Next year the centenary of Athy’s Golf Club will be celebrated, that is the centenary of the second Golf Club established by and for Athy folk. Just a few years previous to 1906 a Golf Club had been founded to cater for both Athy and Carlow town and the first course was developed at Gotham, Maganey, just a short distance away on the Carlow side of the Maganey Railway Station. The year was 1899 and the prime movers in setting up that club were Patrick Lynch who lived in The Abbey in Emily Square and Dr. Frank Brannan who lived in Kilkea Lodge. Both were experienced golfers, Brannan having played in Greystones where he served as Club Secretary in 1896 and the following year. Lynch was a founder member of Bundoran Golf Club which opened in 1894 and was its Club Secretary two years later.
Both Brannan and Lynch issued invitations in Athy and Carlow for a meeting in the Club House Hotel, Carlow on 18th May 1899 following which the Royal Leinster Golf Club was formed. A nine hole course was laid out by the Bray Golf Club professional, R. Larkin, on lands owned by a Mr. Conlan. The first committee of the new club included Fr. William Duggan, C.C., Athy and H.K. Twomey, Solicitor, Athy. For whatever reason the club was re-named Carlow Golf Club at the A.G.M. held in June 1902 and this may well have been due to a fall off in support by those in the Athy area. Certainly the motion to change the club name was passed unanimously and it would appear that the few Athy members still in the club at that time stayed away from the A.G.M.
Another four years was to pass before Athy was to have its own golf club. The Irish Field of 2nd October 1909 in a feature on Golf Clubs of Ireland referred to Athy’s Golf Club as having been founded following the calling of a meeting by John Corcoran. In fact the meeting was called by P.J. Corcoran who carried on a local auctioneering business in Emily Square in the premises now occupied by Joe McDonnell. He issued a circular for a meeting for the Urban Council Offices in the Town Hall on Tuesday, 30th January 1906.
Strangely a report of that meeting carried in the Leinster Leader of 3rd February makes no reference to Corcoran when listing the names of those who attended. The formation of a Golf Club was proposed by the local curate, Fr. William Duggan, and seconded by P.J. Murphy who was an Urban Councillor and proprietor of the Commercial House in Emily Square. A sub-committee was set up to make enquiries regarding suitable grounds for development as a course and a further meeting was arranged for the following Monday night. The speed with which the new club got off the ground was extraordinary and by the following meeting suitable grounds had been identified and a decision was made to lease lands at Geraldine. That meeting was attended by Patrick Lynch, formerly of The Abbey and co-founder of the Carlow/Athy Club in 1899 who by then was living in Monasterevin. He made his expertise available to the Club Committee, but did not otherwise take any active part in the new club.
On 14th May a lease was signed for the lands at Geraldine between the landowner, Mrs. Kate O’Neill, and the Trustees of Athy Golf Club, Matthew J. Minch of Rockfield and Canon O’Keeffe, the local Parish Priest. Minch, who, at a young age had been Chairman of Athy Town Commissioners and of the Athy Board of Guardians was elected Member of Parliament for South Kildare as an anti-Parnellite in 1892. He was subsequently re-elected unopposed in 1895 and 1900. Canon O’Keeffe has been appointed Parish Priest in May of the previous year following the death of his predecessor Canon Germaine. O’Keeffe had previously served as a curate in the parish and would remain in Athy for four years before transferring to Rathfarnham in May 1909.
Kate O’Neill was the widow of Dr. P.L. O’Neill and one of her sons, Dr. Jeremiah O’Neill, was medical officer for the Workhouse, as it was then called, where he replaced his father who had held the position since 1874. Mrs. O’Neill, who lived in Geraldine House, leased for a term of fifteen years four fields which were identified as New Orchard, Far Seasons, Fox Covert and Slang, on which the golf course was marked out. An indication of the uncertainty surrounding the new venture was a stipulation that the Golf Club Trustees, Minch and O’Keeffe, could surrender the lease at the end of the third, the sixth, the ninth or the twelfth year of the agreed term. It was never necessary to exercise that right as Athy’s Golf Club in its early years at least, went from strength to strength.
The first Club House or Pavilion as it was called was opened on 16th August 1906 by the Club President, Sir Anthony Weldon of Kilmoroney House. Sir Weldon had commanded the troops in Limerick during Easter week 1916 and would die of the effects of gas poisoning during the First World War. The first Club Captain was H.F. Lesmond, Manager of the Hibernian Bank. Lesmond was quite a good golfer and he set the amateur course record for the Athy course in October 1906. He was to set another record a few months later after his re-election as Club Captain when he was arrested and charged with embezzlement and falsification of accounts of the local bank. By a rather sad and strange coincidence he was brought before Thomas Anderson J.P. to be charged. Anderson was a fellow member of the Athy Golf Club. As a result of these events an Extraordinary General Meeting of the Club was held, following which Dr. Jeremiah O’Neill was appointed Club Captain.
The extended O’Neill family has had links with Athy Golf Club from its very foundation. Mrs. Kate O’Neill leased the lands for the course, her son Dr. Jeremiah was Captain soon afterwards and her grandson, also a doctor and bearing his father’s name, Jeremiah, figures in one of the more interesting stories concerning a past club member.
Dr. Jeremiah who was born just two years before the founding of Athy Golf Club served in the British Army Medical Corps in Malaya during World War II. He was captured by the Japanese and imprisoned for three and a half years in a small cell reputedly 7ft. long by 4ft. wide. Some years after his release, on a visit to his home town, he was playing a round of golf with Sean O’Connor and his brother-in-law Joe Carbery when O’Connor remarked to him “you haven’t played this course too often”. With a wry chuckle Dr. Jeremiah replied, “I played it every single day for three and a half years and you know not once was I able to drive the short six hole over the river”. In solitary confinement for long periods of his captivity the good doctor had maintained his spirits by revisiting in his minds eye games played in his youth on the course which was carved out from part of the O’Neill farm at Geraldine. His story is one which deserves to be told in more detail at another time and I hope to return to it again.
In the meantime a centenary history of Athy Golf Club is in preparation but I understand the Minute Books carefully maintained over the years, but last seen in the early 1990’s, have vanished. Is there anyone out there who may have an idea where the precious records of the past 100 years of golfing history in Athy are to be found. I would like to hear from you if you could throw any light on the subject.