It was with relief tinged with a certain amount of pride that I learned within the past week of the imminent completion of a project which I initiated 13 years ago. As a schoolboy in the Christian Brothers school in St. John's Lane I had a more than average interest in history which by dint of the curriculum of those days was confined largely to an unchanging diet of kings and battles. Indeed, there being apparently insufficient of either to engage the Irish students attention for the academic year European history became as important a topic as Irish history. There was nothing to attract ones attention to events of the past insofar as they may have impacted on our local area and the dearth of information on Athy and its place in the great events of our shared history gave me no reason to take pride in my own place.
How often in our school days did we read and hear of the Great Famine and the 1798 Rebellion knowing little of how either impacted on the lives of those who went before us. All has now changed with the ever increasing awareness of how our town and region was affected by national events. It was with this in mind that in 1997, in anticipation of the following years bicentenary of the 1798 rebellion, the members of Athy Urban District Council agreed to commission Kildare artist Brid Nì Rinne to design a '98 memorial for the town.
Thirteen years have now passed since Brid Nì Rinne's design was approved and the memorial once commissioned was completed in time for erection during the 1998 bicentenary celebrations. It has taken until now to complete the project and I am assured that the monument will be erected in the front square before the year ends.
It follows a few years after a memorial slab was erected on the Town Hall to honour those men from Athy and District who answered the call to arms at the start of World War 1. The 1798 memorial will be sited in Emily Square, near, as far as we can ascertain, to the town centre location where local men were tied to the triangles and whipped in 1798. Thomas Fitzgerald of Geraldine House wrote on those times in a letter in December 1802 when he described how men were “tortured and stripped” while another account comes to us from a Carlow man, William Farrell who wrote “the triangle was put up in Athy – the whole weight of the prosecution fell on the unfortunates (who) were stripped naked, tied to the triangle and their flesh cut without mercy”.
Athy's 1798 memorial will be the only such memorial unveiled this year and it marks the recognition, as does the World War 1 memorial, of the debt due by our local community to a previous generation of Athy men and women.
We now know that we have a history in which we can take pride, some of which is locked in the mysteries of the medieval period for the most part unchronicled and unrecorded. Tribute must be paid to the likes of William Farrell and Kilcoo born, Patrick O'Kelly, for their memories of the events in this area during the 1798 period. Without their written memoirs we would remain largely ignorant of the part played by local men such as James Lynam, Denis Devoy, Peter Kelly, William Kelly, John Hyland and many others in keeping alive the yearning for political freedom and equality which first fanned the flames of revolution in the American colonies and later nurtured the spirit of rebellion on the mainland of France.
It is perhaps significant that the 1798 memorial finds a place in the centre of our town at a time of financial difficulties and economic recession for our country. It will be a reminder of the enormous difficulties which our fore fathers had to overcome and sacrifices that some made and others were prepared to make to secure a future for themselves their families and those who followed them. Their example should be an inspiration to our generation.
The brutal and systematic suppression of the people of Athy during 1798 and later still following Robert Emmet's rising in 1803 will never again be forgotten so long as Brid Nì Rinn's work of art stands proud in the Square which bears the name of the mother of our former member of parliament and United Irishman leader, Lord Edward Fitzgerald. Emily Square, once the scene of torture, will from now on bear evidence of the bravery and commitment of local men and women during the dreadful days and weeks of 1798.
We have honoured the men of World War 1 and will soon see the men and women of 1798 similarly honoured. The one omission is the absence of a memorial to honour those brave local men and women who played a part in the constitutional campaign and subsequent military activities which culminated in the Treaty. The War of Independence impacted on this area even if not as significantly as in other parts of the country. Nevertheless we owe a debt of gratitude to the men and women from this area whose contribution to securing Ireland's independence must never be overlooked.
Once the 1798 memorial is in place we should address the question of how best to honour the men and women from this area who were involved in the Irish War of Independence.