Recently I was asked who in my opinion was the most noteworthy person ever to have walked the streets of Athy. How I wonder does one rate the many interesting persons who at one time or another passed this way, many of whom like the monastic buildings recently rediscovered in Letterkenny have been forgotten for generations past. Many names spring to mind, some of whom have featured in past Eye’s on the Past while others have yet to appear. Soldiers have always had a prominent position in Irish history and two local men from opposite sides, as it were, could well justify inclusion in any call up of noteworthy citizenry of Athy.
Victoria Cross Medal winner John Vincent Holland, hero of an infantry attack on enemy positions in Guillemont during the 1914/1918 War undoubtedly merits mention. On the other hand Eamon Malone, Commander of the Carlow/Kildare I.R.A. Brigade during the War of Independence deserves inclusion. Malone’s name is today remembered in Malone Place, one of the Town Council’s most recent housing developments situated off Woodstock Street. Another man of the military mode, was Seamus Malone, no relation of Eamon, a native of County Limerick who spent a few years teaching in the local Christian Brothers School in the early 1920’s. Seamus, a brother of Tomas Malone of the East Limerick Flying Column was involved in the Volunteer movement and was in Howth helping to unload the Asgard of guns purchased in Germany by Roger Casement. Malone was later imprisoned in Frongoch but on his release resumed his involvement with the Republican movement which continued until his death in 1959. He was the driving force behind the reforming of the Athy Gaelic Football Club in the early 1920’s and as a school teacher he championed the cause of the Young Emmets as the Club was then called. I hope to devote a future Eye on the Past to Seamus Malone, one of the many extraordinary men to have passed through our town.
One of the religious entrants for the title of most noteworthy person of the past is Narraghmore born John Miley who as a Catholic Priest accompanied Daniel O’Connell on his last trip abroad. Miley who was born in 1799 attended the Ballitore Quaker School and after studying in Maynooth College and Rome was ordained to the priesthood. He was an accomplished preacher and while a curate in the Pro Cathedral, the Liberator, Daniel O’Connell, sought the permission of Archbishop Murray for Miley to accompany him on his trip to Rome in 1847. Fr. Miley was with O’Connell when he died and in accordance with O’Connell’s wishes he took the casket containing his heart to Rome before conveying the Liberators body back to Ireland. Fr. Miley delivered the funeral oration on Daniel O’Connell in the Pro Cathedral, Dublin. He was appointed Director of the Irish College Paris in 1849 and during much of his ten years in that position the Narraghmore man was embroiled in controversy involving Fr. Patrick Lavelle, the outspoken supporter of Irish Nationalism. The Ballitore born Archbishop of Dublin, Paul Cullen, eventually felt obliged to recall Fr. Miley from the Irish College and he returned to become Parish Priest of Bray where he died two years later. Miley was a noteworthy character of his time who like so many of his peers was soon consigned to the unread pages of Irish history.
Similarly overlooked after years in the forefront of Irish land agitation was William Conner of Inch, Athy. He first came to prominence with the publication of his pamphlet entitled “A letter to the people of Ireland on the disturbances of 1822”. Conner had a most interesting lineage being the illegitimate son of Arthur O’Connor and a cousin of the Irish born Chartist Fergus O’Connor. The earlier mentioned Arthur O’Connor was part of the first Leinster Directory of the United Irishmen but resigned in 1798 and went to England where he was arrested and imprisoned. On his release he went to France where he was appointed a General by Napoleon Bonaparte. His son William used the surname Conner and although a property owner of considerable means, he devoted his time and energy to campaigning on behalf of Irish landless tenants against the rack-renting system. In his second pamphlet published in 1832 entitled “The Speech of William Conner against Rack-Rents etc. Delivered at a Meeting in Inch” Conners outlined his ideas on the land question - fair rent and fixity of tenure. Conner addressed meetings around the country and he was possibly the first Irishman imprisoned for his agrarian views. He published several more pamphlets on the Irish land question and greatly influenced that other land reformer, James Fintan Lalor. Conner’s land reform views were ultimately adopted by the British Prime Minister, Gladstone, and to the Inch, Athy man must go accolade of Father of the three F’s - Fair Rents, Fixity of Tenure and Freedom of Sale.
Fr. John Miley and William Conner will hopefully feature in future Eye’s on the Past, but the man whom I chose as the most noteworthy person of the past has appeared in this column before. He is Thomas Kelly, son of a High Court Judge, who was ordained to the Church of England but left that Church to found his own religious group known as the “Kellyites”.
Thomas Kelly was an acquaintance of John Walker and John Nelson Darby, two fellow priests of the established Church who like Kelly were to turn away from the Church of England. Walker founded the “Walkerites” who had a presence in Dublin up to the 1940’s while Darby was the principal party in the founding of the “Plymouth Brethren”. Kelly founded the “Kellyites” and soon had followers, not only in his hometown of Athy but also in Blackrock and Great George’s Street, Dublin, Portarlington, Wexford and Waterford.
Thomas Kelly was a hymnologist of some merit and during his lifetime he published eight editions of his hymns entitled “Hymns on Various Passages of Sacred Scripture”. The first edition in 1804 contained 96 hymns and the final edition which appeared 49 years later had a grand total of 767 hymns, all written by Thomas Kelly. Several of his hymns such as “The Heart that Once was Crowned with Thorns” and “We sing the Praise of Him who died” are still included in Church hymnals to this day.
Kelly was also the author of several pamphlets including “A letter addressed to the Roman Catholics of Athy occasioned by Mr. Hayes Seven Sermons”. Another pamphlet of special interest to Athy folk was printed in 1809 under the title “Some Account of James Byrne of Kilberry in the County of Kildare addressed principally to the Roman Catholic inhabitants of Athy and its neighbourhood”. In 1834 the Kellyites in Athy numbered approximately 40 and they met every Sunday in their Duke Street Chapel. Thomas Kelly who married Elizabeth Tighe of Rosanna, Co. Wicklow lived at Kellyville but generally went to Dublin every second Sunday to take service in the Great George’s Street Chapel. He died on Monday, 14th May 1855 while staying with his son-in-law in Pembroke Place in Dublin, and was buried in Ballintubbert. With his passing the Kellyites disappeared as a separate Church group as its members rejoined the ranks of the established Church, and in some cases the Methodist Church.
Thomas Kelly was the first noteworthy local man from the past whom I rediscovered as a result of my research. After decades of neglect his name again became a familiar one to students of our local history. For me Rev. Thomas Kelly will always have a special place in the story of our town.