Thursday, March 18, 2010

Eye on the Past 737

The name Mansergh has nowadays come to be associated almost exclusively with the man who gave up his position as a civil servant in the Department of Foreign Affairs to become an adviser to Charles Haughey. Martin Mansergh is not only known for his long association with Haughey but also for his pivotal role in the Northern Ireland peace negotiations. Mansergh is a family name with Athy associations going back over several centuries. I am reminded of George Mansergh who it is claimed built Riversdale House on the banks of the River Barrow in a twelve week period. That he chose to do so in 1780 in a field adjacent to George Dakers tannery might indicate that the halcyon days of the tanning industry in Athy were even then coming to an anticipated closure. Why else would Mansergh choose to erect a country mansion alongside such a foul smelling industry unless he was satisfied that Dakers had, or was shortly about to close. In any event even Mansergh's enjoyment of the fine mansion was relatively short lived for in the early years of the 19th century the Dominicans purchased the property. The Black Friars had come to Athy in 1253, or should that be 1257 (I have seen both dates mentioned as the foundation year) and their friary was for the next 300 years to be found in the area now known as “the Abbey” between Offaly Street and the River Barrow.

The friars were dispossessed of their holdings in Athy in 1540 and thereafter they spent periods out of the town because of religious prosecution. They finally made a permanent return to the town in the early 1700's when it is believed they located themselves in what is now Kirwan's Lane. Throughout the 18th century that lane was called Convent Lane and appropriately when the Dominicans moved to their present day location, Tanyard Lane which led to Riversdale House, was re-named Convent Lane.

Brewing and distilling were substantial industries in 18th century Athy and the town at one time had no less than fourteen working stills. In 1768 Dan Mansergh operated a brewery at the rear of St. John's Street (as Duke Street was then called) and it was still listed in a survey of 1831 with another unnamed brewery which was to be found close to where Dakers Tanyard once stood. The Manserghs were apparently business people of some substance and if my memory serves me right Greenhills House was home to a Miss Mansergh before it was donated to the local Parish Priest, Monsignor Quinn in the 1840's who in turn passed it on to the Sisters of Mercy. In time it became the Christian Brothers Monastery and has now reverted back to being a private house.

The references to the Manserghs who once lived in Athy is by way of an introduction to Senator Martin Mansergh who comes to Athy, and more specifically Bert House, on Monday, 18th December to give a talk on the history of the Fianna Fáil party. Forever associated with Eamon de Valera, the Fianna Fáil party was founded in May 1926 after de Valera broke his association with the Sinn Fein party having walked out of the Sinn Fein Ard Fheis two months previously. One of the main sources of members for the new party was the Sinn Fein party itself and the recruiting success of Fianna Fáil in its first year was reflected in a reduction in Sinn Fein Cumanns from 275 to 173 in 1926. De Valera paid his very first visit to Athy in November 1917, accompanied by Arthur Griffith, when both men addressed a public meeting in Emily Square. The “Long Fellow” was presented with an address of welcome by the Board of Guardians and by Athy Urban District Council to mark his visit. Interestingly the local R.I.C. Inspector reported to his superiors that “no clergy or people of note attended” the meeting. Indeed the decision of Athy Urban District Council to give an address of welcome to the most senior officer to survive the 1916 rising was met with some opposition within the local Council.

The Fianna Fáil party quickly gathered momentum and the County Council elections of 1928 witnessed the election of two party members for the Athy electoral area. James Foley and J.J. Bergin were the successful Fianna Fáil candidates. I have no information concerning James Foley but J.J. Bergin of Maybrook was a man very involved in the local community at the time and would later achieve national, indeed international recognition, for his role in the founding of the Ploughing Association. He had stood for the Dáil in June 1922 as a Farmers Union candidate and narrowly missed out getting the fifth seat which went to Robert Barton, one of the signatories of the Anglo Irish Treaty. Bergin got almost 1,500 more votes than Erskine Childers who also stood as a candidate in the Kildare/Wicklow constituency. J.J. Bergin stood again as a Dáil candidate in the General Election of 1927, this time as an Independent Farmers candidate, as did another local man, George Henderson.

The 1934 County Council elections saw Miss Brigid Darby of Leinster Street and Patrick Keane elected as Fianna Fáil councillors for this area, with Darby, who was principal of Churchtown National School, heading the poll. She retained her County Council seat in the 1942 local elections as the only Fianna Fáil Councillor for the Athy area. William Mahon replaced her in the 1945 elections. I believe he was the Chairman of Athy Gaelic Football Club and lived at Prusselstown. William Miley of Fontstown and M.G. Nolan of Duke Street, were Fianna Fáil County Councillors first elected in 1950 and re-elected in 1955 and 1960, with M.G. Nolan continuing as the lone Fianna Fáil representative on Kildare County Council following the 1967 local elections.

So far as I can find out J.J. Bergin and George Henderson were the first Athy men to go forward as candidates in Dáil elections and the first local to be elected to the Dáil was Captain Sydney Minch. He was elected as a Cumann na Gaedheal candidate in 1932 when Fianna Fáil won the General Election and de Valera succeeded W.T. Cosgrave. Minch would retain his Dáil seat until June 1938. He successfully stood for re-election in 1933 and 1937 and on both occasions he defeated, amongst others, another Athy candidate Brigid Darby who again stood for Fianna Fáil. Following Minch's defeat in 1938 another ten years would pass before Athy was again represented by a local candidate in a Dáil election. M.G. Nolan for Fianna Fáil and Michael Cunningham for Fianna Gael contested the 1948 General Election without success and M.G. Nolan returned to the fray in the 1951 General Election, again being defeated. The 1954 General Election saw Paddy Dooley, a local national school teacher contest his first Dáil election which saw the re-election of Bill Norton, Gerry Sweetman and Tom Harris. Three years later Dooley became the second Athy man to enter the Dáil, replacing his colleague Tom Harris as the Fianna Fáil T.D. for Kildare. He retained his seat in 1961 in an election which saw another local, Charles Chambers, stand for Fine Gael. Paddy Dooley lost his Dáil seat in the 1965 General Election which Chambers again contested.

Martin Mansergh, the English educated son of the distinguished Anglo Irish historian Nicholas Mansergh, will no doubt deal with the more recent history of the Fianna Fáil party in his talk on Monday. The setting for the talk is an interesting one The former Burgh mansion was built almost 300 years ago to the design of Thomas Burgh whose other buildings include Trinity College Library, Dr. Steeven's Hospital and Collins Barracks, all to be found in Dublin. Bert House was built for his brother Captain William Burgh, who was Comptroller and Accountant General for Ireland. William Burgh's daughter Elizabeth married Chief Baron Anthony Foster and their son John Foster was the last Speaker of the Irish House of Commons. Another parliamentary connection arose when Ann Burgh married Walter Hussey who was regarded as the finest orator of his day and who represented Athy Borough Council as a Member of Parliament in the Irish House of Commons between 1769 and 1776. The Burgh connection continued until 1909, even though from 1826 Bert House was the home of Lord Downes, which title passed to Ulysses Burgh on the death of his cousin, William Downes, the former Lord Chief Justice of Ireland. On Lord Downes' death in 1863 Bert House passed to his eldest daughter who was married to Lord Seaton. In 1909 the Burgh connection with Bert House ceased with the sale of the property to the Miss Geoghegans.

The present day parliamentarian, Senator Martin Mansergh, will follow in the shadow of John Foster and Walter Hussey when he addresses his audience in the house which those illustrious parliamentarians often visited as members of the extended Burgh family.

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