I am always surprised, and delightfully so, when apparently unconnected strands of historical information come together to form a story which helps to illuminate another forgotten or hidden aspect of Athy’s past. Last year I purchased a history of the Royal Hibernian Military School which opened in what is now St. Mary’s Hospital, Phoenix Park in 1770. The origin of the school goes back to the Hibernian Society, a philanthropic society founded five years previously to provide for the children of Irish soldiers serving overseas. At that time it was usual for Irish based troops to relieve English garrisons abroad and because only six families were allowed to accompany each company of a battalion on overseas duty, it resulted in a lot of young children being left behind. The Hibernian Society was granted permission to open a school to support the children of soldiers who were dead or abroad “in order to preserve them from popery, beggary and idleness and to train them so as to become useful industrious Protestant subjects”.
The school changed from being an orphanage when it was taken over by the military authorities at the turn of the 19th century, effectively becoming a military establishment and a source of boy soldier recruits. However, admission to the Royal Hibernian Military School did not require agreement to later become a soldier and indeed many of the young boys who entered the military school went on to become tradesmen. Nor was the admission of destitute orphan soldiers sons confined to those of the Protestant faith. Catholic boys were admitted a few years after the granting of Catholic Emancipation. A Catholic chaplain was appointed to the school in 1848 and a Catholic Church was built within the school complex a few years later.
When General Macready, Commander in Chief of the English forces in Ireland, issued an order for withdrawal of troops from Ireland in January 1922, the Royal Hibernian Military School authorities began preparations to leave the Phoenix Park site. By September 1922 all of the remaining students had left for England and amongst them was a young boy from Athy named Robert Henry Bloomer.
It is here that other pieces of information which came to me from different sources came together to provide the material for this article. Firstly, information downloaded from the internet by Annie Wright, formerly of Athy and now of Darlington in England which was passed on to me, gave the story of Robert Bloomer which he himself had titled “A Soldiers Orphan Story”. In it Bloomer wrote :-
“I was born on 22 November 1911 over Dempsey’s Drapery shop, which was opposite the Post Office in Athy, Co. Kildare. My father was Robert Newcomer Bloomer, born in Edgeworthstown, Co. Longford, in 1878. My mother Annie Maud was born in Sandycove, Co. Dublin.
Shortly after I was born we moved to a lovely house in St. Michael’s Terrace, Athy. My father, like many other Irishmen, joined the British Army and spent a short time in England, Mesopotamia and India. I attended the ‘Model’ School in Athy and the headmaster at that time was a delightful man named Rice.
In those days there was a large field opposite our home and we had grandstand seats when the circus visited. I remember Duffy’s very well and I became a friend of young Duffy. Whilst my dad was away my mother worked for the local Post Office. I loved Athy and especially the River Barrow. My dad came home twice on leave and after the second visit we saw him off on the Mail Boat at Kingston (now Dunlaoghaire). Then, in July 1919, while on his way home from India to be demobbed; my mother received a telegram saying my father was in hospital in Poona suffering from pneumonia. Four days later she received another telegram to say he had died and was buried in Poona.
My mother then had to look after my brother John Newcomer and myself. After a short time I was registered for two schools, the Masonic Boys School in Dublin and The Royal Hibernian Military School, Dublin. My mother was appointed caretaker of Athy Town Hall and Court House. The latter was burnt down a few days before she took over; however, we moved into the Town Hall. This was the time of curfew and many a night we slept downstairs under a bed whilst shooting took place in the square. One of my tasks was to light the candle in the Town Hall Clock. One of the perks of this job was to go in the side door of the hall and watch the visiting stars in the Town Hall. I remember one show had a singer who sang ‘I’m forever blowing bubbles’. Before going to the Town Hall my mother’s income was £2.10 pension, subject to reduction! This information is shown on election form for the Masonic School, which I discovered by accident.
The reference to the burning of the Town Hall points to the date of Annie Bloomer’s appointment as caretaker in July 1920. The building had been originally built as a corn exchange some sixty years previously but it’s use was discontinued after a short period following which it became the local courthouse. The burning of the courthouse on 15th July 1920 was, apparently, the action of a lone member of the local I.R.A. who acted without the authority and knowledge of his superiors for which he was subsequently court martialled and expelled for a period from the I.R.A. The building was to remain derelict for several years and in its dangerous unrepaired state was a source of many complaints from locals before Kildare County Council had it restored in 1928.
The next part of the Bloomer jigsaw fell into place when I came across an unconnected reference to a Robert Newcomer Bloomer, born in Edgeworthstown, Co. Longford in 1878 who came to Athy in 1900 to work in the local Post Office. At that time the Post Office in Duke Street occupied premises on the opposite side of the street to where it is now located. Robert Bloomer, the Edgwardstown man, was the father of the young boy who was educated in the Royal Hibernian Military School. He first entered the postal services as a learner in Edgeworthstown Post Office on 21st May, 1896 and he worked there for just under three years, during which time he rose to the rank of assistant sorting clerk and teller. On 18th February 1899 he transferred to Thomastown Post Office at a salary of twenty five shillings per week and remained there for one year before transferring on promotion to Athy post office. This was to be his last posting and while in Athy he married Annie Maud of Sandycove, Co. Dublin. Their son, Robert Henry, was born on 22nd November 1911 and as he related in the account of his own life, the Bloomer family lived over Dempsey’s drapery shop in Duke Street before moving to St. Michael’s Terrace which was built in 1913.
The post office worker, Robert Newcomer Bloomer, was 37 years of age when on 22nd September 1915 he joined the Royal Engineers. Several of his colleagues from the Post Office also enlisted, as indeed did a great number of local men, encouraged by the unqualified support which was then being offered for the war in Europe by Irish church and society leaders for the war in Europe. Bloomer became a Sapper in the third Signal Company of the Royal Engineers Regiment, no doubt due to his skill in telegraphy acquired over many years in the service of the post office.
He returned home on leave twice during the war and was fortunate to survive the awful conflict which saw so many of his townsmen killed or maimed. However, his luck did not hold out for on 17th July 1919 Robert Newcomer Bloomer, a post office official from Athy, died in Poona, India while awaiting to be transported home. The army authorities wrote to Mrs. Bloomer at St. Michael’s Terrace on 16th July 1919 advising her of the death of her husband from pneumonia. He is believed to have been buried in St. Sepulchres Cemetery, Poona, one of a large number of civil and cantonment cemeteries in India which the Commonwealth War Graves Commission subsequently found difficult to maintain. As a result Robert Bloomer’s remains and those of several hundred of his former army colleagues were re-interred in Kirkee cemetery adjoining the university town of Poona on the plateau above Bombay. His name and those of his comrades are recorded on the Kirkee 1914-18 memorial.
His wife re-married two years after his death and their young son entered the Royal Hibernian Military School from where he would later join the British Army and serve throughout the Second World War, retiring in October 1953. He died two years later in Cabinteely, Co. Dublin.
The story of Robert Newcomer Bloomer, post office official and World War I soldier has been distilled from a number of sources, all unconnected, yet carrying within them part of the story of the man who once lived and worked in Athy. He was just one of the many hundreds of local men who enlisted during the First World War and one of the almost two hundred Athy men who died in that war and lie buried in foreign soil.