Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Memorials in Athy

Memorials to the past, artistry in stone, whatever you may wish to call them, were not favoured in Irish provincial towns during the 19th century.  Understandable perhaps, when considered against the pressing needs of the day which allowed little time or opportunity for engagement with the arts.  Statues and memorials to prominent men, and indeed to some of doubtful prominence, were the vogue at a time when landlords and tenants were representative of a divided social order.  How many times in your travels around Ireland have you come across memorials to now long forgotten landlords or lords of the manor erected by so called grateful tenants.  Incidentally, it is almost always the men who are honoured in this way and seldom, if ever, were women commemorated in stone.

I was put in mind of this as passing out of Edmund Rice Square this evening I drove past the memorial erected in 1994 in honour of the Christian Brothers contribution to education in Athy.  It was a richly deserved honour and most appropriate given that after a presence in excess of 130 years in Athy the Christian Brothers are no longer involved in the local schools.  A few minutes later, driving through Emily Square, I passed the small monument  unveiled by President Robinson in the same year to mark the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Macra na Feirme.  Scattered around the town, but not always clearly visible to the passing public, are a number of artistic works commissioned by the Town Council to mark the opening of various housing schemes.  They are to be found at the top of Butler’s Row, Flinter’s Place and Bothar Bui.  While the latter pieces have some artistic merit, the absence of any link with the town’s history makes these public sculptures less interesting than they might otherwise appear.

Given the local Council’s apparent difficulty in getting together the necessary funds [or is it the will] to erect the ’98 memorial which was commissioned in 1998, it struck me that future housing schemes might be enhanced by memorials which have a direct link with the town’s history.  In that way a much more interesting level of public ornamentation could be provided which even as pieces of street furniture would be useful additions to our urban landscape.

If the local Council took on the idea in a favourable light then several suggestions for suitable memorials in the town could be considered.  First of all, of course, the erection of the ’98 memorial in Emily Square should be given priority to ensure that Athy does not get into the Guinness Book of Records for the most delayed commemoration of a bicentenary event.  Once the ’98 memorial is in place we can then start thinking about other memorials and commemorative pieces which could and should be raised to honour people and events from the town’s past.

Two immediately come to mind.  It is just a few years since the Sisters of Mercy vacated their convent which will shortly re-open as a hotel.  Since 1852, successive generations of Sisters of Mercy had lived and worked in the convent and the adjoining schools, not forgetting the local hospital, or workhouse, as it was when the nuns first arrived there.  How many nuns have come and gone in the intervening 153 years?  I don’t know the exact number but I remember counting the graves in the convent cemetery sometime ago and coming up with the figure of 94 burials.  To that must be added those nuns who left Athy to open convents in Callan, Rathdrum and Australia and then there are the more recent burials in St. Michael’s cemetery which at the last count came to thirteen, all of which occurred since 1996.  There are eighteen Sisters of Mercy left in Athy, living amongst the local community at four different addresses around the town.  They are for the most part elderly and the primary works the Sisters were engaged in for 150 years, education and hospital care, no longer engage their time or energies.

I recall receiving a query sometime ago concerning a Miss Ellen Moore who was granted a Certificate of Competence as a teacher in February 1875 and whom I understand taught for some years in the Turnpike school.  The Turnpike school consisted of two houses on the road leading out of Athy from the Canal bridge which in the 19th century was still called the Turnpike Road.  There was an unexpired lease of sixteen years on the houses which passed to the Sisters of Mercy and the nuns decided to equip the houses as an infant boys school and was referred to as a girls out school.  This was done to encourage children living in the area known as Beggar’s End to attend the school, as it was felt that the existing convent school in Rathstewart was too far away for young children to attend.  Two former monitresses of the convent school were appointed teachers, while two Sisters of Mercy came each day from their convent to help with the children.  The Turnpike school eventually closed in 1882 when the lease expired.  It was just another part of the town’s education system presided over by the Sisters of Mercy at a time when educational opportunities were limited.  The buildings which housed the Turnpike school no longer exist but the Sisters of Mercy who served the people of Athy over many years still have a presence amongst us.

Would it not be appropriate for the townspeople of Athy who were fortunate enough to benefit from their work to mark in some permanent way the contribution of the Sisters of Mercy to the town.  This brings me to my first suggestion for a commemorative piece sited in some suitable and permanent position in the town to acknowledge the charitable work extending over a century and a half of the Sisters of Mercy.

My second suggestion for a piece of public sculpture, which if created imaginatively could be an attractive and interesting addition to the townscape is a memorial to the war dead of Athy.  I have debated for a long time as to whether it would be appropriate for a town in the Republic of Ireland to erect a memorial to Athy men killed in World War I.  I always felt that the catastrophic loss of life amongst the local men in the 1914-18 war justified such a memorial which if erected would not in any way undermine our political beliefs or aspirations.  As against this there is the issue of commemorating local men who died in the War of Independence or subsequent Civil War and those not from this area who had the misfortune to be killed in this locality during those periods.

In the First World War the loss of life for Athy and many other towns throughout Ireland and Britain was on a scale unprecedented in history and never since repeated.  It was a war which started off with the full support of almost the entire Irish population but as those who survived found out to their dismay, that support faded away in the face of an emerging and ultimately successful Republican movement.  The war dead were forgotten, while those soldiers who thought themselves lucky to return home, were ignored.  Both groups were written out of Irish history, that is until the slow process of reclamation which began ten or so years ago brought their stories back into focus and regained a level of public acceptance which was previously lacking.

Any memorial to the Athy dead of World War I would serve as a memorial in the normal sense of the word, but also would right a very grave injustice perpetuated for so long against those men, mostly young men, workmen and unemployed alike, who with the encouragement of church and society leaders of the day enlisted to fight in the war.  The numbers who died in that war warrant some form of commemoration and a piece of public sculpture might be an appropriate way of remembering those unfortunate men.  I certainly believe that those who fought and died in the War of Independence and the Civil War should also be commemorated in the same way as their brothers, friends and neighbours who died in the Great War. 

I would like to encourage discussion on what is suggested in this article and whether you agree or disagree with the idea of public commemoration of this kind, let your views be known.  Memorials, like all forms of public art, can be interesting and informative, while at the same time enhancing the streetscape and providing a focal point for public open spaces.  Athy could with advantage add to its existing collection of such pieces while commemorating those who deserve to be remembered.

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