Thursday, June 28, 2012

Gerard Manley Hopkins and the Wreck of the Deutschland

One of the most tragic shipping accidents off the coast of England occurred in December 1875 when the transatlantic steamer ‘Deutschland’ ran aground on a sand bank in the Thames Estuary.  The steamer, on its way to America, was far off course on the night of 7th December when the notorious sand bank was encountered.  Although not far from land the ship was left to the mercy of the sea for 30 hours before another vessel came to its assistance.  In the meantime 16 crew members and 44 passengers had drowned, including five Franciscan nuns from Germany.

Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote what is possibly his most famous poem, ‘The Wreck of the Deutschland a year after that disaster.  Moved by an account in ‘The Times’ of the shipping disaster off the Kent coast and the bravery of the five German nuns, Hopkins penned the immortal lines with which he is often associated today.  ‘The Wreck of the Deutschland’ is a work of high complexity, full of allegory and symbolism and is today regarded as one of the great poems in the English language.

I was reminded of Hopkins and the five German nuns who perished on the Deutschland when a few Sundays ago I visited Leyton in East London and on the way passed through Stratford.  The latter place is the home of the 2012 Olympic Stadium but in 1875 was to where the bodies of the nuns were brought to the local Franciscan Church before being buried in St. Patrick’s Catholic Cemetery in Leyton.  Leyton, once home to thousands of Irish emigrants, is the location of a vast Catholic cemetery serving several parishes in that part of London. 

I decided to pay my respects at the graveside of the Deutschland casualties and so passed through housing estates which were once Irish, but obviously were no longer so, before reaching St. Patrick’s Cemetery.  The Irish connection was immediately noticed when I overheard Irish accents from a small number of people conversing at the entrance gate to the Catholic cemetery.  My quest for the grave of the Deutschland nuns seemed unlikely to succeed as I surveyed the vast acreage which was St. Patricks.  As it was Sunday there was no one on duty to guide me and questions asked of a few people attending graves enlisted no useful information until I encountered three ladies who appeared to me to have the bearing and serenity which I associate with nuns.  No they were not members of any religious order but one of them did recall attending the centenary commemoration for the deceased nuns in St. Francis Church, Stratford in 1957, following which she herself sought out the last resting place of the nuns.  My search was over and I soon stood at the graveside of the four nuns whose remains were recovered from the stricken Deutschland.  The fifth nun’s body had been swept away and was never found.  The grave memorial is located in a central part of the cemetery given over to members of various religious orders.  Nearby were the graves of the Sisters of Mercy of Walthamstow.  The grave which I sought had a stone monument with the inscription:-

‘Pray for the repose of the souls of
Barbara Hultenschmidt
Henrica Fassbender
Norberte Reinkober
Aurea Badziura
Brigitta Damhorst
Franciscan Sisters from Germany, who lost their lives
Near Harwich in the ship wreck of the “Deutschland”, December 7th,
1875.  Four were buried here, December 13th R.I.P.’

The words ‘not found’ were added after Henrica Fassbender’s name.

My journey was prompted by Gerard Manley Hopkins, the Jesuit priest who died of typhoid in Dublin in 1889.  A relatively frequent visitor to Monasterevin, Hopkins is remembered each year in the Hopkins Summer School founded by poet Desmond Egan many years ago.  Coincidentally Hopkins, who immortalised the German nuns of the Deutschland disaster, was born in Stratford, the place to where their bodies were brought prior to burial in Leyton’s St. Patrick’s Cemetery.

When Hopkins died in Dublin in June 1889 he was not known as a poet.  It was the English poet Robert Bridges who arranged for his work to be published.  On the centenary of his death a plaque was unveiled to Hopkins in Westminster Abbey.  It read, ‘Gerard Manley Hopkins S.J. 1844-1889 Priest and Poet.  “Immortal Diamond” buried in Glasnevin Dublin.’

Today Hopkins, who in his lifetime was a recluse, is acclaimed as a poet of the first order and his work of 35 stanzas, ‘The Wreck of the Deutschland’ is for many his greatest masterpiece.  The nuns of the Deutschland will never be forgotten thanks to Gerard Manley Hopkins.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

White's Castle Purchase Fund

Before last week’s article on the White Castle had appeared I was contacted by several persons expressing concern and anxiety about the future of this historic building.  One man who phoned me from London spoke of his young days in Athy and although he never had the opportunity to step inside the Castle’s door nevertheless spoke of the importance of the building to his hometown.  I was pleasantly surprised to find that there was a groundswell of support for suggestion that the Castle should be acquired by the Town Council.  Indeed one man wrote to me from Dublin enclosing a €50 draft payable to the White Castle Purchase Fund.  He asked if I could arrange for the local people and any others interested in securing the White Castle to be given an opportunity to contribute towards a fund to be utilised for the purchase of the Castle.  I must admit I was reluctant to do so but having canvassed the support of the local Lions Club and the local Chamber of Commerce and having heard of the decision of the local Town Councillors to support the move to acquire the Castle for the townspeople I decided to act as suggested.

The result is that an account called ‘White Castle Fund’ has been opened in the Allied Irish Bank Athy to receive donations from anyone who supports the idea of acquiring White’s Castle for the local community.  The President of Athy’s Chamber of Commerce and the incoming President of Athy’s Lions Club have joined me in opening the account with a view to affording everyone an opportunity of giving financial support, no matter how large or small, to a project which should be worthy of community support.

The Town Councillors at their monthly meeting last Tuesday night discussed several motions touching on securing the Castle on behalf of the people of Athy.  There was unanimous support for this and I gather that the Councillors may now be arranging to hold a public meeting to consult with the local people and so give the community an opportunity to air their views on the issue. 

The White Castle truly embodies the history of our town within its thick walls.  As I claimed last week, its history is our history and whether as a garrisoned town house, or town jail or police barracks, it has touched the lives of many who have gone before us.  Athy is a historic town.  Its people have a long chequered history and standing proud at the side of Crom a Boo Bridge is the building which more than any other personifies in its sturdiness the pride which we have in our own place.  For every Athy person the bridge and the Castle are the landmarks which bring instant recognition and a sense of pride which we can justifiably bring with us no matter where we live.  So it was with my London caller early last week.  Now long gone from his home town he nevertheless understood perhaps better than I did the importance of Whites Castle in terms of the life of our town.

Our elected representatives realise the importance of the Castle in terms of the town’s history and the building environment of the town, hence their support for the Castle to be acquired for the local community. 

The fact that two important organisations in the town, the Chamber of Commerce and the Lions Club have seen fit to lend their support is a very welcome development.  The White Castle Fund set up in the Allied Irish Bank Athy affords all of us an opportunity to give practical support to the effort to acquire the Castle.  I would hope that the local authorities, either Kildare County Council or Athy Town Council, or both jointly would move to acquire the Castle and give the local community an opportunity to develop its use in the best interest of the community.  In last week’s article I suggested a variety of possible uses which if adopted would add significantly to the cultural life of the town.

We now have an opportunity which might never again arise to acquire and secure an important part of our local history.  It’s an opportunity which should be seized and not spurned and I would exhort anyone reading this article, whether in Athy or elsewhere, whether an Athy native or not, to join in the campaign to save Whites Castle for the people of Athy. 

Messages of support are always welcome but at this time more than ever before financial support is the most urgent need.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Photograph of Cast of 'Dick Whittington' - 1947

I have been aware for sometime of my neglect of the great musical shows which graced the stage of the Town Hall in the mid 1940’s. May Bachelor has been my informant in relation to this part of the musical history of Athy with which I have been unfamiliar. Over the years I have come across photos taken on the occasion of one or other of those shows. Whenever I did I always tried to get the names of those, sometimes now forgotten, troubadours who provided entertainment for their neighbours and community over 50 years ago. The first musical was I believe put on in 1945. It was “White Bread and Apple Sauce” and was followed in succeeding years by “Easter Parade”, “Dick Whittington” and “Orchids and Onions” . I have not seen a programme for any of these shows and indeed cannot be sure that programmes were printed, although it would be unusual if such was the case. I intend to include as part of the Eye on the Past series over the next few weeks, photographs of the different musicals put on in the Town Hall in the 1940’s. This is being done so that I can get your help in identifying the people involved in those shows, many of whom, have sadly gone to their external reward. The photograph to accompany this weeks article is I believe of the cast of “Dick Whittington” in which I’m told was performed in 1947. I’m open to correction on that date, but in any event I would welcome hearing from anyone who can help identify some or all of those happy people of 55 years ago or so. Over the Christmas holidays I received a number of e-mails and postal queries from abroad seeking to trace past links with Athy. Just two of these queries I will mention this week. A Southport based lady whose father Robert Foster emigrated from Athy is seeking to trace and make contact with surviving members of his family. Can you help? The other query relates to Stephen Leonard who emigrated from Athy in 1955 and who died in London in 1969. His son is anxious to make contact with any of Stephen’s relations still living in Athy. Contact me please if you can help in any way with these inquiries and also with the identification of those who appeared in the 1947 photograph of the cast of the musical “Dick Whittington”.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

White's Castle for Sale

‘For Sale – a town castle with a chequered history but little used in recent years.’  If only the thick walls of that great fortress in the centre of Athy could talk, what tales they might tell of times past.  Whites Castle, or perhaps more correctly, the White Castle, is fast approaching its 600th anniversary.  Despite its antiquity, it still lies many years, indeed many decades, behind the Dominican Order which in recent years celebrated the 750th anniversary of its Athy foundation. 

The story of the White Castle is the story of Athy over the centuries.  It is a story littered with battles and sieges and death which once stalked the streets of Athy.  Ever since the castle was erected at the start of the 15th century deaths by execution or otherwise have been directly or indirectly linked to the iconic building which for centuries has stood guard over the nearby Crom a Boo bridge. 

It figured prominently in the Confederate Wars of the 1640s as it did during the 1798 Rebellion.  Owen Roe O’Neill, famous in Irish history, held the White Castle for a time on behalf of the Confederates, only to relinquish it to the Royalists.  Over 150 years later Thomas Rawson, a member of Athy Borough Council, barricaded the bridge and manned the castle with militia men to safeguard, as he claimed, the Protestant loyalist residents of Athy.

From that same castle six young men from Narraghmore, together with a Trinity College graduate from the Curragh, were marched out in June 1798 to the recently opened canal basin where they were hanged.   They were executed as part of a campaign of terror waged against the local population by government militia during the lead up to the unsuccessful rebellion planned by the former Member of Parliament for Athy, Lord Edward Fitzgerald and other leaders of the United Irishmen. 

The prisoners incarcerated in the White Castle jail were subjected to conditions described in the Inspector General’s Report for 1824 as ‘without exception the worst County Jail I have met with, in point of accommodation having neither yards, pumps, hospital, chapel or proper day rooms’.   The castle had been used as a jail from the 1720s when the military, previously housed there, moved to a newly built military barracks at Woodstock.  After a new town jail was built in 1830 the castle was used as a police barracks.  Perhaps two of the most noteworthy prisoners to have been incarcerated in the White Castle Jail were Thomas Reynolds, the 1798 informer and Nicholas Gray who was appointed by Robert Emmet to lead the men of County Kildare to join Emmet’s Rebellion in Dublin in 1803.  The White Castle ended its most recent life as a private residence, initially occupied by the Norman family and later by the Doyle family.

The sale of the castle unfortunately comes at a time when the State coffers and by association, local authority finances are at a low ebb.  Nevertheless it is a unique opportunity for both Kildare County Council and Athy Town Council to come together to acquire a building which more than any other is an iconic representation of the town and its history.  There are few vistas to equal that of the bridge and the castle in terms of ease of recognition.   Both are a combination displaying strength and durability and as such truly reflect the innate qualities of our townspeople.  After all, Athy from its very foundation as a settler’s village was the subject of continuous attacks.  As the centuries passed and peace descended on the South Kildare settlement the townsmen enlisted in numbers to fight wars on alien soil.  This fighting spirit reached its height during the 1914-18 war when young men, often demoralised while at home, spilt their blood on the soil of lands as far apart as Gallipoli and Flanders.

The White Castle is part of our heritage – its history is the history of our town.  As such it behoves our local authorities at town and county level to use every resource at their disposal to acquire this important building for the people.  As a protected structure it would be very difficult for any private individual to adopt the building for commercial purposes.  The curtilage of the castle is also protected, so any development or use of that space which would not maintain the castle’s integrity is unlikely to be permitted.

I would hope that The Council’s of both Kildare county and Athy will take steps to ensure that the White Castle is taken into public ownership.  It would, I feel, be most suitable for use as a tourist office and a genealogical research centre for the entire county of Kildare.  Indeed it could also house a Local History studies section, as well as providing space for archival records of all types which need to be preserved for historical research.  The White Castle could be a unique centre for historical and genealogical research over a wide range of subjects covering the county of Kildare.  The opportunity to secure this irreplaceable part of our built heritage may never occur again.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

William Burgh Citizen of Athy and York

Some weeks ago I travelled as part of a group organised by the Federation of Local History Societies of Ireland to York and the Bronte country.  I had previously visited both areas but on this occasion took care to search for references in York to William Burg, politician and religious polemicist.  Burgh, who was the eldest son of Thomas Burgh of Bert and Ann Downes, daughter of the Bishop of Cork and Ross, was elected Member of Parliament for Athy in 1768.  He was just 27 years of age and owed his position as Member of Parliament to his distant relation, the Duke of Leinster, James Fitzgerald.  This was at a time when the Borough of Athy returned two M.P.’s to the Irish House of Commons.  Elected with Burgh in 1768 was John St. Leger of Grangemellon.  St. Leger had previously sat as Member of Parliament for Doneraile in County Cork.  He represented Athy for less than a year, dying in his first year in office.  St. Leger by all accounts was a dissolute character who enjoyed membership of the Hell Fire Club.  It was always believed that the St. Leger’s residence at Grangemellon was the venue for several meetings of the Hell Fire Club and David Ryan in his recent book on the Irish Hell Fire Clubs gives an account of what he calls the Grangemellon Hell Fire Club.

William Burgh retired as Member of Parliament in 1776 and was replaced by his younger brother Thomas who was again returned as M.P. for Athy in 1783, together with Lord Edward Fitzgerald.  Burgh, who had married Mary Warburton of Clane in 1768, the year of his election as M.P. for Athy, then moved to York where he remained for the rest of his life.

While he was a member of the House of Commons, Burgh was described as ‘a pert peevish boy’ who was accustomed to saying ‘any ill-natured thing’.  However, he appears to have undergone a change in character while in York where he undertook a lifelong interest in theology.  He published, initially anonymously, a book refuting the Unitarian rejection of the divinity of Christ and of the Trinity and followed it up with another publication which provoked further criticism by the Unitarians.  The University of York bestowed a D.C.L. on him in recognition of his theological work, especially his books on the defence of the Doctrine of Trinity. 

Burgh was well connected, his sister Margaret having married John Foster, Speaker of the Irish House of Commons, while his second sister Ann married Walter Hussey Burgh, Lord Chief Baron of the Irish Courts of Exchequer.  The controversy arising from his religious publications was added to by his support for William Wilberforce’s campaign to end slavery and his support for the American Revolution.  Burgh, given his background, might have been expected to support the Act of Union but in fact he opposed the union of Great Britain and Ireland.  The two Members of Parliament representing the Borough of Athy when the Union was passed, Richard Hare and William Hare, both voted in favour of the Union.

William Burgh was a friend of William Mason, the Anglican Minister and poet, whose friendship with Thomas Gray led him to write ‘A Life of Gray’ following the eminent poet’s death.  Mason’s most important literary work was ‘The English Garden’, published in four volumes between 1772 and 1782.  Burgh edited an annotated edition of ‘The English Garden’ a year later which found favour with Mason who wanted his Irish friend to edit a complete edition of his works.  Burgh unfortunately did not rise to the challenge.  He died on St. Stephen’s Day 1808 aged 67 years and was buried in the Lady’s Chapel at York Minster on 3rd January 1809. 

There is a fine monument to Burgh in York Minster, the work of Richard Westmacott, the eminent British sculptor who has numerous examples of his work in St. Paul’s Cathedral and in Westminster Abbey.  The York monument consists of a podium supporting a symbolic figure of Faith, holding a cross and an altar with the symbol I.H.S. in bronze and Burgh’s surname.  The long poetical inscription on the pedestal reads:-

            ‘Lost in a jarring world’s tumultuous cries
            Unmarked around us sink the good and wise;
            Here Burgh is laid: a venerable name,
            To virtue sacred, not unknown to fame;
            Let those he loved, let those who lov’d him tell
            How dear he lived, and how lamented fell;
            Tell of the Void his social spirit left,
            Of comforts long enjoyed, for ever reft,
            Of wit that gilded many a sprightlier hour,
            Of kindness when this scene of joy was o’er,
            Of truth’s etherial beam, by learning given
            To guide his virtues to their native heav’n;
            Nor shall their sorrowing voice be heard unmov’d
            While gratitude is left, or goodness lov’d,
            But list’ning crowds this honour’d tomb attend,
            And children’s children bless their father’s friend.’

On the edge of the slab supporting the figure there is an inscription in Latin which translates as:-

‘To William Burgh Esq., born in Ireland 1741, died in York 1808 aged 67 years.’

Is Burgh, I wonder, the only Athy man to be commemorated in stone?