Friday, July 30, 1993

Local History Summer School 1993

Last week I talked to a group attending the South Kildare Local History Summer School which was based in the Crookstown Heritage Centre, Ballitore. Locating a Local History School in a mill was an excellent idea. Jim Maher, it's owner, has managed to refurbish a derelict mill of a bygone age and while retaining it as a mill has intelligently used it as a backdrop for the interesting artefacts which he has accumulated over the years.

It was in this setting that the twenty or so persons interested in the history of South Kildare came to hear a number of speakers talk on various aspects of local history.

Most of the participants were primary school teachers and their involvement is an indication of the increasing interest by the general public in the history of place and people.

We have all come to recognise that history is not restricted to the wars and battles of long ago or to the lives of Kings and Queens of other eras. The history of the ordinary people whose life styles were far removed from those of the leaders of the day provide far more interesting and relevant material for study than the regal lives of foreign potentates whose schemes and achievements scarcely touched the lives of ordinary folk.

The vast amount of local history material now being produced is a reflection of the general public's interest. It is also the result of the extensive and sometimes intensive research over long hours by individuals and groups who have blazed a pioneering trail through the archival material stored for the most part in the various public repositories in Dublin.

How nice then to see that here in South Kildare in the week that saw the 90th anniversary re-run of the Gordon Bennett Race over the Athy circuit that the Local History Summer School was taking place. While it was not the first such school it was certainly an early incursion into a field which will inevitably spawn many imitators in other Counties in the future.

Perhaps the idea can be used to reactivate the local history talks which Athy Museum Society put on in the Council Chamber some years ago. I can recall with some disappointment the sometimes excellent topics and excellent speakers where the audiences were so small as to raise doubts as to the publics interest in local history.

The resurgence of interest owes much to the personal interest in the subject of teachers who in turn pass on their enthusiasm to their pupils. I still remember after the passage of more years than I care to acknowledge the history lessons of the late Bill Ryan in the Christian Brothers School in Athy. Unfortunately local history was then unrecognised and unchartered but even in relation to national or international history Bill Ryan's infectious enthusiasm for his subject sparked a response in his listeners which in at least one young student has survived the passing years.

I often regret that a lack of information on local aspects of history in those days meant that so many of us were never able to grasp the significant part which our place and our townspeople played in important historical events. It is sometimes only when one realises what happened in Athy during a particular period of Irish history that there can be an understanding of the significance of what happened nationally.

History is all around us. In the stones of the buildings we pass unnoticed every day. In the experiences of old people and in the visible remains of buildings crumbling and neglected. They all have a story to tell and in it's telling the past comes alive and relives experiences long forgotten. We should study the past because we are the heirs to the wisdom of the past.

Friday, July 23, 1993

Kilmoroney House

As you pass on the road to Carlow cast your eyes across the Barrow Valley on the right hand side and see in the distance the crumbling remains of Kilmoroney House. It is a broken, roofless, derelict shell standing outlined against the Laois skyline. It's story is part of our heritage.

Kilmoroney House was built in 1780 by Stewart Weldon, son of Walter and Mary Weldon of Rahinderry, Co. Laois. Stewart was an only son and he married in 1777 Helen, sister of Henry, the 2nd Marquis of Coneygham. The house as originally constructed was a two storey, five bay Georgian house of grand proportions with a balustraded roof parapet. It was in time to have a lower two storey wing added.

Stewart Weldon died on the 2nd of January, 1829 and Kilmoroney House passed to his first cousin Anthony Weldon, son of Rev. Anthony Weldon of Athy who at 14 years of age had entered the East Indian Service. Inexplicably Anthony Weldon was not heard of for many years and believing him to be dead Kilmoroney was left to Rev. F.S. Trench and his wife Helena on condition that if Anthony Weldon ever returned the property should revert to him on Rev. Trench's death. Frederick Trench, Rector of Athy, and last Sovereign of Athy Borough Council was son of Rev. Thomas Trench, Dean of Kildare and his wife Helena was daughter of Lord Arden. The Trenches who had lived for 12 years at Bert moved to Kilmoroney House in 1832.

Mrs. Helena Trench was niece of The Honourable Spencer Percival, the British Prime Minister who was assassinated in the lobby of the House of Commons on the 11th of May, 1812. She had four daughters, the eldest of whom Helena later married Rev. Jeffrey Lefroy, third son of Thomas Lefroy, the Lord Chief Justice of Ireland. Even with this marriage the Athy connection was maintained as Thomas Lefroy, the Lord Chief Justice, as a young boy from County Longford attended Mr. Ash's classical school in Athy as a boarder with his brother Ben Lefroy in 1791.

Helena Lefroy, nee Trench, was 12 years old when the Trench family moved to Kilmoroney. The house, as remembered by her, was situated on a bend of the River Barrow and travelling from Athy the river had to be crossed one quarter of a mile from the house. There was no bridge across the river in the 1830's and a large float was used to carry carriages and horses across. From the river the ground in front of the house rose gently, the drive first passing a wooded area on the left.

The Trench family continued to live in Kilmoroney House until the unfortunate death of Rev. Trench following an accident in Offaly Street when his horse and gig collided with Preston's Gate, the last remains of the old medieval wall of Athy. Trench died on the 23rd of November, 1860 and the Gate was subsequently removed by the Town Commissioners of Athy. In his Will Rev. Trench left a bequest in favour of the poor of Athy and ever since a sum of money is paid each year to the Parish Priest of the town under the terms of his Will. A beautiful carved marble pulpit in memory of Rev. F.S. Trench is to be found in St. Michael's Church of Ireland Church on the Carlow Road.

The long missing Anthony Weldon who at 14 years of age had gone overseas returned after 30 years absence. On the death of Rev. Trench Kilmoroney House reverted to the Weldon family and in particular to Sir Anthony Cresdill Weldon, 5th Baronet Rahinderry, son of the West Indian adventurer who had died in 1858 having earlier succeeded to the Baronetcy of his cousin Sir William Bundett in 1840.

Kilmoroney House and the land on which it stood was to remain in the possession of the Weldon family until 1934 when the then Lady Weldon moved to Dublin following the death of her husband Sir Anthony Weldon in 1931. A public auction of the contents of Kilmoroney House was held that year and many of the valuable artifacts accumulated by generations of the Weldons were dispersed.

The property was then let on a ten year Lease to a Mountrath man but during the second World War Sir Thomas Weldon, the 8th Baronet who by then was living in England, found himself unable to take up residence again in Kilmoroney House. The Irish Land Commission took over the land and the magnificent Georgian House was allowed to fall into ruin.

The remains of Kilmoroney House are a visible and stark reminder of the social changes brought about in the Republic of Ireland in the years immediately following the Treaty.

Friday, July 16, 1993

Gordon Bennett Race

The first Gordon Bennett Motor Race took place in France in 1900. For this and the next two years the starting point was Paris finishing in Bordeaux in 1901 and Vienna in 1902. James Gordon Bennett, proprietor of the New York Herald, had offered a Cup for a motor race in 1899 and thereafter the race organised by the Automobile Club de France bore his name.

When the British driver S.F. Edge won the 1902 Race the following year's Race had to be held in the British Isles. A speed limit of 12 m.p.h. applied in Britain and there was much opposition to cars which were seen as "slaughtering stinking engines of iniquity" driving men, women, children and animals off the road. The British Automobile Club looked to Ireland as a possible venue for the race and a number of members came across in 1902 to check out the roads. A second group led by S.F. Edge then followed and a course centred on Athy was finally chosen.

The total distance to be covered was 327.5 miles with four laps of a circuit taking in Ballyshannon, Kilcullen, Kildare, Monasterevan, Stradbally and Athy alternating with three laps of a smaller circuit taking in Kilcullen, Carlow and Athy.

The Race organisers immediately set about reassuring the public about road safety and highlighted the benefits of holding the Race in Ireland. Every Council and public figure in the country was canvassed for support and religious scruples were recognised by arranging to hold the Race on a weekday. It was necessary to change the law to permit the Race cars to exceed the 12 m.p.h. speed limit and to allow the Race organisers to carry out road repairs on the Athy circuit which would otherwise be the responsibility of the County Councils of Kildare, Carlow and Laois.

A number of sharp bends were improved, road gullies were removed, hedges cut and parts of the course were dust proofed at a cost of £1,200. All of this work was carried out under the guidance of the Automobile Club and many locals were gainfully employed for weeks before the Race getting the Athy Circuit ready for the big day.

The Race was to take place on Thursday, the 2nd of July, 1903 with twelve competitors representing Germany, France, England and U.S.A. The circuits were closed for the duration of the Race and upwards of 7,000 policemen were brought into the area to patrol the roads. The local hotels and many enterprising farmers who provided land for tents and viewing purposes were to benefit financially from the huge crowds which descended on South Kildare. The excitement generated by the international motor race can be imagined when it is realised that less than 12 months previously there were only two cars in Athy owned by Mr. Hurley, Engineer and Sir. Anthony Weldon.

The starting point was at Ballyshannon where a grandstand was provided to accommodate 1,000 spectators. Special trains were provided to bring thousands of spectators to Athy and other towns on the circuit but subsequent criticism of the railway company would seem to indicate dissatisfaction with it’s arrangements. A large campsite was located at Ardscull. There were race controls at seven locations on the circuit including Athy in which town the drivers were obliged to stop for 15 minutes or so. This was to ensure greater safety on that part of the course between Athy and Kilcullen which formed part of the two circuits.

The car drivers who were the 1903 equivalent of modern day pop stars were provided with accommodation in the Athy area. The British team of S.F. Edge, Charles Jarrott and J. W. Stocks stayed with the Large family in Rheban, supposedly because the Larges had the only bathroom with an indoor flush toilet in the area. The real reason was probably Harry Large's involvement in cycle racing in Ireland and England which had brought him in contact with Edge, the British car driver. The American team stayed in Timolin Rectory. The Leinster Arms Hotel played host to the German team of Jenatzy, De Caters and Keene who were to drive Mercedes cars. The French team were accommodated on a ship in Dublin Harbour.

Prior to the Race start each car was weighed in Naas to ensure compliance with the maximum weight conditions of the Automobile Club. Several of the competitors were required to strip non essential equipment from their cars to met the Race organisers requirements.

On Thursday, the 2nd of July the first car driven by Edge left the starting line at Ballyshannon at 7.00a.m. The other cars left at 7 minute intervals to ensure maximum safety on the course and to reduce the possibility of cars meeting up with each other on the narrow Irish roads.

When passing through towns and villages regarded as neutralised zones for safety reasons the cars were required to keep within the 12 m.p.h. speed limit while they were preceded by cyclists acting as pilots. In Athy, where each car passed through twice on each full circuit, cars were required to stop for up to 15 minutes on arrival.

Edge, the winner of the 1902 Race, had particular reason to remember Athy. During the Race he changed his car tyres on seven occasions and in Athy buckets of water were thrown over his tyres to cool them and help keep them on the wheel rims. He was later to be disqualified on account of this assistance.

Jarrott, driving a Napier car for Britain, crashed between Stradbally and Athy and rumours of his death and that of his mechanic soon reached Athy. The bystanders and race organisers were relieved to be later advised that neither party was seriously injured although they took no further part in the Race. Indeed, the only casualty was a young boy in Kildare town who was fatally injured by a car not involved in the Race.

Of the twelve cars which started the Race only five completed the course with the German Jenatzy driving a Mercedes the winner in a time of 6 hours 39 minutes and an average speed of 49.2. m.p.h. French drivers filled the next three places with Britains S.F. Edge in fifth place but later disqualified.

Even after 90 years reference is still made to the Gordon Bennett Race as if it was an occasion enjoyed within living memory. Next weekend sees the 90th anniversary celebration of Ireland's and Athy's greatest ever sporting event. Gordon Bennett is a name now synonymous in Irish minds with the Athy circuit and the 1903 Race. The proprietor of the New York Herald could hardly have envisaged how his motor racing Cup presented in 1899 would ensure Athy's place in the history of International motor racing.

Friday, July 9, 1993

Athy Golf Club

Next Sunday sees the official opening of Athy Golf Club's new 18 Hole Course. The magnificent course which has been planned and constructed under the watchful eye of Denis O'Donovan and his colleagues is the culmination of 94 years work which first started on the 18th of October, 1899. On that date a number of men met in the Country Club House, Carlow, at the invitation of Dr. F. Brannan, Kilkea Lodge and P. Lynch, The Abbey, Athy, to consider the formation of a Golf Club for Athy and Carlow.

The meeting, chaired by Captain Stewart Duckett agreed to form "The Royal Leinster Golf Club" with a Golf Course at Gotham, mid-way between Maganey and Carlow. The annual subscription was fixed at one guinea for gentlemen and 10/6 for ladies. The meeting guaranteed a sum of £40.0.0. to meet the initial costs of laying out the course at Gotham. Lord Walter Fitzgerald of Kilkea was elected President with Dr. Brannan as Secretary and R. J. Nicholson, National Bank Carlow, as Hon. Treasurer. The first Committee of the combined Carlow/Athy Golf Club comprised Ms. P.A. Browne, P.D. Shackleton, E.F. Maffet, John Hammond M.P., M. Governey, Rev. J. Duggan Athy, H.K. Toomey Athy and P. Lynch of Athy.

The prime movers in establishing the Club were very experienced golfers. Dr. Brannan had previously played at Greystones where he had been Hon. Secretary of the local Golf Club. Mr. Lynch, who was residing at The Abbey, Athy, had previously been Hon. Secretary of the Bundoran Golf Club. On the 25th of July, 1899 the Irish Times reported the official opening of the nine hole Gotham course which had been laid out by Mr. Larkin, the Bray based golf professional. It was noted that a young professional named Browne was retained by the Royal Leinster Club as greenkeeper and golf coach. Some time before 1903 the Club changed it's name to Carlow Golf Club and this may have prompted the Athy members to consider the possibility of starting up a Club in Athy.

On Tuesday, 27th January, 1906 a meeting was held in the offices of the Urban District Council in the Town Hall, Athy, to consider such a project. The meeting was called by P.J. Corcoran of Athy who was later to be the Club's first Secretary. Those in attendance at the first meeting were Rev. Canon O'Keeffe P.P., Rev. W. Duggan C.C., Rev. E.H. Waller, Ms. H.F. Lesmond, P.J. Corcoran, M.J. Minch, John A. Duncan - Chairman of Athy Urban Council, R. Anderson, Dr. Kilbride, D. Carbery, John A. Corcoran, P.J. Murphy, T.G. Lumley, W. G. Murphy, J.F. White and Charles Collins. The Chairman of the Urban Council, John Duncan, chaired the meeting.

On the proposal of Rev. W. Duggan, seconded by Mr. Murphy it was agreed to establish a Golf Club in Athy. A sub-committee was appointed to report on suitable grounds in the locality and a further meeting was convened for the following Monday night. At that meeting it was decided to build a course at Geraldine on property owned by Mrs. O'Neill to be rented for £15.00 a year. As for the earlier Carlow/Athy Club in Gotham the annual subscription was fixed at one guinea for gentlemen and 10/6 for ladies, and the course was laid out by Mr. Larkin, the Bray golf professional.

The first Golf competition on the new course at Geraldine was held on Friday, the 8th of June, 1906 when the monthly medal competition was won by Mr. T. Bodley. The Leinster Leader noted the names of the other competitors in that very first competition. They were Rev. William Duggan, Rev. J. Nolan, Ms. Downey, Carbery, J. Whelan, W. Murphy, H.F. Lesmond, W. Taylor, D. Telford, B. Wright, S.M. Telford, T. Roche and J.M. White. In October 1906 the Club's first Captain H.F. Lesmond, Manager of the local Hibernian Bank in Athy, set the amateur course record for the Course.

On the 23rd of February, 1907 the competition for the Captain's prize was held for the first time in Athy Golf Club. The winner was Joseph P. Whelan whose prize was a silver ink stand of elaborate design presented by H.F. Lesmond.

On the 2nd of March, 1907 the first A.G.M. of the Club was held with Rev. Canon O'Keeffe presiding. Major Sir Anthony Weldon was re-elected President, H.F. Lesmond Captain and J.F. White was elected Secretary. Mr. Joseph Whelan, U.D.C. was elected Treasurer and A. Reeves and J. W. Coote were appointed Committee members.

Within weeks of the first A.G.M. the members of the Athy Golf Club were stunned to read of the arrest of their Club Captain H.F. Lesmond. A warrant for his arrest issued on the 21st of March, 1907 alleging embezzlement and falsification of accounts at the local Bank of which he was Manager. On the 23rd of March he was taken into custody in Dublin by Det. Love of the G Division and on the following day conveyed to Athy by train accompanied by Constables Tesky and Love. Detained overnight at Athy Barracks he was charged on the following Monday morning before Thomas Anderson J.P. on a number of counts.

As a consequence of these unhappy events an extraordinary A.G.M. of Athy Golf Club was held on Friday the 17th of May when Dr. O'Neill was elected Captain in place of Mr. Lesmond. For some reason, now unknown, the Club Secretary resigned and he was replaced by Paul Manning of the luckless Hibernian Bank. The Bank was quite obviously anxious to retain a presence on the Golf Club Committee despite the unfortunate events surrounding Mr.Lesmond.

In this review of the early years of Athy Golf Club it is perhaps heartening to note the part played by the Urban District Council in the foundation of the Club. The initial meeting was held in the Urban District Council Chamber and the very first meeting was chaired by the local Council Chairman John Duncan.

Sad then to reflect on the recent refusal of the present Urban District Council to mark the occasion of the official opening of the new Course by presenting a suitable trophy to the Club in the name of the Council and the townspeople to acknowledge the Club's achievement.

Friday, July 2, 1993

Paddy Keenan

A long association with pedal power was not broken when Paddy Keenan retired in 1985 as a rural postman. He had spent 45 years in the saddle delivering letters and parcels on his country rounds when the time came to retire. Paddy is still a familiar sight on his bicycle but now he confines his travels to the town where he has lived since 1948. In that year Paddy, a Stradbally man, was transferred from his home town Post Office where he had already spent nine years as a postman.

When he joined the postal services Paddy was following a Keenan family tradition as his brother and sister had done when they joined Stradbally Post Office where their father had worked in the early 1900's. Mr. Keenan Snr. was the driver of the mail car which travelled between Stradbally and Portlaoise.

As a young man in his native Stradbally Paddy was very involved in Gaelic football and music. He played for the local Club and was a substitute on the Stradbally team which won the Senior County Championship in 1941. It was as a musician however that Paddy was to excel and his first of many musical engagements was as a young man of 18 years when he joined the Stradbally All Stars Band. Music always was an important part of Keenan family life as Paddy's father was a violinist, his brother David an accordionist while his other brother Joe played both the violin and the ukulele.

In the 1940's Paddy started up his own Quartet and with him at different times he had musicians of the calibre of Mick Hennessy of Carlow, Gabby O'Brien and Joe Hayden. Gabby was to marry Paddy's sister Chrissie and Joe is remembered by Paddy as "the longest banjo player in Ireland". Paddy and his group played at all night dances all over the midlands until Paddy was transferred to Athy in 1948. It was not long before Paddy joined Joe O'Neill's 'Stardust' band which was possibly the most famous musical combination ever to come out of Athy.

He spent 12 years with “Stardust” travelling to every Marquee, Town Hall and Parochial Hall in the country. Purpose built dance halls were seldom encountered outside the major seaside resorts and dances were usually organised for parish and other fundraising purposes.

Travel in the early 1950's was apparently less hazardous than it is today, even if the cars available were less reliable. This was the heyday of Mick Delahunty and his orchestra and Paddy recalls the occasion when the car bringing the 'Stardust' players broke down in Youghal on the way to a dance in West Cork. Mick Delahunty who was playing the Show Boat in Youghal put his own transport and driver at the disposal of the Stardust for the journey to West Cork. Mick, the most famous musician in Ireland was to be found patiently waiting with his Band on the footpath in Youghal at 4.30 a.m. for the van loaded with the Stardust's equipment and musicians to return.

Music played in those days, says Paddy, was strictly of the Ballroom variety with the musicians wearing dress suits and remaining seated. The show band era was still years away as the Stardust and the Mick Dels crisscrossed the country playing to dance fans eager to put the emergency years behind them.

Paddy recalls the hectic activity of the weekends when the Stardust players set off from Athy on journeys which might not see them back in their home town until the following Monday morning. All this time Paddy was working full time as a postman. One such trip, typical of the time, involved the band departing on Saturday afternoon for Ballina, Co. Mayo for a Saturday night dance and travelling from there to Blarney in Co. Cork for a Sunday night dance. The return journey to Athy did not permit much opportunity for sleep as Paddy and his companions reached home in time for Paddy to change into his postman's uniform and report for work at 7.00 a.m. Colleagues in the Stardust included Joe O'Neill, band leader who played organ and accordion, George Robinson on drums, Brendan Doran on drums, John Luttrell, Paddy Kelly and Jimmy McDonnell on saxophone, and Teddy Fleming on trumpet. Paddy played accordion and organ and was also one of the male vocalists. The female vocalists included at different times in the 40's and 50's Maisie Conneran, Patty Carey, Mary Dargan, Chrissie Ford, May Fleming and Maureen Ryan.

Paddy spent 12 years with the Stardust and later played with Paddy Murphy's Sorrento Dance Band. This was largely made up of members of the Murphy family of Offaly Street and as a young fellow I can remember the excitement on hearing the Sorrento Dance Band broadcast a programme from Radio Eireann in the 1950's.

The well known Casey Dempsey was another of Paddy's colleagues in the Sorrento Dance Band. Both Casey Dempsey and Paddy Keenan were to have separate and popular careers on the cabaret scene throughout the 1980's. Paddy with his old Stardust colleague John Robinson played every week for almost ten years in Pedigree Corner and as he says himself he played at more wedding receptions in the area than he cares to remember.

Paddy's musical talents have been displayed the length and breadth of Ireland, and his musicianship spans the big band era of the 1940's and 1950's through the showband age of the 1960's and 1970's to the pop scene of the 1980's and 1990's. Truly a magnificent record if one pardons the pun.