This past weekend Athy hosted a number of events, one of which brought us face to face with our distant past observed as never before by a mature and confident Irish people. The other event was in its own way a mark of our growing confidence as a nation and our belief in the importance of our native language. Remembering a lost generation destroyed during World War I on Remembrance Sunday in St. Michael’s Cemetery was in a sense recalling the town’s recent history as a ‘garrison town’. On the other hand the taking over by the Gaelscoil of the recently built school building at Rathstewart spoke of a growing confidence in the Irishness of a people living in what was once an Anglo Norman town.
Our native language has been on the retreat for centuries. Indeed here in this part of County Kildare Irish has not been the everyday language of the local people for more than 200 years. Various attempts to revive the language were made over the years. The Gaelic League established in Dublin in 1893 as Conradh na Gaeilge opened a branch in Athy, when exactly I cannot say, but a contemporary note records that the Athy branch was ‘revived’ in January 1919. This was at a time when the anglicisation of Ireland was at its height and everything Irish was being thrust aside in favour of English ways. It was also a time when the law discriminated against the Irish language. Padraig Pearse in his only appearance before the Courts unsuccessfully defended a carter who insisted in putting his name on his cart in Irish rather than in English. Here in Athy an Irish teacher based in the newly opened Technical School in Stanhope Street was convicted and fined at the Petty Sessions held in the Courthouse for signing his name in Irish.
Brigid Darby, National school teacher, who lived with her mother in Leinster Street, was Treasurer of the Gaelic League, the Secretary being James Kealy, while Michael Dooley, shopkeeper of Duke Street, was the League President. The latter was also Chairman of the local Sinn Fein Club and the Gaelic League and Sinn Fein would appear to have shared many of the same members. The League put on Irish classes in the evening and employed James Tierney of Woodstock Street for that purpose, but for whatever reason the League appears to have discontinued operating in Athy in and around December 1921. It was revived again sometime in the late 1940s by Kevin Meany and others, but like its predecessors seems to have run out of steam after a few uneventful years. A further revival of the Gaelic League in the 1950s involving the late Paddy Walsh, Kevin Meany and others, also petered out after a while.
It was the setting up of Athy’s Glór na nGael in 1994 which in time proved to be the most successful Irish organisation in the town. The initiative came from Kathleen Robinson during her term as President of the local Chamber of Commerce. She organised the first Seachtain na nGaeilge. The aim was to encourage local shopkeepers to make use of the Irish language for one week in the year during the course of their business. Advertising signs in Irish, coupled with the effort to speak in Irish, was the aim of the Chamber of Commerce sponsored Seachtain na nGaeilge over the following few years. It was people such as Peadar O’Murchú, the late Paddy Walsh, Maisie Candy, David Murphy, John Watchorn and Kathleen Robinson who over the years kept the language movement alive here in Athy. Glór na nGael set up the first Gaelscoil in Athy in December 2004, using Aontas Ógra’s premises adjoining the former Dreamland Ballroom to accommodate its first Junior Infants Class. 21 young boys and girls enrolled that first week and their teacher was Michael O’Cuinneagain. The following November Sinead Ni Nualláin from Graiguecullen in Carlow joined the teaching staff and today Sinead is Principal of the seven teacher Gaelscoil Atha Í. In November 2005 the Gaelscoil moved from the Aontas Ogra premises to the Athy Soccer Clubhouse at the Showgrounds. There the classes expanded each year and were housed in the Soccer Clubhouse which accommodated two classes and in four prefabricated buildings.
The inter-denominational and co-educational school now caters for 144 pupils, with seven teachers. They are Sinead Ni Nualláin, Treasa Ni Earchaí, Fiona Nic Seon, Gobnait Bhreathnach, Doireann Ni Raghnaigh, Eamonn O’Ceidigh and Sorcha ni Mhisteil. The Gaelscoil is part of the Gaelscoil movement which operates under the Department of Education but its teachers are not part of the panel system operated by the Department. This is to ensure that only Irish speaking teachers are employed within the Gaelscoil system. Pupils start at junior infant level and by the end of their second year in senior infants most will have a marked proficiency in the Irish language. All subjects with the exception of English are taught through Irish.
Last Saturday I joined my first grandchild Rachel on the school’s Open Day which coincided with the transfer of the Gaelscoil from the Athy Soccer Club premises to the purpose-built school in Rathstewart. The building, just one year old, had previously housed part of St. Patrick’s Boys National School which has now transferred to another new building on the same campus. The Gaelscoil children, as you can imagine, were excited viewing their new school and parents and teachers alike shared in the excitement of their new premises. I was delighted to meet Sinead Ni Nualláin, School Principal, whose father Seamus and her grandfather Jim, who was in his time a member of Carlow Urban District Council, encouraged the use of Irish and so Sinead from a young age developed a proficiency in the speaking of our native tongue.
It is one of the great regrets of my life that despite fourteen years of primary and secondary education I was never able to speak the Irish language, other than badly. I blame the system of Irish teaching in vogue during my years in the Christian Brothers School. It was a system imposed by departmental mandarins whose lack of appreciation of what was required to develop Irish as a spoken language was indefensible. I left the educational system, like so many of my peers, disliking the Irish language, the teaching of which was so unappealing and quite frankly downright depressing. If, like me, you would like to repair the damage of an inadequate schooling in our native tongue, note that the Gaelscoil will be holding Irish language classes every Monday evening in its new school at Rathstewart, with beginners’ classes at 7 p.m. and improver classes at 8.15 p.m.
Two launches during the past week have given us here in Athy a cultural fillip, just in time for the forthcoming Christmas season. I missed the launch of ‘Skin’ Kelly’s book, ‘Winner alright – Skinner alright’, but made amends the following day by buying the book. I began reading it that same evening and enjoyed it so much that I did not put it down until the last page was reached. It is a delightful book, easy to read and well written. A thoroughly enjoyable book, it is highly recommended.
The Photographic Society’s exhibition in the Wet Paint Gallery (which used to be Miss Dallon’s shop combined with part of the old Leinster Arms Hotel) is a fine example of the artistic qualities of some of Athy’s finest photographers. Many of the Society’s members are truly artists with cameras, with the ability to capture and reproduce images as good as any created by artists working in different mediums. The Exhibition, which continues for a few weeks, is well worth a visit. The Photographic Society’s annual calendar is also on sale and it again shows twelve examples of the Society’s members best photographic work in and around Athy. It will make a wonderful gift for Christmas, especially for Athy people living abroad.