On 21st August 1886 the Kildare Observer under the headline ‘Fatal Accident near Athy’ reported the death of 30 year old Edward McDarby who was killed when the horse and cart in which he was travelling went into the river at Clogorrow. The jury at the inquest on the following day returned a verdict that ‘the deceased Edward McDarby died from fracture of the spine at the base of the skull from a fall of about 15 feet down a slope, the horse and cart falling on him and death being instantaneous.’ A rider was added calling the attention of the County Surveyor to the imperfect state of the fence on the Clogorrow road.
The unfortunate man was survived by his wife, the former Margaret Lacey and four young children, the eldest a 10 year old daughter and the youngest a son just a few weeks old. With the loss of the family’s only breadwinner Margaret and her four children were compelled to enter the Workhouse in Athy. Dr. P.L. O’Neill, who as the County Coroner presided at the inquest, was the medical officer for the Workhouse where the Sisters of Mercy had recently taken over responsibility for the Workhouse infirmary. Margaret McDarby on entering the Workhouse was detained in the female ward, while her children were housed in a separate section of the building which was opened over 40 years earlier. The separation of parents from their children was part of the harsh regime which marked the operation of workhouses in the late 19th century. Within two years of entering the Workhouse Margaret McDarby died. On 29th March 1888 her remains were brought on the Workhouse trolley across the Stradbally Road to be buried alongside the hundreds of those who had died of starvation or disease during the Great Famine. Like all those who died in the Workhouse her grave was unmarked.
Fast forward to 2014 when with the magic of internet and email I found myself dealing with queries from a lady in New Mexico who was about to visit Athy from where her grandfather had emigrated. That grandfather was Edward McDarby who was three years old when his father was killed at Clogorrow and who lost his mother two years later in Athy’s Workhouse. Edward lived in Athy Workhouse until he was old enough to go to work on the Cosby estate in Stradbally. He later met and courted Ellen McCarthy who lived with her younger brother Martin in Athy and when Edward emigrated to America in 1909 Ellen followed a year later. Edward and Ellen married four years later and having settled in Manhattan, New York City had eight children, one of whom was the father of my female correspondent from New Mexico.
Edward, like his father and namesake, died tragically at a young age. He was 50 years old when in 1933 he was run down by a drunken driver and killed. New York was then in the grip of the Great Depression and the grieving widow and eight children faced an uncertain future. Thanks to a very charitable landlady who allowed the McDarby family to live rent free for as long as was necessary, the experience of the Irish Workhouse was not repeated.
The McDarby children all grew up to do well in America and when I met the visitor from New Mexico I could not but marvel at the courage of a family which had suffered so many setbacks over two generations. Maisy McDarby Stanovich came to Athy with her young daughter to visit the sites and places associated with her great grandparents and her grandfather. A visit was made to St. Vincent’s Hospital where courtesy of the Matron, Helen Dreelan, the American visitors were able to see the now disused old Workhouse wards and what was once the Workhouse Chapel. We walked from the Chapel to St. Mary’s Cemetery along the same route taken by the Workhouse staff who had brought Margaret McDarby’s body to be buried amongst the unknown and forgotten.
It was a sad and poignant journey for the visitors from New Mexico, recalling a great grandmother whose life was marked by tragedy and loss. Her story and that of the McDarby family was a familiar enough story in 19th century Ireland. The journey from Clogorrow to the Workhouse and from there to New York and New Mexico was a long journey extending over several generations. Family ties stretching outwards and downwards to the present generation were re-enforced and strengthened with the visit to Athy of New Mexico resident Maisy McDarby Stanovich.