Thursday, May 30, 1996

Tadgh Brennan (1)

So far as I can find out Tadhg Brennan holds the distinction of being the longest qualified Solicitor in County Kildare. It was October 1944 that Tadhg, until then apprenticed to another local Solicitor Paddy O'Neill, qualified as a Solicitor. Legal work in those days was scarce, and the leisurely pace of life and litigation allowed Solicitors offices to operate without Secretaries or staff qualified to churn out the letters which are the trademark of today's lawyers. Indeed Tadhg's first task and on his first day as an apprentice Solicitor was to type out, with two fingers, a couple of letters for his master on an old fashioned manual typewriter.

Paddy O'Neill, brother of Dr. Joe O'Neill, then had offices on the first floor of Michael Anthony's Auctioneers in Emily Square where Tadhg as a young apprentice had Jack Lawler as a work colleague. Tadhg, who was 76 last month, was born in Canal House in Monasterevin where his father Fintan was the canal agent. The Brennan family moved to Athy in 1924 when Fintan was appointed Magistrates Clerk in place of T.J. Bodley. Coincidentally, the Brennan family initially resided in No. 5 Offaly Street where 21 years later another family whose son was also to embark on a legal career also lived. That same house was the offices of the District Court for a few short years after Fintan Brennan's arrival before being relocated in the Town Hall.

It was his father's suggestion, obviously based on his experience as a Magistrate Clerk and later a District Court Clerk which led Tadhg to undertake legal studies and an eventual apprenticeship with Paddy O'Neill. When the time came in March 1945 for Tadhg to set up his own Solicitors practice his aunt Kitty Heffernan, then living in Emily Row, offered her front room as an office. "Tadhg R. O'Braoinan", Solicitor, remains as the name of the practice to this day although Tadhg has long gone from it. The entire house has now been taken over by the practice which the young man started in the front room over 50 years ago.

Business was slow for quite a while and the opening of a branch office in Monasterevin and later in Rathangan helped to pass the hours even if sometimes it did not always increase the fee income. In those leisurely days Tadhg occasionally cycled to his branch offices with a small bundle of files on the bicycle carrier. As he admits himself he often made the same journey the following week, without having taken the tape off the carefully preserved files in the interim. This was a routine he maintained until about 1955 when his own apprentice Aidan O'Donnell qualified as a Solicitor. Judge O'Donnell as he is now, established a legal practice in Portarlington taking with Tadhg's blessing the Monasterevin branch practice which Tadhg had earlier developed.

All the time Tadhg was fulfilling his love for Gaelic games and as a boarder in Knockbeg College he played with the legendary Tommy Murphy in two Leinster Colleges Finals. Unfortunately Knockbeg lost on both occasions to St. Mel's College. Minor football for Athy G.F.C. was soon followed by Senior football for the same Club. With Athy Tadhg played in three Senior County Finals winning his only Championship medal in 1942. He recalls with a chuckle how as a young man of 21 years playing in his first final in 1941 as centre half back he was, to use his own words, "demolished by my opponent, Mick Keating a Garda Sergeant, who was an old man". The following years the same teams contested the County Final and this time Athy won following a replay. It may have been purely a coincidence that the same "old man, Mick Keating" was injured only after five minutes play although Tadhg hastens to add, he was not marking him that day.

In 1943 he played for U.C.D. and was honoured by the County selectors on two occasions playing against Offaly in October 1943 and Wexford in April 1944. On both occasions he joined two other local players Tommy Mulhall and Dinny Fox who were also County players. Tadhg's involvement with the local G.A.A. Club was not confined to playing football and he served in various Officer positions over the years. Recalling the great players who played with Athy he mentions Mick Mannion, a Galway man who taught in the local C.B.S., Paul Matthews, Joe Gibbons, Jack Dunne, George Comerford a Clare Garda stationed in Athy, Jim Malone, Jim Clancy, Stephen Whelan, Barney Dunne, Tommy Mulhall, 'Bird' Rochford and Joe Byrne. The heyday of the Athy football Club according to Tadhg was the years 1931 to 1937 when the Club won three Senior County Championships.

To be concluded next week.
Last week Jim Connor died in England where he had lived since leaving Castlemitchell in the 1950's. Jim and I had corresponded in the past and during the hot summer of 1995 he called on me while on his last holidays in his beloved south Kildare. I later had a great night of chat in Mary Prendergast's house with Jim and John Fennin as they recalled the "old days" in Castlemitchell. Jim's love for his native place was obvious as he brought me around Churchtown Graveyard that same evening, pointing out its many important features and passing on the local lore. He was particularly proud of the water fount which he had rescued on an earlier visit and had preserved on the site. Jim was later the subject of an Eye on the Past which I know gave him immense pleasure. Like so many of the missing generations from our area he had to live out his adult life far from the townlands he loved. His passing follows not so long after that of his friend Joe Bermingham with whom he was involved in the founding of Castlemitchell G.F.C. and the provision of the local Community Hall. Jim will be sadly missed.

Thursday, May 23, 1996

The Bridge of Athy

Crom a Boo, known to Historians as the war cry of the Fitzgeralds but to every Athy person it means just one thing - the graceful humped-back bridge which spans the River Barrow in the centre of the town. This week we celebrate its Bi-Centenary. On the 23rd May, 1796 the first stone of the new bridge was laid by Robert Duke of Leinster.

The river Barrow was a natural frontier which in early times was forded and eventually bridged. The river crossing which was located in the vicinity was a place of trade which quite naturally gave way to a settlement in the 12th Century. The inevitable transition to a fortress town was to be expected given the need to protect this important river crossing.

A ford or crossing point on the Barrow would have been located at the point where the river water had spread itself to a shallow depth over hard ground such as rock or gravel. The next development was likely to be stepping stones placed on the river bed which in time would have been planked to give a Clapper Bridge. This was effectively the mere joining up of the stepping stones by placing oak planks across them and allowing pack horses and individuals to walk across without stepping into the water.

Strange to relate that the first bridges other than those of the Clapper Bridge type may have been provided by the Religious Monks. Bridge building was a recognised form of charity and indulgences were granted to those who donated funds, material or labour for that purpose.

Did the monks of the Holy Cross who built the first Monastery on the river bank alongside Woodstock Castle, in the area now known as St. John's, build the first bridge in Athy? We know that there was a Hospital attached to the Monastery which catered for the needs of travellers and given the designation of bridge building as a work of charity it is quite likely that the Monks built a bridge across the river near to their Monastery.

The first reference we can find to a bridge in Athy was in 1417 when Sir Richard Talbot, Viceroy of Ireland, built the bridge and a castle to defend it which he garrisoned with soldiers. This type of fortified bridge was a typical development in medieval years and in Athy's case was to give the town a description it has never lost "a garrisoned town". This early bridge was in all probability a typical medieval narrow humped-backed bridge with deep embrasures over the piers into which persons could stand to avoid oncoming carriages.

Whites Castle which is still in use after almost 600 years remained occupied by a garrison until about 1720 or thereabouts. It was then turned into a town jail as the military took over the purpose built barracks at the end of what became known as Barrack Lane, off Barrack Street. The castle remained as a jail until 1830 after which it was used as a local Police Barracks until the 1890's.

Crom a Boo Bridge, built in 1796 was likely to have replaced an earlier structure but not necessarily Talbot's bridge of 1417. The Confederate Wars of the 1640's were played out in many arenas throughout Ireland and Athy was for a period of eight years was one of the centres of war involving the Royalist, the Parliamentarians and the Confederates. The town was bombarded by cannon fire many times and the Dominican Monastery, the local castles and the bridge all succumbed to the destructive forces of the cannon ball. It was for this reason that the 1417 Bridge is unlikely to have survived until he existing Bridge was built in 1796 by the contractor Sir James Delahunty, Knight of the Trowel.

The late medieval period witnessed the development of water driven power and the construction of water mills. At either end of the Bridge of Athy mills were located and mill races channelled the water to the wheels which drove the mill machinery. A mill operated on the west side of the Crom a Boo Bridge up to 1924 and the ruins of the mill building were still standing until the late 1960's. Between Whites Castle and the present Castle Inn once flowed the mill race for the mill of O'Kelly which stood on the site. A tablet inset into the south wall of Whites Castle bears the date 1575 and refers to the O'Kelly mill.

Crom a Boo Bridge while still in its infancy was to witness many cruel acts. Trial by Court Martial was a common occurrence in Athy during the months of May and June 1798. Seven men were tried, convicted and hanged in the town in the early days of June. Six of those men were from Narraghmore and had been arrested following the killing of John Jeffries of Narraghmore whose widow Mary together with a number of other local residents had fled to Athy for protection. The seventh man hanged was named Bell, a graduate of Trinity College who lived in the Curragh. One of the Narraghmore men was Daniel Walsh a steward of Col. Keatings of Narraghmore and a member of the Narraghmore Yeomanry. On the day that Walsh and his companions were hanged, members of the Loyal Athy Infantry erected a triumphal arch across Crom a Boo Bridge under which the convicted men had to pass on their way from the jail in Whites Castle to the place of execution. The prisoners were accompanied by Fr. Patrick Kelly, a local curate, who enraged by what he saw rushed and knocked down a Yeoman named Molloy. Grabbing at the orange flag which was hoisted on the spot he pulled it down and trampled on it. It is believed that the yeomen who were present did not react as one might have expected because the prisoners were escorted by members of the Waterford Militia whose rank and file members were co-religionist of the prisoners. The hangings took place at the basin of the Grand Canal. Two of the seven were beheaded and their heads were placed on Crom a Boo Bridge to serve as warnings to the local people of Athy. Following Lord Edward Fitzgerald's arrest the local yeomen defaced with sledges the coat of arms of the Geraldine family which had been placed in the wall of Whites Castle when Crom a Boo Bridge was built in 1796.

Last week candles for peace in Ireland flowed on the water under Crom a Boo Bridge where once the blood of 2nd century warriors from Munster and Leinster had mingled with the "dumb waters". The locals stood on the River Bank watching the fading lights drift from view in a scene which must have been reminiscent of 200 years ago when the Duke of Leinster laid the first stone of Crom a Boo Bridge.

Happy Anniversary Crom a Boo.

Thursday, May 16, 1996

'The House in the Heart' by Elizabeth Coxhead

Memories of the past are cherished by all of us. For some of us it is scenes of childhood with nostalgic remembrances of people and places which pleasure our thoughts as we recall our past. For those fortunate enough to have happy memories of the past, the endless memory bank ensures a ceaseless flow of enrichment which over time however often misshapes and distorts the past.

There is always undoubtedly a little exaggeration and always a little self-deception which unconsciously acts on the mind to trim the edges of memory. Some memories are discarded and in their place there can develop others which are perhaps more acceptable to us even if they are not true or accurate. It was my reading of Elizabeth Coxhead's book "The House in the Heart" published in 1959 which triggered these thoughts. Coxhead, who is perhaps better known as the writer of a biography of Lady Gregory and a book on Irish Rebel women had a link with Athy of the past. Her grandfather was James Moses Kelly, a baker from Athy who married Margaret Duncan, daughter of Alexander Duncan of Tonlegee House. Elizabeth Coxhead, born in 1909 died 70 years later. In her novel "The House in the Heart", she incorporated details and data of her own family's visits to Athy and Tonlegee House but cloaked the people and places with fictitious names.

The Duncans are identified as Robertsons and Tonlegee House is Mount Anne located just outside the market town of Kilrannon. Visualise if you will the journey of the English visitors who on arrival at the local railway station were met by an "elegant brown trap to drive the grown ups", a farm cart for the luggage and a wagonette for the children. Together they "made their triumphal progress down the High Street, past the Square with its pink and dove coloured houses, across the Bridge and beneath the little Norman Keep that guarded it."

Athy is readily identifiable from that description. What Elizabeth Coxhead did not know was that Athy's main street was called High Street long before it was ever renamed after the Duke of Leinster. Later "the Mount Anne Woods loomed up" before the convoy turned in through the drive gates "and there it sat in its lap of beeches, the big white house, square and unpretentious."

Further on as the tale of the Robertsons unfolded we are given further clues as to the identity of the town at the centre of Elizabeth Coxhead's novel. She wrote "the rest of them walked sedately the mile into Kilrannon and filled the front pew in the neat little Wesleyan Methodist Church that Douglas Robertson's munificence had built. A tablet on the wall commemorated his virtues".

Alexander Duncan of Tonlegee House, grandfather of Elizabeth Coxhead was responsible for the building of the Methodist Church in Woodstock Street. He had purchased the site, presented it to the Methodist Community and led the way in financing the Church building which was dedicated on the 12th of June 1874. His generosity is commemorated on a tablet in the Church and indeed his wife, who in the novel was alive but bedridden, was similarly commemorated after her death.

Another clue as to the identification of Mount Anne as Tonlegee House was a reference to the Lodge Keeper's House where the main drive emerged. This being further beyond Kilrannon than the back drive it was never used. "The long suffering Honour" lived in that tiny white pavilion built in the style of the main house which Coxhead described as having "no plumbing of any kind" despite the elegance of "the Victorian - Classic formulae".

"The second Tuesday of the month was the pig market, Kilrannon being the principal centre of trade in this animal" wrote Coxhead who recounted that "for many years now a respected adjunct of the market had been the Roberstons Breakfast Stall". Continuing she claimed that "the benighted place was quite without the teashops and cafes of its English counterparts, it lacked even a decent hotel. In the old days, farmers who had driven ten or twenty miles with their squealing cartloads found nowhere to breakfast except in drinking dens and most of them would be fuddled before midday and a prey to the rapacity of the Dublin bacon buyers."

The Robertsons daughters had consequently set up a breakfast stall where a very strong sweet tea, pies, sausage rolls and sandwich bread was sold. This stall was always set up in the south-east corner of the Square "under the statue of the 16th Duke", a right not disputed "even by the old clothes woman with her brazen racy patter who was the next most important attraction, and who queened it beside the Fountain in the south-west." The proceeds of the stall went "not to Wesleyan funds - that would have antagonised the Catholic element - but to the local interdenominational Hospital."

It is wonderful to read descriptions of Athy over 80 years ago even if some of the details puzzles rather than illuminates. Where for instance was the statue of the 16th Duke? A figment of the writer's imagination or perhaps an illustration of the fragility of youthful memory. Memories are a source of pleasure and happiness and Elizabeth Coxhead's book of childhood memories of Athy and the Duncans of Tonlegee House evoke a nostalgic response prompting a desire for others to put their memories of times past in print.

Thursday, May 9, 1996

Commercial House Athy

I was in the audience for the last night of Fiddler on the Roof, the latest offering from Athy Musical and Dramatic Society and thoroughly enjoyed myself. It was a very good production, highlighted by the excellent performances of Martin Hennessy and Paula Dempsey. Based in a Russian village the action centred around the difficulties of a couple when brought face to face with the rejection of traditional values and customs by their children.

I was reminded again today of the relevance of tradition in our everyday life as I passed Emily Square and witnessed the changing scene which greeted me. Bryan Brothers, well known to all and sundry is now no more and already the builders are hard at work on the building which was once known as Commercial House. Leslie Bryan was the last of the Bryan family to carry on business as a draper in the shop which has witnessed many changes over the years. Leslie's father Robert, or as he was known Bob and his uncle George Bryan bought the Commercial House in 1952. Athy was then a thriving market town with monthly cattle and horse fairs which brought the country folk and the town folk together and inspired the commercial life of the town to heights which has not since reached.

In latter years Bryan Brothers was famous for the overhead pulley system which transferred money from the counter staff to the cashier who oversaw all financial transactions in the store. It too has gone, even before the builders had arrived to create new facades and new interiors from the familiar counters and shelves of a provincial towns draper shop. A new business will open up on the site before long and the relentless march of commercial life will continue without pause, unmindful of the history of the building which has stood on this site for many generations.

George and Bob Bryan purchased the building from John J. Glendenning in 1952. A Killarney based commercial traveller, Glendenning bought the business then known as Commercial House at Public Auction in the Town Hall, Athy, on the 10th of February 1946. No doubt inspired by the commercial activity which was then the hallmark of Athy, Glendenning had outbid many others to secure the imposing property which had been offered for sale by Mrs. Eleanor Murphy, widow, and her son William, both of whom lived at Prospect House. Prospect House on the Carlow Road had been built in 1830 as the residence for the Governor of the local jail and is today occupied by the O'Carroll family. Glendenning's relatively short time in Athy might seem to indicate a less than successful venture into local business and indeed it is believed that when he sold the property he did so for considerably less than he had paid at Auction six years previously.

Mrs. Eleanor Murphy's husband Joseph had acquired the business in 1926 following the death of his father Michael Murphy. Joseph himself died on the 12th of March 1928 and the business then passed to his widow Eleanor and his son William who was born in 1922. The Murphys at that stage resided at Sunnyside, Athy and Michael Murphy who had bought the premises in 1905 was I believe the person who gave it the name "Commercial House". In speaking to older people in Athy, reference is always made to Murphy's Commercial House. I have never heard of any reference to John J. Glendenning who carried on business there for six years immediately following the World War II. Undoubtedly however there are many who remember him and some of you will surely tell me about the Co. Kerry man who later sold the draper business to George and Bob Bryan. The 1910 edition of Porter's Post Office Guide describes Michael Murphy of Commercial House, The Square, as a "General Draper, Clothier, Outfitter and Boot Factor". Quite unusually he did not take an advertisement in the same Guide which was copiously illustrated with local business advertisements.

As you can imagine there has been a business house or shop on the site for generations past. For 32 years between 1873 and 1905 the premises were owned by members of the Bailey or Bayley family. William Bayley had acquired the premises in 1890 from Samuel Bailey who in turn had purchased it in 1873 from Francis Keegan, a fishmonger from Baggot Street, Dublin. Whether the Baileys or Bayleys were ever in occupation I cannot say for Slaters Directory of 1881 does not list anyone of that name carrying on business in Athy.

Francis Keegan, the Baggot Street fishmonger, who sold the premises to Samuel Bailey in 1873 had acquired it through his father Peter Keegan, also a fishmonger, of Fitzwilliam market, Dublin who had himself bought it in 1843. The property at that time consisted of two shops which were in later years amalgamated to form the existing extensive premises. In all probability one of the premises was used in connection with the Keegan fishmongering business between 1843 and 1873.

Before the Keegans John O'Neill was the owner, having acquired the premises in 1836 from John Owen or Owens, a tallow chandler. O'Neill was himself a chandler and between himself and Owens carried on that business from the premises for 20 years. Chandlers made candles which were so important for home and workshop in the days before gas and electricity. Owens, described as a tallow chandler, was therefore identifiable as a person who used tallow from local slaughterhouses in making his candles. In Piggot's Directory for 1824 John Owens was listed as a soap boiler as was another local man George Youall. This was a particularly unpleasant trade or craft to carry on in the centre of the town but in the context of the early 19th century it was not unusual.

The traditions of past livelihoods such as soap boiler and candle maker are now long lost to us and all that remains are names once associated with a building which itself is soon to be transformed beyond recognition.

Thursday, May 2, 1996

Athy's Architecture

There has been a veritable deluge of talks and lectures in Athy over the last few months. Attending them is a very invigorating experience while both enjoyable and enlightening. The latest talk was given by Denis Cogan, Kildare County Architect, who is shortly to take up another similar appointment with Dun Laoghaire Borough Council. His talk entitled “Athy, Architecturally - Yours” was a stimulating romp through the buildings and stones of Athy interspersed with revealing insights into the people who either commissioned or designed them. The use of slides added tremendously to the occasion and were enjoyed by the good sized audience who sat in the former court room of the Town Hall.

It was to the outskirts of Athy, if one presumes to stretch that geographical term somewhat, that Denis first brought us. Kilkea Castle, the most important Anglo-Norman building in South Kildare, was the focus of his attention as he showed in slides the twelfth century building which was first occupied by Sir Walter De Riddlesford. He was a young knight of Anglo-Saxon stock who was reputedly related to King Henry of England. The family lasted only three generations in Kilkea and it was through the marriage of a grand-daughter of the original owner to Maurice Fitzmaurice Fitzgerald, third Baron of Offaly, that Kilkea Castle came into the ownership of the Fitzgerald family. It was future Earls of Kildare and Dukes of Leinster, head of the Fitzgerald family, who down the years exercised manorial control over the village and the later town of Athy. Understandably many of the fine buildings in Athy were designed and built as a result of the patronage of the Fitzgerald family.

One building which did not come about in this way was Woodstock Castle which Denis Cogan told us was built in the thirteenth century by the St. Michael family of Rheban. He referred to the fine examples of medieval stone tracery still visible in the blocked up windows of Woodstock. Whites Castle with the bridge which it was intended to defend was described by him as forming “the strongest image which visitors have of Athy”. In that he was clearly correct and in drawing our attention to the fact the County Architect was singling out Athy’s most important building in terms of the future development of the town’s historical heritage. Whites Castle stands at the very centre of Athy, a readily recognisable focal point and one which must engage our concern and aspirations for the future.

The profusion of Churches in Athy prompted a comment that “religion is big in Athy”. Perhaps it might have been more accurate to say that past religious fervour as exemplified in the many fine Church buildings of the town is unlikely ever again to be repeated. The Dominican Church drew extremely favourable comment from Denis who told us that the architectural source for the unusual Church design was a Church at Ronchainp and the monastery of La Tourette together with the work of American architects of the 1950’s who used complex double curved roofs such as that found in Kennedy Airport, New York.

It was revealing to hear his comments concerning St. Michael’s Catholic Church which he described as “unnecessarily large” and giving rise to problems of scale. For directly opposite reasons he found the new civic offices of Athy Town Council lacking the height necessary to “proclaim its civic presence”. It certainly suffers in comparison with the eighteenth century Town Hall which presents an imposing and commanding backdrop to Emily Square. Very favourable praise was reserved for St. Michael’s Church of Ireland, located at the end of Church Road which he described as making for “a dramatic axial view of the Church and spire”.

The involvement of Frederick Darley, a nineteenth century Architect best known for designing the RDS and the Kings Inn buildings in Dublin, was noted in many of the fine buildings in Athy. Chief amongst these was the Presbyterian Church, the adjoining Manse, the Model School and the Courthouse. Darley had been engaged by the Duke of Leinster to re-model Kilkea Castle and it was through the Duke’s patronage that this important Architect was employed in designing so many buildings in Athy. We are fortunate to have so many fine examples of his work in the town, particularly so when the buildings he designed are still in use and in relatively good condition. The stone finials on the Courthouse puzzled the County Architect as they have many others who have examined the building over the years. Are they mesonic symbols or are they symbols linked with the building’s original use as a Corn Exchange? If you have any views on this I would like to hear from you.

The former workhouse designed by George Wilkinson, an Oxford-based Architect, was next shown on slides, to be followed by the railway station which mercifully has recently been repainted in colours which are pleasing to the eye. The Rectory and Mount Offaly were highlighted as very important examples of private houses. The former was the work of Dean and Woodworth while the latter was described as a fine example of an early Georgian townhouse. Later Georgian houses at Woodstock Street were also favourably commented upon.

It was very interesting to hear Denis’ view of what he described as “the greatest architectural achievement” by succeeding generations of Athy people. This accolate was reserved for the central piazza dominated by the Town Hall which we all know as Emily Square. As County Architect Denis Cogan did much to ensure that the Town Hall would be restored in the 1980’s. The initial move to save the building which was in danger of being lost to the town was made by the local branch of An Taisce. The then County Manager Gerry Ward thankfully recognised the merit of the case made by An Taisce and put in place an innovative scheme to restore the Town Hall at a time when the County Council’s finances were limited. The Town Hall will remain a monument to the combined efforts of An Taisce, Gerry Ward and Denis Cogan, Architect in charge of the restoration.

In concluding his talk Denis confirmed that Athy is well endowed with buildings of architectural merit designed by many of the leading Architects of their time. His audience no doubt realise that but perhaps the message needs to go out to everyone in Athy. I wish Denis every success in his new appointment knowing that he will bring to that position the same good taste in architectural design that marked his work in County Kildare and especially Athy which he rightly described as “architecturally the most interesting town in County Kildare”.