Thursday, February 27, 1997

Archbishop Empey

Walton Empey Archbishop of Dublin and Primate of Ireland returned to Athy on Sunday, 2nd March to confirm a number of young people in St. Michael's Church, Athy. It was an important day for the youngsters involved and no less important for Athy, the onetime town on the borders of the English Pale. The occasion was marked by the Town Council with a civic reception for Archbishop Empey the first such so far as I am aware for any Church of Ireland Archbishop of this Diocese.

In a very pleasant speech after the formal presentation in the Council Chamber, Archbishop Empey regaled the audience with memories of both his parents family links with Athy. The Empey's of Leinster Street and the Cox's of Duke Street are still remembered in the Town. Newcome Empey Painting and Decorating Contractor carried on business in what is now O'Sullivan's Video Shop while the Cox's lived in Number 27 Duke Street.

For the Archbishop, the visit was a welcome return to the town where he spent many happy holidays with his grandmother. Indeed, as he told the congregation in St. Michael's Church on Sunday morning as a young boy, he had pumped the Church organ on many an occasion during Sunday service in the 1940's. The Organist was his Granny, Mrs. Cox whose devotion to her duties as Church Organist extended over three decades.

The Members of the Town Council attended the Confirmation Service in St. Michael's again possibly another first for the elected representatives of Athy. I was reminded of a recently published book of memoirs by Tim Leahy, a retired Garda Superintendent who recalled Confirmation Day in Buncranna, Co. Donegal in the 1970's where the local F.C.A. provided a Guard of Honour for the Bishop while the Urban Councillors attended at the Church with the Chairman wearing his chain of office. The writer noted "Bishop Farren it would appear was partial to this ostentatious pomposity".

No such ostentatious display for Archbishop Empey, however as he reciprocated the Councillors Civic Reception with an invitation to the Confirmation Ceremony. He spoke during the Confirmation Ceremony addressing his words to the youngsters who were to receive Confirmation. As I sat there listening to him, I was conscious that St. Michael's was the oldest Church in Athy still in use. The doors of St. Michael's were first opened in 1840, five years before the advent of the Great Famine. The Rector at the time was Frederick Trench then living in Kilmoroney House who was to tragically die following an accident at Preston's Gate in Offaly Street in November 1860. His Parishioners erected a beautiful marble pulpit in St. Michael's in his memory which is still standing and in use.

But to return to Archbishop Empey, he was generous of his time that Sunday and welcomed the opportunity to meet the public representatives from his parents home town. Indeed there was a delightful moment in the Council Chamber when Tom "Tanner" Bracken met Archbishop Empey and the two reminisced of the days when the Brackens and Newcombe Empey worked together. Born in 1934 in Dublin, Archbishop Empey was ordained 25 years later and spent the next 22 years in various Parishes in Ireland and Canada. He was the Bishop's curate in Grand Falls New Brunswick Canada for three years from 1960 and Incumbent of Madawaska in Canada for another three years. Returning to Ireland he spent five years in Stradbally the nearest Parish to Ballintubbert where another prominent churchman but from a different century was born. That was Thomas Kelly, the man who often preached in St. Michael's, Athy and who established the Kellyites in Athy and in Blackrock, Co. Dublin at the beginning of the last Century.

Walton Empey was first elected Bishop for Limerick, Ardfert, Aghadoe, Killaloe, Kilfenora, Clonfert, Kilmadugh and Emly in 1981. The amalgamation of the ancient Dioceses enumerated in this title is a clear indication of the falling numbers then and now being experienced by the Church of Ireland. Today there are approximately 100,000 members of what I always refer to as the reformed Catholic Church in the Republic of Ireland. Bishop Empey was elected Bishop of Meath and Kildare in 1985 before becoming Archbishop of Dublin and Primate of Ireland last year. Although he was not born in Athy, we can justifiably claim him as our own, and take pride in his appointment as Primate of Ireland.

A number of people have written to me recently with various queries and from that correspondence, I take one letter which questioned whether I was right in claiming that Pairc Bhride was named after St. Brigid, the Patron Saint of Kildare. The writer thought that Miss. Brigid Darby former member of Athy Urban District Council and Headmistress of Churchtown National School was the person honoured in the name of the early 1950 housing estate. I wonder can any of my readers throw light on the subject.

Thursday, February 20, 1997

Medieval Athy

Two weeks ago in the Town Hall the local branch of An Taisce hosted a lecture given by Mr. John Bradley, a lecturer in medieval history at Maynooth College. The title of the lecture was the ‘Medieval town in Ireland’ with particular reference to the towns of County Kildare. Those who braved the elements on that wintry night enjoyed a comprehensive treatment of the origins, nature and form of the urban settlement in Ireland. It prompted me to reflect on Athy in the medieval period, as to the type of communal facilities or arrangements which existed in the town. Squalor and filth was an integral part of the street life of that period. Towns varied in their tolerance towards the keeping of dunghills outside houses. One writer noted -
‘Every house had a heap of refuse outside it, partly because many horses and pigs were kept in the towns, and partly because destruction of refuse by burning was not considered safe’.

Athy’s charter of 1515 is silent on such matters but it may be assumed that there existed some system for disposal of waste. One author writes of the period -
‘Street cleaning defeated the authorities of every medieval town. Despite regulations often repeated, householders persisted in dumping refuse and sewage in the streets, and allowing their animals and poultry to foul public thoroughfares at will. Few people concerned themselves if dead animals lay about unburied for days, and butchers who commonly did their slaughtering in the streets, allowed the blood and offal to drain away as best they could. The channel which ran down the middle of most streets became an open sewer, and on hot and humid days, it must have stunk abominably’.

In English towns for this period there survive some references to the disposal of refuse. In Cambridge in 1402 dung and filth was allowed to accumulate in heaps for up to seven days while in York in the late fourteenth century any accumulation that could be called a heap was prohibited. It is likely that in these English towns as in Athy there would have existed ‘carters’ or scavengers’ who would have removed such materials for a small sum. In the 12th of July, 1890 issue of the Kildare Observer it was reported that at the meeting of the Town Commissioners, the ‘scavenger’ who was normally required to be in attendance to preserve order in the town fair was not noticed. The reason apparently was the latest suit of clothes, paid for him by the Commissioners, was of a brown colour rather than the traditional red which had made it easy to distinguish him from other people at the fair. It was suggested and agreed, that the colour be altered and that a green suit would be used instead. The job of the scavenger was to keep the marketplace and the fair clean and free of all dirt or obstructions. His appointment might have been a consequence of the Town Commissioners meeting in September 1886 ‘when the dirty conditions of the streets of the town were once more discussed. It is really time that something should be done to remedy this crying evil.’

It would appear that the ‘scavenger’ was unable to perform his role adequately as the sheer volume of his work overwhelmed him. One anonymous writer, more cynical than most, was inspired to pen a piece entitled ‘Sweet Athy’ which he stated was inspired by the ‘present superfluity of mud and gas in Athy’.
“Sweet Athy! Loveliest village in Kildare,
Where muddy streets appear with mud so fair,
How often I wandered down thy street,
While lovely clinging slush adorned my feet.
Here nature holds her own with regal sway,
No wandering scavenger e’er mars the day,
And if per chance he comes to ply his art,
With shovel, brush and corporation cart.
Poetic soul he takes not all the dirt,
Fearing dame nature he per chance might hurt,
The better part he leaves upon the ground,
To be by passing footsteps spread around.”

But the Towns administration was not always dilatory in its treatment of such matters and where required reverted to law. From time to time the courts had to intervene in such matters. The Leinster Leader for the 13th February, 1904 reported that -
“At the Athy Petty Session on Tuesday a large number of parties were at the incidence of the Urban Council fined for creating obstructions by allowing heaps of manure to accumulate outside the doors on the streets at their residences. At this time the occupants of small houses sell whatever manure is accumulating in their back premises to the local shopkeepers and farmers. The manure has of course to be transferred to the streets where it is sometimes allowed to remain for days, constituting a source of danger and presenting a most unsightly appearance. It is a pity however that the real culprits, the purchasers, can apparently escape scot free. In one case disposed of on Tuesday the defendant, a delicate, sickly and indeed hungry-looking old woman who was in receipt of 1 shilling and 6 pence a week outdoor relief was ordered to pay in fines and costs exactly what she received for the manure, 2 shillings. Yet in the case it was shown that the purchaser had bought the manure fully a week before it was transferred to the street. Its failure to remove it resulting in the unfortunate woman who sold it being punished in a manner almost beyond bearing. Neglect of this description is certainly a crime.”

Today happily such problems are a thing of the past.

Thursday, February 13, 1997

Athy UDC and the War of Independence

New Year's Day 1921 saw no respite in the continuing conflict between the Black and Tans and the newly recruited auxiliaries on the one hand and the Irish Republican Army on the other. The year started as the old year had ended with killings on both sides, but losses were heaviest amongst the ranks of the largely untrained volunteers on the Republican side. Even before the first 24 hours elapsed John Lawler of Ardfert, Thomas Murphy of Ballylanders and Daniel Tobin of County Limerick would be killed.

In Athy the Urban District Council met in the Town Hall on 4th April under the chairmanship of Thomas Corcoran of Woodstock St. His vice-chairman was Michael "Crutch" Malone, also of Woodstock St. whose later claim to fame was as author of the "Annals of Athy". The other Council members included Rex Hannon of Athy Mills, Thomas J. Whelan, Thomas O'Rourke and Joseph O'Rourke, all of William St., Patrick Keogh and Peter Paul Doyle of Woodstock St. The Bleach was represented by Patrick Dooley who was not to be confused with another Council member of the same name but who lived in Leinster St., which was also the address of Francis Jackson. William Mahon of Clonmullin, John Joseph Bailey of Stanhope St., Daniel Toomey of Meeting Lane and James Dargan of Butler's Row were the remaining Council members.

The Town Clerk, Joseph A. Lawler, had little to do that night as the fifteen man Council quickly went through the meetings Agenda. Apparently the Council's only decision concerned the taking down of the public lamps and gas fittings for the summer of 1921. The Town Surveyor, Michael Bradley of Offaly St. informed the members that surfacing with broken limestone and steam rolling of the main roads would continue, while five heaps of manure had been sold by P.J. Corcoran, Auctioneer for £5.7.6.

On 11th April the Council members met yet again to strike a rate of £7.6s in the pound to meet it's financial needs for the coming year. One week later it again convened to establish a Committee to further the appeal issued by the Irish White Cross. This organisation had been established late the previous year to help cope with the distress and hardship resulting from the War then being raged throughout Ireland. The Athy Committee consisted of Canon Mackey, the Parish Priest; Archdeacon Johnson, Church of Ireland Rector; Thomas Corcoran, Urban Council Chairman; M.E. Doyle; P.P. Doyle; William Malone; R.A. Hannon; Michael Dooley and C.J. Supple, a local Trade Union organiser. The White Cross Organisation was later to report that £125.15 was paid in personal relief to Athy people to 31st August, 1922. During the same period a total of £1,302.00 was paid to residents in Carlow.

Athy Young Emmets, the local Gaelic Football Club were granted permission by the Urban Council to erect a barrier at the entrance gate of the show grounds on the occasion of the Kildare v. Laois football match on Sunday, 8th May 1921. No doubt the young men from Barrowhouse area travelled to Athy that day to cheer on their County team. They were to be disappointed as the Kildare men ran out victors on the score of 2:3 to 1:3. As they travelled home that evening little did they realise that on the following Sunday two of their neighbours would become part of the deadly statistics in the bitter armed struggle which would end even if only temporarily with the calling of the truce on 11th July.

James Lacey and William Connor would die on the side of the roadway at Barrowhouse on 15th May, 1921. They had been members of a party which attempted to ambush a group of Black and Tans which were travelling through the Irish countryside around Barrowhouse on their way from Ballylinan to Maganey.

The next night the members of Athy Urban District Council met again in the Town Hall. Reference was made to the house Dr. John Kilbride was building in what the minute writer termed "Crib Road". Even now we know that the reference was to Church Road, although the name "Crib Road" has long gone out of use. A vote of sympathy was passed on the death of Mrs. Murphy, wife of Michael Murphy of Commercial House, Athy who had been a member
of the Council for many years. The minutes of that meeting do not record any reference to the killing of Connor or Lacey, nor was there any reference at their next meeting held on 6th June. At that latter meeting votes of sympathy were passed on the death of Matthew Minch, "a member of this Council and it's Chairman for many years and it's largest rate payer". A similar vote of sympathy was also passed on the death of John Holland, veterinary surgeon of Model Farm, Athy.

During the month of May 1921 70 Irishmen were killed by the Crown forces in Ireland, while 39 men were killed the following month. Nowhere is there recorded in the minutes of the local Urban District Council any reference to this. No outrage followed the shocking events which were unfolding daily throughout the country. Even where the drama unfolded within shooting distance of the town, it did not apparently merit any mention at meetings of the local Council.

Life in the Market Town went on as before, with the town fathers' only concern being with that of the public lamps, the sale of manure heaps and road surfacing. History appears to have passed by the Town Council without leaving it's mark.

Thursday, February 6, 1997

Athy in the last decade of the 18th century

Next year will mark the 200th anniversary of the 1798 rebellion. This was a period of great turmoil in Ireland and particularly in the county of Kildare and the town of Athy. How we commemorate what has been called the year of liberty will be indicative of our views concerning the murderous events that unfolded two centuries ago. A previous commemoration in 1898 was marked by an upsurge in nationalism with a particular idolisation of those men and women involved in the rebellion. It was however a different age. Parnell was not long dead and the nationalist movement that would soon sweep the country was only then in the early stages of a development which would see it replace the Irish Home Rule party in Westminster.

However, this was all in the future when the assizes opened in the Town Hall, Athy on the 3rd August 1790. Among the barristers robing in the bar room that day was a young newly qualified member of the legal profession. Theobald Wolfe Tone was then struggling to support his young family while at the same time developing his political outlook. What would Tone have made of the town of Athy as it was in 1790. He could hardly have foreseen that he would be one of those responsible for the events that would divide the townspeople eight years later. Our knowledge of the town in this period comes from contemporary writings of the time. The French traveller De Latocnaye who journeyed from Carlow to Athy in 1796 in order to catch the ‘service of public boats to Dublin’ described Athy as a ‘village’. On entering it he was ‘stopped by four or five persons who asked for charity - they explained that it was to be used to give decent burial to a poor wretch who had died of hunger’. Dear Latocnayes response was quite cynical - ‘I replied that since he was dead he wanted nothing. This answer did not appear to satisfy them, and so I contributed to the funereal pomp, the occasion being, perhaps, the only one in which the poor fellow’s friends were interested in his concerns’.

Chevalier De Latocnaye was an exiled French royalist whose lifestyle in his homeland would have been a world apart from the rather bleak small midland towns he found himself while travelling through Ireland. For example, his single observation regarding Carlow was that a seminary for catholic priests had recently been established there. Although in the case of Athy one must conclude that the Frenchman’s view was a fair refection of the town as it then was.

Not many years earlier the antiquarian Austin Cooper visited the town and his description of the town in 1782 suggests a quiet, sleepy backwater, the town being ‘a small town situated on the river Barrow over which is a plain bridge of arches with a low square castle adjoining on the east side. Here is a market house, church and county courthouse, nothing remarkable in elegance of building. On the north west side of the town is a plain horse barracks and near it another old castle’.

The year before Wolfe Tone attended the court at Athy, Deborah Chandlee, a member of the local Quaker community (whose husband Thomas was a linen draper in Duke Street), wrote to her sister Sarah Shackleton in Ballitore that ‘Athy affords nothing worth sending (newswise) it being dead in every sense of the word’.

Thomas Rawson, one time Sovereign of the town, and the man who would play a prominent part in the events of 1798 on the government side wrote in 1807 that ‘in the midst of a populous charming country with water carriage to all the world Athy is neglected, is in poverty and has not any one manufacture carried on’. He felt that the position of the town on the river Barrow and with its junction with the grand canal held out ‘much invitation to English capital and English Industry’. He further noted that ‘its vicinity abounds with mill sites yet it is full of unemployed inhabitants’. A colourful account survives of one individuals impressions of the towns market in 1837 which would not have been vastly different from the market scene at the end of the 18th century - ‘just take a walk to Cobb’s Corner and proceed from thence around the market square. On your left is a row of decent looking housewives, clean aprons, clean faces, with “I assure you it is as sweet and clean butter as any in Ireland, and those eggs were laid this blessed good morning.” Don’t be surprised if the butter and eggs get together. Go on a little further through the corn sacks, and it is a chance if you don’t stumble over the new crocks and dishes prepared to pack the butter or hold the milk in, with now and then a sort of jingling knell, sounding in the midst of those self same crocks”.

So we might picture Athy on the eve of the rebellion as typical market town somewhat stagnant and yet to experience the growth which would come in the first half of the nineteenth century. The rebellion would have many participants, some willing, many others unavoidably and reluctantly dragged into the horror and grief which marked those times. Some locals would play a more prominent part than others. Thomas Rawson of Glassealy House who later wrote of the town in his book ‘Survey of Kildare’, would be blamed for the repressive government action in the locality in the months leading to and after the rebellion itself. Mary Leadbetter, a resident of Ballitore, would write eloquently and with great compassion in the Annals of Ballitore of the excesses on both sides. A member of the Fitzgerald family would enter the pantheon of nationalist heroes before the rebellion had ended. Lord Edward Fitzgerald, who had once been a member of parliament for the Borough of Athy was to be captured due in no small measure to the treachery of another local, Thomas Reynolds, who lived in Kilkea Castle. But more important than all those individuals were the people of Athy who suffered and endured the most terrible hardships during and after the rebellion.

Next year we will have an opportunity to both remember and commemorate this significant period in our town’s history. Whether we view these events with misty eyed romanticism as did those who celebrated the centenary in 1898 remains to be seen. Perhaps these events and their participants deserve a more realistic appraisal and assessment in the context of the national and local history of the day.