Friday, April 30, 1993

Dominicans in Athy

Last Sunday I attended Mass in the Dominican Church, Athy. An unusual occurrence for me as I normally attend what we all refer to as "the Parish". As I glanced around George Campbell's multi-coloured stained glass windows and focused on the crucifix by Brid ni Rinn my thoughts were of times long past when other generations of Athy men and women long dead worshipped in their local Dominican Church. For I realised I was participating with everyone else in St. Dominic's that Sunday in a celebration with echoes going back centuries into the history of Athy.

The Dominican Order first came to Athy in 1253 when the then developing village was but 60 or 70 years old. Invited to set up a monastery on the east bank of the River Barrow by the Boswell and Wogan families the Dominicans were to have the second Monastery in the area. The Crouched Friars or Trinitarians were already established on the west bank of the River in the shadow of Woodstock Castle.

We know little of the Dominicans in the early years of their life in Athy. We all know the oft repeated reference to the dispute between the two monasteries when the Crouched Friars were convicted of stealing eels from the eel weir belonging to the Dominicans. Less well known is the reference in the Plea Rolls for 1374 which lists the Dominicans in Athy as Henry Mody, Prior, William Durant, Thomas Scryueyn and William Roche. Not an Irish name amongst them but this is not surprising given that the early Dominicans were French speaking Anglo-Normans.

Times changed and by the end of the 15th century the Friars were English speaking and catering for the needs of the English settlers and the native Irish who had begun to populate the growing village of Athy. The Reformation of 1540 put a temporary halt to the Dominican presence in Athy but by 1630 or thereabouts they had returned to the town. Meantime the Trinitarians who had already abandoned their Monastery in St. John's were never to return.

During the Confederate Wars of 1640 the Dominican Prior was Fr. Thomas Bermingham who was captured by Cromwell's troops and later went to Spain. Two Athy Dominicans were martyred during the civil unrest of the 17th century. Fr. Richard Overton, sub-Prior was captured and killed when Drogheda was taken by Cromwellian soldiers in 1649. Fr. Raymond Moore, Prior of Athy in 1651 and 1652 was exiled to the continent towards the end of the latter year. He returned following the accession of Charles II to the throne and was again Prior in Athy in 1661 and 1662. He was later arrested and imprisoned in Dublin where he died in 1665.

Prior from 1691 to 1698 was Fr. Richard Cuddy when the Monastery was closed due to the Penal Laws. It was not until 1730 or thereabouts that the Dominicans felt free to return to Athy. When they did return they chose a laneway off the Dublin Road, now called Kirwan's Lane, as the location of their Monastery and Church. In 1846 the Dominicans moved to Riversdale House located on the west bank of the River Barrow directly opposite their original Monastery site.

The Dominicans are our most cherished link with the medieval past of Athy. Unusual then to find that this ancient association is represented by a Church described in 1965 as of a "revolutionary style" and "unique in Ireland". However, the Dominican Church because of it's ultra modern appearance is a fitting symbolic representation of a proud tradition and association between the Dominican Order and Athy going back 740 years. Theirs is a unique record of dedication to the people of Athy and district which all of us must cherish and honour with each passing day.

Friday, April 23, 1993

The Mace of Athy

On the 12th May, 1888 the Nationalist and Leinster Times carried a report that the Duke of Leinster had forwarded to Mr. Edward Johnson of Grafton Street, Dublin, "a magnificent piece of old silver for exhibition in his antique collection for Olympia". The piece of old silver was in fact the Mace of the old Corporation of Athy which the report indicated had been purchased by the Duke of Leinster when the Corporation was abolished. The Duke, continued the report, presented the Mace to John Butler Esq. described as the last Sovereign of Athy in November 1841. His son, Thomas Butler, later sold the same Mace to the Duke of Leinster in 1876.

That newspaper report was the first public confirmation that the Mace of Athy had passed out of the possession of the Athy Town Commissioners who were the successors to the Borough Council of Athy. The Borough Council first incorporated by Charter granted by Henry VIII in 1515 was abolished by the Municipal Corporation Act 1840 as it was deemed to be undemocratic and unrepresentative. The members of the Borough Council were appointed on the nomination of the Duke of Leinster and those appointed were generally non residents of Athy and always of a particular religious persuasion.

Interestingly enough, the newspaper report of 1888 refers to the Duke purchasing the Mace, presenting it to John Butler "the last Sovereign of Athy" and later repurchasing it from his son. John Butler who resided at St. John's, Athy, was not the last Sovereign, a distinction which fell to Rev. F.S. Trench of Kilmoroney. Equally strange is the absence of any reference in the Minute Books of the Borough Council or its successor Athy Town Commissioners to the sale of the Town Mace. The suspicion is that the Mace was not purchased but rather passed into the possession of the Duke of Leinster at a time when public accountability was of little importance. Perhaps it was fair enough that it did return to the Duke as his predecessor had presented it to the Borough of Athy on September 29th, 1746.

Ceremonial Civic Maces first appeared in the 13th century and by tradition these highly ornamental objects were carried by specially appointed Sergeants at Mace. The Sergeant carried the Mace in procession before the Mayor or Sovereign of the town. It was also carried into the Borough Chambers before the announcement of meetings, similar to the ceremony surrounding the Mace currently used in the English House of Commons.

The Great Mace of Athy was last to come before the public when it was offered for sale by auction at Sotheby's, London, on 18th March, 1982. Described as a George II large ceremonial Mace 46¼ inches high it had been made by John Williamson of Dublin in 1746. The exquisitely crafted Mace, one of a small number of such Maces still in existence was for sale with an estimate in the region of £9,000.00 sterling. Athy Urban District Council decided to purchase the Mace but in so doing the Council representative at the Auction, the late Seamus O'Conchubhair, County Librarian, was authorised to bid up to £9,000.00. The Mace was purchased by a London dealer for £15,000.00.

The present whereabouts of the Great Mace of Athy is unknown. It is a reasonable assumption that another chance to purchase a priceless element of our past history may never again present itself.

Friday, April 16, 1993

April 1798 in Athy

The month of April 1798 was an eventful one in the history of Athy and South Kildare. Early that month Colonel Campbell who was in charge of the Cavalry Barracks in the town issued a directive requiring passengers on the Grand Canal to and from Athy to have a pass signed by a magistrate. Similar passes were later required by all residents of the town who wanted to go outside the town limits.

Campbell had earlier failed to recover arms stolen in a raid on a boat docked at the Canal Harbour in Athy the previous December. He was satisfied that the raid had been planned and executed by locals with the active co-operation of boatmen on the Canal. Without any proof of complicity on the part of the locals he was nevertheless determined to make matters unpleasant for the disloyal subjects of Athy and South Kildare.

On 3 April 1798 Dublin Castle issued an order requiring all weapons to be handed in within 10 days. An insufficient response to this demand would result in the troops being sent to live at free quarters amongst the local population. Col. Campbell had notices distributed throughout Athy and South Kildare informing all and sundry of the military ultimatum. The threat of having soldiers living in local houses at the expenses of the local residents did not have the desired effect as little or no arms were turned over to the authorities.

On 20 April the soldiers were let loose to live at free quarters in South Kildare. At the same time Col. Campbell had all liquor in the town seized and destroyed. A number of thatched cottages adjourning the Cavalry Barracks in Barrack Lane were stripped of their thatch "less upon any attack that might be made thereafter inconvenience should arise from the setting fire thereto." The hardship caused to publicans and townspeople alike was but the beginning of months of terror and torture for the people of South Kildare.

Campbell sent a troop of the 9th Dragoons and a Company of the Cork Militia totalling 200 men and 80 horses to Kilkea Castle where Thomas Reynolds later identified as a traitor to the cause of the United Irishmen was living. Commanded by Captain Erskine, the soldiers arrived on 20 April where they remained for 8 days. Reynolds son later recorded that "the friends and acquaintances of the officers their wives and children and those of the soldiers came daily from Athy to see the Castle and feast" at his father's expense.

Erskine and his troops left Kilkea Castle on 28th April and moved to the Geraldine residence of Thomas Fitzgerald where they remained for the next 30 days. Fitzgerald, although Captain of the Athy Loyal Cavalry Corps was suspected of rebel sympathies. Everything of value was removed from his house while his stock was depleted in feeding the soldiers during their 30 day stay.

Others to be visited by the troops were Thomas Dunne of Leinster Lodge and Patrick Dunne of Dollardstown as well as Dan Caulfied of Levitstown. Both Thomas Fitzgerald and Dan Caulfield were arrested and brought to Dublin where they were imprisoned in a house in Smithfield used as a temporary prison. Fitzgerald was released after 91 days.

April 1798 witnessed the start of a vicious and prolonged campaign against those perceived as disloyal to the Crown. History records only the names of the well known and the leaders who suffered in this way. The ordinary people of Athy and South Kildare, although used to daily hardship and suffering, were once again to bear the brunt of the military excesses. Their story remains to be told.

Friday, April 9, 1993

Athy Lions Club

Lions Clubs exist throughout the world and constitute the largest charitable organisation in existence. The origin of Athy Lions Club goes back to the early months of 1971. Kilkenny City had an active Lions Club and one of it's members was Paddy Reynolds, a relation of Athy Chemist Des McHugh. Paddy contacted Des about the possibility of extending Lionism to Athy. The idea was mentioned on a number of occasions and Des discussed the matter with a number of locals who indicated sufficient interest to encourage the Kilkenny Lions Club to call a meeting for the Leinster Arms Hotel, Athy.

That meeting held in May 1971 was in fact the monthly meeting of the Kilkenny Lions Club. Des McHugh and a small number of Athy men attended. Afterwards the visiting Lions withdrew and allowed the locals to discuss among themselves the feasibility of starting a Lions Club in the south Kildare town. It is recalled that a visiting priest from the U.S.A. stayed behind and addressed those in attendance on the ideals and objectives of Lionism. His words more than anything else satisfied those who heard him that Athy should establish it's own Lions Club.

A number of further meetings were called and potential members were invited to attend until a minimum of sixteen were available to form the nucleus of the new Club. The Athy Lions Club was officially chartered on the 29th of June, 1971 sponsored by the Kilkenny Lions Club. The first President was Des McHugh who held that position for two years. Ken Turner was the first Secretary. The Charter members were:
T. Curry Michael Walsh
Des Perry Ger Moriarty
Michael Prendergast John Perry
John King Jerry Carbery
Jim Lochrin Richard Norris
Des McHugh Liam Porter
Ken Turner Michael Cunningham
Michael Dwyer Gerry Cleary
R. Barrett Johnny Watchorn
K. O'Grady Michael Wall
Barry Donnelly William Cade
Trevor Shaw Liam Owens

Athy Lions Club sponsored in 1971 by Kilkenny Club has in turn sponsored new Lions Clubs in Newbridge/Kildare, Carlow, Monasterevan and shared in the sponsorship of the Naas Club.

The local Lions Club has made a substantial contribution to many charities and causes over the years but perhaps it's most memorable achievements include the purchase of the former Dreamland Ballroom in conjunction with Athy Parish as a social and sports centre for the area. The provision of ten sheltered housing units with a community room in the grounds of St. Vincent's Hospital was another unique project initiated by the Lions Club in 1989. Costing in excess of £250,000.00 the project was successfully completed with the active co-operation and support of other Lions Clubs in the County. Other projects assisted include Sr. Consillo's Cuan Mhuire, St. Vincent's Hospital, Athy, and the Knights of Malta who received two Ambulances from the Lions Club. It is estimated that charitable projects have received financial assistance of almost one million pounds from Athy’s Lions Club in the 22 years of it's existence.

The work of the Athy members receives little or no publicity but the legacy of their good work in South Kildare is a fitting reward for those men who have worked quietly but effectively since 1971.

Friday, April 2, 1993

Master Tailors of Athy

In the early years of the 19th century the average man wore a shirt, breeches, stockings, a hat or a cap, a waistcoat and a great coat or frock coat. The breeches were fastened below the knee with buttons or a tape. Fashion trends long dormant were about to change largely influenced by the British Royal Family and when in 1807 the Prince of Wales wore a pair of sailors long trousers, breeches were destined soon to be a thing of the past. By the middle of the last century breeches were worn only by old men who shunned the fashionable long trousers.

The advent of the new middle class in the 19th century and the availability of imported material created a demand for fashionable clothes during the latter half of that century. The long frock coat of the earlier years was replaced by a shorter jacket coat. In the market towns such as Athy the dictates of the London fashion scene were followed no less assidiously than elsewhere. Master tailors and dressmakers were two occupations much in demand in the days before factory production became prevalent.

The principal tailoring business in Athy was carried on by Thomas G. Lumley at Duke Street. On the 2nd of August, 1884 in an advertisement in The Nationalist and Leinster Times Lumley announced that he had received "a very beautiful assortment of English, Irish and Scottish goods for the present season well worth attention." The advertisements quoted "tweed suits from 50 shillings, tweed trousers from 12/6, all made to order with Liveries made on the shortest notice." Lumleys gave employment to many Athy men and women over the years, some of whom were eventually to set up their own businesses.

Tom Moran of St. Patrick's Avenue and his father Thomas, Mick Egan of Leinster Street and Paddy Bracken of Barrack Street were some of those skilful craftsmen who worked for Lumleys in their Duke Street premises. Master tailors tended to hand on the skill and expertise of their craft to their family members and the Morans were one of the many families where the tradition was handed on. Thomas Moran and his son Tom were master tailors while Tom's sister, Catherine, was a seamstress in Lumleys.

Dressmaking was another branch of the trade which of necessity utilised skills of the womenfolk. Miss Johnson, dressmaker, is remembered as occupying one of the small houses in Convent Lane with the sign over her front door “E. Johnson Dressmaker”.

The work of master tailors in provincial towns was under threat even as early as 1886 as evidenced by a letter to the Kildare Observer by an Athy correspondent on the 17th of November of that year. The writer enquired as to what had happened the movement to promote Irish manufacture when
"you may see in most of the draper shops in Athy made up suits of English shoddy ...... while tailors have not enough to do ....... no wonder indeed that this and other towns should be decaying swiftly while artisans and labourers are just ignored". He alerted the readers to another problem caused by "grocers and others beginning to patronise the houses in Dublin for their clothing".

The problem was again highlighted in a letter to the Leinster Leader from Cootes, Market Square, Athy, on the 5th of April, 1902. Mr. Coote, who operated a "fitting establishment" bemoaned the destruction of the tailoring trade by
"greedy drapers who supply suits to measure made in London or in Dublin ...... when a customer goes into a house that supplies the suits to buy a piece of material which he wants to bring to one of the tailors in Athy he is persuaded by the drapers assistant that ..... he would get a better fit if he gets them made in Dublin or London according to the measurement taken by the draper's assistant ...... there are tailors in Athy who can compete with any first class house in the Kingdom at making stylish, perfect fitting suits."

The letter writer no doubt expressed the fears and views of the Master tailors of Athy and elsewhere for whom the future was one of uncertainty. Tailoring establishments such as Lumleys and Cootes continued on for several more years but in time the tailoring skills passed on from generation to generation were no longer of use in a small provincial town. Individual tailors working on their own account continued in business until the 1950's and John Connell of Prusselstown, Tom Moran of St. Patrick's Avenue and Mick Egan of Leinster Street were the last of a long line of tailors who worked in Athy. The days of the large master tailoring firms are now long gone. Progress had sidelined yet another craft and added to the long list of defunct crafts which once flourished in the town.