Friday, November 24, 1995

Athy Artefacts in Maynooth College Museum

A few weeks ago I travelled to Maynooth College to attend the Annual General Meeting of the Federation of Local History Societies. With time to spare before the start of the meeting I had an opportunity of visiting the College Museum and viewing the many interesting artefacts of our ecclesiastical past. Two items were of particular interest. Both had an Athy provenance the first being a Holy Week book published in Paris in 1634. It was of the type used by priests during penal days and was found in an old building adjoining the Parochial House in Athy. Unfortunately there was no information available as to when it had been found and indeed I have not yet followed up my curiosity in this regard with a query to the College authorities.

The population of Athy in 1659 numbered 565 of which 83 were English settlers and 482 native Irish. In September 1653 Murdo McKenzy was directed to preach in Irish as well as in English as a Minister of the Established Church in the Athy area. Two years later the Dublin Castle authorities ordered that James Carey, a former Catholic Priest who had become a Minister of the State religion, preach in Irish in Trim and Athy. Before long Carey was to complain that the Athy people were very remiss in coming to hear him preach and that they preferred to spend the hours appointed for Church services in frequenting ale houses and indulging in "unwarranted exercises".

Whatever about the laxity in Church attendance there appears to have been some Catholics in Athy who conformed. The sincerity of the conformist was however doubted for in July 1654 an order was issued to John Murcit to examine the conversion of the native Irish about Athy who for that reason had been excused from transplanting to the West of Ireland with those who had opted for Connaught rather than hell. Murcit was enjoined to see "whether they have upon any conscientious grounds deserted popery or for any feigned considerations or by ends pretended the embracing of Protestantism."

In 1662 William Weldon M.P. for Athy and then residing in St. John's reported that two Catholic priests named Fitzgerald and Carroll daily frequented the place and "lately said Mass in the middle of the town several times". Maybe the Holy Week book now in Maynooth Museum belonged to one of these priests who have had good reason to hide it when it was not in use. The same Weldon reported that on a particular Sunday Fitzgerald was found "at his devotions" attended by five hundred people. Being arrested the Priest was rescued four times by the locals but was eventually taken prisoner by the soldiers. It was around this time that Fr. Raymond Moore, Prior of the Dominicans in Athy, was also arrested and imprisoned in Dublin where he died in 1665.

The second item in Maynooth Museum of local interest was a silver cup presented by the citizens of Athy to John Stoyt, Steward to the Duke of Leinster. The inscription on the cup read "Presented by the inhabitants of Athy to John Stoyt Esquire as a token of their appreciation of his upright and impartial conduct and the many services he has rendered to the town during his sovereignty September 29th 1795."

Stoyt was elected a Burgess of the town on the 29th of September 1791 in place of Sir Kildare Dixon Burrowes and served as Sovereign of Athy in 1794/95 and again in 1798/99. The Sovereign was the 18th century equivalent of the Council Chairman with substantially more powers than the present day office holder would have.

John Stoyt's house in Maynooth was acquired by the Trustees of the newly founded College in Maynooth in 1795 and Stoyt's house is today the principal building in the College complex which has grown over the past two hundred years.

It was an unexpected pleasure to encounter these two links with Athy's distant past in Maynooth College. Maybe some day when our long awaited Heritage Centre is up and running the silver cup and the Holy Week Book could be returned to Athy where they would form an important part of our town's story as presented in artefacts of the past preserved for the enjoyment and knowledge of the present generation.

Friday, November 17, 1995

Brian Fitzgerald and the Duck Press Restaurant

When the Grand Canal reached Athy in 1791 it marked a turning point in the towns fortunes. Thereafter the South Kildare town was to develop as a commercial centre which boosted and complemented its earlier role as a market town. The canal link which brought the capital within twelve hours of Athy's market inevitably led to a dramatic increase in market activity in the area. Produce brought into Athy by local farmers found its way to Dublin as a thriving carriage industry developed to supplement the Grand Canal Company's efforts. The trade was not one way and the boats returning from Dublin came loaded with merchants goods which soon adorned the shop windows of Athy. Truly could it be said of Athy then that it was taken on the grandeur and style of cosmopolitan Dublin.

Passenger services on the Grand Canal commenced with a 5.00 a.m. start from the canal basin in Athy. The ladies and gentlemen of the day delighted with the advances in travel made possible by the Canal thought little or nothing of the twelve hour journey to Dublin. Before the coming of the Canal the same journey was made on horseback or in carriages, on roads unsuited for the purpose and dangerous to all travellers. An early start on the canal journey necessitated sleeping accommodation being available for the travellers near to the canal basin and so it was that Canal Hotels were built. In Athy the fine two storey overbasement building which was later to become the Canal Company's offices was initially constructed as a small Hotel to accommodate travellers on the Grand Canal. Today it is home to the Duck Press Restaurant owned and managed by Brian Fitzgerald. Brian, born in West Ham in London in 1946 is a cockney who came to Athy in 1993 on acquiring the business from its founder owner Stephen Corcoran. As an East Londoner Brian has led a chequered career since he first went to work as a meat salesman in Smithfields markets in London at seventeen years of age. Memories of Stanley Holloway and Katherine Hepburn in "My Fair Lady" bring to mind scenes reminiscent of those encountered by Brian in his work first in the meat markets and later in Billingsgate Fish Market where he worked for two years. Experiences in the meat and fish markets led him to Covent Gardens Fruit Markets where he was a fruit salesman for three years. His years in the markets brought him in contact with many famous and some infamous characters. Billy Walker, Champion Heavyweight Boxer was a fish porter in Billingsgate in Brian's time while Kenny Lynch, Comedian and television personality, was another colleague who worked as a porter in Smithfield market. However the most intriguing relationship struck up by Brian was that with the notorious London criminals The Kray Twins. They were frequent visitors to the markets and the acquaintanceship extended to the Regency Club and the K. Club both of which were operated by the Kray Brothers.

It was with the financial backing of the Kray Twins that Brian first went into business on his own account when he opened up the Doric Restaurant in Attleborough in Norfolk. Three successful years there led to further business ventures which included two butcher shops in High Street, Walthenstone, London and a boning factory which he operated for Peter O'Sullivan the famous racing commentator in Long Stratham, Norwich. His final business venture in England was as proprietor of "The Old Crown" in Diss, Norfolk, a market pub.

Brian spent his early years in Plashet Road, West Ham, a stones throw away from the Grand Union Canal. He learned to swim as did his friends in the Canal at Stratford Broadway and now he has renewed his links with canal life with his beautifully located Duck Press Restaurant on the Grand Canal basin in Athy.

The London cockney has grown to love the sometimes strange but always charming ways of the Irish and has firmly set his roots down in this country. As he says himself having married Denise Fitzgerald of Allencross in 1993, his home is where his heart is and those of us lucky enough to have partaken of the culinary delights of the Duck Press are glad that he has finally dropped his anchor in Athy.

Friday, November 10, 1995

World War 1 and War Graves in St. Michaels Cemetery

Each year at this time I write of World War I and the men from Athy who were involved in that conflict. Just a few weeks after starting the “Eye on the Past” column I wrote in November 1992 of John Vincent Holland, Athy’s only holder of the Victoria Cross. Holland, son of a local veterinary surgeon, was born in Model Farm on the 19th of July 1889 and received the highest military award for gallantry in an attack on Guillemont in September 1916.

One year later I wrote of the Hannon brothers, Norman and John, both of Ardreigh House who died in the Great War. Reference was also made to their cousins Henry Hannon and Thomas Hannon who also perished. I mentioned how in November 1991 and every year since then local people came together to commemorate the men of Athy who had died in World War I. Their memories were recalled in prayer and poetry in a simple ceremony in St. Michael’s cemetery where six of the Athy dead are buried. Elsewhere I referred to Andrew Delaney of Crookstown who died in Netley Hospital, London from gas poisoning on 31st May, 1915 and whose remains were brought home for interment in Crookstown cemetery.

In November 1993 I listed the names of 105 Athy men, all soldiers who were killed in action during the 1914/18 War. Another 86 men from the rural hinterland around Athy also died representing a terrible loss to a small Irish provincial town. The tragedy of death was compounded when the War Office telegram arrived, not once but three times at the same hall door. Such was the experience of “Jacksie” and Mark Kelly of Mount Hawkins who lost three sons, Denis, John and Owen in the Great War. Owen died on the 3rd of May, 1915, his brother John twenty days later and Denis on 30th September, 1918 just eleven days short of the cease-fire. Other parents who suffered the horrendous loss of three sons were Jack and Margaret Curtis of Quarry who lost their son Patrick, killed in action in France on 4th November, 1914. In 1917 two more Curtis brothers were killed, John on the 9th of January and Lawrence on 4th December. Their father Jack worked as a farm steward for Michael Dooley, one of the foremost Irish nationalist figures in Athy during that period.

Remembering the dead is a proud tradition of all communities but particularly we Irish who hold dearly to our memories of loved ones. Sometimes we must grieve silently as did the many Irish families who for decades found it inappropriate to publicly acknowledge their dead, especially when they died fighting in the uniform of the “auld” enemy.

Times have changed and since November 1991 those unfortunate Athy men who died in action during the 1914/18 War have been remembered each year. Many of those who died no longer have families in Athy but amongst us there are many who bear the name of a dead soldier.

World War I or The Great War ended at 11.00 a.m. on the 11th of November 1918. Ten million men were killed and another thirty million were wounded or missing during the fifty three months of the War. In County Kildare we lost five hundred and sixty-seven men killed in action and an incalculable number amongst the wounded and maimed. In Athy our losses were proportionally greater than most with the deaths of one hundred and five men from the town and another eighty-two from the neighbouring countryside. Most of those men were buried where they fell, some were never found, their names recorded in stone in the War Memorials in Belgium and France.

St. Michael’s Cemetery holds the grave of six soldiers from Athy who died during the Great War.

• Private M. Byrne, Leinster Regiment, died on 21st November, 1918 aged 28 years
• Private James Dwyer, Royal Irish Army Service Corps, died on 31st March, 1918 aged 30 years
• Private Thomas Flynn, Connaught Rangers, died on 26th February, 1915 aged 28 years
• Private Martin Hyland, Offaly Street, Dublin Fusiliers, died 19th September, 1916 aged 29 years
• Lance Corporal J. Lawler, Ardreigh, Dublin Fusiliers, died on 3rd October, 1918 aged 37 years
• Private Michael O’Brien, Irish Guards, died on 26th December, 1917 aged 27 years.

The Irish War Memorials recorded that Martin Hyland died of wounds in France. It is highly unusual therefore to see his burial place in Athy. However, he probably died in Athy of wounds received while on service in France. Three of the soldiers interred in Athy cemetery do not appear in the Irish War Memorial records. The name of Private M. Byrne, Private James Dwyer and Lance Corporal J. Lawler must therefore be added to the list of Athy’s dead.

On Sunday, 12th November at 3.00 p.m. we will gather again in St. Michael’s Cemetery to honour the men from our town whose lives were lost so many years ago. As we stand at the graves of each of the six Athy men who were buried in their native soil we can recall all those husbands, fathers and brothers who died, especially those who lie, some in unmarked graves, far from their own place and far from their families and friends in Athy.

Maybe you will visit St. Michael’s Cemetery on Sunday, 12th November and say a prayer for those men and their families. It is the least we can do for those who once walked the familiar streets of our town.

Friday, November 3, 1995

Care of the Elderly Athy

I received a small booklet through the post last week which was published as a record of the work of the Athy Committee for the Care of the Elderly during the past 30 years. The “Old Folks House” as we commonly call the Committee’s headquarters in Leinster Street, is the readily identifiable centre of the Committee’s work. Not always identified and acknowledged however, is the hard work and dedication of the many men and women, who since 1965, have contributed to the Committee’s success. Familiar names came to me as I perused the booklet’s pages. These were the names of men and women, once well known in Athy, but now only recalled in a litany of the dead. Tim McCarthy, Eamon McAuley, Tom Langton, Bill Horgan and Ted O’Rourke are just some of those names, which conjure up remembrances of times and events now past, never again to be experienced.

It is right that their names and those of their colleagues should be recorded, and that the record should show the part they played in creating and sustaining what was possibly Athy’s first voluntary social service for the elderly.

It was Dr. Brendan O’Donnell, then Medical Officer for county Kildare, who in 1965, suggested that a Care of the Elderly Committee be set up. This was at a time when the Old Age Pension was £2.7.6 per week, and the Home Assistance Officers under the late Tommy Harvey of Naas were busily engaged helping old people to keep body and soul together. I knew both Dr. O’Donnell and Tommy Harvey when I worked in the Health Section of Kildare County Council in the early 1960’s, and I recognised that their concern for the less well-off and the less capable in our society, extended far beyond the duties and responsibilities imposed by their respective offices.

At Dr. O’Donnell’s prompting, a public meeting was held in St. John’s Hall in October 1965 to establish a local Committee. St. John’s Hall, which once housed the former Social Club, was located in St. John’s Lane. It has long since been demolished, and on its site we now have the local Boy Scouts den. Dr. Brian Maguire, who arrived in Athy in July 1957 to take charge of the Dispensary District of Moone, was elected first Chairman of the Committee, a position he continued to occupy with distinction for the following 20 years. Vice-Chairman was Tom McEvoy, with Noreen Ryan as Secretary, and national school teacher Pierce Ferriter as Treasurer. The Honorary Social Worker appointed to the Committee was the indefatigable Megan Maguire, born in Manchester of Welsh parents, and wife of Dr. Brian Magurie. Megan’s involvement with the Care of the Elderly Committee continues to this day. She can justifiably be proud of her 30 years unstinting service as Honorary Social Worker.

In 1966, the Care of the Elderly Committee decided to provide a permanent centre for its activities, and Kevin Maher, Des McHugh, Tadhg Brennan, Dr. J.T. O’Neill and the late Capt. Sean O’Connor were instrumental in raising the funds required to purchase No. 82 Leinster Street from the Duke of Leinster’s Estate.

Close co-operation with the State’s social services and Athy Urban District Council gave the Committee scope for supplementing the support services available for the elderly. Home visits were, and remain, the highest priority need of the elderly, and the Committee, realising this, always ensured that its home visitation programme was effective and regular.

The welfare schemes and projects championed by the Care of the Elderly Committee changed and extended over the years as new needs were identified. Summer outings were organised from 1969 onwards, and in recent years, summer holidays in Butlins holiday camp, Mosney, have formed part of the Care of the Elderly programme. Laundry services, the provision of radios and televisions, and an early Meals on Wheels Scheme, were just some of the services provided for the elderly of the district. In addition, the houses of the elderly were repaired and painted, chimneys were swept and smoke alarms were fitted. The list goes on and on, as does the energy and resilience of the Committee members who have fulfilled such an important role in our community over the past 30 years.

The help, afforded to the Committee by local Clubs, has been acknowledged in the booklet. Innovative fund raising projects ensured that the Committee’s finances were never less than sufficient to meet its requirements. One of the most successful ventures in the early years of the Committee was the sponsored family walk, which, in its first year in 1968, raised £513. Subsequent sponsored walks realised £1,929.00 and £1,844.00 respectively. Since 1985, these walks have been replaced by church gate collections.

The volunteers who worked so hard over the years, did so without public recognition or reward. Those who contributed in no small way to the Committee’s success, include many who are no longer with us. Donal Mitchell, Delia Anderson, Eddie Diccox, Enid Donnelly, Barney Doyle, Tom Fleming, Paddy Hubbock, Jim Kelly, Mary Keogh, Jim Maher, Joan Tubridy and Kathleen Cullen are included among that number. This booklet remembers them all and records for posterity, the work of the many volunteers who sought to bring comfort to our neighbours in their declining years.