The Exhibition ‘A Century of Motoring’ presently on display in the Athy Heritage Centre highlights the story of Athy man William Ringwood McCulloch of Sawyerswood and his fascination with cars, especially vintage cars. It was an interest first stirred in the 15 year old boy as he stood watching the Gordon Bennett race in Athy in 1903. The Athy control for the race was on the Dublin Road at what is now the entrance to the Ashville housing estate. Perhaps the young Sawyerswood boy joined the many locals who stood on either side of the Dublin Road approach to the control point to watch Ireland’s first international motor road race. The young fellow was no doubt enthralled by what he witnessed that day for he would retain an interest in cars for the rest of his life.
William Ringwood McCulloch, the son of William Gordon McCulloch and his third wife Catherine Ringwood was 18 years of age when, with his sister Mary, he emigrated to Edinburgh. He joined his cousin, George Maxwell of Castlekealy, Naas, who some years previously had founded the Westfield Auto Car Company. The company prospered and William Ringwood McCulloch, known to his friends as ‘Ring’ McCulloch, was able to indulge his passion for cars, combustion engines and as the years advanced to foster his love for vintage and veteran cars.
It was while a member of a shooting party on the lands of Lord Cochrane of Cults at Fife Scotland in 1925 that ‘Ring’ noticed an engine harnessed to a circular saw. The keen eyed and knowledgeable Irishman had recognised a car engine which had once propelled a 1902 Arrol Johnston motor car around the Scottish highlands. The wrecked body of the car was soon discovered lying in a rather sad state in a nearby ditch. Unperturbed ‘Ring’ McCulloch got the permission of Lord Cochrane who was the owner of the engine and the car wreck to restore the car. He carried out the restoration work over a few years and the Arrol Johnston was driven in the 1938 Empire Expedition Run. The car lovingly restored by Athy man ‘Ring’ McCulloch would later be acquired by him and was driven in many veteran car rallies over the years.
The Arrol Johnston passed into the ownership of ‘Ring’s’ daughter Honor when he died in 1958. Honor and the car participated in several London to Brighton runs and for approximately 10 years the Arrol Johnston was exhibited in the National Motor Museum at Beaulieu. The car is now on display in Athy’s Heritage Centre which also houses the only permanent exhibition anywhere in the world devoted to the Antarctic explorer, Ernest Shackleton. This brings to mind the strange use by Shackleton of an Arrol Johnston car during his Antarctic expedition of 1907. Inevitably the motor car proved unsuitable for use in the snow drifts of the Antarctic and the expedition had to continue having abandoned the Scottish built motor car.
The current exhibition in the Heritage Centre tells the story of the Arrol Johnston motor car rescued and restored by ‘Ring’ McCulloch. It also tells a story of two County Kildare men, ‘Ring’ McCulloch from Athy and his cousin George Maxwell from Castlekealy, Naas who were the men behind the development of the Westfield Auto Car Company in Scotland. Theirs is an interesting success story and one brought to life by the majestic Arrol Johnston car which was presented by Honor McCulloch to the Heritage Centre in 2008.
It is more than appropriate that ‘Ring’ McCulloch’s beloved vintage car returned to his home town for Athy had many more family connections for him than that of the McCulloch’s of Sawyerswood. William Ringwood McCulloch married Frances Duncan, daughter of John A. Duncan, the proprietor of Duncan’s store in Duke Street and one time resident of Fortbarrington House. John Duncan sold Athy’s largest drapery store to Shaws in 1914, having disposed of Fortbarrington House some years previously. The family links go back even further to the time of Robert Molloy, master tailor of the late 18th century. He was a direct ancestor of ‘Ring’ McCulloch’s mother, Louise Molloy who in her young days lived at 26 Duke Street, Athy.
Robert Molloy held the position of Town Sovereign of Athy some years prior to the abolition of the Borough Council. This year marks the 499th year of Athy’s town governance but unfortunately we will not be able to celebrate the 500th anniversary next year as the local Town Council will be abolished in May. Strange to relate that we owe our Tuesday market and our initial foray into the realm of town self government to Henry VIII whose break with Rome led to the dissolution of our monasteries. However, it’s an Irish Local Government minister who brought forward the legislation to abolish our Town Council and so bring an end to 499 years of Athy town’s governance.
‘A Century of Motoring’ exhibition in Athy’s Heritage Centre is well worth a visit and will continue until 17th April.