Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Athy's Christian Brothers

It was twenty years ago that Brother Quinn, the last Christian Brother then living in the local Christian Brothers Monastery, left Athy.  His departure brought an end to 134 years of education in South Kildare by members of the religious order founded by Edmund Rice.

The first Christian Brothers arrived in Athy on Thursday, 8th August 1861 to open the primary school in a newly built single storied, two roomed building.  It had been built by local workmen and financed by local contributions, while the adjoining Greenhills House, once a private residence, was adopted for use as the Brothers’ Monastery.  The first Christian Brothers to arrive in Athy were Brothers Stanislaus O’Flanagan, Luke Holland and Patrick Sheely.  They travelled by train to Athy and were brought from the Railway Station by horse carriage to Greenhills House. 

The Christian Brothers School opened on Monday 19th August when 120 young boys were enrolled.  Over the next 134 years thousands of local school boys were educated at primary and secondary levels by several generations of Christian Brothers.  I have identified 180 of those Christian Brothers, but between 1870 and 1874 the monastery’s annals were not recorded and gaps also occurred at other times which did not allow a full list of the Christian Brothers in Athy to be compiled. 

On Sunday 24th September 1994 a celebration dinner was held in the local G.A.A. centre to mark the 150th anniversary of the death of Edmund Rice, founder of the Christian Brothers.  It was organised by a small group of local men and women who first came together the previous February but who learned soon afterwards of the proposed closure of the Christian Brothers Monastery and the handing over of the Christian Brothers schools to a lay Board of Management.  My first publication was the booklet ‘Christian Brothers Athy 1861-1994’ in which I attempted to set out the history of the school.  The following is an extract from that publication.

‘In 1931 owing to the large increase in the numbers in the Primary School an additional primary teacher was employed.  In that same year the school presented five boys for their Intermediate Certificate and three for the Leaving Certificate at the exam centre in Carlow.  That same year it is recorded that 75 schoolboys accompanied by 5 teachers attended the Spring Show in Ballsbridge which was noted as “a new venture for Athy.”  The sports and drill display was held in the Showgrounds on the 4th of October 1931 after 250 boys had paraded through the town from the school.  An aeroplane from Iona National Airways was hired for the day to give joy rides over the town and may possibly have been the first occasion on which an aeroplane was seen over Athy. 

In October 1931 work commenced on a new school hall by local contractor D. Carbery on ground donated by the Sisters of Mercy to relieve overcrowding in the Primary School.  Afterwards dedicated to the Sacred Heart it provided accommodation for manual instruction.  At the same time the playground was enlarged.  Fr. Maurice Browne, curate in Athy at that time and later the wellknown author of “In Monavello” and “The Big Sycamore” gave the first lecture in the hall on the topic “From Dublin to Rome”.  Local papers described it as well-illustrated and well-attended.

Pupils of the school were also involved in amateur dramatics around this time and in January 1930 they produced in conjunction with the girls from the Sisters of Mercy the play “Paul Twyning” which was put on in the local Picture Palace for the Christian Brothers School Benefit Fund.  In 1933 another play was also put on by the local boys for the school fund and in the same year it is noted that Mr. Scanlon of Newbridge commenced lessons on the violin with 40 boys from Athy Christian Brothers school.

In 1934 Athy C.B.S. achieved a notable victory on the football field when they beat Knockbeg College and later O’Connell’s School Dublin on their way to contest the Leinster Colleges Junior Football Final.  Unfortunately in the Final itself they were beaten by St. Mel’s College Longford.

In 1935 the Athy C.B.S. was a centre for the Intermediate Examinations for the first time where boys from the school and girls from the local Convent School sat the exams.  It was also of interest to note that five young nuns attended at the Centre to sit for their Leaving Cert.  Pupil numbers attending the school continued to increase requiring in September 1935 the employment of Mr. Pat Spillane as the second lay teacher where he joined Liam Ryan who had taken up duties in 1934.  January of 1936 witnessed an outbreak of diphtheria in the town and four deaths were recorded.  The schools were closed as a result of the outbreak.’

One past pupil wrote after the departure of the Christian Brothers ‘so from one poor school boy of long ago I just say thank you from my heart for giving us so much, for helping us so fully – and without ever expecting anything in return.’ 

Contact me if you would like a free copy of the booklet.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Some notables linked with Athy

The passing of Hilda Breslin, granddaughter of Labour leader Jim Larkin, prompted me to recall the noteworthy men and women of Irish history who have connections with our town.  In some cases the connection arose when the individual, for whatever reason, came to live in Athy.  One such person was Simon Vierpyl, the famous sculptor who died in 1810 and found a last resting place in the little ancient cemetery of St. Johns in the centre of the town.

Vierpyl, who was born in London in 1725, was a sculptor of exceptional ability who executed much of the decorated work for the famous Marino casino in Dublin.  His earlier work included the copying of 22 statues and 78 busts in terracotta of Roman Emperors and other figures from the Capitoline Museum, Rome which were presented to Lord Charlemont.  These works are now housed in the Royal Irish Academy, Dublin.  Vierpyl married for a second time in 1779 to Mary Burrowes, a member of the well known County Kildare family.  He died aged 85 years and was buried in St. John’s cemetery, Athy. 

Another, perhaps less well known person, who is buried in a local cemetery is Charles Campbell who came from Pertshire, Scotland to Kilkea in 1861.  Campbell subsequently enrolled as a member of the newly formed Queens Park Football Club in 1870 and played on the club’s senior team for many years, winning six Scottish cup medals between 1873 and 1886.  He was also capped for Scotland on thirteen occasions.  In 1889 he was elected President of the Scottish Football Association and eight years later he returned to Kilkea to take over the farm of his late brother David.  Charles Campbell died unmarried in 1927 and was buried in St. Michael’s Cemetery.

In a quiet corner of the same cemetery is the last resting place of William Grattan, a kinsman of the statesman, Henry Grattan.  William was a soldier who is now remembered as the author of his war memoirs published with the title ‘Adventures with the Connaught Rangers’.  He took part in many of the principal battles of the Peninsular wars where the English, under Wellington, fought the French led by Napoleon.  His memoirs were published in 1847 with two supplementary volumes six years later. 

St. Michael’s Cemetery also holds the grave of the Latvian Nationalist hero Conrad Peterson.  Having taken part in the Latvian Revolution of 1907 he subsequently left his native land for Ireland.  He was a friend of the Gifford sisters, two of whom were to marry the 1916 revolutionaries, Thomas McDonagh and Joseph Plunkett.  Peterson returned to Latvia after its country got its independence in 1918 where he was remembered and honoured as a hero of the 1907 Revolution.  He returned to Ireland on the invitation of Todd Andrews to head up Bord na Mona and he died in St. Vincent’s Hospital, Athy in 1981. 

Jim Larkin’s granddaughter came to live in Athy in 1967.  Athy was the home of Christy Supple who led the striking agricultural workers of South Kildare in July 1919.  That farm strike waged in parts of Counties Meath and Kildare ended on 23rd August after a meeting in Athy’s Town Hall between representatives of the Farmers  Union and the Transport Union.  Another farm workers strike broke out in November 1922 during which Christy Supple was arrested and imprisoned in Carlow Military Barracks.  That strike continued until November 1923 and caused enormous bitterness amongst the poorly paid farm workers of this area.  The Union involved was the I.T.G.W.U., which union amalgamated with Jim Larkin’s Workers Union of Ireland in 1990 to give us S.I.P.T.U.  Hilda Breslin and her late husband Sean were officers of S.I.P.T.U.  Christy Supple, Sean Breslin and Hilda Breslin, all campaigners for workers rights, are today at rest in St. Michael’s Cemetery.

This week was also marked with the passing of brother and sister Nancy Casey and Stephen Fitzgerald who died within days of each other.  Madge O’Neill at 99 years of age, the widow of Patsy O’Neill, formerly of Leinster Street and a member of an old Athy family also died.  All will be remembered with fondness by family members, friends and neighbours.

Ar dhéis Dé go raibh a nanamacha.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

The Great Famine and Athy

I recently bought a slim volume published by Afri Action with the title ‘They all had names’.   It was an updated edition of a previous publication dealing with workhouses and famine graveyards in Ireland.  Afri is a non government organisation which seeks to promote debate and influence government policies and practices on human rights, peace and justice issues.  One of the key objectives is the reduction of poverty which would probably explain why it organises the annual walk to commemorate the Great Famine at Doolough in southwest, Co. Mayo.  What is referred to as the ‘Doolough tragedy’ arose from what can only be regarded as bureaucratic incompetence and complete lack of consideration for fellow beings.  On Friday, 30th March 1849 two officials of the Westport Poor Law Union arrived in Louisburgh to check whether those people in receipt of outdoor relief should continue to receive it.  For some reason the inspection did not take place and the officials went on to Delphi Lodge, a hunting lodge 12 miles south of Louisburgh.  The people who had gathered for the inspection were told to appear at Delphi Lodge at 7.00 a.m. the following morning otherwise their relief would be stopped.  Hundreds of destitute and starving people had to undertake, what was for them given their state of undernourishment, an extremely fatiguing journey in very bad weather. 

A letter writer to a local newspaper, The Mayo Constitution, reported shortly afterwards that the bodies of seven people, including women and children, were subsequently discovered on the road side between Delphi and Louisburgh overlooking the shores of Doolough Lake and that nine more never reached their homes.  Local folklore maintains that the total number who perished because of the ordeal they had to endure was far higher. 

This occurred at a time when the worst of the Great Famine had passed and here in Athy conditions were reported to have returned to a degree of normality given the success of the 1849 potato crop.  But what was domestic normality in 1849?  Was it similar to the scene reported in the Chronicle Newspaper of 31st January 1824 which read ‘Labour is but very indifferently paid – sixpence a day is the utmost which a labourer gets; but, alas!  There is no parish or poor-fund for the wretched family to draw upon, when sickness renders them unable to work.  This is not all – the farming labourer is not employed for a period of time throughout the year exceeding six months.  The whole of the winter is spent in idleness.  During that time the creatures live by expedients; and what expedients must they have recourse to, whose luxuries in the plentiful season consist of only succedaneums for natural food? – How can they provide food and necessaries for the winter season, who find it difficult to live in the abundance of the harvest time?  They may have a few potatoes, but they must confine themselves to two meals a day at most.  What fuel they are able to obtain is chiefly collected from their charitable neighbours.  Sometimes they procure a spot of bog where they are enabled to manufacture a small supply of turf.  To make up the deficiency of necessary fuel, they wander about in search of sticks, brambles, &c. and gladly seize upon the bulls that are hackled from the flax.  By means of these scanty supplies they contrive to wear out the winter.  The poor peasantry are totally unacquainted with the luxury of meat; milk is a blessing which they are equally strangers to. – Surely on the face of the earth there is not a more destitute, more miserable population.’

The Great Famine in Athy resulted in the deaths of 1,205 persons in the local Workhouse and in the nearby fever hospital.  These unfortunate people were buried in St. Mary’s Cemetery across the road and the Grand Canal from the two hospitals.  Regrettably their last resting place has been neglected over the years and the booklet earlier referred to ‘They all had names’ had this reference to St. Mary’s.  ‘The graveyard of St. Mary’s is unkept and badly maintained by Kildare County Council.’

It is a sad reflection on all of us that we have allowed this sacred ground to be forgotten, although I have to acknowledge that the volunteers in the local cemetery’s committee have done some work in recent years in St. Mary’s. 

Could I appeal to local County Councillors to spend some of the discretionary monies, which I’m told is available to them, in maintaining St. Mary’s Cemetery?  This year we will gather in St. Mary’s cemetery on the Great Famine Commemoration Sunday in May to remember the men, women and children from our town and the outlying regions who spent their last days in the local workhouse.  Their names are forgotten but the famine dead should always be remembered and their last resting place should never again be allowed to fall into neglect. 

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Henry O'Hagan Statements to the Bureau of Military History

I came across the following statement amongst the many hundreds of statements given to the Bureau of Military History by veterans of the Irish War of Independence.  The Bureau was established in January 1947 by Oscar Traynor, Minister for Defence who was himself a former captain in the Irish Volunteers.  Its purpose was to collect information from those men and women who played an active part in the War and included former members of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, the Irish Volunteers, Cumann na mBan, the Irish Citizen Army and the Irish Republican Army. 

To my knowledge no Athy native made a statement to the Bureau and for that reason the short statement I uncovered during the week is an important record which adds to our knowledge of those difficult times.  The statement was made by Henry O’Hagan who before coming to work in Athy lived in Trim, Co. Meath where he was a member of the Irish Republican Army.
‘In 1918 I went to work at my trade in Athy, Co. Kildare and as a former member of the Trim Volunteers I transferred to Athy Company through the I.R.B.  I was elected company Adjutant and Bapty Maher was Captain.  Athy at that time was a very hostile place as out of a population of 4,000 about 2,000 had British Army associations.  About June 1918 we got orders from the Carlow Brigade staff to raid all houses where we knew arms were kept.  I was told to meet Commandant Malone at the Showgrounds.  He sent me from there to the 7th Lock to John Hayden who was in charge of the party there which consisted of six men.  Being a stranger he sent a boy to show me the place.  On arrival there we raided the house of ex British Captain by the name of Hosie who had two sons serving in France at the time.  We knocked at the door of the house and when he opened it we hid in the shadows until he went back down the hall.  We opened the door and followed him down and asked him for the guns that were in the house in the name of the republic.  He stood with his back to the wall and fought us off with a clothes horse.  I carried a club and struck him with same.  As I struck him he flung a lighted oil lamp in his face.  My shower proof coat was all blood.  On my way back through the town with young McNamara, he was only a boy, two R.I.C. men came meeting us.  I told the boy that if they stopped us I would have to shoot.  He said “you shoot one and I will shoot the other”, but the two R.I.C. men went up a side street before we came to them.  When I got home to my digs, Lawler’s public house in Barrack Street Mr. Lawler asked me where I was and what happened to me.  I told him I was out at Seven Stars and fell off the bike as I was cut around the ear and mouth.  This man Lawler was a Sinn Feiner, as was the boss I worked for, but they were against the physical force movement.  The street I lived in was raided on that night by the R.I.C., but my digs were not.  About five days later I was arrested in Gillespies where I worked and brought to the police barracks for interrogation.  The R.I.C. had got the Sinn Fein members names but I had not joined the Sinn Fein Club.  That I think saved me.  After about four hours interrogation by police and head constable I was let out but told I would be arrested again.  I cycled back to Trim that evening and I was in Trim at the time of the 1918 elections.’

Commandant Malone, referred to in the statement, was Eamon Malone of Barrowhouse who for a time was Commandant of the Carlow/Kildare Brigade I.R.A.  John Hayden was from Offaly Street, and with his brother Paddy was actively involved in the I.R.A.  Bapty Maher, who will be remembered by many, had a bicycle shop at that time in Duke Street which was subsequently attacked and thrashed by local ex British soldiers.  Mr. Lawler of Barrack Street was the publican and carpenter Edward Lawler, whose descendants continued in the family pub business up to recent years.  Gillespies were carriage makers with a premises in Duke Street.  I have not been able to identify the young McNamara boy but the 1911 census has a family of that name living in Ardree with three boys, James, Patrick and Lawrence.

The distinction between the Sinn Fein organisation founded by Arthur Griffith and the Irish Republican Army is clearly confirmed by O’Hagan’s statement.  There was undoubtedly some common membership between both organisations, as for instance Bapty Maher was a Sinn Fein member, as well as being an I.R.A. activist.

The full extent of the I.R.A. membership in Athy and South Kildare is regrettably difficult, if not impossible, to identify given the failure of those involved to make statements for the Bureau of Military History.  It is a great pity as so much information regarding the 1916-1923 period of our local history is now lost to us.