Friday, February 24, 1995

Athy Workhouse and the Great Famine

This year marks the 150th Anniversary of the onset of the Great Famine which ravaged our country over a four year period. As school children all of us learned of the hardships and casualties suffered by the Irish people as a result of the failure of the potato crop and what we understood was the inadequate response of the Government of the day.

The history books made no reference to the effects of the famine in Co. Kildare and this might lead us to believe that the famine was centred in the West and South of Ireland only. This was not so as evidenced from the limited contemporary records which are still available to us. The Workhouse in Athy which opened on the 9th of January, 1844 was built to accommodate 360 adults and 240 children. By the 7th of October, 1845 the inmates totalled 390 men, women and children and within two months as the potato famine worsened that number had increased to 615. It was always believed that Athy was spared the worst excesses of the famine but a local constabulary report of 18th of September, 1846 noted that "the inhabitants of Athy have pawned everything and cannot bear it much longer."

On the 26th of December, 1846 the number of Workhouse inmates in Athy totalled 732 of which 65 persons were in the Infirmary and 482 were children under 15 years of age. The Workhouse returns for the four months to the 1st of May, 1847 show that 174 inmates had died in the Workhouse in that period. Local tradition relates that "priseach" which grew in the fields in the present Ashville area provided a source of nourishment for the hungry townspeople during the famine. The Irish Relief Association provided a boiler for a soup kitchen operated in the town by the Local Church of Ireland Curate Rev. Thomas Jameson. Indian meal was imported from America through Cork Harbour and food depots were established throughout the country in areas accessible by Canal. Athy was the location of one such depot which was opened on 1 June, 1847.

Meal was supplied to individuals in 2lb. bags consisting of a mix of one quarter oatmeal and three quarters Indian meal. The local relief committee was not allowed to give out meal free of charge unless the Workhouse was full in keeping with the provisions of the Poor Relief Act. This Act dictated that relief was available only for inmates of the Workhouses.

Despite the availability of the Soup Kitchen in Athy and the reluctance of local men and women to enter the Workhouse the number of Workhouse inmates showed a substantial increase in the final year of the famine period. In the first week of 1849 the number of registered inmates was 1,399 and during that week 13 poor people died in the Workhouse.

The overcrowding in the Poorhouse which was built to accommodate 600 persons was alleviated by the opening of two auxiliary workhouses in Athy. One was located in Barrack Street occupying a row of five terraced houses immediately adjoining the former residence of the local Catholic Curate. A store belonging to the Grand Canal Company was used as the second auxiliary Workhouse.

A substantial number of the Workhouse children under fifteen years of age were orphans or abandoned by parents who could no longer feed them. As they were an unwelcome expense on the rate payers of South Kildare the Board of Guardians which who controlled the Athy Workhouse welcomed the Orphan Emigration Scheme launched in March 1848. This Scheme provided for the free transportation to Australia of girls between the ages of 14 and 18 years who were inmates of Irish Workhouses.

We have an account of 20 young girls who were sent out from the Athy Workhouse to Australia in February 1849 as part of the Orphan Emigration Scheme. A meeting was held in Narraghmore School prior to the girls being transported to Australia where it was explained by a member of the Athy Board of Guardians that a number of families from the Narraghmore area were inmates in Athy Workhouse for the previous two or three years. The terms of the Orphan Emigration Scheme were outlined as a result of which it was agreed to finance the operation of the scheme in relation to the Narraghmore inmates.

History is silent as to what happened to those local girls when they arrived in Australia nearly 150 years ago.

Friday, February 17, 1995

Jack McKenna

He was born on the 27th of January, 1908. A railway man’s child he was to spend his entire working life on the Irish railways. Now long retired and living in Castledermot Jack MacKenna looks back on a life full of incidents and memories that flood the mind’s eye.

His father Tom MacKenna who was a foreman on the Great Southern and Western Railway, was stationed at Ballybrophy when Jack was born. Within months the family moved to Carlow but tragedy struck when Jack’s mother died when he was about eight months old. Tom MacKenna and his four young children moved to Athy where Tom was to remain for the rest of his long life. With the extension of the railway to the Wolfhill collieries in 1918 a railway man’s cottage was built at the Carlow road crossing gates and it was here that the MacKenna family lived for many years.

While attending the Christian Brothers School in Athy Jack joined Fianna Eireann, the youth group within the Irish Republican Movement. Other members at that time included Peter Toomey of Meeting Lane, Andy and Mick Lawler of Leinster Street, George and Larry Heffernan and Denis Candy. Tom Maher of Stanhope Street was the drill master and the young boys used a field in the area of the present St. Joseph’s Terrace for drilling. Paddy Gibbons of Barrack Street was in overall charge.

During the War of Independence Jack succeeded in spiriting away the gun of a Black and Tan who was pushed through the window of Jacksons shop in Leinster Street. This gun was later handed over to the local volunteers resulting in the award of an IRA medal in later years to Jack MacKenna, surely one of the youngest such recipients.

Jack recalls the part played by the Lambe brothers of William Street and the O’Rourke brothers of Canal Side in the War of Independence. He regards Frank Lambe as an outstanding Local leader. Frank and his brother Peter were later to emigrate to America. Leo Davis and John Hayden were two other men who played a prominent part in the War of Independence and both were imprisoned in Mountjoy for their involvement.

When he was seventeen years of age Jack entered the services of the Great Southern and Western Railway and worked in Carlow, Roscrea and Thurles before returning to Athy Railway Station in or about 1935. By then his brother Tom had joined the Gardai while his sister Kathleen had married Cavan man Andy Smith who had come to Athy to work in Mrs. O’Meara’s pub in Leinster Street. Andy, a great GAA stalwart, was to acquire his own premises located opposite the Leinster Arms Hotel where he carried on a successful business for many years.

Jack married Tuam born school teacher Una Bray and moved to Castledermot where she taught in the local national school. By now he was foreman at Athy railway station as was his father Tom before him. As local secretary of the Railway Union it was inevitable that Jack would become involved with the Labour Party then under the leadership of County Kildare Dail Deputy Bill Norton. Jack stood for election as a Labour candidate to Kildare County Council and Athy Urban District Council and served many years as both a County Councillor and an Urban Councillor. Difficulties with local Labour party activists resulted in Jack standing as an independent candidate in subsequent elections. In all he served three terms as a County Councillor.

As a foreman on the railway Jack worked with many interesting characters over the years but few matched in his esteem the legendary Joe Murphy, a railway signal man who lived in Offaly Street. Joe, a staunch GAA man and Fianna Fail supporter, was one of the great characters of the 40’s and 50’s in Athy whose presence enlivened many gatherings.

Jack recalls with a chuckle an occasion when a young Albert Reynolds, newly promoted as District Superintendent Clerk in Longford, arrived at Athy station one Monday morning shortly before 6 o’clock. None of the local railway staff had yet arrived. Joe Murphy who arrived late did not take too kindly to the young official’s rebuke and responded with a stinging reply before walking to the signal man’s box without a care in the world. The fact that Joe was a personal friend of Frank Lemass, then General Manager of C.I.E., no doubt afforded him protection from over zealous railway officials.

Jack’s wife died soon after he retired from the railway and he subsequently married Debbie McEvoy. His eldest son Jarleth is a Doctor in America, his daughter Dolores School Principal in Dublin while his son John is the well known writer and dramatist whose latest book of short stories will be published in April. Jack MacKenna retains a lively interest in Irish history and brings to his remembrance of days past an uncanny recall of names and events of which are unknown to the present generation.

Friday, February 10, 1995

Medieval Grave Slabs in St. Michaels Athy

In 1986 the Athy Museum Society in conjunction with FAS carried out a survey of Old St. Michael's Cemetery. In the course of the work two medieval grave slabs were unearthed. There are few such slabs in Ireland and the discovery in St. Michael's Cemetery was important in terms of the medieval architecture of the town. Their very existence indicates that medieval Athy was a settlement of importance as it is accepted that elaborate commemoration in monumental form was afforded only to people of power and wealth.

The first slab is the upper portion of a trapezoidal shaped slab with bevelled edges fashioned from limestone, decorated with a centrally placed doubly incised fleur-de-lis cross. There is a lozenge centrally placed within the fleur-de-lis. The slab has no inscription.

The second slab is the lower portion of a trapezoidal grave slab with a pointed terminal again fashioned from limestone. It was carved in relief and decorated with a central ridge terminating in a single fleur-de-lis. The edges are raised and concavely chamfered. This slab is also without inscription.

The ruined Church of St. Michael is situated within the graveyard. It consists of a plain rectangular building of uncoursed mixed rubble construction. Internally there is no evidence of the division of the Church into nave and chancel. Much of the structure has been badly damaged with only a few of the original features surviving. The parallel sided medieval doorway lacking its arch which is in the south wall of the Church is not believed to be part of the original St. Michaels.

The earliest reference to the Church dates from 1297 when records disclose that "Thomas Grennam robbed the Church of St. Michael of six pecks of oats". A further reference to the Church in 1311 relates that John Poukoc and Alice Heyne were charged with entering St. Michaels and stealing goods including silver, textiles and foodstuffs from various chests. They were later acquitted of the offences. The Church was described as being in good repair in 1615 and 1630 but by 1657 the Kildare Inquisition found the Church to be "out of repair". Subscriptions for repairing the Church were collected in 1677 and it is assumed that St. Michaels continued to be used until a new Church was built in the town centre in the early 18th century.

The St. Michael's grave slabs have a common trapezoidal form and a similar motif but significantly one slab is incised while the other slab is decorated in relief. The de Keteller grave slab in St. Canice's Cathedral, Kilkenny, is similar in form and decoration to the incised slab in St.Michael's which suggests it may be of late 13th century origin. There are similarities between the second grave slab and the so called Crusader Tomb in St. Nicholas' Church in Galway which might indicate an early 14th century date for this Athy burial monument.

It is assumed that the original location of the grave slabs was within the medieval Church at St. Michael's as burial within a Church was a privilege reserved to the rich and powerful members of society down to the 17th century. The likelihood is that the slabs which do not have an inscription were intended to commemorate leading members of the local community and even perhaps members of the St. Michael family who were the original occupiers of the Castles at Rheban and Woodstock.

Another possibility is that the grave slabs commemorated some of those who fell in the 1315 Battle of Ardscull. Tradition relates that Raymond Le Gros and Sir William Prendergast on the English side and the Scots Sir Fergus Andressan and Sir Walter Murray were buried in St. Michaels.

Are they the grave slabs of unknown warriors or medieval Lords of Athy? We shall never know.

Friday, February 3, 1995

Sorrento Dance Band

As a young fellow living in Offaly Street in the 1950's I can recall the great sense of pride felt on hearing a Radio Eireann broadcast which featured a musical contribution from the local Sorrento Dance Band.

The band was started in 1946 by Paudence Murphy whose parents lived across the road from our house. His father Paddy, a hackney driver, and his mother Mary had nine children of which the eldest was Paudence. At one time or another most of the other members of the family featured in the band. The band's first engagement was in the local cinema in Offaly Street where the proprietors prompted by a recently imposed entertainment tax introduced live music as a means of avoiding the tax. Paudence Murphy on saxophone, John Murphy on drums and Jim Dargan on guitar played every night for six weeks of that first engagement using the opportunity to perfect their musical skills. The cinema was generally empty until minutes before the start of the evenings film thereby affording Paudence and his band members the ideal conditions for practising their music. One regular who always arrived early was Paddy Behan of St. Joseph's Terrace who sat throughout the band's limited repertoire always waiting for his favourite "Roses from the South" to be played.

Bookings for Sunday night dances from 8.00p.m to 12.00 midnight in the local Town Hall soon followed. The Sorrento augmented its personnel with the addition of Paddy Keenan on accordion, Gabriel O'Brien on saxophone and Joe Hayden on banjo. Practice makes perfect they say and the long sessions in the local cinema and the Town Hall bookings soon paid off with the band getting its first major break playing in the Gym of the Curragh on St. Patrick's Night 1947 before 1,500 patrons. In 1949 the band went temporarily out of business. In the meantime Paudence played with a number of Dublin bands before returning to Athy to join Joe O'Neill's famous Stardust band.

In 1950 the Sorrento was reformed with Andy Murphy, a cousin of the leader on tenor sax and clarinet, his namesake Andy Murphy a brother of Paudence on drums, Michael McFadden on accordion and vocals and doubling up as M.C. Over the years the band's personnel grew. Brendan Murphy, a trumpet player, joined his brothers Paudence and Andy. By now Andy was also playing trumpet while Michael McFadden had added the trombone to his repertoire. Dinny Pender played the drums. At other times another cousin John Murphy played alto sax with his brother Stephen Murphy on piano and Tim Farrell on tenor sax and vocals. In the mid 1950's the Sorrento went for the big band sound with two trombonists and two trumpeters.

Female vocalists who joined the all male band at various times included Paudence's sister Ena as well as Mary Fleming, Pattie Carey and Mary Dargan. The 1950's was the heyday of the show dances, the Firemans Ball and the carnival marquee dances, all of which featured the Sorrento Dance Band at one time or another.

In the late 1950's Casey Dempsey joined the Band and he invariably brought the house down with his impressions of Maggie Barry. Eamon Walsh joined the Band in 1962 and other members during the 1960’s included Mrs. McCormack of Portlaoise on piano, Tom Quinlivan from Kildare on piano, Teddy Fleming on trumpet, Brendan Doran on drums and yet again Paddy Keenan, this time on drums.

Possibly the highlight of the band members’ career was the 1961 opening of Dreamland Ballroom when they played relief to the legendry Victor Sylvester and his orchestra. I remember that night when with about 3,500 others I crammed into the new hall paying my admission money to the future Taoiseach Albert Reynolds. The Sorrento Band played the first two hours or so and then the stage revolved bringing into view the finest dance orchestra in these islands to replace our local heros the Sorrento Dance Band. This so far as I can recall was the first and only time the revolving stage was used in Dreamland Ballroom. The band played for another year finishing in 1962. Paudence Murphy regrouped the band in 1963 with George Robinson on accordion, George’s uncle, also George Robinson, on drums and at various times Tony Cardiff, Joe Newman and John Haskins on guitar. The band was active until 1968 when Paudence retired from the dance hall scene and emigrated to England. He was the eldest of the Murphy family, all the members of which had emigrated to England before himself.

Paudence is now retired and living in London. The Sorrento Dance Band was part of the great musical tradition of the town which gave us over the years many street bands and some excellent musical combinations