Thursday, April 25, 1996

Emigration from Athy

Emigration has always been the safety valve for our country. Without it we would inevitably have succumbed to the terrifying depths of deprivation all too common in Third World countries. One of the earliest records of emigration is that found in the "Journal of the House of Commons of the Kingdom of Ireland" for 1796 which was published as a special report of the Commons Committee set up in 1743 to investigate abuses of enforced transportation during the previous seven years. The 2,000 or so transportees listed in the Report were convicted felons or vagabonds sent over seas between 1735 and 1743. Amongst them was Graham Bradford, a Freeman of Athy of whom it was recorded in the Borough Council Minute Book of the 16th of October 1738 "was convicted in his Majesty's Court of Kings Bench of wilful and corrupt perjury and that he was pilloried and is now transported into some of his Majesty's plantations in America". It is interesting to note that the Minute Book was signed by nine members of the local Borough Council including Alexander Bradford, George Bradford and William Bradford.

The millions who left Ireland to journey by sailing ship to America during and after the Famine are listed in the seven volume "The Famine Emigrants - Lists of Irish Emigrants arriving at the Port of New York 1846 - 1851". Included amongst them were many hundreds who left Athy and South Kildare during that time. Unfortunately the lists do not give the County of origin so that we cannot identify the local people who left Ireland to start a new life in America. The voyage from Liverpool to New York usually took three to four weeks, longer in winter months. The majority of the sailing ships carried between 200 and 300 passengers while some of the larger vessels were capable of accommodating up to 500 people. Those fleeing from the Irish Famine and its aftermath had the dubious distinction of being the last group to cross the Atlantic under sail. The accommodation provided in steerage for the poor Irish emigrants was a breeding ground for cholera and dysentery. Ship Fever grew to alarming proportions during the Famine years and in Black '47 the Irish who died at Grosse Isle, an Emigration depot 30 miles below Quebec on the St. Lawrence River, numbered in excess of 5,000. Subsequent changes in shipping law required ventilation of steerage quarters and other improvements which greatly enhanced the prospects of Irish emigrants safely arriving in America.

In 1868 John J. Bealin, whose late father Mark Bealin had a bakery in the premises at the corner of Leinster Street now owned by Mrs. Lehane, left Athy for America with his older brothers William and Mark. Born on the 28th of December 1854 John J. had attended the local Christian Brothers School but when his father died and his mother remarried the three sons went across to Liverpool to join one of the new fangled steam ships then plying their trade between there and New York. The journey which in the earlier sailing ships took weeks could now be completed in less than 15 days. Bealin and other Irish emigrants alighted at America's first immigration depot Castle Clinton, three hundred feet off the southern tip of Manhattan.

Emigration to America continued to increase throughout the 19th century leading to demands to regulate entry into that country. Immigration laws were passed denying entry to Chinese nationals and "any convict, lunatic, idiot or any person unable to take care of himself or herself without becoming a public charge". On the 1st of January 1892 Ellis Island was opened as an immigration depot and the first person through its doors was 15 year old Annie Moore of Co. Cork whose statue now graces the refurbished Ellis Island Immigration Museum which is a major tourist attraction for New York tourists.

Between 1891 and 1901 the town of Athy suffered a population decrease of 1,267, many of whom can be expected to have emigrated to America. Amongst those who left may have been Bridget Greene, a 26 year old spinster who sailed from Queenstown as a steerage passenger with two pieces of luggage on the White Star Line R.M.S. Teutonic arriving in New York on the 15th of April 1897. She is now immortalised in print as one of the 141 steerage passengers on that boat whose names are included on a display panel in the Ellis Island Immigration Museum in New York Harbour. Listed only as from Co. Kildare she was one of the thousands who daily went through the inspection process which one had to successfully undergo to gain entry to America.

On landing each immigrant had a number tag pinned to his or her clothing for identification purposes. Jostling three abreast they made their way up the steep flight of stairs to the great Registry Room. Public Health Doctors examined each person for any one of sixty diseases which would exclude a hapless emigrant from the mainland. The disease which resulted in most exclusions was trachoma, an infectious eye disease. Doctors used button hooks to lift up each persons eyelid for evidence of inflammation which would indicate the presence of trachoma. From there the frightened emigrant passed on to the next room where inspectors posed questions to ascertain each persons social, economic and moral fitness. It could take hours if not days to successfully circumvent the system of checks before one was permitted to take the ferry to Manhattan. If turned away for any reason the unfortunate person faced the sad, lonely boat journey back to Ireland.

Many of Athy's finest left the town for America in the early 1920's. The local G.A.A. Club suffered enormously at that time from the loss of young players who sought their future in the States. Sapper O'Neill and Michael Mahon, two County footballers were just two of the great footballers who left Athy for America in the 1920's. Mahon emigrated in October 1927 and on the night before the local G.A.A. Club, then called Young Emmets, held an "American Wake" for him in the Town Hall. Like so many others he was never to return to his home town.

The White Star Line which had boats travelling to New York and Boston from Liverpool, stopping at Cobh, operated through agents in Athy two of whom were T.J. Brennan of Duke Street and Edmund Mulhall of Barrow Bridge House. The price of a tourist cabin in 1928 for a single journey ranged from £22 to £25 depending on the time of year and the ship on which one travelled. This was a considerable sum at a time when a pint cost ten pennies, the equivalent of little more than 4p today.

One of the many interesting features of Ellis Island Immigration Museum is the American Immigrant Wall of Honour. Here are recorded some of the names of those 12 million immigrants from all lands who passed through Ellis Island between 1892 and 1954. Virtually ever nationality is represented on the Wall of Honour, the largest wall of names in the world which will remain for posterity in the shadow of the nearby Statue of Liberty. The names of all those who left Athy since the Great Famine of 150 years ago can never hope to be recorded. Some are remembered but for the most part they are forgotten, a lost diaspora which sought tolerance, opportunity and freedom in a foreign country.

Thursday, April 18, 1996

Leinster Street 1932 (2)

Continuing our survey of Leinster Street in 1932, we retrace our steps and start with the shop opposite the Leinster Arms Hotel. That first building bearing the name Athy Co-Operative and Agricultural Stores. It was known locally as the Co-Op Stores and its neighbour was a shop owned by Delaneys. The Leinster Arms Hotel yard lay between Delaneys and Miss Darby's house. The yard provided secure parking for the Hotel patrons and was watched over by the ever vigilant Paddy Webb of St. Patrick's Avenue, a ex-Army man who was later Caretaker of the C.Y.M.S. Hall in Stanhope Place. Miss Bridget Darby was a teacher in Churchtown and a member of Athy Urban District Council. Indeed she may well hold the distinction of being the first female member of that body. She was a member of the Fianna Fail party and very involved in the Irish Language Revival movement.

Next door was another private house before we met Hutchinson's Hibernian Hotel. Mr. Hutchinson was an electrician who carried on extensive electrical business for many years. He later lived in Church Road. The Hibernian Bank, the finest building in the street, is now occupied by the Hibernian Insurance Company. It was next door to the small two storey house of Dan Neill, a local Building Contractor. In the 1950's Dan owned the lands now occupied by the Kingsgrove housing estate on the Carlow Road and his only employee in those days so far as I can recall was Jim "Salty" Doyle of Butlers Row. Duthie Larges had extensive premises fronting on to Leinster Street as well as commodious buildings extending back up Chapel Lane. Once the largest garage and only foundry in Athy it continued in business until the early 1980's. Dooley's Bakery occupied a premises now owned by Mrs. Hughes. This was an extensive business with several bread delivery vans on the road. It was owned by Paddy Dooley, brother of Michael Dooley of Duke Street.

Across Chapel Lane was T.C. Walsh's pub, later Hickeys and now "Cheers" Bar. Doran's clothes shop was next door to Campbells harness maker while "Sapper" Neill was still carrying on his butchering business in the adjoining premises. It was later acquired by Willie McGrath who was in time to open McGrath's tearooms in the same premises. Hylands were next door to Jacksons and then a large emporium consisting of a grocery, hardware shop, drapery, shoe shop and garage. The business was put into receivership in the late 1950's given the now infamous Russell Murphy some early experience of Irish provincial business live. Part of the premises was sold in 1963 to a consortium which included Pat Flood who is now retired and living in Chanterlands.

Fran Doran's clothes shop was next with Johnny "Mockers" McMahon's sweet shop alongside Mick Egan's tailoring shop. What is now Sunderlands was believed to have been a small sweet shop and lodging house while Wynnes shoe repair shop was then a private house owned by Mick Howard who worked in Blanchfields Sawmills. Kellys lived next door followed by Miss Johnson's shop. This prompts me to ask if this was where Paddy Johnson lived after moving from Boher Bui when St. Michael's Cemetery was extended. He is believed to be the only man legally buried in his own back yard, lying as he is inside the front wall of St. Michael's Cemetery where his small house was once located.

The next house was occupied by a Mr. Langton whom I believe to have been an uncle of Tom Langton, well remembered and beloved Postman and Fireman now long deceased. Mrs. O'Meara's pub to where Barney Dunne first came to work in the 1930's is now called The Anglers Rest. There are still three public houses here and 64 years ago the last two were owned by Paddy Kelly and Jim McEvoy. Alex Kelly who died quite recently was a son of Paddy Kelly while Jim McEvoy present proprietor of the Railway Bar is a son of the late Jim McEvoy.

Conroys sweet and grocery shop was followed by a row of houses occupied by George Ellard's father, Mick Langton - a postman like his son Tom, Jack Roche, 'Locky' Murray, Mick Ellard, Miss Watts who worked in Jacksons and John Maher who was a Drayman for C.I.E.. Across Kirwan's Lane was to be found the Railway Bar, owned by Pat O'Brien whose brother Michael owned and operated the Nags Head also in Leinster Street. Next came three houses occupied by the Reilly family, the May family and Isaac Thompson and his family. Nellie Reilly, later had a sweet shop in the front room of the family home before she emigrated to England in the 1950's. The large house now known as the Care of the Elderly home was then occupied by Mr. Rogers, an Englishman, who was Caretaker of the Peoples Park and agent for the Duke of Leinster.

Looking back at the names of those who lived and worked in Leinster Street 64 years ago it is not surprising to find that many of those names are no longer there today. Some physical changes are also noted in the street, particularly in relation to the small row of houses which adjoined Conroys shop. These houses are now gone, the last occupied by Mrs. Ellard having been demolished last year. The three small houses adjoining Blanchfields in the square are now roofless shells. Elsewhere on the street businesses have changed and private houses have been converted to shops. I wonder what the future holds for the street in 1060 when another 64 years will have elapsed.

Thursday, April 11, 1996

Leinster Street 1932 (1)

1932 - The Year of the Congress. Perhaps one of the most easily remembered dates in our recent history. Equalled only by the epoch making Easter Rebellion of 1916 but with this difference. There are not many whose memories can extend back 80 years to the time when Pearse and his colleagues set out to change the course of Irish history. The Eucharistic Congress is however another matter. There are many who can recall the pomp and ceremony which surrounded the biggest religious ceremony ever witnessed in this country. It was a year which was forever to be fixed in peoples memories.

Some of our elders can still recall the events in Dublin that year but it's to a man, then only 12 years of age, to whom I turn for his memories of Leinster Street in the year of the Congress. 'Robbie' Robinson of whom I wrote recently remembers the street which he walked through each morning and afternoon as he travelled to and from the local Christian Brothers School.

Starting at the junction of Emily Square 'Robbie' recalls Henry Sylvester's Public House which is now incorporated into the Leinster Arms Hotel. In more recent years it had been an off-licence and in my young days was the site of Miss Dallon's sweet shop. Henry was the father of Mona Sylvester who later owned a sweet shop in Emily Row. A first class musician she was leader of the Ivy Band which played at local dances in and around Athy in the 1940's and early 1950's. The Leinster Arms Hotel was next door managed then by Miss Darcy. An Inn or Hotel has been on this site since the 18th century and perhaps even longer.

Freddie Darling's barber shop and the Misses Dillon's sweet shop were next in line followed by the public house now owned by Des Noonan but then operated by Jim Nelson. Fred Darling was a superb tennis player whose brother Harry Darling, also a barber in Kildare Town, was perhaps the finest tennis player in County Kildare. The Dillon sisters premises was subsequently acquired by Charlie Prendergast who carried on an electrical business there for many years. Their brother was "Chopsie" Dillon who had a butchers shop further up the street. Blanchfields lived next door and when I had my offices in the same building I recall Eoin Blanchfield paying a visit to what was once his old home and telling the sad story surrounding the tragic death in the house of his young brother.

John Maher's Public House and Undertaking business was next door, today still carrying the name Baptys over the front door even though Bapty, son of John Maher is now long dead. John's father was the first funeral undertaker in Athy who started his business in the 1880's from premises at the corner of Kirwan's Lane which is now a Chinese Take-Away. Johnny Bollards Printing Works was next and I recall meeting some years ago Johnny's son who is now an official of the Bank of Ireland. Athy Tea Rooms and J.C. Reynolds, Dentist, came before 'Chopsie' Dillon's Butcher shop. 'Chopsie' is not to be confused with the man of the same name who had a pub in Barrow Quay. J.C. Reynolds and his son Ken were prominent members of the Social Club in St. John's Lane and Ken is included in many of the photographs of the Social Club drama players of the 1940's and 1950's. Archie Sullivan, a cobbler, and Mrs. Brennan's shop were under the same roof just before Meeting Lane. Archie died in England some years ago and his remains were brought home for burial in his beloved town of Athy.

Across the lane named after the Quaker Meeting House built on the site of the Dispensary in 1780 was Lawler's Hotel. Next door was a private house and then Mrs. Candy's sweet shop. Her son Denis Candy was County Manager in Meath when I took up my appointment as Town Clerk of Kells in the 1960's. James and Nell Mulhall, parents of "Hocker", "Smiler" and "Gussy" lived in No. 14 next to the Nags Head Public House owned by Michael O'Brien and further up the street was William Scully's public house now owned by Clancys. The Railway Hotel was the second of three Hotels on Leinster Street, this establishment being owned by Tom Flood, an old I.R.A. veteran who had been imprisoned in Mountjoy Jail during the War of Independence. Empeys, Painters and Decorators occupied what is now the video shop. Most Rev. Bishop Walton Empey, Bishop of Kildare and Meath, lived here while a young man next door to McLaughlins Public House which is today still operated by Bridie and Kitty McLoughlin. Their father James McLaughlin, born in Buncrana, came to Athy in the 1920's from Belfast. Mrs. Grimes sweet shop was next door followed by Mrs. Blanchfield's private house and Dillons private house. The two end houses were occupied by Matt Murray, Plumber, who was later succeeded by his son of the same name and Peter Hyland whose son Tom was one time Caretaker of St. Michael's Cemetery. In the small recessed square at the end of the street was to be found Blanchfields sawmills and their private house next door to the small houses occupied by "Compri" Nolan, "Golly" Germaine and Anthony Nolan. "Golly" was an ex-World War I veteran whom I recall as one of the great characters of Athy when I was growing up. To be continued.

Thursday, April 4, 1996

Woodstock Castle

Last week the South Kildare Branch of An Taisce hosted a talk in the Town Hall dealing with Woodstock Castle. Concern has been expressed at the present state of disrepair of this important building which has stood on the site for over 700 years. The recent granting of heritage status to Athy was in part a recognition of the building heritage of the town. If we wish to maintain Athy's claim to that heritage status then we must show a willingness to save and protect those local buildings which are an important part of our heritage. Chief amongst those must be Woodstock Castle which stands some distance from the centre of the town. It was built in the 13th century by the St. Michael family of Rheban following the allocation to them of lands in the area by Strongbow. Following such land division it was customary to construct a fortified building at a place of strategic importance and so it was that Woodstock Castle was built on the western side of the Ford of Ae, a river crossing on the Barrow.
The first castle built on the site was probably of wood which was replaced in time by the stone building which still stands as a lonely sentinel guarding the west bank of the River Barrow. More properly referred to as a Hall Keep it was the Manor Castle of Woodstock and figured large in the developing history of Athy, especially in the medieval years. It was to Woodstock Castle that the Friars of the Holy Cross came in the early years of the 13th century to establish their monastery. The area in which that monastery was located was known as St. John's, a name still retained for the laneway which runs parallel to Duke Street. The future town, then a mere village, was taking shape on the west bank of the River and in 1253 the Dominican Order founded a second monastery in the area, now known as The Abbey at the rear of Emily Square.

The village of Athy was home to French speaking Anglo Normans and understandably the native Irish, who lived in the wooded regions of the area now known as Laois and beyond, soon vented their displeasure by attacking the village. On at least four occasions during the 13th century the village of Athy, including Woodstock Castle and the monasteries, was attacked and badly damaged by the warring Irish.

The settlers were a resilient lot and on each occasions rebuilt their settlement. At this time another settlement was to be found near Rheban Castle which was also built by the St. Michael family again near a river crossing. Nothing now remains of that settlement other than the remains of Rheban Castle itself. The survival of the Athy settlement while neighbouring settlements were disappearing might have been due to nothing more than mere chance. Rheban, like Athy, was attacked on many occasions but unlike its neighbour Rheban was soon deserted and reverted to its original rural status as did the nearby medieval village of Ardscull. Another village settlement to disappear was Ardreigh on the Carlow side of Woodstock Castle.

It was Sir John Talbot, Viceroy of Ireland, recognising the strategic importance of Athy on the Marches of Kildare who built a bridge across the Barrow and a Fortress to protect it. In time Whites Castle became the focus of future development on the east bank of the river. The earlier village settlement on the west bank may have been abandoned at this stage given the difficulties of protecting it from the Irish. Whites Castle, then garrisoned and protecting the only bridge across the river afforded greater protection for the settlers who lived and worked in the village on the east bank. Woodstock Castle which was still occupied and remained so up to the 17th century was left virtually isolated. Nevertheless it continued to present itself as a formidable fortress while it was occupied.

As originally constructed Woodstock Castle was a rectangular keep which in architectural terms might be more correctly described as a "Hall Keep". It is a classical example of an Anglo Norman construction of the early 13th century and similar if larger examples can be found at Grennan, Co. Kilkenny and Greencastle, Co. Down. Woodstock has been subject to alterations especially in the 16th century. A tower at the southeast angle of the original Keep was added then as an additional defensive feature. On the west face of the tower at first and second storey level are a pair of circular gunports set within rectangular openings. This form of gunport first appeared in England in the 1520's. The gunports which are now blocked up served to defend the Castle on the only side which did not have an enclosing wall. They were used in connection with floor cannons and above each gunport are to be seen viewing slits to enable the gunner to look out while firing the cannon. These features are of national importance, being very fine examples of 16th century gunports, very few of which are to be found in Irish castles.

Other alterations made in the Castle in the 16th century including the raising of the walls to provide another storey and the insertion of large windows in the west, east and south walls. All these windows have hood mouldings with the finest example to be found at the northeast corner of the east wall. These features probably coincided with the leasing of the Castle to William Sheregolde in 1560 under a Lease which provided for improvements to be carried out by the Lessee.

Woodstock Castle has survived for over 700 years but it now needs urgent repair work to protect some of its more important features. It would be shameful if we were to allow the first building erected on the future town of Athy to be lost to future generations. It is a priceless if somewhat sadly neglected building which could and should be restored to enhance Athy's claim as a heritage town. Athy Urban District Council are the owners of Woodstock Castle and now that the area around the Castle is being landscaped perhaps it is now an opportune time to look at the possibility of saving this 13th century building.