In this, the one thousandth Eye on the Past, I want to take time out to reflect on the scenes behind the series which started out in September 1992. It has been a journey of exploration in many ways, one in which I have been helped along the way by many kind and generous folk. To the knowledge I have acquired over years spent researching the history of Athy has now been added an enormous amount of local information gleaned from interviews held and letters received over the past 19 years. Thanks to modern technology I’m as likely to get a response from Australia or America as I am from Kildare County to any of the articles appearing in the Kildare Nationalist.
There is an ever growing interest in local history and family history, something to which I alluded in my first article. My reference then to the ‘growing interest in local history and the awakening of interest in our own place amongst school children’ seems ever more true today. I committed myself in that first article to deal each week ‘with a topic of interest from the history of South Kildare’ and to ‘delve into the rich vein of local history which remains to be discovered and related in future articles.’
Not everyone has agreed with what I have written. Sometimes errors appear, generally of a minor nature, but I still remember the occasion an Athy woman, now long dead, tackled me over a piece I had written about the location of the town’s Quaker Meeting House. I had identified the building’s precise site following research in the Valuation Office Dublin and after examining Clarges Greene’s map of Athy in 1825. The good lady would not accept that the Meeting House which gave its name to Meeting Lane was where I claimed it to be because her mother had once told her it was somewhere else. I was wrong and nothing I could say or write on the subject was likely to change her mind. It showed how errors can so easily become part of a town’s story and over time and with retelling become a ‘historical’ fact.
I can recall only two occasions on which my request for an interview were refused. Both parties, elderly at the time, are now dead. The first refusal stemmed from a lack of desire to discuss what my potential interviewee described as ‘those bad times’. I understood his reasons, for over the years I have heard many times of the deprivation and suffering which so many local persons had experienced in their lives. Because of this I have had to omit many interesting details and stories from articles written in order to protect the interests of my interviewees. There has never been any question of causing hurt or embarrassment to any of the good people who shared past experiences with me. They trusted me with information which at times was very personal and which given to me in confidence has always been respected.
The second occasion on which I was refused an interview was when my repeated requests through family members for an interview were refused on the grounds that something I had written in a previous article was deemed to be somewhat disparaging of another family. Unfortunately the lady in question was not to know that the story which she found objectionable was included in the article with the approval and knowledge of my interviewee.
The co-operation given to me freely and generously by members of our local community has been quite extraordinary. I can recall with enormous satisfaction how the local Freemasons many years ago allowed me access to their records. The article I subsequently wrote included some details which had never before appeared in public, yet did not in any way compromise any member of that society. The editor of another newspaper phoned me after the article appeared asking me in a somewhat forceful manner to disclose more information than that contained in my article. The disappointed editor did not get his story.
Many things have changed in Athy since 1992. Undoubtedly there is greater interest than ever before in the history of our ancient town and greater appreciation and understanding of what has gone before. I am particularly pleased that hitherto forgotten or overlooked elements of the town’s history such as World War I, the Great Famine and the 1798 Rebellion have now become not only familiar but also merited remembrance celebrations in recent years. The local men and women involved in the Irish War of Independence were also remembered and honoured on the 90th anniversary of the Easter Rebellion. Indeed the opening of the local Heritage Centre in 1998 was another positive indication of the growing awareness of Athy’s place in the history of this country.
The series to date spawned three books, all bearing the title ‘Eye on Athy’s Past’. The articles which have so far appeared in book form account for only the first 349 articles written, so beware, when the day job goes I will have plenty of material to fall back on for another few books.
I am very grateful to the many people who have over the years helped me to bring this series on the history of Athy and district and its people to the public. My thanks to the Kildare Nationalist and to its current editor Barbara Sheridan who asked me almost two decades ago to pen a few lines each week for a local history article.
My thanks also to my Secretary Eithne Wall who has typed more words about the history of Athy than anyone else on this planet and to my bookkeeper Noreen Day whose proof reading has saved me from many embarrassing mistakes over the last 19 years.
There is now a growing pride in our place, noticeable in Athy people who not only share experiences going back several decades, but also share knowledge of a common past which binds them as members of the local community. It is a pleasure to be a part of that emerging awareness and understanding of what we are.