Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Whites Castle and its recent owners


Last week’s article was written before I received an email from America telling me that Whites Castle was about to be put on the market for sale.  You will recall that under the headline, ‘Athy Awakes from Slumber’.  I had advanced the case that Athy was about to reposition itself in the drive for tourist development on the basis of several projects currently planned for the town.  The announcement that for the third time in twelve years Whites Castle is for sale presents the local community and Kildare County Council with a huge challenge.  When the castle first went on the market in 2005 half-hearted attempts by Athy Town Council to acquire the property were quickly dashed by the successful bid at auction of Gabriel Dooley.  Gabriel’s ownership of the castle saw the 15th century fortress opened to the public for the very first time.  As a native of Athy but with business interests in County Wicklow and elsewhere Gabriel went to great lengths to bring the story of the castle and its involvement in our national and local history to a wider audience.  He expended substantial funds in replacing the roof of the castle and in carrying out remedial works under the supervision of an archaeologist and with the agreement of Kildare County Council.



Gabriel Dooley’s ownership of the castle gave Athy locals the first ever opportunity to see the interior of the building which with the adjoining Crom a Boo bridge provides the iconic image which is commonly associated with the town of Athy.  Sadly Gabriel, who had wonderful creative plans for community engagement and participation in the use of the castle, had to release his ownership of the property.  This resulted in the sale of the castle in 2012 when it was purchased for a much smaller figure than that realized some years previously.  Again, to the dismay of many locals the then Town Council failed to step up to the plate and buy the castle, even though the price achieved was less than the price of an average four bedroomed semi-detached house.



Athy Town Council has since been dissolved and our local authority is now Kildare County Council.  That Council has brought forward many worthwhile schemes and projects, some of which I alluded to in last week’s Eye on the Past.  As a former Council official I am acutely aware of the many demands which are continuously made on public funds at local and national level.  Those demands need to be prioritised and it is that process which can sometimes push particular projects to the end of the line, never again to be resurrected. 



Is the purchase of Whites Castle such a project?  I suggest not, since the iconic building is for Athy people, a part of what we are.  It is our history and so we should ensure that we preserve for the future the building, which in itself is important, but which can be developed and used as a part of the tourist regeneration drive about which I wrote last week.



With the recent departure of the Dominicans from Athy we have lost a link with our history stretching back 760 years or so.  Whites Castle, built perhaps 150 years after the Dominicans arrived in Athy is with Woodstock Castle the most visible reminders we have of our past history.  That history can also be noted in Athy’s street names which record the connection going back hundreds of years between successive generations of the Fitzgerald families and the town of Athy founded by the Anglo Normans soon after their arrival in Ireland in 1169.  The development of Whites Castle as a Fitzgerald Museum would be a meaningful attraction in this area and would represent an appropriate use of a former Fitzgerald stronghold.



Many years ago during the late Joe Bermingham’s time as the Minister for State for responsibility for the Office of Public Works I wrote to Joe asking if he would have Whites Castle designated as a national monument.  Joe unfortunately was either unwilling or unable to accede to the request and so a great opportunity was missed then by a local government minister to protect Whites Castle.  Another opportunity now arises to put the castle into public ownership and so ensure its preservation and further utilisation by and on behalf of the local community.  Could I suggest that Kildare Co. Co. and the local community here in Athy come together to see what can be done in that regard?






Tuesday, March 7, 2017

The future for Athy


Athy has been slumbering for a decade or more.  The town which over the centuries has gone through many cyclical booms and depressions is, I believe, on the cusp of a major revival as it repositions itself in the ever-expanding Irish tourist market.  As the County Kildare town with the most attractive town centre it is about to witness a makeover courtesy of the ongoing Emily Square Redevelopment Scheme.  This comes in advance of a major restructuring of the local Heritage Centre which last year was granted full museum status by the Irish Heritage Council.



The foresight shown by Kildare County Council in acquiring the Dominican church for redevelopment as a town library releases the entire early 18th century Town Hall for use as a museum of national, if not international importance.  The latter status will in time accrue as the Shackleton exhibits added to over the years bring the story of the Kilkea-born polar explorer to a wider audience.  The rejuvenated town square will add enormously to the attractiveness of the Shackleton Museum in much the same way as the recently erected Shackleton statue has done. 



Athy in the past was never developed or promoted as a tourist destination but with the development of the museum and the plans for the Barrow Blueway along the canal towpath the time has come to look anew at tourism as a key addition to the revival of the town’s fortunes.  The tourist boat for hire, berthed at the former town harbour, is a welcome tourist related initiative under the recent Town Regeneration Plan.



The acquisition by Kildare County Council of the Dominican property on the west bank of the River Barrow affords a unique opportunity to use the Dominican riverside field as a facility in connection with the Barrow Blueway.  Walkers, cyclists, fishermen and boaters will undoubtedly make greater use than ever before of the River Barrow and the Grand Canal once the Blueway development is finished.  It is important therefore that here in Athy we are ready to provide for these visitors and what better way than to develop Blueway orientated facilities at or near the location where the only river and canal juncture in Ireland occurs.  Athy, to its advantage, could so easily be developed as an attractive and key stopover on the Barrow Blueway.



The southern bypass or outer relief road is planned to be in place within the next 4 or 5 years.  When it comes, it will make a huge difference in terms of town centre traffic.  The removal of through traffic especially HGVs and lorries will permit the creation of more pedestrian friendly shopping streets from Augustus bridge to the Railway bridge.  Many English towns are witnessing a revival of fortunes with the reopening of independent shops supported by customers who have become disenchanted with the sameness of multinational chain stores.  The future for provincial towns, whether in England or in Ireland lies, I believe, in a sensible mixture of independent shops and larger stores, each complimenting each other in town centre locations rather than in out of town shopping centres. 



Here in Athy we have an excellent range of parking facilities positioned around the town which if properly managed could support and promote an active retailing town centre.  While there is some concern regarding the proposal to remove car parking from the front of Emily Square, such car parking spaces that will be lost can be readily replaced.  Why not, I suggest, develop part of the derelict Abbey site as a car park facility, leaving that part of the site adjoining the River Barrow for retail or apartment development?  If we hope to develop the tourist potential of the town we must provide adequate car parking facilities which brings me to the contentious issues of car parking fees.  It is accepted that the revenue generated by parking fees is one of the many funding sources needed by Kildare County Council and must therefore be retained.  However I would hope for a more imaginative and shopping friendly system of parking fees.  Shopkeepers pay rates and their customers deserve some consideration in terms of parking facilities.  Why not allow the first hour parking to be free and while doing so encourage more people to shop in the town centre and by doing so support the independent shopkeepers.



Retailing is the heartbeat of a town centre.  It must be encouraged in much the same way as  tourists coming into or through Athy have to be encouraged to stop and share the local experiences.  The Barrow Blueway, the Shackleton Museum, and could I hope to dream, the development of a Fitzgerald Museum in the White Castle could catapult Athy into the forefront of the tourism industry in County Kildare.


Friday, March 3, 2017

Famine Orphan Emigration Scheme (Part 1)


Some years ago I visited the Hyde Park Barracks Museum in Sydney and viewed the Australian monument to the Irish Famine.  It was commissioned in 1999 by the Historic Houses Trust of New South Wales on behalf of the Great Irish Famine Commemoration Committee.  The sculpture consists of a bronze table piercing the sandstone wall of the museum with the names of the orphan girls sent out from Irish Workhouses to Australia sandblasted onto glass panels.  It includes a shelf with a few potatoes, a shovel, some books and personal belongings with three bronze stools showing evidence of womens clothing and needlework.



The orphans commemorated in this monument were the more than 4,000 girls from Irish Workhouses who in the aftermath of the Great Famine were selected by government officials to be sent to Australia between October 1848 and August 1850.  The Orphan Emigration Scheme was devised by Earl Grey, the British Secretary of State, as a means of alleviating overcrowding in Ireland’s workhouses and in an attempt to lessen the imbalance of the sexes in Australia.



Criticism of the Orphan Emigration Scheme was led amongst others by the Anglican Bishop Goold of Melbourne and much of that criticism was based on fears that an influx of orphan females, the majority of whom were Catholics, would ‘Romanise the Australian colonies’.  The Orphan Immigration depot in Adelaide was described as a ‘government brothel’ and claims were made and reported that the orphans were not the ‘kind of people suited to Australia’s needs.’  In the face of increasing mounting criticism the Scheme was abandoned at the end of 1850, but not before more than 4,000 young orphan girls had landed at Adelaide, Melbourne and Sydney.  Amongst their numbers were two groups of girls from Athy’s Workhouse.  The first group of 18 girls travelled in the ship ‘Lady Peel’, arriving in Sydney on 3rd July 1849.  The second and last group of girls comprising 16 former inmates of Athy’s Workhouse arrived in Sydney on the ship ‘Maria’ on 1st August 1850.  The details of those who arrived in 1849 are:-











NAME
AGE
ADDRESS
PARENTS

RELIGION
Carroll, Ann
17
Athy
Martin and Biddy
Father in America
R.C.
Clare, Ann
17
Athy
Patrick and Ann
Mother living in Athy
R.C.
Connor, Lucy
19
Athy
James and Eliza
Both dead
R.C.
Croak, Bridget
19
Stradbally
John and Ann
Mother living in Hyde, Kildare
R.C.
Dobson, Margaret
17
Athy
Joseph and Julia
Both dead
R.C.
Egan, Bridget
18
Athy
John and Jane
Mother living in Athy
R.C.
Fitzpatrick, Eliza
19
Monasterevin
Stephen and Elizabeth
Both dead
R.C.
Flemming, Catherine
18
Athy
Barney and Catherine
Mother living in Athy
R.C.
Flemming, Rose
19
Ballyadams
Patrick and Mary
Mother lives in Ballyadams
R.C.
Green, Mary
18
Athy
John and Catherine
Both dead
R.C.
Hayes, Mary
18
Athy
John and Mary
Both dead
R.C.
Hayes, Elizabeth
18
Athy
John and Mary
Both dead
R.C.
Ivory, Bridget
17
Athy
James and Margaret
Both dead
R.C.
Moore, Bridget
18
Athy
James and Mary
Father in America
Mother living in Athy
R.C.
Murray, Ellen
18
Athy
Hugh and Jane
Mother living in Athy
C. of E.
Neill, Margaret
18
Athy
Michael and Catherine
Both dead
R.C.
Sinclair, Ann
17
Àthy
Patrick and Mary
Living in Athy
R.C.
Sullivan, Ellen
18
Athy
John and Ellen
Mother living in Athy
R.C.







......................... TO BE CONTINUED ...............................

Christy Dunne - Musician


Music has always been an important part of the social life of Athy people.  Examining records going back as far as the 19th century one comes across many references to fife and drum bands, pipe bands and brass bands associated with different parts of the town and sometimes associated with local associations such as the C.Y.M.S.  That musical tradition found expression in the 1940s and later in the orchestras and show bands fronted by Athy men and women.  After the Stardust and the Sorrento dance bands of the 1940s and 1950s there followed a bewildering array of groups and musical combinations, not all of whom I have been able to document. 



My near neighbour Christy Dunne was for many years a stalwart on the music scene.  He was just 15 years of age when he joined Alex Kelly and his Aces as bass guitarist.  He would remain active in music making for upwards of 50 years, combining a busy music career with a full time job in the local Asbestos factory, later renamed Tegral.  He retired from Tegral at 60 years of age, following 41 years of service.  If this was not enough Christy was also a volunteer fireman who served for 31 years in that capacity.  Coincidentally his father Christy also worked in the Asbestos factory and served for many years in the local fire brigade. 



Recounting his music playing career Christy recalls nine years spent with Alex and his Aces where his fellow musicians included Alex’s brother Tom Kelly on keyboard and Brian O’Neill on drums.  Alex’s Aces played relief band for the annual military ball which was one of the major local social events held in Dreamland Ballroom during the 1960s. 



Christy married Kathleen Foley in September 1968 and that same year with other local musicians formed the Adelaide Showband.  The line up included John Kelly, John Lawler, John Scully, Christy Leigh, Robert Eston, Denis Chanders and Pat Keeffe.  With the decline of the show band scene Christy formed a beat group with David Craig and John Kelly.  Under the name ‘The Reeds of Innocence’ the trio played the provincial club scene including what I am told was a local club venue in St. John’s Hall.  The country music scene next attracted Christy’s attention and with John Joe Brennan and their respective wives formed the group ‘Big Country’.  It proved to be a very successful music combination during the seven years of its existence and they were joined towards the latter part of that period by Denis Chanders.



The final musical combination with which Christy was involved was the Spotlights.  This three piece combination originally featured Christy, his wife Kathleen and Denis Chanders, later to be augmented with the addition of Eamon Walsh and for a time were joined by Pat Kelly and Andy Murphy.  The Spotlights played on a regular basis in Jurys Hotel Dublin and held a weekly residency for almost five years in Lumville House, The Curragh.  Towards the end the Spotlights consisted of Christy and Kathleen Dunne and Eamon Walsh who continued to enjoy huge success, not only locally but particularly with Dublin bookings.  The band was on the road six nights a week, only keeping Tuesday as the one day free of engagements.  After almost 50 years playing music Christy retired about three years ago and the Spotlights disbanded.



It is strange to recall the dance venues which were once available to the people of Athy, starting with St. John’s Hall and the Townhall ballroom, both of which were replaced by Dreamland ballroom.  Now the former Dreamland ballroom is a sports venue and bands deprived of dancing venues are few in number.  We can look back with nostalgia at the time when Alex and his Aces, the Adelaides and laterally the Spotlights played their part in continuing Athy’s extensive music tradition.


Preserving Local Authority Records


With the abolition of Athy’s Town Council looming on the horizon my thoughts have turned to the treasure trove of minute books, documents, maps and files which the local authority has accumulated over the years.  What I wonder is planned for those priceless records which document the infrastructural development of the town over many decades.  Preserving those records is an imperative and I hope that both Council officials and public representatives have agreed on a plan of action to archive the Council records of Athy Town Council once the Council is abolished. 



I had the privilege some years ago of examining in detail the minute books of Athy Urban District Council and its predecessors, Athy Town Commissioners and Athy Borough Council back as far as 1781.  Later on I had to visit the Public Records Office in Belfast to study the earliest extant minute books of the Borough Council covering the years 1738 to 1783.  That particular Minute Book was deposited in the Belfast Public Records Office with the Fitzgerald family papers some years ago.  The whereabouts of the minute books prior to 1738 are unknown and in all probability have been lost forever.  Those missing records should prompt local authority officials and representatives to value the records still held by the Council and to ensure their preservation and secure protection for the purpose of future historical research.



Looking through details extracted by me from the minute books of the Borough Council I find a reference to the town clock in 1780 which I had previously overlooked.  William Drill was paid a handsome fee of £6 for looking after the clock, the location of which was not indicated.  That same year is recorded the orders of the Court Leet presided over by the Town Sovereign, Rev. Anthony Weldon ‘that no huckster or forestaller is to buy any commodity or goods coming into the market of Athy until such commodity or goods be brought into the public market place under the penalty of five shillings to be levied and raised by sale of the offenders goods and paid to the informer.’  Obviously the selling of goods outside the town’s market place and the consequent loss of customs and tolls was not to the Borough Council’s liking.



Another interesting reference in the Sovereign’s court records for 1786 was a direction that ‘the meat shambles be removed, they being a great nuisance.’  The shambles was located in the alleyway which ran between Andersons pub and the adjoining premises.  I noted that the Court held five years previously was called the ‘Leet Court’ but that term was not used for the 1786 Court. 



An entry in the Borough records of 1792 referred to the water running from the house of William Cahill, Kildare Street, starch manufacturer ‘having a foul smell so as to be prejudicial to the health of the inhabitants’.  Incidentally Kildare Street in 1792 is today’s Stanhope Street. 



In a recent article I mentioned clock and watchmaker Thomas Plewman.  The borough records for 1800 detail a payment of £3 to Thomas Plewman, being one year’s salary for attending to the town clock.  A similar sum was payable to John Andrews for taking care of the town’s fire engine.  On 3rd September 1808 the Town Sovereign and the Burgesses of Athy passed a bye law requiring every boat loaded with turf passing the weir to pay a toll of ten shillings to be applied by the Sovereign in the purchase of fuel for the relief of the poor of Athy.  The Sovereign in question was Thomas J. Rawson, originally from Glasshealy, who played a major part in putting down rebellious activity around Athy and South Kildare during the 1798 Rebellion. 



I was reminded of McHugh’s Foundry which was once located in Meeting Lane when reading the following entry in the Sovereign’s Court record book of the 27th May, 1820.  ‘We present that a forge for working iron which has been erected by Edward Moore in a house in Meeting Lane is a nuisance and not only exposed the said house but also adjoining houses, all of which are covered with timber and straw to constant danger of being consumed by fire and therefore that business of said forge should be forthwith discontinued.’  So much for early 19th century town planning!



The written record is always an important resource for historical researchers, whether it relates to local authorities or clubs, sporting or otherwise.  I have twice in recent years been tasked with writing the history of two Athy institutions but in each case found to my horror that the records once so carefully compiled over many decades had in one case been destroyed and the other lost and never found.  I sincerely hope that the records relating to Athy Town Council and its predecessors will not suffer the same fate.




Remembering the Dead of World War 1


The knock on the front door was unusual.  After all, the half door was always open and the neighbours never knocked.  As she went to the door the woman of the house caught a glimpse of the uniformed telegraph boy standing outside.  Her heart sank for she knew that he brought bad news just as he had to some of her neighbours since the start of the war.  Those same neighbours were now gathering at her door, even as the telegraph boy passed over the telegram.  As she feared the telegram from the war office read: ‘Deeply regret to inform you that your husband died of wounds on June 28th.  Lord Kitchener expresses his sympathy.

 

The scene is an imaginary one, but in reality it was a scene re-enacted more than 100 times in the laneways and courtyards of Athy during the years of the 1914-18 war.  The dreaded telegram was delivered to so many local houses during the 52 months of the war that neighbours readily recognised the scene even as it evolved.  Sometimes the telegraph boy retraced his steps to the same house, not just twice but sadly in at least one case, three times.  The Kelly brothers of Chapel Lane were to die fighting another nation’s war.  Encouraged by local Church and civic leaders brothers Denis, John and Owen Kelly enlisted in the British Expeditionary Force to fight overseas where they died. 



In many instances local men starved of employment and weary of the unsanitary and claustrophobic conditions in which they lived gave their names to the local recruiting sergeant in Leinster Street.  They would after all be home by Christmas, or so they were told.  The excitement of travel to foreign lands, pride in wearing a smart uniform and of course, the army pay, no doubt played a part in prompting the large scale enlistment of men from Athy and district.  Perhaps even the promise of Home Rule played its part in encouraging many to join the ranks. 



Later, as those who survived the war returned to their home town, their late comrades, the majority of whom had no known burial places, would be forgotten and overlooked by the general public and also by local church and civic leaders.  Those who had encouraged recruitment now kept silent in the face of Sinn Fein’s rise in popularity.  The pre war politics of the Irish Parliamentary Party had been overtaken by the political dominance of Sinn Fein.  The local men who fought in France and Flanders and further afield were no longer war heroes.  Their return to Athy was not marked by parades led by local bands as was their departure from the local railway station a few short years before.



The returning ex-soldiers would of necessity keep a low profile, apart from honouring their dead comrades once a year on Remembrance Sunday.  But even that limited homage to the dead was not deemed appropriate to continue far beyond the election of the first Fianna Fáil government in 1932.  The families of ex British soldiers of the 1914-18 war may have grieved privately and commemorated loved ones within family circles.  Nowhere however was there any public recognition for those local men who responded to the call to arms and in so many cases answered with their young lives. 



I have in the past expressed the view that we can remember our neighbours of long ago without in any way feeling that we are doing a disservice to what we ourselves believe.  Whether you are a republican, a socialist or simply a political party member, commemorating the war dead of your town is not only a tribute to the young men of a past generation but also a mark of your respect for your town’s history.



Sunday the 10th of November is Remembrance Sunday, the one day in the year when the dead of World War I are commemorated.  Here in Athy six soldiers who died in their home town and are buried in St. Michael’s Old Cemetery will be the focus of a Remembrance Sunday ecumenical commemoration service to take place at 3.00 p.m.  The service, which will remember all the local men who died in World War 1, is not intended as a celebration of war but as a commemoration for a lost generation and an acknowledgement of the years of neglect of those men who died during the war as well as those who survived. 



Local men’s participation in the 1914-18 war is a part of our local and national history and in remembering those men we are recognising their contribution to their communities and the losses sustained by their families.  An open invitation is extended to everyone to join in the commemoration service at St. Michael’s Old Cemetery at 3.00 p.m. on Sunday next, 10th November.



No doubt many of you were puzzled to read of Mrs. Anna Duthie of 30 Duke Street.  I’m afraid Homer nodded yet again as of course Duthie’s jewellery shop has always been at 30 Leinster Street.