Friday, December 30, 1994

Jane Austen and Athy

Jane Austen, born at the Rectory in Steventon, Hampshire in 1775 never visited Athy on the River Barrow but her name is linked with the town through her youthful association with one Thomas Lefroy.

Lefroy with his younger brother, Ben, were boarders in a school operated by a Mr. Ashe in Athy in 1791. Thomas was to enter Trinity College the following year from where he graduated with a B.A. degree in 1795. That same year he spent the summer months in Hampshire, England and became friendly with Jane Austen, daughter of Rev. George Austen. It was during that time that Jane began work on the major novel later published as “Pride and Prejudice” but which she completed in 1797 under the title “First Impressions”.

Thomas Lefroy paid court to Jane Austen but the strength of their romantic attachment did not survive the difficulties likely to be encountered by a marriage between the wealthy Lefroy heir and the Rector’s daughter with no fortune. Lefroy returned to Ireland where he was called to the Bar in Easter term 1797 but did not commence practice as a lawyer until 1800. In the meantime he managed to improve his financial situation by marrying Jane, only daughter and heiress of Jeffrey Paul of Silver Spring, Co. Wexford in 1791 at Abergavenny, Wales.

“Pride and Prejudice” which was eventually published in 1831 was Jane Austen’s outstanding literary success. It is a story of foolish and disagreeable people seen through the eyes of Elizabeth Bennett who is in fact Jane herself. The character Fitzwilliam Darcy is reputably modelled on that of Thomas Lefroy with whom she fell in love during the summer of 1795. While the characters in the book do eventually marry, Jane Austen herself remained unmarried and she died in Winchester in 1817 at the early age of 42 years.

Lefroy meanwhile had embarked on a very lucrative practise at the Irish Bar, receiving the year before Jane Austen’s death the Silk Gown of King’s Counsel and two years later attained the office of King’s Sergeant. Refusing many offers of judicial appointment he was elected an M.P. for Trinity College in 1830.

In 1837 Lefroy commenced the building of a mansion at Carriglas, Co. Longford which still remains in the Lefroy family. In 1842 he accepted a judicial appointment and the most famous trial in which he was subsequently involved was that of John Mitchell, the Young Irelander held in Green Street Courthouse, Dublin in May 1848. Mitchell was sentenced to 14 years transportation.

In 1852 Thomas Lefroy, former pupil of Ashe’s school in Athy, was appointed Lord Chief Justice of Ireland. Already 76 years of age at the time of his appointment he continued to sit on the bench until he was 90 years old. In 1856 an attempt was made in the House of Commons to retire Lefroy and other elderly Judges whom it was alleged were “incompetent through age and infirmity from discharging their duties”.

Many more years were to elapse before Lefroy left the bench. He survived another attempt to have his appointment terminated when it was pointed out in the House of Commons that he had not missed a single court sitting in 25 years except in 1847 when he was struck down by low fever. Political change in England in 1866 prompted Lefroy’s resignation at the age of 90 years when he retired to Bray, Co. Wicklow, retaining at the same time his country seat at Carriglas, Co. Longford and his townhouse in Leeson Street, Dublin.

On the 4th of May, 1869 Thomas Lefroy died, 52 years after Jane Austen had passed away and 78 years after he had left the boarding school in Athy. His brother Ben Lefroy who also attended school in Athy married and settled in Cardenton House, Athy which remained in the Lefroy family until 1946.

When next you read Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice” remember Thomas Lefroy, who as a teenager walked the streets of our town long before he became Lord Chief Justice of Ireland, but just a few short years before he met Jane Austen and became the character Fitzwilliam Darcy in one of English literature’s greatest masterpieces.

Friday, December 23, 1994

Review of 1994 Articles

Writing a weekly column can be a tortuous experience, especially when you meet a disgruntled reader who, because you have gone into print, feels obliged to set you straight on some matter or other. It is then you must accept the inevitable, yet unproven claim that what you wrote was wrong. “You’re wrong, my grandmother told me that the Quaker Meeting House was at the end of our yard,” was one reader’s response to an article I wrote some years ago after a most detailed and careful examination of all the records relating to that 18th century building. Such research was quite worthless when faced with granny’s claim of 40 years ago. “Dúirt bean liom gur dúirt bean léi” is, in some quarters, apparently, a more acceptable basis for establishing historical claims than any canter through the public record repositories.

On the other hand, there is the response from the many, many readers who enjoy a look back and the writer’s attempt to bring the past into the present. For them, the effort is worthwhile and the appreciation expressed is more than adequate compensation for the writer.

During the past year, I have been continuously amazed at the co-operation of those approached by me for interviews. I can only recall one failure when a reluctance to speak “on the record” meant that a potentially generous nugget of local knowledge and lore had to remain untapped, destined never to find its way into the public domain. More is the pity but the kindness of the many people who gave of their time and knowledge so unstintingly and so generously fuelled the desire to continue the search to tell the people’s history of the locality.

For all of us, whether we went to school and perhaps even university for those lucky enough to get there, history seemed to centre around battles and the reign of kings and queens. This history of our place and the story of the people apparently never merited more than a brief or cursory reference in the annals. But it is the townspeople and the country folk living out their lives at work and at play to whom we must turn if we are to fell the pulse of the locality and re-create times past.

The Mary Carrs, Florrie Penders, Tosh Doyles and Ger Moriartys of this world are the stuff of life to which we can relate and through their experiences share in the past which would otherwise be beyond our ken. To those men and women whom some would call “the ordinary people” but whom I regard as “extraordinary people”, we are indebted for their contributions to the history of life of our locality.

Looking back over the 52 articles which have appeared since Christmas 1993, there are some which have given me more satisfaction than others. To chat to a legendary figure like Mrs. Hester May was a privilege, knowing her involvement in the War of Independence. During the year the events of that period provided articles on Tom Flood and Eamon Malone, two men whose involvement in the fight for Irish freedom should never be forgotten. Other Athy men who fought a different struggle during the First World War were again remembered in November when detailed research during the year gave an opportunity for a reassessment of Athy’s contribution to that conflict. I fear that as a community we have, up to now, never fully realised the impact World War I had on south Kildare in general, and Athy in particular. There is recently a growing understanding of the social and economic effects which a lost generation had on those who were left behind. We should never feel that the men of World War I are any less deserving of our thoughts and admiration than those men who served Ireland well during the period to 1923.

To unearth nuggets of history never before mined by other hands is a rare occurrence. The unfolding story of Athy Workhouse and its link with the Luggacurran evictions might not necessarily fall into that category but next week’s article on Jane Austen and her Athy connections is one which surely does.

To everyone who has co-operated in the telling of our town’s story may I say a big thank you. The story is not finished and in its future telling it will be of necessity to call upon many of you to help me put together the jigsaw of lore and fact which makes up the story of Athy and its people.

Happy Christmas to you all.

Friday, December 16, 1994

Housing Conditions in Athy - 1932

In May 1932 Dr. John Kilbride, local Medical Officer for Health carried out a survey into the housing conditions in Athy. In his subsequent report to the Urban Council he stated that there were 1292 townspeople living in 323 houses of not more than two rooms each. These houses were for the most part without the most basic sanitary accommodation, nearly all were in a poor state of repair and many were situated in "airless and sun-starved slums."

Dr. Kilbride, whose Uncle Denis Kilbride was one of the many thrown out of their homesteads during the Luggacurran Evictions, found that none of the earlier described two-roomed houses were vacant. "Directly one is vacated there are several applicants for it and it is straightaway re-occupied - and under those wretched conditions families are being starved and children reared."

As the towns Medical Officer for Health, Dr. Kilbride was obviously concerned about the consequential adverse affects of such housing conditions and he posed the rhetorical question "How, we must ask ourselves, can children be brought up properly under these conditions". In his view the bad housing was responsible for what he referred to as "the moral shortcomings and the physical ill health that is at present in the town."

There then followed an analysis of the sub-standard housing stock in the town. Starting with Barrack Street he mentioned one house of two rooms in which eleven persons including married couples lived. On Canal Side were four houses with no yard, one of which housed ten persons and another six persons. New Row had four houses in which families of ten, nine, eight and eight lived, each family huddled together in two small rooms. Rathstewart had two houses each with only one room and no yard.

Further on in his Report Dr. Kilbride in a general comment on the prevailing state of affairs in the town described Athy as "an agricultural community and conditions at present do not supply a demand for all available labour in the town. The present tendency is for the people to move from the country into the town - changing from the healthy open air existence to the unsanitary closed in urban conditions."

He considered the Council to be partially at fault for building houses "while leaving the existing hovels still open for occupation". He urged that in any future scheme that the Council consider building houses in "open avenues off the main roads where children can play without being in danger of motor traffic".

Ending his Report Dr. Kilbride gave a detailed breakdown of the sub-standard houses in the town mentioning placenames which have now passed into folk memory. The areas on the east side of the town included such names as Garden Lane, Kellys Lane and New Row while substandard houses were also to be found in Offaly Street, Leinster Street, Janeville Place, Meeting Lane, Mount Hawkins and Rathstewart.

On the west side of Athy the housing problems were apparently more acute and some of the addresses now long gone included New Gardens, Higginsons Lane, Turnpike and James's Place. Other areas identified and still mapped included Nelson Street, Shrewleen Lane, Plewman's Row, Blackparks, Canal Side, St. John's Lane, Convent View, Woodstock Street and Barrack Street.

The Urban Council anticipating Dr. Kilbride's Report had earlier initiated a Slum Clearance Programme and on completion of the St. Patrick's Avenue houses in 1930 had commenced the closure of the worst slums in the town. In 1933 the Urban Council completed work on 56 houses in Dooley's Terrace, 20 houses in Lower St. Joseph's Terrace and 17 houses in Upper St. Joseph's Terrace. Athy brick was used in the building of these houses as it was during the huge housing programme carried out between 1935 and 1937. Houses in Convent View, Plewman's Terrace, Geraldine Road, Minches Terrace and No.'s 15 -42 Upper St. Joseph's Terrace were to be the Council's final response to the 18th and 19th century unsanitary hovels demolished during the Slum Clearance Programme. No further houses were to be built by the Council until 1950 but under its extensive housing programme initiated in 1930 it had managed to rid Athy of the worst excesses noted in Dr. Kilbride's Report.

Friday, December 9, 1994

The First Council Houses in Athy

In the census of 1901 Athy returned a population of 3,599. The majority of the local people lived in the most primitive conditions. A Report prepared in 1900 indicated that little effort was made to keep the lanes of the town in a sanitary condition. It was common to see slop water and liquid filth lying in stagnant pools about all the laneways, in the crevices of the cobbles and in the depression of the surface channels. The Report continued
"The state of the backyards is also a danger to the health of the inhabitants, large accumulation of manure heaps and other refuse matter are in close proximity to the dwellings and are apparently only removed at long intervals. What tends to make these manure heaps a grave danger to the public health is the fact that the backyards where these accumulations exist are very small and confined, are undrained and in many instances pigs are kept in them. A considerable number of houses have also no backyard accommodation whatsoever."

On 15th February 1909 Athy U.D.C. adopted Part III of the Housing Act 1890 and immediately appointed a Housing Committee which held its first meeting on 26th February. The Committee divided into two groups to select suitable housing sites on both sides of the River Barrow.

A number of local sites were recommended and approved at a Council meeting on 22 March 1909. A subsequent failure to acquire the properties by agreement resulted in the holding of an Arbitration Inquiry in the Town Hall following the making of a compulsory acquisition Order by the Council. Advertisements were placed in the National Press offering prizes of 5 guineas for the best plans for houses suitable for labourers to cost £100, £150 and £200 each. The £100 house was to be one or two storey, the dearer houses to be two storied. James F. Reade C.E. won the prize with his design. On 29th July 1910 it was agreed by the Urban Council members to erect 11 of what was termed the "better class houses" in the Matthews Lane/Pound Field Site (now St. Michael's Terrace), with 4 of what they deemed "labourers houses" in Meeting Lane and 5 better class houses in Nicholas Keating's Field at Woodstock Street.

A year was to pass before the Council advertised and received tenders for its housing programme which in the meantime had been increased to 21 houses. The Matthew's Lane/Pound Field Site was to have 10 houses, with 5 in Meeting Lane and 6 in a new site in Woodstock Street - John Kelly's field. The Athy branch of the Town Tenants League was now pressing the Urban Council to proceed with more speed while the local St. Vincent de Paul Society through its President Mr. M.W. Roche was equally anxious for some measures to alleviate the overcrowded unsanitary conditions in the town. The housing contract was awarded to H.A. Hamilton of Thomas Street, Waterford but he withdrew in May 1912 following prolonged delay in commencing the work due to a disagreement between the Local Government Board and the Urban Council.

The problem centred around a Local Government directive that each house be provided with a privy and ashpit rather than a water closet as sought by the local Council. The Councils opposition centred around the systematic attention which dry closets needed
"and which is very unlikely to be given in such cottages and even where a tenant would have every desire to give such attention there is no way whereby he could ensure the continuous supply of dry earth or bog mull without which these closets would certainly become a dangerous public nuisance."

The Local Government Board won the day resulting in a revision of the house plans to provide back entrances. With Hamiltons withdrawal the Council again advertised for contractors on 26th June 1912. Three contractors were successful. D. & J. Carbery, Athy, obtained the Matthew's Lane/Pound Field contract for 10 houses at £2,544.7.11. Michael Sweeney was to build 6 houses at Woodstock Street for £1,264.2.10 while D. Toomey, Leinster Street, Athy, was to receive £704.10.0 for building 5 houses at Meeting Lane. The Contracts completed their work in March/April 1913.

An additional house was built on the Leinster Street side of what is now St. Michael's Terrace making in all 22 houses. In his report to the Council the Town Clerk indicated that there were 33 applicants for the newly built houses, a surprisingly low number having regard to the primitive housing conditions in the town.

In last weeks article I referred to Dillons Butchers shop in Leinster Street. It was located in Galbraiths premises and not Hylands as stated.

Friday, December 2, 1994

Mary Carr

She is generally to be found every Friday cycling the few miles from her home at Quarry Farm to the town of Athy. Nothing unusual in that except that the cyclist will be a youthful 87 years on the 11th of January next.

Mrs. Mary Carr born in Ardreigh in 1908 spent her young years near Ardreigh Mills where her father John Healy worked. That huge complex originally built by Alfred Haughton shortly after the Great Famine was in the ownership of the Hannon family at the turn of this century. Mary, an only child, was born in a small house on the left hand side of the main Athy/Carlow Road near the bottom of Ardreigh Hill. The house and the neighbouring houses are now long gone leaving no discernable trace.

Ardreigh Mills produced the once famous Lily White brand of flour, a name so well known that it was applied to the all white clad Kildare Senior Football Team during the period of it’s great rivalry with Kerry in the 1920’s. Some of the mill workers in the years before the First World War included Phil Horan and Larry Cullen, both of Foxhill, Tom Nolan, Jack Howard, Jack Kelly, Paddy Mitchell and Dan Kelly, all of Ardreigh and Tom O'Hara and Luke Kelly of Athy town. Many more men now forgotten worked in the Mills where Jack Dalton was in charge of the Mill engine. Jack who died aged 91 years some years ago was the last surviving member of the Ardreigh Mill staff.

When Mary's father John Healy was promoted to the position of miller the family took up residence in the Mill cottage directly opposite Ardreigh Mills. This cottage is now owned by Charlie and Bernie Mackey. Across from it and facing the tow path to Athy was the Travellers cottage, so called because it was home to the salesman who travelled throughout the adjoining counties selling the Mill’s Products. Holder of that position during Mary's young days was Eddie Webster, father of Kitty Webster and Pattie Webster who for many years operated a sweet shop at the corner of Butlers Row and Offaly Street.

Further up the Canal was the Lock House where another Webster family lived. They were not related to their namesakes in the Travellers cottage. "Websters Lock" was the name then given to Ardreigh Lock which in time was to be known to another generation as "Quinns Lock".

Mary went to school in Athy walking by the canal tow path each day. A subsequent move to the Gate Lodge attached to Ardreigh House where the Hannon family lived was of short duration. Mary's mother believed that the Gate Lodge was haunted, relying on her extraordinary experiences of delph and items of furniture moving in the night as evidence of a ghostly presence. A speedy return to the Millers Cottage resulted.

It was while living in the Millers Cottage that Mary's mother died in 1920. When Ardreigh Mills closed in 1926 John Healy and his daughter Mary departed for Milltown Mills, an oatmeal mill owned by the Hickey family. She left school when as she says "they began to teach Irish in the schools". This was in 1923 following the setting up of the Irish Free State and within a year Mary went to work as a housekeeper with John P. Dillon's family at Barrow Quay. As a young fellow I scoured the countryside for empty bottles to sell for coppers to John Dillon, always referred to as "Chopsie" Dillon. The nickname was common currency but no one seemed to know from where it came. Long after the good man had died I discovered that the original "Chopsie" Dillon was a butcher and a bachelor who lived with his three sisters in Leinster Street. He had a butchers stall in Leinster Street, where Galbraiths is located. "Chopsie" was no relation to John P. Dillon of Barrow Quay but when he died the nickname was passed on to his namesake who thereafter was known by no other name.

After nine years with the Dillon family of Barrow Quay Mary married Patrick Carr who worked as a farm labourer for Willie Hosie of Coursetown and later for Peter P. Doyle. Mary Carr was the mother of five young children when her husband died in June 1946, ten months after her own father John Healy had died. She returned to work as a housekeeper and remarkably at almost 87 years of age she still works occasionally for one of her original clients.

Mrs. Mary Carr despite the loss of her father and husband within the space of ten months 48 years ago has retained a cheerful happy outlook on life with a vitality and energy which belies her 87 years.