The National Monuments Committee of Kildare County Council made a journey to Athy last week during which the Committee members and Council officials visited Woodstock Castle. The ancient stones of this neglected building have withstood wind, storm and rain for more than 600 years and during the first 200 years of its life, even more destructive elements such as arrow, lead shot and cannonball.
I was put in mind of how the stout walls of Woodstock Castle have resisted the depredations of man and beast and the unwelcoming elements as I stood outside its protective shuttering explaining its importance in terms of local, regional and national history.
To the disinterested passer by Woodstock Castle may seem to be an uninteresting pile, but hidden within its thick walls are stories of intrigue and rebellion. It was here that the disaffected native Irish sought to inflict punishment on the Anglo Norman settlers for their audacity in taking over land which had been theirs. It was there that the followers of Silken Thomas plotted and planned what would turn out to be an unsuccessful rebellion, while a century later Owen Roe O’Neill, the Confederate leader, had used Woodstock as his base after seizing the town of Athy.
The importance of Woodstock Castle in the history of Athy and South Kildare has not yet been fully assessed, but clearly the Anglo Norman Castle contains within its scarred walls stories and legends of the early years of the village of Athy which once boasted a monastery and a priory and survived constant attacks from the disaffected natives of the surrounding countryside. It’s a story which must await another day.
Last week two men with whom I have shared many experiences over the years began to wind down their last weeks as public representatives for the modern town which grew out of the building of Woodstock Castle on the western bank of the River Barrow. Sean Cunnane, a Mayo man, who in the early 1960s settled in Athy, a National School teacher by profession and my next door neighbour, has been a Town Councillor for 15 years. Party political labels are unnecessary at Town Council level where a shared interest in the common good of the local community is the basis for any desire to be elected as a public representative. Sean has been a fine public representative for his adopted town, bringing to his representative role experience, common sense and above all a grasp of the importance of community action in addressing the shortcomings in our present local government system. I wish him well in his retirement from the Town Council.
The second retiree is a man with whom I have been honoured to have shared a friendship since long before he became a member of the Town Council. Frank English is not a ‘blow in’ like Sean Cunnane or myself. He is a true Athyenian whose family connections go back generations and given his surname his forebearers may well have been a party to the original settlers who sailed up the Barrow over 800 years ago.
Frank first stood for election for what was then the Athy Urban District Council in 1967. I well remember that election for as a newly appointed Town Clerk for Kells in County Meath with just 4 weeks experience of the job I was responsible for the elections in that Meath town and the subsequent election count. It was a daunting task for one so young and inexperienced, but perhaps not so daunting as the role which faced Frank English in his home town as he put his name before the electorate for the first time. In 1967 he shared an election platform with the likes of Michael G. Nolan, Paddy Dooley, Jack McKenna, Tom Carbery and Michael Cunningham, all of whom were experienced local politicians of many years standing. The election held in June resulted in the election of Jack McKenna, Joe Deegan, Jim McEvoy, M.G. Nolan, Frank English, Tom Carbery, Enda Kinsella, Mick Rowan and Paddy Dooley. Since then Frank has contested 7 further elections, each time retaining the confidence of the local people who have returned him as a Councillor for a record 42 years.
His length of service in Athy Town Council is unique in these modern times. However, in the 19th century during the days of Athy Town Commissioners an even longer period of municipal service was commenced by Thomas Plewman who was first elected to the Town Commissioners in 1866. He replaced his father, also named Thomas, who had been elected to the newly formed Town Commissioners in 1847 as the Great Famine was still at its height. Thomas Plewman, the son, first elected in 1866, was continuously re-elected to the Town Commissioners and from 1900 to the Urban District Council until he retired on 3rd May 1920. He had contested his last election on 15th January of that year, only to retire months later when the Urban District Council decided to change the times of Council meetings previously held during the day to 7 o’clock in the evening. So ended 54 years of public service by Thomas Plewman and 73 years continuous service by Thomas and his father.
Frank English’s service of 42 years in more modern times is unlikely to be equalled in the South Kildare town, but the unique record of the Plewman family might be challenged as Frank passes to his son Conor the challenge of representing the people of Athy following this weeks local elections.
Athy’s streetscape, festooned with election posters, is a far cry from the election experience of 1967 when Frank English first canvassed for votes. The printing presses of today are busy as each candidate seeks the advantage of every available pillar, post and pole to display carefully posed photographs. Modern elections almost have the appearance of a beauty contest rather than as one might expect in local elections a contest based on local issues and personalities. Even worse perhaps is the unremitting and farfetched pronouncements of candidates on national issues as if election to the Town Council gives them a say in how those issues are to be decided.
The role of the Town Councillor is one which was readily understood and well practiced by Sean Cunnane and Frank English. If only all of those elected shared that understanding minds could be concentrated on helping to resolve the issues affecting Athy’s social, commercial and industrial progress.
Sean Cunnane and Frank English, to paraphrase the words of a former Taoiseach, ‘have done this town some service.’