Friday, March 31, 1995

Jack Kelly

Jack Kelly would have been 77 years old next month, 7 years past the allotted three score and ten if the grim reaper had not called him home last week. He was one of the few surviving members of the now defunct Churchtown Pipe Band. Churchtown and Castlemitchell were areas noted for music at the turn of the century as indeed were many rural areas in Ireland in the days before the advent of radio and television. Every town had its marching band and Athy boasted two in the Barrack Street Fife and Drum Band and the Leinster Street Band. The Churchtown Pipe Band started some time in the 1920's.

Some of the original members of the Band included the three Byrne brothers, John, Christy and Jerry and the brothers Paddy and Johnny Wright who were born in the shadow of Curraclone Church. Ned Hyland of Portlaoise cycled over to Churchtown for band practices where he joined his colleagues Johnny Luttrell from Athy, George Moore from Rheban, Paddy Moloney, Joe Fennelly and Willie Hutchinson. Willie, now over 90 years of age and living in Kilberry is the last surviving member of the original Churchtown band. With the death of Jack Kelly the only member of the Churchtown Pipe Band of later days still with us is Jim Connor who lives in England.

The Band room was conveniently located opposite The Bleeding Horse, once a favoured hostelry for those travelling on the Athy/Portlaoise Road. With the emergence of Athy's L.D.F. Band in the 1940's the Churchtown Pipe Band went into decline. It fell to Jerry Byrne of Kilcrow and Johnny Wright to keep the tradition of pipe playing alive in the Churchtown area. Jerry was an expert at tuning the pipes and skilled in the art of teaching others to play that most difficult of traditional instruments. Johnny Wright took charge of band bookings and entered the band in the various competitions in which it proved so successful over the years.

Jack Kelly, who in his young days learned to play the accordion was taught to play the fiddle by Jerry Byrne and later mastered the tin whistle before joining the Churchtown Pipe Band where he learned to play the bagpipes. He was to continue with the Band until its eventual demise in the 1950's. Music was an important part of his leisure activities and his musical talents were passed on to his son Jimmy and his grandson Sean who at 13 years of age recently won the County Kildare Scor final for fiddle playing.

Jack was justifiably proud of Sean's success, displaying the same sense of pride with which he recounted stories of his native place and of his time in the now defunct I.V.I. Foundry. He spent 31 years there as a metal moulder and proudly showed me the watch which he received after 25 years service. The work ethic was firmly entrenched in the character of men such as Jack Kelly who was born in the last year of the Great War. When he left school he worked in P.P. Doyle's brick yard and even 50 years later he could still recall with ease the skills and practices of the long lost brick making tradition. Sourers, middlers, wheelers, upstitchers, moulders and off-bearers are no longer part of the industrial language of the day but to Jack Kelly they represented brickyard men with whom he shared work experiences so many years ago.

Jack played with no less than four local bands, all of which are now long gone. Kilberry Fife and Drum Band and Kilberry Pipe Band were two in which he featured in his young days. He also joined for a very short period the Barrack Street Fife and Drum Band before becoming a member of the Churchtown Pipe Band. He recounts a story how as a young 17 or 18 year old playing with the Barrack Street Band and marching into Athy behind the Churchtown Pipe Band he threw his fife and beret into Flinters Field and left the Parade, recognising that his allegiance was with the Churchtown Band which he was later to join.

Jack was proud of his family, his work, his music and of his own place all of which helped him make a good journey through life.

Friday, March 24, 1995

Great Famine

This year marks the 150th Anniversary of the first year of the Irish Famine which is acknowledged was the greatest social catastrophe in Irish history.

The blight which affected the potato crop of 1845 was not widespread. The area around Athy where there was a less dependency on the potato than in other areas appears to have escaped the worst excesses of that first year of what later became known as The Great Famine.

The Workhouse which had opened in Athy in January of the previous year did not show any marked increase in inmate numbers in the first year of the Famine. As the Workhouse was the only place where people in need could receive assistance it is clear that the destitution in Athy and district as a result of the partial potato failure of 1845 was perhaps no worse than in other years.

Not so the affects of the potato blight on the crops in the following year. Early reports from the Athy area confirmed that the disease had appeared in crops in all parts of the Poor Law Union, an area which included Monasterevin, Kildangan, Ballytore, Athy and parts of County Laois. The loss of the crop in 1846 had a devastating affect on the people throughout the island of Ireland, especially those living in the west of Ireland. Even in Athy and South Kildare families unable to feed themselves overcame their reluctance to enter the Workhouse. Daily the numbers coming to the Workhouse door increased so that by December 1846 there were more than 700 inmates.

On entering the Workhouse the men were separated from the women, the women separated from their children. Their clothes were taken from them and they were given rough Workhouse uniforms before being segregated into separate dormitories for men, women and children. At mealtimes they took up their rations which they ate in silence. During the day the men were put to work breaking stones or picking oakum.

Many died from fever and malnutrition. In the week ended 9th January 1847, 17 poor inmates of Athy Workhouse died. Two weeks later 19 more people were recorded as having died in the space of one week. At the end of the famine period 1,205 men, women and children had died in Athy Workhouse and the adjoining Fever Hospital. As in life their deaths were not marked by any ceremony. Their emaciated bodies were hurriedly brought by handcart across the Stradbally road and over the Canal bridge to be buried without the benefit of clergy in graves which would remain unmarked.

Two auxiliary Workhouses were opened in the town at Barrack Street and in a Canal store at Nelson Street in 1847 to cater for the large number of people crowding into the Workhouse. A Soup Kitchen operated by a local Relief Committee was opened in Athy on the 6th of June 1847. On one day 3,088 people from Athy and the surrounding countryside got rations at the food kitchen. It closed on the 15th of August when the Board of Guardians who operated the Workhouse were allowed for the first time to give help to the starving people in their own homes. In the Athy Workhouse area an average of 3,410 persons received assistance each day from the Board of Guardians. Oral tradition relates that some hungry people survived by eating Praiseach which grew in abundance in fields where the Ashville houses are now located.

The failure of the 1848 potato crop led to further hardship such that at one stage almost 1,300 people were living in the local Workhouses. We don't know how many local people died during the Famine. We only know of the 1,205 who died in the Workhouse and the Fever Hospital in the town. How many more died in their own homes or on the side of the road we cannot now say.

The Great Famine had a devastating effect on our country. It shattered the confidence of the Irish people and accelerated the flow of families from our island. The horror of that period is beyond imagination but in this the 150th Anniversary year we have an opportunity of remembering those who suffered and died during the Great Famine while understanding and helping those who today similarly suffer in Rowanda and other famine areas of the world. For how can we ever again ignore scenes such as those recorded by Canon O'Rourke, Parish Priest of Maynooth who in his history of the Famine described people wandering through the Irish countryside in search of food, people dying of hunger in their cabins and people refused admission to the Workhouses who lay down on the road outside to die of hunger and fever.

We must never forget these people and as the inheritors of a legacy of famine we should never turn our back on the victims of hunger.

Friday, March 17, 1995

Books on the Great Famine

In this the 150th Anniversary of the first year of the Great Famine understandably there is great interest in that sad event which represented the greatest social catastrophe in Irish history. Many new publications relating to the Famine are currently on the bookshelves and many more are expected during the year. I am prompted to write this item this week because of the many requests I have received, especially from school-children involved in school projects for information on the Great Famine.

For a detailed account of the period it would be difficult to overlook Cecil Woodham Smith’s book “The Great Hunger”, first published in 1962 and now reprinted in paperback form. An early book published by Brown & Nolan in 1956 was “The Great Famine” edited by Dudley Edwards and Desmond Williams, both of UCD. It consisted of a series of chapters written on various topics relating to the Famine by academics in the Irish Universities. An even earlier publication was Canon O’Rourke’s “The History of the Great Irish Famine of 1847”, first published in 1875 and reprinted several times thereafter. Canon O’Rourke was parish priest of Maynooth and his pioneering work was a valuable social document prepared as it had been with the assistance and co-operation of people who had lived through the Famine.

Books recently produced include John O’Connor’s paperback publication entitled “The Workhouses of Ireland” which is of relevance to an understanding of that most feared of pauper institutions. Another new paperback is “The Great Irish Famine”, published to coincide with the Radio Eireann Thomas Davis series of lectures on the same topic. Christine Kinealy has written a scholarly work published last year by Gill and MacMillan under the title “This Great Calamity - The Irish Famine 1845-52”. It takes a more analytical look at the Great Famine than the other books mentioned and as such might not be regarded as one for the general reader. Two other books still in the bookshops which would certainly appeal to the average reader are “Famine Diary” by Gerald Keegan and “A Farewell to Famine” by Jim Rees.

Keegan’s book is in fact a fictionalised diary account of a journey endured by Irish refugees aboard a coffin ship as they journey to the new World. Jim Rees’ book deals with the people from Wicklow and Wexford who, led by Fr. Thomas Hore, travelled across the Atlantic to set up homes in America. It is an interesting insight into the experiences of famine emigration. The last book I will mention, again in paperback, is “The Famine in Ireland” by Mary E. Daly, published by the Dublin Historical Association in 1986 and still available in the bookshops. This gives a useful concise outline of the famine period.

A number of other publications on the famine are planned for publication throughout the year including what I believe is a book of essays on the famine in County Kildare. This I believe will come out in June or July.

There is no doubt as to the importance of what we commonly refer to as the Great Famine in Irish History. It shattered the confidence of the Irish people and accelerated the flow of Irish people from our islands. The devastation it left in its wake is beyond imagination but in this the 150th anniversary year we have an opportunity of learning more of the hardships endured by those who lived or died in those dreadful times.

Last week two men who had shared their experiences with me and of whom I have written previously passed away. Paddy Kehoe who played a significant role in the early development of Macra na Feirme and who was a close friend of Stephen Cullinan, died at an advanced age. Billy Cunningham who left Athy in 1954 and settled in Manchester and whom I met in “The White Sheaf” on Oldham Road this time last year died after a long illness. One of the great pleasures on writing a weekly article on the past is the opportunity it affords me of meeting and listening to men and women whose experiences of life in Athy are always interesting, always enlightening and never without a touch of humour. As a corollary to this there are also the sad moments such as last weekend when two men who had shared their experiences and thoughts with me died. May they rest in peace.

Friday, March 10, 1995

Booklet on Quakerism in Ballitore

Kildare Heritage Project set up some time ago to computerise all genealogical records relating to Co. Kildare has produced an interesting booklet on the Quakers of Ballytore. The work of a number of young people on a FÀS Employment Scheme, the booklet brings the reader through a brief review of the sites and the historical figures associated with Quakerism in the South Kildare village. Starting with a note on the history and development of Quakerism in Ireland we are told that the Quakers were the first large religious organisation to allow women to preach. Whether in furtherance of gender equality or not I do not know but the members were also not prepared to remove their hats in female company. The wonderful eccentricity of what is here described as their “plain dull clothes” marked them as a people apart. Mary Leadbetter’s long poem entitled “A view of Ballytore taken from Mount Bleak,” written in 1801 is reproduced by mercifully only its first 23 lines. Mary, better known as a prose writer and biographer of village life in Ballytore during and after the 1798 Rebellion is perhaps one of Ballytore’s principal claims to fame. There is no doubt at all about the place of Ballytore School in Irish history. The school where such diverse characters as Edmund Burke, Henry Grattan, Napper Tandy and the future Cardinal Paul Cullen were educated was founded by Mary Leadbetter’s grandfather, Abraham Shackleton, in 1726. It closed down in 1836 but the importance of that small provincial school lived on not only in folk memory but in the writings of statesmen who had shared their early school days with the Masters of Ballytore.

The meeting house which still stands remains today a place of meeting for members of the Society of Friends who come from far and near on the first and third Sundays of each month. Many of the buildings identified with the Quaker settlement are still to be found in the village of Ballytore. One can sense the history of the place as you pass from the Mill at Griese Bank and the adjoining house, home of Abraham Shackleton, the last Shackleton headmaster of Ballytore along the road to the Meeting House. Across the fields can be seen Fuller’s Court and Ballytore House, built by descendants of John Barcroft and Abel Strettle, the original settlers of Ballytore. The home of William and Mary Leadbetter in the Square is now the site of building activity as yet another FÀS sponsored scheme helps to revive another important element of the heritage of the Quaker village. All these buildings get mention in the heritage project booklet but surprisingly the last resting place of the local Quaker families is apparently overlooked. Their graveyard, once surrounded by what was described by Mary Leadbetter as “rising hills encompassed round, fair hills which rear the golden brow and smile upon the vale below”, is now sharing the view with a newly erected bungalow. The family names of those buried are a roll call of the Quaker movement in Ireland in the 18th and 19th centuries. Shackleton, Chandlee, Webb, Haughton and Leadbetter are but some of the names discernible on the tombstones in this eerie place of grace where the bones of those who gave life to Ballytore now repose. Those involved in the production of this small booklet are to be congratulated on their efforts. The re-awakening of our forgotten past is always welcome, no more so than in this year of remembrance for the Great Famine from which time the Quakers of England and Ireland are owed a debt which can never be repaid by the people of Ireland.

Friday, March 3, 1995

Athy Workhouse after the Great Famine

The number of inmates in Athy Workhouse fell dramatically after the ending of the Great Famine. At the height of the Famine almost 1,400 men, women and children were housed in the Poor House. The fall in numbers was largely due to the introduction of a system of outdoor relief which allowed poor families to obtain Indian meal without becoming inmates of the local Workhouse. Another reason was the high level of emigration from the South Kildare area in the years following the Famine. In 1855 there were 516 inmates in the Workhouse and six years later the numbers had dropped to 296. Thereafter there were seasonal fluctuations in the inmate population of Athy Workhouse with the highest number usually registered in January and February of each year when employment was unavailable and the weather was at its worst. In February 1862 the inmates totalled 392, an increase of almost 100 since the previous December. Poverty in the town of Athy was a cause of concern. On the 10th of January, 1863 it was reported that the mortality rate in Athy from various causes had been unusually high - six persons having died on Old Christmas Day. The extensive use by the poor and the labouring classes of a cheap American bacon was considered to be the cause of these deaths. That same month the Board of Guardians, as part of its outdoor relief scheme, employed an extra thirty local men to dig the Workhouse lands for one shilling per day each.

In the first quarter of 1863 there were 107 cases of fever reported in Athy. The Fever Hospital had been built in 1836 at a cost of £300 with monies collected by the local townspeople for a Mr. Keating of Market Square whose shop premises had been destroyed by fire. A respected and obviously well-liked individual, Keating donated the money for the building of a Fever Hospital in Athy. Officially designated a District Fever Hospital under the Fever (Ireland) Act 1847, the Athy Hospital remained independent of the Board of Guardians until 1854. In that year it was put on the Union which meant that the Poor Law Union of Athy was in part, at least, responsible for its running costs. The Board of Guardians fulfilled their obligations in this regard by agreeing to pay the sum of one shilling per day for each Workhouse patient maintained in the Fever Hospital.

Early in 1846 the Board of Guardians were required to equip Hospitals and Dispensaries for the sick poor. A voluntary dispensary committee had been operating in Athy since 1818 and it now became a sub-committee of the Board of Guardians. A small Infirmary was provided within the Workhouse to meet the responsibility of the Board of Guardians with regard to medical services for the poor. It was to this Infirmary that the Sisters of Mercy came as nursing sisters in October 1873.

The Sisters of Mercy from the local Convent apparently began to visit patients in the Infirmary on Sundays and over time they built up a relationship and an understanding with the patients. This encouraged the Board of Guardians to approach the Sisters of Mercy to take over the running of the Infirmary. The nuns agreed to do so and by March 1880, they were looking after the needs of 89 patients in the Workhouse Infirmary. In November 1885 John McLoughlin, a member of the Board of Guardians, referred to the time
"when the Board was a hostile camp composed of rabid Tories with a strong mixture of brutal Whigs... we may feel justifiably proud of what has been done. Look to the Chapel, look to the officers of the House and compare them to the officers of twenty-five years ago when we had not a Catholic officer at all and see how we have sanctified the place with the holy women introduced into the House instead of drunken nurses as in olden days".
His comments met with the approval of his fellow Guardians.

In June 1886 the Workhouse advertised for a Midwife to be employed in the Infirmary at five shillings per case attended. While the Sisters of Mercy continued to work in the Infirmary during daylight hours, there were no qualified Nurses employed to look after the patients at night time. This was the era of pauper nursing when female inmates were locked into the Hospital Wards with the patients at night and were required, as best they could, to look after them. This situation did not change until August 1897 when the Board of Guardians agreed to appoint a trained Night Nurse at a time when there were up to 80 patients in the Infirmary.