Friday, October 29, 1993

Bert House

Bert House, largest mansion in South Kildare, has been advertised for sale. Described as an outstanding Georgian residence on 165 acres the Auctioneers blurb refers to the building’s classical style and generous accommodation.

Bert House was built between 1720 and 1730 for Captain William Burgh who was Comptroller and Accountant General for Ireland. His brother Thomas Burgh of Oldtown was the Architect. Thomas had been appointed Barrack Overseer in Ireland in 1701 and was responsible for the building of Trinity College Library, Dr. Steeven’s Hospital, Dublin and Collins Barracks in Dublin. The original Bert House consisted of the central block of seven bays, three storey high over a basement. The overlapping side wings were added early in the 19th century. It’s a house steeped in history and the people who lived there helped shape the course of Irish history during the 18th and 19th centuries.

Captain William Burgh, the first owner of the house, was born in 1667, son of Ulysses Burgh of Dromkeen, Co. Leitrim. He was succeeded by his only son Thomas Burgh whose sister Elizabeth was married in 1734 to Chief Baron Anthony Foster. Their son, John Foster was to be the last Speaker in the Irish House of Commons. Thomas Burgh was born in 1696 and while he sat in Parliament as Member for Lanesboro in Co. Longford he never represented Athy in that capacity. He was however a freeman of Athy Borough and served as Sovereign of Athy in 1755. He married Ann Downes, daughter of the Bishop of Cork and Ross whose wife Catherine was a sister of Robert, 19th Earl of Kildare. His wife’s brother Robert Downes was later to sit as M.P. for Kildare and was appointed Sovereign of Athy in 1749. Thomas Burgh of Bert House, was the owner of extensive tracts of land in South Kildare. The present house has but 165 acres of land remaining.

When Thomas Burgh died in 1758 he was succeeded by his eldest son, William, who was born in 1741. William was the first Burgh of Bert House to represent Athy in Parliament which he did between 1768 and 1776. Removing himself to England when the Parliament ended he died in York in 1808. A monument to his memory by the famous sculptor Sir Richard Westmacott is to be found in York Minster.

When William left Bert House his younger brother Thomas succeeded him as M.P. for Athy and he continued to do so until 1790. Thomas, who had previously resided in Chapelizod, Co. Dublin succeeded to the Bert House estate in 1808 but died two years later.

The Parliamentary connection was maintained by Thomas’ sister Anne who in 1767 married Walter Hussey. Born in Donore, Co. Kildare, Hussey who was regarded as the finest Orator of his day represented Athy Borough Council in the Irish House of Commons between 1769 and 1776.

On the death of Thomas Burgh in 1810 Bert House passed to his only son, Ulysses. Born in 1788, Ulysses married Maria Bagenal of Bagnelstown in 1815. He was a member of the Borough Council of Athy until it’s disbandment in 1840 and served as Sovereign of Athy in 1834 and again in 1840. Incidentally he was not the last Town Sovereign, a distinction held by Rev. F.S. Trench of Kilmorony House.

Ulysses Burgh succeeded to the title of Lord Downes in 1826 on the death of his cousin William Downes who was appointed Lord Chief Justice in 1803 following the assassination of Lord Kilwarden during the Robert Emmet Rebellion. William Downes, son of the former Sovereign of Athy Robert Downes, was created Lord Downes in 1822 on his retirement as Chief Justice. Dying without male issue the title passed to his cousin Ulysses Burgh of Bert. It was the former Ulysses Burgh, by then Lord Downes, who presented the Town Hall clock to the people of Athy in 1846.

When Lord Downes of Bert died in 1863 he was succeeded by his eldest daughter, Charlotte who had married Lt. General James Colborne in 1851. Colborne was the son of John Colborne who led the decisive movement of the 52nd Light Infantry which secured the victory of Waterloo. He was later Commander in charge of the British Army in Ireland and was raised to the title of Lord Seaton in 1839. Charlotte’s husband, James Colborne, succeeded to his father’s title in 1863 and it was as Lord and Lady Seaton that James and Charlotte came to live in Bert House following the death of Lord Downes. The house remained in their ownership until 1909 when it was sold to the Misses Geoghegan.

Friday, October 22, 1993

Captain George Weldon

I recently attended in the Town Hall, Athy, an exhibition of elements of the forgotten heritage of County Kildare. The display sought through the use of photographs, text and line drawings to illustrate the less obvious but no less important aspects of the County’s heritage. Of particular interest to Athy was the display relating to Kilmoroney House. Included in the Kilmoroney material was a copy of an old photograph of a young man dressed in an Officer’s uniform of the British Army. He was Captain George Anthony Weldon who was killed in 1899 at the age of 33. His position in history is assured as the first Army officer killed in the Boer War.

Weldon, the son of Col. Thomas Weldon of the Indian Army, was grandson of Sir Anthony Weldon of Kilmoroney, Athy. He followed the family tradition of service in the British Army as did his two brothers, Francis Weldon and Waller Weldon who served in the Sherwood Foresters and Manchester Regiment respectively. Commissioned in 1886 into the Royal Dublin Fusiliers he served during the Burmese expedition of 1887 - 1889. He was promoted to the rank of Captain in 1896. As an Officer Weldon involved himself in all the gentlemanly pursuits which were the preserve of landed gentry and officers in those Victorian days. General Sir Alexander Godley in his Reminiscences published in 1939 recalled playing polo on the Dublin Fusiliers Regimental Team with George Weldon in tournaments held in the Curragh Camp.

Just before the outbreak of the Boer War the 2nd Battalion of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers were despatched to the northern Natal town of Dundee in anticipation of the Boer invasion. The Boer forces occupied the crest of a hill called Talana which rose some 600 ft. to the north of the town giving it a commanding view of the British position. On the morning of 20th October, 1899 the 2nd Battalion Dublin Fusiliers with the 60th Rifles and the Royal Irish Fusiliers were all ordered to take the hill.

The Irish men attempted to advance up the hill under sustained fire from the mauser rifles of the Boers. Weldon led a Company of the 2nd Battalion. Their advance being checked by the heavy rifle fire Weldon followed by men from his Company climbed over a wall and sheltered behind it. One of his soldiers, Private Gorman climbing the same wall was shot and fell backwards in full view of the Boer Marksmen commanding the hill. Captain Weldon rushed forward, seized Gorman by the arm and was dragging him to safety when he himself was shot. Weldon died instantly. The battle continued and later that evening when attempts were made to retrieve his body Weldon’s pet terrier was found waiting patiently by his master’s lifeless body. Weldon was buried that same afternoon in a small cemetery facing the hill on which he met his death.

Captain George Weldon has the unique distinction of being the first Army Officer to die in the Boer War. Memorials to Weldon can be found in St. Michael’s Church, Athy and in the former depot barracks of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers in Naas. There are also memorials in St. James’ Church, Dundee, Natal, South Africa and at St. George’s Church, Pietermaritzburg. On a memorial to Weldon in St. Mary’s Church, Blyth, are inscribed the words “He hath done well and so made good his name”.

I understand that the original of the photograph which was on display in the Town Hall is in the possession of a lady in Naas whose father was batman to Captain George Weldon. After almost 100 years the story of the man captured in the photograph is almost forgotten. The FAS trainees who were responsible for putting on the exhibition in the Town Hall have done an excellent job of work in highlighting this and other aspects of County Kildare’s almost forgotten heritage. I hope that they will continue to delve into our history and help us all to have a better understanding of our past.

Friday, October 15, 1993

John MacKenna

In my articles I have always written of the past. In a sense these are like acts of atonement for lives and experiences spent without recognition. Forgotten and unacknowledged the events and people, the subject of my articles, tend to have slipped from our memory.

How nice then to remember and to pay tribute to someone who has embarked on a literary career which will undoubtedly bring him and his native Castledermot, and by association the town of Athy, fame, and for him, I hope, fortune. For today I write of a man whose literary talents are emerging into the glare of national and international recognition. In years to come as someone else writes of Athy's past no doubt John MacKenna will figure prominently as a writer famous for many works as yet unwritten.

In his short literary career to date, which commenced with the South Leinster Literary Group based in Clancys Pub, MacKenna has produced a book of poetry, short stories and a number of plays in which he has continuously sharpened and honed his literary imagery. Not everything he produced was of the finest quality but within his early work there was a clear indication of an improving style which would soon bring him into the first ranks of emerging Irish writers.
Winner of a Hennessy Award in 1983 he won Cecil Day Lewis Awards for works of fiction in literary competitions run by Athy Urban Council's Cultural Sub-Committee in 1989 and 1990. During that time he was and still remains a radio producer in RTE.

His love for and involvement in theatre gave rise to his founding The Mend and Makedo Theatre Company in 1988. Using the Company as a vehicle for his plays, he wrote, produced and acted in six original works over the last three years.

His substantial literary output during that period owed as much to his astute reworking of material for play and short story as to his quite prodigious energy. "The Fallen" a voice play first produced in November 1989 was later broadcast on Radio Eireann as play of the week before subsequently emerging under MacKenna's skilful hands as a novella. As the title story in his first book of short stories "The Fallen" was published in 1992 by Blackstaff Press to great critical acclaim. Those of you who visit the local Library in the Town Hall will no doubt have seen the review his first book received in the London Times which is pinned to one of the bookstands. The Glasgow Herald reviewing the same book of short stories placed the author "in the forefront of Irish fiction". Strong praise indeed for a writer with his first book of short stories.

John MacKenna has now won the 1993 Irish Times Literary Award, the most prestigious prize in Irish Literature, for his first book "The Fallen". Last week he gave a reading of his work in the Royal Festival Hall, London, sharing a platform with the famous Authoress, Beryl Bainbridge. He has been featured on BBC Radio and no doubt you will have seen his recent appearance on the Pat Kenny -j.'V Show.

How nice then to pay a tribute to one of our own and to acknowledge a man who in time can be one of Ireland's literary greats. This week in the Community Library, Town Hall, Athy, John MacKenna's first novel "Clare" will be launched. Already critically acclaimed in England and Ireland his new work is an extraordinarily intimate and lyrical exploration of John Clare, the English Poet who died in 1864.

The launch will take place on Thursday October 14th at 8.00 p.m. and gives all of us in Athy and surrounding district an opportunity to acknowledge the success of a local man and to pay tribute to a talent which developed in Athy and which now reaches out beyond our borders to touch the lives of people we can never expect to know.

Well done John MacKenna. It is nice to look back on the past while at the same time looking to the future for a new and exceptional talent.

Friday, October 8, 1993

Harvest Thanksgiving

In St. Michael's Parish Church on the Carlow Road on Friday 8th of October the annual Harvest Thanksgiving Service will take place. The successful gathering in of the harvest has always been followed by festivities. Farmers down the centuries have traditionally celebrated the last of the harvest work with the harvest supper or in some areas with a harvest party. On these occasions the farm workers, whether hired hands or voluntary workers from the neighbourhood would eat and drink at the farmer's table or sometimes in the barn specially decorated for that purpose. Merry making and dancing was an important part of the harvest celebration and signalled the end of the farmer's year.
The countryman's celebration of the harvest is as old as man's cultivation of the soil. The bountiful harvest secured the farmer and his family over the hard winter months and in joyful celebration the harvest feast came into existence. The tradition continued in good and bad times and many variations of the harvest festivities were to be noted throughout different parts of Ireland.
In parts of County Carlow and South Kildare during the last century the cutting of the last sheaf of corn was attended with great ceremony and superstition. This last piece of standing corn, normally in the centre of the field, was believed to hold the destiny of whoever cut it down. The task was usually entrusted to the females of the area, each of whom were required to have a stroke at it with a reaping hook. The girl who succeeded in felling the remaining corn with one blow was traditionally believed to be destined for marriage within a year.

The last sheaf, when cut, was borne with some ceremony into the farmer's house where it was presented to the woman of the house in return for a promise of a harvest feast for all the workers. In some areas the sheaf of corn was handed over in return for money which was used by the workers to celebrate the end of the harvest in the local public house.
Another tradition associated with County Kildare was "Gleaning" Sunday held on the first Sunday after the middle of August. On that day the farm workers and their families would walk through the fields "gleaning" corn which was made into sheaves to be added to the corn already gathered. The farmer's wife would meanwhile prepare a meal to be eaten by everyone taking part in picnic style in the corn field. Again it was an opportunity for festivities and merriment with the added bonus of ensuring the farmer had every salvageable ear of corn saved.
The church celebration of Harvest Thanksgiving is quite a modern custom but one which has links with the earlier harvest feasts and traditions. It began in 1843 when Rev. R. S. Hawker, Vicar of Morwenstow in Cornwall revived the ancient thanksgiving and service of Lammas. This word is derived from an anglo saxon word-meaning "loaf mass" and referred to the first day of the harvest, traditionally the l st of August which the Medieval Church in prereformation days celebrated by bringing newly ripened corn into the Parish Church for the making of the bread of the sacrament. The custom revived by Hawker soon spread to other parish churches and today Harvest Thanksgiving ceremonies form a common and accepted part of the liturgy of the Church of Ireland.

It is customary to decorate the Church with fruit, flowers, vegetables and corn, all of which are subsequently donated to local charities and institutions. Hymns of praise with special reference to the harvest now finished for another year are sung in thanksgiving. The children in the congregation generally bring up to the altar gifts symbolising the fruits of the soil and the labour of man.

It is interesting to note that some of the hymns of Rev. Thomas Kelly are generally included in the Harvest Festival service in our local Church in which he no doubt preached during his time
in Athy. "We sing the praise of Him who died" and "The Heart that once was crowned with thorns" while not harvest hymns are songs of praise which fit easily into the liturgy at harvest time.

For farmers the harvest yields this year may not be as good as expected but for what they have reaped voices will be raised in praise and thanksgiving in St. Michael's on the 8th of October.

Friday, October 1, 1993

Daniel O'Connell and Mullaghmast meeting

On the morning of October 1st, 1843, the 68-year-old barrister and Member of Parliament, Daniel O’Connell, stepped outside the main door of the Leinster Arms Hotel, Athy. His appearance was immediately met with a loud and continuous cheer from the men and women who had waited patiently from early morning to see the Liberator. Raising his hat above his head, O’Connell acknowledged the cheers as he stepped into his waiting carriage. Accompanied by members of the Repeal Association travelling in several carriages drawn up behind O’Connells, they made slow progress through Leinster Street, heading in the Dublin direction.

When the leading carriage reached Gallowshill the procession turned right onto the Castledermot road. Now, clear of the crowded streets, the horses increased their pace as they cantered easily over the mud road leading to Mullaghmast. O’Connell and the Repeal Association had held meetings in places as far apart as Baltinglass, Monaghan, Loughrea and Lismore and the monster meeting planned for that day in Mullaghmast was to be followed by a final rally in Clontarf.

The members of the Repeal Association in Co. Kildare had put a considerable amount of planning and work into arranging the Mullaghmast meeting. Up to one million people were expected and a pavilion was erected on the site for the formal dinner which would follow the public meeting. Local men from Athy, Ballytore and the surrounding areas were recruited to act as stewards and each man was given a hat badge which bore the inscription “O’Connell’s Police.” Not that Daniel O’Connell was in any danger or needed protection, but stewards were needed to marshall the huge influx of visitors expected that morning.

Approaching Mullaghmast at 2.00 p.m. in the afternoon O’Connell could see from his carriage the flags and banners carried by his exuberant followers “Ireland for the Irish”, “Remember Mullaghmast” and “Ireland must be a Nation” caught his eye as he slowly made his way to the rear of the platform. Standing nearby, taking pride in his handiwork, was Athy builder, Thomas Fagan of Market Square whose men had brought from Athy the timber required for the platform and who had shaped that same timber into a platform from which the great man would deliver his speech.

Ascending the platform, O’Connell’s arrival was met with a loud roar. It was fully ten minutes before the noise had subsided and then John Hogan, Ireland’s most famous sculptor, accompanied by Henry McManus, the painter, and John O’Callaghan, author of The Irish Brigade in the Service of France placed on O’Connell’s head a cap of green velvet with gold in the form of an Irish crown. Raising his two hands as a signal for silence, O’Connell stood at the front of the platform and spoke with a voice which carried far out into the crowd but which was still unable to reach many of the men and women who had come to hear him speak. “Mullaghmast was selected for this meeting”, he said, “as it was the spot on which English treachery and false Irish treachery consummated the massacre of the Irish people.” The crowd pushed forward as he spoke and his every pause was greeted with a loud sustained cheer.

Dressed in the scarlet robes of Dublin City Council, O’Connell’s speech continued as a document headed “A full and true account of the dreadful slaughter and murder at Mullaghmast on the bodies of 400 Roman Catholics” was handed out amongst the crowd. It was later to be produced as evidence of the treasonable nature of the meeting when O’Connell and his associates were tried for unlawfully and seditiously conspiring to raise and create discontent amongst the Queen’s subjects in January 1844.

At the conclusion of the public meeting and as the crowds of men and women started on their homeward journey O’Connell and members of the Repeal Association adjourned to the pavilion erected for the formal dinner. More speeches were to follow and the resolution “that a petition be prepared and presented to Parliament for a repeal of the Union” was passed. It was in the course of his speech after the dinner that O’Connell made the now famous reference to the Duke of Wellington. “The poor Duke, what shall I say of him. To be sure he was born in Ireland but being born in a stable does not make a man a horse”.

The Mullaghmast meeting was to be the last monster meeting of the Repeal Association as O’Connell, in the face of possible military intervention, cancelled the Clontarf meeting.

On October 3rd, the 150th anniversary of O’Connell’s visit to Mullaghmast will be marked by a ceremony at the Rath commencing at 2.30 p.m. Go along and swell the crowd as our ancestors did so many years ago when Daniel O’Connell, the Liberator, spoke of his hopes and aspirations for the repeal of the Act of Union.