Friday, December 29, 1995

Review of Articles in 1995

Another year about to end. How quickly it passes but then someone like myself attuned to the demands and discipline of a weekly article knows only too well the speed of passing time.

At the beginning of the year I wrote of Dr. Don Rodrigue de Vere, a colourful character who adorned life in Athy during the Second World War. I was reminded of it only a few weeks when a County Laois farmer favourably commented on the piece and attempted to complete the Ballad of de Vere for me. In February the Sorrento Dance Band was featured and resulted in a very welcome letter from its leader Paddens Murphy who now spends his time between London and Spain. Paddens was fulsome in his praise of the local musicians who have given Athy such a wonderful musical heritage down the years. The story of Jack MacKenna, father of writer John MacKenna was told later that month highlighting some little known facts surrounding the War of Independence in South Kildare.

Athy Workhouse and the Great Famine were dealt with in several articles during this year's 150th Anniversary of the Irish holocaust. Approximately 2,500 died in Athy during the four years of the Famine and we still wait for the Eastern Health Board and the Local Authorities to mark in some suitable way the last resting place of those who died in the local Workhouse. Maybe it will happen in 1996.

In March I marked the passing of Jack Kelly, traditional fiddle player with an article which drew on his reminiscences of Churchtown Pipe Band. This was to lead to another later article on that Band and the Kilberry Pipe Band when I was contacted by two local men living in England - Jim Connor and Jim Moran.

May Lalor shared an evening with me in April when she told me of life in Athy in the 1930's and 1940's. Her late husband Michael Lalor had purchased Christy Reid's pub and grocery premises which was next to Cootes Gents Outfitters. Incidentally in answering a recent query I placed Cootes premises in Anthony Auctioneers. Several readers have contacted me to say that Cootes were located in the present Heffernans premises. From the evidence of the Lawrence photograph it would seem that Cootes were in the 1890’s located where Anthony Auctioneers are now, and transferred in 1905 to the other premises.

In May I wrote a two part article on Offaly Street residents of 50 years ago when my parents moved from Castlecomer to Athy to avail of secondary schooling for their sons. Sadly my mother who had lived in the street for 50 of her 89 years in this world passed away before the second part appeared. As I wrote then "Offaly Street is now a street of childhood memories for many of us as a new generation takes our place."

Memories of a different kind were evoked when I received a bundle of old letters from David Hannon whose father, the late Archdeacon Gordon Hannon, was formally of Ardreigh House, Athy. The letters were written to Gordon Hannon by his brothers Leslie Hannon and Ian Hannon while they were both serving in France during World War I. Lesley was killed in action in Festubert on the 16th of May 1915 while Ian suffered the same fate on the 18th of August 1916. I wrote in June of the two young Athy men whose letters delivered to Ardreigh House during the first two years of the Great War were to arrive there again this time bound together with ribbon and in a box evidently of old age. Reading them evoked a poignant reminder of the futility of war and the wanton waste of human life which results. This was a theme I returned to in November when the men of Athy who fought in World War I were again remembered.

Henry Grattan Donnelly, Solicitor, featured in an article in June and how sad it is to relate that his son Barry has since passed away. The appearance of the Wexford Sinfonia in the Dominican Church on the 11th of June and the Literary Evening organised by the Athy Literary Group in Ballintubbert six days later prompted me to praise the efforts of all concerned while affording me an opportunity yet again to highlight the work of Rev. Thomas Kelly, Evangelist and hymn writer extraordinary. There were many such good cultural experiences throughout the year but the recent performance of Charlie Hughes in Greasepaint Youth Theatre's production of Smike was of particular merit. I look forward to the next performance on stage of Charlie who is clearly a talent born to tread the boards.

Fr. Paddy Finn wrote to me in July as a result of which I was able to pen a piece on his predecessor as Parish Priest of Dunlavin Canon John Hyland who with Paddy shared an Athy background. The times of the legendary John Farrell afforded me an opportunity to delve into times past in Athy and Ballylinan as far back as the 1920's. The summer holiday period brought an unusual high number of visitors to Athy including Mike Hickey from Blackpool whose grandparents John and Catherine Hickey lived in Higginsons Lane 80 years ago and who featured in the Eye on the Past. Another visitor was Jim Moran, now 88 years old and living in Luton who presented me with a photograph of Kilberry Pipe Band and more importantly gave me an amazing amount of information about the Band he had joined in 1917. My regret is that when I was flying into Luton every weekend during September and October I did not get an opportunity to call on this extraordinary Athy man whose memories of his native town are as immediate and as fresh as if he was recounting events of last week. Maybe another time Jim.

The passing of Joe Bermingham while I was on holidays prompted me to regret the loss of a priceless repository of local knowledge given that Joe was uniquely placed to correctly record and interpret the happenings of many decades past. As I wrote then "Castlemitchell owes him an enormous debt of gratitude".

The power and universality of Church music prompted an article on the links and similarities between Athy and a number of Bedfordshire towns with which I became very familiar during the latter part of the year. Not for the first time Rev. Thomas Kelly featured yet again. It is hard to disregard the man who died 140 years ago but whose hymns are still included in Church Hymnals throughout the English speaking world.

A visit to Maynooth College unearthed two important artefacts from Athy with which I was not previously acquainted. A 1634 Holy Week Book found in Athy and a silver cup presented to a former Sovereign of Athy in 1795 are important relics of our past and hopefully may in time return to our long awaited Heritage Centre.

The final month of the year saw articles on two nurses each of whom has worked to improve the lives of people in our town. Sr. Consilio is of course now a national figure for her contribution to helping people suffering from alcoholism. At the other end of the scale and very much a local heroine in her own quiet way is Nurse Brennan, the last Jubilee Nurse in Athy.

As always it is a pleasure helping to bring the past into focus each week not least for the wonderful response it provokes in the readers. To all who have written to me during the year or who have telephoned about the articles I say a big thank-you. I am always delighted to hear your comments and of course the stories which go to make up the tapestry of our local history. Happy New Year to you all.

Friday, December 22, 1995

Nurse Teresa Brennan

“There is a crying need for a nurse in Athy”. The year was 1950 and Dr. Barry, Master of Holles Street Hospital, was addressing Ward Sister Teresa Brennan who had just completed her training with the Queen’s Institute of District Nursing. Teresa, a native of Belanagore, Co. Roscommon, the home of the O’Connors, one time High Kings of Connaught, had originally began her general nursing training in Withington Hospital, Manchester, later transferring to Townleys Hospital, Bolton where she spent three years as a Ward Sister. Returning to Ireland, she worked in the National Maternity Hospital, Holles Street, and on completing her midwifery training she undertook a District Nursing course in Leeson Street, Dublin.

District Nurses were then called Jubilee Nurses, and they were employed by local voluntary committees, which sought to provide medical services for everyone, irrespective of means. In Athy, the Jubilee Nurse Committee included Dr. John Kilbride who was the local dispensary Doctor, his wife May Kilbride, Nellie Holland of Model Farm, Kitty Higgins of Minch’s Terrace and Margaret Flood of Leinster Street. Mindful of Dr. Barry’s suggestion, Teresa Brennan successfully applied for the job in Athy where any doubts harboured by the candidate were speedily dispelled by the promise of “a house with the job”. This turned out to be number 3 St. Michael’s Terrace, which was rented by the Committee from Athy Urban District Council, and where Nurse Brennan, now long retired, still lives.

As a Jubilee Nurse she assisted at the local dispensary each morning where Dr. John Kilbride was in charge. Patients were visited in their homes in the afternoon by Nurse Brennan who travelled a radius of ten miles around Athy on her Raleigh bicycle. Changing dressings, comforting the sick and supplying medication were the every day tasks of the Jubilee Nurse who was readily identified by her navy blue uniform and white apron.

She travelled every road and by-road in the town and district and like her colleagues, the District mid-wives Madge May and Josie Candy, she saw and experienced life in all its many manifestations. The “blue ticket” which was required to avail of the services of the dispensary Doctor and the Jubilee Nurse has now been replaced by the medical card which the older people still refer to as the “blue card”.

Teresa Brennan filled the role of Jubilee Nurse for fifteen years until appointed as a public health nurse by Kildare County Council. The range and nature of her duties did not change. Now, however, she was a pensionable, salaried official of the County Council, no longer dependant on the financial well being of the voluntary committee which up to then had paid her salary.

Transferring from Dublin to Athy in 1950 was for the young Teresa Brennan a not entirely happy experience. “It seemed a terrible place” was her first impression of the town, but soon the warmth and friendliness of the townspeople won over the Roscommon girl. It was those same local people, always anxious and willing to help in an emergency, who brought home to the young nurse the strength and value of living in a happy, vibrant community. She is particularly warm in her appreciation of the help afforded to her by so many people in Convent View and St. Patrick’s Avenue and as she says “indeed every area in the town” during her time as Jubilee Nurse and later as Public Health Nurse. “People’s good nature comes to the fore in times of sickness and death and so many times I witnessed the innate goodness of the local people in dealing with emergencies as they arose.” Her words remind her of the terrible scourge of tuberculosis which was rampant in the 1950’s and which carried off so many young people to an early grave. She recalls the very real poverty which was to be seen in Athy in those years, a poverty which was matched by the poor quality housing of the time. It was in those conditions that tuberculosis developed and remained a threat to public health for a considerable time. As she recalls it, the appointment of Dr. Noel Brown, as Minister for Health, coincided with the beginning of the end of the battle against TB.

She remembers with a smile the furore in Athy soon after she arrived, when rust was detected in the local drinking water. Reminiscent of the more recent magnesium in the water scare encountered in parts of Graysland and Kingsgrove, the rusty water of 1950 was apparently a perennial problem created by the rusty pipes which carried the water from Modubeigh Reservoir. Even then, the dispensary doctor, John Kilbride, allayed public fear in a manner reminiscent of officials forty four years later with the claim “rust never did anyone any harm.”

In her time she has witnessed huge social changes in our community. “People do not need to go hungry in today’s society as they did in the old days”, she declares with the confidence and assurance of one who has witnessed at first hand those terrible times, which were once so familiar in Irish society.

As the last Jubilee Nurse in Athy, Teresa Brennan, no longer awaits the knock on the door which invariably meant a trip through the night to a distant, often cold room of a sick person for whom the nurse was a comforting and reassuring figure. Nurse Brennan, “don’t ask me my age”, is a familiar sight around Athy and is a Minister of Eucharist in the local Parish Church. Having retired some years ago, she recalls the recent past with a sometimes whimsical regret that the years have passed so quickly.

Friday, December 15, 1995

Famine Losses in Athy coupled with piece on Tailoring Businesses

I attended the launch of a book by Kildare County Council as part of its contribution to this years commemoration of the Great Famine on Tuesday night in Naas Library. “Lest we forget - Kildare in the Great Famine”, comprises a number of essays dealing with various aspects of the Famine in Kildare. Yours truly contributed a chapter on the Famine in Athy, which in itself is not sufficient reason for deciding not to buy the book. It should be available in your local bookshop, and as it costs only £4.95 there is no need to raise a bank loan to buy your own copy.

Re-reading the Famine article which I had written earlier this year, I was reminded that the population of Athy had decreased by 825 in the ten years from 1841 to 1851. This did not take into account persons in the local Workhouse where 1205 paupers died during the Great Famine.

Earlier in the week I bought a copy of the 1911 Census report for County Kildare, which I will readily admit, would not be everybody’s favourite bedtime reading. However, the wealth of information it held concerning the residents of Athy 84 years ago was fascinating. The population of the town in 1911 was 3,535 persons, living in 691 houses. There were 64 uninhabited houses in the town, and only one dwellinghouse in the course of erection that year. The Census also disclosed that there were 26 one-roomed tenements in the town and in one unfortunate case there were no less than nine persons living in a one-roomed house.

What I found astonishing were the details of the previous Census results for Athy, which showed that in the ten years to 1901 the town’s population fell by 1287 persons to 3599. This represented a bigger decrease in the towns population, than that experienced in the ten years which spanned the period of the Great Famine. I must confess that I am puzzled as to the likely explanation for this relatively high population decrease. Is there by chance an explanation in the establishment of the Urban Council in 1898, and a possible reduction in the urban area compared to the town area over which the Town Commissioners exercised authority? If this was the case then the figures for 1901 and 1891 would not be comparable and might not necessarily indicate a decline in the town’s population.

As I write this article, I cannot possibly say whether this explanation is correct or not. Indeed, I had always assumed that the functional area of the Urban Council was coterminous with that of the earlier Town Commissioners, established in 1847, and with that of the Borough Council incorporated by charters in 1515 and 1613. If the figures in the 1901 Census returns do in fact reflect the loss of 1287 persons for Athy in the previous ten years, wherein lies the explanation? I have never before been alerted to any great population shift in the town at the end of the last century and cannot speculate as to the possible cause. However, more about this again when further research has been done.

John Craven, of Capanafeacle, Ballyadams, in a letter to last week’s paper mentioned J. W. Coote, Tailor, Out-fitters Athy and a purchase made by his mother in 1917 which came with a Coote coat hanger, which he still has. Coote’s had their premises in what their advertisements always referred to as Market Square, Athy. This was, of course, Emily Square. Mr. Coote, who operated what he called a “Fitting Establishment”, wrote to the local newspaper on 5th April 1902, criticising the destruction of the tailoring trade in Athy by the “greedy drapers who supply suits to measure made in London or in Dublin”. His fear, which was in time realised, concerned the possible demise of the master tailoring craft in Athy. Coote’s obviously continued in business until 1917 at least, as evidenced by Mr. Craven’s account of his mothers purchase that same year.

Another Master tailor’s establishment at the turn of the century was that of Thomas G. Lumley of Duke Street, where craftsmen such as Thomas Moran, Mick Egan and Paddy Bracken worked in the tailoring rooms. Returning to John Craven’s query as to where exactly in Market Square or Emily Square was Coote’s Fitting Establishment, I do recall an early Lawrence Photograph of the town showing Coote’s next door to Noud’s Corner Shop, which is now Winkle’s. This would make Anthony’s Auctioneers the present occupiers of Coote’s premises.

The mention of Master tailors prompts another query, concerning James Moses Kelly, a tailor who married Margaret Dunne of Athy, some time around the turn of the century. Whether he worked for one of the local tailoring establishments or worked on his own account, I cannot say. My interest in the man lies in the belief that he was the grandfather or possibly the father of Elizabeth Coxhead, a prolific writer amongst whose works was a book of particular local interest called “The House in the Heart”. If any of the readers know anything about James Moses Kelly or can help me track down a copy of Elizabeth Coxhead’s book, I would very much like to hear from them.

Friday, December 8, 1995

Sr. Consilio

Sr. Consilio. The name immediately conjures up images, not of a woman in Holy Orders, but rather of a movement which now reaches across the length and breadth of Ireland. Cuan Mhuire, meaning the Harbour of Mary, are homes for the care and rehabilitation of those with alcohol dependency problems and are located in Athy, Bruree, Newry and Athenry. They exist because Sr. Consilio, a member of the Sisters of Mercy congregation in Athy, sought to provide a service for people, whose needs she felt, had been overlooked by society.

Born Eileen Fitzgerald in 1937, she began training as a nurse in Cork in 1956. Soon the religious life beckoned. Her own sister, Ita, was in Ardee Convent of Mercy and on her suggestion Eileen Fitzgerald entered the Convent of Mercy in Athy, after qualifying as a nurse. Her noviceship was spent there, but in 1965 she transferred to the local St. Vincent’s Hospital, where the Sisters of Mercy had provided nursing care since 1873. It was here that she first came in regular contact with men and women suffering from alcoholism. Her concern for their welfare found support in the compassionate outlook of Sr. Dominic, Matron of St. Vincent’s Hospital. Before long however, she was transferred to St. Finbar’s Hospital in Cork to complete her midwifery studies, which when completed, saw her returning to the Athy Convent.

Sr. Consilio’s charitable response to the needs of those troubled by alcohol addiction encouraged those requiring help to call on her at the local Convent of Mercy. In time, the small library room in the Convent building became a meeting place for alcoholics. In 1968 the library was deemed unsuitable for the numbers attending, and it was then that the dairy house attached to the Convent was given over for the use of Sr. Consilio’s group. This became the first Cuan Mhuire residential centre in Ireland.

In 1971, Sr. Consilio, determined to provide accommodation for the men and women seeking help from the torment of alcoholism, agreed to buy 70 acres of farm land at Cardenton, Athy. The purchase price at auction was £49,000.00, and when the property was knocked down to her, she did not have that money. Fate played its hand when the vendor died before the legal formalities could be completed, resulting in a lengthy delay, which allowed Sr. Consilio sufficient time to raise the necessary funds. The first buildings on the Cardenton lands were planned and erected by members of her group, all of whom brought their own talents and skills to the work. Building work began in 1972, with Paddy Lalor of Woodstock Street as the only contractor employed on the site.

The early success of Cuan Mhuire was achieved despite the misgivings of some members of the local community in Athy to the siting of an alcohol treatment centre near to their town. Over time however, the local opposition to the centre evaporated, as it became clear that Sr. Consilio’s mission was fulfilling an important need in Irish society.

The mission statement of Cuan Mhuire is an affirmation of the relevance of Sr. Consilio’s work in every community “to provide a context in which persons who feel rejected or dejected because of their addictions become aware of and learn to deal with the underlying problems related to those addictions and discover their uniqueness, goodness, giftedness and real purpose in life.”

In 1975 Sr. Consilio received a Person of the Year Award for her work and in the following year the second Cuan Mhuire was opened in Bruree House, Bruree, Co. Limerick. The continuing demand for Cuan Mhuire services led to the opening of another centre in the former Good Shepherd Convent, Newry in 1984. Two years later, Galilee, a house of prayer was opened in what was the former Fever Hospital in Athy.

The facilities originally provided at Cuan Mhuire, Athy, were replaced by a modern complex which was opened on the 14th of June 1992 by the Superior General of the Sister of Mercy. This was followed by the opening of the fourth Cuan Mhuire in Coolarne, Athenry, Co. Galway and an after care facility in the former O’Briens Hotel, Gardiner Street, Dublin. This latter facility provides short term drug free residential accommodation for those who have attended Cuan Mhuire for treatment. Overnight accommodation is not yet available, but in the meantime the city centre complex operates as a drop-in centre.

Today the four Cuan Mhuires provide places for 418 persons suffering from alcoholism. It is a proud tradition of Cuan Mhuire, that regardless of circumstances, no person is refused admission or treatment. This in itself can create problems, but given the inspirational leadership and dedication of Sr. Consilio and the Cuan Mhuire staff there is no reason to doubt the continuing success of the Cuan Mhuire Alcohol Recovery Programme.

Equally, I have no doubt that the future of the Cuan Mhuire movement is assured. So much of what has happened in its formative years was due, largely, if not solely, to one woman - Sr. Consilio. In time to come her name will be remembered alongside that of Catherine McAuley, Mary Aikenhead, Nano Nagle, and those other great women in religion, who stirred an Irish nation’s conscience by tackling the social problems of their day.

Friday, December 1, 1995

Atkinson's Tour of Ireland in 1814 with Description of Athy

Travellers’ narratives are always a fascinating, if not necessarily dependable, source of information on places and persons of the past. One such narrative, which I came across recently, was published in 1815 by Thomas Courtney of 6 Wood Street, Dublin, for its author A. Atkinson. Titled “The Irish Tourist” it was sub-titled “A Series of Picturesque Views Travelling Incidents and Observations, Statistical Political and Moral on the Character and Aspect of the Irish Nation”. The rather turgid title cloaked the work of a man who claimed in his introductory piece to have collected his material “at the expense of health and ease as well as of time and money”. He travelled 6,000 miles, or so he claimed, on his journeys through Ireland, all the while appealing to what he described as “the rank and property of the country” for funds to publish an account of his experiences. Those who contributed were listed as subscribers in the book, and amongst those listed are Thomas Boake of Boakefield, Athy, John M. Johnson, Athy, Robert Rawson, Athy and Col. Weldon of Kilmoroney.

Atkinson’s journey commenced in November 1810 in Sligo, and ended in Dublin in December 1814. In February 1814 he set out for the South East of Ireland, and reached the small post town and market town of Stradbally, where he found in the centre of the town an extensive cotton mill worked by water. It had been erected on the river adjoining what he described as “that pretty retreat called the Abbey”, by a Mr. Calcott, who employed 50 to 100 hands in the spinning department.

Proceeding to Athy, which he described as a market town, a post town and a corporate town, and alternately with Naas, the assizes town of County Kildare, he gave the following interesting and informative account of our town in 1814.

“It is situated on the river Barrow, which is navigable from thence to its junction with the sea near Waterford, while with the city of Dublin, this town has an open communication by the Grand Canal, so that it is extremely well circumstanced for trade; and in the corn department, I understand, a considerable communication subsists between them. For the quality and quantity of its wheat (with which useful article, disposed of by sample in the market, and afterwards delivered at the purchaser’s stores, for many miles around) this market is deservedly celebrated. In the town, however, there is no manufacturer of note, save that of two establishments for the distillation of malt into ale and whiskey; nor are the public buildings of the place remarkable either for their beauty or magnitude - nevertheless the town has a respectable appearance. It consists of two principal streets, which open a communication with the market-square; and from these principal divisions, several smaller streets issue, which, upon the whole, give this town an aspect of tolerable magnitude. The footpaths are neatly paved, and in winter the streets are lighted up, an accommodation rather unusual in country towns and therefore particularly grateful to the feelings of a stranger. The river passes nearly through the centre of the town, and while engaged in wafting the produce of the country to distant ports, is an object of great beauty in the eye of the passenger, when surveyed from the bridge, a piece of architecture which contributes much to the improved appearance of the town, since its re-construction in the year 1796. The jail, the church, the Roman Catholic chapel, and a small, but very neat chapel belonging to the Calvinistic Methodists, constitute the public buildings of the place. Formerly there was a meeting house of the Friends or Quakers in this town, but this society has been for a long time nearly extinct in this place, and I am now equally ignorant whether this little meeting-house is standing, or has fallen into ruin.

In the vicinity of this town, there are several pretty villas. Of these, that of Mr. Rawson, the collector, is deserving of attention - Mount Ophelia, on the Carlow Road, the residence of Dr. Johnson, is also a pretty retreat from the noise and bustle of the streets - but of all the seats in this neighbourhood which beautify the banks of the Barrow, that of Kilmoroney, the seat of Colonel Weldon, stands pre-eminent. It is situate on the opposite bank of the river, (as you proceed to Carlow) about seven miles north of that town, and three miles south of Athy. The river in the valley and the house, lawn, and plantations beyond them, are in perfect prospect. Among these latter, I would rank, as of no mean effect, a thick coppice or woody elevation on the bank just noticed, as you approach within view of this seat; and about half a mile farther on, a Danish fort embellished with ornamental plantations, is a striking feature of the landscape. Between these distinct objects, which mark the extremities of the lawn, stands Kilmoroney house, on a beautiful elevation; and in a valley, just opposite, are the ruins of the castle of Grangemelon, which , in that picturesque scene forms an object of considerable grandeur. Beside this more remarkable seat, you have the prospect of many inferior villas on the banks of the river, which embellish the country, in your progress to Carlow, and render the drive from Athy to that town, particularly interesting.”

Strange that Atkinson, in referring to the public buildings of the town, made no mention of the Town Hall or the Military Barracks in Barrack Street. What is interesting, was his description of the footpaths as neatly paved and the lighting of the streets in winter. This, as he states, was unusual in country towns and indicates that the corporate affairs of the town were perhaps better advanced than had previously been thought.

Athy did not often figure in the itineraries of early travellers to Ireland, and for that reason Atkinson’s description of the town in 1814 is important, even if it is somewhat incomplete.

Friday, November 24, 1995

Athy Artefacts in Maynooth College Museum

A few weeks ago I travelled to Maynooth College to attend the Annual General Meeting of the Federation of Local History Societies. With time to spare before the start of the meeting I had an opportunity of visiting the College Museum and viewing the many interesting artefacts of our ecclesiastical past. Two items were of particular interest. Both had an Athy provenance the first being a Holy Week book published in Paris in 1634. It was of the type used by priests during penal days and was found in an old building adjoining the Parochial House in Athy. Unfortunately there was no information available as to when it had been found and indeed I have not yet followed up my curiosity in this regard with a query to the College authorities.

The population of Athy in 1659 numbered 565 of which 83 were English settlers and 482 native Irish. In September 1653 Murdo McKenzy was directed to preach in Irish as well as in English as a Minister of the Established Church in the Athy area. Two years later the Dublin Castle authorities ordered that James Carey, a former Catholic Priest who had become a Minister of the State religion, preach in Irish in Trim and Athy. Before long Carey was to complain that the Athy people were very remiss in coming to hear him preach and that they preferred to spend the hours appointed for Church services in frequenting ale houses and indulging in "unwarranted exercises".

Whatever about the laxity in Church attendance there appears to have been some Catholics in Athy who conformed. The sincerity of the conformist was however doubted for in July 1654 an order was issued to John Murcit to examine the conversion of the native Irish about Athy who for that reason had been excused from transplanting to the West of Ireland with those who had opted for Connaught rather than hell. Murcit was enjoined to see "whether they have upon any conscientious grounds deserted popery or for any feigned considerations or by ends pretended the embracing of Protestantism."

In 1662 William Weldon M.P. for Athy and then residing in St. John's reported that two Catholic priests named Fitzgerald and Carroll daily frequented the place and "lately said Mass in the middle of the town several times". Maybe the Holy Week book now in Maynooth Museum belonged to one of these priests who have had good reason to hide it when it was not in use. The same Weldon reported that on a particular Sunday Fitzgerald was found "at his devotions" attended by five hundred people. Being arrested the Priest was rescued four times by the locals but was eventually taken prisoner by the soldiers. It was around this time that Fr. Raymond Moore, Prior of the Dominicans in Athy, was also arrested and imprisoned in Dublin where he died in 1665.

The second item in Maynooth Museum of local interest was a silver cup presented by the citizens of Athy to John Stoyt, Steward to the Duke of Leinster. The inscription on the cup read "Presented by the inhabitants of Athy to John Stoyt Esquire as a token of their appreciation of his upright and impartial conduct and the many services he has rendered to the town during his sovereignty September 29th 1795."

Stoyt was elected a Burgess of the town on the 29th of September 1791 in place of Sir Kildare Dixon Burrowes and served as Sovereign of Athy in 1794/95 and again in 1798/99. The Sovereign was the 18th century equivalent of the Council Chairman with substantially more powers than the present day office holder would have.

John Stoyt's house in Maynooth was acquired by the Trustees of the newly founded College in Maynooth in 1795 and Stoyt's house is today the principal building in the College complex which has grown over the past two hundred years.

It was an unexpected pleasure to encounter these two links with Athy's distant past in Maynooth College. Maybe some day when our long awaited Heritage Centre is up and running the silver cup and the Holy Week Book could be returned to Athy where they would form an important part of our town's story as presented in artefacts of the past preserved for the enjoyment and knowledge of the present generation.

Friday, November 17, 1995

Brian Fitzgerald and the Duck Press Restaurant

When the Grand Canal reached Athy in 1791 it marked a turning point in the towns fortunes. Thereafter the South Kildare town was to develop as a commercial centre which boosted and complemented its earlier role as a market town. The canal link which brought the capital within twelve hours of Athy's market inevitably led to a dramatic increase in market activity in the area. Produce brought into Athy by local farmers found its way to Dublin as a thriving carriage industry developed to supplement the Grand Canal Company's efforts. The trade was not one way and the boats returning from Dublin came loaded with merchants goods which soon adorned the shop windows of Athy. Truly could it be said of Athy then that it was taken on the grandeur and style of cosmopolitan Dublin.

Passenger services on the Grand Canal commenced with a 5.00 a.m. start from the canal basin in Athy. The ladies and gentlemen of the day delighted with the advances in travel made possible by the Canal thought little or nothing of the twelve hour journey to Dublin. Before the coming of the Canal the same journey was made on horseback or in carriages, on roads unsuited for the purpose and dangerous to all travellers. An early start on the canal journey necessitated sleeping accommodation being available for the travellers near to the canal basin and so it was that Canal Hotels were built. In Athy the fine two storey overbasement building which was later to become the Canal Company's offices was initially constructed as a small Hotel to accommodate travellers on the Grand Canal. Today it is home to the Duck Press Restaurant owned and managed by Brian Fitzgerald. Brian, born in West Ham in London in 1946 is a cockney who came to Athy in 1993 on acquiring the business from its founder owner Stephen Corcoran. As an East Londoner Brian has led a chequered career since he first went to work as a meat salesman in Smithfields markets in London at seventeen years of age. Memories of Stanley Holloway and Katherine Hepburn in "My Fair Lady" bring to mind scenes reminiscent of those encountered by Brian in his work first in the meat markets and later in Billingsgate Fish Market where he worked for two years. Experiences in the meat and fish markets led him to Covent Gardens Fruit Markets where he was a fruit salesman for three years. His years in the markets brought him in contact with many famous and some infamous characters. Billy Walker, Champion Heavyweight Boxer was a fish porter in Billingsgate in Brian's time while Kenny Lynch, Comedian and television personality, was another colleague who worked as a porter in Smithfield market. However the most intriguing relationship struck up by Brian was that with the notorious London criminals The Kray Twins. They were frequent visitors to the markets and the acquaintanceship extended to the Regency Club and the K. Club both of which were operated by the Kray Brothers.

It was with the financial backing of the Kray Twins that Brian first went into business on his own account when he opened up the Doric Restaurant in Attleborough in Norfolk. Three successful years there led to further business ventures which included two butcher shops in High Street, Walthenstone, London and a boning factory which he operated for Peter O'Sullivan the famous racing commentator in Long Stratham, Norwich. His final business venture in England was as proprietor of "The Old Crown" in Diss, Norfolk, a market pub.

Brian spent his early years in Plashet Road, West Ham, a stones throw away from the Grand Union Canal. He learned to swim as did his friends in the Canal at Stratford Broadway and now he has renewed his links with canal life with his beautifully located Duck Press Restaurant on the Grand Canal basin in Athy.

The London cockney has grown to love the sometimes strange but always charming ways of the Irish and has firmly set his roots down in this country. As he says himself having married Denise Fitzgerald of Allencross in 1993, his home is where his heart is and those of us lucky enough to have partaken of the culinary delights of the Duck Press are glad that he has finally dropped his anchor in Athy.

Friday, November 10, 1995

World War 1 and War Graves in St. Michaels Cemetery

Each year at this time I write of World War I and the men from Athy who were involved in that conflict. Just a few weeks after starting the “Eye on the Past” column I wrote in November 1992 of John Vincent Holland, Athy’s only holder of the Victoria Cross. Holland, son of a local veterinary surgeon, was born in Model Farm on the 19th of July 1889 and received the highest military award for gallantry in an attack on Guillemont in September 1916.

One year later I wrote of the Hannon brothers, Norman and John, both of Ardreigh House who died in the Great War. Reference was also made to their cousins Henry Hannon and Thomas Hannon who also perished. I mentioned how in November 1991 and every year since then local people came together to commemorate the men of Athy who had died in World War I. Their memories were recalled in prayer and poetry in a simple ceremony in St. Michael’s cemetery where six of the Athy dead are buried. Elsewhere I referred to Andrew Delaney of Crookstown who died in Netley Hospital, London from gas poisoning on 31st May, 1915 and whose remains were brought home for interment in Crookstown cemetery.

In November 1993 I listed the names of 105 Athy men, all soldiers who were killed in action during the 1914/18 War. Another 86 men from the rural hinterland around Athy also died representing a terrible loss to a small Irish provincial town. The tragedy of death was compounded when the War Office telegram arrived, not once but three times at the same hall door. Such was the experience of “Jacksie” and Mark Kelly of Mount Hawkins who lost three sons, Denis, John and Owen in the Great War. Owen died on the 3rd of May, 1915, his brother John twenty days later and Denis on 30th September, 1918 just eleven days short of the cease-fire. Other parents who suffered the horrendous loss of three sons were Jack and Margaret Curtis of Quarry who lost their son Patrick, killed in action in France on 4th November, 1914. In 1917 two more Curtis brothers were killed, John on the 9th of January and Lawrence on 4th December. Their father Jack worked as a farm steward for Michael Dooley, one of the foremost Irish nationalist figures in Athy during that period.

Remembering the dead is a proud tradition of all communities but particularly we Irish who hold dearly to our memories of loved ones. Sometimes we must grieve silently as did the many Irish families who for decades found it inappropriate to publicly acknowledge their dead, especially when they died fighting in the uniform of the “auld” enemy.

Times have changed and since November 1991 those unfortunate Athy men who died in action during the 1914/18 War have been remembered each year. Many of those who died no longer have families in Athy but amongst us there are many who bear the name of a dead soldier.

World War I or The Great War ended at 11.00 a.m. on the 11th of November 1918. Ten million men were killed and another thirty million were wounded or missing during the fifty three months of the War. In County Kildare we lost five hundred and sixty-seven men killed in action and an incalculable number amongst the wounded and maimed. In Athy our losses were proportionally greater than most with the deaths of one hundred and five men from the town and another eighty-two from the neighbouring countryside. Most of those men were buried where they fell, some were never found, their names recorded in stone in the War Memorials in Belgium and France.

St. Michael’s Cemetery holds the grave of six soldiers from Athy who died during the Great War.

• Private M. Byrne, Leinster Regiment, died on 21st November, 1918 aged 28 years
• Private James Dwyer, Royal Irish Army Service Corps, died on 31st March, 1918 aged 30 years
• Private Thomas Flynn, Connaught Rangers, died on 26th February, 1915 aged 28 years
• Private Martin Hyland, Offaly Street, Dublin Fusiliers, died 19th September, 1916 aged 29 years
• Lance Corporal J. Lawler, Ardreigh, Dublin Fusiliers, died on 3rd October, 1918 aged 37 years
• Private Michael O’Brien, Irish Guards, died on 26th December, 1917 aged 27 years.

The Irish War Memorials recorded that Martin Hyland died of wounds in France. It is highly unusual therefore to see his burial place in Athy. However, he probably died in Athy of wounds received while on service in France. Three of the soldiers interred in Athy cemetery do not appear in the Irish War Memorial records. The name of Private M. Byrne, Private James Dwyer and Lance Corporal J. Lawler must therefore be added to the list of Athy’s dead.

On Sunday, 12th November at 3.00 p.m. we will gather again in St. Michael’s Cemetery to honour the men from our town whose lives were lost so many years ago. As we stand at the graves of each of the six Athy men who were buried in their native soil we can recall all those husbands, fathers and brothers who died, especially those who lie, some in unmarked graves, far from their own place and far from their families and friends in Athy.

Maybe you will visit St. Michael’s Cemetery on Sunday, 12th November and say a prayer for those men and their families. It is the least we can do for those who once walked the familiar streets of our town.

Friday, November 3, 1995

Care of the Elderly Athy

I received a small booklet through the post last week which was published as a record of the work of the Athy Committee for the Care of the Elderly during the past 30 years. The “Old Folks House” as we commonly call the Committee’s headquarters in Leinster Street, is the readily identifiable centre of the Committee’s work. Not always identified and acknowledged however, is the hard work and dedication of the many men and women, who since 1965, have contributed to the Committee’s success. Familiar names came to me as I perused the booklet’s pages. These were the names of men and women, once well known in Athy, but now only recalled in a litany of the dead. Tim McCarthy, Eamon McAuley, Tom Langton, Bill Horgan and Ted O’Rourke are just some of those names, which conjure up remembrances of times and events now past, never again to be experienced.

It is right that their names and those of their colleagues should be recorded, and that the record should show the part they played in creating and sustaining what was possibly Athy’s first voluntary social service for the elderly.

It was Dr. Brendan O’Donnell, then Medical Officer for county Kildare, who in 1965, suggested that a Care of the Elderly Committee be set up. This was at a time when the Old Age Pension was £2.7.6 per week, and the Home Assistance Officers under the late Tommy Harvey of Naas were busily engaged helping old people to keep body and soul together. I knew both Dr. O’Donnell and Tommy Harvey when I worked in the Health Section of Kildare County Council in the early 1960’s, and I recognised that their concern for the less well-off and the less capable in our society, extended far beyond the duties and responsibilities imposed by their respective offices.

At Dr. O’Donnell’s prompting, a public meeting was held in St. John’s Hall in October 1965 to establish a local Committee. St. John’s Hall, which once housed the former Social Club, was located in St. John’s Lane. It has long since been demolished, and on its site we now have the local Boy Scouts den. Dr. Brian Maguire, who arrived in Athy in July 1957 to take charge of the Dispensary District of Moone, was elected first Chairman of the Committee, a position he continued to occupy with distinction for the following 20 years. Vice-Chairman was Tom McEvoy, with Noreen Ryan as Secretary, and national school teacher Pierce Ferriter as Treasurer. The Honorary Social Worker appointed to the Committee was the indefatigable Megan Maguire, born in Manchester of Welsh parents, and wife of Dr. Brian Magurie. Megan’s involvement with the Care of the Elderly Committee continues to this day. She can justifiably be proud of her 30 years unstinting service as Honorary Social Worker.

In 1966, the Care of the Elderly Committee decided to provide a permanent centre for its activities, and Kevin Maher, Des McHugh, Tadhg Brennan, Dr. J.T. O’Neill and the late Capt. Sean O’Connor were instrumental in raising the funds required to purchase No. 82 Leinster Street from the Duke of Leinster’s Estate.

Close co-operation with the State’s social services and Athy Urban District Council gave the Committee scope for supplementing the support services available for the elderly. Home visits were, and remain, the highest priority need of the elderly, and the Committee, realising this, always ensured that its home visitation programme was effective and regular.

The welfare schemes and projects championed by the Care of the Elderly Committee changed and extended over the years as new needs were identified. Summer outings were organised from 1969 onwards, and in recent years, summer holidays in Butlins holiday camp, Mosney, have formed part of the Care of the Elderly programme. Laundry services, the provision of radios and televisions, and an early Meals on Wheels Scheme, were just some of the services provided for the elderly of the district. In addition, the houses of the elderly were repaired and painted, chimneys were swept and smoke alarms were fitted. The list goes on and on, as does the energy and resilience of the Committee members who have fulfilled such an important role in our community over the past 30 years.

The help, afforded to the Committee by local Clubs, has been acknowledged in the booklet. Innovative fund raising projects ensured that the Committee’s finances were never less than sufficient to meet its requirements. One of the most successful ventures in the early years of the Committee was the sponsored family walk, which, in its first year in 1968, raised £513. Subsequent sponsored walks realised £1,929.00 and £1,844.00 respectively. Since 1985, these walks have been replaced by church gate collections.

The volunteers who worked so hard over the years, did so without public recognition or reward. Those who contributed in no small way to the Committee’s success, include many who are no longer with us. Donal Mitchell, Delia Anderson, Eddie Diccox, Enid Donnelly, Barney Doyle, Tom Fleming, Paddy Hubbock, Jim Kelly, Mary Keogh, Jim Maher, Joan Tubridy and Kathleen Cullen are included among that number. This booklet remembers them all and records for posterity, the work of the many volunteers who sought to bring comfort to our neighbours in their declining years.

Friday, October 27, 1995

Leighton Buzzard

I was reminded of the power and universality of music when attending Mass in Leighton Buzzard, an English town in Bedfordshire last weekend. Rev. Thomas Kelly, a native of Ballintubbert, Athy, who died in 1855 left us a huge number of Church hymns, one of which broke pleasantly into life as the small congregation sang Kelly’s “The head that once was crowned with thorns”. The Little Church of the Sacred Heart, tucked neatly and unobtrusively behind a row of terraced houses in the small English town, echoed to words and music which no doubt were often heard in the Kellyite Meeting House in Duke Street during Kelly’s lifetime.

The beautiful narrow boats, moored on the Grand Union Canal, which cuts through Leighton Buzzard and neighbouring Linslade, were another reminder of my home town where the Grand Canal, like its English counterpart, helped to transform a once quiet country town. I have no reason to believe that Rev. Thomas Kelly ever set foot in this small town in Bedfordshire, where last Sunday, some of the locals were offering up their Sabbath tribute using the words of the man who often preached from the pulpit of St. Michael’s Anglican Church in Athy.

Later that day, I stopped off at a local country pub a few miles outside Aylesbury, another town on the Grand Union Canal, immortalised as the home of the “Aylesbury Duck”. The “Wool Pack” was the name of the Inn, which, in the best English Landlord tradition, offered a good substantial meal, as well as liquid refreshment, for the weary traveller. The name Wool Pack is of course a reference to the wool trade, which for centuries was the mainstay of English rural prosperity. The process of converting the wool from fleece into cloth varied little over the centuries. Fleece was graded and packed into wool sacks which were of a regulated size. Each wool sack was suspended from a roof beam and two wool packers were employed to stand into the huge wool sack using their feet to tread down each layer of fleece. When filled, the packers stepped out backwards, sewing up the sacks which was then marked ready to be carted away. The name Wool Pack generally referred to the barn where this activity was carried out. I am reminded that in Wolfhill there is a pub with the name “The Wolf Pack”, perhaps a corruption of the better known Wool Pack, but maybe also a reference to the placename Wolfhill, once a woodland countryside where wolves proliferated in the early middle ages.

Later that day I met an interesting man fast approaching his 82nd year whose late brother was the first Australian Ambassador to Ireland. John Roberthaun, a book publisher now retired, travelled on bicycle from what he referred to as “Londonderry” to Cork in the Summer of 1936. He passed through the Irish midlands on undulating roads with little or no motorised traffic. The colourful scenery made a lasting impression on the young man, who almost 60 years later still recalls the green swarth which cloaked the countryside and the abundant hedgerows which traversed the countryside in what Dick Warner would refer to as “corridors of wilderness”.

Approaching Athy from the Dublin direction he cycled over the railway bridge, where the steam train passed under as it travelled twice daily to and from Dublin with its multi-class passengers. This was the age of the second and third class passengers who shared nothing in common with the first class passengers but the engine which pulled their carriages. A foreign visitor on bicycle was an unusual sight in Athy of the 1930’s and no doubt he aroused the curiosity of the locals as he dismounted at McGrath’s Tea Rooms in Leinster Street, to partake of dinner consisting of bacon, cabbage and potatoes.

Whites Castle in the centre of the town “at the foot of the bridge” and the Town Hall in Emily Square, are the only local buildings John Roberthaun recalled from that short visit so many years ago. The Irish countryside made an indelible impression on the young visitor which the intervening years have not tended to dull. He regrets never having the opportunity to retrace his youthful journey.

Earlier that morning in the same Church where I heard Thomas Kelly’s hymn, the Parish Priest conducted a Mass service which was a rare treat. He communicated with his small congregation in a way which was endearing and captivating, embracing visitors and locals alike in the camaraderie and warmth of a service which was uplifting and appealing. When I spoke to him later to discover that he was an Anglican-born convert or revert to Catholicism, I could not help drawing comparisons with Thomas Kelly, the Anglican, who left the Church of England to found his own religious sect.

I wondered did he ever imagine that 140 years after his own death, his hymns would continue to find a place in Catholic as well as Anglican worship throughout the English speaking world? Last Sunday I recalled an earlier visit to Kelly’s last resting place in Ballintubbert, Co. Laois and acknowledged that no matter where we may travel there is always someone, some place or something to remind us of our own place. Such was my experience last weekend in Leighton Buzzard.

Friday, October 20, 1995

Guide Books on Athy and their Advertisements

Old guide books on Athy give a wealth of information on past business life in the town, and comparisons show how much the town has changed in the intervening years. The Annals of Athy compiled by Michael Malone, a former Chairman of the Urban Council, which appeared in the early 1930’s was the first guide book produced for the town. In it, the Leinster Arms Hotel Company Limited took a full page advertisement which extolled its qualities as a “First Class Family and Commercial Hotel, fully licensed with free garage”. Another full-page advertisement accompanied by a photograph was for Murphy’s Commercial House, a general drapery and boot and shoe warehouse, where furniture, bedding, Irish tweeds and linens were sold. Murphy’s is long gone, as is J. Hutchinson, Electrical Contractor of Leinster Street who advised his customers that he was “an expert in wiring business houses and private dwellings for electric light”. He gave his address in Leinster Street as the “Central Hotel”, which is now the location of Bradbury’s restaurant.

Industrial Vehicles (Ireland) Limited, manufacturers of the “Universal” Tractor Trailer and main Fordson Tractor Dealers, promised service and satisfaction and a guarantee that “repairs to tractors, trailers, lorries and cars would be expeditiously carried out by qualified mechanics.” Further on in the Annals we find the Hibernian Hotel of Leinster Street, owned by Mrs. Lawlor, advertising moderate terms for its centrally situated accommodation “Close to Railway Station, Buses pass the door”. Michael Lawlor of the same family advertised as a Family Grocer, Tea, Wine and Provision Merchant.

All are now gone, as is W.S. Cross, Plumber and Domestic Engineer of Duke Street whose advertisement was next to that of F.J. Darling’s Ladies’ and Gentlemen’s Hairdressing Saloons of 28 Leinster Street, and Jackson Bros. General Merchants and Automobile and Electrical Engineers of 58 Leinster Street. St. John Jeweller, Athy, advertised a full range of wedding and birthday gifts with watches, artistic jewellery, silver broaches and fountain pens while Duthie Large & Co. Ltd. were automobile and agricultural engineers with a Ford Motor Company agency. Others who advertised in the Annals included Thomas L. Flood, a Family Grocer, Spirit and Provision Merchant in the Railway Hotel, Leinster Street who specialised in fifteen-year old whiskey and Purcell Bros. who carried on business in William Street, as well as Market Square, Maryboro. D. & J. Carbery Building Contractors paid particular attention to house repairs and sanitary alterations and had Joinery Works in Athy and Carlow.

These businesses are no longer to be found in Athy and of the advertisers in the Annals over 60 years ago only two businesses survive, Shaw & Sons and McHugh’s Pharmacy.

Many years later, “Athy Official Guide” was published with the approval of Athy Urban District Council. I can only hazard a guess that it was printed in the mid-1950’s, as unfortunately there is no publication date on the booklet itself. Of the businesses which advertised in the Annals 25 years previously only D.P. McHugh, Dispensing Chemist, Duthie Large Ltd. and Shaw & Sons Ltd. were again to be found. Those advertising for the first time included Carlow Kildare Livestock Ltd. which held monthly sales in Athy, Carlow and Bagenalstown, and Michael Cunningham of William Street a Tea, Wine, Spirit and Provision Merchant. W. T. Duthie, Watchmaker and Jeweller offered guaranteed repairs, gramophone records, musical instruments, engagement and wedding rings, crest of Athy souvenir goods and fishing tackle. Located at 30 Leinster Street, the business was established in 1905 and happily is still occupying a commanding position on the principal street of the town. The Kildare County Show was advertised as the event of the year scheduled for the second week of July with the largest Industrial Exhibition outside Dublin and Cork Shows.

O’Rourke-Glynn Stores offered souvenirs of Athy and urged all to “make a habit of visiting our Gents Hairdressing Saloon”. M. O’Connor of Leinster Street advertised Helena Rubinstein Real Silk Face Powder with the claim, “You’ll never be lovelier”. Maxwells Garage Duke Street, Athy, was the simple message of the advertisement which marked the entry of one of the few businesses still operating in the town. Nolan’s General Drapers of Duke Street, specialists in Ladies and Gents outfitting, is now long gone as are Doyle Brothers Ltd., Hardwaremen, Fuel Merchants and Electrical Contractors. The biggest loss to the town was undoubtedly that of the final advertiser in the Guide Book of 40 years ago. Bowaters Irish Wallboard Mills Ltd. informed the readers :

“New plant and machinery at the Mills have sent production figures up and up. Soon the output will reach 50 million square feet of hardboard per year. For house, factory, or farm, Bowater Board has 101 uses and is available from your local stockists.”

Many of us will recall the advertisers of yesteryear, who are no longer part of the business life of Athy. That there has been so many changes in the years since the publication of the Annals of Athy and the later publication of the Official Guide to Athy is not unexpected. The constant movement of people in and out of the town is a perennial experience and the changing names over local businesses must be a reminder to us of the importance of the written record in preserving the history of our own place.

Friday, October 13, 1995


The Great Famine Exhibition continues in the local Town Hall, showing a number of interesting artefacts relating to that terrible time in our history. The mock-up Soup Kitchen has a huge famine pot, which I understand is on loan from the Lullymore Heritage Centre, and is a direct link with the famine of 150 years ago. It prompted me to question my own knowledge and understanding of the hardships endured by the Irish following the arrival of the potato blight from North America in 1845.

Living today in the rich heartland of County Kildare, it is difficult to appreciate the suffering and deprivation endured by those unfortunate people whose main source of food was the potato. One searches in vain through the history books for any reference to famine in Athy and South Kildare. When I attended the local Christian Brothers School my knowledge of the Great Famine was confined to the dreadful happenings in Skibbereen, Schull and West Cork and in the region of Bangor Erris, Co. Mayo. Thousands of men, women and children died of starvation, disease or fever in the West of Ireland and our history books recounted in a detached but factual way the awful tragedies which visited those far-flung corners of our island.

The famine details and descriptions I read in my school days failed to arouse any deep-seated response largely because they related to people who were so far removed from my own area. My reaction, or lack or it, was no doubt typical of what occurs today when one reads of famine on another Continent. The horror of the moment eludes us and prompts no more than a temporary blimp on our conscience.

What a surprise therefore awaited me when I was asked to write a piece for a forthcoming publication on the Great Famine in County Kildare. My research produced results which prompted an immediate re-assessment of the effects of the Famine of 150 years ago on Athy and the surrounding countryside.

I was previously aware, as we all had been, of the opening of a Workhouse in the town of Athy in 1844. It has always been presumed that the Workhouse had met the demands of the poor and hungry of the locality, thereby minimising local distress and hardship during the famine. Nothing had come down to us in folk memory which would give us any idea of the nature and extent of the famine relief measures in South Kildare.

To find that 1,205 poor persons died in the local Workhouse during the Famine years and another 1,250 or so either died or left Athy in the same period, was unwelcome confirmation that our townspeople had suffered great hardships during the famine. However, the loss of life was considerably less in South Kildare than in the rural areas on the Western seaboard where there was a greater dependency on the potato crop.

Another famine fact gleaned from my research, showed that in the Athy Electoral Area, over 3,000 people received food each day from the local Soup Kitchen. The television images of Famine Relief work in Rwanda and elsewhere can help us to visualise the scenes on the streets of Athy as people gathered for the daily ration of bread and soup. How sad it is to relate that in the Ballyadams area, almost 100% of the population had recourse to the local Soup Kitchen for their daily sustenance.

Why had so much local hardship endured during the years of the Great Famine escaped our notice when we studied that period of Irish history? Why did we not know that the inmates in the local Workhouse increased at such a rate that two auxiliary Workhouses had to be opened in Barrack Street and Canal Side to accommodate the starving, helpless poor of the area? Why did we not know of the young girls from our area sent from Athy Workhouse to Australia in 1849 in a futile attempt to reduce the number of children in the local Workhouse?

The Great Famine is part of our troubled past as much as it is of those towns in the west of Ireland, where the human losses were numerically far greater than ours. The legacy of the Famine was overlooked and pushed from the collective memory in South Kildare, almost as if there was a hurried rush to bury an unpleasant experience. The full facts surrounding those dreadful times may never be fully known, but we have a responsibility to acknowledge our past, no matter how unpleasant it may be.

Perhaps it is now time for us to remember those who faced into the famine of 1845 and the succeeding years without hope, and who succumbed before the dreaded potato blight had departed. It would be an appropriate act of remembrance to commemorate in stone our famine dead with a suitable memorial in the graveyard attached to the former Workhouse. I wonder if the Eastern Health Board and the Town Council might take up the suggestion so that our once hidden past may not be entirely forgotten.

Friday, October 6, 1995

Rheban Castle

A poem by the Bard Ferganin McKeogh celebrates the predatory excursion of Shaun O’Byrne, of Glenmalure in the 16th century when he attacked the “royal town of Caislean Rheban and gained much treasure which spread his fame”. Today, all that remains of this once important town are the fragmentary remains of Rheban Castle guarding the Ford on the Barrow near Athy as it has for many centuries. The ford was an important route not only in the medieval period but also in prehistoric times as is shown by the quantity and variety of stone axes and other prehistoric objects recovered from this crossing point during the Barrow drainage scheme in the 1920’s. From the 13th century onwards the town and castle of Rheban formed an important link in the defence of the developing county of Kildare. In 1288, the Justiciar who was the King’s representative in Ireland, spent four days in Rheban supervising the construction of defences in this dangerous and volatile border area of the country.

The castle was an important element of this defence and the earliest reference to it is from 1297 when the unfortunate Geoffrey Tauel was taken from his home near the castle and killed by three of the O’Mores of Leix.

This incident is an indication of the lawlessness prevalent in the area in the year in which Kildare was established as a county by King Edward I. Incidentally I hope that Kildare County Council will ensure that the 700th anniversary of the Lilywhite county will be suitably commemorated in two years’ time.

In 1325 Lysagh O’More captured eight castles in the area of Kildare and Laois, including Dunamaise and Rheban. Thereafter little is know of Rheban town or the castle until the 16th century when it was again subject to violent attacks by the O’Mores.

A letter to Thomas Cromwell, the Lord Privy Seal, in 1536, described both the castles of Rheban and Woodstock as “laid waste” and recommended their re-occupation and repair.

From the 13th century until the early 17th century, the castle was in the possession of the de St. Michael family, who are credited with the construction of Woodstock Castle in Athy and also the Priory of the Crouched Friars in the St. John’s area of the town.

The fortunes of the de St. Michael family waned as those of the powerful Fitzgerald family increased. Their sole property by the middle of the 16th century was the castle at Rheban.

In the 16th century, it was leased by Walter de St. Michael to Captain Thomas Lee, an English settler, for a period of 21 years. Lee was executed in 1598 for co-operating with the O’Mores of Leix in opposing the English King.

Walter de St. Michael sought the return of the lands and castle which had been confiscated by the Crown while Sir Robert Lee, the brother of Thomas Lee, petitioned to have them kept within his family. His petition was successful and in 1612 his relation, Sir Henry Lee, was in possession of Rheban Castle.

The numerous references to the castle in the 13th century do not appear to refer to the structure surviving at the site today.

The earlier castle was probably constructed from timber, a common material in use for the building of castles at the beginning of the 13th century. The earliest extant structure dates from the 15th century and consists of a pair of barrel vaults which probably supported two storeys which are now destroyed. The base of the walls of this structure were protected by a battered face and by a series of arrow loops.

The destruction and damage to the castle by the O’Mores in 1537 was made good and a large impressive three-storey structure with mullioned windows was added to the south of the then existing building. It represented the transformation of the castle from a purely defensive structure to a more comfortable residence, akin to an early country house.

However, measures for defence were still taken with the addition of a small but lofty courtyard with special loops to allow the occupants to defend the castle. After 1600 the Rheban area enjoyed an era of relative calm until the unrest caused by the competing Royalist and Cromwellian armies in the 1640’s.

During that conflict Rheban Castle, like Athy town, was garrisoned by Government troops to protect the passes into Leix. Sir Arthur Savage, a distinguished commander in Queen Elizabeth’s time and Governor of Connacht had charge of the garrison in Rheban Castle.

Despite his best efforts, the castle was burnt by the Irish Rebels in 1641. Repaired, it was garrisoned again this time under Captain Flowers who was no more successful in protecting it against the Confederates to whom he surrendered Rheban in 1646.

By the time the English Parliamentary Forces had gained control over the country in the summer
of 1652, Rheban Castle and Woodstock Castle in Athy were in ruins and were never again to be occupied. Since that time the castle has fallen into ruin. The town of Rheban itself has long disappeared and the castle is the only remains of the flourishing settlement which once existed on the banks of the River Barrow.

Friday, September 29, 1995

Local Advertisements of 1939

I came across four torn pages of the Nationalist and Leinster Times for the 11th of March 1939 last week. Fifty six years have passed since they came off the press but still they managed to inform and delight with the minutiae of Irish provincial life which unfolded as I perused the now yellowing pages.

Advertisements in those days had none of the glitzy glamour of today and relied on straight- forward appeals to the public, as in the following advertisement which appeared for Shaw’s of Athy, Maryborough and Mountmellick :


The advertisement continued:

“This may sound a sweeping assertion but our wide experience
of dressing men correctly has led us to the conclusion
that only through hand craftsmanship and careful measuring
can real smartness be achieved.”

Suits to measure were to be had from 50 shillings and the men planning to attend the Cinderella Dance in the local Town Hall advertised for Thursday 16th March would have been well advised to wear Shaws’ latest pattern. Admission to the dance was 2/6, tax 3d, with music by Alex Kelly and his Revellers Band.

If the suit was not up to cavorting around the Town Hall, then you had the option of going to the local cinema. Athy Picture Palace in Offaly Street had three shows on Sundays, a matinee at 3.00 o’clock and further shows at 6.15 p.m. and 8.45 p.m. The double feature programme advertised for the following Sunday was “St. Martin’s Lane” starring Charles Laughton and “Oh Boy” featuring Albert Burdon and Mary Lawson. The main feature film was described as “a romantic comedy with pathos set against the hurrying and scurrying background of the world’s greatest city, London’s Theatre Land with all its music, spectacle, hopes and heartbreaks.” The programme was repeated at 8.30 p.m. on Monday with a change of programme for Tuesday and Wednesday nights when “Break The News” with James Knight was on offer. On Thursday and Friday “The Emperor’s Candle Stick” came to town with a matinee on Friday afternoon. There was no mention of any programme for Saturday night, which might indicate the public’s preference for a more liquid form of pleasure on that night.

In case the local Picture Palace was not to your liking, you could always cycle out to Castledermot where the Castle Cinema was scheduled to open on St. Patrick’s Day 1939 with Raymond Navarro in “The Sheik Steps Out”. The Abbey Pavilion, we were told in a separate news item, had been enlarged and remodelled as a cinema in which there was comfortable seating for about 500. Admission prices for Athy’s Picture Palace were not stated, but in Castledermot they ranged from 1/4 to 1/8, with childrens Matinee prices at 4d. and 8d.

The election of Pope Pius XII was the subject of the papers Editorial, in which reference was made to the new breed of absolute nationalism then prevalent in Germany. The unfortunate Editor then unburdened himself of the following :

“Most of the howling about the treatment of German Jews is dishonest propaganda and those nations that now shriek loudest for papal denunciation of all Herr Hitler’s works and pomps were those same nations that rigidly excluded the Pope and his representatives from the infamous Peace Conference of Versailles.”

“Robert O’Neil” was the title of a play billed for the Town Hall, Athy on St. Patrick’s Night. The cast was to include Ernie and Nicholas Glynn, May Glynn, Jack Kelly of William Street, John Murphy of Russelstown, John Watchorn of Fortbarrington, Mary Ward of Duke Street and some local children.

The same paper announced that Athy man Patrick O’Rourke, saddler and harness maker, Stanhope Street, had been favoured with an order from the Land Commission for the supply of all harness and saddlery equipment for the new colonies set up in North Kildare and Westmeath for migrants from the Donegal Gaeltacht.

Confirmation outfits for boys and girls were advertised by Nolans of Mountrath, Athy and Maryborough, with boys suits ranging in price from 8/11d for a tweed suit in brown herring bone cloth to 13/6d for a heavy navy suit with fancy stripe. Boys shirts were to be had for 1/3d each while a pair of rubber-soled shoes were 8/11d with heavy leather shoes priced at 13/11d.

The local Urban Council agreed to send to the Gardai a letter of complaint received from Mrs. Meehan, Chemist of Emily Square, in which she brought to their attention “the vandalism that goes on here in the Square. On two occasions quite recently I had very serious damage done to my premises. The windows were smashed by stones and the actual woodwork outside kicked down through sheer hooliganism.”

The pages of the local newspaper just before the outbreak of World War II clearly demonstrates, how, in some ways at least, some things never change in Athy.

Friday, September 22, 1995

Viking Battle Plans and Gaelic Football!

An improbable juxtaposition of medieval battles and contemporary contests of a less warlike nature crowd in on my mind this week. I am reminded that down through the generations, men, and to a lesser extent women, have sought to impose their will and might on their opponents, and not always in a friendly or cordial manner.

What reminded me of this was, firstly, a meeting in the Town Hall last week when I listened to James Cavanagh, Chairman of the Clans of Ireland, eloquently put the case for a Viking battle reenactment in Athy next year. James apparently has been involved in this form of pageantry for a number of years and lives in Cloney.

Later in the week, I attended another form of sometimes blood-curdling physical activity, which for want of a better name, we commonly refer to as Gaelic Football. In my younger days I played football for many years, but somehow it never seemed then to have taken on the barely-controlled frenzy which marks the game today. The rushed ebb and flow of the game always accompanied by hard physical contact speaks volumes for the toughened nature of those who participate today. In Sunday’s football game between Athy and Clane each player’s eyes and face reflected the fearful tension which must have marked the faces of the ancient warriors engaged in one or other of the battles which James Cavanagh hopes to recreate in South Kildare.

I suppose in a way the comparison is far fetched, but really it is difficult not to make connections between the warring troops of an earlier age and the highly-trained sportsmen of today involved in a battle to overcome a determined and well-prepared opponent.

Athy’s team on Sunday afternoon in Newbridge savoured for a short time the glory which is the prize for those who strive to succeed. The pleasure of anticipation does not always result in the reality of success, but, as in Athy’s case, is grasped with the belief that past success has brought. The glory was in reaching the final, the ultimate prize was not to be, and in failing, the dream was shattered and pride was dented.

The young players on the team, of which there were many, can be justifiably proud of their success this year. Remember, it is eight years since Athy last reached the final and to do so with players who are yet to mature and who are still far from their full potential, was an achievement worthy of celebration.

If one left Newbridge on Sunday heavy hearted after the events of the afternoon, the same could not be said for those who attended the Town Hall earlier in the week. There we heard of a Viking battle using the as yet uncategorised Dunrally Fort as a staging point for an attack on Athy. A weekend of revelry will no doubt enliven a summer weekend next year and the opportunity of participating is open everyone.

I thought that a Viking battle might be inappropriate for Athy, given the absence of a Viking influence in the area, notwithstanding the recent claims in relation to Dunrally Fort. However, such considerations are mere triflings when viewed against the magnificent and dramatic backdrop which would be provided by a Viking ship slipping into Athy to disembark its marauding hordes on the unsuspecting natives. Almost like the Clane forwards on Sunday as they plundered score after score, the Viking raiders could be expected to pillage the settlers’ town on the River Barrow on a grand scale.

It would not be the first time that such happenings took place here. Was it not a common enough occurrence in the 13th century for the O’Mores of Leix to attack the new village of Athy, and did they not succeed in burning the village on at least four occasions during those early years? Further back in time, the Ford on the River Barrow was the scene of a famous battle between the Munster men and the Leinster men when Ae, the son of a Munster Chieftain, was killed, giving to the Ford a name which is recalled in the Anglicised placename, Athy, and in the language of the Gael, Ath Í, meaning the Ford of Ae.

We are rich in battle lore here in Athy, for we can read of an 11th century encounter just a few years before the Anglo Normans founded the town, when the Dalcassions returning from the Battle of Clontarf faced up to the Tribe of Fiacha. You know, there is a wealth of historical material to chose from, if one wanted to recreate a battle anchored in our local history.

James Cavanagh’s idea is an excellent one and worthy of support from anyone who has either an interest in physical exercise, local history or dreams of the chance of putting his next-door-neighbour to the sword.

As for the footballers, they will have other opportunities to prove their worth, and I am confident that with a little more experience and benefiting from the rewards of commitment and dedication to their sport, they will achieve the ultimate prize of a County Championship before too many years have passed.

Battles and contests are fought to be won and lost. It is the losing which sharpens our focus for the future and serves to replenish our desire to achieve that which we have lost. Athy should not be disheartened by the lack of success on the football field, and in the same way, James Cavanagh should not be deflected from putting into operation his plans for next year, no matter what difficulties might be presented.

Friday, September 15, 1995

St. Brigid's Pipe Band Athy

A mystery, which despite my best efforts until now remained unresolved, was unravelled following a recent telephone call. It relayed the message that an English visitor wanted to present a photograph to the local Museum Society. The generous donor called on me, but he was not English. Jim Moran, now 88 years of age, but with the memory and agility of a 50 year old, lives in Luton, England, far from Athy where he was born and grew up.

The photograph he brought to me was one which I had previously seen and indeed a copy of which had been on display in the Museum Room some years ago. It showed the members of a pipe band with two young girls in Celtic costumes which I had previously believed was an early photograph of Kilberry Pipe Band. That identification was made on the basis that the musicians included Willie Hutchinson, who had played for some years with the Kilberry Band. However, the welcome visitor of a few weeks ago was to provide the evidence which would finally identify not only the band, but also its entire membership.

The photograph was of St. Brigid’s Pipe Band, Athy, taken in 1919 in the field at the rear of the Malt House in Rathstewart, to mark the band’s success at a feis in Maryborough, now Portlaoise. Jim Moran was a member of that band and with Willie Hutchinson, they are today the only survivors of the men and women captured on film that day.

St. Brigid’s Pipe Band was formed in Athy some time before World War I. It was in existence before the Churchtown Pipe Band and long before the Kilberry Pipe Band which I gather was only formed with the break up of the local L.S.F. Band following World War II. However, Kilberry can lay claim to an earlier musical heritage with a Fife and Drum Band which was based in the Coke in the 1880’s.

In its early years, St. Brigid’s Pipe Band had its band room in the premises of the Ancient Order of Hibernians, then located in Duke Street. When the Garda Siochana Barracks was opened in the same premises the bandroom had to be vacated, and St. Brigid’s Pipe Band moved out to the “Foxhole”, a small thatched-house at Killart, then owned by band member John Tierney of Belview. When this thatched house was mysteriously burnt down, the band practised for a time in Salisbury House, owned by Pat Tierney a brother of John’s. The band members also had use of a field at the rear of the Malt House in Rathstewart, now Bachelor’s factory, where the 1919 photograph was taken.

Jim Moran joined the band in 1917 and took pipe lessons from the Pipe Major William Spittal of Kilcrow. Other young fellows who joined the band around the same time included Willie Hutchinson of Bert, Bill Carbery of Athy, a brother of the legendary Tom Carbery, and John McEvoy of Duke Street. Bill Carbery later emigrated to America and on his return to Ireland was tragically killed during building works at Poulaphoca.

Other members of the band included George Bailey of Oldcourt who later emigrated to Canada, John Dobbyn of Cloney Castle who joined the Gardai and his brother Dan who emigrated to London where he was a caretaker in Richmond Park. Ber Kane of Kilberry worked as a ganger for many years with Kildare County Council and Peter Sexton, also of Kilberry, later went to work in Carlow. John Tierney of Belview played the big drums, while the organiser of the band was John Bailey, publican of Stanhope Street. John had spent many years in America and had returned to Athy and to the public house which is now owned by Michael Noonan. John Spittal of Kilcrow was Pipe Major and leader of the band and he also emigrated to America. Another member was John Farrell of Tomard who later joined the Irish Army.

Jim Moran was the youngest member of St. Brigid’s Pipe Band and recalls with remarkable clarity the various feiseanna in which the band participated during the summer piping season. Hannon’s Mills were then operating at Ardreigh and Duke Street, and the company’s lorry was always made available to transport the band members around the midlands. John Davis of Blackparks was the driver of the solid wheeled truck which delivered flour on weekdays and on Sundays transported St. Brigid’s Pipe Band to the various Feis venues. The photograph of the band in 1919 includes two young girls, one of whom has been identified as the late Nora Dooley. The second young girl Jim remembers as Baby Daughn, whose father had a bicycle shop in Duke Street. The band was active up to 1924 or thereabouts, and went out of existence when many of its members emigrated. The loss of the Pipe Major John Spittal who emigrated to America was a particularly telling blow for the young band and his departure hastened the end of the Athy pipers.

Today only Willie Hutchinson and Jim Moran, now both well advanced in years, are the sole survivors of that group of men who 76 years ago were photographed standing proudly with bagpipes in hand in the field at the rear of Rathstewart Malt House.

Friday, September 8, 1995

Lower St. Josephs Terrace 1935

The Slum Clearance Schemes of the early 1930’s enabled Athy Urban District Council to rid the town of many of the unhealthy lanes and courts which had been home to local families for generations past. New houses were erected in St. Joseph’s Terrace to accommodate families from Mount Hawkins and The Gulch and before long those families bonded together to form the strong close-knit community which still exists today.

Let us look at the families who lived in Lower St. Joseph’s Terrace in 1935.

No. 1 - Mick Keogh and family. Mick worked for the Duke of Leinster’s Agent who had an office in what is now the Old Folks House in Leinster Street.
No. 2 - Mrs. Leonard and family.
No. 3 - Annie “Ba” Alcock and her brother Tommy “Tut” Alcock.
No. 4 - Jim “Scallop” O’Neill, his wife, daughter Gertie and son Joe. “Scallop” was a fine exponent of the art of basket making.
No. 5 - Paddy O’Neill, son of Scallop, and family. Paddy worked in Carbery’s Builders and at one stage had a small shop in his house. Paddy died in Manchester last week.
No. 6 - Jenny Kavanagh and her two brothers. All later emigrated to England.
No. 7 - Johnny and Dora Johnson and family. Johnny worked in the sandpit at Gallowshill with his two sons. Two daughters, Sheila and Irene are married and living in Athy.
No. 8 - The Kavanagh family, including John and Maggie, both of whom died in recent times. Their father was batman to John Vincent Holland, who won the Victoria Cross in World War I. His son Isaac joined the Irish Guards.
No. 9 - Johnny and Mag Davis and family. Johnny, who was in the English Army, had four sons and two daughters.
No. 10 - Mrs. Pender and her children Peg, Molly and Tom.
No. 11 - “Jacksie” and Mary Kelly and family, then consisting of Jim, later a postman, Paddy, Mick and Christy. The Kellys suffered the loss of three sons in World War I.
No. 12 - Patsy and Kathleen Delahunt and family. Patsy, a postman, served in World War I as did his brother Jack and both were fortunate to survive. Their young son Paddy died at 13 years of age. The other six members of the family are alive and well today.
No. 13 - Mrs. Kavanagh and her two daughters. One daughter married a Navy man while Mary died two years ago in England.
No. 14 - Nell Keogh with Chevit and Johnny Doyle. Johnny later emigrated to England and Chevit, a former Urban Councillor and a good footballer in his day, died some years ago.
No. 15 - Neddy and Kate Rainsford. Their son, Michael, is now living in Ballylinan having returned from abroad.
No. 16 - Johnny Rainsford, his wife and family. Their daughter Mag is still in the house while another daughter was married to “Hocker” Mulhall, their next door neighbour. The Rainsford brothers, Neddy and Johnny, worked on the bog harvesting turf, which they sold in Athy and surrounding area.
No. 17 - Hocker Mulhall, a barber in Leinster Street and his family. Interestingly enough, their son Jim, who worked for years in Athy, has again returned to South Kildare, as has his sister Mary who had lived in England for many years. Their sister Eileen is married to Eddie Doyle, who lives in the Churchtown area.
No. 18 - “Messcock” Kelly, a cheerful man noted for whistling to his own accompaniment as he beat his fingers on the bottom of a milk can while walking to the dairy. The widow of his son Christy now lives in the house.
No. 19 - The Chanders brothers.
No. 20 - “Brudge” Dunne, her husband and family. Their children included Jim, Jack, later of Meeting Lane, Christy, fondly known as “Bluebeard”, and two daughters one of whom, Nan, married Jim Kelly, postman. The only one of the Dunne lads still alive is Dick who lives in Dublin.

Recording the names of persons who lived in an area 60 years previously is always a hazardous venture, and inaccuracies or omissions can be expected for any such inaccuracies or omissions in the above list, I can only ask my readers indulgence.

Friday, August 25, 1995

Patrick Maher Kilrush

One of the prime movers in establishing a Convent of Mercy in Athy was Patrick Maher who lived at Kilrush House, a few miles on the Dublin side of Athy. Maher, with Miss Anna Goold of Stanhope Place, and the Fitzgerald family of Geraldine House, provided substantial financial backing to support the weekly collection made in the town for the proposed convent. Miss Goold was later to donate to the Diocese the house now occupied by the Parish Priest, while Colonel Fitzgerald of Geraldine at his own expense had built in 1824 a schoolhouse for the children of Athy at the north east corner of the present parish church.

Patrick Maher was the son of Patrick and Catherine Maher, who had moved to Kilrush, Co. Kildare from Donore, Co. Carlow in the last decade of the eighteenth century. As wealthy Catholic farmers, the Mahers were subjected, as were their neighbours, to harassment and threats during the period of the 1798 rebellion. When martial law was declared, little protection was afforded to local Catholic farmers against the excesses of the military and yeomanry, who under the pretext of searching for arms, looted whatever they could seize and carry away. On several occasions, the entire Maher family were obliged to leave their home at night and shelter in a nearby sand-pit, where they believed themselves safe from the marauding yeomanry.

Patrick Maher Senior died in 1808, following a horse riding accident while travelling to the fair in Kilcullen. That same year his son James, who had been attending the Quaker school in Ballytore, entered Carlow College. He later travelled to Rome, where he studied for a number of years. In a letter to his brother William, then living at Burtown, Co. Kildare, James, writing from London on the 1st of July 1817 recalled how he had called into a shop in London and “the shopkeeper civilly asked me how I was……. He made me dine with him, he is a son to Dan Moore of Athy”.

Fr. James Maher was later to return to Ireland, where he acted as secretary to that most famous of Irish Bishops, Dr. James Doyle, Bishop of Kildare and Leighlin, commonly known as J.K.L. Fr. Maher, who ended his days as Parish Priest of Carlow Graigue, was a popular orator, believed to be second only to the great Daniel O’Connell, and as a controversialist was said to have no equal in the Irish Church of his day. His sister married Hugh Cullen who lived in Prospect, Co. Kildare and their son Paul was destined to become the first Cardinal of the Irish Church. Like his cousins, the Mahers of Kilrush, Paul Cullen also attended the Quaker school in Ballytore, before embarking on his religious studies.

Patrick Maher succeeded his father and namesake as owner of the lands at Kilrush, and proved over the years to be a generous benefactor of the Catholic Church in South Kildare. Apart from his involvement in financing the construction of the Convent of Mercy, he also donated substantial sums of money, when in 1859, Greenhills House, Athy was handed over by the Sisters of Mercy for use as a monastery by the Christian Brothers. He remained throughout his lifetime, generous to both the Convent of Mercy and the Christian Brothers in Athy, and in 1861, he agreed to pay £30 annually for a period of two years towards the maintenance of a third teaching Christian Brother in the local school. As a result Hugh Francis Sweeney, a novice, joined the Monastery in Athy, some months after the school had opened on the 19th of August 1861, to augment the staff, which had difficulty in coping with the ever increasing pupil numbers.

The Convent of Mercy, which opened in Athy in 1851, was initially a branch house of Baggot Street Convent of Mercy, Dublin, which was the headquarters of the Sisters of Mercy. Some years later, Athy Convent became a branch house of Carlow, it being geographically more convenient for that purpose. As a result, Sr. Mary Zavier and Sr. Mary Teresa Maher who was a daughter of Patrick Maher of Kilrush were sent to Athy from Carlow Convent. On the 26th of July 1858 Athy Convent became a foundation in its own right, and the first Superioress appointed was Sr. Mary Teresa Maher, formerly of Kilrush, and first cousin of the then Archbishop of Dublin, Dr. Paul Cullen. Sr. Mary Teresa had initially entered the Convent of Mercy in Carlow with two other members of her family, who when professed, took the name Sr. Cecilia and Sr. Michael. Sr. Cecilia remained in Carlow while Sr. Michael later transferred to the Sisters of Mercy Convent in Callan.

Patrick Maher and his brother Rev. James Maher, were bitterly opposed to the tithe system, which required all farming households to make an annual contribution to the upkeep of the Church of England. When examined before a Parliamentary Committee set up by the House of Commons, Rev. James Maher vigorously justified the cause of passive resistance which local farmers had resolved to pursue in opposition to the tithing system. Indeed Fr. Maher was one of the strongest voices raised in protest when the “Tithe War”, as it was known, first broke out in Graiguenamangh, following the seizure by tithe proctors of cattle owned by a local priest, Fr. Martin Doyle. Patrick Maher of Kilrush consistently refused to pay tithes, and consequently was thrown into prison on no less than four occasions for non-payment. On each occasion his property was seized by the local Sheriff and his goods and chattels auctioned off to ensure payment. The Tithe War eventually ended in 1838 with the passing of the Tithe Commutation Act which made the head landlord responsible for tithes, which then became a rent charge payable twice yearly.

A plaque testifying to the generosity of Patrick Maher of Kilrush House, who died in 1863, is to be found in the small chapel attached to the Convent of Mercy, Athy but apart from that, and the many references to his generosity noted in the Annals of the Sisters of Mercy, Patrick Maher and the Maher family of Kilrush, have been largely overlooked by history.

Friday, August 18, 1995

John O'Donovan's Survey Letters from Athy

John O’Donovan, the Irish scholar and antiquarian, visited Athy in November 1837, and remained in the town for ten days from the 17th of the month. Employed in the historical department of the Ordnance Survey of Ireland, he was carrying out research into local placenames and collecting historical material. O’Donovan’s previous work on Irish manuscripts in the Irish Record Office gave him a particularly good insight into Irish history, genealogy and Irish topography and not surprisingly, the same ancient Irish manuscripts were used extensively by him as he sought to explain the meaning of local placenames. The results of his work for the Ordnance Survey between 1829 and 1842 were later published as the Ordnance Survey Letters. Fr. Michael O’Flanagan, the Republican Catholic Priest, edited and prepared the volumes for publication between 1924 and 1932. The two volumes relating to County Kildare printed as one, and entitled “Letters containing information relative to the Antiquities of the County of Kildare collected during the progress of the Ordnance Survey in 1837”, were published in 1930.

O’Donovan, who was to publish his translation of the Annals of the Four Masters between 1848 and 1851, delved into the early history of Athy during his stay in the town. Athy, he wrote, “was referred to in ancient times as the Ford on the River Barrow” and he proceeded to quote from Keating’s History of Ireland and the Annals of Clonmacnoise, of accounts of the second century battle at the Ford between the Munster men and the Leinster men. This was to give the name Áth Ae, translated as the Ford of Ae, to the battle site. The ancient “Leabhar Oiris of the Dal Cais” was also quoted by O’Donovan when explaining the early history of Athy. There he found references to a battle on the Ford of Ae between the Dalcassians and the men of Desmond as they journeyed home from the Battle of Clontarf in 1014.

Writing from Athy on the 26th of November 1837 John O’Donovan noted “this weather is very unfavourable to our researches”. Nevertheless he continued his work in the area writing on the 27th of November, “I could find no antiquarian remains in Athy but the two old Parish Churches of St. Michael’s and St. John’s, the Castle of Woodstock and the South East Gate”. The St. Michael’s Church referred to by O’Donovan is the medieval church located in the cemetery on the Dublin Road. It is believed to be of fourteenth century origin, and may represent the first parish church in the Anglo Norman town of Athy. When built, it was located outside the walls of the medieval village, while inside those walls were to be found the monasteries of St. Dominic and what O’Donovan referred to as the parish church of St. John’s. In fact St. John’s was the name of the Trinitarian monastery which was built in the early part of the thirteenth century in close proximity to Woodstock Castle. St. John’s cemetery may have been part of that monastery, but a detailed archaeological survey of the area is our only hope of ever determining the nature and extent of the monastery buildings which had fallen vacant even before the dissolution of the Irish monasteries in 1540.

The castle of Woodstock still stands, a stark lonely reminder of the years of neglect which have allowed many of its important features to be vandalised or removed from the site. Maybe the Town Council could show a little urgency in putting in place its plans for the preservation of what’s left of Woodstock Castle, so that future restoration workers will have something worthwhile to work on.

Already gone is the South East Gate which O’Donovan noted in 1837. It was to fall prey to the Town Council of 1860, which had the gate removed following an accident involving the local Church of England Rector, Rev. Frederick Trench of Kilmoroney. Commonly known as Preston’s Gate, it was located at the point where Offaly Street and Emily Row meet. The immediate area was called Preston’s Gate, and as an address it is noted on at least one headstone in St. Michael’s cemetery.

John O’Donovan was brother-in-law of Eugene O’Curry, himself an Irish scholar, famous for his translations of ancient Irish texts and the first Professor of Irish History and Archaeology in the Catholic University of Ireland. O’Donovan and O’Curry co-founded the Irish Archaeological Society in 1840.

O’Donovan, the greatest historical topographer that Ireland ever produced, died in Dublin on 9th December 1861. An unusual but as yet unverified claim relating to O’Donovan is to be found in “Three Hills” by Eoin Ua Modha published in 1920. The small booklet contains what the author in his introduction claimed “are the mere musings of an idler” who delved into local history as viewed from the top of three hills - Ossory, Leix and Lancashire. From the top of the hill of Laois, Moore described how “among those trees rises Heath House where John O’Donovan, the Irish scholar and topographer, then a young man of 24, spent several months in 1830 and was first induced to study the Irish Annals”.

Whatever the truth of this claim, students of Irish topography, history and genealogy owe an enormous debt to John O’Donovan whose works have become standard texts for the study of the history and language of the ancient Irish.