Thursday, June 26, 1997


In company with about 70 other local history buffs for the most part from Northern Ireland I visited the Island of Iona last weekend. A small rocky island in the Inner Habrides off the Island of Mull, Iona is famous as the place chosen by Colmcille to found his monastery when he left Ireland. The occasion of our visit was the 1400th anniversary of the death of the Saint who was the earliest and possibly the greatest of Ireland’s missionaries.

The Island itself is very small no more than 3 ½ miles long by 1 ½ miles wide and is difficult to access requiring three ferry crossings and lengthy road travel before it can be reached. Everywhere I go I always seek out the Athy connection but I am afraid that in Iona once the Christian centre of Europe I drew a blank. The bleak desolate place holds its secrets giving the visitor a mere sense of the monastic world where the manuscript known as the Book of Kells was started.

Iona is acknowledged to have a historical and religious importance out of proportion to its size and but for its inaccessibility it is likely have rivalled Rome as a place of pilgrimage. The whole Island of Iona is a monument to St. Colmcille as all visitors are enabled to identify places where the 7th Century Irish missionary Saint prayed and lived.

It was from Iona that monks travelled to the east coast of England to found that other famous monastic settlement of Lindisfarne. It is an extraordinary coincidence that following Viking attacks on both monasteries in the eighth and ninth centuries two world famous manuscripts ended up in Ireland. The Book of Kells now in Trinity College was begun in Iona and removed from there for safekeeping to the Monastery of Kells in Co. Meath where it was completed. Like it the Book of Durrow originated elsewhere and in its case in Lindisfarne from where it was brought to Ireland to escape the destructive forces of the Vikings.

The visit to Iona was remarkable for a number of reasons. Perhaps the composition of the group which made the long trip was especially significant on the weekend when Orangemen unfurled banners and nationalists prepared to resist. After all Protestants, Presbyterians, Methodists, Catholics and some of no professed religion at all came together to share in the experience of visiting what was once one of the greatest centres of the Irish Church. This was not a pilgrimage in the sense we normally use the word. There was no communal praying or mindless repetitive circling of rocks associated with the Saint mumbling quotas of Hail Marys before passing on to the next cairn. Instead there was quite reflective visits to the sites associated with St. Colmcille where differences of Church and creed melted away allowing everyone to reflect on a shared religious inheritance and of a time when the Irish Church re-christianed Europe. This was in sharp contrast with what was happening that weekend in the Northern part of the Irish mainland. The evangelizing spirit of the Irish has long gone to be replaced by bigotry and intolerance. Nowhere was this more sharply contradicted however, than within the group of “prods and tagues” who joined together on the trip to Iona. If such people can be brought together in a celebration of a shared history why is it that our neighbours cannot also do so remembering that we are all heirs to the wisdom of the past.

As my companions and I came of the ferry at Larne on Sunday night after returning from Iona our Northern Ireland friends concerned for our safety offered advice on how best to circumvent the troubled spots in Belfast and Newry. There we were five local history aficionados facing into the uncertain future much as did Colmcille when turning his back on Ireland to set out across the Irish sea. Instead of raging seas we faced enraged people who had scarred their own landscape in protest.

With a certain amount of trepidation we drove past Union Jacks hanging from first floor windows of Larne homes down the road to Belfast and Newry. The Northern capital was soon reached and passed without incident. Soldiers passed in armed vehicles and the empty streets gave only a hint of earlier trouble where rocks and glass littered the roadway especially at road junctions. The bypass at Newry was blocked by two burnt out articulated trucks. It was now almost nine o’clock at night but the streets were empty. It would not remain like that for long. The sloped side embankment offered a precarious route around the trucks but up ahead was a still blazing oil tanker mercifully not long enough to block the wide carriageway. A cautious but speedy exit over the crushed glass and stones permitted an early arrival at the border and the safety of the 26 counties.

What had started out as a reflective tour of Iona and its links with Ireland ended with a first hand experience of well known but little understood example of fractured community living in Northern Ireland. The experience of one was overshadowed by the other but somewhere within the weekend’s experience was preserved the hope that some time in the future we will all be able to join in the celebration of a common heritage and history. Maybe that is the secret of Scotland’s most historic site.

Thursday, June 19, 1997

1798 Rebellion in Athy

On 17th March 1798 John Glennan a Protestant was murdered near the Moate of Ardscull and a few days later John Lucas the elderly Parish Clerk of Narraghmore met a similar fate. Alarmed at these atrocities and fearful of the resurgent spirit of rebellion amongst their Catholic neighbours the Loyalists of Athy invited Thomas Rawson of Glasseally House to form a yeomanry infantry Corps in the town. Applying on the 1st April to Dublin Castle for permission to take up the invitation Rawson referred to the “seventy loyal well affected men in the town of Athy for each of whom I would pledge myself, they are anxious to embody themselves as yeoman infantry or to be suffered to arm as free men of a Protestant corporation”. The loyal infantry when formed like all yeomanry forces of the period were badly trained and poorly disciplined. It was primarily to be a policing force intended to protect members of the established church from the radical elements among their Catholic neighbours. The infantry under Rawson numbered 140 men and this group was to play a significant part in local events during 1798.

The town of Athy already had a yeomanry cavalry corps numbering approximately 56 men formed in 1796 and comprised of the gentry and better off inhabitants of the area. It’s first captain was the Duke of Leinster who filled similar honorary positions on all such cavalry units in the County. The second Captain and effective commander of the Corps was Thomas Fitzgerald of Geraldine House, Athy. The first and second Lieutenants were William Sherlock and J. Lewis.

An indication of the rivalry which existed between the different yeomanry units in the area can be gleaned from a letter sent by an Athy resident to Dublin Castle on the 2nd July 1797. The writer informed the Castle authorities of the malicious burning of outhouses belonging to a Mr. Crostwaite about one mile from Athy. Apparently Mr. Crostwaite’s property although within the functional area of the Athy Corps was declared out of their protection because of his refusal to join the local yeomanry. Instead Mr. Crostwaite and three others had given their allegiance to the Weldons of Ballylinan who had formed their own yeomanry unit. The writer did not go so far as to claim that the firing of the outoffices was caused by anyone other than the disaffected Irish.

In December 1797 a man who was to be responsible for undermining the effectiveness of the Athy rebels and causing the imprisonment of many of the leaders of the Rebellion came to live at Kilkea Castle. He was Thomas Reynolds a distance relation of Lord Edward Fitzgerald and a nephew of Thomas Fitzgerald Captain of the Athy yeomanry cavalry. Reynolds was soon admitted into the Athy Cavalry Corps and as a frequent visitor to Athy befriended many of the local townspeople. He also became a member of the United Irishmen and was elected a Colonel of that organisation in Kilkea and Moone and been appointed a County delegate at a provincial meeting. Making use of the information which was then available to him Reynolds informed on his colleagues. As a result twelve members of the Leinster Directory were arrested on the 12th March at the house of Oliver Bond in Bridge Street in Dublin while attending a meeting. Despite being suspected of passing information to Dublin Castle Reynolds escaped the informer’s fate and convened a meeting of six or seven of the local Captains of the United Irishmen in Athy on the 20th March 1798. The meeting place was a room at the back of Peter Kelly’s shop in the Main Street. The unsuspecting rebels were later to pay the price for placing trust in Reynolds while Kelly was imprisoned and suffered a loss of his business for allowing the use of his premises for rebellion purposes.

Early in May 1798 the Athy yeomanry cavalry which was felt to have been less than diligent in search of those responsible for an armed raid at the Athy Docks in December 1797 and whose Captain was under arrest were assembled in the Market Square, Athy. In the centre of their own Athy and before the eyes of their less privileged townsmen they were confronted by Colonel Campbell local commander of the 9th Dragoons stationed in the army barracks who ordered them to dismount. Having done so they were next ordered to lay down their arms and strip their horses of saddles and bridles. This was an ignominious end to the Athy Cavalry Corps for its members who were for the most part members of the local gentry and a humiliating acknowledgment of their betrayal by the spy Thomas Reynolds.

In the meantime the 140 strong loyal Athy infantry commanded by Thomas Rawson of Glasseally was busy showing its loyalty. Constant searches for pikes and arms brought their unwelcome attention on the native Catholics at both ends of the social ladder. With the limited success of searches for pikes and arms floggings were introduced to obtain information from the uncooperative local people. Early in May 1798 a large wooden structure was erected opposite the military barracks in the town. The triangle so called because of their three sided construction was used to secure men undergoing flogging. The man mainly involved in this barbaric practice was a local town Burgess Thomas Rawson of Glasseally House. A contemporary account by William Farrell of Carlow states in relation the Athy floggings “the triangle was put up in the public street of Athy and the work began instantly. There was no ceremony in choosing victims, the first to hand done well enough ……………. The whole weight of the persecution fell on the unfortunate Catholics. They were stripped naked, tied to the triangle and their flesh cut without mercy though some men stood the torture to the last gash sooner than become informers others did not”.

The brutal and systematic suppression of the townspeople during 1798 ensured that thereafter Athy was never again to present any major problems for the Government Forces.

St. Michael's Boxing Club

Just over ten years ago I shared an unbounded enthusiasm with a good deal of other folk, lay and religious, young and not so young, who like me were concerned for the future of Athy. We came together without any hierarchical structure free from strictures of rules or obligations to talk out ideas and see how we could help challenge the social decline which gripped the town. The group, one of the most successful one I was ever associated with, established a number of projects all of which are still going strong. These included a play school in Castle Park, a monthly newsletter, a community council and a boxing club. I was reminded of that last week by Noel O’Mara on the occasion of the civic reception accorded by Athy Urban District Council for St. Michael’s Boxing Club. Noel who was also a member of that group was given the responsibility of restarting the Boxing Club which had lapsed some years previously. He claims that he was told rather than asked “get it up and running again”. To his credit he undertook the task with an enthusiasm and doggedness which could only lead to success.

He first sought out Dom O’Rourke who had boxed with the original club founded by Fr. Laverty in the 1960’s. Dom’s involvement was crucial as was that of Jimmy Walsh who with Pat Nolan were brought in by Noel at a very early stage to resurrect the Boxing Club. Mount St. Mary’s the former girls national school building opposite Perry’s supermarket was the Boxing Club’s premises for the first few years. Here with Jimmy Walsh as Chairman Noel O’Mara as secretary, Pat Nolan as Treasurer and Dom O’Rourke as trainer, St. Michael’s Boxing Club was reborn with what we now know were incredible results. Early successes for the Club were achieved through two very gifted boxers, Noel Johnson of Dooley’s Terrace and Pat Phelan of Clonmullin.

Today the Club restarted almost ten years ago by Noel O’Mara is the most successful club in the long history of any sport in Athy. Out of the thirty or so active boxing members there are no less than four international boxers. Tommy Sheehan is back from representing Ireland in the European Junior Championships in Birmingham where he reached the Quarter Finals. Patrick Phelan and Jimmy Philips have also represented Ireland at junior level while Gary Sheehan is to travel to Macedonia on the 4th July as an Irish youth international boxer.

The range and number of titles won by boxers from St. Michael’s Club is quite astonishing. Tommy Sheehan has won no less than five All Ireland titles while Patrick Phelan and Gary Sheehan have each won three All Irelands. Roy Sheehan has already won two Irish titles at schoolboy level and Eric Donovan won his first schoolboy All Ireland title earlier this year. Provincial titles have been won by the Club members with an amazing regularity. John Donovan won six consecutive Leinster titles from schoolboy to youth level. James Philips has won five provincial titles and was defeated in four All Ireland finals.

This year has been the Club’s most successful year. No less than four All Ireland titles were won in 1977 by St. Michael’s Club members, Eric Donovan, Roy Sheehan, Gary Sheehan and Tommy Sheehan. The latter three are brothers from Clonmullin and their’s is a unique record in the annals of Irish amateur boxing. Sons of Gerry and Geraldine Sheehan , they have the inspiration of following in the footsteps of a grand uncle from Knocknagoshel in the County of Kerry who was famous as an exponent of bare fist fighting of another era. John Greaney was famed far and wide for his prowess as a County Kerry boxer and his nephew Gerry Sheehan from Millstreet, County Cork is now the proud father of no less than two Irish international boxers and his younger son Roy has already won two All Ireland schoolboy titles.

Dom O’Rourke and Jimmy Walsh are still involved in the Boxing Club and are today ably assisted by Jimmy Walsh, Johnny Fennell, Marie O’Rourke and many others who help out from time to time. The achievements of St. Michael’s Boxing Club have been recognised by the Irish Boxing Authorities who have sanctioned a full international boxing match between Ireland and Canada to be held in the Grove Theatre on the 13th July. I understand this will be the first Senior International boxing match held outside of Dublin and it is fitting that four local club members, James Philips, Tommy Sheehan, John Donovan and Vivien Carroll will box that night in the green singlet of Ireland.

We have been slow in recognising the successes of the men and boys who have brought such great honour to their Club and to their home town of Athy. The recent award of a civic reception by the local town Council for the members of St. Michael’s Boxing Club has been the first step in re-addressing this omission. For the rest of us there is the opportunity of supporting the boxers when they host the international match in the Grove Theatre on the 13th July next. See you there!

Thursday, June 5, 1997

Some burials in St. Michael's Cemetery

Old St. Michael’s cemetery situated on the Dublin road has been the principal burial ground for the town since the thirteenth century. The two Anglo-Norman headstones of which I wrote of last year are the earliest evidence of burials at this site and probably commemorate members of the de St. Michael family who were patrons of the parish church established here by the Crouched Friars in the 13th century. Even in death a strict ordering of the social classes saw the rich and powerful separated from the poor as evidenced in the following epitaph.

‘Here lie I by the chancel door,
Here lie I because I’m poor,
The further in, the more you’ll pay,
Here lie I, as warm as they.’

The majority of headstones in St. Michael’s cemetery are from the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries. For the most part they mark the last resting places of men and women of our town who had long slipped from the community’s memory. Here and there can be found memorials to military men who fought in the wars which punctuated Europe’s history.
Scattered about the cemetery are six small headstones of the Commonwealth war graves commission marking the final resting place of Athy men Michael Byrne, James Dwyer, Thomas Flynn, Martin Hyland, John Lawler and Michael O’Brien, all of whom died in the Great War of 1914-1918. Elsewhere their fellow victims of the war are commemorated on family headstones such as Ion and Leslie Hannon of Ardreigh House, William Crampton of Emily Square who died of his wounds in 1927, Joseph Pender, Christopher Power, George Telford, and the brothers Edward and Thomas Stafford.

Men of the town who died in World War II are also commemorated in St Michael’s cemetery. They include two grandsons of John Holland of Model Farm. Major Niall Holland fighting with the 4/5th Maharatta Light infantry, Indian Army was killed in Burma in June 1944 at the age of 25 years. Sergeant William Holland, RAF, died in Italy in 1945 aged 19 years. Another Athy man Terence H.K. Hosie of the Royal Engineers was killed in action in Italy in 1943. He is also commemorated in the Presbyterian church on the Dublin road, opposite Old St. Michael’s.

Not all those who went to war failed to return. Captain Robert Pearson of the Royal Regiment of Foot served in France and Flanders under the Duke of Marlborough in the 1700’s and returned to Athy where he is buried in St Michael’s cemetery with his parents Richard Pearson and Mary Jackson.

In a quiet corner of the graveyard is a headstone to the memory of William Grattan Esq., Late Lieutenant of the 88th Regiment (The Connaught Rangers). A member of a well known Dublin family he was a first cousin of the novelist Thomas Colley Grattan, who was educated in Athy, and a distant kinsmen of Henry Grattan the statesman.

William joined the Connaught Rangers as an ensign on July 6 1809 and served continuously with the 88th Regiment until 1813 during which time he took part in many of the principal battles of the Peninsular war. This was the war fought in Spain between the British Army led by, another Irishman, Wellington and the French forces under Napoleon. Today Grattan is chiefly remembered for his reminiscences of the campaign in Spain under the title ‘Adventures with the Connaught Rangers’. Charles Oman a distinguished authority on the period wrote that ‘of the many memoirs that I have read, I think that his is on the whole the most graphic and picturesque in giving details of actual conflict’.

Grattan after the capture of the town of Ciudad Rodrigo in Spain wrote that ‘the smell from the still burning houses, the groups of dead and wounded, and the broken fragments of different weapons, marked strongly the character of the preceding nights dispute; and even at this late hour, there were many drunken marauders endeavouring to regain, by some fresh act of atrocity, an equivalent for the plunder their brutal state of intoxication had caused them to lose by the hands of their own companions, who robbed indiscriminately man, woman, or child, friend or foe, the dead or the dying!’

Wounded at both the battles of Badajoz and Salamanca in 1812 Grattan survived the war to publish his memoirs in 1847 followed by two supplementary volumes in 1853. The Irish novelist Charles Lever in his book ‘Charles O’ Malley’ drew heavily on Grattan’s writings.

Old St. Michael’s cemetery is an interesting repository of historical connections both Irish and European. Anyone interested in the history of Athy should visit the 13th century but if you would benefit from a more conventional information source why not consider the Rathmichael Summer School which will provide courses in local history in July and August. Details are available from June Barry, 45 Salthill, Monkstown, Co. Dublin, Tel. (01) 2844572.