Friday, May 26, 1995

Offaly Street

In May 1945 the Allied Troops having gained the upper hand against the German Army were advancing on Berlin. They met little resistance as the calvacade of men and war machinery swept speedily over the tortured soil of Germany. Back in neutral Ireland the Irish people went about their business as usual. In the coalmining town of Castlecomer a young Garda Sergeant and his family were preparing to move house yet again. He had done this four times since getting married but this was to be the last occasion that he would pack furniture and belongings into a hired lorry to journey to a new town.

The Garda Sergeant was my father who in May 1945 brought my mother and her five young sons to Athy. The transfer was at his request so that he could get his sons into a Secondary School where none was to be had in Castlecomer. The short journey to Athy ended at No. 6 Offaly Street in a two up two down terraced house rented from Myles Whelan.

Offaly Street has shown little structural changes in the intervening fifty years. What has changed are the families who live in what was then a very close knit community. Paddy Garrett is still in No. 1 while in No. 2 was the Smith family with Joe Murphy next door. Joe who worked on the railways was a wonderful character, passionately involved in both the G.A.A. and Fianna Fail. Mrs. Murphy, and in those days every female of indeterminate age was called Mrs., had with her a niece Loy Hayden who is now herself married and living in my old home, No. 6 Offaly Street.

John Murphy and his family were on the far side of Janeville Lane next to Tom White and his family. I can vaguely recall Tom's involvement in the musical shows of the late 1940's and particularly an outdoor carnival type parade which started in the pub yard opposite our house and ended up in Emily Square. Andrew and Basil White were two of my Offaly Street mates when I was growing up and sadly both are dead as is their younger brother Leo. When the Whites moved to Athgarvan in 1954 or thereabouts the Taaffes who lived next door in what was a smaller house transferred into No. 5 Offaly Street.

In No. 7 lived Tom Moore and his family. Tom, a gentleman in every sense of the word, was surely the longest serving G.A.A. Club Secretary in the history of the association. His allegiance was to Rheban and with his encouragement even I ended up playing football for Rheban G.F.C. for a short while. Willie Moore and the late "Micky" Moore were also members of the younger generation of the Offaly Street fellows whose exploits during the 1950's are still fondly remembered.

Tom McHugh and his wife lived in No. 8 and many an hour was passed watching the men at work in Tom's foundry in Janeville Lane. Tom was an early riser and was always sure to be found at Dallons corner as I passed by on my way to serve 7.00 o'clock morning Mass.

Mick Bradley and his mother were next door and then the Breen family next to Bob Webster, later Manager of the local cinema, and finally on the same side the Sunderland family. Beyond the lane was Aldridges orchard where the apple trees more than once proved a temptation impossible to suppress. The difficulty in getting over the high wall posed a problem but in the end proved no match for young nimble hands and agile feet. In the area now known as Beechgrove were what we called "the buildings" consisting of the partially built walls of a cinema planned to replace the Picture Palace in Offaly Street. It was never completed and proved a ready made playground for the youngsters in Offaly Street. At the very end of "the buildings" next to the wall surrounding the Rector's house lived Ms. Hegarty in a beautiful picturesque cottage. When she died the cottage quickly fell into disrepair and when the roof collapsed all the local youngsters including myself diverted our energies into knocking down the mud walls of what must have been a very early 18th century house.

Crossing Offaly Street and retracing our steps on the East side of the street, the first house we meet is that of Mrs. Evans and her son John who lived directly opposite Sunderlands and next to Keatleys and the local cinema. Mattie Brennan, that delightful neighbour, was next door to Garda Touhy and his family. Mick Touhy was a great gunman and fisherman and his house is one of only five houses in Offaly Street still occupied by the same families who lived there 50 years ago.

Mr. & Mrs. Alex Neill lived beside Paddy Murphy, a hackney driver and his family. The house, small and all as it was in those days, is now even smaller having been part demolished to provide a larger side entrance for the adjoining pub. Tom Dowling and his family lived over the pub when we came to Athy but they left some years later for Naas. His successor in the pub was the legendary John W. Kehoe who gave many years of dedicated service to improving the facilities in Geraldine Park, Athy.

Kitty Webster's sweet shop across Butlers Row from the pub was the most important building in Offaly Street insofar as every youngster in the street was concerned. We all graduated from penny toffees to cigarette smoking at an early age as a result of Kittys willingness to split a packet of cigarettes to sell one or two of the noxious weeds. Her mother and sister Pattie were there also but to all of us it was known only as Kitty Websters. Garda Jim Kelly and his family lived next door and Teddy Kelly and his late brother Leopold were another family duo who comprised the Offaly Street "gang" of my young days. The last house on the street was occupied by the Dargan family including Jim and his sister Kathleen. Jim's father had a forge in Mount Hawkins, one of many such forges to be found in Athy at one time.

The street which housed three members of the local Gardai gave two priests to the Church in my time. Fr. Tommy Touhy, son of Garda Mick Touhy and the late Fr. Leopold Kelly, son of Garda Jim Kelly. The only houses still with the same families as 50 years ago include the Touhys, Kellys, Breens, Taaffes and Paddy Garratt.

Looking back over the residents then and later I am astonished at the number of young people with whom I grew up who have since died. Danny and Mylie Cash, Eva Murphy, Seamus Taaffe, Andrew, Basil and Leo White, Michael Moore and Leopold Kelly all shared common experiences as young fellows in Offaly Street and all went to early graves.

The once quiet street is now home to a new generation of people and the ghosts of the past look back on a scene which is at once familiar yet strange. The streetscape remains largely unaltered. Where once we played ball in the almost traffic-free street, trucks and cars now trundle and speed on their journeys. Parents have died, their sons and daughters have moved on and the community renews itself as it has done ever since the street was first planned to extend out the Carlow Road beyond Prestons Gate.

When the first part of this article appeared last Wednesday I could then note that Paddy Garratt and my mother were the last of the older generation still in Offaly Street although I am sure that Paddy would have readily deferred in terms of age to the 89 year old woman who came to the street fifty years ago. Paddy who has lived in Offaly Street since 1928 is now the last of the old time residents as sadly my mother died last week. Offaly Street is now a street of childhood memories for many of us as a new generation takes our place

Friday, May 19, 1995

Fr. Philip Dennehy

Sunday is the most important day in the weekly calendar for all christians. For a clergyman it assumes perhaps even greater significance when viewed as an opportunity to address his congregation other than on an individual basis. However, the average sermon or homily can sometimes seem strained and perhaps even less than relevant in the context of the modern world but never when the words are those of the man who is the subject of today’s article.

Fr. Philip Dennehy, Parish Priest of Athy, has a most eloquent if sometimes understated way of putting his thoughts before his parishioners. The obvious attention and care which goes into the preparation of his homilies is reflected in the meaningful words designed to help his congregation to come closer to God.

He will shortly celebrate forty years as a priest, fifteen of which have been spent as a Parish Priest, first in Monksview, Dublin and latterly in Athy. Born in Middleton, Co. Cork, the son of a member of the Garda Siochana he was to live in a number of Irish towns as he grew up, each new address marking another step in his father’s climb up the promotional ladder. At the age of two he moved to Tramore, Co. Waterford, later to Limerick City and finally to Roscommon town where his father was Chief Superintendent. Philip Dennehy who had six sisters and one brother attended the Christian Brothers Schools in Tramore and Limerick, ending his secondary schooling in St. Brendan’s College, Killarney. As he readily acknowledges his County allegiance is somewhat difficult to ascertain given his almost nomadic early lifestyle. However, pressed on the point he will acknowledge a sneaking regard for his Kerry ancestry, the County where both is parents were born and where all his relatives come from.

An altar boy while in Roscommon he was attracted to the priesthood at an early age, entering the seminary in Clonliffe in 1948 straight from secondary school. Having obtained his B.A. in University College Dublin he went to Maynooth College in 1951 where he spent the next four years. Ordained in 1955 he was appointed Chaplain to Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital in Dun Laoire, then a tuberculosis hospital, now the Rehabilitation Centre. Spending one year there he was next transferred to another tuberculosis hospital, St. Mary’s Phoenix Park. Both were particularly difficult postings for a young Chaplain, required as he was to deal with the spiritual needs of the many unfortunate patients suffering what was then the most dreaded of diseases - tuberculosis.

Fr. Dennehy first arrived in Athy as a young curate in 1963 and was to remain here for ten years. When he left the town in 1973 he did so with a heavy heart, having made many friends. For him leaving a Parish is always a sad occasion but as he says, “if you enlist to soldier you must go where you are sent”. Unusually he was asked by the late Archbishop McNamara to return to Athy as a Parish Priest in 1985. While the basic duty of a Parish Priest is no different from that of a Curate the administrative responsibility of a Parish Priest imposes a duty which does not always rest easy on the shoulders of someone whose job is to bring Christ to the people.

As a clergy man who takes things at face value he refuses to delve too deeply into people’s motives, always prepared to assume the best of intentions for every act, charitable or otherwise. Conscious of the excessively strong role of the old style Parish Priest of another era, Fr. Dennehy has always adopted an easy going attitude in his contacts with members of his congregation. Recognising the important role of the laity he seeks to motivate people within the parish to do what they can for themselves. His common sense approach in all things underscores his belief that as a Parish Priest he is not an authority on everything. To him so called experts are suspect, common sense being the most useful tool in dealing with most situations.

In celebrating forty years in the priesthood, twenty years of which he has spent in Athy, Fr. Dennehy can look back on many happy events, many achievements and inevitably some sad occasions. He can do so with justifiable pride and in the certain knowledge that there can be no higher calling that a life dedicated to the service of God.

Friday, May 12, 1995

Walking Tour of Athy East of the Barrow

It is not too often that you get the opportunity to walk around familiar and not so familiar parts of Athy with an enthusiastic group anxious to hear some of the history of their own place. Last week was one such occasion when a small group set off at 7.15p.m. first stepping across the former High Street to enter into the narrow confines of Garter Lane. How it got its name I can only guess but I have always presumed that Garter Lane was a corruption of Carter Lane, a name which acknowledged the large number of its one time resident Carters. However the existence of a Garter Lane in Waterford raises the possibility that the name may indeed have nothing to do with the honourable carting occupation.

Anyway our saunter down Garter Lane brought us by the site of Youells Turbine Shed where the first electricity supply for Athy was produced in the early part of the century. Further on we came on the line of the medieval town wall which terminated at the banks of the River Barrow and which we were to follow over the early stages of our walk.

Facing us as we crossed the former Kildare Road, previously known as Cotters Lane, now Stanhope Street, was St. Michael's Parish Church built in 1964 to replace an earlier Church erected on the same site. That Church had stood for over 150 years and was the venue of the first Church Mission given in an Irish Church in 1842. Passing by Miss Goold's house now occupied by the Parish Priest we paused to bring into focus the Convent of Mercy established in 1851.

The small houses in Chapel Lane, the walls of which were standing until recently, are no longer to be seen but on the far side of the road can be found the high stone wall which shields from view the site of the first Catholic Church built in Athy in post-Reformation days. The thatched roof building erected in or around 1740 was burnt in 1800 allegedly as a result of an altercation between a militia man and a local curate during the 1798 Rebellion. Whatever the truth of the claim first made by Patrick O'Kelly in his book "1798 Rebellion" the then Parish Priest Canon Keegan obtained compensation of £288 for the damaged Church and having collected locally an additional £1,700 he built the sturdy St. Michael's Church in 1803 on grounds which up to then had been swamp land.

Crossing the former High Street the small group passed into Meeting House Lane to hear the story of the Quaker settlement established in Athy in 1672. The construction of the Quaker Meeting House in 1780 gave us the name "Meeting House Lane" which name we have retained even though the Quakers departed from Athy in the early part of the 19th century. The local Methodist Community subsequently took over the Quaker Meeting House and the building since modified continues today to be used as a local Dispensary. No trace can be seen of the twelve houses which once stood on Garden Lane and where Peter Fitzsimons buses are now parked. The houses in Meeting Lane were built in 1913 as part of the first Council housing scheme in Athy and the entire terrace cost the sum of £704.10.0 to build. On our right the foundry of Matt and Mick McHugh is long gone as are the houses on Connolly Lane which stretched back behind Emily Row towards the Credit Union Office. The three storey house at the corner of Meeting Lane was the location of the Parish School operated by the local Rector in 1827.

Turning left into Offaly Street we pass over the site of Prestons Gate, the last remains of the medieval town wall in Athy which were removed in 1860. Then up past the former Picture Palace known to my generation as "Bob's Cinema", previously a malthouse and now a printers office.

St. Michael's Church of Ireland stands at the top of Offaly Street as it has since 1840. Its interior has memorials to some of the local dead of World War I and to Captain George Weldon the first Officer killed in the Boer War. The Weldon's were not always a lucky lot!

A trip up the "Crib Road" gives an opportunity to explain how the protective iron crib once placed around the newly planted roadside trees gave Church Road the name by which it was generally known to locals. Through the trees and looking up the avenue towards Kevin Maher's house we can see the remains of one of the prison cell blocks built in 1830 to replace the jail in Whites Castle. On our right the beautiful Rectory which Rev. Crampton tells me was built by Rev. F.S. Trench and presented by him to the Parish.

The night is drawing in as we walk through the People's Park and what a pleasure it is to do so. Laid out over 200 years ago it is a wonderful facility and maybe there is truth in the claim that the Duke of Leinster's family brought back a young tree from every foreign country they visited which they later planted in the Peoples Park.

Friday, May 5, 1995

General Review of Athy in History

The Cork Historical and Archaeological Society will be paying a visit to Athy on 5th June. This follows on an earlier visit by the Military History Society of Ireland who stopped briefly in Athy on one of its weekend outings.

The Cork Group have expressed an interest in the history of Anglo Norman Athy, the 12th century settlement which has latterly began to reclaim some of its prominence and importance in the historical context.

Living in the town tends to cause us to ignore the many qualities which strangers readily recognise. The juxtaposition of Whites Castle on the Bridge of Athy, with Woodstock Castle on the Western bank of the River Barrow clearly indicate an important settlement in Medieval times. The imposing Town Hall, an early 18th century building providing a backdrop to the central town square is evidence of the commercial development which marked Athy apart as a Market town.

The various stages of the early village and later town development saw it pass through many interesting phases. The early manorial settlement of the 12th and 13th century saw the village develop around the Castle of Woodstock. This was on the West Bank of the River Barrow, and it was there that the first early 13th century Monastery was also located. Founded by the Trinitarians at the area now known as St. John's it was soon succeeded by a Dominican Monastery build on the East Bank of the River in 1253.

Because of the proximity of the wild Irish in Leix and their tendency to attack the village of Athy the town as it developed did so on the East Bank of the River. This made it easier for those in the town to defend themselves and in time a bridge was built with a Castle garrisoned to defend it. Whites Castle still stands today like a lonely sentinel protecting as it has done since 1417 the passage over the Bridge of Athy.

It was the presence of this Castle which allowed the town to develop in the area now known as Emily Square, Leinster Street etc. Of course in those early days the only street names were High Street for the principal street in the town and Market Street where the markets were held. The town or village continued to grow over the years, by and large populated by settlers from the English mainland.

The cosmopolitan nature of the towns population was in time to be reflected in the large number of mainstream religions to be found in Athy. Roman Catholic, United Church of England and Ireland, Methodist, Presbyterian, all had a presence and their Churches are to be found located at the four corners of the town. Marginal religious groups also played a significant role in life in Athy and the Kellyites, Quakers and Plymouth Brethren at one time or another were to be found in Athy.

I have often referred to the rich tapestry of life in Athy in the 18th and 19th centuries, but truly it was then a vibrant community and a leading player in the commercial life of the Irish midlands.

I'm not at all sure that in Athy we have ever appreciated the wealth of history which has bedrocked our towns advancement into the 20th century. Ours is a fine example of a linear type Anglo Norman settlement nearly 800 years old. The architectural remains of our past, represented by Whites Castle and Woodstock Castle are vitally important to our understanding of that past and crucial to our development of Athy Heritage status.

Unfortunately Woodstock Castle remains a forgotten relic of our past, ignored by our Town Council which has done nothing over the years to ensure its preservation and protection from further dereliction. A recent visit to the site indicates that the Castle walls have been breached and further damage is being caused on a weekly basis to this priceless part of historical heritage.

Whites Castle looks to be in urgent need of repair as cracks appear in the outer wall. If either Castle should cease to be a landmark, then we will have failed in our responsibility to preserve what cannons could not dislodge in years gone by. Why not add your voice to those who are calling on our local town Council to act promptly to protect Woodstock Castle and Whites Castle. There are not many towns in Ireland which can boast two castles of such importance and we should take an interest in seeing that those charged with responsibility for civic affairs in Athy extend their interest to the preservation of these two Castles.

Incidentally An Taisce will be holding a meeting in the Community Service Centre, Stanhope Place on Thursday the 4th of May at 8.00 p.m. Everyone is welcome to attend.