Friday, June 24, 1994

Sr. Dominic

On the 6th of November, 1933 Kathleen McHugh of Ballycorman, Ballylinan, a few miles outside Athy entered the local Convent of Mercy. On the 8th of May of the following year she made her first profession and received the name Sr. Mary Dominic Joseph. She then spent four years training as a nurse in the Mater Hospital, Dublin, before returning to Athy on the 14th of January, 1940 to work in the County Home which is now known as St. Vincent's Hospital. Sr. Dominic was to spend the next forty one years working there.

Initially an assistant to the ageing Sr. Angela, then matron of the County Home, Sr. Dominic was herself to be appointed to that position on the lst of April, 1957. One of her abiding memories of the 1940's and 1950's was the role played by the County Home in providing temporary accommodation for the homeless. In those days there were very few local authority housing schemes and privately owned rented accommodation was a common feature of town life. Evictions for non-payment of rent were not infrequent and it was to the County Home that dispossessed families were obliged to go for shelter. The strict separation of the sexes initiated on the opening of the County Home as a workhouse in 1844 ensured that husbands and wives, brothers and sisters were kept apart while living in the County Home.

Sr. Dominic remembers the ingenious use made of tea chests and butter boxes by families leaving the County Home to make a new life for themselves outside the institution. Tea chests and butter boxes fulfilled the dual roles of packing the few precious family possessions while later they served as table and chairs until times improved and furniture could be bought.

Tramps or vagrants who came to the County Home were always assured of kindness from Sr. Dominic. She was never known to turn away anyone deserving of assistance even if sometimes it took the help of the local Gardai to calm the boisterous and drunken behaviour of "the knights of the road" before they could be admitted to the County Home. The 'casuals' as they were called were invariably males who were required to do some work in return for their keep before they were discharged from the County Home. Usually they were employed in bringing turf to feed the open fires which heated the wards of the County Home. At other times they brought hot water in buckets from the boiler room to the various wards, all the while presenting Sr. Dominic with the additional problem of maintaining discipline in the female wards. On Saturday evenings special passes were available to the men living in the County Home who were able to walk into town where they had every opportunity to spend the half crown which they were allowed to retain out of their pensions. No such passes were however available to the women inmates. Drink was very cheap in those days and many a time the County Home wheelchair was despatched to town to wheel home the unfortunates who had indulged too well if not too wisely.

Another group who were regular visitors to the County Home were travellers who availed of it's maternity facilities for their confinements. In those days long before we became aware of politically correct language itinerants were called “tinkers” and to them the County Home was invariably referred to as 'the Spike'. When the time for the confinement came near the expectant mother went into the County Home while the rest of her extended family camped on the roadside nearby.

Sr. Dominic retired in 1981 and is today living in retirement in the Convent building in the grounds of St. Vincent's Hospital. She will be celebrating a very important birthday next February but wild horses would not drag out of me any indication of her age. She remains today as formidable as ever with a generous and charitable nature for which she is fondly remembered during her long association with the County Home.

Friday, June 17, 1994

Rock of Dunamaise

Athy's tranquil setting on the River Barrow gives no hint of its stormy past during the medieval period of Irish history. The town founded in the 12th century by Anglo Norman settlers was for a long time a focal point for conflict between the towns inhabitants and the native Irish. The natives referred to as "The Wild Irish" inhabited the lands on the western bank of the River Barrow and they attacked and burnt the then village of Athy on a number of occasions during the 14th century. The O'Mores of Leix were particularly antagonistic to the newly established village.

The conflict continued into the 16th century and in the intervening years the inhabitants of the village of Athy did what they could to protect their settlement from attack. In 1515 Henry VIII granted a Charter to the village or town of Athy allowing its inhabitants to levy taxes and tolls to finance the construction of town walls. These are the earliest references to town walls in Athy but it must be assumed that there were earlier fortified defences for a village which was so perilously located in an area surrounded by the dispossessed Irish.

Just a few miles west of Athy rises the lofty eminence of the Rock of Dunamase for centuries a symbol of power and strength in that area. Initially the Rock passed into the hands of Strongbow the Anglo Norman leader after his marriage to Aoife the daughter of Dermot MacMorrough. The Anglo Normans then adapted the Rock as a fortified stronghold and it was perhaps during their period of occupation that the substantial fortification of the Rock began with subsequent frequent additions over time.

The Annals of the Four Masters record the death in 1342 of Lisagh O'More, an individual whose achievements included the destruction of the Castle of Dunamase, the property of Roger de Mortimer, another Anglo Norman. There are numerous references to Dunamase down the years, a reflection of its importance in the locality of which it was such a dominent feature. The Anglo Norman occupation of the Rock varied over time in accordance with the nature and extent of their control in the area. The Bruce Invasion of 1315 and the Black Death of 1377 inevitably left their mark on the Dunamase dwellers and for periods it remained unoccupied.

The need to fortify Athy with town walls inevitably pointed to the necessity for similar defensive measures in County Laois and throughout the medieval period further development on the Rock of Dunamase confirmed its importance as a military fortification. It was only in 1538 that the O'Mores of Laois finally renounced their claim to the Rock of Dunamase as an ancient stronghold of the O'More clan. While history may have diminished the O'More influence the importance of the Rock of Dunamase did not wane until much later when castles as primary military strongholds became outdated. The degree to which the wars of the 1690's reduced the Rock of Dunamase is unknown but the dilapidated and ruinous ivy clad walls may reveal more of the Rock's history during the coming months.

An archaeological excavation conducted by Mr. B.J. Hodkinson on behalf of the Office of Public Works is presently underway and will hopefully provide greater insight into the history of the Rock and its inhabitants. A number of young archaeologists are to be found every day on the Rock carefully cleaning away the neglect and grime of centuries as part of an ambitious long term plan to conserve and restore the Rock of Dunamase. The intent is to make Dunamase more accessible to the public and to demonstrate the important part the Rock of Dunamase played in national and local history.

While the Rock of Dunamase will never again attain the status it once had for both the native Irish and the Anglo-Norman settlers its 20th Century restoration is an acknowledgment of its importance in Irish history.

Friday, June 10, 1994

Board of Guardians Protest 1887

During the Luggacurran Evictions which commenced in 1887 Athy Board of Guardians granted what they considered to be necessary outdoor relief to the evicted tenants. The cheques in payment were signed by the Board's Vice-Chairman Daniel Whelan of Barrowhouse. During a subsequent audit of the accounts the Auditor disallowed the payments and surcharged Mr. Whelan in the sum of £136. The Board of Guardians immediately met and agreed to recoup this money to Mr. Whelan and a cheque was drawn on the Board's account and signed by M.J. Minch, J.W. Dunne and James McLoughlin. All three men were subsequently sued for the recovery of the money by the Local Government Auditor at Athy Petty Sessions in January 1888. The case against them was dismissed. In June 1888 the entire Board of Guardians were dismissed by the Local Government Board and two Vice-Guardians were appointed in their place. Charles Fitzgerald D.C., Castlebar, Co. Mayo and William Burke J.P. of Headford, Co. Galway were each paid the sum of £250 a year out of the rates of the Union while acting as Vice- Guardians for Athy Union.

A public meeting was called for the Town Hall, Athy, on Monday the 25th of June at 7.00p.m. to protest against the action of the Local Government Board and to support the local Board of Guardians. On the following day a large crowd congregated in Emily Square shortly before 1.00p.m. About one hour previously the two newly appointed Vice-Guardians accompanied by Mr. Robinson, Local Government Board Inspector arrived at the Workhouse. A strong force of police under the command of County Inspector Locke had arrived in Athy on the morning train and with the local constabulary were put in charge of the Workhouse. The resident Magistrate, Mr. Kennedy, was also in attendance. The Workhouse Porter received strict instructions not to admit anybody to the building.

Shortly before 1.00 o'clock the dismissed Guardians formed into processional order outside the Town Hall and accompanied by about 1,000 of the townspeople marched to the Workhouse. They included J.W. Dunne, former Chairman, M.J. Minch, M. Hickey, T.P. Lacey,
James Dolan, P. Cleary, P. Walters, James McLoughlin, John McLoughlin, T. Orford, Richard Lawler, William Murphy, T. Dunny, Edward Neill, J. Toole, John Brennan, J. Julian, John Nowlan, Stephen Hayden, John Gannon, Michael Doyle, D. Whelan, Vice Chairman and Michael Treacy.

Also marching with the Guardians were two local Curates Rev. J. Staple C.C. and Rev. J. Carroll C.C. Arriving at the entrance gates to the Workhouse Mr. Dunne addressed the Porter who stood behind the closed locked gates
"As Chairman of the Board I demand admittance for myself and my brother Guardians. We are the elected Guardians and as such the representatives of the people."

Refused admission Mr. Dunne penned a note which read
"The Guardians having arrived to transact the business of the Board find the gates closed against them and in the charge of a force of police. Kindly explain the reason why. Signed J.W. Dunne, Chairman of the Board."

The Porter accepted the note and brought it to the Workhouse Master Mr. Hyland who in turn brought it before the Vice Guardians and the Local Government Inspector. A reply was penned and handed to the Master, it read
"Mr. Hyland is to inform the late Board of Guardians that the Vice-Guardians are at present engaged in transacting Union business and cannot therefore now authorise the admission to the Workhouse or Board Room of any persons who have not got legal business to transact."

The dismissed Guardians returned to the Town Hall where a protest meeting was held. They were to remain out of office until the next scheduled elections for Guardians to Athy Union.

Friday, June 3, 1994

Ger Moriarty

He first came to Athy in 1934 with M.G. Nolan who was opening a new drapery shop in Duke Street. Coming from Sheerans Drapery in Mountrath where he had been apprenticed after a Christian Brothers education in Mullingar Ger Moriarty was completing a journey which had first started in Lisscannor, Co. Clare. Born in that West Clare village his family settled in Ballinaleck, Co. Westmeath after his father resigned from the RIC in 1921.

Apprenticed to a general drapery in Mountrath in the late 1920's he lived in with no pay for two and a half years. Indeed for that apprenticeship he paid the shop owner £50, a huge sum in the 1920's from which you can gauge how highly prized drapery apprenticeships were in those postwar days. When he came out of his time he received a wage of £18 a year and as he says himself he felt like a millionaire. The hours were long with the shop opening at 8.30 a.m. and closing at 7.00 p.m. except on a Saturday when it was a 10.00 p.m. finish.

Next door was Nolans drapery shop of Mountrath and when M.G. Nolan decided to buy Jacksons shop in Duke Street, Athy, for his new drapery business he asked Ger to join him. M.G. Nolans which was to become an institution in the town was a general drapery with ladies wear upstairs. Initially the staff consisted of M.G., Ger and Kitty Nolan who was later to leave and be replaced by a Miss Hall and Mary Walton. Tommy Walsh later joined the staff as indeed did local girl Mary Harrington who with her friend, Breda Kennedy, died tragically in a traffic accident on the Dublin Road in 1959.

Ger remembers his former boss and friend M.G. with affection. He describes him as a man willing to help everyone and anyone but who as a salesman would be incapable of selling ice cream in hell. M.G. served for many years as a County Councillor and an Urban Councillor and was the father figure of the Fianna Fail party in Athy during the 1950's and the 1960's. Ger, very soon after his arrival in Athy, got involved with the Social Club players. In the early 1930's the Club had premises on the Carlow road where the tennis courts were located and at St. John's hall which they had acquired from the British Legion. With Bill Ryan, Tadgh Brennan, Tommy Walsh, Ken Reynolds, David Walsh, Paddy Flynn, Florrie and Jo Lawler, Kitty McLoughlin, Freddie and Molly Moore, May and Francis Fenlon and others, Ger spent many happy years with the Social Club players, an amateur drama group of considerable talent and skill.

The male members of the Club did not confine their socialising to the hall in St. John's Lane but over time found that they were repairing to the back room of Mulhall's public house adjoining Whites Castle. There they met on a few nights a week but especially on Friday nights when the affairs of State and town were discussed and analysed at length, good conversation and debate prevailing. Ger recalls the local curate who although a non-drinker always sat on a stool in the corner each Friday soaking in the atmosphere while enjoying the convivial surroundings and the craic.

Marrying a local girl, Lottie Brophy, daughter of a local publican in 1944 Ger continued working in M.G. Nolans for 30 years. He was a member of the local LDF during the second World War with local publican Tom Flood of Leinster Street in charge. Other officers of the LDF included Tim McCarthy of St. Patrick's Avenue, Norman Plewman and John Stafford then living in Emily Square. Stories of wartime escapades and Tom Flood's baby Ford car are recounted with relish and no doubt relief that not a single shot was fired in anger. However there was an occasion when a firearm was accidentally discharged in the local Garda barracks in Duke Street which then served as the headquarters of the LDF causing consternation amongst the ranks and no little concern as to how the incident could pass unnoticed by the superior officers. Apparently that difficulty was got over.

Ger opened his own drapery business in 1964 after acquiring a premises in Leinster Street from Mrs. Blanchfield. He retired from the business in 1992 and spends his well earned leisure in listening to music, a past-time which he shares with his son, Gerard, who is a teacher in Dublin. His daughter Fionnola is a nurse in London. 83 years of age on the 2nd of June Ger is a familiar figure at Ceoltas sessions in Clancys each Thursday night.