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.