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.