Thursday, August 28, 1997

Library's in Athy

On 14th November, 1863 an unidentified correspondent writing from Athy referred to the “large swamp around the rooms of the lamented corn exchange building bounded on the West by the sweet Barrow, on the East by the dock and the Literary Mechanic’s reading room, on the South by that part of Emily Square familiarly known as Dirty Row and on the North by public houses and a public bridewell”.

The reading room mentioned in the letter was part of the Athy Mechanic’s Institute formed in 1853 from the nucleus of the Athy Literary and Scientific Institute which in turn was founded in Athy four years earlier. There all the Irish and English papers were available to the Institute members. A small lending library was another of the Institute’s facilities and this was possibly the first library of it’s kind in the town. It was not a public library as such as the facilities were confined to members of the Mechanics Institute of whom there were 21 in 1854 rising to 91 members three years later.

The first public library in the town appears to have opened in the Town Hall on 1st December, 1927. It was operated by Kildare County Council who in February of that year had agreed to extend the County Library service to Athy on the Urban Council relinquishing it’s powers under the Public Libraries Acts. I cannot find any reference to a public library operated before then by the Urban Council and can only assume that they had not exercised any of their powers under those Acts.

A local Library Committee was formed in June 1927 which was largely comprised of local clerics of all denominations in Athy. The local Parish Priest Canon Mackey and his three Curates Fr. J. Ryan, Fr. M. Browne and Fr. M. Kinnane were nominated to the Committee, as were Rev. K. Dunlop, Church of Ireland and Rev. D. Meek of the local Presbyterian Church. Lay members of the committee included Michael “Crutch” Malone, Sydney Minch, P.J. Murphy and James Foley, all members of the Athy Urban District Council, with James Lawler, Town Clerk as the Library Secretary. Controversy raised it’s head even before the Committee had it’s first meeting when Canon Mackey and his Curate Fr. Kinnane declined to accept their nominations “for reasons obvious to the Council”. Apparently the Canon had taken exception to a discussion in the local Council Chamber in February 1926 which prompted his resignation from the local technical instruction committee. I have been unable to find out what gave rise to this action, but perhaps some of my older readers can throw some light on the matter. Interestingly the two other local Curates remained on as members of the Library Committee despite the resignation of their Parish Priest. Later additions to the Library Committee included T.C. O’Gorman, F. Jackson, Dr. J. O’Neill, Dr. J. Kilbride and Fintan Brennan. The offer of a room in the Town Hall for the Mechanic’s Institute was declined by the Library Committee and instead the Committee agreed to store books in a room in the same building which was then being used by Fintan Brennan, the District Court Clerk. Fintan’s usual offices in the Courthouse were then out of commission due to the burning of the Courthouse some years previously. Fr. Brown was elected Chairman of the Library Committee which by now included Miss Bagot, Miss Lalor and Mr. J. Malone of Stanhope St. Mr. B. Bramley of Emily Square was appointed librarian, a position he was to retain even after he took up employment as Water and Sewage Inspector for Athy Urban District Council in September 1928.

The local Curate and Chairman of the Committee, Fr. M. Browne with T.C. O’Gorman who was manager of the Hibernian Bank and P.J. Murphy, draper of Emily Square were asked to look over books in the County Repository Newbridge to select “suitable titles for Athy folk.”

The newly appointed librarian was to report the receipt of the chosen books on 30th November which he described as “a very choice and varied selection and should be a boon to the book lovers of Athy and District”. The library opened on Thursday, 1st December, 1927 when 24 readers joined. Initially it opened one evening a week from 7.00pm to 9.00pm but before the end of the first month with 160 members enrolled the Committee extended the opening hours to two evenings a week. I wonder whether the Catholic Curate who chaired the Library Committee was Maurice Browne who in later years was himself to achieve a certain literary fame as a writer of such excellent works as “The Big Sycamore” and “In Monavella”. Certainly Maurice Browne, the writer, was a Curate in Athy in the mid-1930’s but I wonder whether he was also there in 1927 or was it a namesake of his who chaired the Library Committee. I would like to hear from anyone who can help me on this.

I have nothing but wonderful memories of the local library and Kevin Meaney who was the branch librarian in the late 1950’s. For how many years he acted as librarian I do not know, but Kevin’s love of books and knowledge of writers was always gladly shared with the library users. The magnificent library which now occupies part of the beautiful 18th century Town Hall building is a monument to Kevin Meaney and the many people who over the years worked in the library services in Athy. One of those people was Madge Cafferty who last month retired after 23 years service as branch librarian in Athy. Madge I understand was appointed after Kevin Meaney retired and she oversaw the transfer of the library from it’s original room in the Town Hall to a larger premises in the rear section of the Courthouse building. There the library was to remain for many years until the final move back to the Town Hall following it’s refurbishment under a FAS Scheme in 1992.

The present library occupies not only the small room which once housed Kevin Meaney’s library of the 1950’s, but also the ballroom which was the scene of so many soirees down the years. The quiet but cheerful ambiance of the graceful building provides a perfect backdrop to the library which the general public, both young and old, are now using in increasing numbers.

I have been a member of the library for many years and I am delighted to acknowledge that the courtesy and efficiency of the library staff continues to be as good as it was under the late Kevin Meaney. Madge Cafferty has played an important part in continuing that tradition of excellent public service. She has got to know many people during her period as branch librarian and many in turn have learned to respect the quiet helpful lady who has dealt with their queries and questions concerning books and authors over the last 23 years. We wish her every happiness in her retirement.

Thursday, August 21, 1997

Athy's Heritage Centre and the Inner Relief Road

An interesting struggle is taking place at the moment. Unknown to most people its existence is perhaps not even realised by those closest to the issues involved. On one side is the Heritage Town Development which holds out so much promise for Athy’s participation in the National Programme for Tourism Development. In the opposing camps are the plans for the proposed Inner Relief Road for Athy.

Athy once a strategic Town on the Medieval Marches of County Kildare was chosen as one of the Heritage Towns of Ireland for a number of reasons. The richness of its 800 year old history was of course a pre-requisite for any initial consideration. What marked Athy out from the many other Historic Towns in Ireland which sought Heritage Status was its character, its layout and the wealth of its Architectural Heritage.

The sedentary pace of development in Athy over the years ensured that important elements of the building fabric and the layout of the Town had survived until now. Much the same can be said for Galway City where a tasteful and sympathetic development of its surviving building heritage is now taking place. The question posed for us by the Inner Relief Road proposal is whether the benefits claimed for this short to term traffic relieving measure justifies the loss of so many of the elements which gave Athy its Heritage Town Status.

The distinctiveness of the layout of Athy stems partly from medieval influences on the Towns Development. This has given us a linear type pattern of settlement with a Main Street running from one end of the Town to the other with various minor side streets. The dissection of that main street by three almost parallel corridors, a railway line, a river and a canal adds further to the distinctiveness of the towns layout.

Within the town itself, there are many important urban spaces. Emily Square both front and rear is a fine example and constitutes an important Architectural composition normally found only in planned towns of a much later vintage than twelfth century Athy.

The question we must ask ourselves is whether we are justified in changing the distinctive layout of Athy to facilitate the traffic relieving measures which admittedly might well be the most economic solution to our present traffic problems. There are a number of other matters apart from finance to be looked at when arriving at any decision. Will the Inner Relief Road provide those of us who work and live in the town with a safe and as good an environment as would follow the re-routing of through traffic on an outer Relief Road? I think not and those who support the Inner Relief Road should consider the effect on people and on the environment of creating a huge traffic island out the heart of the town.

There are of course financial reasons why the shortest and most direct route should be chosen to divert traffic from Leinster Street and Duke Street. If financial considerations alone were to decide the issue, the Inner Relief Road would proceed immediately. But even more important than money matters in this case are the environmental effects, the safety considerations and the future development possibilities for the centre of the town. Put a new traffic route through the centre of Athy and you will have of necessity restrict - the nature and scope of urban development that can thereafter take place there. If on the other hand you rid the town centre of the stifling influence of through traffic you are then free to develop the important shopping and living elements of provincial urban life in a manner which ensures us a healthy and attractive lifestyle.

I started off this article by referring to the covert struggle presently taking place. The struggle is a real one especially as the Heritage Centre which will be the flagship of Athy’s Heritage status will soon be opened in the Town Hall. It will form a focal point in the previously mentioned architectural composition we all know as Emily Square. That is of course unless the Inner Relief Road ploughs through the centre of Athy in which case the Heritage Centre will be a prime example of bureaucratic foolishness stuck in a traffic island between two parallel roadways. How else could one describe a monument to an Urban Heritage which will be destroyed and lost to us forever if the Inner Relief Road is built.

Incidentally, who is pushing this Inner Relief Road on the people of Athy and by doing so, apparently dis-regarding the feelings of the local people, not to mind the other issues which are raised. Is it the County Manager? or the County Engineer? or from whom does the impetus for the prolonged offensive in favour of the Inner Relief Road come from?

I mentioned the subject of the Heritage Centre today because the Heritage Company of which I am a Member is now seeking contributions from the local community and from local businesses towards the cost of completing work on the Centre. I would not suggest anyone give a penny towards the project unless I was confident that the road project which could destroy so much of our built heritage will not go ahead as planned. I am hopeful that common sense will prevail and that Athy will get an Outer Relief Road thereby ensuring the survival of the distinctiveness and individuality of the Town.

The Heritage Centre represents an opportunity for all of us to invest in the future of Athy. Corporate contributions of £5,000.00 are being received as well as individual contributions up to £1,000.00 or more if desired. While writing of Heritage matters and Athy’s importance and a distinctive and attractive Anglo Norman Irish Town, we should realise that people outside of Athy have perhaps a better appreciation of the towns status. Members of the Cork Historical Society and more recently members of Thomond Historical Society have visited Athy and have commented favourably on what they have seen.

On the 11th October, the Federation of Local History Societies of Ireland will hold its Annual General Meeting in Athy. This is an important annual get together of all local History Societies throughout the country and represents an enormous boost for Athy’s claim to be truly a Heritage Town.

Thursday, August 14, 1997

China and Seamus Ryan

It is almost four decades since our younger and more agile legs raced up the iron staircase of the Christian Brothers Schools in St. John’s Lane. In the intervening years the former classmates have scattered throughout the world and have never since come together again as a group. Regretfully the premature passing of the late Gerry Byrne made that an impossibility from an early date.

Last week however I caught up with one classmate whom I had not met since a celebration some years to honour the memory of his father and great teacher, Bill Ryan. The classmate was Seamus Ryan, now a medical doctor practising in the International Medical Center in Beijing, capital of China. I was on a visit to the Middle Kingdom as China was termed by the explorer Marco Polo, and of course used the opportunity to renew acquaintances with Seamus. Contact was first made through another classmate, Michael Robinson, formerly of McDonnell Drive, and now of Australia who keeps in regular contact with Athy.

Seamus has spent almost 12 months in China after a number of years in the Middle East. Originally following in the footsteps of his father Bill, Seamus qualified as a teacher, but embarked on a medical career after further studies in Dublin. Working amongst the people of the World’s oldest living civilisation provides Seamus with many fascinating contrasts.

Culturally and ideologically China is a world apart from Ireland. With the largest population of any country in the World, China, despite it’s efforts at population control still accounts for every fourth child born today. This puts tremendous demands on a country where the arable land accounts for only 15% of the entire country. The Chinese Government have imposed very strict regulations with regard to birth control. Married couples are allowed to have one child only. Exceptions are made in the country areas where there is a need for labour to work the land. For that reason rural couples whose first child is a girl can have a second child, but no more. Strict penalties are imposed against those breaking the Government Rules on birth control, including heavy fines and the loss of employment.

In a country which is slowly changing from a socialist to a market economy, the standard of living is improving, but understandably still lags far behind Western countries. The average yearly income for city dwellers is approx. £380, while in the country area the figure is closer to £180 a year.

The grand scale of the Chinese world can be imagined when locals refer to cities of one million population as being of moderate size. The larger cities have populations of approx. fourteen million or so and there are several cities of that proportion. Public transport is not yet up to Western standards, but this is of little consequence in a country where the bicycle is much in use. The bicycle rush hour in Beijing or Shanghai is something awesome to behold as thousands of cyclists travel along the designated bicycle lanes in a seemingly unbroken pattern of wheels. Traffic movement on the roads is another unusual element of Chinese life which almost seems to mirror the Chinese peoples attitude to life itself. For them, unnecessary confrontation is always to be avoided and as you watch the traffic weave in and out avoiding pedestrians, cyclists and motorists alike, you begin to understand how it is that so many people can live together in such harmony. Traffic moves purposely yet slowly as the people and machines untangle themselves without great difficulty and always with the greatest of grace and apparent ease. The traffic police manning the junctions are immaculately turned out, always standing to attention, never lounging, while directing the traffic with smart synchronised movements of both hands, reminiscent of the most carefully choreographed performance.

It’s the rural life of China which gives someone from the rich heartland of Ireland the greatest surprise. Every tiny piece of arable land is cultivated. Even in the most mountainous region bordering on the Yangstze River small patches of land have been carved out of the hills and brought into productions. These stepped areas confirm the industry and energy of the Chinese and the pressing need for food production in their country. Nowhere is left untilled. Small patches of soil clinging to a rockface bear the evidence of mans hand and natures bounty in a rich harvest of crops. People, whether toiling in the fields or on these mountainous patches of soil, for they are no more than that, do so without machinery, constantly bending and lifting. That their efforts produce sufficient food for the more than one billion Chinese on the mainland is a lesson for the more richly endowed countries of the world.

All farming land is owned by the State, but in contract to the communist communal system of a few years ago, individuals can now lease or rent arable land. With such a high population and so little land suitable for cultivation, it is not surprising to find that each farmer and his family works less than half an acre, depending on the number of able bodied persons in that family. In turn, the farmers have to sell a quota of their grain to the State, but are free to dispose of the rest of their crop as they see fit.

One aspect of Chinese life which is disturbing concerns the numbers executed each year for apparently minor crimes. More persons were executed in China last year than in the rest of the entire World. Upwards of 4,500 executions were logged, although many more deaths are suspected, although unproven. China has the highest number of capital offences than any other country and many persons are executed each year for offences as minor as theft and even hooliganism.

The Communist Party which governs the country through the Central Committee does not tolerate anything which might subvert the country’s interest. Recently two Tibetans who had merely compiled a list of Tibetan political prisoners were sentenced to long jail terms for alleged espionage. Similarly one of the student leaders of the 1987 Tianaman Square Rally who was originally sentenced to four years imprisonment was last year re-sentenced to another eleven years on other charges arising out of the same Rally. These are some of the disquitening features of life in China today where an Athy man works among the Beijing community.

On his days off Seamus Ryan can visit the Grand Canal which links the capital Beijing with outlying regions, no doubt thinking of the similarly named corridor of water which links his native Athy with Dublin. The name of the two canalways is their only similarity as the Chinese Grand Canal is of massive proportions, extending over 1,800 km. in length. It was built over 1,500 years ago, confirmation if such was required of the existence of a well developed society in early China.

The old Christian Brothers School in St. John’s Lane is represented in many parts of the World today, but surely Seamus Ryan’s posting in Beijing provides the most unusual contrast, socially and culturally with our own country.

Thursday, August 7, 1997

Whites Castle

White’s castle has stood as a sentinel on the river Barrow at Athy for at least four centuries. In it’s time it has been a garrison for troops, a prison, a constabulary barracks and now a private residence. It easy to forget the significance of a such a building that is so much a part of our everyday lives. There may have been an structure on the site as early as 1297 when David Fitz le feure was held in the ‘ward of Athy’.

The castle as it presently stands was first built in 1417 by Sir John Talbot to protect the bridge at this important crossing point. In 1422 William Scryvener was appointed constable, a position he was to hold until at least 1426. Athy has always been a very important part of the early Anglo-Norman settlement of Leinster and its strategic role was enhanced by the addition of a fortified tower to the bridge. The government in Dublin noted in 1431 that it considered that Athy was the ‘greatest fortalice and a key town’. By 1505 the castle was beginning to show its age and the 8th Earl of Kildare set about its refurbishment along with that of his other castles at Rathvillly and Castledermot.

The primary purpose of the castle was to protect the bridge but it also served as part of a chain of defences along the Leix-Kildare border particularly from the 15th century onwards. Few doubted the strategic importance of the town. Patrick Finglas, Baron of the Exchequer for Ireland, writing in 1515 in ‘The Decay of Ireland’ believed it necessary that an English captain should have been given control of both White’s and Woodstock castle in order to form a bulwark against the predatory incursions of the native O’More’s of Leix into south Kildare. They had been responsible for the burning of the town of Athy at least four times in the 14th century.

It would appear that originally White’s was not the only tower on the bridge at Athy. In 1516 the Prior of the monastery of St Thomas the Martyr of Athy granted to the Gerald, the Earl of Kildare a castle on the western side of the bridge at Athy. This tower was still evident on the bridge in the late 16th century when Athy was represented on Mercator’s map of the Leix-Offaly plantation.

Maintenance and upkeep of the castle was always an consideration given the importance of the castle. Lord Leonard Grey wrote to Thomas Cromwell in 1536 informing him that materials and masons were being provided for the re-edification and fortification on the castle. The repairs continued through the summer months of June and July. The castle was still being referred to as the ‘new castle’ when Giles Cornewell leased land near the bridge in 1569.

In 1598 James FitzPiers was in charge of the garrison in the castle. The privy council was informed that FitzPiers, formerly a sheriff of County Kildare had broken into rebellion. He refused to surrender the castle and when finally he abandoned its command he broke down the bridge in his retreat.

The castle was to play a prominent role in the confederate wars where the competing Royalist and Confederate armies frequently vied for it’s and the town’s control. The era of the castles final great prominence came in the aftermath of the 1798 rebellion when it served as the prison for the captured rebels. A large extension was built onto the castle’s north face in 1802 to improve the town gaol as it then was. But conditions remained primitive. As a prison the castle had little to recommend it. An prison inspectors report for 1824 stated that White’s castle was ‘without exception the worst county jail I have met with, in point of accommodation having neither yards, pumps, hospital, chapel or proper day rooms’.

The old prison had nine cells and three small kitchens and the prisoners principal diet was bread and water. In the new gaol, built on the Carlow road in 1830,the prisoners were employed in stone breaking, mat making and oakum picking. The Governor was a Mr. Drill who had the assistance of three turnkeys to supervise the prisoners. He was later succeeded by Edward Carter who was governor when the prison closed in 1859.

After its closure as a prison the castle was used as a barracks for the Royal Irish Constabulary until the turn of the century. Today it serves a private residence.