Friday, February 24, 2012

Christy Johnson

I left the Christian Brother’s School in January 1961 and went to work with Kildare County Council. I was to remain out of Athy for the following 21 years. Just three years before I departed for the heady heights of the county capital, another local, more adult in years than I was, took the emigrant boat for Holyhead on his way to the English capital of London. He was Christy Johnson, then 26 years of age, who after 12 years labouring in the Asbestos and Wallboard factories followed the route taken to England by so many of his peers.

Christy was the seventh of ten children born to Johnny and Dora Johnson, who when he arrived, lived in Meeting Lane. The family moved soon afterwards to No. 7 Lower St. Joseph’s Terrace where they were the first tenants of the newly built Council house. Christy’s father worked at drawing gravel and stones from the Council pit at Gallowshill, while his mother, the former Dora Kelly from Athy was kept busy looking after the ten young Johnson children. Her four sons, John, Larry, Christy and Andy were all destined to emigrate to England, as were two of her daughters, Kitty and Lily. Two of Christy’s sisters Sheila and Irene are married and living in Athy, while Kitty and Lily are married in England. Another sister Molly died at the comparatively young age of 20 years.

Christy attended the Christian Brothers school and recalls classmates with whom he shared lessons taught by Christian Brothers Regan and Keane and a lay teacher, Paddy Spillane. Andy Murphy, Michael Donnelly, Fintan Gibbons, Hugh Kerrigan, Eddie Conway, Jack Taaffe, Pascal Myles, Peadar Dooley, John Fanning and John Joe Dunne are but some of the names he recalls after 56 years. He left school at 14 years of age and started work in the Asbestos factory. There he worked as a juvenile in the moulding room making asbestos eave gutters by hand and recalls his first day when wolf whistles greeted his appearance on the factory floor in short trousers. The next day he reappeared dressed in one of his father’s old trousers which his mother had to cut down by six inches or so to save the young lad’s blushes.

Frank Gibbons of Emily Square was the factory foreman with Willie “Woodbine” O’Neill as chargehand. Other factory juveniles he recalls at that time were John Alcock of Dooley’s Terrace, Jimmy “Cagney” Murray of St. Joseph’s Terrace, Christy Rochford, John Connell of Dooley’s Terrace and George Lammon who retired some years ago after 50 years service with the factory. Dan Meaney, who died recently, was in charge of one of the workshops and the workmen included George Robinson and his brother “Legs” Robinson, Peter Fitzsimons, Tommy Deering of Ardreigh, Jack O’Rourke and Eamon “Slock” Kavanagh. After six years or so Christy left the Asbestos factory for the newly opened Wallboard factory at Blackford where he worked with the likes of Liam Dunne and Gerry Sullivan and one of his first jobs was the digging of foundations for the office block at the factory.

When Christy left for London in 1958 he boarded the Dublin-bound train at the local station with his suitcase in hand and later embarked on the Princess Maud at Dun Laoghaire eventually arriving in Euston Station in the early hours of the following morning. Within a week Christy, who had spent six years moulding asbestos material with his bare hands was working in Lyon’s bakery where he spent the next two years learning to bake bread. There he met Andy Murphy from Offaly Street who was to remain his great friend until Andy’s premature death almost ten years ago. As a result of an introduction by Andy, Christy became a barman and worked in a succession of pubs throughout London over the following years. A spell in Tottenham was followed by a period in a Praed street pub in Paddington and finally in the Prince of Wales pub in South London. Christy finally ended up as a Commissionaire with the B.B.C. in White City where he remained until he retired in 1991. A resident of the Hammersmith/Shepherd’s Bush area for the last 21 years, Christy readily acknowledges that Shepherd’s Bush has been his “home town” ever since he left Athy 44 years ago. “I am Christy Johnson from Athy and Shepherd’s Bush” he says with pride.

I started off this article by mentioning my own departure from Athy 41 years ago. I did so because as long as I can remember, and I believe it pre-dates my leaving Athy in 1961, I can recall Christy Johnson returning in July of each year to his hometown for a two week holiday. He has not missed a trip since 1958 and he is our most regular summer visitor. Even though his father died in 1955 and his mother in 1977 and despite the fact that No. 7 St. Joseph’s Terrace is now occupied by his niece and her family, Christy Johnson’s home is still Athy. Nowadays on his annual trip home he spends time with his sisters Sheila Rigney of Pairc Bhride, Irene Keogh of Geraldine and Nancy McEvoy of Carlow.

Emigration was one of the certainties of life in Athy up to the early 1970’s and Christy recalled for me some of the young men, who like him, took the emigrant boat to England. Entire families left the town, such as the Murphy’s of Offaly Street, the Murray’s and the Territt’s of St. Joseph’s Terrace. The Davis family of No. 9 St. Joseph’s Terrace emigrated to England and with them went the colourful local names with which they were long associated. They were Jim “Cymbals” Davis, Willie “Wag” Davis, John “Merryman” Davis and their brother Barney also emigrated as did the Sullivan brothers Michael and Gerry of No. 5 St. Joseph’s Terrace, Eamon, “Gurdie” Keogh and Michael “Siki” Keogh, formerly of No. 1 St. Joseph’s Terrace. There are few houses in any street in the town which did not give one or more to the emigrant trail of the 1950’s and ‘60’s.

Christy Johnson of Shepherd’s Bush and Athy was one of the Athy men whose adult life was spent among strangers but he has never forgotten the friends and the former neighbours who still crowd his memories of Athy in his younger days. He recalled for me the caretakers of the CYMS, or at it was then known the Billiards Room at Stanhope Street, starting with Dick Connor who lived in that same street. “Skurt” Doyle of Convent View was another, followed by Tommy McDonald of the same terrace, George Sharpe of St. Patrick’s Avenue and George Donaldson of Emily Square. Billiard players of note he named as Dan McEvoy and Jim McEvoy of Rathstewart, Danny Shaughnessy, Ger Doran and his brother Eugene.

The man who learned to read while swinging on the half door in Meeting Lane while facing the dispensary sign on the gate opposite looks forward each week to the Kildare Nationalist which his sister Sheila Rigney sends to him. That same paper goes on to his brother Lar in Wandsworth and from him to another Athy man Bill Power in East Acton, London. The urbane well-dressed man who returns to Athy every July and has done so for the past 44 years has maintained friendships and contacts with friends and colleagues from his younger days in Athy. Truly can it be said of Christy Johnson that while he left Athy in 1958, Athy has never left him.

aran island funeral

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Orphan Emigration Scheme

Athy’s workhouse was opened on 9 January 1844. It was designed and built to accommodate 360 adult inmates and 240 children. The Great Famine which commenced with the failure of the potato crop in 1845 and continued during the following three years resulted in a huge intake of poor families into the workhouses throughout Ireland. Here in South Kildare, where lies the best farmland in the entire Irish countryside, the local workhouse was soon full to capacity. So much so that two auxiliary workhouses were opened in the town of Athy to cater for the 1,399 poverty stricken inmates recorded in the first week of February 1849.

A large number of those workhouse inmates were children. Many were orphans, or alternatively had been abandoned by fathers and mothers no longer able to feed them. While they remained in the local workhouse they were a charge on the landowners of the area where they previously resided. No wonder then that Earl Grey, the British Secretary of State for the Colonies received much support from Irish landlords for his Orphan Emigration Scheme under which young girls from the Irish workhouses were to be sent to Australia. The scheme was designed to fulfill the two-fold purpose of helping to resolve Australia’s chronic shortage of female labour, while at the same time reducing the serious overcrowding in Irish workhouses. Not only that but the Irish landlords who financed the workhouse system also hoped to reduce their own financial burden by transferring as many orphan girls as possible out of the workhouse system.

The Orphan Emigration Scheme commenced in October 1848 and when it was wound up due to opposition from the Australian colonists in August 1850, 4,175 young girls had been sent from Irish workhouses to Australia. Many of the Irish workhouses participated in the scheme, and the following table records the number of girls sent from workhouses in this area.
Athy 37 girls
Carlow 52 girls
Baltinglass 16 girls
Naas 15 girls
Mountmellick 37 girls
Edenderry 18 girls

The first group of girls from Athy Workhouse travelled on the ship “Lady Peel” which sailed from Plymouth England and arrived in Sydney Harbour Australia on 3rd July 1849. The names of these girls and their personal details are :-


Ann Carroll Athy 17 Martin & Biddy Carroll Martin Carroll living in America

Ann Clare Athy 17 Patrick and Ann Clare Her mother was living in Athy

Lucy Connor Athy 19 James & Elizabeth Connor Both dead

Bridget Croak Stradbally 19 John and Ann Croak Her mother was living at Hyde, Kildare

Margaret Dobson Athy 17 Joseph & Julia Dobson Both dead

Bridget Egan Athy 18 John & Jane Egan Mother living in Athy

Elizabeth Fitzpatrick Monasterevin 19 Stephen & Elizabeth Fitzpatrick Both dead

Catherine Fleming Athy 18 Barney and Catherine Fleming Mother living in Athy

Rose Fleming Ballyadams 19 Patrick & Mary Fleming Mother living in

Mary Green Athy 18 John & Catherine Green Both dead

Mary Hayes Athy 18 John & Mary Hayes Both dead

Elizabeth Hayes Athy 18 John & Mary Hayes Both dead

Bridget Ivory Athy 17 James & Margaret Ivory Both dead

Bridget Moore Athy 18 James & Mary Moore James in America
Mary in Athy

Ellen Murray Athy 18 Hugh & Jane Murray Mother living in Athy

Margaret Neill Athy 18 Michael & Catherine Neill Both dead

Ann Sinclair Athy 17 Patrick & Mary Sinclair Both living in Athy

Ellen Sullivan Athy 18 John & Ellen Sullivan Mother living in Athy

The second and last group sent from Athy Workhouse sailed from Plymouth on the ship “Maria” and landed in Sydney Harbour on 1st August 1850. They included :-


Julia Byrne Athy 16 Thomas & Elizabeth Byrne Both dead

Margaret Byrne Athy 18 Michael & Margaret Byrne Both dead

Judith Cullen Timahoe 17 Richard and Mary Cullen Both dead

Catherine Cullen Athy 16 Maurice and Betty Cullen Both dead

Mary Dunne Barrowhouse 15 Michael & Mary Dunne Both dead

Ann Kehoe Narraghmore 15 Patrick & Ellen Dunne Father living at Bolton Hill

Ann Kehoe Narraghmore 15 Martin & Bridget Kehoe Both dead

Catherine Kenny Stradbally 18 James & Ann Kenny Mother living in Athy

Mary Lapsley Timahoe 18 John & Bridget Lapsley Both dead

Catherine Lowry Stradbally 18 William & Betty Lowry Both dead

Mary Maher Athy 16 Patrick & Mary Maher Mother living in Athy

Mary Moore Athy 18 Patrick & Bridget Moore Mother living in Athy

Mary Moylan Aghaboe 18 James & Sara Moylan Both dead

Ellen Moylan Aghaboe 16 James & Sara Moylan Both dead

Mary Murphy Monasterevan 18 Joseph and Ann Murphy No information

Jane Rooney Athy 16 Andrew & Jane Rooney Both dead

Ann Scully Ballynagar, Ballyadams 15 Patrick & Ann Scully Both dead

Ellen Terret Monasterevin 15 James & Ellen Terret Both dead

Margaret Toole Athy 17 John & Martin Toole Both dead

I have been unable to find out what happened to these young girls when they arrived on the other side of the world over 150 years ago. No doubt somewhere in Australia their descendants are going about their daily business, many of them oblivious to the links which their great great grandmothers had with Athy and District in the years immediately following the Great Famine.

Ordination of Fr. Con Foley

We were always led to believe, at least we were until a few short decades ago, that it was the wish of every Irish parent to have a son ordained as a priest for the Catholic Church. In recent years, the wish, if it ever existed, went largely unfulfilled as fewer and fewer Irish students entered the cavenerous like seminaries which had been built during the 19th century to cater for the needs of the Irish Church. The hallowed seminary halls which once resounded to the muffled tones of ecclesiastical chitchat are today more likely to re-echoe to the hollowed sound of empty space. Even in the heyday of Irish seminaries Athy was not the most fruitful source of candidates for the priesthood. I can recall within my time only a few young men ordained for the priesthood from our town, starting with Tommy Touhy and Leopold Kelly, both of Offaly Street. A considerable period of time elapsed before John Troute of McDonnell Drive was next ordained, and since then one further name has been added to the list of Athy clerics.

I was in St. Michael’s Parish Church a few Sunday’s ago to join in a lovely celebration when the latest priest from the town said Mass for the first time in his home parish. Just a few weeks earlier Con Foley, a former pupil of Athy Christian Brother’s School, had been ordained by the Bishop of Arundel and Brighton in a ceremony held in St. Joseph’s Church, Guildford, Surrey. The young man, who in his lay life had been an accountant, lay prostrate in front of the Church altar during his ordination ceremony in full view of his family and friends who had travelled from Ireland for the occasion. Apart from the members of his immediate and extended Foley families there were colleagues from his accountancy days and school friends from his alma mater in Athy. Our own Parish Priest, Fr. Dennehy, was one of the priests assisting Bishop Conry during the ordination ceremony and no doubt as he looked at the prostrated figure before the altar his thoughts and those of his fellow priests must have turned to the occasions of their own ordinations.

Fr. Con Foley comes of an old Athy family with links to the town extending back over many generations. His grand-father Jack Foley achieved sporting success in 1931 when he won the All-Ireland Junior Handball singles title. His sons, John, Paddy, Dan, Tom and Noel were all footballers who at one time or another played for Rheban. Paddy, otherwise ‘Skinner’ Foley, is particularly well remembered by me as an exceptionally wily and skillful footballer and hurler who outplayed and outfoxed me on many occasions in Geraldine Park. Con with his four brothers and four sisters lived for many years with their parents John and Mary in Townspark until the family moved to Kilberry in 1991. Sadly John Foley died in October 1993, just two months before his own brother Paddy ‘Skinner’ passed away.

I knew Con as a school friend of my eldest son Seamus and one of a group, also comprising Sean Swain, Des Noonan and Stephen Murphy who have maintained contact with each other since they left Scoil Eoin nearly 14 years ago. Indeed the four school pals all travelled to Surrey to share in the joy of the ordination ceremony with their friend Con some weeks ago.

Like myself Con served as an altar boy in the Parish Church for many years. He was a quiet young fellow who like his late father played football for Rheban Gaelic Football Club and if memory serves me right, won a Junior B Championship medal with the club. He trained as an accountant after leaving the Christian Brothers School and on qualifying worked initially in Portlaoise before taking the emigrant boat to England where he held a number of positions with different firms, including Virgin Atlantic and British Airways.

Con recognised sometime ago that the commercial world held little attraction for him and nurtured the growing aspiration to spend his life as a Catholic Priest in the Foreign Missions. However, an extraordinary lengthy train journey which brought Con and his friends through Prague, terminating in Hong Kong, confirmed that missionary work in foreign parts required a tougher constitution than he could bring to the task. Fulfillment would be achieved through the more prosaic role of a secular priest involved in parish work. Having made the decision, Con entered St. Joseph’s Seminary in Guilford, Surrey in September 1994 as a member of a class of eight, four of whom would in time be ordained for the priesthood.

After five years in the Seminary and a further year involved in parish work, Con Foley was ordained in St. Joseph’s Church, Gilford on 8th September last. He is now a curate in the parish of Bexhill-on-Sea, sharing a presbytery with his Parish Priest. They are the only priests in a parish of approximately 1,500 Catholics, with three churches amongst a population of approximately 30,000 persons. In English Catholic parishes such as Bexhill-on-Sea the Catholic Church is heavily involved in community activities. There are far more church groups in the English parishes than one is accustomed to find in Ireland which gives the young Athy-born curate and his Parish Priest plenty of opportunity for community interaction.

When he said Mass in his native parish Fr. Con Foley gave a short well-structured homily which was well received. At the end of the Mass applause broke out for the latest young Athy priest to grace the altar of St. Michael’s Church. It was an emotional morning for the members of the Foley family and especially so for the young priest’s mother Mrs. Mary Foley who sat surrounded by her children in the church where she had attended Mass with her late husband John for many years.

World War II Army Deserters

Over several weeks during January and February of this year a spirited correspondence took place in the Irish Times concerning the Minister for Justice’s proposed pardon for soldiers who deserted from Oglaigh na hEireann during the emergency period 1939 to 1945.  My interest in the subject arose several years ago when I purchased at a book auction a bound volume stamped ‘Confidential’ and bearing the title ‘List of Personnel of the Defence Forces dismissed for desertion in time of National Emergency pursuant to the terms of the Emergency Powers (No. 362) Order 1945.’

The 133 page book listed the Army no., name, last recorded address, date of birth, declared occupation prior to enlistment in the Defence Forces and the date of dismissal from Defence Forces of every one of the 4,983 men who were absent without leave from the Defence Forces for more than 180 days.

I went through the book at that time and extracted the names of 19 men from Athy and the surrounding countryside who were included in what has sometimes been referred to as ‘Irish List of Shame’.  For my part I never regarded the book in that light and especially so after I had the privilege of interviewing one of the men who was so listed.  His story was a simple one.  Without work and with no prospect of getting work he enlisted in the Irish Army only to find conditions and food so bad as to be intolerable.  He, in company with so many of his army colleagues travelled by train to Belfast to enlist in the British armed forces.  His was not an ordinary act of desertion, rather a simple man’s response to what he felt was an uncaring Irish Army regime which treated its recruits with callous disregard for their well being.  He fought alongside Irish men, English men, Scotsmen and Welshmen throughout the Second World War and never once did anyone question his right to do so.

Irish men who enlisted in the British Army during the Second World War did so despite their country’s neutral stand which Alan Shatter, Minister for Justice, has recently described as ‘a principle of moral bankruptcy’.  There are a few things I see eye to eye with Mr. Shatter, but his view on Irish neutrality is one I share.

Interestingly the Sinn Fein party supports the call for a pardon for the World War II deserters who enlisted to fight Hitler and fascism.  Historically that party would have had little sympathy for those men during the war years as the Sinn Fein publication ‘An Poblacht’ reported in 1940 that ‘if German forces land in Ireland they will land ..... as friends and liberators of the Irish people.’  No doubt the very few men still alive who might benefit from a pardon will welcome the Sinn Fein support for the campaign which was started by the ‘Irish Soldiers Pardon Campaign Committee’.

The possibility of a pardon was referred to the Attorney General last Christmas and her opinion as to the legality of extending a pardon to the men involved is expected later in the year.  If the decision of the Government is to reject the De Valera government stand on the issue it will come sadly far too late for many of the men affected by the penalties imposed in the post war period.  Apart from losing whatever pension entitlements they might have earned during their Army service, the men who deserted were barred by De Valera’s government from State jobs for 7 years.  For many men so affected the emigrant boat was the only alternative. 

Peter Mulvany, Co-ordinator of the Irish Soldiers Pardon Campaign in a letter to the Irish Times wrote of ‘the traumatic experience of these Defence forces personnel and their families post war’.  My interviewee of some years ago has now passed away but I can still recall with chilling clarity his bitter disappointment at the way he and his colleagues were treated following their return to Ireland.  He felt the stigma of dishonour at a time when his record of participation in the war against fascism deserved to be respected.  History tells us that deserters leave the field of battle not embrace it as did the 4,983 men who left the relative safety of neutral Ireland to take to foreign battlefields.

As I look at the 19 Athy names I compiled I recognise familiar family names and realise that my generation and those that followed are indebted to these men and to their colleagues.  They deserve to have removed from them the dishonour which attaches to desertion.  I hope that a pardon granted even on compassionate grounds can be offered.  They deserve no less.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

History of Athy in 25 objects (2)

When I wrote some weeks ago inviting the readers to suggest 25 objects through which the history of Athy could be explained I little expected the arguments it would raise.  Using the dictionary definition of an object as ‘a material thing that can be seen or touched’ I had included in my possible 25 objects local buildings such as the Town Hall and Whites Castle and other historically important local buildings.  One of my correspondents felt that this was inappropriate on the grounds that the objects chosen should be portable and capable of being displayed in our local Heritage Centre.

Another reader, unconscientiously perhaps, lent weight to that argument when she sent me a copy of a small booklet produced by Cornwall’s Museum Development Team.  It was called ‘A History of Cornwall in 100 Objects’, being an exploration of Cornwall’s heritage through objects housed in the county’s museums, heritage sites, art galleries and historic houses.  No buildings were included amongst the 100 Cornish objects, although a mine engine from Levant Mine near Pendeer was gazetted as the oldest mine engine in existence. 

To highlight the history of Athy in 25 portable objects makes my task extremely difficult as I must find replacements for such history highlighting elements such as the local castles of Woodstock and Whites.

The story of the pre settlement years of the future South Kildare area when it was a 2nd century battlefield for the warring Munstermen and the men of Leinster must inevitably be told by reference to the ancient swords found in the bed of the River Barrow during the Barrow Drainage Scheme of the 1920s.  The items found are in the National Museum in Dublin. 

Another 800 years or so were to pass before there was any further reference in Irish history to the South Kildare area and again it was the warring factions of Munster and Leinster which came to be recorded.  The Munster men returning from the Battle of Clontarf fell foul of the Leinster men and the waters of the River Barrow flowed crimson with the blood of wounded warriors.  The artefacts dredged from the river bed almost 90 years ago probably bear witness to that conflict and bring us to the founding and early development of the town we call Athy.

As I embark on the town’s history trail which starts at the end of the 12th century I find it difficult to identify an object which can be verifiably associated with the town’s foundation.  We know that the Anglo Norman village of Athy was the location of two monasteries very soon after the first settlers came here.  The Dominicans arrived in 1257, some years after the founding of the Monastery of St. Thomas and the Hospital of St. Johns.  It was this latter religious settlement, established near to the first castle structure erected at Woodstock, which gave its name in later years to St. John’s Lane and nearby St. John’s Street.  There is in the local Heritage Centre a carved head of a monk discovered more than 100 years ago in the grounds of St. John’s House which adjoins St. John’s Cemetery.  Was this carving a relic of the monastic settlement of St. Thomas which was disbanded even before the Reformation closed the nearby Friary of St. Dominic’s.  I cannot be sure of this but even if it is not contemporary with the Monastery of St. Thomas, the rough carving is sufficiently associated with that ancient site to warrant inclusion as our third object.

To illustrate the Confederate Wars of the 1640s we have the fireplace pieces taken from Woodstock Castle and now presently in the local Heritage Centre.  The castle, the walls of which are still standing, was not the first fortified building erected on the site by the Anglo Norman settlements.  It was more than likely preceded by a wooden structure which served as a defensive fortress against the marauding Irish who constantly attacked the settlement during the 13th and 14th centuries.  The present stone building is believed to be of the 14th century and figured prominently in the Confederate Wars, as did the nearby Whites Castle.

The 5th object to be chosen must be the 8 page pamphlet printed in London in 1641 with the title ‘Treason in Ireland’, with several subtitles including ‘With a plot discovered at Athigh’.  It gives an account of Ireland’s involvement in the English Civil War and is particularly important for the pictorial depiction of the mid 17th century town shown surrounded by town walls.  The pamphlet was printed for Mr. Hierone ‘Minister of God’s Word at Athigh in Ireland’. 
TO BE CONTINUED ..............................

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Celebrating the 1000th Eye on the Past

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.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

The Decline of Athy

Two of my brothers who have been away from Athy for many years returned last week for a funeral.  Their comments on Athy as ‘shabby and run down’ quite frankly shocked me, but made me reflect on whether or not there was any substance in what was said.

Both brothers undoubtedly viewed the town in which they grew up against a long remembered background and perhaps drew comparisons with other towns with which they are familiar.  Nevertheless their critical comment gave me cause to look afresh at Athy.  While I could not agree with their sweeping criticism, I must admit that the retailing life of the South Kildare town is not in a healthy state.  Several businesses have closed down since the start of the New Year and vacant shop premises on our main streets do tend to present evidence of failure and neglect within the commercial life of the town.

The economic mess in which the country finds itself is a major cause of Athy’s retailing woes, but yet last Saturday evening as I drove through Longford town I saw scenes reminiscent of Athy as it was in the 1950s.  It has often been claimed that up to the 1950s Athy was the best business town in Leinster.  Late night shopping on Saturday nights brought farming folk from as far away as West Wicklow and the town’s busy streets meant good business for the town’s retailers.  Longford town last Saturday evening was in sharp contrast to what was to be seen on Athy’s streets that same evening.

The decline of the town’s commercial sector started slowly with the retailing resurgence in the neighbouring towns of Carlow, Newbridge and Portlaoise, all three of which soon outsprinted Athy in terms of shopping services and facilities.  Athy stood still as if relying on its glorious past, failing to recognise the danger signs and consequently neglected measures to retain its customer base. 

The situation has, I believe, been exacerbated by the failure to proceed with the Outer Relief Road which would have removed through traffic from the town centre and considerably eased day time traffic congestion.  Another factor militating against the improvement of town centre shopping was the imposition of parking charges.  Brought in ostensibly as a traffic management measure for a limited number of streets in the town, parking fees were later extended to almost every street and laneway in Athy and with an increase in those fees have now truly taken on an income earning role for the local Council.  The net effect is to discourage potential customers from coming into Athy to shop.

Another issue which has affected the town’s wellbeing is the absence of leadership in both the civic and commercial spheres.  In that regard the limelight must fall on both the Town Council and the local Chamber of Commerce.  The Chamber has been particularly disappointing.  I realise that its membership is extremely low and that it has not received the support it needs from the commercial or industrial business sectors of the town.  However the Chamber must be the lead business organisation in the town and for whatever reason it has failed to give that leadership for many years past.

Most of us at some time or other have complained about the Town Council.  It should provide civic leadership and instil in us, and encourage in others, a sense of pride in our town.  We have a town which in terms of its physical layout, its buildings and its street vistas is equal to, if not better than, any other urban settlements in the county.  The combination of river and canal provide within a unique urban context, a background against which the town could and should develop.  But yet the town seems unable to realise its full potential and the post Celtic tiger countrywide recession has pushed the business life of the town further downhill.  The Town Council has failed to provide civic leadership which is an essential element of any recovery plan and has done little or nothing to help the hard pressed retailing sector to develop. 

Strangely while the commercial life of the town struggles Athy has made great strides in promoting and developing the sporting and cultural side of town life as evidenced by the enormous success of the local G.A.A. Club and the continuing success of the recently opened Arts Centre.  Both the G.A.A. Club and the Arts Centre rely on volunteers.  Amongst both groups there are many men and women who give of their time, energy and experience to further causes to which they are committed.  If the same level of commitment could be given by those involved in the industrial and commercial life of this town, Athy would succeed in arresting the business decline which has been noticed in the South Kildare town for a considerable period of time.