Tuesday, November 26, 2019

Local History - Once an overlooked part of the nation's history

Athy towns story and that of the people who have walked its streets in the past comprise an ever ending and compelling narrative. It’s a story which was largely overlooked and ignored for many years. Understandably perhaps, given the difficulties and hardships facing the local people at times when work opportunities were limited and financial hardship was the common currency of many families in Athy. I went through my entire school life in the Christian Brothers here in Athy where Irish history was my favourite subject. However, the school history lessons concentrated on wars and the rule of English kings, with no reference whatsoever to social history, local events or local personalities of the past. What we now identify as local history was then an unrecognised element of Ireland’s history. When, as schoolboys, we learned of the Great Famine and of the 1798 Rebellion it was to hear of the suffering of people on the western seashore and places as far apart as such as Belmullet, Co. Mayo and Skibbereen, Co. Cork, while the study of rebel activity in ’98 was concentrated on Wexford and Wicklow. There was no mention ever of the impact of the Great Famine on the people of Athy and no mention of Athy Workhouse where so many died during the Famine. The early social history of this area and elsewhere was overlooked, understandably perhaps, for by and large it was not documented until local newspapers came on the scene. The role of the provincial press in recording the life and times of previous generations was not always appreciated or understood. However, it is within the pages of past issues of the local press that the events and personalities of past times are recorded awaiting to be retrieved and placed in their proper context when relating the story of our home town. I wrote my first Eye on the Past in 1992 and over the last 27 years I have attempted to unravel the hidden history of Athy and its people by unfolding forgotten stories such as that of John Vincent Holland’s Victoria Cross, Kilkea born Ernest Shackleton, ’98 rebel leader Nicholas Gray and Rev. Thomas Kelly and the Kellyites. It was extraordinary to find that these men and events such as the Great Famine and the Great War, both of which had huge impact on Athy families, were for so long not an identifiable part of the town’s story. Athy’s history is still unfolding, but at least we now have a deeper and better understanding of our past history. Last week’s war memorial unveiling was a late acknowledgement that a part of our history which had been deliberately ignored for many decades was as important to our shared understanding of the past as for example local I.R.A. activity during the War of Independence. The war memorial in St. Michael’s Old Cemetery is a fine tribute to the young men and the one woman who died while in service during the 1914-1918 war. While standing at the memorial last week during the unveiling ceremony I looked across at the medieval church, known to us all as ‘the crickeen’. It’s badly in need of urgent conservation and if that work is not carried out very soon we could witness the loss of perhaps the oldest building in the town of Athy. Older perhaps than the ruined Woodstock Castle which was built to replace an earlier wooden structure erected by the Anglo Normans who first settled in this area. Our local history is enriched not just by the events and personalities of the past, but also by the buildings left to us by our predecessors. Woodstock Castle, Whites Castle and ‘the crickeen’ are important reminders of our medieval past and it would be a shame if we do not take positive steps to ensure their protection and preservation for future generations. To paraphrase Tip O’Neill, ‘all history is local history’. Knowing that so much of our nation’s history is reflected in events which occurred in south Kildare I have attempted in this weekly column to demonstrate how Athy men and women helped shape the town we know today. Some of those early articles have appeared in the first three volumes of ‘Eye on Athy’s Past’. The fourth volume will be launched on Tuesday 3rd December at 8.00p.m. by Liam Kenny, writer and historian. The launch will take place in the Shackleton Museum, Town Hall, Athy and an invitation is extended to anyone interested in local history to attend. I am somewhat taken back to notice that Vol. 3 was launched way back in 2007 and Vol. 4 brings the articles included in the book up to December 2000. There is a lot of catching up to do and a lot more books to be published!

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