Thursday, March 22, 2012

History of Athy in 25 objects (4)

Continuing the story behind the 25 objects chosen to tell the history of Athy I start this week with the bell which once rang out in the Convent of Mercy Athy.  It is now part of the exhibition in the Heritage Centre devoted to the town’s religious diversity. 

The bell hung over the main stairway in the convent with a large rope reaching down to the hall floor.  It was rung to summon the nuns to prayer and to alert individual nuns when they were required to greet visitors in the nuns’ parlour.  Each nun had her own unique bell call and for the 40 or more nuns in the Convent there was a bewildering range of long and short peals of the bell to identify each nun in the Convent. 

The extraordinary impact that the Sisters of Mercy had on the town of Athy, beginning with their arrival here in 1852, has yet to be fully told.  Educating young children and tending to the poor was the mission of the Sisters of Mercy and one to which successive generations of nuns dedicated themselves over many decades.  With their departure some years ago from the local Convent which had been built on part of Clonmullin commons of old, the bell and some other artefacts from the Convent were presented to the Heritage Centre.  The bell, now silent, is a small reminder of that noble band of women whose work among generations of Athy folk encouraged and enabled so many to take advantage of life’s opportunities. 

A small wooden bird cage which once belonged to Ernest Shackleton is one of several Shackleton related items on display in the Heritage Centre.  I have chosen the bird cage, rather than any of the other perhaps more important Shackleton artefacts, as its everyday simplicity brings a human dimension to the Arctic explorer whose exploits excited the world 100 years ago.  Shackleton is perhaps the most widely known man to come from South Kildare and the exhibition space devoted to him in the Heritage Centre is believed to be the only permanent Shackleton Exhibition anywhere in the world.  It is of course appropriate that Athy boasts of its Shackleton connection for the man whose Antarctic exploits were headline news at the beginning of the 20th century was born in Kilkea House just a few miles from the town. 

Looking back on the history of Athy there are a number of key events which stand out.  These include the Confederate Wars, the ’98 Rebellion and the Great Famine but amongst them must also be included happier occasions such as the Gordon Bennett Race of 1903 and the Eucharistic Congress of 1932.  Both events had a huge and lasting impact on the people of Athy and like the night of the Big Wind of 1829 were for many locals a reference point in lives unfettered by calendars or time pieces.  Amongst the exhibits in the Heritage Centre are a number of items linked to the Gordon Bennett Race and I have chosen the Arrol Johnston motor car to tell the story behind Ireland’s most famous road race.  The Arrol Johnston was presented to Athy Heritage Centre by Honor McCulloch in memory of her father William Ringwood McCulloch who as a young boy, then living in Sawyerswood, was a spectator at the Gordon Bennett Race of 1903.  His lifelong interest in cars stemmed from that event and about 31 years later, having discovered a derelict car abandoned on a Scottish farm, negotiated its acquisition and set about its restoration.  It took him three years to restore the Arrol Johnston which had been first purchased as new by Lord Cochrane of Fife in Scotland in 1902.  The car, when restored, was driven in the Empire Exhibition run between Glasgow and Edinburgh in 1938 and also took part in the celebrated London to Brighton run in 1970.  The Arrol Johnston motor car which was previously on display in the National Motor Museum at Beaulieu between 1993 and 2000 is now, due to the generosity of Honor McCulloch, one of the highlights of Athy’s Heritage Centre.

A handball, made by local man Bill Aldridge, is the next item selected to tell another aspect of the townspeople’s story.  Bill was a champion handballer with Athy Handball Club which in the 1920s and earlier had such exceptional players amongst its ranks as John Delaney, Tom Aldridge, George Robinson and Jack Delaney.  Bill was in later years a maker of handballs and an example of his handcraft was purchased by me many years ago.  It’s a reminder of a sport which was very popular in Athy up to a few decades ago.  The town once had two handball alleys, the Barrack Lane court, located next to the Army Barracks, while Leinster Street also had a handball court behind a public house.  The Barrack Lane court survived up to the 1970s and was replaced by a newly built court, provided by Athy U.D.C., which however remained unused and was demolished after a few years.


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