Friday, July 29, 1994

Stephen Bolger - Canal Boatmen

I spent an enjoyable few hours last week talking and listening to Stephen Bolger, an octogenarian heading into his 89th year. He has been a patient in St. Vincent's Hospital for a number of years but his memory retains a sharpness in relation to events of previous decades which prompts admiration and a slight little regret that I had not previously interviewed this grand old man.

Born on the 31st of August, 1905 Stephen may well lay claim to have been one of the few Athy people caught up in the Easter Rebellion in Dublin in 1916. He was then a young boy working on Jack Rooney's canal boat. Jack lived in Woodstock Street where Danny Kane's shop is now located. Stephen was one of three people on Rooney's boat that fateful week. Rooney, the skipper, steered the boat while another local man and Stephen took turns in leading the two horses which traced together, pulled the boat on the journey from Athy to Dublin. Passing through Vicarstown, Monasterevin, Rathangan, Robertstown, Hazelhatch and Clondalkin the boat was scheduled to berth at James's Street Harbour near the centre of the city.

The opening of hostilities on Easter Monday coincided with the arrival of Jack Rooney's boat in Inchicore and so it was that eleven year old Stephen Bolger found himself trapped in Dublin when the guns of rebellion blazed across the city sky. His memories are of the wild rumours which abounded with talk of killings in the city centre to rival the worst excesses of the 1798 rebellion. He did on occasions hear gunfire but he and his workmates were not allowed to move on from Inchicore and so Jack Rooney's boat and its cargo and crew spent almost a week there.

Stephen and his colleagues had to depend on the hospitality of some local Inchicore people during their enforced stay as they had rations only for the three days which they would normally expect to take for the return trip to Athy.

His memories of life and work on the Grand Canal is tinged with sadness as he recalled those Athy men who over the years died tragically while working on the waterways. Jack Rowan, brother of Mick Rowan presently living in Woodstock Street and son of Paddy Rowan, a noted Grand Canal boatman in his day, died at St. Mullins after falling into the twelfth lock. Jimmy Carey of Shrewleen Lane drowned at Levitstown on a trip from Carlow to Athy. Indeed the Grand Canal's boatmen were always somewhat wary of the rough waters of the Barrow navigation which they tended to avoid as much as possible as they did the Shannon navigation for the same reason. Their fears in this regard can be understood from the fact that the relatively smooth waters of the canal required only one horse to pull a canal boat while the Barrow navigation between Athy and Carlow might require four horses to pull a boat, especially when the river was in flood.
Corn and malt were some of the principal exports to Dublin from South Kildare while bricks from the local brick factory were also another common cargo of the day. On the return trip from Dublin barrels of Guinness were sure to be on board.

The horses used were what Stephen describes as "good heavy horses", Irish draught mares being particularly favoured. Each horse had a nose bag from which it could feed while walking on the canal tow path. It was extremely hard on the horses pulling boats, sometimes laden with 46 tonnes of cargo. Because of this each horse was fitted with a special collar which was "bridged", that is with a stitched hollow to keep it off the animals breast.

Stephen Bolger recalls many horses pulled into the Barrow by the sheer weight of the cargo combined with the force of the waters when the river was in flood. The Horse Bridge in Athy saw several horses pulled over the parapet as they made their way across the bridge to join the Grand Canal. Another danger point was the weir below the present Railway Bridge. The building of the Bridge in 1917 altered the position of the weir but prior to then many a horse was dragged over the weir by the sheer force of the rushing waters.

Stephen Bolger is a delightful man to listen to as he reminisces about life on the canal boats almost 80 years ago. The clarity with which he recalls the events of yesteryear is a testimony to a life of hard work and to times when "honest sweat and toil" was a badge of honour amongst working folk on the Grand Canal.

Friday, July 22, 1994

The Presbyterian Church

I recently received a very pleasant letter from a lady in Buckinghamshire, England, in which she related her links with Athy where she spent her summer holidays as a young girl. With a number of copy photographs of Athy scenes she also enclosed a copy of the report printed in 1856 by Athy printer M. Carey of Barrow Quay giving an account of monies received for the building of Athy's Presbyterian Church. The total donations came to £1,076.18.3 with £150 donated by the Belfast Church and Manse Fund. An interesting reference was to the sum of £70 collected by the Rev. Mr. Hall while in Scotland. The Minister in question was John Hall appointed to the newly established Presbyterian Ministry in Athy in September 1852.

The earliest reference to Presbyterianism in Athy referred to a grant to Rev. Dr. Thralkield for ministering in the town in April 1717 out of a special fund established seven years earlier by some wealthy Dubliners. The Ministry continued until 1798 when Rev. Nicholas Ashe was forced to leave the town because of his alleged personal links with those involved in the 1798 Rebellion. What happened to his congregation we cannot say but we do know that the Presbyterian Church was not again to have a presence in Athy until 1851.

It was the Duke of Leinster's anxiety to people his rich south Kildare farmlands with Scottish farm stewards which led to the resurgence of Presbyterianism in the area. Advertising in Scottish newspapers he offered farms and farmhouses to such Scottish families as would settle in Ireland. Throughout the early months of 1851 the last group of settlers to come to the area arrived in Athy which in previous centuries had witnessed similar arrivals from across the Irish Sea. By June of the same year several Scottish families had settled in the area including the Andersons, Campbells, Duncans, Duthies, Dicks, Frazers, Hosies, Roudens, Macks, Walls, Pennycooks, Simpsons and Weirs. All came from Pertshire and Eastern Scotland and brought with them the Presbyterian religion of their forefathers.

The earlier mentioned John Hall was appointed Minister and when the need arose in 1855 to build a Church he travelled to Scotland to seek donations. The Church was built by Mr. Gough, Contractor, under the supervision of David Taylor, Architect. The foundation stone was laid on Friday the 21st of September, 1855 by James Gibson Q.C., a Presbyterian Church Elder who was also Chairman of County Laois then called Queens County. On the same day John Chapperton, Robert Anderson, Benjemin Thompson and James Alexander were appointed as the Church Elders.

Of the sum of £1,076.18.3 collected £600 was paid to the Contractor for building the Church. An interesting reference shows the sum of £60 paid to Mr. Patrick Callaghan for 60 yew trees in the church yard. Some of these are still standing in the area reserved for Presbyterian burials in St. Michael's Cemetery.

Extra seating was provided in the Church in 1866 to accommodate the average Sunday attendance of upwards of 200 persons and within six years Athy had the second largest Presbyterian congregation in Southern Ireland. That same year the Manse which had previously been a herdsman cottage occupied by Benjamin Norman was re-built at a cost of £400. Rev. John Clarke was appointed Minister in 1874 and he was responsible for building a Lecture Hall in 1889 at the rere of the Church which cost £320. Rev. Clarke died in 1899 and his portrait presented by his widow to the local Church now stands in the Lecture Hall.

In 1946 extensive refurbishment of the interior of the Presbyterian Church was carried out by local Contractors Frank and Jim Brady. The Gallery at the back of the Church was removed and because of wartime shortage of timber the bench ends were cast in cement as was the pulpit. These surely represent a unique feature in an Irish Church today.

The Presbyterian congregation today is very much reduced with the descendants of some of the Scottish farming settlers of almost 150 years ago still providing the nucleus of its membership.

Friday, July 15, 1994

Methodist Church

Some weeks ago I wrote of St. Michael's Parish Church on the Carlow Road and its near neighbour across the River Barrow St. Dominic's Church. I had intended to deal in time with all the local Churches, both existing and those now gone and give the readers an appreciation of the rich diversity of our religious heritage. Other matters and events since intervened so that it is only now that I have an opportunity to deal with the story of the Methodist Church in Woodstock Street.

The Methodist movement originally began as an evangelising movement within the Church of England in the 18th century. Three Ministers of the Church of England brought about the Methodist revival in the early years, John Wesley, his brother Charles and George Whitfield, although it is John Wesley who is usually regarded as the founder of Methodism.

The first Methodist preacher to come to Ireland was Thomas Williams in 1747. A Methodist Minister was first appointed to Athy in 1790. In the absence of their own separate Church the local Methodists were initially closely associated with the Church of Ireland in Athy for religious observances. It was the break up of the local Quaker community in the second decade of the 19th century which led to the Methodist taking a lease of the former Quaker Meeting House in Meeting Lane. Located on the site of the present Dispensary, the Meeting House had originally been built in 1780 with the active support of Duke Street linen draper Thomas Chandlee who had arrived in Athy from Dublin in 1775. Married to Deborah Shackleton, daughter of Richard and Elizabeth Shackleton of Ballytore, and sister of Mary Leadbetter of Ballytore Annals fame, Thomas Chandlee’s presence in the town lead to a revival of the Quaker community which was not however to last.

In the 1827 map of Athy prepared by the Duke of Leinster by Clarges Greene the building in Meeting Lane was still described as a Quaker Meeting House. Ten years later the Ordinance Survey map of the town described the same building as "a small house of worship formerly belonging to the Quakers and now to the Methodists." Around that time Athy was part of the Carlow Methodist Circuit and was to remain so until 1970 when it was included in the Portlaoise and Tullamore Circuits.

The success which accompanied the missionary works of itinerant Methodist preachers throughout the midlands during the 19th century led to the growth of Methodism in Athy. The former Quaker Meeting House by 1860 was no longer large enough for the members attending Sunday services and Sunday school. In 1867 Alexander Duncan, then in his second term as Chairman of Athy Town Commissioners and a resident of Tonlegee House, purchased a site for a new Church in Woodstock Street. The foundation stone was laid on the 12th of June, 1872 by his wife. Two years later on Friday the 12th of June, 1874 the new Church and Sunday School which cost £2,200 to construct was dedicated. The first Sunday service was held in the new Church two days later when Rev. G.T. Perks, President of the British Methodist Conference preached the sermon.

The Church is a stone building in the Gothic style with a tower. On either side of the Communion Table are two memorial tablets inserted in the east wall of the Church. One tablet commemorates Alexander Duncan who died on the 30th of September, 1887 while the other memorial is to his widow who died in 1907.

During the 1870's Sunday Service was attended by an average of 120 persons. Today the congregation has fallen dramatically in numbers and the once strong Methodist tradition in South Kildare, which developed after John Wesley's trip through the area in April 1789 is now on the wane.

For those in the Methodist Church following in the steps of John Wesley their continued separate existence in Athy is uncertain. Whatever the future may hold they can look back on an honourable past of men and women working in the service of God amongst the community in South Kildare.

Friday, July 8, 1994

Garda Joe Carty

In 1961 I was part of the local diaspora which each year saw the towns young men and women leave Athy to find work. That same year a young man from Belmullet, Co. Mayo, just six years out of the Garda Training College, was transferred to Athy. Joe Carty, who had previously served briefly in Carlow, Ballytore and Carrickmacross in Co. Monaghan was to spend the remainder of his Garda service in South Kildare.

When Joe arrived in Athy he reported to the local Barracks, then located in Duke Street in the premises now owned by Kavanaghs. The local Station Sergeant was my late father who had transferred from Castlecomer in 1945 so that his five young sons could attend the local Christian Brothers Secondary School in Athy.

Joe Carty joined in Athy a group of men, each of them with a record of service in the force which amply justified Joe's description as "the Station's young fella". Amongst the long serving members were Johnny McMahon, Jim Kelly and Mick Tuohy, all of whom spent practically their entire Garda service in Athy. Johnny McMahon was the doyen of traffic control in Athy and he is fondly remembered for his energetic direction of traffic as he stood in the centre of what we called Dallon's corner, perilously close to passing cars and lorries. Traffic lights have long since been installed at that point but somehow they seem less efficient and certainly less colourful than the well-liked Mayo man who retired in 1965. Jim Kelly and Mick Tuohy retired a few years after Joe Carty's arrival in Athy. In those days of course one never referred to the local members other than by their rank of Garda or Sergeant and even today as I head off into my second half century I am still referred to by the older residents of the town as Sergeant Taaffe's son. Other men serving when Joe Carty arrived in Athy were Maurice Shortt, now retired and living in Clane, Co. Kildare and Mick Cullinane, also retired and living in Rathcoole, Co. Dublin.

Those were the days of what we now almost nostalgically refer to as the old style Gardai who seemed to be on duty 24 hours a day. All night foot patrols were a feature of the early 1960's as they had been since the establishment of the Garda Siochana. Members also did Barrack orderly duty in their turn which of course meant that there was a Garda presence in the Barracks 24 hours a day.

It was the implementation of the Conroy Report of 1968 which radically changed the working conditions of the Gardai. Like most other workers they were thereafter to work eight hour shifts. An off-duty Garda was no longer required to be on call, thus putting an end to the practice well-known in every Garda home in the country of asking "Are you in?" before answering a knock at the front door.

Joe has served as a member of the Garda Siochana since November 1955 and in his time he has seen the transition from the days when members had to live in the town where they were stationed giving 24 hour coverage. Nowadays patrol cars and a relaxation of the rule relating to where Gardai can live has resulted in a marked change insofar as Garda presence is covered.

Joe who retired last week was the longest serving member in Athy and the last link with Johnny McMahon, Jim Kelly, Mick Tuohy and John Taaffe, the old timers who had welcomed the young Joe Carty to Athy in 1961.

Joe, a native of Co. Mayo, has made his home in Athy with his Cahirciveen born wife Margaret. They have two sons, Joseph who is a teacher and Christopher who graduates from Maynooth College later this year. In his 33 years in Athy Joe Carty has upheld the good name of the Garda Siochana and has served the community with honour and integrity. The quiet spoken Mayo man can truly say that he has performed his duties "without fear, favour, malice or ill-will".

I understand that Joe and Margaret will continue to live in Athy and to both of them is extended the good wishes of everyone in Athy and South Kildare for a long and happy retirement.

Friday, July 1, 1994

Mary Mullan - writer

I remember the first night of "The Clock Ticks Dusk". A play in three acts by local author Mary Mullan it was put on by Athy Social Club Players in St. John's Hall in 1955. I was a young fellow just out of short trousers and being allowed to get out of the house after dark was in itself a treat. Young as I was the thrill of seeing a local person's play produced on stage was something noteworthy. Of the Social Club plays I saw over the years only "The Clock Ticks Dusk" and the earlier production in the Town Hall of "The Barretts of Wimpole Street" are all that I can recall with certainty.

Mary Mullan whose house is in the beautiful countryside adjoining Brackna Wood was the daughter of Willie and Catherine Fennin who lived on the family farm originally purchased by Willie's father, Tim Fennin, in 1858. Mary attended St. Mary's, Athy, then a private senior school operated by the Sisters of Mercy where the requirements of a liberal education did not necessitate the sitting of State examinations. Classes consisted of no more than 4 or 5 pupils. The Sisters of Mercy provided the entire teaching staff which included Sister Claire, the School Principal, who taught History and Geography, Sister Beuchmans who taught French, Sr. Joseph, the English teacher and Sr. Ursula, the Irish teacher.

When Mary Fennin decided to attend University she found to her dismay that Latin, a subject she had not studied, was an essential requirement for Matriculation. Undaunted she contacted Brother Dolan of the local Christian Brothers School who gave her grinds for five weeks after which she successfully met the entry requirements for University College Dublin.

When she got her Arts Degree with First Class Honours in Languages at nineteen years of age she was the youngest Arts graduate for many years. Obtaining a teaching post in Loretto College, St. Stephen's Green, Dublin she remained there for a number of years. It was while there that she met her future husband Dermot Mullan from Dungannon, Co. Tyrone. Marrying in 1945 she later returned to the family farm at Brackna on the death of her father.

Mary who had short stories and poetry published over many years continued her literary work while her children were growing up. Through her husband's involvement in the Castlemitchell Players and later the Social Club Players in Athy she became interested in drama. Her first play "The Clock Ticks Dust" was premiered on the 25th of April, 1955 and published the same year with many subsequent performances by amateur groups throughout the country. The original cast of the play produced by Ken Reynolds included Frances Fenlon, Sheila Lynch, Seamus Finnerty, Dermot Mullan, Nellie Fox, Patsy O'Neill, Mary Harrington and Tommy Walsh. A sequel "Where There Is Smoke" also written by Mary Mullan was performed by the Social Club Players in 1957.

Mary, whose husband Dermot has since died, began teaching in St. Brigid's School, Athy, in 1961 where initially she took night classes in French. Later appointed to a full-time post she taught French, English and Irish until her retirement two years ago. She still writes as she says "whenever the spirit moves me" but nowadays she is no longer producing work for the stage having reverted to her favoured medium, poetry.

As she sits at her writing desk she is faced by a portrait of her grandfather, Tim Fennin, the first member of the Fennin family to live at Brackna. His portrait painted in oils by Mr. Webber of Kellyville House links the present literary occupant of Brackna House with another literary person of that area Rev. Thomas Kelly, a former owner of Kellyville House. Looking out across the wood I am reminded of another literary connection. It was here that Patrick O'Kelly formerly of Kilcoo and author of "1798 Rebellion" and translator of Abbe Geoghegan's 'History of Ireland' and then a Captain in the United Irishmen assembled his men prior to a planned attack on Athy during the 1798 Rebellion.

Such are the connections made as I sat and talked to Mary Mullan last April and as she took down a treasured memento of her first play's production in Athy on the 25th of April, 1955 I marvelled at the coincidence that thirty nine years to the day after the curtain had been raised on "The Clock Ticks Dusk" she was sharing her memories with me in her house on the edge of Brackna Wood.