Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Aidan Prendergast and Athy Scouts



Voluntary work within the community is one of the most valuable contributions one can make to society.  Many of us make that contribution on an irregular basis, but to find someone with a lifelong commitment to volunteerism is understandably unique.  One such person is St. Patrick’s Avenue resident Aidan Prendergast who 38 years ago founded Athy Boy Scouts and who recently received the Order of Cu Chulainn for profound and long service to scouting.  It is, so far as I am aware, the first time this particular award has been made to an officer of the local scouting group.

In 1977 Aidan, then working with the local building firm of D&J Carbery of St. John’s Lane, was approached by the local curate, Fr. Prenderville.  He was asked to help with the setting up of a Catholic Boy Scout troop in Athy at a time when a separate Bading Powell Scout group were operating out of the Church of Ireland Hall at Church Road.  I am happy to relate that both scouting groups amalgamated in 1995 to form a Scouting Ireland troop. 

The initial meetings of the 1977 scouting movement were held in the Leinster Arms Hotel where Aidan was joined by Breda O’Neill of St. Joseph’s Terrace, Mairead Walsh of Stanhope Street, Jackie Johnson of Dooley’s Terrace, Christine Condron of Ratharrig and Trish Robinson of Dooley’s Terrace.  I hope that in recording these early pioneers of scouting in Athy I have not overlooked someone – but if so let me know as it is important in recording local history of this nature to ensure that the record is as accurate as possible.

The Leinster Arms Hotel meetings resulted in the setting up of a scout troop catering for boys of 12 years of age.  Weekly scouting sessions were held in the vacant Christian Brother’s School in St. John’s Lane and as the movement grew a group of cub scouts was also established.  The old school premises had in time to be abandoned and alternative premises were made available courtesy of the Athy Development Association.  This association founded by Bill Fenelon, Trevor Shaw, Johnny Watchorn and others did wonderful work in its time to encourage industry to locate in Athy.  It was responsible for the purchase of lands later developed as the Woodstock Industrial Estate and also assisted the local boy scouts in transferring its activities to the old Minch Norton stores at the Canal Harbour.  There the scouts remained for 10 or 11 years.

The ongoing growth of the scouting movement prompted the setting up of a parents committee with the stated purpose of raising funds to acquire a permanent home for the scouts.  Fundraising over a number of years proved sufficiently successful for an approach to be made to the then Parish Priest, Fr. Philip Dennehy, for a new scout headquarters.  Part of the old British Legion Hall site at St. John’s Lane, which in later years housed the Social Club and subsequently the C.Y.M.S., was acquired for a new scouts den.  Development work by Jim Lawler, Building Contractor, started in 1990 and shortly afterwards the 5th Kildare Athy Scouts moved into their new premises.

In 1995 the two separate scouting movements in Athy came together and today operate as one troop based in the St. John’s Premises under the name ‘Scouting Ireland’.  Nowadays the movement caters for approximately 100 boys and girls under a variety of categories with interesting titles as Beavers, Cubs, Scouts, Venture Scouts and Rover Scouts.  Scout meetings are held 6 days a week with Beavers catering for 6-9 year olds coming together on Thursdays.  Cubs with members aged 9-12 years meet on Wednesdays, while scouts, catering for 12-15 year olds come together on Friday.  The older groups, Venture Scouts, catering for up to 18 year olds and Rover Scouts for over 18 year olds, meet on Saturdays and Mondays.

Some weeks ago the founder and former group leader Aidan Prendergast was presented with one of Irish scouting highest awards in recognition of his ‘dedicated and steadfast commitment to scouting which impacted on the lives of many young people.’  Aidan, while still involved in scouting, is no longer the local group leader, a position occupied in the past by Cecilia Crowley and presently by Fergus Lennon. 

Others involved today in Scouting Ireland in Athy include John Delaney, Jackie Eustace, Mary Fricker, Niall Davis, Dave Ward, Ray Whelan, Breda O’Connor, Johnny O’Connor, Stephen Horan and Sandra Lennon.  Again I am conscious in giving a list such as this that there is always the possibility of omitting someone whose contribution deserves equal mention.  Let me know if any such person has been omitted.

The scouting movement has gone from strength to strength encouraging young boys and girls to become involved in a wonderful range of outdoor activities including camping, mountaineering, hiking and kayaking.  All of these under the guidance and leadership of a group of adults whose commitment to their community is perhaps best shown by the work of the founder of the 5th Kildare Athy Scouts Aidan Prendergast over the last 38 years.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Athy's 19th century prison



An inspector attended the jail located in White’s Castle in 1825.  He was highly critical of the condition he found writing ‘this is, without exception, the worst County Prison I have ever inspected, as there are no yards, pumps, hospital, chapel or proper day rooms’.  The inspector went on to state that he had been assured that the Duke of Leinster was making available ground for the construction of a new jail. 

The Poor Law Commissioners visited the new jail in 1840, primarily in preparing a report for the Houses of Parliament in London, to make comparisons between the diet available to workhouse inmates and those in local prisons.  They noted that the prisoners in the Athy jail received eight ounces of oat meal and one pint of milk for breakfast while their dinner was four pounds of potatoes with a pint of sour milk.  Prisoners did not receive any supper in the evening.  The commissioners noted that meat was rarely ever tasted by the Irish peasant and that the diets provided in prisons and workhouses did not differ greatly from that enjoyed by people living in their own homes.  This was an ominous indication of the extreme dependency of the Irish population on the potato, the loss of which would wreak havoc when blight hit the potato crop in the years following.

The new jail built in 1830 on the Carlow Road was well established by the time prison inspectors visited on the 29th of September, 1848.  On the date there were 34 male and 17 female inmates.  They noted that this was 22 prisoners less than on a previous visit.  Accommodation for the inmates consisted of 22 single cells and 3 solitary cells together with 2 rooms.  They found that the solitary cells were well ventilated and dry but rather narrow.  In the middle section of the jail there were 25 cells with 1 prisoner each and two rooms with 3 prisoners in each room.  They noted the cells had no form of heating and they didn’t seem large enough for their occupants.  The jail generally was very dry, clean and in good repair and the building was in what was described as a 'proper state'.  There was only one bath in the jail which was located in the pump house and was used by the prisoners when they were first admitted or if ordered to be washed by the jail’s physician.  The inspectors complained that the prison chapel was far too small and that prisoners were obliged to stand during the religious services as there were no benches.  They also noted that there wasn’t sufficient accommodation for the prison staff all of whom had to sleep and live in the one room and the erection of a second staff room was recommended.

Prisoners spent their time tailoring, shoe making, painting, carpentry, oakum picking, mat and net making and stone breaking.  One of the prison officers, who was also a tailor acted as an instructor to the prisoners and all the clothing for the prison was made by the prisoners themselves.  Two of the prisoners worked in the kitchen and in return they received 2 hours schooling from one of the prison officers.  This was not a facility available to other prisoners.  The female prisoners were supervised by the Governor’s wife while the assistant Matron was her niece.  The women inmates spent their time sewing, knitting and washing.  There were two children in the women's side of the jail at the time of the inspection.  The prison authorities devoted one hour and a half daily to what was described as ‘moral instruction’ for the female prisoners.  It was noted that the female prisoners had made progress in respect of same.  However the inspectors noted with some concern that there wasn’t sufficient separation between the male and female prisoners and that many prisoners in the adjoining cells could easily communicate with each other. 

There had been changes in the dietary habits of the prisoners since the Great Famine.  Breakfast consisted of four ounces of oatmeal and four ounces of Indian meal with one pint of milk, while dinner consisted of a pound of brown bread and a pint of new milk.  Potatoes had disappeared from the menu.  The inspectors though did note that there had been a brief return to supplying potatoes to prisoners for a period of time but this was discontinued as they were unable to obtain a good supply of potatoes. 

Interestingly the Protestant Chaplain to the jail visited 85 times while the Roman Catholic chaplain did so only 36 times while the surgeon attended on the prisoners 88 times in the previous year.        

The Carlow Road jail closed in 1860 when the prisoners transferred to the Naas jail.  Around the same time Athy lost the Quarter Sessions which had previously alternated between Naas and Athy.  Some of the cells in the White Castle jail are still to be seen, while only a small portion of the 1830 jail is still standing.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

The Dominican Order leaves Athy



Evening dusk was fast falling as the procession lead by a colour party of retired soldiers preceded by a local pipe band started out from Tanyard Lane.  The dark cloaked members of the Order of Preachers followed behind their colleague bearing a crucifix and flanked by lantern bearers.  In keeping with the Dominican tradition Christ’s image faced the members of the Order as they walked in procession.  They were walking away from a history accumulated over 758 years, a history marked by persecution, expulsion, imprisonment, torture, death and in latter years by peaceful adherence to a ministry of fellowship.

The evening shadows darkened as the Friars, walking three abreast, turned into High Street and approached the bridge across the River Barrow.  That same bridge in darker days witnessed six young local men escorted by militia men as they marched to their place of execution in the Canal docks.  It was then a time of political turmoil, even as the religious restrictions imposed on the Dominican friars and their fellow Catholics had begun to relax.  It would take another 31 years before the passing of the Catholic Emancipation Act.  Only then would the Athy Friars consider it prudent to move from their small priory in Convent Lane on the Dublin side of the town to a larger building which could accommodate a modest chapel in which the local people worshipped. 

Pipers’ music filled the air as the procession reached the Market Square, passing by the town’s Shambles where for centuries meat was exposed for sale.  Turning into Kildare Street the Friars steady march brought them near to the Clonmullin marshlands.  There in pre-emancipation days a large church was built with the benefit of State compensation paid for a maliciously burnt church of smaller proportions which had been hidden away in one of the town’s laneways.

The arrival at St. Michael’s Church was the beginning of the final act in the assimilation of the ‘Dominican Catholics’ of Athy as ‘Parish Catholics’.  The difference was one of allegiance, one of custom and tradition perhaps and one evolved over the years as the Friars and the Diocesan clergy kept their separate places of worship.

Seven hundred and fifty eight years of history was about to be absorbed as we participated in a service of welcome and thanksgiving for the Dominicans of Athy.  Earlier in the acoustically splendid St. Dominic’s Church we were encouraged while looking forward to remember those good friars who ministered to us and our predecessors.    Their names were not always recorded and living memory extending back two or three generations at most brings to mind only some of those fine men whose ministry overseas and laterally in Athy brought comfort and peace to so many. 

One part of the life of Athy died that Sunday afternoon as the Dominican friars took leave of their priory and for the last time closed the doors of the Dominican Church.  Four hundred and seventy five years ago the friars left Athy for the first time as King Henry VIII suppressed the local priory.  Then Prior Robert Woulff withdrew his small community of friars without ceremony.  The Dominicans would later return to Athy, even if a second withdrawal was necessary before they could return in peace and without harassment in the mid 18th century.  For the next 265 years the Dominican Friars of Athy continued their ministry amongst the people of Athy which their predecessors had first started as French speaking friars amongst the Anglo Norman settlers of the 13th century.  Their Athy ministry is now finished and as the last prior of Athy, Fr. John Walsh, lead his fellow friars augmented by Dominican friars from other Dominican houses in Ireland in procession through the streets of our town the people of Athy came out in their hundreds to show their gratitude.

The entire occasion was full of emotion and the sight of the friars walking away from their church which was closed for the last time was a particularly telling moment.  The hundreds who attended the ceremonies included members of our separated church brethren which was wonderful to see.  Many Dominican Mass servers of old were to be seen in the congregation and I was particularly delighted to see that the three sons of my old teacher Bill Ryan had travelled from Cork, Limerick and Maynooth to participate in last Sunday’s farewell.

The Dominicans have left us a huge legacy of which they can be justifiably proud.  They have also left us a history which we should never ever forget.  They were part of our community life for centuries and indeed they were our most enduring link with a history stretching back to within a few decades of the foundation of Athy as a settlement.

The loss of the Dominicans to Athy will be measured as the years gather pace but even now we know that the departure of the Friars Preachers from the town founded on the Ford of Ae has left a void in all our lives.

PS: I have given the street names as they were when the Dominicans returned to Athy in the early part of the 18th century.