Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Duncans of Athy

Duncan’s drapery business failed in or about 1912 and within three years the Duncan family had left Athy.  Beside that simple stark statement lies a family story with Athy connections which extend back to the second half of the 18th century.  It was 1780 or thereabouts that Thomas Duncan, the Scottish born member of the English Army settled in Athy.  I don’t know anything else of the first Athy based member of the Duncan family, a family which was to be represented in our town by successive generations of Duncan’s for upwards of 150 years.

Thomas had two sons, who although brothers had entirely different outlooks on life and religion.  For this information we are indebted to a pamphlet entitled “My Kindred” published by a family relation, John Duncan Rowe.  Thomas Duncan Junior was described by Rowe as a man who “was not in any degree affected by the new religious movement of the time and yielded to the usual besetments of his class”.  The new religious movement was a reference to Methodism which following George Whitfield’s initial visit to Ireland in 1738, developed apace until with the later visits of John Wesley upwards of 14,000 Methodist members could be reported by 1789. 

John Duncan was born in Athy in or about 1785 and unlike his brother Thomas he became an ardent adherent of Methodism and indeed was in time to become a Methodist Minister.  In “My Kindred” it is recounted how “John Duncan stood listening to a sermon preached from horseback by the Reverend Samuel Wood at the foot of Athy Bridge - he received the message and felt its uplift.”  After becoming the Methodist Minister John Duncan took over the Quaker Meeting House in Meeting House Lane which had been vacant for some years.  The Meeting House was built in 1780, many decades after the Quakers first arrived in the town of Athy.  The prime mover in the successful efforts to provide a purpose built meeting house for the local Quakers was Dublin Street linen draper Thomas Chandlee who was married to a sister of Quaker author, Mary Leadbetter from Ballitore.  Chandlee was a Dublin man and even as he achieved his ambition of building a Quaker Meeting House in Athy there were ominous signs that the local Quaker community was not likely to survive for very much longer in the town.  In fact the local Quaker members were unable to make any worthwhile financial contribution to the cost of the new building and had to seek the financial assistance of their Carlow based colleagues.  It was not an auspicious beginning for the Quaker Meeting House in Athy and true to tell within a few more years the building was lying idle. 

John Duncan who led the Methodist community in Athy when it took over the former Quaker Meeting House in 1815 married Clementia Howard, a daughter of Thomas and Margaret Howard of Kilkenny in 1808.  They had eight children, of whom the eldest, Julia, married James Farquar of Clones.  The young couple emigrated to Toronto, in which city Julia died at an advanced age.  A second daughter was born to John and Clementia Duncan in 1811 and Margaret Ann, as she was called, married her first cousin Matthew William Rowe in Athy Parish Church on 15th May 1835.  She died nine years later, just a year before the start of the Great Famine.  Thomas Duncan, the third child and eldest son of John and Clementia as a young man emigrated to Australia.  After making contact with his family back home in Athy he eventually disappeared and was never heard of again.  The second son, John Junior, like his father became a Methodist Minister.  The next child and youngest daughter was Clementia Duncan, a lady who in her time opened a draper shop in Duke Street with her sisters.  This was the start of the Duncan Drapery business and the small shop opened by the sisters was later taken over by their younger brother, Alexander.  The seventh Duncan child was Howard who emigrated to America and participated in the American Civil War which he survived.  The youngest child and fourth son of the Duncan family was Alexander, whose name is commemorated in the local Methodist Church.  Alexander who took over the draper shop first opened by his sisters developed and enlarged the business until it became one of the largest drapery stores in Athy.  He married Elizabeth Eades in 1843, just 11 years after his father John had died during the cholera outbreak of 1832.  Mr. and Mrs. Alexander Duncan purchased Fortbarrington House from the Barrington family and it was to remain the Duncan family home until about 1915.  The house is now called Tonlegee House.

Alexandra Duncan was a member of Athy Town Commissioners for many years, having been first elected in 1856.  He served as Chairman of the Commissioners in 1867, again in 1875 and finally in 1879 and in the Heritage Centre is a carved oak chair which he presented to the Town Commissioners following his retirement.  He was very much involved in the local Methodist community and purchased land in Barrack Street which he later presented as a site for a new Methodist Church to replace the old Quaker Meeting House which was used as a place of worship by the local Methodists for almost 70 years.  His contribution to the building of the Church is recalled in a wall plaque in the Methodist Church.  A second plaque commemorates his wife Elizabeth who on 12th June 1872 laid the foundation stones of the new Church in Barrack Street.  It is interesting to note that quite a lot of local people still use the name Barrack Street, even though the Town Commissioners changed the name to Woodstock Street in 1884.

Alexander Duncan died on 30th September 1887 and is buried in St. John’s Cemetery.  He was survived by his widow Elizabeth who lived on until 4th December 1907 when she died aged 89 years.  That same year on 13th April her daughter Maria died, aged 63 years, and both mother and daughter were buried in St. John’s Cemetery.

When Alexander died in 1887 the Duncan family firm occupied the largest business premises in the town of Athy which was situated on a prime site in Duke Street and bounded on the East side by St. John’s Lane.  John Alexander Duncan took over the family business on the death of his father, but for whatever reason the business went into decline and Sam Shaw who had served his apprenticeship with Duncan’s in 1901/03 bought out the business in 1914.  The Duncan family left Athy soon afterwards.

Elizabeth Coxhead wrote a novel called “The House in the Heart” which was published by Collins of London in 1959.  Coxhead was a grand-daughter of John Alexander Duncan and in a letter which she wrote to Winifred Letts who was married to William Verschoyle of the Verschoyle Estates in Kilberry, she described the book as “her Athy novel”.  In it she wrote of the holidays spent in Fortbarrington House with her great grand-mother Elizabeth Duncan and her grand-father John Alexander Duncan and his family.  The names of the people and the places mentioned in the book were changed, but the real persons and places involved were quite easily identifiable.

Several generations of the Duncan family played significant roles in the commercial and municipal life of Athy for many decades and their importance to the development of the Methodist Church in the town cannot be ignored.  By a strange coincidence the last Duncan to live in what is now Tonlegee House, John Alexander Duncan, was married to Louisa Molloy.  Almost 100 years later Tonlegee House is home to another Molloy family, but there is not I understand any family connection with the previous occupiers of almost 100 years ago.

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