Thursday, July 14, 2011

Family History / Bill Fenelon / Nora O'Connor

A phone call late on Monday evening prompted me to watch a programme on RTE 1, ‘Who do you think you are’.  My caller believed the programme would centre around a family, one of whose members came from Athy.  It turned out that my informant was wrong but the TV programme nevertheless proved an interesting insight into a family history which started in Manor Kilbride in the Parish of Baltinglass in the years following the Great Famine.

The story of the Murtagh family was typical of so many Irish families in provincial Ireland.  There were 4 children of the marriage of Andrew Murtagh and Ann Doyle and all were admitted to Naas Workhouse in 1854.  Later that year they emigrated to Canada apparently with the assistance of the local Board of Guardians.  Just five years previously 301 pauper emigrants were sent from Ireland to Quebec in Canada under schemes designed to reduce workhouse numbers, followed by a further 136 in 1852 and approximately 130 the following year.  There were also several localised assisted emigrations of individual pauper families and smaller groups.  The journey the Murtagh family took was one familiar to many Irish families who a few years earlier had fled the country to escape the worst horrors of the Famine.  The 1861 Census for Montreal noted the presence of the Murtagh family in that city, minus their son Patrick who was born in Ireland in 1846.

One of the interesting factors which allowed this T.V. programme to be made was the availability of the Naas Workhouse records which like all old records helped throw an interesting insight into Irish life in the 19th century.  When I was invited some years ago to write a history of Athy’s Workhouse the records for that institution were found to have been destroyed.  The pity is that their destruction left an information void which can never be filled.  Many Athy families took the same route as the Murtaghs travelling in the notorious coffin ships and the later much better equipped ships on the North American route.  Many more embarked for the shorter journey to our near neighbour, Britain.  Their stories have for the most part never been told but the Murtagh family TV programme showed what could be gleaned of family history using the records which still exist.

A community’s history encompasses the lives of its people of different generations and in recent weeks Athy has lost several men and women who have graced the local community.  Kathleen Sunderland, I remember when she lived in the 1950s with her family in the Peoples Park Gate Lodge.  The park was then hugely underused and almost by default remained the exclusive reserve of the youngsters from Offaly Street.  So much so that under the leadership of Leopold Kelly we felt empowered to construct a hut in the public park using timbers brought from Flemings Sawmills in Chapel Lane.  Of course it had a short life span when to our disgust the Duke of Leinster’s agent had our prized hut demolished overnight.

Bill Fenelon was in his time a very active member of the local community.  During the 1960s and beyond he joined with other concerned citizens of this town in a successful attempt to revitalise the town’s industrial life.  It was recognised that the future wellbeing of Athy was dependent on securing further industrial employment to bolster the employment offered by existing industries such as the Wallboard, the I.V.I. and the Asbestos Factories.  Land was purchased by the Town Development Association which was founded by Bill Fenelon and his colleagues and the Industrial Development Authority developed on it the very successful Townparks Industrial Estate.  Bill Fenelon made a very worthwhile contribution to the local community and his passing at an advanced age is deeply regretted.

Nora O’Connor, whose funeral Mass last Sunday was marked with wonderful singing by Jacinta O’Donnell, was a well liked member of the staff of Athy Community College.  She was an engaging, sometimes blunt, but always friendly conversationalist whose cheerful greeting to me always prefaced a tease about something or other.  I enjoyed meeting Nora and her passing is a sad loss for her family, friends and school colleagues.  Sympathy is also extended to the families of Bridget Brennan, Tony Byrne, Elizabeth Byrne, Johnny Moore and Joseph Dowling. 

The lives of near neighbours the Murtaghs from West Wicklow who left these shores over 157 years ago have been recreated by judicious use of public records.  How I wonder will future generations recreate the lives of families living in our community today. 

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