 and two years later was elected captain of Athy Golf Club.

Another old Athy family to suffer a bereavement within the last week or so was the Bergin family. The late Agnes Bergin was the daughter of Joe Bergin, formerly of Greenhills House, which, as the name indicates, once stood in the middle of farmland that is now given over to the Woodstock Housing Estates. Joe was land steward for the Sisters of Mercy and the lands at Greenhills had passed to the Sisters on the death of their owner in the mid-19th century. Part of the lands were subsequently donated to the Christian Brothers for the building of the Brothers’ monastery and school in 1862. A further land donation provided the site for St Patrick’s Primary School built in the late 1960s, while Athy UDC and Kildare County Council purchased more of the land for the building of the vast housing estates which emerged from 1969 onwards. These estates included 28 houses in Townparks, completed in 1971, a further 32 houses built in the same area the following year, to be followed by 72 houses now known as Castle Park in 1973 and two years later 50 houses in Greenhills built by the National Building Agency.

The Blanchfield family are another old Athy family, one of whose members passed away last week. Réiltín, who was married to the late Cecil Treacy of Fontstown, a marriage blessed with 12 children, was herself the sixth member of the Blanchfield family which totalled 15 in all. Her funeral to Kilmeade Church on Monday night was attended by a huge number of sympathisers. St Ita’s Church, reputed to have been built in the year of the Rebellion of 1798, could not cater for all those attending, but the arrangements put in place by the local church members were extraordinarily good. Traffic was admirably marshalled by the local men and one could not but be highly impressed by the organisational input of the lay members of the Kilmeade Church.

I noticed a plaque to the side of the main door of the church unveiled during the bicentenary of the church in 1998. I wonder, however, how accurate it is to put the building of the church at 1798, a time when Catholic churches were more likely to be burned to the ground as happened in Castledermot and Athy. It would represent an unusual and perhaps a unique contribution to Irish Catholic Church history to find a church built in the South Kildare area in 1798, which at that time was regarded by civil authorities as a hot bed of rebellious activity.

The site for the church was given by the Kenna family of Kilmeade, who were connected by marriage with Paul Cullen, the first Cardinal of the Irish Catholic Church. The Kennas were substantial land owners in the Kilmeade area, holding over 234 acres of land around the time Catholic Emancipation was granted in 1829.

When I was about 13 or 14 years of age, along with a number of school mates including Frank English, Pat Flinter and Brendan Webb, I travelled to Kildare Town in Tosh Doyle’s hackney car for two or maybe three days to sit examinations for a Kildare County Council scholarship. With us on those trips were Teresa Delaney and Réiltín Blanchfield. I was reminded of this by Frank English an hour or so after Réiltín’s remains were removed to St Ita’s Church and recalled with a jolt that both Teresa and Réiltín from that small group are now dead.

Just over two weeks ago, Réiltín called to give me some much appreciated historical background information. It was not her first time to do so, as Réiltín shared with me an interest in the history of the locality and was always willing to share her knowledge in that regard.

I was in Dublin on Thursday morning when I got word of the death of Josh Hendy whose funeral to Ballintubbert took place that same morning. Josh, like Réiltín, had a great interest in the people and places of South Kildare and indeed Josh featured in a previous Eye on the Past (Eye no 706). He was a wonderfully friendly man who throughout his life participated fully in the sporting and social affairs of his locality. He played Gaelic football with Castlemitchell in his younger days and in later years assisted in the development of the Castlemitchell Hall. Josh was a great friend of Eye on Athy and I was indebted to him for the many occasions on which he shared his knowledge and reminiscences of times past in Athy and Castlemitchell. I extend my sympathies to the families of all the above deceased members of our community.

The passing of so many with names familiar to the older generation at a time when the town’s population is increasing at a rate never before witnessed is a sober reminder to us of the everchanging face of our town. Athy will witness even greater physical changes over the next few years with the construction of an outer relief road and the building of town centre shopping malls. The 800-year-old town, which developed around the second-century river crossing, will be hugely reshaped and changed by these new developments. It is hoped that the community spirit which was always a feature of life in the smaller compact town of Athy of yesteryear will continue to be a noticeable part of provincial life in the expanded and still expanding town of the future.

No comments: