In my wandering through second hand book stores I have come across some unusual tomes. Books found on the shelves of second hand shops always have had an interesting, if largely unknown, life on someone else’s book shelves. The provenance of books, unless they are extremely rare or valuable, is not something which can be readily ascertained. Hence, the importance of the much maligned bookplates occasionally found on books which serve to give us at least some information on previous owners.
Not every book however, is home to a book plate. Most of the books I have come across in the dark dusty corners of second hand book shops are without anything to indicate through whose hands they may have passed before finishing up again on a ‘for sale’ shelf. It is the old books with connections which hold most interest for the book lover or the local historian. The links to the past can be gleaned from inscriptions or dedications or book plates on books which one occasionally comes across on shelves far removed from the locality where they originally formed part of some persons library.
Take for instance a small hard covered book published in London in 1891 titled “The Science of Home Life - a text book of Domestic Economy” which I came across sometime ago. Neither the book title or its contents held any interest for me, but on the inside page was written in bold hand in ink “Monitresses Library, St. Anne’s School, Athy - 20th October 1891”. I had never heard of St. Anne’s School, Athy and my enquiries to date have proved fruitless. It was a book obviously provided for the female student teachers who assisted the qualified teachers by monitoring pupils in St. Anne’s School. But where in 1891 was St. Anne’s School? I guess it was part of the Sisters of Mercy School but the only names which have come down to us over the years are St. Michael’s, St. Mary’s and St. Joseph’s, the last named being the boys school in Rathstewart.
I am on a little firmer ground when I pick up a small book published in 1849 under the title “A short enquiry into the history of Agriculture in ancient, medieval and modern times”. My interest in the book stems from the sheet pasted onto the title page which indicates that it was part of the Athy Farmers Club Library. The Honorary Secretary was Richard Bagot, and the list of rules relating to the borrowing of books from the Athy Farmers Club Room was dated 16th December 1865. Books were lent for a fortnight and Tuesdays and Saturdays between the hours of one and three o’clock were the only times books could be given out or taken back.
Another book found among the debris of a booksellers shelves was one bearing on its title page an inked stamp which reads, “Athy Mechanic’s Institute”. Athy, like many other towns in Ireland and England, had a Mechanic’s Institute which clerks, shop assistants and tradesmen joined ostensibly for the purposes of furthering their education through lectures, but in reality where they met socially in convivial surrounds. The local Mechanic’s Institute, involved as it was in the diffusion of knowledge, understandably had a library to which the members had access and the book which I have in front of me now bearing the stamp of the “Athy Mechanic’s Institute” is the only one of the many Institute’s books which I have ever come across.
Rarer than any of the earlier mentioned books is one which I came upon many years ago bearing on its inside cover a pasted down printed slip which confirms that it belonged to the “Athy Literary and Scientific Institute”. The Institute was founded in Athy following a meeting in the Courthouse on 6th September 1848 and the minutes of that meeting held to establish the Institute confirms the nature and purpose of the new organisation. It reads:-
“Whereas it did appear to some persons desirable that the young men of the town of Athy who have been engaged in mercantile pursuits during the day, might when business would be over have some place where they might assemble mutually to improve themselves, they called with this view a preliminary meeting and resolved that a society be established in this town to be called ‘The Athy Literary and Scientific Institute’ with the object of the study and advancement of science and literature”.
Sometime in 1853 the “Athy Literary and Scientific Institute” became the “Athy Mechanic Institute” and it continued to have a reading room for its members in Emily Square for many years. These four books, of no great value in their own right, are an invaluable link with Athy town’s past. They will live on long after we are gone and continue to remind other generations of life and society in Athy in years gone by.
Recently when talking to an old time resident, I learned that unknown to me and while I was abroad on holidays, Mick O’Shea, formerly of Butler’s Row, died some months ago. I was saddened to hear that a one time neighbour whom I had known ever since I was a young fellow had passed away so quickly and so quietly. Mick was a long time resident of Butler’s Row, indeed himself and his sister were the last to leave that lane before the roofs of the small houses were removed a few years ago. There is a fine photograph taken by local photographer Robert Redmond which appeared in the local papers some years ago of Mick walking down the lane for the last time. Mick worked all his life in the I.V.I. Foundry where so many other local men earned their living amongst the sweltering heat of the coal fed furnaces and the dust of the moulding cases. He was a very reserved quiet man of very definite political views which did not allow any accommodation for De Valera or his followers.
With Mick’s passing I wonder is there anyone left who worked in the I.V.I. Foundry before or during World War II. I suspect Mick was perhaps the last of the old timers who each day walked through the People’s Park on their way to and from work. The I.V.I. was located alongside the park and daily the foundry churned out layers of soot which descended on the park and cloaked it and the adjoining houses of St. Michael’s Terrace in a fine dust. Nobody minded such inconveniences at times when jobs were scarce, but inevitably as the local community became less dependent on environmentally challenging jobs, the days of the I.V.I. in its historic location were numbered. Mick, I believe, retired before the I.V.I. closed for the last time and he continued to live in Butler’s Row for several more years before moving to a new house in Kirwan’s Lane.
Mick was a courteous and gracious gentleman who lived out his long life amongst friends and work colleagues in the town which is all the poorer for his passing.