Friday, December 25, 1992

Christmas Day

Christmas Day, the outstanding Christian Festival of the year possibly replaced the pagan celebrations which took place at this time of the year to welcome the lengthening days. Our Christmas customs and traditions are a mixture of Christian and Pagan Rites. Christmas decorations, especially holly, ivy and mistletoe figured in pagan celebrations of the winter solstice as evergreen symbols of life. The custom of kissing under the mistletoe comes to us from the time of the Druids for whom the mistletoe held magical and sexual significance.

The use and decoration of Christmas trees is of German origin and came into use in Ireland following its popularisation by Queen Victoria's husband, Prince Albert. Carols from the French Carole, meaning a dance with a song, originated on the European mainland. First associated with the Christmas festival in the 14th century, most of todays popular carols are of 19th century origin. Thomas Kelly, founder of the Kellyites and a native of Ballintubbert, just outside Athy, wrote a number of carols which are included in his "Hymns on Various Passages of Sacred Scripture" published in seven editions in the last century.

The lighting of a candle on Christmas Eve and placing it in a window facing the roadway is a Christian custom with a strong underlay of Irish tradition. It is a symbolic linking of the Irish welcome for strangers with the Bible story of Mary and Joseph's efforts to find shelter before the infant Jesus was born. The lighted candle in the window is a light welcoming all while at the same time acting as a beacon for those loved ones far from home.

The exchange of gifts on Christmas morning again brings together two different traditions. The tradition of wealthy Romans giving money or clothing to their poorer neighbours during the seven day celebrations of the Saturnalia was seized upon by the early Christians and redefined as a symbolic reenactment of the of the gifts brought by the three Kings to the infant Jesus.

Father Christmas and the modern equivalent Santa Claus was an American import into our Christmas traditions. Amongst the early Dutch settlers in America there developed the Father Christmas concept based on St. Nicholas bringing gifts and presents to children who were good during the year. The inevitable commercialisation of this idea has resulted in the splurge of Christmas gift buying which is now such a large part of the Christmas festivities.

The Christmas card which for many people is their only link with old friends and acquaintances was invented in 1843 by an Englishman Sir Henry Cole who commissioned a design from an artist. The introduction of the penny post popularised the idea of sending a card at Christmas to friends, which by now has become yet another important tradition of the festive season.

It is the second day of Christmas which gives us one of the most enduring of the Irish traditions. St. Stephen's Day is the day for "hunting the wren". In earlier days the "sport" consisted of young boys searching for and chasing a wren until it was captured and killed. It was then put on a holly bush and carried from house to house accompanied by the Wren Boys singing the traditional Wren Song.

"The Wran the Wran the King of all birds,
St. Stephen's Day was caught in the furze,
Although he is little, his family is great,
Put your hand in your pocket and give us a treat.
Sing holly, sing ivy - sing ivy, sing holly,
A drop just to drink it would drown melancholy,
And if you draw it over the best,
I hope in Heaven your soul will rest.
But if you draw it over the small,
It won't agree with the Wren Boys at all."

Another version popular in Athy in the 1950's had for the second and third lines the following:-

"Up with the kettle and down with the pan,
Gives us a penny to bury the Wran."

Nowadays Wren Boys are comparatively scarce on the streets of Athy, while the custom has undergone substantial changes over the years. The holly bush with the dead wren has disappeared to be replaced by a mixture of young and old Wren Boys and Girls dressed in all sorts of odd dress singing modern songs instead of the traditional Wren Song.

Christmas Day is the first of the traditional twelve days of Christmas which ends with the Feast of the Epiphany on the 6th of January. It comes at the height of the winter season when spirits can be low so that the traditional festivities associated with Christmas can be seen as re-energising our spirits to face the rest of the winter and the promise of the Summer to come.

Friday, December 18, 1992


Recent discussions concerning the need for a new roadway through Athy or alternatively around the town focused our attention on Athy's existing road network. The principal street patterns of the medieval village of Athy have not changed over the years. Not so the side streets and alleyways of previous centuries which have disappeared without trace, largely due to the slum clearance programmes of the 1930's.

In the middle-ages the main highways were kept in sufficient repair for travellers on horseback. Under an Act of 1612 each Warden of the established Church was obliged to convene a meeting of his Parish on the Tuesday and Wednesday of Easter week. At these meetings two parishioners were appointed surveyors of whatever roadworks were considered necessary in the Parish. Every householder was required to provide free labour on the highway works for six days in every year. Landlords and farmers were required to provide horses, carts and drivers. In this way roads were maintained.

When wagons and coaches were first introduced, road surfaces were inadequate for such wheel traffic. Changes in the system of road maintenance were made with the passing of the first Turnpike Act. The English Act of 1663 empowered Justices of the Peace of several counties to erect turnpike gates across highways and charge tolls to passing traffic for maintaining roads. The first Turnpike Act in Ireland was passed in 1727. In time the turnpike roads led to most of the important towns in Ireland. These roads were maintained by Turnpike Trusts set up by business people and landlords and although inefficient they ensured that the larger towns were linked by roads on which coaches could travel.

Athy had a turnpike road running through the town from Kilcullen to Kilkenny. There were three turnpike gates on the road in and adjoining the town where tolls were collected. One gate was located on the Dublin Road near St. Michael's Medieval Church. The second was located at the junction of Green Alley and Duke Street while the third was on the Kilkenny Road at Beggars End approximately 700 yards from Whites Castle.

The tolls were collected by toll gate keepers who lived in cottages beside the gates. These cottages were built on the edge of the road and generally had an unusual shape - either round or hexagonal - in order that the keeper could look out on all sides and ensure no one passed without paying the toll.

In 1846 Athy Town Commissioners campaigned to have the last turnpike gate at Beggars End removed as the collection of tolls discouraged farmers from attending the fairs and markets in Athy. On the 27th of April 1846 the Commissioners met the Trustees of the Kilkenny and Athy turnpike road in Kennedys Hotel, Athy, to discuss the issue. Within four years the Town Commissioners were petitioning the House of Commons against the continuation of the Turnpike legislation. As a result of their efforts and those of the farmers in Kildare and adjoining counties the campaign succeeded leading to the removal of the last toll gate in Athy.

Friday, December 11, 1992


The clay deposits centred around Churchtown and Ballyroe gave rise to a thriving brick making industry in South Kildare in the last century. The development of the brickyards was prompted by the growing popularity of brick as opposed to stone for private houses and public buildings. Bricks were cheaper and easier to make than quarrying and shaping stone and when standardised to the grasp of a mason's fingers and thumb bricks were easier and quicker to use for building. Each of the South Kildare brickyards of which there were upwards of 12 at one time generally employed less than five men. The exceptions were Keegans Brickyard in Ballyroe, Telfords in Tomard and Doyles of Churchtown.

One of the best known brickyards was Keegans of Churchtown which was a substantial employer up to the 1920's. Telford's Brickyard located at the Monasterevin Road was in operation at the turn of the century while the last brickyard in the area was P.P. Doyles which was still operating in the 1930's. Bricks from Doyles Brickyard were used in the building of Dooley's Terrace and St. Joseph's Terrace, Athy.

The brick making process was labour intensive and the workers in each part of the process were known by names which are no longer part of our vocabulary. The man who watered the clay was known as a Banker and his colleagues who turned the clay to obtain a dough-like consistency were Middlers. The Sourer finished off this process while the young man who brought the clay to the moulding table in a wheelbarrow was known as a Wheeler.

In the larger brickyards several men worked at a table moulding the bricks and a Upstriker kept the Moulder supplied with clay, putting it on the table as required. Each moulder, standing at the raised table, used his personal wooden mould to shape the bricks. Scooping clay from the table he threw it into the mould. Smoothing it out with his hand he trimmed off excess clay with a knife or a wire. The wet block was then knocked out of the mould and a man called the Offbearer put it on a flat board where the bricks were "hacked" or placed in small heaps.

When dry the bricks were brought by the Wheeler to the kiln for firing. Here a worker called a Catcher would put them in layers. The man in charge of the kiln, called the Burner, shook culm and small coal between every layer of bricks. Turf was then put into the kiln and lit and the fire was kept lighting for six or seven days until the bricks were hard. The kiln could take upwards of another ten days to cool sufficiently to allow the bricks to be removed.

The brickyards employed both men and women and an experienced moulder was expected to make in excess of 700 bricks a day. The industry died out in South Kildare when building contractors were able to make concrete blocks as required on their building sites. One of the last of the brickyard workers was the late Patrick Keogh of Churchtown who worked in Keegans Brickyard at the age of 11 carrying culm to the kiln. He started work at 4.00 a.m. finishing at 2.00 p.m. He later worked as a Moulder in Stephen Hayden's Brickyard in Brownstown and he presented the brick mould used by him to Athy Museum Society some years ago. It is one of the very few items left from that period to remind us of the once thriving brick industry in South Kildare.

Friday, December 4, 1992

Street Furniture

A walk through the streets of Athy is nowadays fraught with danger from passing traffic. The Anglo Norman town has always had vehicular traffic passing through it but in other days the pace was somewhat different than todays. The street patterns laid down in the developing medieval town were designed for pedestrians and horse drawn carts and carriages and not for the motor traffic of today.

A significant amount of the street furniture of the 18th and 19th centuries remain as a vivid reminder of the mode of transport which was once prevalent. Horse power was the graceful if slow way of progressing from manor or farm to town. Within the town it was only the well to do merchants who had carriages for personal use and sometimes carts for transporting goods. The existing stone arch entrances from the main streets to the stables at the rear of the merchants premises are the visible reminders of an era which has long passed on. The jostle stones at either side of these entrances can still be seen in some places in Leinster Street and Duke Street. These carved stones, perhaps two or three feet high, lying against the base of the arch were designed to push cartwheels away from the building. This simple device saved both the cart or carriage and the building from damage.

Horse troughs met a basic but very necessary need for the many horses which passed through the streets of Athy in the last century. The Metropolitan Drinking Fountain and Cattle Trough Association, the equivalent of the modern S.P.C.A. provided water troughs at the roadside for use by horses, cattle and other animals. A fine example of one such trough, the only one remaining in Athy, is to be found at Leinster Street near the junction of Kirwan’s Lane. The large granite piece is now used by the local Council as a container for flowers.

Getting on and off a horse was not always an easy operation and mounting blocks were generally to be found at strategic positions on the main street of provincial towns and almost always at the local Churches. The local Inn would certainly have had a mounting block near to its front door to enable men and women on horseback to mount or dismount as elegantly as possible. Usually made of granite the mounting blocks have unfortunately not survived the many road improvement schemes of the 20th century. The last mounting block in the area is to be found in the grounds of Dukes Lodge on the Carlow Road.

The traffic of horses and other animals through the streets of Athy not only gave rise to the development of a now redundant street furniture but also contributed to the development of a street cleaning service. Horse and cow dung was carefully cleared from the streets on a regular basis by employees of the Borough Council and after 1840 the Town Commissioners. The dung was stored in Green Alley and near the Fair Green and every three months was auctioned off to the highest bidder. It proved to be a not inconsiderable asset for the local Council which zealously guarded its right to collect the dung on the streets of the town.

The era of the horse has long passed. Nevertheless as we walk the streets of Athy we can see many reminders of that time when the horse reigned supreme as a means of transport. Listen carefully and you might hear the “clippity clop” of horse hooves echoing from the past.

Friday, November 27, 1992

Robbery in Athy - 7th December 1797

On the morning of the 7th of December, 1797 Athy was the scene of a robbery which was to have serious repercussions for the local people during the following months. The night parcel boat from Dublin docked in the Canal basin on the night of 6th December. Its cargo included 50 stands of arms, 1,000 ball cartridges and accoutrements for 50 men intended for a corp of yeomen infantry in Leighlinbridge, Co. Carlow. At about 3 o'clock on the following morning two men armed with pistols and swords crept up to the boat under cover of darkness. Arousing the boat master Thomas Barry, the conductor Robert Hyland and two crewmen William Moran and James Graham, the armed men held them below deck. In the meantime an unknown number of accomplices smashed open the arms chests and quickly carried away the precious cargo.

At dawn, Captain Erskine set out in pursuit of the raiders from the local army barracks with a party of Dragoons in pursuit of the raiders. Believing that the arms were transferred to another boat on the Barrow and sent to Carlow, he had the military in that town stop and search all canal boats. The arms were never found. It is believed they were hidden in a bog outside Athy to await a planned rebellion.

The Army Commander in Athy R.R. Wilford wrote to General Dundas on 7th December giving an account of the "most extraordinary and alarming circumstances that took place this morning". Suspecting a conspiracy involving those in charge of the boat, he had the master and crewmen arrested and lodged in Athy gaol. In a letter to General Dundas four days later Wilford expressed his belief that "there has been collusion on the part of the master of the boat and probably the keeper of the Canal Stores.....with other persons at present unknown in carrying away the arms". The boatmen were kept under arrest for a number of days and remaining steadfast in their claims of innocence were eventually released.

The anxiety of the loyalists at the success of the daring arms raid was reflected in a letter from Lord Downshire in which he referred to the event as having "made a deep impression in the minds of the well effected" in Edenderry. Even more concerned were the loyalists of Athy and district who were further alarmed by the appearance of a handbill on the streets of their town in January 1798. Copied and forwarded to Dublin Castle on 14th January by Stuart Weldon it called upon the people of Athy to organise.

The United Irishmen of Athy and neighbourhood were active in the area. Information sworn in May 1798 by a local informer indicated that there was sixteen companies of United Irishmen in and around Athy. Their Captains included Denis Devoy, Patrick Kelly, his brother Peter who was a shopkeeper and a namesake of his William Kelly. Meetings were held in Peter Kelly's shop, John Hyland's house near the upper turnpike gate and William Kelly's premises. Patrick Kelly, who was from Kilcoo, was later appointed Colonel in Charge of the Athy men. He was later to write of his experiences of the 1798 Rebellion in his book "The Rebellion of 1798" published in 1842.

Friday, November 20, 1992

Leinster Lease

The passing of the 1870 Land Act gave Irish tenant farmers the right to compensation on quitting their lands and for improvements carried out during their occupancy. However, the Act was flawed as it allowed Landlords to contract out of its provisions. The Duke of Leinster was amongst the first of the Irish Landlords to do so. The Leinster Lease as it became known was a model of legal ingenuity drafted by the Duke's agents and the tenants of South Kildare were compelled to accept its terms.

Local opposition to the Leinster Lease saw the formation of a Tenants Defence Association in Athy. This was the first such Association formed in Ireland following the decline of Isaac Butt's Tenants League. The Tenants Association held its first meeting in Athy on Tuesday the 19th of November, 1872 with Captain Morgan of Rahinderry in the Chair. Thomas P. Kynsey J.P. acted as Secretary and following the formal passing of a resolution establishing the Tenants Association those in attendance passed a resolution on the proposal of Canon Quinn P.P., Athy, seconded by Robert Anderson, Castlemitchell -

"That the objects of the Association be to unite the tenants against any encroachment on their rights and to promote by every legal and constitutional means the social interests and independence of the tenant class."

Despite the Association's best efforts the Duke of Leinster succeeded in overcoming local opposition to the terms of the Leinster Lease. Some of the Association's leaders were themselves to accept the Leinster Lease undoubtedly under the threat of eviction. One such signatory was James Leahy, Chairman of Athy Town Commissioners. The local Board of Guardians was made of sterner stuff for it refused to execute a Lease under the terms proposed by the Duke in respect of land held by it as tenant of the Leinster Estate.

James Leahy, farmer, of Ardscull and one time Chairman of Athy Town Commissioners was to represent South Kildare in the English House of Commons from 1880 until 1895. His initial nomination as a candidate for the Irish Parliamentary Party was the occasion of Charles Stewart Parnell's first visit to Athy in 1880. Andrew Kettle in his memoirs "Material for Victory" wrote of the nomination convention held in the Town Hall, Athy.

“Apparently Parnell expressed dissatisfaction with Leahy, whom Fr. Farrelly and some local men were putting forward for nomination -"This fat man will be no use, he will fall asleep in the House" said Parnell when he was acquainted with Leahy's intentions. Having cross-examined the prospective candidate Parnell was apparently satisfied and allowed the nomination to go ahead.”

Leahy was to have a constant if unspectacular presence in the House of Commons until 1895.

The Tenants Defence Association proved unsuccessful in its attempts to defeat the Leinster Lease but the spirit of opposition which it nurtured was to come alive with the Land League Campaign of later years.

Friday, November 13, 1992

Battle of Somme

The Battle of the Somme which first erupted on the 1st of July, 1916 continued throughout the summer. For the enlisted men of South Kildare there was no respite from the almost incessant barrage of German gunshells. Athy men were killed at the rate of one per week. Nevertheless, September 1916 started off well. John Vincent Holland, a 27 year old son of the local vet and an Officer in the 7th Battalion was part of a force entrusted with the capture of Guillemont. The 7th Battalion was to occupy a system of assembly trenches some 300 yards north of the village and to attack southwards. At 12 noon on Sunday the 3rd of September the artillery started its bombardment. The 7th Battalion advanced so quickly that it took the Germans by surprise in their trenches. Not content with bombing the enemy dugouts Holland led his men in an advance on the village. So successful was this attack that it carried all before it. Holland started with 26 bombers and finished up with only 5 men after capturing 50 German prisoners.

For his bravery Holland was awarded the highest military honour -The Victoria Cross. Son of John and Katherine Holland of Model Farm, Athy, he was born on the 19th of July, 1889. One of eight children he was educated in Clongowes Wood College and Liverpool university. Without completing his studies he travelled to South America where he was involved in railway engineering. Returning to Ireland at the start of the Great War he enlisted on the 2nd of September, 1914 in the Life Guards. Holland was commissioned in the Leinster Regiment in February 1915 and was attached to the Dublin Fusiliers when wounded in the second Battle of Ypres on the 26th of June, 1915. He came home to Ireland to recuperate and on his return to France he was attached to the 7th Leinsters as Battalion Bombing Officer. He saw service at Loos, Hulluck and the Somme in 1916. A full Lieutenant by July 1916 he was promoted to captain after his exploits at Guillemont.

Holland’s Victoria Cross, the highest award for gallantry in the face of the enemy, was the only such award made to a South Kildare man. The occasion was marked by the holding of special meetings of Athy Urban Council and Kildare County Council at which both Councils registered their appreciation of Lieutenant Holland’s gallantry. A public subscription was taken up in the County and a presentation was made to Holland who married Frances Grogan of Cobh on the 16th of January, 1917. He survived the Great War and was later to serve in the Second World War before emigrating in the 1950's to Tasmania. He died in Hobart, Tasmania on the 27th of February, 1975 at the age of 85 and is buried at Cornelian Cemetery.

If September 1916 started off well for the Athy men it was soon to take on a familiar deadly pattern. On the 9th day of the month Bo McWilliams of Leinster Street, Thomas Connell of Barrack Street, Thomas Stafford of Butlers Row and John Delaney of Crookstown lost their lives. Stafford’s brother Eddie had died of wounds on the 24th of September two years previously.

Friday, November 6, 1992

Printing and Publishing in Athy

Printing and publishing was a thriving activity in Athy around the middle of the last century. The earliest reference to an Athy printer was in Walkers Hibernian Magazine of 1802 which noted the death of John Richardson, Printer, Athy. In 1833 H.W. Talbot had a printing office in the town. The only known example of his work is a 16 page pamphlet titled "A letter to R.M. O'Farrell and E. Ruthven Esqs. Members of Parliament for the County of Kildare". Successive members of the Talbot family were involved in printing and publishing in Athy over the following 50 years. The Portlaoise branch of that family had an even longer involvement with the publishing world through it’s ownership of the Leinster Express founded in 1831.

Another name which has long passed from public memory is that of Thomas French who had a spectacular but unsuccessful publishing career in Athy in the 1830's. From his printing office in Market Square, French carried on a general printing business including amongst his customers, Athy Borough Corporation. In 1836 he came to the notice of a wider public with his printing of the 7th edition of the "Biographical Sketch of the Adventures of Captain Grant with a full report of his trial". On November 14th of the following year French embarked upon the ambitious scheme of publishing and printing a literary magazine from his printing works in Market Square. "The Athy Literary Magazine" was to have a longer life than later publishing ventures based in Athy. The only known copies of the magazine end with the 25th issue dated 13th February, 1838. On sale every Tuesday the small eight page magazine cost one penny. Throughout its short life the magazine gave an unvarying mixture of leading articles of local interest, extracts from literary works such as Dickens Pickwick Papers, and material from National magazines of the period. To these were added contributions, poetic and otherwise from the magazines readers.

In the first Editorial there was an exhortation to the reading public to support the publication "which had no other principal of action than that of being the medium of imparting useful information, adapted to all classes but especially the middle classes."

Local contributors whose poetic effusions were particularly welcome did not always find a ready forum in the columns of the Athy Literary Magazine. Despite this, hopeful correspondents continued to supply the Editor with material and throughout the 25 known issues one finds numerous contributions which if they had nothing else to their merit, no doubt helped the hard pressed Editor to keep his weekly magazine before the public.

The last edition of "The Athy Literary Magazine" of which we know was the 25th number which appeared on Tuesday 17th April, 1838. Each of the issues consisted of eight pages of large post octavo, double columns per page with a running head on each page. Pagination was continuous throughout each issue. The first three issues had a simple masthead which had changed from the fourth issue onwards by the addition of a woodcut.

In January 1852 Samuel Talbot, a member of the Talbot family was responsible for the last major publishing event in Athy. He published Volume 1 Number 1 of “The Press” which was intended as a monthly magazine “devoted to the advancement of Science Literature and the Industrial Arts”. Unfortunately it did not survive to a second number. Costing 4d it consisted of 36 pages of large post octavo with a simple masthead. It is assumed that the publication was thread sewn although the only copy known to the writer was bound with other booklets making confirmation of this point impossible.

Material in “The Press” included a report of an address delivered on November 26th, 1852 at the Athy Mechanics Institute by its Secretary Thomas H. Cross. The report read :-

“The style of his lecture was rather studied and florid, and to our mind, too enwrapt in vivid imagery and poetic embellishment, which in the plan matter-of-fact subject in which he was treating, were by no means required”.

The early demise of “The Press” may indicate that Mr. Cross had a wider circle of friends than the magazine imagined.

The only other items of local interest included in the first and last edition of “The Press” was an article on Woodstock Castle and a summary of a lecture delivered by Mr. Reece, Manager of the Irish Peat Company on December 10th, 1851 at a meeting of the Athy Mechanics Institute. In the course of his talk Reece stated :-

“a coal merchant in Lancashire is able to send a ton of coal cheaper to London (200 miles away) than a ton of turf can be brought from Cloney to Athy, but 5 miles”.

The absence of a railway from the bog meant that kish of turf which cost 3d on the bog cost 8d in Athy.

Talbots unsuccessful venture was the last major publishing event in Athy. Thereinafter Samuel Talbot confined himself to job printing and an 1870 edition of Slater’s Directory listed Talbot as carrying on business in Emily Square. Michael Carey with his printing office at Barrow Quay was another Athy printer in the mid 19th century. In 1864 Carey published “The 24th Report of the Kildare Diocesan Education Society”. No further trace of his work can be found today.

Friday, October 30, 1992


Halloween has its roots in the pagan Celtic festival of Samhain. The last day of October was the new year's eve of the Celtic calender and was traditionally an occasion for celebration and family reunion. It marked the end of the crop season which by tradition began on St. Patrick's Day. The crops had to be all gathered in by Halloween and no fruit could be picked because after Halloween the "puca" fouled all unpicked fruit on bush and tree alike. The return at Halloween of the livestock accompanied by their herders from their summer grazing was an occasion for family rejoicing and thereafter the cattle and other stock were free to roam the unenclosed lands which villagers shared on the rundale system. This they did until the following St. Patrick's Day when the livestock and herdsmen would depart yet again for the high ground of the summer booleying. October was also traditionally the potato month when potatoes were dug, sorted and placed in pits of straw and earth for future use. Any not dug out before the end of the month were destined to stay in the ground.

As part of the Celtic tradition associated with Halloween, fires were lit on prominent ground to mark the end of the growing season, and to symbolise the purification of the land. Great quantities of old straw and other combustible material were carried to the chosen site and set alight as darkness approached. The villagers or townspeople gathered around the fire and Autumn fruits such as hazelnuts and apples were roasted and eaten. Dancing and games went on throughout the night.

The games associated with Halloween have nowadays degenerated into pranks and horseplay but in other times they were played with a genuine and serious intent. Games of divination were particularly popular for on the night when the spirits were about people were anxious to know what the future held. Young people engaged in these games to find out their future, particularly where love and marriage were concerned. One such game was the placing of nuts near the fireplace, one for a girl the other for a favoured man. If they burned quietly together marriage was expected but if they blazed up or burst then the courtship was doomed. Another divination game was to peel an apple in a continuous strip. At midnight the peel was thrown over one shoulder and the initial of the future lover's name was read from the shape it took. The now traditional barm brack with the ring is a modern version of the old divination games.

Halloween is also associated even in modern times with other well known games in which autumnal fruits such as apples and nuts are prominent. Ducking for apples is one such game while ducking for money has the additional claim that the person who retrieves the coin from under the water will be lucky in money matters during the coming year. Suspending an apple from a cord and attempting to bite it as it swings is also a variant on the same game.

Halloween was also a time when pranks are played on other people. Nowadays that tradition has given way to the wearing of disguises by young children who go from door to door collecting for their Halloween party. They sometimes have a hallowed out turnip on which a face has been cut with a lighted candle inside. The children involved do not realise that they are carrying on a tradition stretching back centuries, the origin of which was the impersonation of the dead who on Halloween night were abroad. Tradition was that impersonating the dead afforded protection from the spirits.

Halloween for all its traditions, games and jollity has always been associated with death, ghosts and spirits. The christian churches commemorate their dead after Halloween and traditionally it has been the time for families to remember their dead relations and friends. As one would expect the association with death has led to an extensive folklore concerning the movement of spirits at Halloween. It was the day when the spirits of the day were believed to revisit their homes. It was once thought unlucky not to leave the door open and set a place at meal for the departed. These customs have long since been forgotten but some elements of the pagan Celtic festival are perpetuated today in association with the Christian celebration of All Souls Day on the 2nd of November.

Friday, October 23, 1992


The Society of Friends whose members are commonly referred to as Quakers was founded in England in 1647 by George Fox. First established in Ireland in 1654 by William Edmundson the Society grew to prominence with the visit to this country in 1669 of its founder. The Society's structure was based on weekly local meetings of which one was founded in Athy in 1672, predating the better known Ballitore meeting by 35 years. Little is known of Quakerism in Athy until the latter part of the 18th century. The earliest extant record is of a Quaker provincial meeting held in Richard Boyes house in Athy on the 20th May, 1706. Some of the Quaker families of that time were the Jessops, the Skellys, the Hudsons, the Rushworths and the Haughtons of Rheban.

Quakers were generally merchants, a commercial activity favoured by Dissenters and Catholics alike who were denied access to the professions and State employment. Thomas Rushworth, a Quaker merchant of Athy who died in 1675 was perhaps typical of his time. He owned three tenements in the town and when he died he left in addition to shop goods, 36 barrels of malt, 19 dozen tanned calf skins, goat skins and pelts. Another local quaker was Thomas Weston who died in 1709 leaving a mill and millhouse in Athy to his son Thomas, together with "a field called Moneene near Athy". Graham Bradford was another Quaker resident of Athy whose name is recorded for posterity in the records of the Borough Council of Athy. He was a Freeman of the town who was deprived of his office in 1738 for committing perjury. He was pilloried and subsequently transported to the American colonies. The pillory was an instrument of punishment consisting of a wooden frame with holes through which the head and hands of the offender were placed. The culprit had to stand up while in the pillory where he was at the mercy of the local people who could throw rubbish at him or otherwise ridicule him. It was generally used as a punishment for such offenses as forgery, perjury or cornering the market and putting up the price of goods.

Although established in Athy since 1672 the Society of Friends did not have a permanent meeting house until 1780 when one was built on the site of the present Dispensary in Meeting Lane. Thomas Chandlee, whose wife Deborah was a sister of Mary Ledbetter of Ballitore literary fame, was the prime mover in the building of the Athy meeting house. Having moved to Athy from Dublin in 1775 to establish a linen drapery business in Duke Street he encouraged his fellow Quakers to provide a permanent meeting place in the town which was completed in 1778 at a cost of £129=5=10.

The erection of the meeting house did not make any appreciable difference to the continued development of Quakerism in Athy. Indeed the Quaker community was soon to go into decline and in 1812 the last annual collection for Quaker purposes was taken up in the town. It amounted to a mere 15/2 while a similar collection in Ballitore Village where there was a vibrant Quaker community amounted to £9.17.0. Quaker records make no reference to Athy after that date. The legacy of the Quaker community has long vanished from the area but in nearby Ballitore the Society of Friends have recently re-commenced its meeting which is held on the first and third Sunday of every month.

Friday, October 16, 1992

Sisters of Mercy

In the Spring of 1843 some local people and clergy came together in the Parish School at the corner of Stanhope Street and Stanhope Place to discuss the possibility of bringing the Sisters of Mercy to Athy. The first Sisters of Mercy had been professed 12 years earlier and already a Convent had been established in the neighbouring town of Carlow. Those who played a large part in organising that meeting were Miss Anna Gould of Stanhope Place, Rev. W. Gaffney C.C., the Fitzgerald family of Geraldine House and Patrick Maher of Kilrush. It was agreed to take up a weekly collection in the town of Athy to finance the building of a Convent for the Sisters of Mercy. By the 12th of May, 1843 £150 had been collected but an approach to the Duke of Leinster for a site was unsuccessful. Undaunted the fund raising continued and in August 1844 the Parish Priest of Castledermot, Rev. Laurence Dunne, laid the first stone of the future Convent on marshy ground to the west of the Parish Church.

The building work continued throughout 1845 and 1846 but stopped in 1847 because of lack of funds. The weekly town collection was not taken up during the Great Famine, but restarted in 1848, this time under the direction of Rev. Thomas Greene C.C. in whose memory a beautiful Celtic Cross was many years later erected in the grounds of St. Michael’s Parish Church.

Dr. Paul Cullen, appointed Archbishop of Dublin in 1852, was born in Prospect in the Parish of Narraghmore in the year of Robert Emmet’s Rebellion. Understandably he took a keen personal interest in the completion of the Convent in the South Kildare town of Athy, which was located just six miles from his ancestral home. Mother Mary Vincent Whitty of the Sisters of Mercy Dublin advanced £300 to the local people to have the building completed and on 10th October, 1852 Mother Vincent, who earlier had been responsible for building the Mater Hospital, Dublin, took charge of the new Convent accompanied by two sisters. They remained in Athy for two years after which time the Sisters of Mercy in Carlow took over the Athy Convent as a branch house and sent Sister Mary Teresa Maher and Sister Mary Xavier Downey in their place. Sister Mary O'Grady Dillon and Sister Mary Joseph later joined them from the Baggot Street Convent.

Sister Mary Teresa Maher was daughter of Patrick Maher of Kilrush who was one of those responsible for bringing the Sisters of Mercy to Athy. She was also a first cousin of Archbishop Cullen. Sister Mary Vincent Whitty who opened the Athy Convent in October 1852 was the first Sister of Mercy to go on missionary work to Australia where she was later to be joined by a number of nuns and postulants from the Athy Convent.

In 1861 an appeal was made by Rev. Andrew Quinn P.P., Athy, to Rev. Mother Teresa Maher on behalf of his brothers Rt. Rev. James Quinn, Bishop of Brisbane and Rt. Rev. Matthew Quinn, Bishop of Bathurst, Australia, for nuns for their respective missions. In 1865 a postulant from Athy’s Convent, Catherine Flanagan, travelled to Brisbane and in the following year four more postulants left the local Convent in Athy for the Australian Missions. One of the many nuns and postulants who left Athy for Queensland was Sr. Mary Patrick Potter who entered the Athy Convent on the 8th of June, 1866. She and four others left for Brisbane on the 26th of February, 1868. They were the last Athy nuns to leave Athy for Australia. By then Athy had become known as the Mother House of Queensland, having sent so many Mercy Sisters and postulants to that Province over the years.

In 1879 Mother Mary Patrick Potter was appointed Superior of the Congregation in Brisbane, a position she held until her death in 1927. She established many convents and schools throughout Queensland while the building of the Mater Hospital in Brisbane was another of her many achievements.

Over the 140 years of their life in Athy the Sisters of Mercy have worked amongst the people, providing help where required and responding to the spiritual, educational and sometimes material needs of the people of the area.

Friday, October 9, 1992

1414 Charter of Athy

On October 7th 1515 the 24 year old King of England Henry VIII granted a Charter to the town of Athy enabling the townspeople to "erect, construct, build and strengthen the same town with fosses and walls of stone and lime". Located on the Marshes of Kildare and outside the English Pale Athy was of strategic importance to the English settlers yet vulnerable to attack from the dispossessed Irish. The English settlers of the developing town welcomed the opportunity which the King's Charter afforded them to fortress the town. The work on the town walls was to be financed by customs collected by the Town Provost on all goods sold within the town. These ranged from one penny for a horse or cow to half penny for a hide or any goods worth 2/- or more.

The Charter provided for the yearly election of a Town Provost, the modern equivalent to a Mayor, who was to be responsible for governing the town. He also combined this duty with that of Coroner, Justice of the Peace, Weights & Measures Inspector and Clerk of the town market. He was clearly a man of considerable power and influence in sixteenth century Athy.

An important privilege granted by Henry VIII to the townspeople was the right to hold a market in Athy every Tuesday "in a place deputed or ordained therefor by Gerald Earl of Kildare". 477 years on, the market in Athy is still held every Tuesday in what was formerly known as Market Square and now Emily Square.

Customs continued to be collected on goods sold in the Athy Market up to the 19th century. In latter years the right to collect the customs was let out to the highest tenderer until they were eventually abolished in 1824. By then the market was held on Tuesday and Saturday but business had fallen off because of tolls imposed on goods passing through the toll gates on the Dublin Road and the corner of Duke Street on their way to the Athy market. These additional tolls were collected to finance roadworks in the area.

The Duke of Leinster, who claimed the right to the market customs "suggested" that the Borough Council abolish the customs in an attempt to revive the town market. The local Council which always acted as directed duly dropped the market customs except in relation to coal and culm where the custom was doubled because of the extensive trade in Athy between the local Collieries and Dublin. The coal and culm customs were also eventually abolished but the wheel has now turned full circle with the local Urban Council considering the feasibility of imposing charges on market traders in Athy on Tuesday to help to defray the cost of street cleaning.

The market tradition in Athy continues undiminished and seems on the evidence of recent years to have taken on a new lease of life, bringing colour and a change of scenery to the Emily Square area every Tuesday morning.

Friday, October 2, 1992

Michaelmas - 29th September

The feast of St. Michael or Michaelmas falls on the 29th of September. Traditionally St. Michael is known as Judge of the Dead on Judgment Day and he is usually depicted with flaming wings symbolising his status as Archangel, carrying a sword representing his power over evil.

For the Anglo Norman settlers of the 12th and 13th Century both Michaelmas and Easter marked important periods in the yearly calender. Athy in common with other Irish and English towns regarded September 29th as a day for settling rent accounts, hiring labourers and the beginning of Autumn. It was a day marked with celebration, the centre piece of which was the Michaelmas goose, geese generally being in plentiful supply at that time of year. Michaelmas was the day when tradition decreed that a farmer should kill an animal and give meat to the poor. The custom, according to Keating in his History of Ireland, arose when Aongus, wife of King Leary, in thanksgiving for her son's restoration to health killed one sheep out of every flock she owned. It was decreed that all Christians should follow the custom on Michaelmas Day and give a portion to the poor.

The Hiring Fairs were another Irish tradition centred around Michaelmas Day. Those seeking employment came to town on September 29th, stood in the Hiring Fair wearing the recognised sign of their skill. Once agreement had been reached with a farmer the hired hand received a coin as an earnest of his future wages. He was free for the rest of the day until the evening when he left the fair with the farmer for the farm which was to be his home for the next six to nine months.

The Charter of Athy granted by Henry VIII in 1515 provided for the election of a Town Provost on the feast of St. Michael. The later Charter of 1613 granted by James I stipulated that the town's sovereign elected annually on the 24th of June was to be sworn into office on Michaelmas Day. In 1746 Athy Borough was rocked by a scandal when Thomas Keating, one of the twelve Burgesses of the town, was charged by the Corporation with impersonating the Sovereign and while doing so calling a meeting for the Queen's Head in the town to elect a Burgess in place of John Jackson who had died. Keating who had not been sworn into office on Michaelmas Day as required by the town Charter was removed from his office as a Burgess of the town as were Robert Percy and Nicholas Aylward, both of whom attended the meeting called by Keating. The tradition of swearing in the Sovereign on the 29th of September survived until 1840 when the Borough was dissolved. The tradition of killing an animal to share with the poor and the Hiring Fair survived for a few more years but they too have long gone the way of other old Irish traditions.
Part time amateur enthusiastic students of local history have never been as numerous as they are today. Their work has spawned a multiplicity of publications ranging from substantial academic texts to the numerous books and pamphlets published by individual local historians and Historical Societies.

Genealogical research into ones own family is generally an initial step into a field of study which is both varied and extensive. The next step is inevitably the study of the history of a particular locality. However one enters into local history studies one thing is certain; the student will go to his local Library, look at what is available in the reference section or local archive material section and embark on a life long study which will never lose its interest.

The growing interest in local history and the awakening of interest in their own place amongst school children has created a huge demand for research material in our local libraries. Our national archives are not always readily accessible to the country based researchers but unfortunately our local libraries do not seem to be able to keep pace with the needs for basic research material even of a secondary nature.

The recent opening of the new vastly improved library service in the Town Hall under the guidance of the dynamic and resourceful County Librarian Breda Gleeson will hopefully lead to a dramatic improvement in the availability of research material in Athy. Success in local history work requires active co-operation between local libraries and national archives, local History Societies and the schools. Never before has there been such a need for all these bodies to collaborate more and more with each other to meet the every growing and popular demands of local history studies.

Eye on the Past will each week deal with a topic of interest from the History of South Kildare when we will delve into the rich vein of local History which remains to be discovered and related in future articles.

Friday, September 25, 1992

General Introduction to Series

Part time amateur enthusiastic students of local history have never been as numerous as they are today. Their work has spawned a multiplicity of publications ranging from substantial academic texts to the numerous books and pamphlets published by individual local historians and Historical Societies.

Genealogical research into ones own family is generally an initial step into a field of study which is both varied and extensive. The next step is inevitably the study of the history of a particular locality. However one enters into local history studies one thing is certain; the student will go to his local Library, look at what is available in the reference section or local archive material section and embark on a life long study which will never lose its interest.

The growing interest in local history and the awakening of interest in their own place amongst school children has created a huge demand for research material in our local libraries. Our national archives are not always readily accessible to the country based researchers but unfortunately our local libraries do not seem to be able to keep pace with the needs for basic research material even of a secondary nature.

The recent opening of the new vastly improved library service in the Town Hall under the guidance of the dynamic and resourceful County Librarian Breda Gleeson will hopefully lead to a dramatic improvement in the availability of research material in Athy. Success in local history work requires active co-operation between local libraries and national archives, local History Societies and the schools. Never before has there been such a need for all these bodies to collaborate more and more with each other to meet the every growing and popular demands of local history studies.

Eye on the Past will each week deal with a topic of interest from the History of South Kildare when we will delve into the rich vein of local History which remains to be discovered and related in future articles.