Thursday, July 1, 2010

Emily Square: Central to Athy's history

The announcement of the imminent erection of the ’98 Memorial commissioned over 12 years by Athy Urban District Council, as it was then known, is very welcome news. I gather the Memorial will be erected in Emily Square, that fine public space in the centre of our town which over the years has been the scene of many community events and celebrations. It is appropriate that Emily Square is chosen for the ’98 Memorial because it was in that very same arena that local men suspected of involvement with the United Irishmen were tortured during the early months of 1798. Thomas Fitzgerald of Geraldine House wrote of the experience of the Athy people at that time: ‘a man of the name of Thomas James Rawson ... had every person tortured and stripped ... he would seat himself in the chair in the centre of a ring formed around the triangles, the miserable victims kneeling under the triangles until they would be spotted over with the blood of the others.’

William Farrell of Carlow corroborated Fitzgerald’s account when he wrote: ‘the triangle was put up in the public street of Athy ... the men were stripped naked, tied to the triangle and their flesh cut without mercy.’

It was also in Emily Square that the Athy Yeomanry Cavalry lead by their Captain, the earlier mentioned Thomas Fitzgerald, were stood down in May 1798 amidst claims that they were disloyal. Colonel Campbell who commanded the 9th Dragoons then stationed in the local military barracks ordered the members of the Cavalry Corps to turn out in Emily Square. There they were ordered to dismount, to lay down their arms and strip their horses of saddles and bridles. This formal disbandment of Athy Cavalry Corps was a humiliating experience for its members who were for the most part local gentleman farmers and their sons. But in those tense days little could be taken for granted, especially when the son of the Duke of Leinster, Lord Edward Fitzgerald, was himself a leader of the rebellious United Irishmen.

Athy has enjoyed a chequered history since the time the Anglo Normans travelled up the navigable River Barrow to establish a township near the site of the ancient river crossing. Numerous attacks by the Irish on the Anglo Norman settlement from which the town later developed, led to the creation of a fortress town in which a garrison was constantly stationed. Athy would remain a garrison town until the mid 19th century by which time it had survived the Black Death, Plague and the Confederate Wars.

The United Irishmen’s rebellion of 1798 marked a turning point in the political allegiances of many of the local people of Athy. The awakening of the desire for self government first identified with the founding of the United Irishmen would lie dormant for many years after the ’98 Rebellion. However, a seed once sown would never die.

It was the emergence of Sinn Fein under the leadership of its founder Arthur Griffith, a society later infiltrated and controlled by the I.R.B., which saw military action replace parliamentary politics in the push for independence. The South Kildare area figured, although not very prominently, in the events which marked the Irish War of Independence and in so doing the people of this area kept faith with the legacy of the United Irishmen of 1798.

During the 19th century famine would come and go but oppressive poverty would remain a constant companion for a large part of the local people of Athy. Enlistment overseas in the same Army which had brutally defeated their forefathers’ rebellious efforts in ’98 were for many the only means of escaping the tedium and poverty of Irish provincial town life. Those who enlisted during the 1914-18 War have in recent years received their due recognition with the unveiling of a plaque on the front of the Town Hall facing out onto Emily Square. It is only right that the same square which played such a prominent part in the events of ’98 will soon be the site of a memorial to the men and women of the Year of Rebellion.

Mary Jo O’Rourke, formerly of 21 Geraldine Road, has emailed me from the Isle of Man. In 1987 or thereabouts when she was attending Scoil Mhichil Naofa she was part of a group from the school which performed in a concert held in Dreamland which she recalls was advertised as ‘Curtain Call’. Apparently a video was taken of the concert and she is anxious to try and trace a copy of the video to show to her young daughter as one of the songs from that concert is a lullaby which she now sings to her. Can anyone help Mary Jo in her search for the video of that concert?

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