Friday, February 26, 1993

Christian Brothers Athy

The recent announcement that the Christian Brothers were to appoint a lay Principal for their Secondary School in Athy brings to a close an era stretching back 132 years. It was on Thursday the 8th of August 1861 that the Christian Brothers first arrived in Athy. Brother Stanislaus O'Flanagan, the first Principal, was accompanied by Brother Luke Holland and a lay Brother - Brother Patrick Sheehy.

They were accommodated in Greenhills House, St. John's Lane, the former residence of the Weldon family and from 1820 to 1850 that of the Misses Hellen, daughters of Lord Justice Hellen. After 1850 Greenhills House was owned by John Beard through his wife Hannah, daughter of George Mansergh of Riversdale House. Greenhills was later acquired by the Parish Priest, Rev. A Quinn, whether by gift or purchase it is not known. The Annals of the Convent of Mercy disclose that in 1859 the Parish Priest not being able to pay the rent gave the house and ten and a half acres to the Sisters of Mercy. The Sisters later donated the house and some of the lands for the use of the Christian Brothers. The first one storey school building was built on a site adjoining Greenhills House. Patrick Maher of Kilrush, who was a generous benefactor of the local Sisters of Mercy, donated £400 towards the building costs which amounted to £1,000.00.

On Sunday August 11th Archbishop Cullen, a native of Ballitore who had taken a special interest in bringing the Christian Brothers to Athy, preached in the Parish Church and introduced the newly arrived Christian Brothers to the townspeople. The next morning he said Mass in Greenhills House and blessed the new classrooms.

On August 19th the School opened it's doors for the first time and 120 boys were enroled. As the numbers increased a third teaching brother was required. Brother Francis Clarke joined the community with the ever generous Patrick Maher of Kilrush agreeing to pay £30 annually towards his maintenance. In the early years of the School's existence the salaries of the other Brothers were met from Parish funds. For this purpose two annual collections were taken up in the Parish Church.

In 1867 the Parish Priest pleaded inability to further guarantee the financial support of the Christian Brothers. Following a public meeting in the town the Christian Brothers took upon themselves the task of collecting funds for their own maintenance and support. In this they were supported by the local people and a number of general gifts and bequests were made to them by Michael Lawlor, Miss Goold, J. Delaney, Miss Ferris and others.

A second storey was added to the school building in 1901. The extra space was required for teaching experimental science and other subjects under the aegis of the new Department of Agricultural and Technical Instructions. On the townspeoples security £300 was borrowed from a local Bank and the work was completed at a cost of almost £900 in October 1901. For seven weeks after the summer holidays of that year the Christian Brothers held classes in the Old Schoolhouse in Stanhope Place which had been vacated by the Sisters of Mercy in 1893.

The full story of the Christian Brothers in Athy and their labour in the cause of Christian education will be told another day. Some years ago while browsing in an Antiquarian Bookshop in Dublin I came across a leather bound volume with the words "Deceased Brothers" on the cover. The inside cover was marked in ink as volume 2 and a perusal of it's contents showed it to be a necrology of the Christian Brothers.

By a strange coincidence the first entry recorded the death of Brother Luke Holland on the 8th of January 1900 in Marino. He it was who had travelled to Athy in August 1861 with his two companions to open the first Christian Brothers Monastery and School. The same volume also recorded the deaths of his companions - Brother Patrick Sheehy on the 2nd March 1902 and Brother Stanislaus O'Flanagan on the 5th March 1906. How strange to find that the three young religious Brothers who had been brought together in August 1861 to travel to Athy were to have their names reunited in print 45 years later with the death of the first Superior of Athy Christian Brothers School Brother Stanislaus O'Flanagan.

Friday, February 19, 1993

Alexander Duncan

"In these parts the Protestants all are about one in ten, composed of Irish Church, Presbyterians, Methodists, Brethren and an odd antique of a Quaker". So wrote Alexander Duncan from Athy in May 1886 in a letter to a friend.

Duncan, then in the penultimate year of his life, lived in Tonlegee House and carried on business as a draper in premises now occupied by Shaws of Duke Street. He was one of the leading members of the Methodist congregation in Athy but surprisingly enough he did not share the political views of his co-religionists.

Nationalists in 19th century Ireland tended to be Catholics while the supporters of Unionism were by and large Protestant Anglo-Irish. Unionism such as existed in Athy was of a non-aggressive kind, unlike the Unionist movement in Northern Ireland where opposition to Home Rule sometimes took on a less than acceptable level of violent activity.

Support for Home Rule amongst the Athy Nationalists was as muted as the local opposition to this measure of self-government. Alexander Duncan alone stood out as a strong voice advocating an independent and non-clerical legislature for the Irish people.

The local Presbyterians were described by Duncan as "too busy in their farms to weigh well such a weighty question as Home Rule but are ready to reap any advantage accruing from the Land Bill."
These views expressed in 1886 may not have been entirely accurate as in 1893 the Elders of the Athy Presbyterian Church presented a Memorial to that year's General Assembly declaring their opposition to Home Rule.

He complained that his fellow Methodists were willing to view the issue from a sectarian view point "rather than the highest and nobler one of our country's need and independence". Similarly the Church of Ireland were criticised by him as being afraid of losing the Landlords who were the chief contributors to Church funds.

An outspoken yet generous man Duncan was for many years a member of Athy Town Commissioners and served as Chairman of that body in 1852, 1867, 1875 and 1879. He presented a finely carved chair to the Town Commissioners for use by the Chairman at Council meetings on stepping down from that office in 1879. The chair is now exhibited in the Museum Room in the Town Hall.

In 1867, Duncan who was then on his second term as Chairman of Athy Town Commissioners, purchased some ground at Woodstock Street and offered it to the local Methodist congregation as a site for a new Methodist Church. The foundation stone of the new building was laid by Mrs. Alexander Duncan on the 12th of June 1872 before a large crowd of local people. Her husband had donated £600.00 to the Church building fund in addition to the site. Exactly two years later on Friday the 12th of June 1874 the newly constructed Church and Sunday School which cost £2,200.00 was dedicated.

Alexander Duncan died on the 30th of September 1887 and the leaders of the Circuit and the members of Athy Methodist congregation erected a fine Memorial Tablet to his memory in the Church built largely as a result of his generosity and energy. He was aged 68 years and lies buried in St. John's Cemetery.

Friday, February 12, 1993

Macra na Feirme - Stephen Cullinan

On February 21st 1944 a number of Athy men who had been attending an evening Agricultural Class in the Technical School over the winter months met in the school. They had come together at the suggestion of their teacher, Stephen Cullinan, a young man from Castlegar in County Galway. Aged only 24 years Stephen was to provide the dynamic leadership for the Young Farmers Club which was formed that night in Athy Technical School. The declared aim of the Club was to increase the efficiency and prosperity of farmers through education.

Athy has always claimed the honour of having Ireland's first Young Farmers Club, an honour which is also claimed by Mooncoin in County Kilkenny. Those involved in Athy's Young Farmers Club included Juan Greene, E. Minch, A. Spiers and Paddy Kehoe and it was Paddy Kehoe of Kilcoo and Stephen Cullinan who were instrumental in the subsequent formation of a national organisation for young farmers to be known later as Macra na Feirme. In September 1944 a meeting was called for Newman House, St. Stephen's Green, Dublin. Paddy Kehoe was elected Chairman with Stephen Cullinan Secretary. They set about organising representatives from different parts of Ireland and within two years fifty two Clubs were established. In 1946 the National Executive adopted the name Macra na Feirme and local man Ivan Bergin of Maybrook, Athy, was commissioned to design a special badge for the new organisation.

Macra's headquarters was set up in a room in the Town Hall, Athy, vacated by the Mechanics Institute. The billiard table left behind by the Institute was sold to the C.Y.M.S., Athy, after Macra had moved in. Local politicians were astonished when on the 1st of September 1947 the President of Ireland, Sean T. O'Ceallaigh officially opened the Macra offices. Little attention had been paid to the organisation before that but thereafter everybody acknowledged that Stephen Cullinan was not only a man of vision but also an achiever.

Stephen, who lived in a flat in the Crown House (now Griffin Hawes) was soon planning further developments. Recognising that there was no Irish farming paper he suggested to his friend Paddy Kehoe that they should start one. Paddy agreed to speak to J. Greene on the matter and both men each put up £1,000.00 to start the Irish Farmers Journal. Printed in Portlaoise and initially distributed through the Young Farmers Club the venture soon ran short of money and was later carried on by the Leinster Express. Eventually the paper was bought by John Mooney and Paddy O'Keeffe and continues to this day as a national newspaper with an extensive circulation.

Macra na Feirme went from strength to strength and quickly outgrew the County Kildare town where the first Young Farmers Club was founded. The headquarters moved to Dublin in the late 1950's. The National Farmers Association, later re-named the Irish Farmers Association, sprang from Macra and its first President, Juan Greene, coincidentally also held that same position in the first Young Farmers Club founded in Athy in 1944.

The initiative and drive of the young farmers of 49 years ago has brought immeasurable benefits to the people of Ireland. Amongst those men two stand out. Paddy Kehoe of Kilcoo, still happily with us, provided the pragmatism and support for the idealism and vision of Stephen Cullinan who sadly died in 1951.

The death of Stephen Cullinan, in the words of his friend and colleague Paddy Kehoe, was a terrible loss to the country and to the farmers of Ireland. Stephen, who was unmarried, suffered from asthma and died while undergoing dental treatment in Dublin. He had often said that his life would be short but in his time he achieved more than could be expected of one so young. His legacy is not forgotten in the town of Athy, where as a young graduate he brought together a community and encouraged it to face into the future with confidence and belief in itself. He lies buried in Castlegar, County Galway, and he is commemorated with a plaque on the front of the Town Hall, Athy.

Friday, February 5, 1993

Crime and Punishment in the old days

Wrong doers making an appearance before Courts today are faced with a range of punishments from fines to imprisonment to community services orders. The latter requires the convicted person to provide a specified number of hours of labour on a community project in his own locality. In this way he repays his debt to society and more specifically the community in which the offence occurred.

An offender would have faced almost certain death for many of the offence which today are treated quite lightly. At one time up to 500 criminal offences ranging from the stealing of a chicken to murder merited the death penalty. Every town had its Gallows and up to the beginning of the last century every traveller approaching Athy from the Kilcullen direction passed by the Gallows which was sited on rising ground just outside Athy. It was in this area, now known as Gallowshill, that the unfortunates were hanged and their bodies summarily disposed of in a nearby field. During the 17th and 18th centuries gibbeting or hanging the body of an executed criminal in chains on the approach to the town was the accepted practice. It acted as a permanent reminder to would be criminals and vagrants of the fate that awaited them should they step out of line in Athy.

Records of those hanged at Gallowshill are not available but we do know that on the 16th of August 1743 Luke Sherlock and his companion named Donnelly were hanged in Athy for robbery. The Dublin Journal of the 19th of September, 1756 reported that on the following Tuesday John Cronin was to be hanged in Athy for horse stealing, an offence committed four years previously. A note in the Irish Magazine of 1809 referred to a recent arrangement whereby Athy prisoners were transferred to Naas for execution. The writer regarded this as a breach of the privileges of the town of Athy! The change of execution place was of little consequence to those facing the ultimate penalty such as the four people sentenced to death at Athy assizes in July 1817 for stealing potatoes. Their six accomplices were deported for seven years.

During the months of May and June of 1798 several men from Athy and the surrounding countryside were arrested and lodged in Athy jail. Located in Whites Castle the jail was commonly regarded as the worst of its type in Ireland. Seven of those men, six of whom were from Narraghmore, were tried convicted and sentenced to be hanged. They were marched from the jail to an area close to the present dry dock and opposite the Military Barracks, where a Gallows had been erected. After the hangings two of the seven were beheaded and their severed heads were placed on Whites Castle as a warning to the local people not to get involved in rebellious activity.

Frequently criminals were brought back to the scene of their crime and hanged from the nearest tree. Such a fate befell John Whelan, known locally as "Black Top" who was involved in an attack on Glassealy House, the home of Thomas J. Rawson in 1798. Rawson, who later wrote the “Statistical Survey of County Kildare”, was leader of the Athy Loyalists and a member of the local Borough Council. 'Black Top' and his accomplices burned Rawson's house on the same day that they had fired the home of Mrs. Hannah Manders of Glassealy resulting in the death of four women and Mrs. Manders' nephew.

In 1799 Rawson captured 'Black Top' in Monavullagh bog and he was tried before a Court Martial, convicted and sentenced to death by hanging. An eye witness account of 'Black Top's' journey to the place of execution in Glassealy was written by Mary Leadbetter of Ballitore. She referred to
"two men yet living but in the same car were their coffins. One had been convicted of burning the Courthouse in Narraghmore, the other for the murder of Hannah Manders and they were to suffer death at the places where their crimes had been committed. One of the men hung his head weeping, the other looked about as if stupefied by terror. The march of the soldiers was slow and solemn and the people in the market seemed afraid to notice the prisoners."

Two years ago, during clearance work on a field, Gallowshill began to give up its deadly secrets as several skeletal remains were recovered. Work was temporarily stopped while the authorities satisfied themselves as to the nature of the findings but work soon re-commenced as the bulldozers buried centuries of history and death beneath clay ready to give up new life to 20th century crops.

Luckily enough for some hanging was not the only form of punishment in bygone days. In addition to a prison sentence the criminal might expect to spend some time in the town stocks or in the town pillory or alternatively to be subjected to the whip.

Imprisonment was of course the primary form of punishment and still is to this day. To be deprived of your personal freedom was always an unpleasant experience but particularly so where the prison to which you were sentenced was regarded as the worst of its kind in Ireland. Such was the description accorded in 1824 to Athy jail, then located in Whites Castle by the Inspector of Jails. The prison had nine cells and the diet of the prisoners was bread and water only. Matters improved somewhat when the new jail was built on the Carlow Road in 1830. Consisting of five day rooms and thirty cells built in a semi-circular form around the Governors house, it replaced the much criticised Whites Castle jail. Prisoners were employed in stone breaking, mat making and oakum picking.

While the prison was designed to accommodate each prisoner in a separate cell the level of drunkenness and lawlessness in Athy soon lead to overcrowding. In 1854 the average daily number in the jail was 48, and in 1856 was 47. The severity with which offenders were treated by the law can be gleaned from an examination of the prison sentences imposed on local people in Athy Courts in 1837. Six prisoners were sentenced to life imprisonment for cattle and sheep stealing while one unfortunate man got seven years for stealing a pig. Two offenders were whipped for simple larceny while 103 men and women were sent to prison for drunkenness.

In earlier years the drunk would probably have served time in the town's stocks. An Act of 1405 required every town and village to have stocks which were two stout boards with holes through which the legs of the offender were placed while he was sitting, and then padlocked together. The object was to humiliate or shame the offender who was padlocked in the stocks for a prescribed period. The local stocks and the pillory were in all probability located in the Market Square in Athy.

The use of the pillory was another way of publicly humiliating any offender who was required by the local Court to be pilloried. Made of wood, the pillory was a frame with holes through which the head and hands of the offender were placed while he was in a standing position. When the offender was placed in the stocks or in the pillory, he was at the mercy of the locals who could jeer him or if he was particularly offensive or disliked throw rubbish at him. The records of the Borough Council show that on the 16th of October, 1738 the members of the Corporation noted the conviction of Graham Bradford, a freeman of Athy, for "wilful and corrupt perjury" following which he was pilloried and subsequently transported to America.

Reference was earlier made to offenders sentenced to whipping in Athy Courts in 1837. Whipping was a common form of punishment following the Whipping Act of 1530. Initially it was reserved for vagrants who were to be whipped until blood was drawn and who were then required to take an oath to leave town and return to their own area. In time whipping became a more common place punishment for petty offenders. A whipping post was normally provided alongside the town's stocks and used as required.

In 1798 a large wooden triangle was erected opposite the Military Barracks in Barrack Street and used in an attempt to obtain information from uncooperative local people. Men thought to be involved in rebellious activity were tied to the triangle and flogged. The man in charge was Thomas Rawson of Glassealy. Thomas Fitzgerald of Geraldine writing of his experiences in December 1802 described Rawson as having
"every person tortured and stripped as his cannibal will directed. He would seat himself in a chair in the centre of a ring formed around the triangle, the miserable victims kneeling under the triangle until they would be spotted over with the blood of the others".

If the pillory and the stocks were normally reserved for men a peculiarly female form of punishment was the ducking stool. Consisting of a chair at the end of a long pole or beam which could be swivelled and lowered into the River Barrow, the ducking chair was particularly effective in dampening the spirits of quarrelsome women. It was a form of punishment first used in the 15th century but which fell out of favour much to the dismay of many a hen-pecked husband, long before its usefulness could be fully exploited!