Next Sunday at 3 o’clock in the afternoon Dr. Pat Wallace, Director of the National Museum in Dublin, will unveil the monument erected in Emily Square to commemorate the men and women of 1798. That year of rebellion was a pivotal time in Irish history, marking the early stages of Irish Republicanism which would garner support and inspire many over the succeeding 200 years.
The unveiling of the ’98 monument in the centre of Athy allows us to dispel once and for all the oft repeated claim that Athy is a garrison town. Growing up in Athy and attending the local Christian Brothers School I was unaware of the impact the 1798 Rebellion had on the town and the people of Athy. In much the same way we believed that the Great Famine appeared to have not touched the lives of people living in this area. Of course, with the more recent collating of reports of those times we now have a fuller, if not necessarily, a complete picture of the events surrounding the ’98 Rebellion and the Great Famine and how both events impacted on the people of this area.
Our principal informant for the events of over 200 years ago was local man Patrick O’Kelly, while letters from local residents such as Rev. Nicholas Ashe, Thomas Fitzgerald and Thomas J. Rawson, preserved in public or private libraries, give an even deeper insight into what was happening in Athy in ’98.
Consider the letter Rawson, who lived at Glassealy before moving to Cardenton when his house was destroyed by rebels, wrote to the Duke of Leinster on 13th August 1799
‘When Campbell commanded this Garrison he caused barriers of hogsheads sods and earth to be made on the different approaches and on the centre of the Bridge – he was ordered to evacuate the Town and it was left for a long time to the sole protection of the Yeomanry – weak and threatened as the Town then was a large body of rebels having the next night approached within 100 perches of it, I considered it absolutely necessary to put up temporary gates and a paling, at an expense of upwards of £50 out of my pocket – the town was protected. In November last Capt. Nicholson and a company of the Cork City Militia were sent here, he saw the sod work going to decay, he applied to General Dundas, and by the Generals special directions [the Inhabitants at large having subscribed a larger sum] strong walls of lime and stone were added to my gates – two large piers and a strong wall and platform were erected on the center of the bridge under the direction of Capt. Nicholson. In the beginning of May last Gen. Dundas inspected the Athy Inf. New made pikes had been recently found in the back house of a rebel Capt. of the town, several new schemes of insurrection were discovered, for which many have been since convicted by Court Martial – the large House in the Market Square was occupied by a noted rebel from the Co. of Carlow and it appearing to the General, that the barrier on the bridge, could be commanded from the house, he was pleased to approve of the building a second wall to cover the men – I neglected it for some time – on the account arriving, that a French Fleet was out, and destined for this country, I concluded that the town, would as before, be left to the Yeomanry. In a hurry I had temporary walls ran up, merely doubling the former barrier, and recollecting that for four months last summer we had lain on the flag way on the bridge, in the open air with stones for our pillows – I covered the walls with a temporary skid of boards which are not even nailed on.’
We can gauge from Rawson’s letter the depth of loyalist fears and the measures which they felt were necessary to protect themselves from the rebels. Their fears were well founded as evidenced by the massacres of Hannah Manders and four other at Glassealy in the summer of ’98. Another atrocity followed a rebel attack on Narraghmore Courthouse where a number of loyalists had sought refuge. Having surrendered to a large force of rebels six of those taken prisoner were hanged in a nearby wood.
Atrocities were committed by rebels and government forces alike. Seven men, believed to be rebels, were hanged in the town of Athy in the early days of June ’98 and again Narraghmore figured prominently as six of the unfortunate men were from that area. They included Daniel Walsh whose brother had been hanged a short time earlier in Naas.
These were dangerous times which like the Great Famine never formed part of the local folklore passed down from generation to generation. It was if a community memory had been obliterated for reasons which this generation, spared the atrocities of armed rebellion and the inhumanity of death by starvation, can never know or understand.
On Sunday 7th November we can pay our respects to the men and women from Athy and district who in 1798 suffered for their involvement in the United Irishmen’s drive for civil and religious liberty.
Jens Preisler who died recently will be remembered at 7.30 p.m. Mass in the Dominican Church on Friday 5th November. I had intended to write of Jens in this Eye but will do so next week.