Monday, March 29, 2010

Eye on the Past 903

A few ‘Eyes’ ago (No. 896 to be exact) I wrote of the newly published Dictionary of Irish Biography and drew attention to some of those included in the multi volume publication who had links with the town of Athy. I propose today to delve a bit more into the nine volumes of this indispensible reference work to tell the stories behind some of those who once walked the streets of our town.

Thomas Grattan Colley, previously featured in this column and in the Irish Biographical Dictionary he receives extensive coverage as befitting a man who was a diplomat and a noted writer. Colley, who was born in Dublin in 1781, came to live in Athy with his parents and other family members when the Grattan Colley family home was destroyed during the Rebellion of 1798. They were part of the great influx of Loyalists, who fearful for their safety, descended on the garrison town of Loyalist Athy in the immediate aftermath of the outbreak of rebellion. He was educated, we are told, by a clergyman in Athy whom I imagine was Reverend Nicholas Ashe, a local Presbyterian minister. Ashe was also Sovereign of Athy during the early part of 1798 and as such presided over the local Borough Council. To his credit he did what he could to keep the local Loyalist militia from harassing the Roman Catholic population. His efforts, as evidenced in his letters to the Duke of Leinster, left him ostracised by the militant Protestants led by Thomas Rawson of Glassealy, particularly so when he refused to sign a memorial from what was described as ‘The Loyal Protestant Corporation of Athy’, calling on the Dublin Castle authorities to authorise the establishment of an infantry militia in the town which Ashe felt ‘would exclude our Catholic neighbours’.

Grattan Colley studied for a career in law but gave it up to enlist in the Louth militia. His military career was not successful and having married and settled in France he took to writing for a living and for a time acted as a correspondent for the London Times. He was later appointed as the British Counsel to Boston and played an important role in settling the border dispute between America and Canada. After returning to London Grattan Colley according to ‘The Longman Companion to Victorian Literature’ spent many years ‘churning out volumes of commentary on Anglo American affairs and a number of inferior volumes.’ His best known works included ‘Legends of the Rhine’ and his book of reminiscences ‘Beaten Paths and Those who Trod Them’. He died in London in 1864.

Nearer to our time was Dr. Juan Nassau Greene, a farmer and medical doctor who was born in 1918 in Argentina. His parents were natives of Kilkea, his father John being the third generation of the Greene’s to live in Kilkea House. The family returned to Ireland when Juan was a child and the future president of the N.F.A. attended school at Kilkea before going on to St. Columba’s College and later Trinity College. After graduating as a medical doctor in 1941 he enlisted in the R.A.F. and served for the duration of the Second World War in Britain, Burma and India. After the war he worked in St. Patrick Duns Hospital, but retired in 1948 to concentrate on farming.

The Dictionary of Irish Biography gives to Juan Greene the honour of being president of the first Macra na Feirme club in Athy in 1944. However it was, I believe, his father John Nassau Greene who held that position but Dr. Juan did become the inaugural president of the National Farmers Association in 1955.

Soon after his return to south Kildare in 1948 Dr. Juan became active in the Beet Growers Association and that Association in conjunction with Macra na Feirme held a number of meetings which eventually led to the setting up of the National Farmers Association. It was Dr. Juan Greene who at a meeting in the Four Provinces Ballroom Dublin on 6th January 1955 formally proposed the setting up of the N.F.A. He was to be the association’s first president, a position he held from 1955 to 1962.

The Biographical Dictionary states that ‘the subsequent flourishing of the N.F.A. and its successor, the Irish Farmers Association, as powerful representative organisations, owed much to Greene’s idealism, energy and organising sagacity through the formative years. Modest and unassuming he pursued a low key self effacing leadership style, preferring quiet behind-the-scenes negotiation to public posturing and earned wide respect for reasonableness and integrity. His position being full time and unpaid and involving considerable personal expense and extensive travel throughout the country he worked tirelessly to the ultimate detriment of his health.’ Dr. Juan Nassau Greene died in the Richmond Hospital Dublin on 9th November 1979 and was buried in Kilkea cemetery. His premature death deprived this country and especially the Irish farming community of one of the most influential men of his generation.

Another local man, but one I must confess I had not previously known of his Athy connection, was John Semple Jackson, born in 1920, the fifth child of Francis Jackson and his wife Annie of Farmhill, Athy. He was educated in the local Model School which sadly was consumed by flames within the last few weeks. After attending St. Columba’s, Rathfarnham, he returned to Athy to work for a while in his father’s business at Leinster Street. He joined the R.A.F. in 1943 and it is said that flight training over North America stirred a lifelong interest in geology following which he enrolled in Trinity College Dublin from where he graduated with a B.A. in geology and zoology. Appointed to the staff of U.C.D. in 1951 he continued his geological investigations and studies, resulting in the award of a Ph.D. and in 1957 he was appointed keeper in Dublin’s Natural History Museum. Eleven years later he commenced practice as a geological consultant and before long was a member of a number of government working parties for the preparation of inventories of outstanding landscapes and sites of scientific interest in Ireland. He was at various times between 1964 and 1977 the secretary, chairman and national president of An Taisce. He lectured on environmental conservation to architectural students and contributed to radio and T.V. debates on conservation and mining issues. He donated his extensive library to the Department of Geology, University College Cork in 1982 where it is now housed in the John S. Jackson Library. He died suddenly in November 1991 and is buried in County Cork.

I will return to the Dictionary of Irish Biography over the coming months.

I had a query during the week concerning the Athy Social Club Players who performed Mary Mullans’ play, ‘The Turn of the Wheel’ on the last night of the Kildare Drama Festival in 1959. Fortunately I have a programme for that play when it was put on in St. John’s Hall in February 1959. The three act play featured Christine O’Donohue, Jim Gardner, Len Hayden, Jo Lawler, Florrie Lawler, Dermot Mullan, Ger Moriarty and Patsy O’Neill. It was produced by Tadhg Brennan and the Athy performance was followed by a one act Irish adaptation of a celebrated French play.

Do any of the readers remember the performances in St. John’s Hall of ‘The Turn of the Wheel’ and more particularly does anyone have a photograph of the cast of that play? I would be delighted to hear from anyone who can help me.

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