Friday, June 30, 1995

Cultural Feast in Athy - Sifonia and 'On Hallowed Ground'

Athy had enjoyed a cultural feast in the last two weeks. It started with the Wexford Sinfonia which played a programme of classic pieces in St. Dominic's Church on Sunday the 11th of June. Fergus Sheil was the orchestra's conductor which was led by Theresa Doyle and soloist was Michael D'arcy, violin played of exceptional quality who is leader of the R.T.E. Concert Orchestra.

Athy's Lions Club in co-operation with the Friends of St. Vincent's Hospital were the promoters of the enjoyable concert which played to an almost full house. However it is to Bruce Yates of Grangemellon must go the accolades for organising the event. Bruce who is involved with other choral and orchestral groups first made contact with Wexford Sinfonia and almost single handedly organised what was a most pleasant evenings musical entertainment.

Six days later on Saturday 17th June Athy Writers Group organised what the programme described as a Literary Evening in St. Brigid's Church, Ballintubbert. Under the title of "On Hallowed Ground" the entertainment commemorated the life and works of C. Day Lewis, Poet Laureate.

Lewis was born in Ballintubbert House on the 27th of April 1904, the only child of Rev. Frank Day Lewis, Church of Ireland Minister and his wife Kathleen. He died in 1972 four years after being appointed Poet Laureate.

The evening commenced with a feast of renaissance music played by the Capriol Consort, a group of four young ladies from the Dublin area. Playing on what to my untutored eyes looked like mock medieval wind instruments the sound produced was cultivated to let ones mind slip back in time to the days of Manorial celebrations in Woodstock Castle.

Mary Thompson, a Dublin based educationalist, gave a resume of C. Day Lewis's life and work and highlighted his importance in the literary world. Others to contribute included John MacKenna, described in the programme as "a prolific writer" when surely he is more aptly named as one of Ireland's most promising young writers. James O'Keeffe who is making a name for himself with his writings gave us a number of short poems including one entitled "A Gardener of Sorts" which I heard him repeat on Sunday Miscellany the following morning.

A very talented writer whose work is surely deserving of publication in his own collection is Dom Brennan who gave us a reading which was well received. His poem on the bewigged gentlemen of the Law circling the Courthouse in Athy on Court day was a gem.

There were many other contributors both musical and literary but one which I thought was particularly good was Canon William Beere's rendition of a Thomas Moore ballad. I would have liked to have heard more from the Canon whose rich mellifluous voice easily filled the Church of St. Brigids.

During the break I paid a visit to the Kelly family vault which is in the Church grounds where Rev. Thomas Kelly is buried with his wife and some of his children. Founder of the Kellyites he is today remembered as Irelands foremost hymn writer. No less than seven editions of his Church Hymnal were published during his lifetime and the last edition included 765 of his hymns.

"We sing the praise of Him who died" and "The Head that once was crowned with thorns" are two of his many hymns which are still included in modern day Church hymnals. Three of his well known missionary hymns are "On the mountain top appearing", "Zions King Shall Reign Victorious" and "Speed Thy Servants, Saviour Speed Them".

In this year of commemoration for the victims of the Famine it is well to know what is written of him by Miller in "The Singer and Songs of the Church" published in 1869. There Kelly was described as "admirable alike for his zeal and his humility and his liberality found ample scope in Ireland especially during the years of the Famine". Tradition relates that his uncle who was the Catholic Archbishop of Tuam while on a visit to Judge Kelly's house in Kellyville lost a number of valuables following which the cleric rather unkindly is supposed to have claimed "The larks will not sing over Kellyville, Till the large oak falls against the wind".

Whether the oak ever fell I cannot say, but certainly Saturday night in St. Brigid's Church as the dusk fell around us was the place to be. Well done Athy Writers Group and well done Bruce Yates.

Friday, June 23, 1995

Henry Grattan Donnelly

Although of medium height, his distinctive appearance and bearing made him readily recognisable as he walked each day between his house in Emily Square and his office in Duke Street. He was always dressed on office days in the dark suit much favoured by the legal fraternity, and had a walking stick and a hat which covered a head of white hair. He was generally accompanied, even on this short trip through the town, by his wife Monica, because Henry Grattan Donnelly, bearer of a name famous in Irish history, was blind. Despite this disability, he successfully carried on a flourishing legal practice in Athy.

Born in Belfast in 1884, he attended Clongowes Wood College in Clane and later King’s Inns in Dublin where he qualified as a barrister. He had a short spell practising at the Bar before his eyesight failed him, and at 26 years of age he was blind. He retired from the Bar in order to qualify as a solicitor, and in 1915, he established a solicitor’s practice in Baltinglass, Co. Wicklow.

Residing at Griesbank, Ballytore, the former home of Abraham Shackleton, the third master of Ballytore School, his expanding practice necessitated the opening of an additional office at Duke Street, Athy, in the early 1920’s. Branch offices were maintained in Baltinglass, which he attended once a week and in Dunlavin, where his attendance was once a fortnight. In his work he was greatly assisted by his wife Monica who read to him the statutes, the law books and the case law, a knowledge of which, is an essential requirement for the efficient operation of any law office.

In 1931 Henry Grattan Donnelly and his family moved to the Abbey in Emily Square, Athy which was vacated by Dr. Jeremiah O’Neill and his family when they went to live in Mount Offaly House on the Carlow Road. The Donnelly children included Deirdre and Mairead, both now married, Desmond who is a Queen’s Counsel in Hong Kong, Barry who is still practising in the firm founded by his father in Athy, and Michael a solicitor in his own law practice in Carlow. The Abbey is that part of the building nearest to the River Barrow, while adjoining it, and to its rear, is another house which in 1931 was occupied by Telford’s. Following Telford’s, it was to be home of Dr. Joe O’Neill and his young family, before he purchased Athy Lodge from Dr. Denis Kilbride.

As Henry Grattan Donnelly’s law practice developed, he was assisted by staff which included an apprentice solicitor, Donal Carbery, a cousin of the late Joe Carbery of St. John’s House. Johnny Watchorn, now a stalwart of Athy Lion’s Club and a director of Maxwell’s Garage, was his law clerk for six or seven years in the early 1940’s. Secretary in the office was Alice O’Rourke. Johnny Watchorn attended the local District Courts in Athy, Castledermot, Baltinglass and Monasterevin with Henry Grattan Donnelly, helping him with his various papers and taking notes. In the evening Johnny took on an entirely different role when he appeared in the Town Hall and other local venues as Magino, a ventriloquist act, which proved very popular during the 1940’s.

Just before the outbreak of World War II, Henry Grattan Donnelly, who up to then, always used a walking stick, went to Liverpool to receive training in the use of a guide dog. There he stayed for a few days, where with the help of Captain Liakhoff, a Russian expatriate, he became acquainted with the guide dog which was to be his constant companion for the rest of his life.

When he returned from Liverpool, Henry Grattan Donnelly was only the second blind person in Ireland to have a guide dog. The first was Stuart Browne of Oldtown, Nurney, who died quite recently. The alsatian dog, which Henry brought from Liverpool, accompanied him everywhere and it was a familiar sight in Athy, bringing his master to and from his offices in Duke Street.

Donal Carbery duly qualified as a solicitor, and left to practice elsewhere, but he returned following the death of Henry Grattan Donnelly at the age of 61 years in 1945. By then his son Barry Donnelly was an apprentice solicitor, but the services of a qualified solicitor were required to keep the practice operating until he qualified. On qualifying as a solicitor, Barry returned to Athy as the second generation of the Donnelly family in a law practice which continues today, still retaining the name of its founder, H.G. Donnelly.

Friday, June 16, 1995

Letters from the Front - Leslie and Ian Hannon

I received in the post quite recently, a small bundle of old letters neatly kept together in a box, which itself was evidently of great age. They were sent to me by David Hannon, brother of Bishop Hannon of Clogher, both of whom are sons of the late Archdeacon Gordan Hannon. It was the second time that some of these letters were delivered to Ardreigh House. On the last occasion their letters arrived in Athy, Leslie Hannon and his brother Ian Hannon were writing to their parents, John and Martha Hannon.

Mr. and Mrs. Hannon and their eight children moved to Ardreigh House Athy in 1910 from Prumplestown House, Castledermot when John took charge of the Ardreigh Mills, following the death of his brother Harry. Their four sons Reggie, Gordon, Ian and Leslie and their daughters Gladys, Marjorie, Eileen and Ethel spent many happy days in the idyllic surroundings of Ardreigh, an area immortalised in the poetry of Rev. J.J. Malone who was a native of Barrowhouse.

Gordon Hannon entered Trinity College Dublin and studied for the Church of Ireland. He later began his clerical career as a curate in Dublin. His brothers, Norman Leslie, commonly known as “Leslie”, and John Coulson known as “Ian”, enlisted in the British Army during the first year of the Great War, as did so many of their neighbours from Athy. Both were commissioned as Lieutenants in the 7th Kings Liverpool Regiment.

Leslie’s letters home to his parents and to his brother Gordon are full of the excitement of a young man barely out of his teens who found himself caught up in the comraderie and friendship known only to men who endure common hardship and deprivation. “More power to your elbow”, he wrote in pencil on a scrap of paper to his brother Gordon, not yet a Minister of the Church of Ireland, from somewhere in France just eight days before he died. The letter dated Saturday 8th May was enclosed in an envelope postmarked 9th May 1915, and it may have reached his brother Gordon before 20 year old Leslie was killed in action in Festubert on the 16th of May 1915. The line, “Remember me to all the lads”, written across the side of the one page letter, strikes a poignant note even now after the lapse of 80 years.

Another letter dated 18th August 1915 was sent to the Hannon family by a companion of their son Norman Leslie who relates how he went to Richborg and “settled up Leslie’s grave”. Reference was also made to a poem written by the Brigade Doctor, which had earlier been forwarded to Mrs. Hannon in Ardreigh House. The opening lines ran :

“Staunch comrade, brave soldier, too soon fallen out,
I think of you stretched near the German redoubt,
With your blue Irish eyes gazing far into space,
And the pallor of death on your fearless young face.
And I picture the night when our friendship was sworn,
When you stood up and sang us “The Mountains of Mourne.”

Many of the letters and field service postcards from Ian Hannon were sent to his brother Gordon and in a letter dated 2nd August 1916, just sixteen days before he was killed, he mentions having met “Tom Perse on one of my rambles.” Tom was an Athy man from the Ardreigh area who survived the War.

On the 27th of May of the same year, in a letter to his father, Ian wrote :

“there was a great festival on in the Square yesterday, about 20 French and 70 English heroes were decorated by an English and a French General. There was a Russian chap present also and I believe Conan Doyle was there.”

Later in the same letter, Ian referred to the good days fishing which his father had recently enjoyed. On the 18th of August 1916 Ian Hannon was killed in action aged 24 years.

The loss of his two sons proved a severe blow for John Hannon and he was to die tragically by his own hand at Ardreigh House, just ten days before his son Gordon’s wedding in April 1923. Within two years, the Hannon Mills at Ardreigh and at the bridge in the centre of Athy, were to close for the last time.

Friday, June 9, 1995

Minch Nortons

In the days before the licensing laws became all pervasive ale houses, taverns and inns were to be found everywhere. The ale house sold ale and beer only while the tavern in addition supplied wine. The inn not only provided drink but also food and shelter.

The production of alcohol, now very much a large scale operation centred in but a few locations in Ireland, was once a cottage industry. Every town and village, indeed every ale house and tavern produced its own alcoholic drink. Breweries and distilleries were few and far between but in time they were established in large towns where a good supply of water was to be had and where there was ready access to markets. Athy, long famous for its substantial number of public houses was the centre of small scale brewing and distilling industries in the 18th century.

An important element of the brewing and distilling process is malt which is germinated barley. The grains of barley are allowed to begin germinating in controlled conditions of humidity and temperature and then dried to arrest the conversion of starch to sugar. This was originally done by soaking the barley grains and leaving them to germinate on floors requiring extensive premises easily recognisable by their pyramidal roofs with capped vents.

The largest producer of malt in Ireland is Minch Nortons which was first established in Athy in 1847 by the Minch family. It was not until 1921 that M.J. Minch & Son amalgamated with P.R. Norton to form Minch Norton Limited.

The original Minch Maltings was believed to have been in Offaly Street on the site of the former Picture Palace and in Stanhope Street between the Parish Priest's house and a small house once occupied by the Wall family. Here floor malting was carried out on the large floor space provided for the soaked grain to begin to germinate. Men were employed to turn the barley and upwards of 130 men once formed the backbone of the Minch Norton Malting Works in Athy.

Nowadays with machine malting, first introduced to Ireland and to Athy in 1959 with the commissioning of the Wanderhaufen plant the numbers employed have dropped dramatically. Despite this additional new plants have increased the malting capacity of the Athy factory so that today it has become the largest producer of malt in Ireland.

Some of the older residents of Athy and certainly the Minch Norton workers will recall the names which were given to some of the malting buildings over 90 years ago. Immediately opposite the Duck Press Restaurant is "Ladysmith", so called because of the involvement of a number of employees of Minch & Son in the siege of Ladysmith during the Boer War. On the 2nd of November, 1899 the Boers laid siege troops to the English at Ladysmith and the entrapped garrison was not relieved until the 28th of February, 1900 in an action which marked a turning point in the Boer War. Unfortunately I have not been able to identify the Athy men who were involved. I also understand that the first batch of asbestos corrugated sheeting produced in Ireland at the then new Asbestos Factory in Athy was put on the Ladysmith building to replace the original timber roofing.

Directly opposite the small houses on Canal Side is another malting building which like its neighbour bears a name which recalls another long forgotten battle. "Port Arthur" was the name of the siege which took place during the Russo-Japanese War of 1904/1905. There can be no question of any Athy men participating in that conflict so presumably the siege, which lasted from May 1904 to January 1905, captured the publics imagination and being so reminiscent of the earlier Ladysmith Siege prompted the naming of the building.

Nowadays Minch Nortons, as it is still called by the locals despite the inter-Company amalgamations and take-overs which have occurred in recent years, continues to occupy an extremely important place in the economic life of Athy. The intake of barley in July and August leads to a year long activity centred around its drying, storing and malting, giving employment to upwards of 60 or so persons at managerial, staff and operative levels.

In two years time Minch Nortons will celebrate 150 years in Athy and perhaps it is now an appropriate time to consider the possibility of recording and displaying the history of malting in Athy in a manner and in a setting which will complement the Company's present operations and add to the heritage status of our town.