Friday, May 28, 1993

Naas and Athy connections

A very interesting walk through historic Naas last week under the guidance of Liam Kenny of the local history group prompted me to reflect on the links between Naas and Athy. Both are towns of ancient lineage and owe their development as urban settlements to the Normans. However, Naas in all probability was a settlement long before Athy as it's Irish name Nas na Riogh implies. Translated as the place of the assembly or Kings it's nomenclature clearly derives meaning from the important North and South motes which were a pre-Norman significance. Athy on the other hand was an ancient and important river crossing with nothing to indicate a settlement prior to the coming of the Normans.

It is with the Normans of the late 12th century that Athy and Naas became established as settlements of importance. Both had Dominican Monasteries, Athy founded in 1253 and Naas in 1355. Athy's proud boast is that the Dominicans are still with us after 740 years. The Reformation of 1540 put an end to their involvement in Naas.

Another link stretching back into the medieval past was the existence in both towns of a Whites Castle. Athy's Whites Castle is still prominently located on the Bank of the River Barrow overlooking the Barrow Bridge. Indeed it was built in 1417 to protect the pass over the bridge and ensure the safety of those living within the Pale. Athy was situated on the Marches of Kildare, and while not within the Pale was regarded as an important Fortress in the first line of the defence for the people living within the Pale. Naas of course, situated within the Pale, was one of the many beneficiaries of the military policy which sought to restrict the wild Irish west of the River Barrow at Athy. The Whites Castle of Naas was located in the area of the present Town Hall and was demolished in 1786. Apart from the similar names there appears to have been no link between the Castles, it being common in medieval times to have White and Black Castles throughout the land.

Both towns were chartered as Town Boroughs with Sovereigns and Burgesses - Athy in 1515 and Naas in 1568. The earlier incorporation of Athy points to its greater importance during the early years of the County Kildare towns. Given Naas' central location in the County it was inevitable that Naas would eventually outstrip it's southern neighbour and relegate it to a minor role in County affairs.

In the 1860's the Quarter Sessions which alternated between Naas and Athy were transferred to Naas on a permanent basis and within two years the jail in Athy which had been built in 1830 to replace an older jail was closed and all prisoners transferred to the equally new Naas jail. The emergence of Naas as the County town was now predicable as was the subsequent decline in Athy. The respective populations of Naas and Athy in 1831 were 3806 and 4494, a fair reflection of the advantage which Athy from early time had held over Naas. The trend however was by then changing and their positions were reversed with finality with the setting up of Kildare County Council with administrative headquarters in Naas in 1899. Thereafter Naas was to continue to prosper as it was chosen for no other reason than it’s central location within the County as the administrative headquarters of further state agencies.

The linkage first forged between the ancient seats of the Kings and the Ford of Ae were strengthened when the Christian Brothers and the Sisters of Mercy opened schools in both towns during the 19th century. It was almost as if neither town was prepared to give way to the other in matters of social or educational advancement.

The ultimate link between the two towns apart from the ancient roadway from Dublin was the Grand Canal which was extended to Naas in 1789 and to Athy in 1791. The Ford of Ae, anciently a river settlement was now linked with the riverless town of Naas by the waters of a manmade waterway. This linkage between the present County town and the once larger and busier market town of Athy was in a way the coming together of two estranged brothers who had grown apart from each other. Modern communications have sidelined the Grand Canal but in their histories the towns of Athy and Naas share a common heritage and a common aspiration to give their own people in their own place a future full of promise and hope.

Friday, May 21, 1993

Plewman family / Thomas Plewman

On the 11th of February 1911 the Irish Times under the heading "Forty Five Years in Public Life" referred to the record of uninterrupted public life service of Thomas Plewman of Athy. Described as having entered his 70th year yet looking as vigorous and as active as a man of 50 he was carrying on the family tradition of involvement in the public life of County Kildare.
"His popularity may be judged from the fact that he invariably heads the poll at the local elections. This will be all the more appreciated after it is remembered that Mr. Plewman, although a prominent member of the Church of Ireland, numbers his friends among every section of the Catholic community in which he resides. He has given his services and his resources generously for the benefit of the public."

Thomas Plewman was born in 1842 in Kilcoo House to where his father, also named Thomas Plewman, had moved on his second marriage to Elizabeth Rothwell of Ballagh, Isle of Man. His first wife Anne Guest, daughter of Edward Guest of Athy, had died in 1837. Thomas Plewman Senior had been elected a Church Warden of St. Michael's, Athy, that same year and was elected a member of the first Town Commissioners appointed in Athy in February 1842. He was re-elected in the 1847 election with 100 votes when interestingly enough the local Parish Priest, Rev. John Lawler, was also elected with 105 votes. Thomas Plewman Senior was still a member of the Town Commissioners in November 1855 when a petition was submitted by the Athy Town Commissioners to the Lord Lieutenant seeking an extension of the towns boundaries.

His son Thomas, the subject of the Irish Times article in 1911 was elected a Towns Commissioners in 1866 replacing his father. His popularity in Athy was reflected in his topping the pole in the elections of 1874. The Chairman of the Town Commissioners following these elections was Edward Lord, Solicitor, whose name has passed down to us in the place name "Lords Island". Thomas Plewman was himself Chairman of the Town Commissioners in 1887 and again for a five year period between 1894 and 1898.

Appointed a Justice of the Peace in the 1890's he remained a Towns Commissioner and later an Urban Councillor until 3rd May, 1920. On that day he resigned after 54 years of public service apparently because of the Council's decision to change the meeting times to 7.00 p.m.

On his marriage to his first cousin, Ellen Taylor of Dublin, Thomas Plewman had acquired Woodstock House, Athy, which remained the family home of the Plewmans up to the 1960's. The house is now part of the Minch Norton complex.

His brother Edward Plewman married Martha Booth of Dublin in 1876. They lived in Kilcoo House where they brought up a large family. The burial records of St. John's Cemetery show that in a two week period in the summer of 1885 Edward and Martha lost three of their young children. Robert aged three and a half years died on the 23rd May, Charles aged two years died on the 4th of June to be followed within three days by his young brother Edward aged five years. What tragedy befell the family we cannot say but even with the lapse of 105 years one cannot but be saddened by the enormity of the family's loss.

Thomas's step-sister, Hannah, born in 1830 had a romantic attachment with local man Myles Whelan which resulted in the young couple eloping. Family tradition relates that Hannah left Kilcoo House with the assistance of one of her brothers by descending a rope from her bedroom window. Hannah and Myles were to have nine children. Their grand-daughter Margaret was to marry local vet M.T. Byrne who lived at Millview House, now gone and replaced by the Allied Irish Bank building.

A grandson of Thomas Plewman, also named Thomas, was married to Eliane Sophie Brown Bartroli a member of the French Resistance who was captured by the Germans in March 1944 and executed. She had earlier been awarded the French Croix de Guerre for her involvement with the Resistance movement.

The family of Plewmans or Plowman as the name was originally spelled hold a unique record of public service in Athy. Between father and son, both named Thomas Plewman, they served 78 continuous years as public representative in the town. Theirs is a unique and proud record which is unlikely ever to be equalled.

Friday, May 14, 1993

Barrowhouse Ambush

Early in the afternoon of 16th May, 1921 eight young men from the Barrowhouse area left their homes and walked to a pre-arranged meeting place in the graveyard adjoining Barrowhouse Church. Their mission was death. Their intention was to ambush Black and Tans stationed in Ballylinan who regularly travelled on the road between Maganey and Ballylinan. The local men were all members of B Company Carlow Brigade, Irish Republican Army based in the Barrowhouse area.

On the previous night arms and ammunition had been brought from Castledermot and delivered to Joe Maher of Cullinagh who was leader of the Barrowhouse men. The I.R.A. had an extensive network of informers in all the Police barracks in the area and Ballylinan and Athy were no exception in this regard. A contingent of Black and Tans were expected to pass through Barrowhouse that afternoon on their way from the Ballylinan Police Barracks to Maganey.

Seven of the local men armed for the most part with shotguns laid in wait while one man acted as a lookout. As the Black and Tans approached on bicycles the doors of the nearby school opened and the local children tumbled out into the bright sunlight of that May afternoon. The Black and Tans dismounted from their bicycles and walked past the waiting I.R.A. men surrounded on both sides by the young boys and girls on their way home.

The I.R.A. men realising that their carefully planned ambush was not now possible because of the proximity of the school children immediately changed their positions. Moving across the fields they sought to cut off the Black and Tans further up the road but as they did they lost the element of surprise. Their cover was also lost and contact between the members of the unit could not be maintained in the ever changing circumstances.

The attack when it started was disastrous for the Barrowhouse men. The shotguns were very inaccurate and it is suspected that their ammunition was damp and ineffective. The Black and Tans reacted quickly and replied with deadly accurate fire from their Enfield rifles. Two of the I.R.A. Volunteers, William O'Connor, and Jim Lacey both from Barrowhouse were killed. Their companions were helpless in the face of the superior firepower of the Black and Tans and withdrew from the scene. The survivors of the unsuccessful ambush party were Joe Maher, Cullinagh, Mick Maher, Barrowhouse, Joe Lacey, Barrowhouse, Jack O'Brien, Barrowhouse, Joe Ryan, Kilmoroney and Paddy Dooley, Killabbin, Maganey.

The bodies of O'Connor and Lacy were brought to the R.I.C. Barracks in Ballylinan and were released on the following Tuesday when they were conveyed to St. Mary's Church, Barrowhouse. On Thursday morning at 11.00 o'clock Requiem Office for the dead was chanted and Solemn High Mass celebrated with Rev. J. Nolan C.C., Athy, as celebrant. After the Mass the two coffins were carried on the shoulders of local men to the nearby graveyard. As the two coffins were lowered into the double grave a lone trumpeter sounded the Last Post.

On the night of the ambush, the home of John Lynch, Barrowhouse, one time Captain of the local I.R.A. Coy was burnt by the Black and Tans. Joe Maher of Cullinagh who had led the ambush at Barrowhouse later enlisted in the Irish Free State Army where he became a Military Policeman. He resigned in 1924 when a number of ex British soldiers were given appointments as N.C.O.'s in the new Army. The last survivor of the Barrowhouse ambush was Jack O'Brien, born on the day of the Gordon Bennett Race in Athy and thereafter known locally as "Gordon Bennett". He joined the Garda Siochana and died 2 years ago in Kilkenny where he had lived for many years.

The lonely spot where O'Connor and Lacy died is today marked by a simple memorial at the side of the roadway.

Friday, May 7, 1993

Asbestos Factory / Tegral

Tegral recently launched a new product manufactured at it's Athy factory continuing a tradition of excellence going back 57 years. For it was in 1936 at the height of the economic war between Ireland and England that the first sod was turned in Mullery's field on the site of the new asbestos factory. The factory was very welcome at that time of heavy unemployment, particularly to the Athy men who still remembered with bitterness the loss of the sugar factory to Carlow in 1926. Their bitterness stemmed from the acute disappointment felt when the delegation from Athy sent to Brussels in July of 1925 to press the claim of the town for the factory were outfoxed by the Carlow delegates. A member of the Athy delegation was Sydney Minch and the Minch family were again to the fore with the planning for the asbestos factory.

The Minchs were the owners of Minch Norton Maltings in Athy and elsewhere and M.P. Minch opened discussions with H.A. Osterberg, a Danish Industrialist who was interested in opening a cement factory in Ireland following the passing of the 1933 Cement Act. This Act imposed a duty of five shillings per tonne on imported cement making it an economic proposition to produce cement in Ireland.

The Thompson family of Carlow lent support to Minch's efforts to locate the cement factory in Athy and in time agreement was reached on Athy as the site. Asbestos Cement Limited was incorporated in April 1936 and that same month a small group of men gathered at the canal bridge watched as four men marked out the site of the new factory in Mullery's field.

The factory was opened in 1937 and at that time it had only one machine producing corrugated asbestos sheeting. The new product proved very popular and in the following year a second machine was installed. The workers were drawn from Athy and surrounding district.

Transport of the raw material in the early years of the factory, especially during the Second World Ward, was by canal boat on the adjoining Grand Canal. In the late 1940's a spur line was built off the Wolfhill railway line which itself had been opened on the 24th of September 1918 as a result of the severe coal shortage of the war years. The colliery line had closed on the 1st of January 1929 but the line as far as Ballylinan had been retained to facilitate the transport of sugar beet to the Carlow Sugar Factory. Carlow now seemed to come to Athy's assistance with the building of the spur line to the asbestos factory off the line which remained open to Ballylinan but which would undoubtedly have been closed in 1929 but for the existence of the sugar beet factory. As a result the raw material could be brought into the factory directly by rail and this operation continues to this day.

Technological advances in the 1950's and 1960's ensured that the factory prospered and continued to give employment in Athy even if the number of workers employed decreased over the years. In 1976 the asbestos factory became known as Tegral Building Products and today it possesses one of the most advanced slate making units in the world.

As a young lad I recall laying claim to one of the several sheds facing onto the Grand Canal each of which bore in large red letters initials, the significance of which remains even to this day a mystery to me. However I had no doubt that the initials FT meant that I had a proprietary interest in Athy's largest industry. Some of my school pals were not so lucky!!

The town of Athy and South Kildare owe a great debt of gratitude to M.P. Minch and the ordinary working men whose skill and industry over the years have ensured the continued viability of one of the longest surviving industries in Athy.