Thursday, July 10, 2008
A snapshot of life in Ireland before the famine
Over 30 years ago, I purchased Lewis’s Topographical Dictionary of Ireland, first published in two volumes in 1837. They were in a rather tattered condition but bound in with the second volume was Lewis’s Atlas of the County of Kildare, which had issued as a separate volume in 1839. I subsequently had the volumes re-bound by Kennys of Galway and see that 24 years ago I paid £20 for their craftwork, which restored Lewis’s magnum opus to something of its original state. I was reminded of my earlier purchase when I received last week a copy of the recently published Topographical Dictionary of County Kildare in 1837. Compiled and edited by Mario Corrigan, Niamh McCabe and Michael Kavanagh, the dictionary is published by the Local Studies Department of the County Library Services. It comprises all the entries to be found in Lewis’s two-volume work relating to County Kildare, compiled in a slim paperback which should find a place on every bookcase in the Shortgrass County.The original publisher of the topographical dictionary carried on business in London under the style S Lewis & Co and produced similar dictionaries for England in 1831 and for Wales in 1833. Scotland appears to have escaped his attention but perhaps the 1837 volumes relating to Ireland which were severely criticised on first publication may have tempered his enthusiasm for further publications of this kind. The early 19th century was a fruitful time for publishing topographical dictionaries. John Gorton, assisted by GN Wright, professor of antiquities to the Royal Hibernian Academy, published in three volumes in 1833 a Topographical Dictionary of Great Britain and Ireland. Thirteen years later, the Parliamentary Gazetteer of Ireland was published again in three volumes. It came just four years after John Lawson had published his one volume Gazetteer of Ireland in what the preface to the book described as “a convenient and portable form”. It was not, however, as portable as an earlier and much slimmer gazetteer titled The Hibernian Gazetteer and produced by William Seward in Dublin in 1789. The interest in all of these publications lies in how they treat the various towns and places of interest in Ireland. The 1789 publication gives limited information, confining itself in describing Athy as “a borough, market and post town in County Kildare ... governed by a sovereign, two bailiffs and a recorder and is alternately with Naas the assizes town for that county. “It has fairs on 17 March, 25 April, 9 June, 2 July, 10 October, 11 December. It sends two members to parliament. Patron, the Duke of Leinster.” Gorton’s Topographical Dictionary gives some interesting details regarding the town, claiming that upwards of 270 local children receive education, while also indicating that the “ancient castle has been converted into a prison”. Lawson’s Gazetteer, published three years before the start of the Great Famine, gives even more information on Athy. By then the Grand Canal had been extended to Athy making it “the chief place of traffic between Dublin and Carlow”. It had a “county courthouse, commodious infantry barracks, six annual fairs, several schools, a Roman Catholic free school, a Roman Catholic chapel and some dissenting meeting houses ... population in 1831 4494”. Lewis’s Topographical Dictionary gives more details than the previous publications in relation to the principal town in south Kildare. One interesting extract refers to the several remains of antiquity in the town, one being a gateway of the original Dominican Monastery. “When seen in connection with the plantation intervening between it and the river forms a picturesque and interesting feature in the landscape”. The reference here is presumably to Prestons Gate, which, if correct, would indicate that the houses in Offaly Street and Emily Row had not been built in 1839.It is the Parliamentary Gazetteer published in 1846 which gives the most comprehensive account of Athy and the surrounding townlands. It includes the following interesting entry.“A decided improvement has been made within the last 12 or 15 years in the town’s appearance. New houses have been built, several old ones have been renovated and raised, many inferior ones have been erased and supplanted by new erections and the narrow and bad street has been widened and much improved. The streets are well paved and kept in good order and for a number of years past they have, during the dark nights of winter, been lighted.”Part of the civic improvement of the town obviously resulted from the replacement of the gaol originally housed in White’s Castle by the newly-built gaol on the Carlow Road in 1830. The Gazetteer, referring to the new gaol, noted that it was built on the “semicircular plan and contains 32 cells, 3 solitary cells, 6 day rooms, 2 work rooms, 6 yards, 2 hospital rooms, a Chapel and a kitchen ... the criminals confined on average 26 daily, are employed at weaving, shoe-making, tailoring, picking oakum and stone breaking for the roads”.Referring back to Lewis’s Topographical Dictionary and the recent publication of its County Kildare entries in one volume, it is praiseworthy to note that the editors have prepared an index for the work as well as a glossary of terms found in the dictionary, together with a list of place names showing the various alternative spellings which they sometimes attracted. Altogether it’s an excellent production by those connected with the County Library Services and, as Mario Corrigan in his introduction claims, the dictionary gives a snapshot of life in Ireland before the famine.It can be highly recommended for anybody researching the rich and varied history of any part of County Kildare. The dictionary is published in association with Kildare Town Heritage Centre and sells at €15.99. All profits from the publication will go to the Heritage Centre in Kildare. I have just finished reading a book called The Humours of Planxty by a young man with the unusual name of Leagues O’Toole. It’s a biography of the musical group Planxty, which was formed in 1972 when Christy Moore, Donal Lunny, Andy Irvine and Liam O’Flynn got together. This is O’Toole’s first book and is an insightful look back at the cultural re-awakening with which the members of Planxty and other traditional musicians were involved during what can be described as the post Clancy Brothers period of traditional Irish music. It’s a wonderful read and can be highly recommended for anybody who is interested in Irish traditional music.