Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Vernacular artefacts of another age

At no time in Irish history has interest in local history been so popular.  Here in south Kildare we can see everywhere around us the outlines of man’s work on the landscape or in the streets of our town.  I was reminded of this when I passed a jostle stone in Duke Street and later in the day as I opened the gate to my house in Ardreigh and looked over the Ha Ha at the nearby field.  The jostle stone and the Ha Ha are just two of the many man-made objects of a bygone age which are still with us today.

Duke Street, formerly St. John’s Street, has a number of jostle stones at the edge of buildings with entrances to what were once stables.  The jostle stones were positioned to deflect carriage wheels away from the building as they entered the passage way leading to the stables at the rear.

The Ha Has is a strange name given to a sunken wall or a ditch constructed to form a boundary without interrupting the view.  There is a Ha Ha at the end of my front garden facing into the adjoining field.  I wonder if there are any other examples of Ha Ha’s in or around Athy.

On the Carlow Road which I pass every day can be found a kissing gate.  The small gate swings within a circular cage so that only one person can pass through at a time.  Its construction was primarily intended to prevent animals having access to the railway line.  Your guess is as good as mine as to why it acquired the name ‘a kissing gate’. 

Nearby in front of Dukes Lodge is the only example I’m aware of a mounting block in Athy.  This is a large stone with steps intended to enable a not very agile person to mount a horse.

At the rear of the Town Hall one can still see the irons which once formed part of the town’s ouncel or scales.  In my young days I remember the weighbridge which replaced the ouncel and the small building used by the weighmaster Mr. Dempsey.  Farmers and traders selling goods by weight at the local market had to have those goods weighed at the ouncel. 

I have in previous articles referred to benchmarks.  These consist of a broad arrow with a horizontal line along the top indicating the exact height above sea level determined by the Ordnance Survey office.  The name bench mark comes from the surveyor’s angle iron which he used as a ‘bench’ or support for his levelling staff.  A book prize to the first ten persons to tell me the location of all the bench marks in Athy.

The town’s cock pit is perhaps one of the most interesting reminders of Athy’s past.  It was the subject of a previous Eye on the Past when I dealt with its history and eventual restoration in a cooperative action involving the building’s owners Griffin Hawe Ltd. and the late Niall Meagher, the then County Architect.  The cock pit is a very real reminder of a popular 18th century sport which continued well into our time, despite being outlawed in 1849.

A further reminder of our past, this time in a name are the outlying townlands of Grangenolvin and Grangemellon.  The town ‘grange’ refers to an outlying farm belonging to a monastery or friary which was generally worked by lay brothers or hired labourers.  The Dominicans, whose Friary was in the area known today as the Abbey, were the owners of the grange lands which were taken over by Royalists supporters following the dissolution of the Irish monasteries in the 1540s.

Another place name steeped in history is Gallows Hill.  As the name implies it was the site of the public gallows where executions took place.  It possibly marks the site of the original manorial gallows of Woodstock Manor.  Capital punishment was usually performed in public from an early age, and generally in a prominent site at the entrance to the medieval village.  The offender was brought through the High Street, now Leinster Street, of the medieval town of Athy to Gallows Hill where after hanging the body was left on the gallows.  The number of offences for which hanging was prescribed increased enormously during the 17th century.  Executions in public were abolished in 1868.

In nearby Castledermot is to be found in the grounds of St. James Church a hog back stone.  This recumbent stone with sloping sides lying on a grave gives the impression of a hogs back.  Hog back stones, found mostly in the north of England, are regarded by English historians/archaeologists as Saxon monuments of the 8th and 9th centuries.  The Castledermot stone is for some reason or other regarded as a Viking monument and offered as evidence of a Viking invasion inland as far as the south Kildare village.

Whatever the explanations we should never forget that local history is to be found not just in the man made artefacts of our town but in lives of the local people of our town and countryside.  It’s a subject I will return to again. 

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