Thursday, March 28, 1996

Tourist Trail for Athy

I have been writing recently the first draft of the new Tourist Trail for Athy which will hopefully be printed in time for the summer season. While doing this I realised just how rich Athy is in relation to historical buildings. Living in the area for so long tends to dull ones appreciation of what is around us and the discipline of putting down on paper the local buildings and localities with historical connections only serves to reactivate a proper sense of appreciation.

The most visible reminder of our past is of course Whites Castle, a resplendent tower of stone, guarding the bridge over the River Barrow. Built in 1417 by Sir John Talbot, Viceroy of Ireland, its unique position in the centre of Athy makes it a focal point for all historical enquiry relating to the town. The Bridge over which it originally stood guard has long since been replaced and the existing bridge dates back to May 1796. Just imagine that's two years before the most harrowing Rebellion of 1798 which engulfed Ireland in bloodshed and grief. Athy and district was now spared in those dark days and Whites Castle, then a jail, held many locals in its dark cells. One of the most famous of those prisoners was Thomas Reynolds, one time resident of Kilkea Castle and notorious informer who somehow ended up here for a while before Dublin Castle authorities realised that they had jailed one of their own.

That same Castle and the Bridge witnessed the harrowing experience of seven Narraghmore men who were taken from the jail and frogmarched across the Bridge to the banks of the Canal to be hanged. Later beheaded their heads were stuck on the Bridge as a warning to others not to get involved in rebellious activity. Many who pass over that same Bridge today know nothing of those terrible times when fear stalked the streets of Athy.

Across the River near Greenhills stands the tall stone skeleton of what was once the proud Castle of Woodstock. This 13th century edifice altered in the 15th century replaced an earlier wooden castle on the site which was built by the Anglo Normans to defend the Ford or river crossing on the Barrow. So it is that two Castles stand on the banks of the Barrow River, separated not only by the "dumb waters" but also in time by almost two centuries. They represent the early and middle years of Anglo Norman influence in Athy and District and are priceless reminders of the heritage of those periods.

The later commercial life of the developing town of Athy is encapsulated in the fine building with the quite remarkable northern facade which acts as a distinctive backdrop to Emily Square. The Town Hall built in the early years of the 18th century marked Athy's transition from village to market town and the fine expanse of open space around it then known as Market Square was a hive of activity where local traders and townspeople mingled with the farmers and their produce. It is not always easy to visualise while standing amongst the parked cars in what is now a municipal car park that not so many years ago men and women worked here while children played among the stalls unburdened by any requirement to attend school. Indeed in a doorway of the Town Hall one local man carried on business as a cobbler for over 20 years, each morning setting up his tools providing a welcome service for the farmers who came to the town.
The building heritage of the town is graced by many fine Churches from the ultra-modern, at least in the context of the 1960's, of the Dominican Church to the earlier examples of ecclesiastical architecture such as the Presbyterian, Methodist and Church of Ireland Churches. The 14th or 15th century Church in the grounds of St. Michael's Cemetery is yet again an important element in the story of Athy. Built on a site outside the medieval walls of the town it served as the first secular Catholic Church in Athy and later in post-Reformation days as a Chapel for the Church of England.

Further out the Dublin Road in the direction of Gallowshill, where many unfortunates paid the ultimate penalty for breaches of the criminal code the fine cut stone building of the former Model School and Agricultural School is to be found. It is a very attractive building part of which would be ideal for recounting in display models and in the spoken and written words the story of the Model and Agricultural Schools of the last century and the Lancastrian system of education. Maybe the Office of Public Works in conjunction with the local Heritage Company might look at the possibility of doing this.

Another possible area of co-operation this time between the Heritage Company and the Eastern Health Board could be in recreating the Workhouse and the Famine experience in what remains of the original Athy Workhouse. The original part of the building to the front of St. Vincent's Hospital presents a fine panorama of what the Poor House was in the 1840's and it is here in part of that building that an opportunity exists for recreating what was an important part of our town's story.

Athy originally the Anglo Norman town later a garrisoned town has a proud history stretching back 800 years. The survival of so many important buildings in the town enables us to relive our past in a context which must enliven our understanding and appreciation of history. There is a marvellous opportunity awaiting Athy as a heritage town to develop its own distinctive historical past in a manner which can prove not only commercially beneficial but also personally satisfying to those who live in Athy.

Thursday, March 21, 1996

Undertakers of Athy

Undertakers. Have you ever wondered how such an inappropriate name was first applied to a group whose job is to dispose of the dead. Nowadays they are known, not by the simple appellation but by the more stately sounding Funeral Directors. They perform a most trying job and one which up to not so long ago was performed by the community at large.

In the past friends and neighbours of the deceased carried the coffin, dug the grave and carried out the burial services without the assistance of an undertaker or Priest. This was the way of the countryside up to 100 years ago and with the dawn of this century formal funeral undertaking came to the fore. One of the earliest undertakers in Athy was Mrs. Maher, grandmother of Bapty Maher who in time carried on the business from the rear of his public house in Leinster Street. Many are the stories told of late night imbibers of liquid nourishment who sought to conceal themselves in the empty coffins at the back of Bapty's when the local Gardai were so inconsiderate as to make a late night call to the premises.

Joseph Rigney started up his undertakers business in Blackparks just after the ending of World War I. Today the business is being carried on by Joe Rigney, his grandson. In the early years coffins were made locally. Initially Blanchfields of Leinster Street met the requirements of all the local undertakers but in time Rigneys made their own until it was no longer an economic proposition to do so on a regular basis. However, Martin Joe Rigney, son of the founder of the firm who served his time as a coffin maker, still turns out an occasional coffin on request.

The cost of a funeral in 1919 understandably bears little comparison to today's cost. For a five pound note you could then have an oak coffin and a horse and hearse to bring you on your last journey. Ten shillings less gave you an elm coffin. Society funerals, as they were then called, justified the use of plumes on the horses, black for adults, white for young persons or single ladies. They continued in use until the early 1930's when to the undoubted relief of the horses the plumes were put away for the last time. Although they presented an imposing sight as the funeral cortege winded its way through the streets of the town the plumes were heavy and were consequently disliked by the horses.

A hearse pulled by horses was believed to have been first used in Athy by Mrs. Maher and the tradition continued up to 1936 when the first motorised hearse appeared on the streets. The petrol scarcity experienced during World War II limited the local undertakers to a twenty mile radius from their home basis and in 1940 led to the re-introduction of the horse drawn hearse. Indeed horses remained an important mode of transport for local funerals up to 1950. The difficulties of the War years can be gauged from the experience of Rigneys who used up three months petrol rations in journeying to Dublin for a local nun who died in Hospital. There was nothing to do but to garage the motor hearse until the petrol coupons again became available.

During the late 1930's there were three funeral undertakers in Athy. Mahers of Leinster Street, Rigneys of Blackparks and Tommy Stynes who had just started up business in Leinster Street. Today the only undertakers in Athy are Rigneys who have provided a funeral home in Bennetsbridge.

One of the endearing features of ceremonies surrounding the dead in the not too distant past was the Wake. No funeral homes then to receive the mortal remains. Instead the body was kept in the home overnight and an open house was kept while the neighbours and friends talked and comforted the relations throughout the long day and night before the removal to the Church. Much has been written of the Irish custom of waking the dead and Sean O'Suillabhain wrote an engaging book on the subject "Irish Wake Amusements" some years ago. In it he recounted the story telling, dancing, card playing and "horse playing" which was all part of Irish Wakes up to the last century. Clerical opposition to some of these practices resulted in Bishops forbidding unmarried men or women from attending wakes from sunset to sunrise under pain of mortal sin. As late as 1927 the Synod of Maynooth forbade the holding of unchristian and unseemly wakes "at which the corpse was present". Presumably if the corpse was put outside you could enjoy yourself without fear of clerical censure!

Bringing the dead to the local Catholic Church was not a straight-forward matter even up to 46 years ago. One had to pay thirty shillings to bring the dead person inside the door of the Church and if you had enough money to pay for a sung Mass the corpse was allowed to rest before the Altar. If you were unable to pay the appropriate fee then the corpse went directly from the house to the Graveyard without the benefit of clergy but with the local Sacristan James McNally who said the De Profunds at every crossroads on the way to St. Michael's. This was the origin of the custom whereby the hearses today stop at the corner of Emily Square on their way to the local cemetery.

It was Fr. John McLoughlin of fond memory who put an end to this practice and from 1950 onwards every dead person was brought to the Church. It took a little longer to effect a change in the practice whereby the poor dead of the County Home were buried without the attendance of clergy. Instead a box of clay blessed by a Priest was available and a handful of the clay was thrown onto the coffin after it was put into the grave. It was Tom Carbery, a local Councillor, then living in St. Martin's Terrace who at a local Council meeting raised this issue which so scandalised many that thereafter a Catholic curate was available for all burials.

Thursday, March 14, 1996

Michael 'Robbie' Robinson

His father George Robinson enlisted in the Royal Dublin Fusiliers at the start of World War I. Home on leave he married his sweetheart Mary Nolan of Ballyshannon before returning to the trenches. He was one of the lucky ones, surviving a bullet wound in the leg. At the end of the War he returned to farm work as a ploughman eventually ending up head ploughman with Condells of Prusselstown.

Michael Robinson, one of his six children was born on the 8th of August 1920 at Thomastown, Kilcullen and has lived in Athy since 1928. Known to everybody as "Robbie" he has a remarkable recall of life in Athy since the early 1930's. After attending the local C.B.S. he got his first job from Captain Hosie, as he was then known in the local Foundry at the top of Leinster Street on the 25th April 1935. The I.V.I. Foundry was established by Hosie in what was previously the Pound Field adjoining St. Michael's Terrace. The field has been designated as a site for the proposed new Technical School for Athy to replace the old school building then in use in Stanhope Place. For whatever reason another site on the Carlow Road was later purchased and it was there that the new Technical School was opened in 1940.

Captain Hosie acquired the Pound Field after it was no longer required as school site and established the I.V.I. Foundry. He has previously worked in Duthie Larges of Leinster Street, an extensive business which had a Foundry Works in Chapel Lane. Hosie left Duthie Larges to open a garage in 1928 where Maxwells is now located and when McDonnell's Amusements left the Pound Field in 1934 for the last time John Blanchfield of Leinster Street began the levelling of the site for the new Foundry buildings.

The first casting was made in the Foundry on the 21st March 1935 and the following months saw Michael Robinson join the firm where he was to remain for 48 years. His nickname "Robbie" was given to him on his first day in the job by Captain Hosie and has remained with him ever since.

He recalled some of the people who worked in the I.V.I. in those early years. Hannah Hosie and Miss Large of Rheban were in the office while in the Foundry itself were men such as Mick Webster, Upper William Street, Tommy Pender of Mount Hawkins, "Compri" Nolan of Leinster Street, Hepburn of Duke Street, Paddy Donegan of Duke Street, Tom and Paddy Hickey of Bert and Sean Dooley of Levitstown. He recalls Malachan Campbell, a Scotsman, as the Foreman to whom he reported on his first morning at work. The working hours were from 7.00 a.m. to 6.00 p.m and on Saturdays from 7.00 a.m. to 12.30 p.m., for which "Robbie" received 5/= each week.

Some weeks ago when writing of Meeting Lane where "Robbie" and his family lived for a short while, I mentioned the nickname "Black Sam" by which he was known to some people. Those who knew him by that name thought that it arose out of his involvement in the Black and White Minstrel shows in the Town Hall in the 1930's. "Robbie" who has a fine tenor voice did indeed take part in many concerts and shows in the Town Hall but as he explains the name "Black Sam" had a more romantic provenance. Apparently when he was interviewed for the job in the I.V.I. in 1935 it was confidently expected that another man known locally as "Black Sam" who was dating a Cunningham girl from Meeting Lane would get the job. Michael got the job and with it the name of the man whom many believed he had replaced in the I.V.I.

During his 48 years in the I.V.I. he saw the Foundry go through many good and bad times. In the early years manufacturing agricultural implements was the main stay of the business but the outbreak of World War II brought a downturn in demand. All pig iron and coke used in the Foundry were imported from England and during the years 1939 to 1945 pig iron could not be brought into the country. It was then that scrap metal was utilised whenever and wherever it could be obtained while a limited supply of English coke was supplemented by supplies from Irish coal mines. The Foundry closed down for short periods during the War when supplies of coke and iron were not available.

The end of the War saw a resurgence in the Irish building industry and the making of rainwater goods gave a new lease of life to the Foundry. At the height of its activity upwards of 150 men were working in the I.V.I. Hosie, who had enlisted for the duration of the Second World War returned as Colonel Hosie while sadly his only son who might have been expected to follow his father into the Foundry business was killed in action. Colonel Watson, an Englishman, was employed after the War as General Manager of the Foundry and later on George Hudson came from Wales to take over as Works Manager. Mr. Hudson is retired and living in McDonnell Drive and it is to him that Michael and others who worked in the Foundry gave credit as the man "who put the I.V.I. on his feet".

The post-War success was not to be sustained and the business was to close in 1986 having been taken over some years previously by Waterford Foundry.

"Robbie" over the years has involved himself in many aspects of community life in Athy and has used his talents as a singer to benefit many local charities. Indeed he spent a time in the late 1940's and early 1950's as lead singer with the Ivy Band lead by Mona Sylvester of Emily Row. But that is another story for another day.

"Robbie" is now living in retirement in Clonmullin with his wife Caroline whom he married in 1942. Caroline's family owned and ran the "Caledonian Amusements" which wintered in Athy in 1939 and subsequent years. The amusements were located in the area known as the Chapel Well where the car park is now located opposite St. Michael's Church. Caroline and her sister Nora married locally, Nora subsequently emigrating to England with her husband "Thrush" Kelly. Of "Robbie's" and Caroline's four children their son George known as "Bargy" and daughter Caroline are living in Athy while their eldest son Michael is in Australia and the youngest Victor in Wexford.

Thursday, March 7, 1996

1935 All Ireland Final - Cavan v. Kildare

The Irish Press for Saturday the 21st of September 1935 had under a front page headline "Greatest Game This Year - Expectations for Final Tomorrow - Cavan -v- Kildare", the story of the second meeting between these two Counties in an All Ireland Final scheduled for the following day. The pundits expected the Final to go the way of the first meeting between the Counties when Kildare were victorious. "No Gaelic game for several years aroused so much interest" wrote the Press reporter who alerted his readers to "a minor sensation created when the Kildare selectors decided to drop the goal keeper who played in all their matches this year". The player dropped was Patrick "Cuddy" Chanders of Athy, the County team's regular goal keeper who had kept his goal intact throughout the Championship games leading up to the All Ireland Final. He was replaced by Jim Maguire of Naas who had played for some years on the County team but never as goal keeper. The G.A.A. Club in Athy were incensed at what they felt was unfair treatment of their Club member and sent a telegram of protest to the team's training quarters at Oakley Park, Celbridge. All to no avail, even though it was rumoured that the Kildare mentors were reconsidering the matter on the morning of the Final. Many of the team members including Paul Matthews, team Captain, and Tommy Mulhall both colleagues of Chanders in Athy, were unhappy with the Selectors decision as were Castledermot players Paddy Martin and Patrick Byrne.

Some persons have claimed that Chanders allegedly poor performance in a challenge game against Meath was the reason for his demotion. In that game he had conceded six goals but did so while playing behind defenders who were not regulars on the County team. Given his solid performances in the Kildare shirt since first being selected it does seem insufficient reason for dropping him on the eve of an All Ireland Final.

Kildare had beaten Cavan on their own home ground in a challenge game some months previously. They were expected to run out easy winners in Croke Park on All Ireland day. Maybe it was over confidence which led the Kildare mentors to pick Maguire instead of Chanders. The Athy man was seen as a "pick and shovel man" and might have been regarded as a less suitable ambassador for Kildare football than Maguire. This claim gained currency in the aftermath of Kildare's defeat given that as All Ireland Champions Kildare would be expected to travel to America the following May. As Paddy Chanders proved in his later life not least by his dignified acceptance of what was a very strange decision by the Kildare mentors he was as good an ambassador as any Club or County could ever hope to have.

The radio programme on Athlone wavelength that Saturday night included a short item immediately following the second news at 10.45 p.m. when the Captains of Cavan and Kildare spoke for a few minutes from the Dublin studio on their chances in the great match. Kildare Captain, 29 year old Paul Matthews from Athy said "I think we will win. We are better in fact than against Mayo and are by no means underestimating the strength of Cavan whom we know as great Championship fighters. There may not be a great deal in it but what little there is will I think be on the side of Kildare".

Another Athy Club player on the team was Tommy Mulhall described by the Press with Mickey Geraghty, Frank Dowling and Jimmy Dowling "as the smartest quartet of footballers seen out in the past ten years". Tommy at 24 years of age was playing in his first All Ireland Final at right half forward.

The papers on Monday the 23rd of September told the sad tale so far as Kildare followers were concerned. "All Whites had no answer to Brefni, bustle and dash" ran the headline in the Irish Press. In a game in which the older style of high-catching and long kicking of Cavan was matched against the skill and craft of Kildare, Cavan were victorious. The splendid fielding of the Cavan men was especially noted at midfield where Paul Matthews did not play as well as expected and where his colleague Kit Higgins was injured early in the first half. Cavan ran into an early lead and were 1-5 to 0-1 in front three minutes before the end of the first half. Tommy Mulhall then scored a goal after the ball had rebounded off the upright following a shot by Tom Keogh. The half time whistle blew with Cavan leading 2-5 to Kildare's 1-2.

On the resumption Cavan continued their scoring spree adding another goal and point before Kildare replied with a point by Paul Matthews. But the result was inevitable and despite Kildare's efforts to cut back on the Cavan lead, the final whistle went with Cavan running out relatively easy winners on the score line of 3-6 to 2-5.

Paul Matthews, a Louth man who had never played football before coming to Athy, in the post-match interview acknowledged that on the day Cavan were speedier and showed rare dash and opportunism. As the last Kildare team Captain in an All Ireland came off the field at Croke Park he wished Cavan every luck and promised that Kildare would soon be back. Paul was not to know that 61 years later the short grass County is still awaiting its opportunity to erase the memory of the All Ireland defeat of 1935.

Interestingly enough Jim Maguire who played in goal in such controversial circumstances "had not much of a chance of stopping the three shots which beat him", according to the Irish Press report of the match. Jim played three more matches in goal for County Kildare letting in nine goals, an average of three per match. Cuddy Chanders was recalled to the County team two months after the All Ireland final and continued to play as County goalkeeper until February 1936.

We will never know if his presence on the team on All Ireland day would have made the difference between defeat and victory. Certainly the Kildare defence did not play as well as expected. Were they unsettled by the controversy surrounding Chanders? We will never know. As Patrick Chanders sat on the substitutes bench on All Ireland day in company with Jim Fox and Barney Dunne, another Athy Club player, he may have wondered what part Athy's defeat by Castledermot in the first round of the Championship in Narraghmore on the 11th of August 1935 had played in his demotion. Castledermot represented by Paddy Martin and Patrick Byrne, fellow County players, put four goals past the County goalkeeper that day. Was it an ominous sign which first planted the seeds of doubt in the minds of the Kildare mentors?