Thursday, August 30, 2012

Martin Brennan

Martin Brennan is an Athy man whose story mirrors in so many ways the story of so many other folk born in this town in the years preceding and during the Second World War.  His is a story tinged with sadness.  His mother died when Martin was a month short of his second birthday.  She was Esther Territt from Meeting Lane before she married Michael Brennan after he returned from the 1914-18 war.  Martin was the youngest of eight children and he has no memories of his mother and no photograph of the young Athy woman who passed away when she was just 32 years old.  Esther’s brother Michael Territt was killed during the First World War and by a strange coincidence his death plaque bearing the name Michael Joseph Territt is on my desk as I write this article.

Martin’s father was one of the fortunate men who survived the war, even if he was never again to enjoy the good health which was his before he travelled overseas with the British Expeditionary Force.  Michael Brennan suffered for the remaining 42 years of his life from the after effects of gas poisoning. 

Three of the Brennan children died at a young age.  Infant mortality amongst Irish families in the 1930s was very high and it would take another decade or so before advances in medical science and care stemmed the unacceptable loss of young lives.  When Esther Brennan passed away on 10th October 1938 to join her three infant children who were buried in St. Michael’s Cemetery the rearing of the young Brennan family passed to Martin’s only sister Mona.  She reared the Brennan children after their father emigrated to England.  It would be many years before he returned to Athy and it was with his daughter Mona, then married and living in Pairc Bhride, that he found a home in his final years.  Michael died on 6th January 1960 and as the old soldier was laid to rest with his wife and infant children his military medals, the only tangible reminder of his connection with the dreadful slaughter of 1914-18 were buried with him. 

Like his father before him Martin on reaching manhood took the emigrant boat to England where he joined three of his brothers.  He worked with McAlpine for many years, traversing the English countryside in common with the Irish labourers who built and rebuilt the highways of that country.  He lived for a while in Lincoln where the ‘Lincolnshire Echo’ of 22nd July 1961 carried under the headline ‘Irish man rescues mother child’, the story of how Irish labourer Martin Brennan dived into the River Witham to rescue a mother and her four year old son from almost certain drowning.   Martin later returned to Ireland where he worked on the construction of the new Dominican Church which was opened on St. Patrick’s Day 1965.

His brothers Michael, Joseph and Timmy who had emigrated to England before Martin, all eventually took up residence in Lincoln.  Timmy died there in the 1970s, survived by his wife and family, while Michael died last year, aged 84 years.  Joseph still lives in the city of Lincoln where his two brothers have their last resting place.  Lincoln City is also home to a number of other Athy men, including Dom and Jim Kelly and members of the Maher family.

Martin who has been unemployed for many years was widowed last year when his wife Brigid passed away.  I have known Martin for many years and his story in so many ways is a story common to many other men living in Athy.  The loss of his mother at such a young age was a fate shared with many other locals, whether due to death or involuntary emigration.  Many families of the 1940s and beyond never enjoyed the security and comfort of a family group where both parents were present.  Deprivation and hardship was apparently an accepted part of life for many, yet the uneven struggle to survive did not appear to blunt the good nature so common to Athy folk. 

Martin will be 76 years old on 11th November next, the anniversary of the armistice of 1918, the day his father Michael realised for the first time in four years that he was no longer required to put his life at risk for the ‘cause of small nations’.

There are many instances of local families brought together by marriage where connections already existed by virtue of brothers, sons or fathers who soldiered together through the dreadful years of the 1914-18 war.  A Brennan and a Territt soldiered together in France and Flanders and the survivor Michael Brennan would return to his home town of Athy to marry Esther Territt, whose brother Michael lies buried in Mailly – Maillet Communal Cemetery, Flanders.  Michael Brennan lies in St. Michael’s cemetery with his wife Esther and infant children and the gravestone marking their grave also recalls the memory of their sons Tim and Michael who died in England.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Steyning and Thomas Moore's Bronham - their Irish connections

I escaped for a few days last week to travel through parts of rural England with Irish links, not always obvious, even to the most discerning tourist.  My first stop was in the beautiful town of Steyning, just a few miles north of Brighton.  It’s a pretty place, with a very active local society which has published an excellent conservation area guide, illustrative of the town’s history and its architecturally important buildings.  The society was formed in 1963 by locals with an appreciation of their heritage and since then the society has held a watching brief on local planning applications, with a view to preserving the essentials without unduly affecting progress.

Steyning has two important Irish connections, both strangely enough centered on the same street in that West Sussex town.  Church Street is the location of Chantry House where W.B. Yeats lived for the last two years of his life.  Just a short distance away at No. 2 Church Street is Gordon House where in the Registrar’s Office Charles Stewart Parnell married Kitty O’Shea in 1891.  The house bears a plaque commemorating that event which regrettably led to Parnell’s political downfall.

My next stop was Bronham in Wiltshire, the home for 35 years of Ireland’s poet and celebrated bard Thomas Moore.  Moore’s link with this tiny scattered village was due solely to his friendship with Lord Landsdowne, owner of nearby Bowood House and whose son, the fifth Earl will be forever associated with the Luggacurran evictions of the 1880s.

Moore, who married Bessy Dyke, an actress whom he met in Kilkenny, had lost two children before moving to live in a rented house, still called Sloperton Cottage, just a short distance from Bromham.  His wife who was an Anglican and Moore who was a non practising Roman Catholic had three further children while living in Sloperton Cottage. Tragically those children would in time die before their parents.

Moore spent 35 years in Bronham where he died in 1852.  He was buried in the cemetery attached to the local Anglican Church where two of his children, Anastasia and John, had already been buried.  His last son Thomas died while serving as an Army Officer in Africa in 1846 and he is buried there. 

On arrival at Bronham I was fortunate to make contact with the local historian Dennis Powney who generously gave of his time and a most interesting account of Thomas Moore and the Bronham connection.  The gravestone which lies over the remains of Thomas Moore, his wife Bessy and two of their children was augumented in 1907 with an 18 foot high Celtic cross which today towers over Moore’s last resting place.  It was erected at the behest of the then Rector, with financial contributions from both sides of the Irish Sea.

The historic and beautiful Church of St. Nicholas, the Parish Church of Bronham, is part Norman, with additions from the 13th and the 15th century.  The east window of the chancel is dedicated to Moore’s widow Bessy who died on the 4th of September 1865, 13 years after her husband.  Donated by her nephew Charles Murray the window was the work of the firm of William Morris to the design of Sir Edward Burne-Jones.  The association of these two famous names with the window is in itself sufficient to attach great significance to what is a wonderful example of 19th century glasswork.

Thomas Moore is commemorated by a stain glass window on the west side of the nave erected in 1879.  It was financed by American admirers of the bard and was the work of Cambridge artist W.H. Constable.  The inscription underneath the window reads: ‘This window is placed in this church by the combined subscriptions of two hundred persons who honour the memory of the poet of all circles and the idol of his own, Thomas Moore’. 

Later that afternoon I visited Sloperton Cottage where Thomas Moore once lived, but confined myself to viewing the exterior of the building as the present owners were absent.  It is I believe little changed from the time over 160 years ago when it was Moore’s residence.

One of Thomas Moore’s principal benefactors was the 4th Marquis of Landsdowne who lived in Bowood House, not far from where the Irish man lived.  Indeed it was the ready access allowed to Moore to visit and use Landsdowne Library which prompted Thomas Moore to move to Bronham.  I visited Bowood House later that same day and regretfully found no reference, that I could see, to Thomas Moore, in that part of the house open to the public.  The original huge mansion which was Bowood House in Thomas Moore’s time was demolished in 1955 and a smaller house adopted to meet the needs of the 8th Lord Landsdowne.  If evidence of Thomas Moore was absent from Bowood House, so was any reference to Landsdowne’s Irish estates in Luggacurran, which from 1886 witnessed wholesale evictions which drove many of those evicted to come to live in the town of Athy. 

Thomas Moore, Charles Stewart Parnell and W.B. Yeats have all left their mark on different parts of rural England, prompting this Irish man at least to seek out the links which bind the Sassenach and the Gael.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Athy Town Council celebrating 500 years of Local Government

I have been very surprised at the response to my article on the possible disbandment of Athy Town Council as part of the reorganisation of Local Government planned by the present Government.  The overwhelming view expressed by those who contacted me was extremely negative of the Town Council.  These views ranged from ‘the Council has done nothing for Athy’ to a more thoughtful assertion that Athy Town Council is powerless to make any contribution to the social or commercial life of the town.  Nobody, and I stress nobody, made any attempt to justify the continuance of the Council in its present format.  Only one person spoke of the need to give the Council more powers and greater access to finances to underpin the Council’s work.  That same person when questioned as to whether she supported the imposition of rates on private dwellings demurred at implementing what is conceivably the only sound financial basis for empowering local authorities.

One person, clearly dissatisfied with the alleged failure of County Council officials to reply to letters in a timely fashion, wanted the local Government reorganisation to include the disbandment of County Councils.  When I asked what should replace them there was a half hearted and clearly off the cuff observation that regional bodies comprising two or three counties might be formed in their place.  Visions of Health Boards which were constituted on a regional basis prior to the setting up of the soon to be disbanded H.S.E. dashed before me at the suggestion of regional bodies.  Pointing out the financial excesses and the failures attributed to the Health Boards of the past and the danger of the same problems infecting any new regional bodies prompted my friend to hastily withdraw her suggestion.  But she still stuck to her belief that the County Council should be replaced, even if she was not able to suggest what should replace the County bodies. 

One wonders if the Minister intends to consult with the people who are presently served by the current local Government system.  I would hope so as I am sure, given the response I received to my article, there are many individuals and groups who would want to make a contribution towards the public debate.

In three years time Athy will have the opportunity to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the granting of the town’s first Charter by King Henry VIII.  The inhabitants of the town were licensed to ‘erect, construct, build and strengthen the town with fosses and walls of stone and lime’ and to elect a Provost ‘from amongst themselves on the feast of St. Michael to guard and govern the town.’  This Charter was followed by a further Charter granted by James I in 1611 and the Charter of James II of 1689.  This latter Charter, a copy of which is in the Public Record Office in Belfast, was not apparently acted upon. 

The operative Charters established the Borough Council which continued to govern the town of Athy until it was abolished in 1840.  It was one of a number of Irish boroughs deemed undemocratic as the local people had not been allowed to stand for election to the Borough Council, nor given the opportunity to vote for elections to those Councils.

Here in Athy membership of the Borough Council was in the gift of the Duke of Leinster who nominated its members and those nominated held office as Burgesses for as long as they wished.  In the light of recent disclosures regarding the fraudulent behaviour of some elected representatives in other parts of Ireland, it is interesting to note part of the Oath of an Athy Burgess who swore allegiance ‘to the United Kingdom of Britain and Ireland’ as well as swearing ‘in all things belonging to the fellowship and Corporation of the town and Borough of Athy faithfully, honestly and indifferently behave myself for the most benefit worship and honesty of the said town and Borough and the inhabitants thereof.’

With what can be regarded as the first major review of Local Government in 1840 Athy Borough Council and many others were dissolved.  This led two years later to the setting up of Athy Town Commissioners.  The first Commissioners totalling 21 in numbers were sworn in on the 28th of February 1842.  Thereafter elections to the Borough Council were held periodically, even though voting rights were limited to persons owning property of a sizeable valuation.

The Town Commissioners petitioned the Local Government Board in 1898 to separate the town from the rural district of Athy and to constitute it as an urban sanitary authority.  As a result Athy was constituted an Urban District from 1st April 1900 and the first meeting of the Urban District Council was held on the following day under the Chairmanship of Matthew J. Minch.  The Urban District Council was renamed some years ago as the Town Council and it’s the Town Council which now faces into an uncertain future while it awaits the Minister’s decision on the latest round of Local Government reorganisation in Ireland.

No matter what happens we will continue to be served by some Local Government unit or other.  Hopefully then in 2015 we will be able to celebrate 500 years of local administration in the town of Athy.