Thursday, May 8, 2008

A most generous gift to the town of Athy

This week’s Eye on the Past is given over to two persons who, with associations going back many years with the ancient town on the River Barrow, have within the last few days recognised in their different ways the town of Athy and its people.

Honor McCulloch’s grandfather farmed a substantial holding at Sawyerswood at the turn of the 20th century and his son, William Ringwood McCulloch, was 15 years of age when the Gordon Bennett Race took place in Ireland in 1903. Athy was the centre of the figure eight course which brought the international competitors towards the neighbouring towns of Kilcullen, Carlow, Kildare and Portlaoise, with each circuit requiring them to drive through the streets of Athy twice.

The importance of the 1903 Gordon Bennett Race has been highlighted in the audio-visual display in the local Heritage Centre and the 15year-old William McCulloch was never to forget the excitement of that famous race day. His daughter Honor has written, “he was so enthralled with these cars which were still something of a novelty in the early 1900s that cars became a lifelong interest.” That interest was nurtured by a working career which started in Edinburgh when he joined his father’s first cousin, WG Maxwell in the Westfield Autocar Company.

He would eventually succeed Maxwell as chairman of Westfield. In 1934, William McCulloch, while taking part in a shoot at Crawford Priory in Fife, Scotland, noticed a circular saw in a farm building driven by an engine that he recognised once powered an Arrol Johnston motor car.

The owner was Lord Cochrane, who had purchased the Arrol Johnston in 1902 and who had driven it for almost 15 years before it was laid up. The engine had been removed and used to power a circular saw which was quickly spotted by the eagle-eyed car enthusiast from Athy, who by then was based in Edinburgh. Thereafter, the search was on for the rest of the car, which was found dumped in the corner of a nearby field.

After protracted negotiations, Lord Cochrane allowed William McCulloch to restore the car and work on the restoration began in 1935. Three years were to pass before the Arrol Johnston was again ready for the road and it took part in the Empire Exhibition Rally between Glasgow and Edinburgh under the ownership of Lord Cochrane.

The car did not complete the journey on that occasion, in all probability due to the mechanical unpredictability of the Arrol Johnston, which once prompted the Veteran’s Motor magazine to note: “Even in 1899, this contrivance had an air of hippomobile antiquity”. William Ringwood McCulloch was later to purchase the car from Lord Cochrane and he drove it in several Scottish vintage car rallies between 1945 and 1955. His daughter Honor brought the car to England in 1965, where it was fully restored for the second time in its relatively short life before successfully completing the London to Brighton run five years later.

On that occasion, it was driven by Brian Bell, grandson of the late Robert J Bell, auctioneer and prominent member of Carlow Rowing Club.

Honor McCulloch, who lives in England, has in the past donated several items to Athy Heritage Centre. Her past generosity little prepared me for the gift she is now about to make to Athy Heritage Centre. The Arrol Johnston car which her late father so carefully restored over 70 years ago and which was on exhibition in the National Motor Museum in Beaulieu, England, from 1993 to 2000 is now to be donated to Athy Heritage Centre.

I believe there is only one other similar car in this country and how fitting it is for Athy to have such an important motor car to display as part of its Gordon Bennett Race exhibition. The Arrol Johnston, which will be arriving in Athy on the morning of Thursday, 8 May, will be a fitting memorial to the memory of Athy man William Ringwood McCulloch and testimony to the generosity of his daughter Honor. Pending some necessary reconstruction work in the centre, the car will be housed in Maxwell Showrooms until it can be transferred to the Heritage Centre.
William Watts, whose formative years were spent in Athy, invited me to the launch of his memoirs in the Long Room in Trinity College on Tuesday night last. The former provost of Trinity College had a distinguished academic career. An honours graduate in French and German, he also took a first class honours degree in natural sciences and to become professor of botany in 1956.

Elected provost of Trinity for a ten-year term in 1981, he was also president of the Royal Irish Academy, chairman of the Central Admissions Office in Galway and former secretary and later chairman of An Taisce. All of this in addition to his membership of various hospital boards and chairmanship of the Dublin Dental Hospital. Born in Upper Mayor Street, East Wall in Dublin, the youngest of three children, his father William who worked with the Office of Public Works was assigned to the Barrow Drainage Scheme, the headquarters of which was in Athy.

Bill Watts, born in 1931, was brought to Athy within days of his birth by his mother Bessie to join his brother David and sister Bertha. He devotes a chapter in his new book to his memoirs of Athy in the 1930s. He writes: “My memories of Athy centre on our experience of family life and the society of its small Protestant community.

Protestants in a town, about five families of us with children of the same age, played games together. We met to play rounders and cricket in summer and at parties in one another’s house for birthdays and Christmas. We played traditional games at Halloween like snapping at apples on the string and bobbing to get apples out of buckets by biting. We loved hide and seek games about the barns and sheds attached to several of our houses.

At Christmas, there were parish parties and games in the Church of Ireland Hall with dipping into bran tubs and dressings and making up for plays.” Later on he writes of the weekly market, which is still a colourful part of the commercial life of Athy. ”The town had a weekly market in the Square. Farmers’ wives came with pony and trap to sell eggs and farm-made butter. Not many people had cars then and the difficulties of the war years kept cars off the road. Fuel was in short supply and Dad made a small business of buying and felling trees for sale as firewood. I got to use the slasher to chop small branches. Locals brought coal fragments from the small colliery at Castlecomer and mixed them with cement to make ‘colm balls’. They glowed splendidly. Later in the war I became an expert at lighting fires with wet turf, which was all that was available at times.”

The religious diversity found in Irish provincial towns of the time brought with it a hint of bigotry, which Bill Watts recounts in his book.

“We did experience some bigotry, most Protestants kept their heads down, but it was easy to feel that we were not seen as really belonging in the country. I have often noticed that well-to-do middle class Protestants are found to deny that anything unpleasant ever happened, but your position on the social ladder in small rural communities rather determined things. At the bottom, you could have unpleasant experiences.

Coming home from school, a piece of doggerel was often shouted at me. ‘Protestant dog leapt over the hob, ating fish on a Friday’. I am glad that Bishop Walter Empey, about the same age of myself, remembered similar boyhood experiences in County Carlow, so it was not a unique experience. It is important to record the truth, even if unpalatable by today’s standards, but it is also important to record that my other memories of Athy are good and full of the richness of remembered boyhood.”

Athy Town Council a few years ago gave a civic reception to Bill Watts to acknowledge his achievements. It was, I know, a gesture very much appreciated by him and he concludes his memoirs of Athy by referring to his “good memories of the town”.

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