Friday, December 29, 1995

Review of Articles in 1995

Another year about to end. How quickly it passes but then someone like myself attuned to the demands and discipline of a weekly article knows only too well the speed of passing time.

At the beginning of the year I wrote of Dr. Don Rodrigue de Vere, a colourful character who adorned life in Athy during the Second World War. I was reminded of it only a few weeks when a County Laois farmer favourably commented on the piece and attempted to complete the Ballad of de Vere for me. In February the Sorrento Dance Band was featured and resulted in a very welcome letter from its leader Paddens Murphy who now spends his time between London and Spain. Paddens was fulsome in his praise of the local musicians who have given Athy such a wonderful musical heritage down the years. The story of Jack MacKenna, father of writer John MacKenna was told later that month highlighting some little known facts surrounding the War of Independence in South Kildare.

Athy Workhouse and the Great Famine were dealt with in several articles during this year's 150th Anniversary of the Irish holocaust. Approximately 2,500 died in Athy during the four years of the Famine and we still wait for the Eastern Health Board and the Local Authorities to mark in some suitable way the last resting place of those who died in the local Workhouse. Maybe it will happen in 1996.

In March I marked the passing of Jack Kelly, traditional fiddle player with an article which drew on his reminiscences of Churchtown Pipe Band. This was to lead to another later article on that Band and the Kilberry Pipe Band when I was contacted by two local men living in England - Jim Connor and Jim Moran.

May Lalor shared an evening with me in April when she told me of life in Athy in the 1930's and 1940's. Her late husband Michael Lalor had purchased Christy Reid's pub and grocery premises which was next to Cootes Gents Outfitters. Incidentally in answering a recent query I placed Cootes premises in Anthony Auctioneers. Several readers have contacted me to say that Cootes were located in the present Heffernans premises. From the evidence of the Lawrence photograph it would seem that Cootes were in the 1890’s located where Anthony Auctioneers are now, and transferred in 1905 to the other premises.

In May I wrote a two part article on Offaly Street residents of 50 years ago when my parents moved from Castlecomer to Athy to avail of secondary schooling for their sons. Sadly my mother who had lived in the street for 50 of her 89 years in this world passed away before the second part appeared. As I wrote then "Offaly Street is now a street of childhood memories for many of us as a new generation takes our place."

Memories of a different kind were evoked when I received a bundle of old letters from David Hannon whose father, the late Archdeacon Gordon Hannon, was formally of Ardreigh House, Athy. The letters were written to Gordon Hannon by his brothers Leslie Hannon and Ian Hannon while they were both serving in France during World War I. Lesley was killed in action in Festubert on the 16th of May 1915 while Ian suffered the same fate on the 18th of August 1916. I wrote in June of the two young Athy men whose letters delivered to Ardreigh House during the first two years of the Great War were to arrive there again this time bound together with ribbon and in a box evidently of old age. Reading them evoked a poignant reminder of the futility of war and the wanton waste of human life which results. This was a theme I returned to in November when the men of Athy who fought in World War I were again remembered.

Henry Grattan Donnelly, Solicitor, featured in an article in June and how sad it is to relate that his son Barry has since passed away. The appearance of the Wexford Sinfonia in the Dominican Church on the 11th of June and the Literary Evening organised by the Athy Literary Group in Ballintubbert six days later prompted me to praise the efforts of all concerned while affording me an opportunity yet again to highlight the work of Rev. Thomas Kelly, Evangelist and hymn writer extraordinary. There were many such good cultural experiences throughout the year but the recent performance of Charlie Hughes in Greasepaint Youth Theatre's production of Smike was of particular merit. I look forward to the next performance on stage of Charlie who is clearly a talent born to tread the boards.

Fr. Paddy Finn wrote to me in July as a result of which I was able to pen a piece on his predecessor as Parish Priest of Dunlavin Canon John Hyland who with Paddy shared an Athy background. The times of the legendary John Farrell afforded me an opportunity to delve into times past in Athy and Ballylinan as far back as the 1920's. The summer holiday period brought an unusual high number of visitors to Athy including Mike Hickey from Blackpool whose grandparents John and Catherine Hickey lived in Higginsons Lane 80 years ago and who featured in the Eye on the Past. Another visitor was Jim Moran, now 88 years old and living in Luton who presented me with a photograph of Kilberry Pipe Band and more importantly gave me an amazing amount of information about the Band he had joined in 1917. My regret is that when I was flying into Luton every weekend during September and October I did not get an opportunity to call on this extraordinary Athy man whose memories of his native town are as immediate and as fresh as if he was recounting events of last week. Maybe another time Jim.

The passing of Joe Bermingham while I was on holidays prompted me to regret the loss of a priceless repository of local knowledge given that Joe was uniquely placed to correctly record and interpret the happenings of many decades past. As I wrote then "Castlemitchell owes him an enormous debt of gratitude".

The power and universality of Church music prompted an article on the links and similarities between Athy and a number of Bedfordshire towns with which I became very familiar during the latter part of the year. Not for the first time Rev. Thomas Kelly featured yet again. It is hard to disregard the man who died 140 years ago but whose hymns are still included in Church Hymnals throughout the English speaking world.

A visit to Maynooth College unearthed two important artefacts from Athy with which I was not previously acquainted. A 1634 Holy Week Book found in Athy and a silver cup presented to a former Sovereign of Athy in 1795 are important relics of our past and hopefully may in time return to our long awaited Heritage Centre.

The final month of the year saw articles on two nurses each of whom has worked to improve the lives of people in our town. Sr. Consilio is of course now a national figure for her contribution to helping people suffering from alcoholism. At the other end of the scale and very much a local heroine in her own quiet way is Nurse Brennan, the last Jubilee Nurse in Athy.

As always it is a pleasure helping to bring the past into focus each week not least for the wonderful response it provokes in the readers. To all who have written to me during the year or who have telephoned about the articles I say a big thank-you. I am always delighted to hear your comments and of course the stories which go to make up the tapestry of our local history. Happy New Year to you all.

Friday, December 22, 1995

Nurse Teresa Brennan

“There is a crying need for a nurse in Athy”. The year was 1950 and Dr. Barry, Master of Holles Street Hospital, was addressing Ward Sister Teresa Brennan who had just completed her training with the Queen’s Institute of District Nursing. Teresa, a native of Belanagore, Co. Roscommon, the home of the O’Connors, one time High Kings of Connaught, had originally began her general nursing training in Withington Hospital, Manchester, later transferring to Townleys Hospital, Bolton where she spent three years as a Ward Sister. Returning to Ireland, she worked in the National Maternity Hospital, Holles Street, and on completing her midwifery training she undertook a District Nursing course in Leeson Street, Dublin.

District Nurses were then called Jubilee Nurses, and they were employed by local voluntary committees, which sought to provide medical services for everyone, irrespective of means. In Athy, the Jubilee Nurse Committee included Dr. John Kilbride who was the local dispensary Doctor, his wife May Kilbride, Nellie Holland of Model Farm, Kitty Higgins of Minch’s Terrace and Margaret Flood of Leinster Street. Mindful of Dr. Barry’s suggestion, Teresa Brennan successfully applied for the job in Athy where any doubts harboured by the candidate were speedily dispelled by the promise of “a house with the job”. This turned out to be number 3 St. Michael’s Terrace, which was rented by the Committee from Athy Urban District Council, and where Nurse Brennan, now long retired, still lives.

As a Jubilee Nurse she assisted at the local dispensary each morning where Dr. John Kilbride was in charge. Patients were visited in their homes in the afternoon by Nurse Brennan who travelled a radius of ten miles around Athy on her Raleigh bicycle. Changing dressings, comforting the sick and supplying medication were the every day tasks of the Jubilee Nurse who was readily identified by her navy blue uniform and white apron.

She travelled every road and by-road in the town and district and like her colleagues, the District mid-wives Madge May and Josie Candy, she saw and experienced life in all its many manifestations. The “blue ticket” which was required to avail of the services of the dispensary Doctor and the Jubilee Nurse has now been replaced by the medical card which the older people still refer to as the “blue card”.

Teresa Brennan filled the role of Jubilee Nurse for fifteen years until appointed as a public health nurse by Kildare County Council. The range and nature of her duties did not change. Now, however, she was a pensionable, salaried official of the County Council, no longer dependant on the financial well being of the voluntary committee which up to then had paid her salary.

Transferring from Dublin to Athy in 1950 was for the young Teresa Brennan a not entirely happy experience. “It seemed a terrible place” was her first impression of the town, but soon the warmth and friendliness of the townspeople won over the Roscommon girl. It was those same local people, always anxious and willing to help in an emergency, who brought home to the young nurse the strength and value of living in a happy, vibrant community. She is particularly warm in her appreciation of the help afforded to her by so many people in Convent View and St. Patrick’s Avenue and as she says “indeed every area in the town” during her time as Jubilee Nurse and later as Public Health Nurse. “People’s good nature comes to the fore in times of sickness and death and so many times I witnessed the innate goodness of the local people in dealing with emergencies as they arose.” Her words remind her of the terrible scourge of tuberculosis which was rampant in the 1950’s and which carried off so many young people to an early grave. She recalls the very real poverty which was to be seen in Athy in those years, a poverty which was matched by the poor quality housing of the time. It was in those conditions that tuberculosis developed and remained a threat to public health for a considerable time. As she recalls it, the appointment of Dr. Noel Brown, as Minister for Health, coincided with the beginning of the end of the battle against TB.

She remembers with a smile the furore in Athy soon after she arrived, when rust was detected in the local drinking water. Reminiscent of the more recent magnesium in the water scare encountered in parts of Graysland and Kingsgrove, the rusty water of 1950 was apparently a perennial problem created by the rusty pipes which carried the water from Modubeigh Reservoir. Even then, the dispensary doctor, John Kilbride, allayed public fear in a manner reminiscent of officials forty four years later with the claim “rust never did anyone any harm.”

In her time she has witnessed huge social changes in our community. “People do not need to go hungry in today’s society as they did in the old days”, she declares with the confidence and assurance of one who has witnessed at first hand those terrible times, which were once so familiar in Irish society.

As the last Jubilee Nurse in Athy, Teresa Brennan, no longer awaits the knock on the door which invariably meant a trip through the night to a distant, often cold room of a sick person for whom the nurse was a comforting and reassuring figure. Nurse Brennan, “don’t ask me my age”, is a familiar sight around Athy and is a Minister of Eucharist in the local Parish Church. Having retired some years ago, she recalls the recent past with a sometimes whimsical regret that the years have passed so quickly.

Friday, December 15, 1995

Famine Losses in Athy coupled with piece on Tailoring Businesses

I attended the launch of a book by Kildare County Council as part of its contribution to this years commemoration of the Great Famine on Tuesday night in Naas Library. “Lest we forget - Kildare in the Great Famine”, comprises a number of essays dealing with various aspects of the Famine in Kildare. Yours truly contributed a chapter on the Famine in Athy, which in itself is not sufficient reason for deciding not to buy the book. It should be available in your local bookshop, and as it costs only £4.95 there is no need to raise a bank loan to buy your own copy.

Re-reading the Famine article which I had written earlier this year, I was reminded that the population of Athy had decreased by 825 in the ten years from 1841 to 1851. This did not take into account persons in the local Workhouse where 1205 paupers died during the Great Famine.

Earlier in the week I bought a copy of the 1911 Census report for County Kildare, which I will readily admit, would not be everybody’s favourite bedtime reading. However, the wealth of information it held concerning the residents of Athy 84 years ago was fascinating. The population of the town in 1911 was 3,535 persons, living in 691 houses. There were 64 uninhabited houses in the town, and only one dwellinghouse in the course of erection that year. The Census also disclosed that there were 26 one-roomed tenements in the town and in one unfortunate case there were no less than nine persons living in a one-roomed house.

What I found astonishing were the details of the previous Census results for Athy, which showed that in the ten years to 1901 the town’s population fell by 1287 persons to 3599. This represented a bigger decrease in the towns population, than that experienced in the ten years which spanned the period of the Great Famine. I must confess that I am puzzled as to the likely explanation for this relatively high population decrease. Is there by chance an explanation in the establishment of the Urban Council in 1898, and a possible reduction in the urban area compared to the town area over which the Town Commissioners exercised authority? If this was the case then the figures for 1901 and 1891 would not be comparable and might not necessarily indicate a decline in the town’s population.

As I write this article, I cannot possibly say whether this explanation is correct or not. Indeed, I had always assumed that the functional area of the Urban Council was coterminous with that of the earlier Town Commissioners, established in 1847, and with that of the Borough Council incorporated by charters in 1515 and 1613. If the figures in the 1901 Census returns do in fact reflect the loss of 1287 persons for Athy in the previous ten years, wherein lies the explanation? I have never before been alerted to any great population shift in the town at the end of the last century and cannot speculate as to the possible cause. However, more about this again when further research has been done.

John Craven, of Capanafeacle, Ballyadams, in a letter to last week’s paper mentioned J. W. Coote, Tailor, Out-fitters Athy and a purchase made by his mother in 1917 which came with a Coote coat hanger, which he still has. Coote’s had their premises in what their advertisements always referred to as Market Square, Athy. This was, of course, Emily Square. Mr. Coote, who operated what he called a “Fitting Establishment”, wrote to the local newspaper on 5th April 1902, criticising the destruction of the tailoring trade in Athy by the “greedy drapers who supply suits to measure made in London or in Dublin”. His fear, which was in time realised, concerned the possible demise of the master tailoring craft in Athy. Coote’s obviously continued in business until 1917 at least, as evidenced by Mr. Craven’s account of his mothers purchase that same year.

Another Master tailor’s establishment at the turn of the century was that of Thomas G. Lumley of Duke Street, where craftsmen such as Thomas Moran, Mick Egan and Paddy Bracken worked in the tailoring rooms. Returning to John Craven’s query as to where exactly in Market Square or Emily Square was Coote’s Fitting Establishment, I do recall an early Lawrence Photograph of the town showing Coote’s next door to Noud’s Corner Shop, which is now Winkle’s. This would make Anthony’s Auctioneers the present occupiers of Coote’s premises.

The mention of Master tailors prompts another query, concerning James Moses Kelly, a tailor who married Margaret Dunne of Athy, some time around the turn of the century. Whether he worked for one of the local tailoring establishments or worked on his own account, I cannot say. My interest in the man lies in the belief that he was the grandfather or possibly the father of Elizabeth Coxhead, a prolific writer amongst whose works was a book of particular local interest called “The House in the Heart”. If any of the readers know anything about James Moses Kelly or can help me track down a copy of Elizabeth Coxhead’s book, I would very much like to hear from them.

Friday, December 8, 1995

Sr. Consilio

Sr. Consilio. The name immediately conjures up images, not of a woman in Holy Orders, but rather of a movement which now reaches across the length and breadth of Ireland. Cuan Mhuire, meaning the Harbour of Mary, are homes for the care and rehabilitation of those with alcohol dependency problems and are located in Athy, Bruree, Newry and Athenry. They exist because Sr. Consilio, a member of the Sisters of Mercy congregation in Athy, sought to provide a service for people, whose needs she felt, had been overlooked by society.

Born Eileen Fitzgerald in 1937, she began training as a nurse in Cork in 1956. Soon the religious life beckoned. Her own sister, Ita, was in Ardee Convent of Mercy and on her suggestion Eileen Fitzgerald entered the Convent of Mercy in Athy, after qualifying as a nurse. Her noviceship was spent there, but in 1965 she transferred to the local St. Vincent’s Hospital, where the Sisters of Mercy had provided nursing care since 1873. It was here that she first came in regular contact with men and women suffering from alcoholism. Her concern for their welfare found support in the compassionate outlook of Sr. Dominic, Matron of St. Vincent’s Hospital. Before long however, she was transferred to St. Finbar’s Hospital in Cork to complete her midwifery studies, which when completed, saw her returning to the Athy Convent.

Sr. Consilio’s charitable response to the needs of those troubled by alcohol addiction encouraged those requiring help to call on her at the local Convent of Mercy. In time, the small library room in the Convent building became a meeting place for alcoholics. In 1968 the library was deemed unsuitable for the numbers attending, and it was then that the dairy house attached to the Convent was given over for the use of Sr. Consilio’s group. This became the first Cuan Mhuire residential centre in Ireland.

In 1971, Sr. Consilio, determined to provide accommodation for the men and women seeking help from the torment of alcoholism, agreed to buy 70 acres of farm land at Cardenton, Athy. The purchase price at auction was £49,000.00, and when the property was knocked down to her, she did not have that money. Fate played its hand when the vendor died before the legal formalities could be completed, resulting in a lengthy delay, which allowed Sr. Consilio sufficient time to raise the necessary funds. The first buildings on the Cardenton lands were planned and erected by members of her group, all of whom brought their own talents and skills to the work. Building work began in 1972, with Paddy Lalor of Woodstock Street as the only contractor employed on the site.

The early success of Cuan Mhuire was achieved despite the misgivings of some members of the local community in Athy to the siting of an alcohol treatment centre near to their town. Over time however, the local opposition to the centre evaporated, as it became clear that Sr. Consilio’s mission was fulfilling an important need in Irish society.

The mission statement of Cuan Mhuire is an affirmation of the relevance of Sr. Consilio’s work in every community “to provide a context in which persons who feel rejected or dejected because of their addictions become aware of and learn to deal with the underlying problems related to those addictions and discover their uniqueness, goodness, giftedness and real purpose in life.”

In 1975 Sr. Consilio received a Person of the Year Award for her work and in the following year the second Cuan Mhuire was opened in Bruree House, Bruree, Co. Limerick. The continuing demand for Cuan Mhuire services led to the opening of another centre in the former Good Shepherd Convent, Newry in 1984. Two years later, Galilee, a house of prayer was opened in what was the former Fever Hospital in Athy.

The facilities originally provided at Cuan Mhuire, Athy, were replaced by a modern complex which was opened on the 14th of June 1992 by the Superior General of the Sister of Mercy. This was followed by the opening of the fourth Cuan Mhuire in Coolarne, Athenry, Co. Galway and an after care facility in the former O’Briens Hotel, Gardiner Street, Dublin. This latter facility provides short term drug free residential accommodation for those who have attended Cuan Mhuire for treatment. Overnight accommodation is not yet available, but in the meantime the city centre complex operates as a drop-in centre.

Today the four Cuan Mhuires provide places for 418 persons suffering from alcoholism. It is a proud tradition of Cuan Mhuire, that regardless of circumstances, no person is refused admission or treatment. This in itself can create problems, but given the inspirational leadership and dedication of Sr. Consilio and the Cuan Mhuire staff there is no reason to doubt the continuing success of the Cuan Mhuire Alcohol Recovery Programme.

Equally, I have no doubt that the future of the Cuan Mhuire movement is assured. So much of what has happened in its formative years was due, largely, if not solely, to one woman - Sr. Consilio. In time to come her name will be remembered alongside that of Catherine McAuley, Mary Aikenhead, Nano Nagle, and those other great women in religion, who stirred an Irish nation’s conscience by tackling the social problems of their day.

Friday, December 1, 1995

Atkinson's Tour of Ireland in 1814 with Description of Athy

Travellers’ narratives are always a fascinating, if not necessarily dependable, source of information on places and persons of the past. One such narrative, which I came across recently, was published in 1815 by Thomas Courtney of 6 Wood Street, Dublin, for its author A. Atkinson. Titled “The Irish Tourist” it was sub-titled “A Series of Picturesque Views Travelling Incidents and Observations, Statistical Political and Moral on the Character and Aspect of the Irish Nation”. The rather turgid title cloaked the work of a man who claimed in his introductory piece to have collected his material “at the expense of health and ease as well as of time and money”. He travelled 6,000 miles, or so he claimed, on his journeys through Ireland, all the while appealing to what he described as “the rank and property of the country” for funds to publish an account of his experiences. Those who contributed were listed as subscribers in the book, and amongst those listed are Thomas Boake of Boakefield, Athy, John M. Johnson, Athy, Robert Rawson, Athy and Col. Weldon of Kilmoroney.

Atkinson’s journey commenced in November 1810 in Sligo, and ended in Dublin in December 1814. In February 1814 he set out for the South East of Ireland, and reached the small post town and market town of Stradbally, where he found in the centre of the town an extensive cotton mill worked by water. It had been erected on the river adjoining what he described as “that pretty retreat called the Abbey”, by a Mr. Calcott, who employed 50 to 100 hands in the spinning department.

Proceeding to Athy, which he described as a market town, a post town and a corporate town, and alternately with Naas, the assizes town of County Kildare, he gave the following interesting and informative account of our town in 1814.

“It is situated on the river Barrow, which is navigable from thence to its junction with the sea near Waterford, while with the city of Dublin, this town has an open communication by the Grand Canal, so that it is extremely well circumstanced for trade; and in the corn department, I understand, a considerable communication subsists between them. For the quality and quantity of its wheat (with which useful article, disposed of by sample in the market, and afterwards delivered at the purchaser’s stores, for many miles around) this market is deservedly celebrated. In the town, however, there is no manufacturer of note, save that of two establishments for the distillation of malt into ale and whiskey; nor are the public buildings of the place remarkable either for their beauty or magnitude - nevertheless the town has a respectable appearance. It consists of two principal streets, which open a communication with the market-square; and from these principal divisions, several smaller streets issue, which, upon the whole, give this town an aspect of tolerable magnitude. The footpaths are neatly paved, and in winter the streets are lighted up, an accommodation rather unusual in country towns and therefore particularly grateful to the feelings of a stranger. The river passes nearly through the centre of the town, and while engaged in wafting the produce of the country to distant ports, is an object of great beauty in the eye of the passenger, when surveyed from the bridge, a piece of architecture which contributes much to the improved appearance of the town, since its re-construction in the year 1796. The jail, the church, the Roman Catholic chapel, and a small, but very neat chapel belonging to the Calvinistic Methodists, constitute the public buildings of the place. Formerly there was a meeting house of the Friends or Quakers in this town, but this society has been for a long time nearly extinct in this place, and I am now equally ignorant whether this little meeting-house is standing, or has fallen into ruin.

In the vicinity of this town, there are several pretty villas. Of these, that of Mr. Rawson, the collector, is deserving of attention - Mount Ophelia, on the Carlow Road, the residence of Dr. Johnson, is also a pretty retreat from the noise and bustle of the streets - but of all the seats in this neighbourhood which beautify the banks of the Barrow, that of Kilmoroney, the seat of Colonel Weldon, stands pre-eminent. It is situate on the opposite bank of the river, (as you proceed to Carlow) about seven miles north of that town, and three miles south of Athy. The river in the valley and the house, lawn, and plantations beyond them, are in perfect prospect. Among these latter, I would rank, as of no mean effect, a thick coppice or woody elevation on the bank just noticed, as you approach within view of this seat; and about half a mile farther on, a Danish fort embellished with ornamental plantations, is a striking feature of the landscape. Between these distinct objects, which mark the extremities of the lawn, stands Kilmoroney house, on a beautiful elevation; and in a valley, just opposite, are the ruins of the castle of Grangemelon, which , in that picturesque scene forms an object of considerable grandeur. Beside this more remarkable seat, you have the prospect of many inferior villas on the banks of the river, which embellish the country, in your progress to Carlow, and render the drive from Athy to that town, particularly interesting.”

Strange that Atkinson, in referring to the public buildings of the town, made no mention of the Town Hall or the Military Barracks in Barrack Street. What is interesting, was his description of the footpaths as neatly paved and the lighting of the streets in winter. This, as he states, was unusual in country towns and indicates that the corporate affairs of the town were perhaps better advanced than had previously been thought.

Athy did not often figure in the itineraries of early travellers to Ireland, and for that reason Atkinson’s description of the town in 1814 is important, even if it is somewhat incomplete.