Friday, October 27, 1995

Leighton Buzzard

I was reminded of the power and universality of music when attending Mass in Leighton Buzzard, an English town in Bedfordshire last weekend. Rev. Thomas Kelly, a native of Ballintubbert, Athy, who died in 1855 left us a huge number of Church hymns, one of which broke pleasantly into life as the small congregation sang Kelly’s “The head that once was crowned with thorns”. The Little Church of the Sacred Heart, tucked neatly and unobtrusively behind a row of terraced houses in the small English town, echoed to words and music which no doubt were often heard in the Kellyite Meeting House in Duke Street during Kelly’s lifetime.

The beautiful narrow boats, moored on the Grand Union Canal, which cuts through Leighton Buzzard and neighbouring Linslade, were another reminder of my home town where the Grand Canal, like its English counterpart, helped to transform a once quiet country town. I have no reason to believe that Rev. Thomas Kelly ever set foot in this small town in Bedfordshire, where last Sunday, some of the locals were offering up their Sabbath tribute using the words of the man who often preached from the pulpit of St. Michael’s Anglican Church in Athy.

Later that day, I stopped off at a local country pub a few miles outside Aylesbury, another town on the Grand Union Canal, immortalised as the home of the “Aylesbury Duck”. The “Wool Pack” was the name of the Inn, which, in the best English Landlord tradition, offered a good substantial meal, as well as liquid refreshment, for the weary traveller. The name Wool Pack is of course a reference to the wool trade, which for centuries was the mainstay of English rural prosperity. The process of converting the wool from fleece into cloth varied little over the centuries. Fleece was graded and packed into wool sacks which were of a regulated size. Each wool sack was suspended from a roof beam and two wool packers were employed to stand into the huge wool sack using their feet to tread down each layer of fleece. When filled, the packers stepped out backwards, sewing up the sacks which was then marked ready to be carted away. The name Wool Pack generally referred to the barn where this activity was carried out. I am reminded that in Wolfhill there is a pub with the name “The Wolf Pack”, perhaps a corruption of the better known Wool Pack, but maybe also a reference to the placename Wolfhill, once a woodland countryside where wolves proliferated in the early middle ages.

Later that day I met an interesting man fast approaching his 82nd year whose late brother was the first Australian Ambassador to Ireland. John Roberthaun, a book publisher now retired, travelled on bicycle from what he referred to as “Londonderry” to Cork in the Summer of 1936. He passed through the Irish midlands on undulating roads with little or no motorised traffic. The colourful scenery made a lasting impression on the young man, who almost 60 years later still recalls the green swarth which cloaked the countryside and the abundant hedgerows which traversed the countryside in what Dick Warner would refer to as “corridors of wilderness”.

Approaching Athy from the Dublin direction he cycled over the railway bridge, where the steam train passed under as it travelled twice daily to and from Dublin with its multi-class passengers. This was the age of the second and third class passengers who shared nothing in common with the first class passengers but the engine which pulled their carriages. A foreign visitor on bicycle was an unusual sight in Athy of the 1930’s and no doubt he aroused the curiosity of the locals as he dismounted at McGrath’s Tea Rooms in Leinster Street, to partake of dinner consisting of bacon, cabbage and potatoes.

Whites Castle in the centre of the town “at the foot of the bridge” and the Town Hall in Emily Square, are the only local buildings John Roberthaun recalled from that short visit so many years ago. The Irish countryside made an indelible impression on the young visitor which the intervening years have not tended to dull. He regrets never having the opportunity to retrace his youthful journey.

Earlier that morning in the same Church where I heard Thomas Kelly’s hymn, the Parish Priest conducted a Mass service which was a rare treat. He communicated with his small congregation in a way which was endearing and captivating, embracing visitors and locals alike in the camaraderie and warmth of a service which was uplifting and appealing. When I spoke to him later to discover that he was an Anglican-born convert or revert to Catholicism, I could not help drawing comparisons with Thomas Kelly, the Anglican, who left the Church of England to found his own religious sect.

I wondered did he ever imagine that 140 years after his own death, his hymns would continue to find a place in Catholic as well as Anglican worship throughout the English speaking world? Last Sunday I recalled an earlier visit to Kelly’s last resting place in Ballintubbert, Co. Laois and acknowledged that no matter where we may travel there is always someone, some place or something to remind us of our own place. Such was my experience last weekend in Leighton Buzzard.

Friday, October 20, 1995

Guide Books on Athy and their Advertisements

Old guide books on Athy give a wealth of information on past business life in the town, and comparisons show how much the town has changed in the intervening years. The Annals of Athy compiled by Michael Malone, a former Chairman of the Urban Council, which appeared in the early 1930’s was the first guide book produced for the town. In it, the Leinster Arms Hotel Company Limited took a full page advertisement which extolled its qualities as a “First Class Family and Commercial Hotel, fully licensed with free garage”. Another full-page advertisement accompanied by a photograph was for Murphy’s Commercial House, a general drapery and boot and shoe warehouse, where furniture, bedding, Irish tweeds and linens were sold. Murphy’s is long gone, as is J. Hutchinson, Electrical Contractor of Leinster Street who advised his customers that he was “an expert in wiring business houses and private dwellings for electric light”. He gave his address in Leinster Street as the “Central Hotel”, which is now the location of Bradbury’s restaurant.

Industrial Vehicles (Ireland) Limited, manufacturers of the “Universal” Tractor Trailer and main Fordson Tractor Dealers, promised service and satisfaction and a guarantee that “repairs to tractors, trailers, lorries and cars would be expeditiously carried out by qualified mechanics.” Further on in the Annals we find the Hibernian Hotel of Leinster Street, owned by Mrs. Lawlor, advertising moderate terms for its centrally situated accommodation “Close to Railway Station, Buses pass the door”. Michael Lawlor of the same family advertised as a Family Grocer, Tea, Wine and Provision Merchant.

All are now gone, as is W.S. Cross, Plumber and Domestic Engineer of Duke Street whose advertisement was next to that of F.J. Darling’s Ladies’ and Gentlemen’s Hairdressing Saloons of 28 Leinster Street, and Jackson Bros. General Merchants and Automobile and Electrical Engineers of 58 Leinster Street. St. John Jeweller, Athy, advertised a full range of wedding and birthday gifts with watches, artistic jewellery, silver broaches and fountain pens while Duthie Large & Co. Ltd. were automobile and agricultural engineers with a Ford Motor Company agency. Others who advertised in the Annals included Thomas L. Flood, a Family Grocer, Spirit and Provision Merchant in the Railway Hotel, Leinster Street who specialised in fifteen-year old whiskey and Purcell Bros. who carried on business in William Street, as well as Market Square, Maryboro. D. & J. Carbery Building Contractors paid particular attention to house repairs and sanitary alterations and had Joinery Works in Athy and Carlow.

These businesses are no longer to be found in Athy and of the advertisers in the Annals over 60 years ago only two businesses survive, Shaw & Sons and McHugh’s Pharmacy.

Many years later, “Athy Official Guide” was published with the approval of Athy Urban District Council. I can only hazard a guess that it was printed in the mid-1950’s, as unfortunately there is no publication date on the booklet itself. Of the businesses which advertised in the Annals 25 years previously only D.P. McHugh, Dispensing Chemist, Duthie Large Ltd. and Shaw & Sons Ltd. were again to be found. Those advertising for the first time included Carlow Kildare Livestock Ltd. which held monthly sales in Athy, Carlow and Bagenalstown, and Michael Cunningham of William Street a Tea, Wine, Spirit and Provision Merchant. W. T. Duthie, Watchmaker and Jeweller offered guaranteed repairs, gramophone records, musical instruments, engagement and wedding rings, crest of Athy souvenir goods and fishing tackle. Located at 30 Leinster Street, the business was established in 1905 and happily is still occupying a commanding position on the principal street of the town. The Kildare County Show was advertised as the event of the year scheduled for the second week of July with the largest Industrial Exhibition outside Dublin and Cork Shows.

O’Rourke-Glynn Stores offered souvenirs of Athy and urged all to “make a habit of visiting our Gents Hairdressing Saloon”. M. O’Connor of Leinster Street advertised Helena Rubinstein Real Silk Face Powder with the claim, “You’ll never be lovelier”. Maxwells Garage Duke Street, Athy, was the simple message of the advertisement which marked the entry of one of the few businesses still operating in the town. Nolan’s General Drapers of Duke Street, specialists in Ladies and Gents outfitting, is now long gone as are Doyle Brothers Ltd., Hardwaremen, Fuel Merchants and Electrical Contractors. The biggest loss to the town was undoubtedly that of the final advertiser in the Guide Book of 40 years ago. Bowaters Irish Wallboard Mills Ltd. informed the readers :

“New plant and machinery at the Mills have sent production figures up and up. Soon the output will reach 50 million square feet of hardboard per year. For house, factory, or farm, Bowater Board has 101 uses and is available from your local stockists.”

Many of us will recall the advertisers of yesteryear, who are no longer part of the business life of Athy. That there has been so many changes in the years since the publication of the Annals of Athy and the later publication of the Official Guide to Athy is not unexpected. The constant movement of people in and out of the town is a perennial experience and the changing names over local businesses must be a reminder to us of the importance of the written record in preserving the history of our own place.

Friday, October 13, 1995


The Great Famine Exhibition continues in the local Town Hall, showing a number of interesting artefacts relating to that terrible time in our history. The mock-up Soup Kitchen has a huge famine pot, which I understand is on loan from the Lullymore Heritage Centre, and is a direct link with the famine of 150 years ago. It prompted me to question my own knowledge and understanding of the hardships endured by the Irish following the arrival of the potato blight from North America in 1845.

Living today in the rich heartland of County Kildare, it is difficult to appreciate the suffering and deprivation endured by those unfortunate people whose main source of food was the potato. One searches in vain through the history books for any reference to famine in Athy and South Kildare. When I attended the local Christian Brothers School my knowledge of the Great Famine was confined to the dreadful happenings in Skibbereen, Schull and West Cork and in the region of Bangor Erris, Co. Mayo. Thousands of men, women and children died of starvation, disease or fever in the West of Ireland and our history books recounted in a detached but factual way the awful tragedies which visited those far-flung corners of our island.

The famine details and descriptions I read in my school days failed to arouse any deep-seated response largely because they related to people who were so far removed from my own area. My reaction, or lack or it, was no doubt typical of what occurs today when one reads of famine on another Continent. The horror of the moment eludes us and prompts no more than a temporary blimp on our conscience.

What a surprise therefore awaited me when I was asked to write a piece for a forthcoming publication on the Great Famine in County Kildare. My research produced results which prompted an immediate re-assessment of the effects of the Famine of 150 years ago on Athy and the surrounding countryside.

I was previously aware, as we all had been, of the opening of a Workhouse in the town of Athy in 1844. It has always been presumed that the Workhouse had met the demands of the poor and hungry of the locality, thereby minimising local distress and hardship during the famine. Nothing had come down to us in folk memory which would give us any idea of the nature and extent of the famine relief measures in South Kildare.

To find that 1,205 poor persons died in the local Workhouse during the Famine years and another 1,250 or so either died or left Athy in the same period, was unwelcome confirmation that our townspeople had suffered great hardships during the famine. However, the loss of life was considerably less in South Kildare than in the rural areas on the Western seaboard where there was a greater dependency on the potato crop.

Another famine fact gleaned from my research, showed that in the Athy Electoral Area, over 3,000 people received food each day from the local Soup Kitchen. The television images of Famine Relief work in Rwanda and elsewhere can help us to visualise the scenes on the streets of Athy as people gathered for the daily ration of bread and soup. How sad it is to relate that in the Ballyadams area, almost 100% of the population had recourse to the local Soup Kitchen for their daily sustenance.

Why had so much local hardship endured during the years of the Great Famine escaped our notice when we studied that period of Irish history? Why did we not know that the inmates in the local Workhouse increased at such a rate that two auxiliary Workhouses had to be opened in Barrack Street and Canal Side to accommodate the starving, helpless poor of the area? Why did we not know of the young girls from our area sent from Athy Workhouse to Australia in 1849 in a futile attempt to reduce the number of children in the local Workhouse?

The Great Famine is part of our troubled past as much as it is of those towns in the west of Ireland, where the human losses were numerically far greater than ours. The legacy of the Famine was overlooked and pushed from the collective memory in South Kildare, almost as if there was a hurried rush to bury an unpleasant experience. The full facts surrounding those dreadful times may never be fully known, but we have a responsibility to acknowledge our past, no matter how unpleasant it may be.

Perhaps it is now time for us to remember those who faced into the famine of 1845 and the succeeding years without hope, and who succumbed before the dreaded potato blight had departed. It would be an appropriate act of remembrance to commemorate in stone our famine dead with a suitable memorial in the graveyard attached to the former Workhouse. I wonder if the Eastern Health Board and the Town Council might take up the suggestion so that our once hidden past may not be entirely forgotten.

Friday, October 6, 1995

Rheban Castle

A poem by the Bard Ferganin McKeogh celebrates the predatory excursion of Shaun O’Byrne, of Glenmalure in the 16th century when he attacked the “royal town of Caislean Rheban and gained much treasure which spread his fame”. Today, all that remains of this once important town are the fragmentary remains of Rheban Castle guarding the Ford on the Barrow near Athy as it has for many centuries. The ford was an important route not only in the medieval period but also in prehistoric times as is shown by the quantity and variety of stone axes and other prehistoric objects recovered from this crossing point during the Barrow drainage scheme in the 1920’s. From the 13th century onwards the town and castle of Rheban formed an important link in the defence of the developing county of Kildare. In 1288, the Justiciar who was the King’s representative in Ireland, spent four days in Rheban supervising the construction of defences in this dangerous and volatile border area of the country.

The castle was an important element of this defence and the earliest reference to it is from 1297 when the unfortunate Geoffrey Tauel was taken from his home near the castle and killed by three of the O’Mores of Leix.

This incident is an indication of the lawlessness prevalent in the area in the year in which Kildare was established as a county by King Edward I. Incidentally I hope that Kildare County Council will ensure that the 700th anniversary of the Lilywhite county will be suitably commemorated in two years’ time.

In 1325 Lysagh O’More captured eight castles in the area of Kildare and Laois, including Dunamaise and Rheban. Thereafter little is know of Rheban town or the castle until the 16th century when it was again subject to violent attacks by the O’Mores.

A letter to Thomas Cromwell, the Lord Privy Seal, in 1536, described both the castles of Rheban and Woodstock as “laid waste” and recommended their re-occupation and repair.

From the 13th century until the early 17th century, the castle was in the possession of the de St. Michael family, who are credited with the construction of Woodstock Castle in Athy and also the Priory of the Crouched Friars in the St. John’s area of the town.

The fortunes of the de St. Michael family waned as those of the powerful Fitzgerald family increased. Their sole property by the middle of the 16th century was the castle at Rheban.

In the 16th century, it was leased by Walter de St. Michael to Captain Thomas Lee, an English settler, for a period of 21 years. Lee was executed in 1598 for co-operating with the O’Mores of Leix in opposing the English King.

Walter de St. Michael sought the return of the lands and castle which had been confiscated by the Crown while Sir Robert Lee, the brother of Thomas Lee, petitioned to have them kept within his family. His petition was successful and in 1612 his relation, Sir Henry Lee, was in possession of Rheban Castle.

The numerous references to the castle in the 13th century do not appear to refer to the structure surviving at the site today.

The earlier castle was probably constructed from timber, a common material in use for the building of castles at the beginning of the 13th century. The earliest extant structure dates from the 15th century and consists of a pair of barrel vaults which probably supported two storeys which are now destroyed. The base of the walls of this structure were protected by a battered face and by a series of arrow loops.

The destruction and damage to the castle by the O’Mores in 1537 was made good and a large impressive three-storey structure with mullioned windows was added to the south of the then existing building. It represented the transformation of the castle from a purely defensive structure to a more comfortable residence, akin to an early country house.

However, measures for defence were still taken with the addition of a small but lofty courtyard with special loops to allow the occupants to defend the castle. After 1600 the Rheban area enjoyed an era of relative calm until the unrest caused by the competing Royalist and Cromwellian armies in the 1640’s.

During that conflict Rheban Castle, like Athy town, was garrisoned by Government troops to protect the passes into Leix. Sir Arthur Savage, a distinguished commander in Queen Elizabeth’s time and Governor of Connacht had charge of the garrison in Rheban Castle.

Despite his best efforts, the castle was burnt by the Irish Rebels in 1641. Repaired, it was garrisoned again this time under Captain Flowers who was no more successful in protecting it against the Confederates to whom he surrendered Rheban in 1646.

By the time the English Parliamentary Forces had gained control over the country in the summer
of 1652, Rheban Castle and Woodstock Castle in Athy were in ruins and were never again to be occupied. Since that time the castle has fallen into ruin. The town of Rheban itself has long disappeared and the castle is the only remains of the flourishing settlement which once existed on the banks of the River Barrow.