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.

Friday, August 11, 1995

Hickey Family Higginsons Lane and Blackpool

Is it my imagination, or is there really a huge influx of overseas visitors in Athy at the present time? I have never before seen so many visitors/tourists in the town and wonder whether the combination of good weather and the breaking out of peace in Northern Ireland has led many to venture across the sea. Whatever the cause, it is a welcome development, and one which we should do everything in our power to encourage.

During the week I had a visit from four interesting persons from Blackpool in England. They are more correctly termed visitors, given their past links with Athy, as distinct from tourists who arrive in our town without any previous attachment to draw them here. Mike Hickey and his wife were on their way to Kenmare, Co. Kerry with his first cousin Eileen Bradshaw and her husband. It was his first time in Athy and he was looking for Higginson’s Lane where his grandparents John and Catherine Hickey lived many years ago.

Higginson’s Lane once ran between Woodstock Street and The Pavements which is now incorporated into Nelson Street, and remains today as a cul-de-sac approached only from Woodstock Street. The Nelson Street end has been closed off and there is only one house in the lane, erected some years ago for Norman and Patricia Glynn.

When John and Catherine Hickey lived in Higginson’s Lane with their young family it was home to a number of families and indeed the entire area was heavily populated with houses in Nelson Street, The Pavements, Shrewleen Lane and New Gardens. The houses which occupied those streets and laneways are now all gone, demolished during the slum clearance programme of the 1930’s and later. A row of recently-built two storey houses now occupies one side of Shrewleen Lane with the KARE building on the opposite side of the street. Mr. and Mrs. Hickey had six children, Patrick the eldest son born in 1896, Andrew, Michael, Joseph, William and Mary Ann. Mrs. Hickey died in 1915 of tuberculosis in what her grandson refers to as “the Workhouse”. “St. Vincent’s Hospital”, as it is now known, was called the Workhouse in those days, a throwback to the famine years of seventy years previously. However, it is more likely that his grandmother, who was Catherine Walsh before she married, died in the fever hospital, which was located immediately beyond the Workhouse.

When Britain declared War on Germany on 4th August, 1914 the regular soldiers were dispatched to France. Those in the Reserve Forces were also called up, and a drive for new recruits, spearheaded by Kitchener, swept throughout Ireland and England. Young Athy men caught up in the euphoria of the time and undoubtedly eager to see foreign lands enlisted in their hundreds. After all the pay was good and hadn’t everyone said the War would be over before Christmas. It was not to be, but before the two hundred and twenty nine-week long conflict ended on the 11th of November 1918, three of Patrick Hickey’s sons had joined up.

Patrick, the eldest son, was the first to enlist and he was joined by his younger brothers Andrew and Joseph. Another brother, Michael, mysteriously and without explanation, disappeared without trace, on his way to London. He was never seen or heard of again. Joseph, a Corporal in the Royal Dublin Fusiliers, was killed in action in France on the 21st of April 1917. Only two of Patrick Hickey’s sons returned from the War and on demobilisation, Patrick and Andrew joined their youngest brother William in Blackpool. Before long their sister Mary Ann and their father Patrick emigrated from Athy, and the Hickey family settled down in the Lancashire seaside resort.

Andrew Hickey later left for America where he worked for the Ford motor company in Detroit. At the height of the Depression the obviously adventurous young man decided to try his luck in Russia. A few weeks spent there was sufficient to disabuse him of whatever notion of advancement he had hoped for in the Soviet Republic, and with some difficulty he returned to America. There he resumed his work with Ford’s of Detroit, the largest car company in the world. When he eventually retired, he spent the rest of his life travelling the world. He died in 1984, aged 85 years, having travelled extensively and could boast at never having owned a motor car, although he had spent most of his working life in an automobile factory.

Patrick Hickey Jnr. visited Athy in 1965 when he was 69 years of age and almost fifty years after he had left Higginson’s Lane to enlist in the Royal Dublin Fusiliers. He spent a few days in the town and not a little money buying “rounds” for some of the locals, in what I understand, was an unsuccessful attempt to meet anyone who remembered his family in Higginson’s Lane. He returned to Blackpool a very disappointed man, but his son Mike has now come to Athy seeking to make contact with his family’s past.

On this trip he was accompanied by his cousin Eileen Bradshaw, daughter of Mary Ann Hickey, who had joined her brothers in Blackpool at the end of the Great War. Mary Ann, who died in 1991, married a South African, James Cromblehome, and was never again to see the town of her birth. Mary Ann’s father, John Hickey, who also emigrated to Blackpool died there in 1937.

The story of John and Catherine Hickey and their family is a familiar one of death and emigration. From a deprived background, their children obviously worked hard to make their way in life and by all accounts succeeded well in doing so. Mike Hickey, grandson of the unfortunate woman who died of TB in the Workhouse in 1915, is now a senior executive with the HP Food Company. His continuing search for his roots is one which all of us at some time or other contemplate for our own family past. After all the search for roots is the passion of this rootless age. We may not always act out our inquisitive impulses, but perhaps if we did, we too would learn of the hardships and sorrows endured with dignity by those who have gone before us.

To understand our past, is to appreciate the sacrifices others made at times when it was not always easy to do so. To ignore our roots is to miss out on important elements of our life story, and perhaps even, to overlook the lessons of history and the value of family ties extending over generations. For Mike Hickey and Eileen Bradshaw, I hope there will be a successful conclusion to the search for their hidden past.

Friday, August 4, 1995

John Farrell

At six foot, three inches high and weighing twenty stone, he was clearly a man of considerable stature. Indeed, one of the Irish national newspapers stated such when headlining a story concerning his unsuccessful legal case arising out of the sale of Kilkea Castle in 1958. John Farrell was an entrepreneur at a time when Irish society was breaking free of the cocoon of latter day commercial feudalism, which was the hallmark of English and Irish relations up to the 1920’s.

In the early 1920’s, John Farrell went to train as a pig jobber with Nurney’s of Annaghknock. Before long, he had embarked on his first business venture, one of many over the succeeding years. A pony and cart was the usual mode of transport in those days, and trips as far afield as Athlone were not uncommon for John Farrell when selling pigs.

In 1924 John, now married, went to Ballylinan where he opened a butcher’s shop. The purchase of a Citroen car led to the start of a hackney business, but before long the butchering business came to an end, as the mining industry in the locality wound down.

John purchased a truck in 1926. A Federal truck, the first of its kind in Ballylinan, it plied its trade between Hannon’s Mills and the Barrow Drainage Scheme in the early years. The creamery in Aughaboura later provided more work for John Farrell’s truck before he embarked on the steady, and presumably more lucrative, business of delivering Guinness from Dublin to Athy.

Business opportunities presented themselves in many ways, and in 1928 it was the purchase of a wooden canteen hut from Thompson’s of Gracefield for £25, which opened the door to the world of show business, for John Farrell. The hut, erected where Whelan’s garage is now located in Ballylinan, was the venue for Sunday night dances and weekday variety shows. He subsequently sold the hut in 1934 to a local committee. In 1936, was held the first of the hugely popular carnivals in Ballylinan, and John Farrell’s lorry, suitably decorated, was an important part of the marketing and advertising campaign for the event. Live music was provided, as the truck went around the country, ferrying a galaxy of musicians including Jimmy Bachelor as vocalist, Joe Kelly of The Pike and the Hughes’ brothers of Rosebran on violins, “Thrush” Kelly on bones, Casey Dempsey on banjo and Pat Eston on mouth-organ.

Another of John Farrell’s business ventures was the growing of chicory on his land at Whitebog during World War II. J.J. Bergin of Maybrook had established a plant for cleaning and cutting the chicory, which was then sold on to Dublin merchants for the manufacture of coffee. Local farmers were encouraged to get involved in chicory farming, but the intensive labour involved in harvesting the purple root crop which resembled a large carrot, coupled with diminishing financial returns, soon led to the abandonment of chicory growing in the area.

The 1940’s was the heyday of fairs in Athy and in the Square fronting onto Blanchfields, “Golly” Germaines and Nolan’s at the top of Leinster Street, the cattle fair was officially sited, although it spilled over onto Leinster Street. The story of John Farrell’s cow being led by his son Freddie to the Leinster Street fair is still remembered by some of the old residents. Apparently young Fred was pulling the reluctant cow by a rope slung around its neck, and passing Dan Lynam’s harness-makers shop in Duke Street, the cow showed a remarkable reluctance to go any further. Despite Fred’s best efforts the cow retraced its steps pulling Fred along and when it encountered Ned Ward pushing a hand cart with meat destined for his shop in Stanhope Street, the cow in attempting to jump over the cart, scattering its contents around Duke Street. The youthful Fred, mortified by what had happened, thought it best to allow the cow its head, and home it returned without further mishap.

The spirit of entrepreneurship did not desert John Farrell, when one day drawing lump lime in his truck for John Behan of Ballylinan, his journey ended in Arklow. Finding himself on the quays as the fishing boats came in after a days fishing, he could not resist the urge to bid at the subsequent fish auction and ended up with a truck load of herrings. A quick wash of the truck removed all traces of the earlier lime cargo, and loading up he returned to Athy early the following morning. Setting up a stall in Emily Square, he sold his load of herrings before evening, providing for himself an unexpected financial bonanza, and for the locals, possibly the first fresh sea fish they ever had on their dinner table.

For every successful venture there was almost inevitably one where the financial rewards were less than adequate. Such was the case when John Farrell, in preparing for a trip to collect coal from Donnellys yard in John Rogerson’s Quay in Dublin, decided to bring up a load of berried holly from Athy for the Dublin Christmas market. An earlier than usual start to the day was required, when, with the help of Joe Kelly and Paddy Farrell, the holly was cut and loaded into the truck. A couple of balls of malt was called for to slake the thirst of the workers, before John set off for Dublin in high expectation of another financial killing. It was not however to be, as John ended up with the sum of 17/6 for his effort, barely enough to cover the cost of the drinks.

In 1958 John Farrell attended the auction of Kilkea Castle, then on the market with 200 acres and fishing rights on the River Greise. The property was knocked down for £58,000 and John, who believed he had made the final bid, subsequently went to law in an unsuccessful attempt to secure the property. John, who retired in 1961, died the following year. He was survived by his wife Mary Josephine, his son Freddie and daughter Mona. His story is a fascinating one, of a man with drive and initiative, not afraid of taking risks and always prepared to face the future with a confidence born of a strong belief in his own abilities.