With the passing of the old year and the ending of the 1916 centenary commemorations thoughts now turn in this decade of centenaries, to 1917. It was a year which witnessed the first Sinn Fein bye-election victory with the election of Count Plunkett at the expense of the Home Rule candidate in the Roscommon north constituency. His election was a harbinger of what was to follow in the Longford bye-election where another Sinn Fein candidate, Joseph McGuinness, by then a prisoner in Lewes jail was elected with the slogan, ‘Put him in to get him out’. This was the start of the upsurge in popularity for Sinn Fein which in the general election of December 1918 led to the collapse of the Home Rule party.
Here in Athy the first indication of the existence of a group of Sinn Fein sympathisers in the town was the holding of a concert in the Town Hall on 18th January 1917 to raise funds for the families of men arrested and imprisoned following the Easter Rising. The following month ‘Athy Hibernian Players’ performed a play, ‘The O’Carolan’ in the same Town Hall at the end of which the actors and their supporters stood to attention to sing ‘A Nation Once Again’.
Two months later in June 1917 a local newspaper, named for the first time the Athy men who had come together to form a Sinn Fein club. Their names are worthy of recording 100 years later and perhaps later in the year we will have an opportunity to commemorate their patriotism and courage in promoting the drive for Irish independence. Their names are John Coleman, Joseph Murphy, J.B. Maher, Michael May, Joseph May, Joseph Walsh, W.G. Doyle, T. Corcoran, Robert Webster, J. Webster and C. Walsh. Some of those named cannot be identified with any degree of certainty and I would welcome hearing from anyone who can help me to positively identify the men in question.
Another interesting development in 1917, but one without any political overtones, was the arrival of tractors in the South Kildare area. The Irish Times reported a tractor demonstration arranged by the local firm of Duthie Larges on the lands of C.W. Taylor at Forest. ‘It was for all the world like watching the tanks go into action with the townies behind to observe the two Overtime farm tractors at work’ reported the newspaper. Taylors apparently had owned a tractor for the previous three years and the experience had taught them that a tractor could plough 3½ acres in a day while a good man with a pair of horses could only plough half an acre in the same time. The arrival of the tractor was timely as local farmers had difficulty in replacing farm labourers who continued to enlist in large numbers during the 1914/18 war.
Another difficulty facing the general public in 1917 was the government restrictions imposed in March of that year on the output of beers and spirits. Concerned at the effect drinking habits had on production in munition factories and shipyards the British Government sought to control drink consumption in a variety of ways. Athy in 1917 with a population of 3535 had 40 public houses and between 40 and 50 men employed in the local malting industry. As a result of the restrictions on the brewing of beer and the malting of barley, malting works in Stanhope Street, Offaly Street and Nelson Street had to close temporarily. By May 1917 restrictions on the sale of liquor caused many of the local public houses to run out of supplies.
On Thursday 19th July 1917 the local Sinn Fein Club organised a concert in the Town Hall, again for the families of the 1916 prisoners. Arthur Griffith, President of Sinn Fein, who was making his first visit to Athy, addressed the Town Hall audience. Before the end of 1917 Eamon de Valera made what was his first visit to the town. He was accompanied by Arthur Griffith and both spoke from a platform in front of the Town Hall before a large audience which included members of Sinn Fein clubs from Athy, Bert, Milltown, Barrowhouse, Ballitore and Castledermot. De Valera’s visit was marked with the presentation to him of addresses of welcome by Athy Urban District Council and the local Board of Guardians. It was the same Board of Guardians which in May 1916 had condemned ‘the revolution in Dublin’.
Another important event which is worth commemorating in 2017 is the construction of the White Castle on the bridge of Athy 600 years ago. It was the Lord Luitent for Ireland Sir John Talbot who on behalf of King Henry V of England commissioned the erection of the fortified townhouse as part of the towns defences against the marauding O’Mores of Laois who attacked and burnt the town of Athy on several occasions. Until recent times it was generally accepted that the White Castle was built in 1417 but recent research by archaeologist Ben Murtagh raises unresolved questions as to the date of its erection. What is clear however is that its proper name is not Whites Castle but the White Castle from the white appearance of the exterior lime rendered walls which were lime washed. The White Castle located for strategic reasons on the bridge of Athy still holds sway as the most important building in the modern towns street scape.
Let us celebrate during 2017 the centenary of Athy’s Sinn Fein club and the six centuries of the White Castle of Athy.