Thursday, October 31, 1996

'Cara' - Irish Organisation

"There will be a meeting in the lower classroom after school which you should all attend." Brother Brett, Headmaster of the Christian Brothers School in Athy, taciturn as ever, addressed his remarks to the eager young pupils of second year. The year was 1956. Later that day the noisy gathering of schoolboys was addressed by a third year student, Michael O'Neill, who had obtained Brother Brett's permission to hold the meeting. Michael was from Kerry and had arrived in Athy about one and a half years previously when his father had taken up work as a farm steward with Shaws of Cardenton. His rich mellifluous Kerry accent soon earned Michael the nickname "Aru". As he stood before his schoolmates that day he spoke firstly in Irish and then in English.

Michael, a native Irish speaker, wanted to start an Athy branch of an Irish youth organisation which up to then had only one other branch in Ireland. "Cara" or Friends of the Irish Language sought to bring the Irish language and culture to the forefront and Michael was anxious to enrol his school mates as club members.

As far as I can recall Pat Flinter, a classmate of mine, was one of Michael's acolytes that afternoon and so must share with him the honour of founding the organisation which was later to become Aontas Ogra. Last Tuesday I attended the 40th birthday celebration of Aontas Ogra at the Youth Centre in Athy with a number of schoolpals who had also attended that initial meeting at the Christian Brothers School so many years ago. We had a lot of reminiscing to do, remembering those who had shared experiences with us in the early years of Cara and later Aontas Ogra.

Our early attempts at promoting the speaking of Irish was less than successful. The margins of Irish culture were in time pushed out to encompass dancing, not necessarily confined to the Walls of Limerick or the High Cauled Cap. Truth to tell we did start out with Irish dancing classes which of course necessitated the readily obtained co-operation of our female colleagues from St. Mary's Convent School. Margo Clandillon, Sheila Kehoe, Betty Clancy, Catherine Millar, Josie Murphy and Olga Rowan were just some of the names which immediately come to mind when I recall Sunday afternoon spent in St. John's Hall or the Town Hall struggling through the intricities of Irish dancing.

I am especially reminded of one Sunday afternoon in the Town Hall when our less than well co-ordinated limbs were concentrated on learning the quick-step. We were really keen on extending the frontiers of Irish culture, even it meant stepping over the accepted demarcation line between the Gael and Gall. Whatever the quality of our dancing our interpersonal skills were being nicely honed, from the intermingling with the girls from St.Mary's.

Eddie Hearns, Pat Timpson, Mick Robinson, George Robinson, Anthony Prendergast and many others have occasion to remember with some pleasure those innocent days. Indeed I can even recall that a well-known public representative now living not a hundred miles from Church Road had his first romantic attachment during one such session organised by Cara. Discretion must even now prevail despite the lapse of almost 40 years, lest Teresa Delaney should feel offended by being linked with her paramour of old. There you are Frank, I never mentioned your name.

A Club outing to the Rock of Donamaise on a hot Sunday afternoon is remembered as boys and girls, each with a bicycle walked in formation down the hill into Stradbally whistling the theme tune from the Bridge on the River Kwai. What an odd lot we must have appeared to the locals as the Athy contingent strode through the village with an unwordly confidence and unabashed joy born of innocence.

Several trips to the only other Cara group then in Dublin with club premises in the basement of Molesworth Street was also a welcome diversion from studies and the narrow confines of provincial life of the late 1950's. A bus brought us there and back on the Sunday outings where we met like minded young Dublin folk who shared an enthusiasm for dancing and life generally.

Another highlight in those young days was a trip to the Scalp, a part of outer Dublin never before known to us but where we stored up enough memories to last a lifetime.

Everything comes to an end and for those who attended the initial meeting in 1956 this meant that by June 1960 at the latest they had passed out of the school system. With most of those involved leaving Athy to take up employment in Dublin and elsewhere Cara was to continue with new members but with one person who throughout the years has been the lynchpin in the organisation. Billy Browne was in the Christian Brothers School when Michael O'Neill called his now famous meeting. Today he is still involved in the Club, carrying on a proud tradition first begun forty years ago. Honoured in the past by the Town Council and by the Lions Club International for his contribution to the youth affairs in Athy, Billy epitomises the commitment, dedication and support which everyone in our community should give to worthwhile youth initiatives such as Aontas Ogra.

Thursday, October 24, 1996

Poverty in 19th century Athy

During the 1860's widespread poverty and the precarious state of public health in Athy were constant sources of concern and worry. In January 1863 the local Medical Officer reported that the mortality rate in Athy was unusually high. He claimed that "six persons died on Old Christmas Day, two of them of the Low Fever alarmingly prevalent. The extensive use by the poor and the labouring classes of a cheap American bacon, which judging from appearance and smell hardly seemed fit for human food, is considered by many to predispose delicate or enfeeble constitutions to the attacks of disease".

On the 7th of March of the same year the Athy Town Commissioners decided not to illuminate the town on the occasion of the wedding of the Prince of Wales, on the grounds of "the extreme poverty at present existing in the town". For all the concern expressed by the Towns Commissioners their principal contribution to the eradication of disease in the town consisted of the periodic purchase of a load of lime to be given to the poor for whitewashing their houses. Street cleaning was still of the most rudimentary type and complaints of unsightly heaps of manure on the public roads in the town were common. The extent of the public health problem in Athy was obvious to all when the returns for the local Fever Hospital for the first three months of 1863 showed 107 new cases of fever.

At around midnight on Saturday 5th November 1864 a thatched cottage on the outskirts of Athy was burnt to the ground. Patrick Roche, a farm labourer, his wife Mary and two of their teenage children John and Bridget died in the fire. Following an inquest in the Workhouse on the following Monday the bodies were immediately brought to St. Michael's Cemetery where they were buried by candle light. The Medical Officer had refused to allow the friends of the Roche family to wake the bodies overnight.

An Editorial in the following week's local newspaper read "In the small hovel seven adults slept - four in one bed and three in the other. There was not a back door through which effectual or timely aid might have been extended. No back yard and but one small window. Their pig was a constant resident day and night in close proximity to the very bed where slept Roche, his wife and their son and daughter. If such is the true picture of the state of cabins on the outskirts of Athy, what must be expected from a close examination of the abodes of want in the courts and lanes in the heart of the town?"

The question went unanswered in an age when disease and poverty stood side by side with wealth and rank. The welfare state was to await another age.

The poverty on the streets and lanes of Athy of the 1860's was readily traceable to the bad employment situation then prevailing in the market town. Such jobs as were available tended to offer seasonal employment only at low rates of pay. For many family men the employment situation was never to improve even if jobs in the local mills were occasionally available. When the oat mill at Clonmullin owned by Michael Keating was burnt to the ground in March 1864 several local men were thrown out of work. The large four storey building was the victim of an arson attack by a disgruntled former worker.

Unemployed labourers in Athy saw their only possible hope in joining the ranks of the English army which for so long had a small detachment in the town. The Crimean War of 1853/1856 saw the first large scale influx of recruits from Athy, creating a tradition which was to be followed during the Boer War and the First World War. For those who remained at home the prospects were not encouraging. Shortly before Christmas 1864 the local builder W. Crampton found a family of four living in a twelve foot square, four foot high space dug out of a rick of straw on his land at the Carlow Road. The resulting publicity in the local newspaper prompted a meeting in the Town Hall on December 27th. It was there decided to raise funds to relieve "the distressing labouring poor by employing them in works of improvements in the town."

This showed a new social awareness for the problems of the poor of Athy. Despite this the townspeople's uphill struggle against hunger and disease took on an even greater urgency with the outbreak of cholera in the winter of 1866. The Fever Hospital was filled to overflowing and many deaths occurred.

The Town Commissioners response to the situation was the appointment in August 1868 of a man responsible for ensuring that all vagrants and beggars were kept out of Athy. Dressed in the overcoat and top hat supplied by the Town Commissioner Pat Walker was soon active in arresting vagrants, beggars and prostitutes whom he brought before the local Magistrates Court every day.

Throughout the 1870's the town’s only Medical Officer was constantly reporting to the Towns Commissioners on the unsanitary state of the town and the resulting dangers to public health. Time and again he reported in adverse terms on the state of the town and in 1873 complained directly to the local Government Board in Dublin. Accusing the Town Commissioners of Athy of being inactive and remiss in their duties the Medical Officer suggested that the local Government Board needed to pressurize the Towns Commissioners into taking necessary action to improve the sanitary state of the town. His efforts were in vain as by 1872 the "principal inhabitants" were more concerned with land tenure than they were with the unsanitary state of Athy.

Many more years were to pass before the necessary improvements were noted in the living conditions in Athy.

Thursday, October 17, 1996

Barrow Quay premises of Michael Carey

Barrow Quay has been the site of a Public House for as long as anyone can remember. Markey's were the last owners of the Pub there which had previously been owned by Tony Dillon and before him by his Father "Chopsie" Dillon. The same premises is shown on a Lawrence Photograph of Barrow Quay at the turn of the Century with the name Sterling over the door.

The current owners are presently involved in refurbishing the building and have removed the plaster from the front of the premises exposing the fine cut stone. They have also revealed some lettering high up on the building which proved extremely difficult to decipher. However, some research in "The Irish Book Lover" of May/June 1929 which carried an article on "Printing in Athy to 1900" helped to unravel the mystery posed by the lettering which was removed last weekend. In an article in that journal we find that in 1864 Michael Carey had his printing office at Barrow Quay and in that year he printed "The twenty Fourth Report of the Kildare Diocesan Education Society". The letters exposed on the front of the Public House last week formed part of the sign "Printing Office"'

This then was the office of Michael Carey who was one of the many Printers who carried on Business in Athy during the 19th Century.

Another Printer was W.H. Talbot who 163 years ago printed a a sixteen page pamphlet entitled "A letter to R.M. O'Ferral and E. Ruthven Esqrs. as members of Parliament for the County of Kildare". The earliest reference I have traced on Athy Printer's was in Walker's Hibernian Magazine of 1802 which noted the death of John Richardson Printer, Athy. The 1833 pamphlet of W. H. Talbot is the only known example of his work coming from his Printing Office in Athy. Successive members of the Talbot family were to be involved in printing and publishing in Athy over the following 50 years. The Maryborough Branch of the Talbot Family were to have an even longer involvement with the publishing world through their proprietary interest in the Leinster Express which they founded in 1831.

Another name which has long passed from public memory is that of Thomas French who had a spectacular but unsuccessful publishing career in Athy in the 1830's. From his printing office in Market Square, French carried on a general printing business including among his customers Athy Borough Corporation. In 1836 he came to the notice of a wider public with his printing of the 7th edition of the "Biographical Sketch of the adventures of Captain Grant with a full report of his trial". On November 14th of the following year French embarked upon the ambitious scheme of Publishing and printing a literary magazine from his printing works in Market Square. "The Athy Literary Magazine" was to have a longer life than later publishing ventures based in the town. The only copies in existence end with the 25th issue dated the 13th February, 1838. On sale every Tuesday, the small eight page magazine cost one penny. Throughout its short life, the magazine gave an unvarying mixture of leading articles of local interest, extracts from literary works such as Dickens Pickwick papers and material from national magazines of the period.

The last known edition of "The Athy Literary Magazine" was the 25th number which appeared on Tuesday, 17th April, 1838. The Royal Irish Academy has copies of the first eighteen issues but of the remaining seven issues, the only known copies were in the possession of a Dublin family in Drumcondra in the 1920's. Their present whereabouts are not known.

Within a few months of the ending of the Great Famine Athy was to experience a Journalistic feast. Controversy revolved around the proposed publication of a newspaper called "The Kildare and Wicklow Chronicle" which its promoters indicated would be the only paper printed and published in Athy. Before then the Leinster Express published in Maryborough, now Portlaoise had enjoyed a monopoly position in South Kildare. In the face of the competition posed by the Chronicle, the proprietors of the Express rushed through plans to print and publish a local paper in Athy called "The Irish Eastern Counties Herald". Edited by James E. Talbot "The Irish Eastern Counties Herald" was put on sale on the streets of Athy on Tuesday, 13th February 1849. " The Kildare and Wicklow Chronicle" appeared for three issues only before folding while "The Irish Eastern Counties Herald" appeared as usual on March, 13th with Editorial which undoubtedly surprised the Athy Newspaper reading public which only one week previously was adjusting itself to the habit of two weekly local papers were previously none existed. The Editorial acknowledged that the principal object for which the paper was established having been effected, the printing of the Irish Eastern Counties Herald in Athy would be terminated. So ended a short but lively era during which Athy for the only time in its long history was a centre of the provincial newspaper industry. "The Irish Eastern Counties Herald" and "The Kildare Wicklow Chronicle" have passed largely unnoticed in the history of newspapers in Ireland.
In January 1852, Samuel Talbot a member of the Talbot family already noted was responsible for the last major publishing event in Athy. He published Volume 1 of "The Press" which was intended as a monthly magazine "devoted to the advancement of science, literature and industrial arts". Published in Athy, it did not survive to a second number. Costing four pence it consisted of 36 pages with items of local interest such as an article on Woodstock Castle and a summary of a lecture delivered by Mr. Reece, Manager of the Irish Peat Company given on the 10th December, 1851 at a meeting of Athy Mechanic's Institute.

Talbots unsuccessful venture was the last major publishing event in Athy, until the advent of the Stephen Scroop Press which published a number of books in the 1980's from an Athy address.

Thursday, October 10, 1996


The recent ceremonies in Rome for the Beatification of Edmund Rice, Founder of the Irish Christian Brothers and the Presentation Brothers brought over 5,000 pilgrims from Ireland, some of whom were from Athy. The splendour of that most historic city, founded nearly 2,700 years ago, readily confirms its right to be referred to as the Eternal City. Visitors to a foreign country always welcome the opportunity to discover some association with their homeland but I wonder how many of the Athy pilgrims realised the quite extraordinary links which Athy shared with Rome during this century.

Monsignor William Murphy of Athy was Rector of the Irish College in Rome between 1901 and 1905. The College was then attached to the Church of Saint Agata Dei Goti where it had been since 1837 and where it was to remain until 1926 when it transferred to its present location near to Lateran Square. Fr. Murphy had been a curate in Harrington Street, Dublin before transferring to Rome where as Rector of the Irish College he was appointed a Monsignor. He was brother of ‘Pip’ Murphy who had a butcher’s shop in what is now Café Noir which was recently opened in Emily Square. ‘Pip’ lived with his sisters Nan, Zilla and the well-remembered Gypsy whom I recall was the last of the Murphy family to live in the Square.

Monsignor Murphy died unexpectedly on the 7th of July, 1905 and on the occasion of an exhibition in the Technical School during the Marian Year celebrations I remember seeing a letter from Pope Pius X, now a Saint of the Catholic Church, which he had written to the Murphy family in Athy expressing sympathy on the death of their brother.

In the Church of Sant Agata Dei Goti with its beautiful granite columns dating from the fifth century is to be found a marble tablet on the wall of the Nave erected by the Murphy family of Athy which reads :-
“Sacred to the memory of the Right Rev. Mgr. W.H. Murphy D.D., Protonary Apostolic, Priest of the Diocese of Dublin and Rector of the Irish College, Rome, where he died on the 7th day of July, 1905 in the 49th year of his age and the 25th of his priesthood.

A warm friend,
A true Priest,
A kindly Superior,
His loss was mourned by many,
And sorely felt by the students
Over whom during four years
He did well and wisely ruled.”

Monsignor Murphy is buried in the Campo Verano Cemetery which is the main cemetery for the city of Rome.

In an entirely different setting in Rome is to be found the likeness of another man with an Athy connection. In the Cafe Greco, on the Via Condetti, famous as the haunt of writers, artists and intellectuals since it was opened in 1760, is to be found the portrait of a young man wearing the Roman collar of a cleric. The name given is that of R.M. Dowdall, O.P., a Dominican Priest but the portrait by H. Carlandi gives no further details. It is amongst portraits and photographs of the famous stretching back to the last century and is in fact a portrait of a young Fr. Raymond Dowdall, Dominican Priest, who spent his latter years in Athy and today lies buried in St. Michael’s Cemetery.

But why does his portrait hang on the walls of one of the most famous coffee houses in the world? A native of Newry Fr. Dowdall spent 29 years in Rome between 1921 and 1950. For six years he was Prior of San Clemente, one of three Irish Colleges founded in Rome in the 17th century. The Basilica of San Clemente, a few hundred yards up the road leading from the Colosseum to the Lateran is dedicated to St. Clement, the fourth Pope who was exiled to Drimea and martyred by being tied to an anchor and drowned. The Irish Dominicans have been in occupation since the 17th century of the Basilica which is now world famous because of the archaeological excavations carried out there since 1857. Those excavations, continued during Fr. Dowdall’s period as Prior, having unearthed below street level a 4th century Basilica of which the present 12th century building is a replica. Below that again are ancient Roman buildings which are being excavated to this day.

During the second World War Fr. Dowdall was a friend of Monsignor O’Flaherty, another Irish man commonly known as the Scarlet Pimpernel of the Vatican. Both priests worked together harbouring Jews and allied soldiers and Fr. Dowdall or O’Dowdall as he called himself while in Rome accommodated many escapees overnight in San Clemente. He never spoke of his wartime involvement in sheltering allied soldiers and air men and even in his book “Memories of Italy” he failed to make any mention of his courageous role. I believe his behind-the-scenes role in wartime Rome is the reason why his portrait today hangs in Café Greco, just yards from the Spanish Steps and the nearby house where the young English poet John Keats died in 1821.

Fr. Dowdall on leaving Rome in 1950 went to Lisbon where he was Prior of the Dominican House Corpo Santo which had been founded by another Irishman Fr. Damien O’Daly in 1639. On returning to Ireland he was elected Prior of the Dominican Convent in Limerick before coming to Athy where he spent the last ten years of his life. Fr. Dowdall died in 1980 and is buried in St. Michael’s cemetery.

We can find links and connections in the most unlikely places but few would have expected that the Eternal City and the small town of Athy would be inextricably linked by two clerics, one of whom lies in St. Michael’s cemetery, Athy, the other in the Roman Cemetery of Campo Verano.

Thursday, October 3, 1996

Grotto in St. Dominics

On Sunday the 14th May, 1933 the blessing of the Grotto and unveiling of the Statue of Our Lady of the Rosary in memory of the late Fr. John O'Sullivan O.P. was performed before thousands of spectators in the grounds of the Dominican Church, Athy.

So began a report in the Irish Press on the morning following of the ceremony which was given extensive coverage in all the Irish Daily Newspapers. The Grotto which had taken almost a year to complete consisted of a Statue standing on a high pedestal in a rock garden setting with an artificial pool while on a slab of white marble was reproduced a special prayer for the dead in Fr. O'Sullivan's own words.

Any account of the Dominican's in Athy whose presence in our town stretches back to 1253 is invariably linked with a mention of Fr. John O'Sullivan. Born in Clane on the 25th March 1857, he entered the Dominican Order at Tallaght at 18 years of age and was Ordained on the 20th March, 1881. In the early years of his Priesthood, he spent short periods in Newbridge, Galway, Waterford and Kilkenny and came to Athy in 1886 where he remained until 1910. He returned to Athy in 1917 and died on the Altar while celebrating Mass on the 6th January, 1932.

The Provincial of the Dominican Order, Fr. Finbar Ryan before unveiling the statue spoke of Fr. O'Sullivan who had been a familiar sight in and around the Athy countryside as he travelled around in his pony and trap. A saintly man, he had great faith in the efficacy of prayer and for many years was Director of the Rosary, Confraternity in the Dominican Church. Fr. O'Sullivan was highly thought of by the people of Athy amongst whom he had spent the happiest years of his life.

The Grotto was designed by Fr. Michael Kinnane C.C., Athy a close personal friend of Fr. O'Sullivan and Brother Dolan, Superior of the local Christian Brothers Schools. The construction of the Grotto was a voluntary act by the people of Athy to commemorate Fr. O'Sullivan and members of organising committee included Dr. Jeremiah O'Neill, Mr. Sydney Minch and Mr. Lawler the local Town Clerk. Mr. Guilfoyle who was a Gardener for Myles Whelan of Tonlegee House was in charge of building the Grotto while Frank O'Brien Snr. of Emily Square was responsible for organising the dedication ceremonies.

High Mass was said in the small Dominican Church which could not accommodate the vast numbers which attended. The crowds overflowed on to the church grounds and as the newpapers reported "broadcasting apparatus had to be installed so that the congregation outside could follow the Mass". The celebrant was Fr. Michael Kinnane C.C. assisted by Fr. Maurice Browne C.C. who acted as Master of Ceremonies, Fr. P. McDonnell P.P., Athy, Fr. Hipwell P.P., Ballyadams and Members of the Dominican Order. The singing of the Mass was by the joint choirs of Athy Parish and the Christian Brothers and at the conclusion of the Mass, the Clergy proceeded to the grounds for the unveiling and blessing of the Grotto by Fr. Finbar Ryan, Provincial of the Irish Dominican's.

Fr. Ryan had spent five years in Athy four, of which he had shared with Fr. John 0'Sullivan and so he spoke with personal knowledge of the saintly Priest who was been remembered that day. Fr. O'Sullivan's massive figure he said was "An index of his big heart and his all embracing love for the people of Athy". He recounted how on each visit to Athy as Provincial of the Dominicans, he met Fr. O'Sullivan, who constantly pressed him to use his best efforts to ensure that the Dominican's would always remain in Athy. Concluding his address, Fr. Ryan mentioned the members of the organising committee and also the members of the local guild of painters and decorators, Messrs. Brogan, Bracken and Webster who had done so much to beautify the Dominican Chapel and grounds for the ceremony.

The Grotto was to remain a feature in the grounds of the Dominican Church until removed to facilitate the building of the existing Church. At the same time, the small Cruciform Church which had stood on the site since the early part of the 19th Century was demolished. The Grotto built to commemorate Fr. John O'Sullivan is now but a memory to older members of the local community. The well known Dominican Friar who died on the altar while celebrating mass in January 1932 is no longer commemorated in the town where he spent almost forty years of his priestly life.