Wednesday, February 12, 2014

The Irish in Frongoch - Athy and Rhyl

I got an invitation during the week to meet the Mayor of Rhyl and some of his colleagues from the North Wales town in County Denbighshire.  And what, I wondered, was the Mayor of Rhyl doing in Athy.  His visit I was told is part of a project funded by the European Union aimed at regenerating the economies of the Welsh town and Athy by promoting the development of enterprise in both areas.

I was intrigued at the link up between the two towns which was in a sense the renewing of connections first made over 800 years ago when marauding hordes of Anglo Norman’s sailed up the River Barrow and settled in the area of the old river crossing known as Ath Ae.  The Anglo Norman’s came to us from Pembrokeshire and elsewhere in Wales and amongst them was a family who were to take their surname, “Athy” from the place where they first settled on arrival in the land of the conquered Irish.  I am loathe to mention that another Anglo Norman family group which came across the Irish Sea at that time were the Taaffe’s whose name is recalled today in the Taff River and the Taff Valley, both of which grace the beautiful Welsh countryside.

The historical links between Athy and Wales go back a long way, but these links were forever strengthened when after the Easter Rising of 1916 over 1800 Irish men were detained in an internment camp in North Wales.  Frongoch is located in a small valley in North Wales, where soon after the start of World War I was located a Prison of War camp for captured German prisoners.  When the Irish men arrested after the 1916 Rising were transferred to English prisons where they were held for a few weeks, arrangements were hurriedly  made to vacate the Frongoch Prison of War Camp and make it ready for the Irish prisoners.  Amongst those prisoners were James and William Corrigan of Ballytore and John Frawley of Wolfhill, but so far as I can find out no men from Athy were imprisoned in Frongoch.  Frongoch is to be found south of the seaside resort of Rhyl but today there is no trace remaining of the former internment camp.

For many of the Irish internees this was their first experience of overseas travel and their only experience of life amongst the Welsh people.  While there had always been Irishmen who travelled to Wales to seek work during the dark periods of famine and unemployment in Ireland, the flow of emigrants to the Welsh principality was considerably less than it was to the industrial cities of England and even Scotland.

About 25 years ago I made my first trip to Wales, as distinct from my first trip through Wales which I had done on many occasions when I travelled by boat and train via Holyhead to London.  Wales was and remains an attractive location for family holidays and at different times I spent holidays in Saundersfoot near Tenby in South Wales, Prestatyn near Rhyl in North Wales and other Welsh centres, always staying within commuting distance of the Welsh border town of Hay on Wye.  I spent a week in Prestatyn about 20 years ago.  It was about four miles or so from Rhyl and I can recall how that summer Rhyl reverberated to the sound of people enjoying themselves in the North Wales resort.  Business along the sea front was booming, crowds were everywhere and the newly opened Rhyl Sun Centre, a tropical indoor swimming complex, had everything one could want to find under one roof.  Rhyl was the place to be that summer and even though we were staying in Prestatyn, a daily visit to Rhyl was always called for.

I travel to Wales a few times a year, or more precisely I visit Hay on Wye, a small town which I first came to know when it was a rundown town of about 2500 people with plenty of unoccupied and derelict buildings.  Richard Booth, a London book dealer, moved his book selling business to Hay on Wye over 25 years ago and purchased the town cinema which he converted into the largest second hand bookshop in Europe.  Soon other bookshops opened and in time the sleepy neglected border town took on the mantel of a book town where today upwards of 30 second hand book shops cater for visitors from around the world who come to Hay on Wye all the year around.

Just two years ago on a leisurely drive back to Holyhead and with some time to spare I detoured slightly to drive into Rhyl which I had not visited since my holiday visit 20 years previously.  I think it was July, it certainly was during the summer, but what I found shocked me.  The sea front was deserted, the huge Sun Centre was closed, and everywhere the once thriving resort businesses were closed, boarded up, or if open for business, were empty.  I wondered how a town could go downhill so quickly and reflected on how higher pay packets and lower overseas travel costs have probably killed that great British institution - the family seaside resort.

Thinking back on what I saw I well understood why Rhyl was included in a regeneration scheme funded by the European Union.  Regeneration presupposes a fall from the heady days of development generated by industry, commerce or in the case of Rhyl, by service industries and the need to rekindle the entrepreneurial fires which gave the place the spark and life it once possessed.

When I saw Athy linked with Rhyl in the same regeneration scheme I wondered what was the connection.  Our fall from economic development grace does not in any way match the Rhyl experience and indeed our sluggish performance in terms of growing the industrial and commercial life of Athy speaks more of the failure of underachievers than of someone who has achieved something and fallen on hard times.

Athy uniquely has festered in the doldrums for long after other neighbouring towns have advanced far beyond anything we have achieved.  Once the leaders in industry in County Kildare, Athy is today languishing amongst the also rans seemingly devoid of ideas, lacking in leadership and wallowing in a defeatist attitude worthy of the cinderella counties of Gaelic football.

Perhaps the most serious void in the armour of our town is the lack of effective leadership at corporate and business level.  Why should this be so I wonder?  Why do those men and women who could and should contribute hugely to the development of our town go AWOL when their skills and experiences are so badly needed.

Forgive me for sermonising, but I wondered about the relevance to Athy of a regeneration scheme if we haven’t got to the initial stage of benefiting from using and maximising our own strengths.  However, I suppose we won’t quibble no matter how economic development comes to our town.  How apt it would be if a 21st century connection between ourselves and Rhyl provided the key to unlocking the future development of the town founded by Welsh invaders in the 12th century.

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