Thursday, December 30, 1999

Tommy Keegan

Some time ago I spent an enjoyable evening reminiscing with Tommy Keegan whose family has been in the South Kildare area for generations past. The wealth of historical material gleaned from Tommy filled many pages, the true value of which has only now become apparent as I check his many references against other sources, both written and oral. Tommy’s knowledge of the hidden past of this locality is quite extraordinary, but not surprising, given his interest in local history and the Keegan family connection which goes back centuries.

At least three generations of the Keegans stretching back to Tommy’s Great Grandfather are buried in Fontstown cemetery. This is one of the oldest cemeteries in the area and likely to remain so unless further research confirms the existence of cemeteries on two sites which have come to my notice. The medieval Dominican Priory of Athy which was sited in the area known as the Abbey at the back of Offaly Street had a community graveyard which may have been located at the rear of the two houses on the Carlow side of the Credit Union Office. This is yet to be authenticated but there is some evidence to support the claim that the Dominican Cemetery was in that area. The second as yet unconfirmed medieval cemetery location is the small piece of ground lying between St. John’s Lane and McHugh’s Chemist in Duke Street. However, more about both possibilities at a later date.

A sprightly 76 year old Tommy Keegan was born in Foxhill. His father Daniel was a farmer and carpenter, a craft which has now been passed on to Tommy’s own son Joe. Daniel Keegan’s father was a blacksmith in Blackwood while his Uncle Martin Keegan was the owner of Keegan’s brickyard in Churchtown. Tommy attended the Christian Brothers School in Athy during the superiorship of Brother Dolan and had as classmates Gerry and Dinny Moloney, Tim Dunne, Kevin and John Hyland and Eddie and Charlie Moore. Later apprenticed to his father Daniel he worked in the family sawmills in Foxhill making a variety of items including cartwheels, hay bogeys and trailers. He was a member of the Barrow Vale Athletic Club in the 1940’s, competing, he admits, not too successfully in marathon running. I understand the Chairman of the Club was Alfie Coyle, a butcher employed in Fingletons of Leinster Street. Tommy’s reference to Barrow Vale Athletic Club was the first and only reference I have ever come across of this Club of almost sixty years ago.

One of the old traditions passed down to Tommy was that the famous ballad Lanigan’s Ball was written by Alec Roberts, a signal man on the railways who lived in Leinster Street in the premises now occupied by Sunderlands Hardware Shop. Colm O’Lochlainn in his “Irish Street Ballads” published in 1939 mentions a full music sheet of the song published in the 1870’s where the words were ascribed to “Mr. Gavan, the celebrated Galway poet”. Sean McMahon in his more recently published Poolbeg book of Irish Ballads describes Lanigan’s Ball as an “Athy Ballad dating from the ‘60’s of the last century and taken to have been based on an actual rough evening near the town”. Whatever the right of Alec Roberts to lay claim to the authorship of this famous ballad there seems no argument about his responsibility for composing a song about the Publicans of Athy at the turn of the last century. It ran :-

I’ll describe to you in a verse or two
The Publicans of Athy
We’ll take them one by one
From Mrs. Silke of the Railway Bar
To James Brophy of the Grand Canal

The first we have is Mrs. Silke
Some say she’s nice and
Some say she’s very grand
But it looks so suspicious
The Pump is so close up to her hand

The next we have is poor Paddy Kelly
Whose fortune lies upon a hare
Then we have the two Christian Brothers
Master James and Master John
Who if they had their will
Would send poor Kelly back again.

It continues on in this vein listing the publicans of the town and remarkably not a single public house remains in the ownership of any of the family names mentioned in the ballad.

Tommy Keegan’s connections through his ancestors with some of the historical figures of the past brings to the fore names as diverse as Michael Dwyer, the 1798 Rebel and Dan Donnelly, Ireland’s most famous pugilist. The Bailey Family of Killart, Athy were noted pipers as was Tommy’s Uncle John Keegan who died in or about 1941. An elderly Mrs. Bailey presented Dan Donnelly’s pipes to John Keegan who later passed them on to his friend and fellow piper, the famous Leo Rowsome.

Tommy claims that his Great Grandmother Kate was a sister of Michael Dwyer of Camara in the Glen of Immal, the revolutionary leader of 1798 fame. She married Willie Keegan of Russellstown, a member of a coach building family which lived in the house now occupied by the O’Sullivan family on the Dublin road. The Keegan families in Russellstown, Geraldine, Churchtown and Springhill were all related and the family tradition notes that one member of the extended Keegan family had a distillery and a beer house in the Shambles at Market Square, Athy many generations ago. Talking to Tommy about the history and traditions of our locality was an invigorating trawl through a mixture of genealogical facts and long forgotten folklore, all of which deserved a home secured by pen and ink for future perusal.

Writing of such matters while a flu epidemic rages through the countryside prompts me to ask my readers for help in recording the cures of folk medicine practised in this area in the days before advances in medical science made us all so dependent on antibiotics. The subject came up recently when I shared the celebration of New Years Night with a few friends, nearly all of whom had personal experiences or knowledge of local cures for various ailments. Folk medicine has always played an important part in the lives of Irish people and even today in South Kildare it continues to play a not insignificant part in dealing with certain ailments. I would like to hear from anyone who has any information on the subject of cures and folk medicine in the locality.

Thursday, December 23, 1999

Frank Whelan

Early last year Frank Whelan’s life long involvement as a member of the Fianna Fail Party was the occasion of a presentation to him in the Castle Inn. It was a time for reminiscing and I put together some rough notes which I hoped would form the basis of a future Eye on the Past. As luck would have it the hastily compiled notes disappeared amongst the mass of paper which over time engulfed my desk. I tackled the mess during the Christmas holidays and retrieved these notes and many more which I carefully put aside with a view to putting pen to paper at an early date.

Unfortunately time, which has no respect for the tardy, caused me to regret my inefficiency when I was told on New Years day of the passing of Frank Whelan. Indeed the period since Christmas has been a sad one with so many deaths amongst the older generation in Athy. Elsewhere I have referred to the passing of John Allen, while in todays Eye on the Past I take the opportunity of paying my respects to near neighbours Frank Whelan and Pat Eston.

Although known as “Frank”, he was christened John Francis Whelan. As a young man, born in Ballylinan, he worked as a blacksmith with his father, also named Frank, who had a forge in the village. Indeed the Whelan family had a long involvement with blacksmitting. Frank’s grandfather Edward, a one time Chairman of the Land League in Ballyadams, had a forge in Loughlass. His four sons took up the craft, and each of them worked their own forges. Paddy Whelan had a forge at Timahoe and his brother Jim, who was later to work with Tom Brogan in Green Alley, had his forge at the Heath. Another brother Willie worked with his father Edward Whelan in Timahoe while Frank’s father eventually took over his Uncle’s forge in Ballylinan. Frank (Senior) married Kathleen Whelan, a teacher in Athy who was a member of the Cumann na mBan branch established in Athy in July 1914.

After his early training in the Ballylinan forge Frank (Jnr.) joined the Irish Army in 1940 and spent the next 5 or 6 years with the 1st Field Engineers, putting up army huts around the country. Frank’s father died in 1946 and around that time he went to work in Tom Brogan’s Forge in Green Alley joining his Uncle Jim. He recalled one of his early jobs with Brogan as the casting of horizontal bars for the Barrow Bridge. In 1948 he took up employment with C.I.E. as a road freight driver where he was to remain until he retired. Amongst his colleagues on the railway were Joe Murphy of Offaly Street, Jack McKenna of Castledermot, Dennis Gunner Whelan, “Pokie” Flynn, Brothers Ned and Mick Loughman, Andy Conville and Paddy Flanagan. Mick Loughman would later establish a garage business on the Kilkenny Road.

Between 1948 and 1952 Frank worked on the Post Office mail run collecting mail in Kildare for delivery to Athy, Carlow, Bagnalstown, Kilkenny, Bennettsbridge and Thomastown. On the return journey outgoing mail was collected and brought to Portarlington to be put on the evening train.

Later on Frank was involved in local deliveries around Athy and particularly remembers the early 1950’s when waste paper was a much sought after commodity. The local children were organised at school to collect waste paper and the material was then delivered by horse and dray to the Railway Station for onward journey to the paper mills in Waterford. The horse and dray remained a familiar sight around the town until the early 1960’s when they were replaced by a tractor and trailer.

Frank married Rose Timpson of Bennetsbridge in 1956 and they had three children, Frank, Mary and Betty. Rose sadly died in 1996, some 9 years after Frank had retired from C.I.E.

At last year’s presentation to Frank, reference was made to his having joined Fianna Fail at an early age. He was a staunch supporter of De Valera and played an active part in every National and Local Election held over the last fifty years. At different times he was Secretary and Chairman of the local Cumann and was it’s Honorary President at the time of his death.

At all times he played a significant and thoughtful part in the political process. His experience was often relied upon and many a youthful political candidate had occasion to welcome his astute and often invigorating response to whatever situation arose.

It was however not only in the local political sphere that Frank Whelan made a valuable contribution. He was involved with Barrowhouse Gaelic Football Club since it’s early years and for twenty years was the Club’s Honorary Secretary. Following that he was elected Chairman of the Club and later still Club President. During his working life he was a staunch Trade Unionist and was elected Chairman of the National Association of Transport Employees which has since amalgamated with S.I.P.T.U.

Frank’s near neighbour in Pairc Bhride was Pat Eston who also died last week. I first came across reference to Pat when I was researching shows put on in the Town Hall 50 and 60 years ago. The Black and White Minstrel Shows of the late 1930’s and early ‘40’s showcased the talents of locals such as Pat Eston and “Thrush” Kelly. Pat was a gifted tenor while “Thrush” who is regularly mentioned with Pat when people speak of the old Minstrels, was a whistler. Pat always responded kindly to my requests for an interview, invariably asking it to be left for another day. To my regret his story was never recorded and perhaps we can never have the opportunity to appreciate the Town Hall Shows and those local men and women who trod the boards so many years ago.

May these two good men rest in peace.

Thursday, December 16, 1999

Athy at the Turn of the 20th Century

One hundred years ago Athy Town Commissioners, soon to give way to the newly established Urban District Council, passed a resolution protesting against “the unjustifiable war waged against the Boers” and tendered their sympathy to the Boer President Kruger. As the new century arrived the Boer flag was hoisted over the Town Hall in Athy, much to the annoyance of the towns’ Police. A local newspaper reporting the incident claimed that “the Athy Boys have not lost their originality and keen sense of humour”.

The winter of 1899/1900 showed up the unhealthy condition of the town and it’s unsanitary undrained state. Thomas Plewman, Chairman of the Town Commissioners, was moved to complain of the dirty streets of Athy during Christmas 1899. During the first week of the New Year there was a measles epidemic in the town. Doctors P.J. O’Neill and J. Kilbride were reported as having been run off their feet but despite their efforts there were a number of deaths amongst local children. At a subsequent meeting of Athy Board of Guardians Mr. Plewman again spoke of the measles epidemic in Athy, claiming that

“there are many houses where people have not a bed to lie in. It was a scandal in a Christian country that men and children should be found to lie like pigs in damp cottages. They would require the constitution of elephants to bring them through and from what he heard it was not the measles that were hitting the children but colds after the epidemic.”

The measles epidemic in the winter of 1899/1900 caused the postponement of the Christmas celebrations planned for the children of Athy by the local Catholic Young Mens Society. It was eventually held in the last week in January under the guidance of Mrs. Noud who was assisted by Agnes O’Brien, Millie O’Brien, Gipsy Murphy, Rose Heffernan, Miss McHugh, Miss Cantwell and many other ladies. A report of the delayed Christmas feast noted that the C.Y.M.S. rooms in Stanhope Place were “prettily decorated and appropriately draped and hung down with greenery”. Over 500 poor children of the town attended to partake of tea and sweet cake, followed by oranges and confectionery.

Dr. James Kilbride, local Medical Officer of Health, was happy to announce on 14th March that measles had practically disappeared from his District. His report continued:-

“Large numbers of children contracted the disease. The mortality was high among children. Croup and broncho pneumonia were the principal complications and were the cause of death in most cases. The deaths have not yet been registered in many cases and so the number of fatal cases cannot be given. The flooding condition of some of the houses, the weather been very wet during part of the epidemic, the damp or wet clay floors, the wretched dwellings with broken windows, doors and roofs and in many cases scanty bed and personal clothing, sometimes no beds, the children lie and huddle together on the floor and the general state of health of children caused partially by poverty and partially by the bad sanitary conditions of the houses and lanes account for the high mortality”.

Dr. Kilbride pointed out that the unsanitary conditions had been reported by him on several occasions and he concluded with the claim that “there has been no move ever made to remedy the defects of the public sewers or to procure a water supply for the town”.

Far away from the squalor of Athy were local men Paddy Connors and Patrick Kelly, both of whom were enlisted soldiers of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers fighting in the Boer War. In January 1900 Connors wrote to his brother in Athy of the heavy losses suffered by his battalion during the Battle of Colenso.

“Three companies got cut up and the Connaught Rangers lost a lot. Murphy, Flynn and Kenny got dangerously wounded. Poor Sergeant O’Flynn got killed with a shell through the head. Twenty-five Sergeants got killed and wounded with 250 of the rank and file ….. thank God I’m very lucky. My helmet was knocked off by a bit of shell when I was carrying a wounded Corporal and he got shot in my arms.” Connors finished with the plaintive request “Brother, mind the birds and feed them well. Don’t fret for me for God will save me now”.

Kelly in his letter also refers to the killing of local men Flynn and Murphy. “Murphy got five bullets and Flynn four. Campion is also dead. There must be someone praying for the Athy boys afterall, as we nearly all escaped.” Not all of the Athy boys were not to escape as many more were to die during the Boer War which continued on into the new century.

Back home in Athy the death of Brother Holland, one of the first Christian Brothers to come to Athy in 1862 was announced in Marino, Dublin. J.J. Byrne, Barrow Bridge, Athy placed a large advertisement in the local newspapers offering corn drills, seed ploughs, cultivators and harrows at cheap rates for cash. The same paper carried an advertisement for Mr. Davies, Dental Surgeon of Lower Sackville Street, Dublin who attended at Miss Molloy’s of Duke Street on the first and third Tuesday of each month. At the start of the twentieth century life in Athy went on as before.

The last century of the second Millennium was to bring many changes to the town which had first grown to prominence as an adjunct to the Manor of Woodstock. The public water supply suggested by Dr. Kilbride in his many reports to the local Council was eventually provided in 1907. The first Council houses built in Athy were let to tenants in March 1913 but these houses in Meeting Lane, St. Martin’s Terrace and St. Michael’s Terrace were to be occupied by families other than those who lived in the unsanitary hovels condemned by Dr. Kilbride. Families most in need of re-housing would have to wait for the slum clearance schemes of the 1930’s.

Some of those men who survived the Boer War were later to re-join the ranks of the Dublin Fusiliers during the First World War. Their colleagues at the front included young men who had survived the measles epidemic in Athy in January 1900 and who later endured deprivation and unsanitary conditions in their home town.

For them, the wet clay floors of houses in Athy were but a prelude to their final resting places in watery muddy graves of France and Flanders.

Thursday, December 9, 1999

Review of the Year

Indulging myself for the second week in succession [some might claim I do so every week] I take a quick look back over the last six months of the second Millennium as seen through the Eye on the Past. In July I wrote of the conflict and turmoil as witnessed in the career of Patrick O’Kelly, United Irishman of Coolroe and of events in Luggacurran during the evictions at the end of the last century. O’Kelly remains an interesting individual for today’s readers, not least because of his role as a Colonel in the United Irishmen during the rising in South Kildare in 1798. He left a personal record of those difficult times in this locality in a book which was published some forty years afterwards. Interest in Kelly extends far beyond his rebellious activities or lack of them depending on how one views his ’98 record. The man once described by the local Parish Priest Fr. John Lalor as “a member of one of the most respectable families in the Parish of St. Michael’s, Athy” lives on in the books he wrote following his return to Ireland after exile in America and later France. Fittingly he is remembered in the local Heritage Centre in Athy.

The Luggacurran Evictions were recalled by me when writing of Rev. John Maher, the one time curate of Luggacurran and the man who spearheaded the Plan of Campaign in the County Laois village. By co-incidence the earlier mentioned Heritage Centre located in the ground floor of the Town Hall occupies a space which was once a dormitory for policeman brought in from outlying areas during the Luggacurran Evictions of 1887 and 1889. Fr. Maher addressed Land League meetings in Athy and he was supported by the people of Athy including the Catholic Clergy of the town. Maher was imprisoned in Kilkenny in May 1889 following a speech delivered by him during a public meeting in Luggacurran. On his release after one months incarceration he found the local’s attitude to the Plan of Campaign had changed and he himself was soon to feel the wrath of disillusioned campaigners. It is remarkable to note how active were the Clergy of the last century in supporting and in some cases leading their congregations in matters which would not now be considered inappropriate for their calling. A parallel could be drawn with the activities of the Free Presbyterian Church Ministers in Northern Ireland today.

During the summer a book of fiction was published by Picador Press with a story which had as it’s background Athy and the countryside of South Kildare. Inevitably it’s author was John MacKenna who has done much to make the South Kildare landscape as familiar to today’s readers as the Wessex of Thomas Hardy. “The Haunted Heart” had a particular interest for me as it’s narrator wrote her story and that of the White Quakers from No. 5 Offaly Street where I had lived for many years. That same house featured in an Eye on the Past I wrote later in the year when I dealt with my father’s involvement in the Garda Siochana. I was pleasantly surprised by the unusually large response I had to that piece, not only from persons who remembered by father but many who did not know him. Clearly it struck a cord with many people, some of whom passed on stories about their brushes with the Law. Indeed once such story concerning my father has reached me from Australia via the Internet.

It’s twenty-one years since my father died and during the past year many whom he knew have also passed on. Brother Joseph Quinn, the last Superior of the Christian Brothers in Athy died in Dublin and his funeral brought together past pupils from Athy, Tuam and elsewhere to remember a gentle giant of a man whose love for Gaelic football endeared him to everyone he came in contact with. Another man whose advice and friendship I valued was Tadgh Brennan. He passed away during the summer and in his passing Athy lost another link with the Social Club players of the 1940’s and the great local football team of 1942. Unfortunately the Eye on the Past which I had penned to reflect my admiration and respect for Tadgh was rather sadly strangulated in the printing by an excessive amount of typographical errors. Such problems I’m sure you’re glad to hear are now in the past as my copy can now reach the Editor’s desk and presumably the printed page exactly as it leaves my computer.

The past summer also witnessed the final stages in the towns remembrance of James McNally who had served the community as Sacristan in St. Michael’s Church for over sixty years from 1897. Some years ago I drew attention to the absence of a gravestone over the last resting place of this fine man who died over thirty years ago. Last August a group of sixty or seventy huddled together under umbrellas as the incessant rain beat down on the hollowed ground of St. Michael’s mediaeval cemetery. I had joined former neighbours of James McNally and members of his extended family as Fr. Tommy Tuohy, formerly of Offaly Street blessed a recently erected gravestone commemorating James. Fr. Tommy like myself served Mass in St. Michael’s Church when James McNally was Sacristan. Strangely the man who received the Papal Medal “Bene Meretti” in 1953 for services to the Catholic Church was not privileged to have any member of the local Clergy at his graveside during the blessing by Fr. Tommy.

A review of the last six months articles would not be possible without reference to the Inner Relief Road controversy which conspired to fill many Eyes in the Past during the year. Following the local elections I noted that the road plans for Athy had obviously determined the outcome of the summer elections. Like many others I was very happy after the election results were announced, particularly as the issue which the locals had before them was in danger of being side lined two weeks previously. Then the Local Government officials who in the past had shown little stomach for public debate on the issue sought to have the Town Development Plan adopted by the outgoing Council. Indeed you may remember that despite the changes brought about in the composition of the Urban Council following the election, those same officials arranged for the outgoing Councillors to meet three days after the election to adopt the Development Plan and of course the plans for the Inner Relief Road. The High Court saw fit to put an end to these shenanigans and I was prompted to note “democracy has prevailed ….. the people of Athy have spoken with a clarity which deserves to be listened to.”

Unfortunately events since have shown how fickle is human nature and how vulnerable is the human condition which relies on honour. Public accountability is one of the by words of the 19900’s but I’m afraid that in Athy we have yet to reap the fruits of the open society which cherishes and nurtures the twin aspirations of transparency and accountability.

Take heart, the New Year may bring a welcome change. Happy New Year to everyone.

Thursday, December 2, 1999

Review of the Year

As we career towards the end of the second Millennium I will take the opportunity of looking back over the past year as captured in the weekly Eye on the Past. The first week of the new year saw my pen take up, not for the first or last time, the subject which exercised many minds during the year. I refer of course to the controversy concerning the Inner Relief Road. Just twelve months ago I mentioned the Government Report on Local Government in Ireland which emphasised the need for local communities to be fully involved in influencing major decisions by public representatives. Strange to relate that only this week the much criticised Councillors on Athy Urban District Council agreed by a majority vote to disregard the locals’ call for a plebiscite on the issue ….. more about that again!

January 1999 saw the passing of an old IRA man, Jack MacKenna of Castledermot and as we witnessed possibly the last old IRA funeral in these parts I recalled the days of the Graney Ambush. “The volleys fired over the coffined remains of Jack MacKenna echoed across the countryside which had once resonated to the sound of ambush fire during the Irish Civil War. The date was October 24th, 1922 and the fratricidal war which gripped the Irish countryside was to have three more young martyrs before the evening shadows lengthened over the Graney countryside”. I expressed the hope that the older generation like Jack MacKenna whose lot was the hungry ‘30’s and ‘40’s would never be forgotten for the part they played in building the Ireland of today.

A February journey in two parts through St. Michael’s Graveyard was the focus for further forays into local history. The Scottish Presbyterian families who settled in South Kildare from the 1850’s onwards were mentioned for the cultural and religious diversity which they brought with them and with which they enriched this area. The tombstones in St. Michael’s Old Cemetery tell the stories of the different families involved in the migration from Pertshire in Scotland to this country. The second part of the St. Michael’s cemetery article was postponed for a week to facilitate an article on the then man of the moment Patrick Shaffrey, Architect. Shaffrey was and may still be employed by Kildare County Council to sweeten the “bitter pill” of the Inner Relief Road. His first attempts at this exercise early in the year were not so successful but having retreated, regrouped and recharged his batteries and his answers he came across somewhat better in some circles at least towards the end of the year. This was the same man who some years ago wrote a book on Irish towns which included such unforgettable passages as:- “By far the most satisfactory way to resolve traffic problems is to provide for a by-pass”. How about this for another Shaffeyian nugget:- “In the smaller towns the need for a by-pass is equally pressing from the environmental point of view”. No doubt Mr. Shaffrey we shall have reason to revisit again the views you once held with such passion.

The Luggacurran evictions were the subject of an article in March when I asked without success for the present whereabouts of the Athy Land League flag which was last known to have been in the possession of Peter P. Doyle of Woodstock Street in or about 1948. The flag had on once side a portrait of Charles Stewart Parnell and on the reverse the words “United we Stand, Divided we Fall”. Maybe second time around someone, somewhere might throw light on the subject.

A centenary noted in my Articles, even if not otherwise celebrated in Athy, was the setting up of the Urban District Council in 1899. It’s predecessors included a Town Commission which held it’s first meeting on 16th June, 1856. It’s functions were of a most rudimentary nature compared to those of the current Council. It provided lime for whitewashing the homes of the poor, maintained the towns water pumps and weighing scales and paved the footpaths. How different from the Local Authority today which presides over the towns affairs with a wide ranging and comprehensive list of functions all geared to improving the life of the local people.

One of the early overseas visitors to Athy in 1999 was Marguerita Germaine of Florida, formerly an Orford of Foxhill House and later still of 10 Woodstock Street, Athy. Then aged 77 years she travelled to Foxhill House to meet it’s present owners Mr. and Mrs. Gerry Moloney and there recalled her childhood which she did with remarkable clarity. There are no members of the Orford family now living in Athy, yet almost 70 years after her father sold the Foxhill farm Mrs. Germaine recalled with uncanny accuracy the names of people and places of her childhood.

“Who by Fire”, the remarkable new work by John MacKenna which opened to full houses in April was the theatrical highlight of the year in Athy. Just a week before the play opened I had visited Terezin, near the Czech border with Germany, which had been a holding camp for Jews during World War II. My subsequent viewing of “Who by Fire” dealing as it did with the horrors of Auschwitz Concentration Camp evoked in me a response similar to that experienced when I interviewed Zolton Zinn Collis some years ago. I shall never forget his description of how as a young boy he watched his distraught mother resisting a German soldier’s attempt to wrest her dead child from her arms during a stopover on a train journey to Belsen. John MacKenna’s play which he directed himself was a moving and compelling theatrical experience.

It was in mid-April also that I wrote of memoirs privately printed and penned by a daughter of Rev. Thomas Kelly of Ballintubbert which gave me a rare insight into the character of this most remarkable man. Remembered in our local Heritage Centre, Kelly who died in 1855, continues to excite interest in this narrator at least. Another man still very much alive and whom I and many others have had an interest for some time is Mick Carolan, a sporting hero of Gaelic Football in County Kildare. Mick was the subject of an article following his retirement from the Garda Siochana in May. Away from the football field he went on to make a huge impact in his job as a Garda and within the community of Clondalkin where he lived for many years. Sporting success was also noted when Frank Boyce and his team mates on Athy Badminton’s Team brought home the All Ireland Title following their success in Galway in mid-May. At the same time the local St. Michael’s Boxing Club recorded 17 Kildare titles, 9 Leinster title and a plethora of other Boxing titles at provincial and club level. The Club established under the leadership of Dom O’Rourke has had remarkable success over recent years and every year goes from strength to strength.

For the first time in over six years the Eye on the Past did not appear for two weeks leading up to the local elections in June. I knew nothing of it’s absence until on opening the Nationalist found that the space occupied by yours truly was instead playing host to the advertising charms of the local Labour candidates. Clever stroke I said to myself - get your ad. into the best position in the Newspaper while at the same time dislodging the incumbent in case he should give vent to further outbursts on the Inner Relief Road which might prove embarrassing to those whose features now grace the page instead. Perish the thought, such Machiavellian schemes would never penetrate the inner regions of a political mind!

Writing of Machiavellian plots, let me conclude this weeks roundup of the first six months of the year by mentioning last weeks shenanigans in the local Council Chambers. The call for a Plebiscite would seem to have come unstuck [for a while at least] on the strength of a recommendation by an official whose library of Local Government law does not appear to extend beyond 1990. What also are we to make of the other man who changed his mind not once, but twice, and by so doing turned his back on the poor sods who took him at his word and elected him on a Plebiscite platform only five months ago. You live and learn.

Thursday, November 25, 1999

Notable Kildare Persons of the Millennium

I was recently invited to join a small group of local historians from the County of Kildare in a Millennium venture initiated by Seamus Cullen of Donadea. It’s purpose was to identify the notable Kildare persons of the last 1000 years, a task which in truth will be extremely difficult to accomplish. If you have been in any of the Dublin book shops recently you could not have failed to notice the plethora of books recently produced dealing with the 20th century in photographs and news reports. The nostalgia factor has been well built into these books clearly designed to strike a cord of recognition in the minds of the readers who want to re-visit scenes of times which had slipped from memory. In a way I suppose the availability of these books serve to open up to the scrutiny of a wider public than is usual, times past which a column like this seeks to do each week. Even if the general readers’ attention span goes no further than the last 100 years that in itself may serve to kindle an interest in a life and a society which has passed on. What better compliment to pay to the books produced for the Millennium than to acknowledge their usefulness in possibly encouraging a reader or two to delve further into the past of their own area or country.

Having been invited to join those brave local historians from North Kildare and the County’s mid-regions I am prompted to turn my mind to the notable personalities of County Kildare over the past 1000 years. The problem with such a quest is one of definition. Does one consider only persons of Kildare birth or should those who spent parts of their lives in the County be included? For myself I feel one should be flexible in setting out the parameters of definition in relation to what constitutes a Kildare person. For instance one man who spent a very short period in the County would in my opinion be regarded for all the wrong reasons as a notable Kildare personage of the past. I refer to Thomas Reynolds, informer and traitor to the United Irishmen of 1798, who during a short sojourn in Kilkea Castle managed to deprive the Republican movement of many of it’s leaders. He was not born in the County. He lived here for less than 1 ½ years, yet the effect of his unscrupulous work was so far reaching as to justify his inclusion in any list of notable persons of the County.

The average person asked to name the most notable Kildare persons of the last 1000 years might be hard pressed to come up with more than three names. Lord Edward Fitzgerald would undoubtedly be on most peoples short list and as he was a former Member of Parliament for Athy we locals must take great satisfaction in his association with our town. St. Laurence O’Toole, another South Kildare man born at Mullaghacreelan, Castledermot would also immediately come to mind, as would Cardinal Cullen, the first Cardinal of the Irish Catholic Church.

The three I have named all have connections and links with South Kildare so perhaps I should confine myself to searching out only those men or women with similar links. Mary Leadbetter, Quaker and author would be included if only for the fact that her writings have survived and kept her name before the public 170 years following her death.

Less well known would be Peter Corcoran, born in Athy who won what was effectively the world heavy-weight boxing championship in 1771 at a time when the competition was confined to Ireland and Great Britain. Corcoran is believed to have fled Ireland after killing a man and his subsequent boxing career in London was dogged with controversy. He is reputed to have “thrown” a fight for betting purposes, thereby losing support and face before the boxing public. Nevertheless he has to be included in any list of County Kildare notables of the last 1000 years.

Another sporting hero from Athy and one whom I have yet to include in an Eye on the Past must be Paddy “Darkie” Prendergast. Regarded as Ireland’s greatest horse trainer in the 1950’s, “Darkie” achieved success in Ireland and in England which marked him apart as a master of his craft. His achievements including the winning of English and Irish Derby’s and St. Legers must justify his addition to the list of notable County Kildare personages.

My own personal favourite for inclusion must be Reverend Thomas Kelly who although a Ballintubbert, Co. Laois man served as a Minister in Athy and elsewhere for many years prior to his death in 1855. He was a noted composer of Church hymns and only recently and after a long search have I succeeded in acquiring a copy of his “Hymns on Various Passages of Scripture”. Some of his hymns are still included in Church hymnals today and for this and for his founding of the Kellyites puts him in the frame for inclusion.

Another local man who like Thomas Kelly is remembered in the Heritage Centre in Athy must also be included in the select band of notable people of the last Millennium. He is of course Ernest Shackleton, Antarctic Explorer, born in Kilkea. Two other local men whose achievements were so different yet worthy of comment were John Vincent Holland and Juan Greene. Holland won the Victoria Cross for Courage during the First World War and for that joined the most exclusive world-wide band of men and women. Juan Greene spent his early adult years as did Holland in Argentina and like him returned to Ireland. Holland returned to enlist in World War I while Greene, in a different era, returned to take up farming on the family estate in Kilkea. One of the most important leaders of Irish farming he founded the Beet Growers Association and was first President of the National Farmers Association. His place in the history of Irish farming is assured.

Another man, is there no woman?, for inclusion in the list of South Kildare notables surely must be Patrick O’Kelly of Coolroe. Leader of the United Irishmen in South Kildare in 1798 he later wrote of his experiences as well as producing a number of other historical tomes. What then of the men of freedom of later generations like Eamon Malone who although born in Cork spent much of his early life in and around Athy. Commandant of the Carlow/Kildare brigade during the War of Independence he was lodged in Mountjoy Jail, went on hunger strike and later died a relatively young man. Unlike Patrick O’Kelly he did not have the opportunity to write of his experiences but nevertheless his inclusion in the list of South Kildare notables is justified.

But where I hear you ask are the female representatives of a people who endured much in the 1000 years which commenced 14 years before Brian Boru went into battle with the Danes at Clontarf? Maybe the answer lies in the oft repeated and somewhat cliched saying :- “Our wives and sweethearts, are, all of them the best in the world”. The poor mothers of 1847 who saw their children die of starvation left no record of their sufferings. To them must go the enduring remembrance of a time and a place when poverty and hunger stalked the Irish countryside. That they suffered so much is a testament to the harshness of our history’s past and the reason why the unknown women of “Black ‘47” must forever be counted amongst the Kildare people of note.

To travel back in time is to visit the heroes and heroines which time has not forgotten. The imprint of ink upon paper preserves a past for future generations but many are the good and noteworthy who have passed on unnoticed. They are soon forgotten, their good deeds lost forever, never to be retraced. History can only touch on the fringes of society at any time and the search for notable Kildare people is less a review of distinction and honour than the cut and paste of a written past.

Nevertheless, who would you include in the list of notable Kildare people of the Millennium?

Thursday, November 18, 1999

Rheban Castle

One of the more interesting ruins in this locality is to be found in Rheban on the West Bank of the River Barrow. Rheban Castle was originally built at a fording point on the Barrow, as was Woodstock Castle, some three miles to it’s South. The Castle in Rheban appears to have been built in a number of different stages. The first stone structure on the site was a building consisting of a pair of barrell vaults placed side by side with a battered base. It probably rose to at least two stories about ground floor level. The substantial nature of the batter would suggest it was a large building. Battered walls served a dual purpose, both to protect the wall base from being breached and to widen the base of the wall so as to distribute the weight of the upper stories. The original entrance to the first castle was probably in the northern end of the Western wall.

The first addition to the original castle was a three story building at the South end. It was in essence a fortified house with a design typical of the mid-16th century. It has an unprotected window opening at ground level, and on the upper stories a series of large sized windows with hood mouldings were present. An engraving of Rheban in 1796 suggested the South wall of this fortified house incorporated the South wall of the original building.

The window opening at ground level in the South wall must have been too exposed because not long after the fortified house was built a small unroofed court was added on it’s South side. This was equipped with some defensive features, most notably an angle loop in the court’s South East corner and at least one further loop centrally placed in it’s South wall. At around the same time a pair of crudely constructed rooms were added to the North East corner of the original structure, possibly to protect an entrance at that point.

A series of references to the castle appear at the end of the 13th century. In 1297 a haggard at the castle is referred to, as is a slaying near the castle in the same year. However, the nature of the surviving structures at Rheban do not indicate any building earlier than the 15th century. It is possible that the 13th century references to the site refer to the nearby motte and bailey rather than the later stone built castle.

A reference to Rheban in 1297 stated that “Roger Cardegan and his fellows robbed Robert Cardigan of three sheep which they ate in the Castle of Ryban.” This might indicate that whatever structure was on the Rheban site at the time was not continuously occupied by the St. Michael Family. The St. Michael Family were credited with the construction of Rheban as well as Woodstock Castle in Athy. In those early days it was not uncommon for castle owners to spend time away from a particular area and it is quite possible that Rheban was a lesser site within the Estates held by the St. Michael Family and as such may not have been continuously occupied by them.

Apart from an isolated reference in 1327 when Rheban Castle was captured by Lysagh O’More the castle is absent from records until the 16th century. In 1537 it was described as being laid waste as were many other castles in the South Kildare area. A further reference in 1538 stated that provisions were being made for the reoccupation of Rheban Castle. The St. Michael Family appear to have had possession during this period but later lost the castle and failed to regain it. Indeed, Rheban Castle repeatedly changed hands in the succeeding years. It was deliberately destroyed by fire in 1642 following the withdrawal of Catholic Confederate troops to Woodstock Castle where the Confederate leaders planned to concentrate their troops ready to withstand an attack from the Royalists. Rheban Castle has since been a ruin for over 350 years.

Jonah Barrington in “Personal Sketches of His Own Time” relates a story concerning Elizabeth Fitzgerald of Moret Castle. She was a widow of substantial means who refused matrimonial offers from many quarters. Her suitors determined that one of them should succeed agreed to draw lots to decide which of them would carry off Elizabeth. Eleven or twelve of her suitors met at Rheban Castle where it was agreed that whosoever should be the lucky winner was to receive the help of the others in abducting the rich widow. Elizabeth Fitzgerald, hearing of their scheme from a young servant in Rheban Castle made her own plans to deal with the plotters. The night of the planned abduction was preceded by a feast in Rheban Castle to where Elizabeth’s own troops marched in the dead of night to catch the would-be abductors off guard. In the battle which followed Rheban Castle was over-run and one of the O’Mores who had drawn the long straw and the right to pursue Elizabeth Fitzgerald was left for dead in the adjoining farmyard. With him died many of the Rheban Castle garrison who were buried where they lay. Elizabeth Fitzgerald lived to an old age while Rheban, according to Barrington, “became one of the most civilised parts of the whole province.”

Music being one of the great traditions of the area which once formed part of “Fassnagh Rheban” it is only right I draw attention to the recently released works of two local musicians. Jack Lukeman’s latest CD, “Metropolis Blue” is a must for everybody who appreciates the young man’s distinctive interpretative style of singing. The second work I want to bring to your attention has been released by Gael Linn and is a compilation album spanning thirty years of Irish traditional music. Termed “The Golden Age of Traditional Irish Music and Song” it features such musical masters as Donal Lunny, Paddy Glacken, Sharon Shannon, De Danann and Sean O’Riada with Ceoltoir Cualann. Amongst this august body is to be found Athy’s own Brian Hughes whose fine traditional whistle playing can be heard to good effect. The inclusion of his work is a worthy acknowledgement of Brian Hughe’s accomplishments as one of the younger generation playing Irish traditional music today.

Thursday, November 11, 1999

Inner Relief Road

Last week The Nationalist and Leinster Times under an eye-catching headline on page one “Time to Bite the Bullet” trumpeted the case for the Inner Relief Road for Athy. The author of the piece was not named but the claims made in the article (or was it an editorial ?) were familiar to everyone who has heard the official line on the Council’s long debated road plans. Publication came three days in advance of the public representatives’ crucial meeting thereby allowing the views expressed to go unchallenged before a decision on this important issue was made. Despite this I am moved to set the record straight even if events will have moved on before this appears in print.

The unnamed author called upon the Fianna Fail councillors who had canvassed on the basis of their opposition to the Inner Relief Road, to accept that the Inner Relief Road “is the best and indeed the only solution to the traffic problems in Athy”. Those same councillors were urged to admit to themselves and to the voters that “things have changed in relation to the road since June”. A similar point was made earlier in the article with the claim that “circumstances have changed since the election”.

I was, and am still, puzzled by the changes claimed to have taken place since the local elections in June of this year. What were those changes? What happened in the last 5 months to justify the seismic shift in political thinking which The Nationalist urged the Fianna Fail councillors to undertake? What changed circumstances have occurred which would encourage local politicians to do a political somersault in relation to the views canvassed by them such a short time ago ?

I must admit to being somewhat concerned by the claims in the article lest the ageing process has affected my cognitive powers to the extent that I fail to see changes in my own town since the local election. I read the article/editorial several times to see if I could somehow identify those elements which could be recognised as changed circumstances. Was it the “impressive presentation by Shaffrey, Architect earlier this month” ? Hardly, since Mr Shaffrey’s report was first unveiled last January and has been the subject of a number of presentations in the interim period. Surely then, this was not the catalyst for the change adverted to in The Nationalist article.

Was it perhaps, “the result of traffic surveys revealing that the majority of traffic running through the town is internally generated”? Obviously not since only one traffic study was carried out on a Friday and Saturday during September 1996 over 3 years ago. We must look elsewhere to identify the changes noted by The Nationalist since the local election.

Maybe the answer lies in the “confirmation of funding for the Inner Relief Road by Kildare County Council,
and The National Road Authority”. What confirmation was referred to here ? Is it the same confirmation offered by the Deputy County Manager over 2 years ago to the then Urban Council and subsequently repeated by him to a meeting of Athy Chamber of Commerce. Interestingly, the Deputy County Manager never produced any letter or document which supported his claim of finance being available for the road. He was asked on several occasions to do so but to no avail. Could this then be the basis for The Nationalist and Leinster Times glad handling of the Inner Relief Road issue. ?

I have read and re-read the article in vain for any grounds which could plausibly support the writer’s contention that “things have changed in relation to the road since last June”. I have failed to unearth anything other than the references to the Shaffrey report, the traffic study, and the confirmation of funding, all of which have been available, or touted as available, long before the June election.

The Nationalist and Leinster Times has made what may be a decisive intervention 3 days before the local council meets to decide the future of the town. What I ask myself lies behind this unwelcome and disingenuous intervention on an issue of such importance to the people of Athy. No one questions the newspaper’s right to do so but to fan the flames of controversy by extolling the virtues of an Inner Relief Road on reasoning which is incredulous, renders a disservice to its Athy readers.

On several occasions in the past I have written on the road plans for Athy and the Editor of The Nationalist has always printed my copy despite claims from some quarters that I was somehow or other not entitled to air my personal views in the newspaper. The claim was and is of course nonsensical especially as I have always sought to ensure that the grounds of my opposition to the Inner Relief Road were stated with clarity and precision. I have avoided making claims which could not be substantiated unlike the article/editorial in last week’s Nationalist and Leinster Times. The newspaper with which I have been associated as a contributor for over 7 years has made a serious, and I fear, damaging incursion, into the affairs of Athy by failing to give adequately critical consideration to the claims touted by the proponents of the Inner Relief Road. I am reminded of a previous occasion The Nationalist committed journalistic hari kiri when the then Editor condemned the critics of Adolf Hitler before claiming that “most of the howling about the treatment of German Jews is dishonest propaganda”.

A different Editor and a different time of course but somehow I cannot but feel that on this occasion the fine people of Athy have been treated with less than adequate thought and consideration by a newspaper which has signally failed to be responsible in its comments on a major local issue.

Thursday, November 4, 1999

Inner Relief Road

At one time towns such as Athy were destination centres rather than places for passing through on the journey to somewhere else. Roads led to the centre of the town where commercial and market activities were the life blood of urban life. Nowadays with the advances in travel provincial inland towns receive traffic which passes through from one end to the other on journeys elsewhere, bringing with them no commercial advantage whatsoever to towns passed through.

The need to protect towns from the worst excesses of passing traffic led to the creation of town planning criteria which included the construction of bypasses. This is a relatively new concept and one which for a long number of years was beyond the financial ability of successive Irish Governments to implement. The concept of diverting through traffic away from where people shopped and did their daily business is a meritorious one, but in the years before Ireland joined the EEC funding was not available for such projects.

County Councils charged with responsibility for improving roads within their areas recognising the financial constraints under which they operated once adopted the strategy now dismissively labelled “the straight line concept” of road construction. The easiest and cheapest way of connecting two points on a map was a straight line and so it was how in 1975 Kildare County Council first put forward the idea of an inner relief road for Athy. The road was to run parallel to the existing main street in a straight line from the Dublin Road to the Kilkenny Road. It was the cheapest option in terms of building costs when the environmental and social cost elements were ignored.

The improvement in the country’s finances in the meantime and the gradual realisation that road planning must not always take precedence over social and urban planning has led local authorities throughout Ireland to embrace the best town planning practices. Thus we find Kildare County Council in it’s current development plan stating :-

“The Council proposes in cooperation with the National Roads Authority and the Department of the Environment during the period of the plan to continue to design and construct major road systems which will in effect bypass all major towns.”

This road design intention has been clearly signalled in the County Development Plan, presumably because those responsible recognise that the destruction of our towns cannot be countenanced by implementing the cheap but destructive “straight line concept” road building ideas of twenty five years ago. We in Athy are still labouring away with a 1975 road plan which would put a traffic route through the heart of our town. On Saturday 27th November at 9.30am in the Urban District Council Chambers the nine public representatives elected at the recent local elections will commence a Planning Meeting which will end later that day with the adoption of either an inner relief road or a bypass road for the town of Athy. The meeting comes in the same week as the Government’s announcement to make available £40 billion for improving Irish towns in terms of roads and services. There has never been a better time for Athy to advance it’s plans for a bypass, thereby ensuring the development potential of the county’s best placed urban settlement.

Much toing and froing has been noticed in recent weeks with some of the newly elected Councillors being chauffeured around the town in a Mercedes while being briefed on the “benefits” which they are led to believe will flow from the building of an inner relief road. No such benefits, economic or otherwise, will flow from the building of a road which would be so destructive of the best elements of our town. Indeed, one major industrialist who has looked at Athy in terms of his company’s future plans succinctly put the issue in perspective when he said :- “Any Irish town which would countenance such an out-dated road scheme cannot hold out any hope of attracting overseas development.”

The Shaffrey Report which is a series of speculative drawings, has been touted as a plan for the future development of Athy. Not even Mr. Shaffrey who was hired by Kildare County Council to make the inner relief road concept as palatable as possible for the local people, does not make any such claim. He confirms in his report that his “proposals are indicative only.” They do not constitute development plans for the town and are merely conjectural drawings.

How then can one recently elected Urban Councillor who canvassed prior to the elections on the basis of the right of the local people to a plebiscite now magisterially announce in last weeks paper that :- “having looked at the plans I am now voting for the inner relief road.” What “plans” has he examined? - dare I say Mr. Shaffrey’s report. Does the public representative in question realise that the drawings for multiplex cinemas, civic centres, multi-story car parks, etc. are not based on any proposal or plan for their future development? The Shaffrey report might as well have been prepared by the local musical society which like Mr. Shaffrey has neither the finances or the mandate to implement any elements of the report. Behind the fancy design work included in Mr. Shaffrey’s report is a County Council anxious to build a traffic route through the centre of the town. The report is a smoke screen, designed to deflect attention from the reality of the County Council’s plans. It has apparently proved irresistible to a number of people who like our young public representative misguidingly believes Mr. Shaffrey’s thoughts and drawings to be a plan of action, sanctioned and ready to be financed by Kildare County Council. Nothing could be further from the truth. It’s a series of drawings designed to impress the impressionable and win support for the inner relief road project which in itself is contrary to the Council’s own development plan. Remember what is in the County Council Development Plan re the construction of road systems to bypass all major towns! Too many half truths have been spoken about Mr. Shaffrey’s plan. It does not predict, indicate, or otherwise suggest that development on any large scale will follow the building of the inner relief road. Neither does it suggest that the future development of Athy relies on such a road.

It is time for everyone concerned with the future of Athy, whether public representative or otherwise, to know the key question facing us on 27th November :-


That’s the question to be answered and it must be answered honestly by those public representatives elected to serve our interests.

During the recent local elections the inner relief road was the important issue on which many of the election hopefuls canvassed support for one side or the other. The results of that election were a revelation. Supporters of the inner relief road lost heavily, while those candidates who opposed the routing of traffic through the centre of Athy received an unprecedented high vote from the electors of Athy. The message was and still remains quite clear. The people of Athy unquestionably showed where they stood on the inner relief road issue and their trust must be reciprocated and honoured when it comes to the vote on 27th November.

Integrity and honesty is no less an attribute in politics than in any other walk of life. Sometimes the finger can be pointed at a national politician who fails to honour some minor pre-election promise or other. However I know of no politician, national or local, who has reneged on an issue as fundamental to the electorate as the inner relief road is to the people of Athy and still retain the respect and support of the electorate. “My word is my bond” is the proud boast of every man and woman who seeks to retain the respect of their colleagues in business or politics. Let’s hope that integrity and honesty wins out when the public representatives meet on Saturday, 27th November at 9.30am to decide the future of Athy.

Thursday, October 28, 1999

Shaffrey's Report on Athy's New Street

“The new street of Athy will not be implemented as one major project. Rather it happen gradually over a longer period”. So wrote Patrick Shaffrey in the conclusion to his “Report on the Architectural Urban Design and the Heritage Aspects of the Proposed Inner Relief Road”. Note carefully the usage of the term “road” in the title to his report which, by a subtle form of metamorphosis is transformed into a street by its conclusion. The man engaged by Kildare County Council to advise it on the Relief Road Project for Athy first produced his report in January last. It is now being reproduced in a glossy format, replete with photographs and aspirations carefully designed to win over those people who, up to now, have remained unimpressed by the hard sell tactics of the County Council’s road engineers.

To be utterly fair to Mr Shaffrey, he has acknowledged that “the proposals included in this report are indicative only”. They are not definite plans by either Kildare County Council or Athy Urban Council - they serve merely to show what can be done on paper.

There is a hint here of the approach advocated by the Council officials when pressed at meetings of the Urban Council on such issues as pedestrianisation, one or two way traffic flows and other little details of that sort. “These are matters which can be agreed after you have decided to go ahead with the Inner Relief Road”, we were told with all the panache of a head teacher admonishing school boy truants. “Trust us”, is and was the message which the Council and its consultants would have us recite mantra-fashion while the bulldozers move in to rip up the most important urban spaces serving any town in Ireland.

Shaffrey’s report claims the Inner Relief Road is an opportunity to create new civic spaces and to improve the environment for pedestrians by strict and careful management of traffic. The proposed new civic space would be created around the Dominican Church where Mr Shaffrey finds the present building “has a poor connection” with Duke Street. How that “connection” can be improved with a new road running across the front of the church cutting off pedestrian access to Convent Lane is anyone’s guess. What will the Dominicans, who have served us for almost 750 years feel about the public annexation of the ground around their church. What indeed will they think of the huge reduction in the parking facilities for church goers as a substantial part of their car park is taken over by a new road.

Mr. Shaffrey, as an architect of some repute, recognises the importance of Emily Square as the heart of Athy and states that “the impact of the new street (on the Square) needs to be handled with great sensitivity”. How sensitive can you be when you plan to run a major traffic route through an open urban space as important as Emily Square, both front and back, a form never to be regained, if once lost, tier of environmental jewels in the heart of our ancient town. Why destroy a civic space of such importance while seeking to fob us off with the artificiality of a restricted area around the Dominican Church.

How can it be said that the environment for pedestrians can be improved by a decision to channel all vehicular traffic, whether car or lorry, through the heart of the town. This is the basis of all the plans and reports which have flowed from Kildare County Council over recent years in a costly, and I am happy to say, fruitless attempt to persuade the local people of Athy to meekly set aside and let the bulldozers free in our town.

Even Mr. Shaffrey, unwittingly perhaps, highlights the crassness of the County Council’s position when he wrote of the challenge “to moderate the negative impact introduced by increasing traffic”. The negative elements of introducing or retaining traffic within the urban centre is universally recognised and nowhere more so than in England where town planning took its first faltering steps. The English road authorities have had the good sense to protect their own urban environment by by-passing towns. In Ireland, we too have learned the benefits of by-passes and Kildare County Council, to its credit, has included in its own draft Development Plan for the County, the objective of by-passing the towns within the County. Alas, Athy, located in what some public representatives claim is a backwater of the County, is the only town in County Kildare, not to have the benefit of a by-pass. So much for democracy.

There are so many other aspects of the County Council’s latest charm offensive (what I must call Mr Shaffrey’s report) which do not stand up to scrutiny that they cannot be adequately covered in this short article. Suffice it to say that Athy Urban Development Group will be holding a meeting in the Town Hall tonight Wednesday 17th November at 8pm to discuss the latest developments in the Inner Relief Road saga. Everyone with an interest in protecting Athy against the worst excesses of the road engineers should come along to that meeting.

I recently received from her grand-daughter, a copy of a local newspaper report dated the 5th November 1955, which dealt with the passing of Mrs Agnes Glespen of Duke Street, Athy. I can remember as a young fellow, Tommy Glespen works at Duke Street but little or no detail can I recall. Mrs Glespen, in her young days, was a contralto, who sang with the Dublin Operatic Society and later still with the D’Oly Carte Operatic Company in England. Do any of my readers remember Mrs Glespen ? I would be interested in hearing of people’s memories of her and particularly if she ever sang in any of the local halls in Athy.

Thursday, October 21, 1999

Sergeant John P. Taaffe

It’s twenty-one years since my father died. It seems only like yesterday that I sat at his bedside in Naas Hospital when the time came for the fine spirit which was my fathers to pass into the other world. He was later buried as the February snow lay on the ground in the country town where he had pitched his final family tent some thirty three years earlier.

As I mentioned last week my father had been trained as a National Teacher in St. Patrick’s College Drumcondra before joining the Garda Siochana in 1925. On 23rd March, 1926 he was assigned to his first Garda Station at Tulsk, Co. Roscommon before moving on 20th April of the following year to Boyle in the same County. Before that year was out he was assigned to his third Station. This time, Cloonfad described in his service records as being in County Roscommon. My knowledge of the west of Ireland however confirms that Cloonfad is just over the border in County Mayo. He was to remain there until February 1933 and it was there that he met and married my mother Kathleen O’Regan, a farmer’s daughter. It was in Cloonfad that he acquired a motor bike and as I write this piece opposite me on the wall is a photograph of my father as a young man astride a motor bike, registration no. EI 1794, goggles perched on his forehead with a cigarette dangling in his mouth. No doubt the height of sophistication over 60 years ago!

My parents married on 8th September, 1932 and this necessitated a transfer for my father out of the Cloonfad area. The newly married couple found themselves initially in Sligo town, then in a succession of small stations in County Sligo, Easkey, then Bunninadden and finally Ballymote where my father was promoted Sergeant in November 1937.

The next transfer was out of the familiar surroundings of the North West and necessitated a long journey down to the South East of Ireland. Stradbally in County Waterford welcomed the growing Taaffe family in March 1938, the same place where a few years previously the missing postman saga had been played out. It was while stationed in Stradbally that my father thought he had solved the crime of the decade when the skeletal remains of a male was found in long grass near an old house. It wasn’t of course the remains of the unfortunate postman Griffin who was believed to have died during an after hours drinking session in a local pub in circumstances which have never been satisfactorily explained.

In December 1941 my father was transferred yet again, this time to Castlecomer in County Kilkenny, the home of legendary hurlers and the birthplace of one avowed Inner Relief Road critic! It was also there that the family numbers were completed with the birth of a fifth son, my brother Seamus. We were the second successive Taaffe family where there were five sons and no daughters. A growing family and the need to be near a secondary school where none existed in Castlecomer prompted the first request for a transfer to a town with second level education facilities. The new Sergeant arrived in Athy on 26th February, 1945 and a short while afterwards his young family were settled in a house rented from Myles Whelan at No. 6 Offaly Street. The two up and two down roomed accommodation seems nowadays somewhat inadequate but in those days few dreamed of aspiring to anything better.

The fact that my father was the local Sergeant in a way marked me out as a young fellow for special attention, not always welcome I can assure you. The threat of being caught and reported was a constant constraint on the activities of a full blooded young fellow whose horizons were curtailed only by the fear of retribution. Nowadays I marvel at the devilment we young fellows got up to, some of which in these politically correct days would land us in a Court of Law. Thankfully I was never caught and so I passed through my teenage years unscathed, even if my innocence was somewhat dented.

My father’s dedication to his job was, in family circles at least, well known. He patrolled the streets day and night, although I am sure he was not required to do so. He knew what moved in the town, who was where and had instant recall of any incident, no matter how trivial. He was also somewhat direct in the language used to describe some of his customers. I can recall the one and only time I was ever in the Courthouse as a young fellow during a Court session when Mattie Brennan, the caretaker, let Teddy Kelly and myself slip in the back door and briefly watch the proceedings. All I can recall is the Judge, whose demeanour struck fear into those appearing before him, enquiring of the local Sergeant what he had to say about a fellow who was up on some charge or other. I can still visualise my father in uniform moving towards the bench while telling the Judge “that fellow is the biggest bowsey in town”. We quickly left the Court for fear that our presence would give lie to my father’s forthright claim.

My father retired in 1967 after forty years service, only one and a half years after he had been called out to a traffic accident on the Dublin Road, not knowing that his youngest son Seamus was the victim. It was he who unwittingly identified the body at the scene. He himself died in February 1978 having enjoyed eleven years of his well earned retirement. When he retired he bought his first motor car, a black Morris Minor in which he learned to drive. However, he gave up driving after a journey with my mother to his old home in County Longford. He completed that journey after much tribulation but had to seek assistance from a bystander to drive the car over the humped backed bridge at Rathangan. A non-drinker all of his life he delighted in smoking a few cigarettes in his retirement, something he had not done during his working life.

He had a particular affection for the Dominicans in Athy and on his retirement served Mass there during the weekday mornings. Indeed I can still recall reading in the Nationalist Newspaper a report of an important criminal trial in the Circuit Court in Athy where the evidence of Sergeant Taaffe confirmed that the interrogation of the suspect arrested and lodged in the Garda Barracks was temporarily stopped when the Sergeant went to morning Mass in the Dominican Church.

When he died in 1978 he did so with enormous dignity. Admitted to Naas Hospital on a Wednesday he spoke to his family on Thursday knowing, although we did not, that his days were numbered. The next day his condition deteriorated and he died on the following Saturday. He was the twenty second Garda Sergeant to serve in the town of Athy.

Thursday, October 14, 1999

An Garda Siochana and some Gardai based in Athy

Gregory Allen a former member of the Garda Siochana and curator of the Garda Museum had written an accomplished and a very readable account of the first sixty years of the Garda Siochana. There has been a number of books produced on the same subject since my good friend the criminologist Seamus Breathnach published his book the “ The Irish police from the earliest times to the present day” in 1974.

The story of the Garda Siochana is an interesting one. Following the Anglo Irish Treaty the members of the Provisional Government were concerned to ensure that a properly trained police force would be in position to take the place of the soon to be disbanded R.I.C. The R.I.C. Barracks in Athy had been located in Whites Castle up to 1889 when due to the unsatisfactory accommodation in that building arrangements were put in place to relocate to the vacant Military Barracks in Barrack Lane. The move did not find agreement with local Town Commissioners who petitioned Dublin Castle on several occasions to have the police Barracks relocated to the centre of the town. In 1895 the Members of Parliament for Co. Kildare were asked to put a question in the English House of Commons “Relative to the removal of the Constabulary to their present out of the way location and to have the authorities change them to a more central position”. All to no vail, as the authorities had spend the not in considerable sum of £500 in renovating the former Military Barracks and the police inspector asked to review the Commissioner’s request was able to report that “The peace of the town is well maintained”. The R.I.C. were still in the former Military Barracks when the Irish Independent newspaper carried a report of the intended formation of the Garda Siochana or the Civic Guards who would replace them.

Recruiting for the new police force started on the 21st February 1922 and the first member was Patrick Joseph Kerrigan from Co. Mayo. On the 13th April Civil War erupted with the seizure of the Four Courts in Dublin by Rory O’Connor and the Anti Treaty Forces better known as “The Irregulars”. Twelve days later Michael Staines newly appointed Commissioner of the Gardai took over the army Barracks in Kildare as a recruiting depot for the Garda Siochana. This was soon to be the centre of attention when on the 15th May what became known as the Kildare mutiny took place. Several Ex R.I.C. men had been brought into the Civic Guards as officers and objections were taken to their presence by many former IRA men who had themselves enlisted in the new police force. The mutiny further heightened existing tensions in the country and led to formation of Civic Guard Active Service Units. These were police men armed with rifles who were deployed to protect the railways in Co. Kildare by day and night. On Sunday the 16th July 1992 the first Civic Guards were sent into South Kildare as part of the active service units even before the first Garda recruits had finished their training. Posts were established in Kildare and Monasterevin and later at Cloney, Doneaney and Athy staffed by armed units of the Civic Guards.

There was unease at Government level at the arming of the Guards particularly as they lacked uniforms and so far as the locals were concerned they had all the appearances of “Irregulars”. Their rifles were later taken up and replaced with revolvers. Towards the end of August an active service unit on night patrol armed with revolvers was caught in cross fire during an attack on the local Garda Barracks in Athy. The attack was initiated by members of the Carlow Kildare Brigade IRA who had taken the Anti Treaty side. There were no casualties.

Early in September 1922 General Eoin O’ Duffy by now Chief of Police accelerated the plans to deploy uniformed members of an unarmed Garda Siochana throughout the country. A sergeant and four Garda were sent to Athy and took up residence in the former Military Barracks at Barrack Lane which had been built in or about 1730 to house a cavalry troop.

The first sergeant in charge of the local Garda station was Cornelius Lillis who arrived from the depot with four young Gardai, John Hanley, John Kelly, Patrick Fitzgerald and Joseph MacNamara. Sergeant Lillis transferred in May 1924 to Ballytore to be replaced by Sergeant E.O ‘Loughlin. Thereafter Garda sergeants arrived and departed with regular frequency and when my father arrived in Athy on the 26th February 1945 he was the twenty second Garda sergeant to serve in the town of Athy. By an extraordinary coincidence his period of service in Athy was to equal the aggregate total of all his twenty one predecessors as sergeant in the town.

The names of the former sergeants may be of interest to my older readers. Following Lillis and O’ Loughlin came William Duggan in 1924, James Power, Patrick Kelleher and Patrick Murphy 1925, William Thorne in 1926, William Sheehan, John Noonan and Thomas Vaughan in 1927, Philip Griffin and John Mc Carthy in 1928, James Tierney in 1929, James Darmody in 1930, Francis Corr in 1931, Bernard Dugan Patrick Mac Nulty and Daniel Taylor in 1933, Robert Hayes in 1935, Hugh Ruddy in 1936 and Daniel Duggan in 1937. Sergeant John Mc Carthy who arrived from Emily, Co. Offaly in 1928 died while stationed in Athy on the 3rd September 1931. I wonder how many of these men are remembered in Athy today?

Some of the older Gardai I remember in Athy during the 1950’s, all of whom are now dead, were part of the thirty six Gardai who were transferred to the town between 1922 and 1948. The Garda with the longest service in Athy was James Kelly who transferred from Tarbert, Co. Kerry on the 22nd August 1928. Three years later he was joined by John Mac Mahon and in 1933 and 1934 arrived Michael Tuohy and John O’ Connell. Garda Tuohy had the Garda number 854, confirmation that he was one of the earliest recruits into the newly established Garda Siochana. My father the farmers son from the Northern end of Co. Longford was one of five sons two of whom emigrated to America. His other two brothers stayed on the land one inheriting his fathers farm while the other “Fell in” for a elderly neighbours holding. My father as the youngest of the family with every one else cared for was given an “Education” to free him from dependency on the land. He trained as a National teacher but for what ever reason applied to join the Garda Siochana and presented himself at the Phoenix Park Depot on the 4th November 1925 to be medically examined by Surgeon Ellis. Passed physically and mentally fit to perform the duties of a member of the Garda Siochana on the following day he signed a Declaration before a Peace Commissioner that he would be faithful to the utmost of his ability in his employment by the Ard Chomhairle of Saorstat Eireann in the office of the Garda and would render good and true service ……. without favour or affection, fear, malice or ill will. He further undertook as a Garda not to join, belong or subscribe to any political society whatsoever or to any secret society.


Thursday, October 7, 1999

Brother Joseph Quinn

Just a few short weeks ago I had occasion to write of Brothers John Murphy and Joseph Quinn who were the last Christian Brothers to serve in the town prior to their departure from Athy in January 1995. When my article appeared I was on holidays and unaware that Brother Quinn was in a Dublin Hospital. He died last week and was buried in the Christian Brothers’ cemetery attached to St. Patrick’s, Baldoyle.

It is not very fashionable nowadays for those who depended on the Christian Brothers for their education to acknowledge the very great debt owed to the dedicated men who were at the forefront of education in Ireland over the last 170 years. For myself and my classmates from Athy and surrounding countryside the Christian Brothers School in Athy provided an education which I am satisfied was as good as anything obtainable in the many private colleges throughout Ireland. Clearly not everyone was happy in the surroundings of a Christian Brothers School as evidenced by the horrible news stories which have appeared in our National Newspapers over the past few years. On balance however the good perpetuated by those Christian Brothers who lived out their lives in a manner befitting their vocation far exceeded the evil doings of the few.

I was mindful of this when attending the funeral of Brother Quinn in Baldoyle, as no doubt was the large contingent of Athy people who came to pay their respects to a good man. Brother Quinn, although born in County Roscommon, had spent his formative years in County Kildare and there was no stauncher follower of Kildare football. He followed the Lilywhites with great fervour and well I recall some years ago his delight when Kildare reached for the first time in many years a Leinster Football final. Brother Quinn saw an opportunity to remember the event in song while earning some badly needed funds for his basketball clinics in Athy. Sadly the success of his venture was not matched by the footballers on the field of play. He was justifiably proud of Padraig Gravin, his grand-nephew who played with the Lilywhites and had hoped that the 1998 All Ireland Football Final would be a fitting culmination to a lifetime’s dedication to the fortunes of the shortgrass County. Alas his hopes and expectations were dashed by a second-half resurrection of almost Biblical proportions by the Galway men.

Athy was Brother Quinn’s eleventh posting following his profession as a Christian Brother in 1943. The first young boys he taught were in the Christian Brothers School in Tuam, Co. Galway and it was marvellous to meet a representative of a Tuam class taught by Brother Quinn over 50 years ago who travelled to Baldoyle for the funeral. As an avid follower of Gaelic Football Brother Quinn would have been delighted by his presence for the one time pupil was none other than the legendary footballer Sean Purcell. This was the man who with Frank Stockwell earned the sobriquet “the terrible twins” following the 1956 football Championship which Galway won, defeating Cork in the final. Regarded as one of the finest footballers ever to grace Croke Park Purcell recently won recognition as a member of the team of the century when he was chosen as a centre-half forward on that team.

Sean Purcell remembered Brother Quinn as a young Christian Brother when he came to Tuam in the mid-1940’s and recalled the huge legacy of goodwill left behind when he departed to take up a teaching post in Glasnevin, Co. Dublin. Sean Purcell never forgot the young Christian Brother whose funeral he travelled so far to attend. As I spoke with him I could not but wonder how Kildare would have fared against Galway if Danny Flood and his colleagues had followed up their success in the 1956 Leinster Final with a win over Cork in the semi-final. The genial Tuam footballing giant admitted with a self effacing smile that Kildare might have secured their long awaited All Ireland Final success that year if they had reached the final. I very much doubt it but as ever Sean Purcell was too gentlemanly to say otherwise.

Some weeks ago I mentioned in passing the future development of second level education in Athy. In particular I referred to the desirability of creating a campus in Rathstewart where the boys and girls secondary schools soon to be amalgamated could be joined by St. Brigid’s School. This I speculated would permit second level education in the town to benefit from economies of scale which are not at present attainable due to the current fragmentation of school facilities. Several people have spoken to me since my article appeared and there would seem to be support for the schools coming together with increased and better school facilities. It would be great if the matter might be looked at by those in authority before the Convent of Mercy and it’s extensive grounds are swallowed up for commercial development.

While I am on my soap box might I also mention something which exercised a lot of minds earlier this year. It is how we intend to celebrate the new year and the dawning of the new millennium. The parties and outings confidently planned earlier this year would not now seem such a good idea as the wage demands of those required to the work on the night are clarified. The occasion will of course be unique and we will be the first of thirty-five generations to usher in a new millennium. I am surprised at the apparent lack of preparation to celebrate the event other than by “booze-up’s” whether in pubs, clubs or elsewhere. Surely this is an occasion when the local people should come together as a community to celebrate in a more suitable way than the customary weekend drinking bouts. I have in mind the entire community coming together in the centre of our town on the last night of the year to celebrate an event which will not be witnessed for another one thousand years. The current millennium has witnessed the fragmentation of communities where religious differences created and sustained divisions. Wouldn’t it be a fitting end to the old millennium and an opportunity for renewal if the Town Council, the Chamber of Commerce and all the local Churches would facilitate the local people in coming together under the stars on New Years Eve night to celebrate in a suitable manner a unique night in the history of the world!

Thursday, September 30, 1999

Market Day in Athy 1837

Market Days and Fair Days in Athy were once an important part of the commercial life of the old town. The Fairs were to be found in Woodstock Street as well as the open space at the top of Leinster Street, while the market was in Market Street, better known today as Emily Square. Here is an account of Athy’s Market which appeared in the second issue of the Athy Literary Magazine published on Tuesday, 21st November, 1837. It gives a unique insight into the happenings of 160 years ago.

“The Market Day” is generally interesting to most people. To the townsman it is a day of anxious activity, whether his business is confined to the counter, or in the more noisy throng of out-door wayfaring. It is not the less important to the farmer and the different gradations of his household, who have each some peculiar traffic to push, or some appointment to fulfil. The farmer sons are summoned and orders are given with precision relative to the corn and goods the farmer wants to send to the market. The thrifty “vanithee” is not less active in her preparations; the `lump’ of fresh butter is encircled in its well scoured wooden bowl, and a napkin `white as the driven snow’ laid over it. The weeks gathering of eggs too is a matter of some moment…... The hour has at length arrived when all must wend their way to the great mart, and Mary the eldest daughter unmarried is not displeased that her mother’s duties oblige her to remain at home, and that she is selected to exchange her burdens for tea, sugar, soap and other household necessaries which must be acquired during the din and turmoil of Athy’s Market Day.

It is indeed a busy day and the Market Day of our own town is more important to us than all the world beside. Good reader sure you have been in Athy of a “Market Day”. If you have not a visit to it will be more profitable than a voyage to see the poison tree of Java. If you are a philosopher you will remark a principal law of nature illustrated in our own language; `birds of a feather flock together’. 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, when my aunt tries what the stuff is with a tap of her knuckles. Now elevate your body, and look due East, that is if the mountains of cabbage plants will permit a vista for observation, and you will perceive a group standing round an aged figure, who might literally be said to be all in motion, for his feet are perpetually moving like the paddles of a steam engine, and his hands generally wield some deadly weapon, while his tongue, with not less velocity than his feet, keeps up an incessant clamour. You stare - feel no alarm; he is a perfectly sane and harmless poor Scotchman, who is sharpening the wits as well as the razors of his customers.

Well, then you have cabbage, parsnips and pigs’ faces to the world’s end - at least to the other side of the square where, what will you guess comes next? The brogues! Surely when the belly is already provided for, such useful members as the feet merit a little attention; and not very far distant are the hats and bonnets, mixed up with eels, applies, sieves and riddles. A little further, You must push your way, no delicate remonstrance will avail you, should you get your boots bespattered, or your coat pulled half off by the multitudinous crowd, emulous to close round some `lion’ in the corn trade, and push their samples of golden drop, &c. into the rich man’s hands. The whirling maze of the crowd has now brought you in company with the `importance’ of the market - the millers, the malsters, the brewers, the jobbers and chapmen, now whispering, now laughing, now talking aloud; observe, in particular, that little group yonder, one half of whom seem to be supporting the pile of mason-work behind them. They are the Rothschild’s of our exchange. A company of soldiers never copied the harlequin positions of their fugle man with such exactness as the crowd around them adopt their different alternations of countenance, changing as they consider the market is likely to fall or rise. You cannot of course pass our Shambles, so much superior to the manner in which meat is exposed in the generality of country towns, and we know you will feel with us that its cleanliness and good order is highly creditable to the proprietor. Watch that little gentleman yonder with what a restless pleasure his eye wanders o’er the fine proportions of fat and lean which compose that ponderous sirloin, which the butcher has stretched in all its inviting amplitude upon his table. Oh! It would be almost a dinner for a hungry countryman to dwell a little here, even in imagination, on gormandizing. Now, intelligent visitor, we will conduct you from the shambles, and urge you a few paces onward, when you will find yourself among the cocks and hens. It was about here that “Cheap John”, in days of yore, held his weekly auction of pins and needles; poor fellow he is gone the way of all flesh, and it will be long before the tidy wives will look upon his like again. The Court-house door is before you, and close under its protection sit the most notorious of all the notorious animals, the bag-ers - the scourge alike of farmers and threshers. Behind you is the great area of the Market- square, and if you would pause for a moment, and let you inventive faculties shape strange fancies, you might imagine yourself in view of a little fleet, such a number of car shafts erect themselves before your gaze, while if you look more earthly you will see apples, creels and asses, bacon, bere and barley, calico, caps and coats, delt, ducks and drunkards, egg exhibitors and extortioners, flax, fish and fowl. A little to the right is a scene calculated to awake indescribable emotions, the weekly assemblage of the two great rival powers, contending for Ireland’s honor or Ireland’s disgrace. The great links or hinges on which turn our nation’s morals, money and mortality - the pigs and potatoes.”

Athy’s Literary Magazine was a short lived venture but we can be grateful that it captured in print for all time the wonderful world of the town’s Market in pre Famine days.

Thursday, September 23, 1999

19th Century Split in Athy

Banking in Athy originated with the Tipperary Bank which had an office in the town from the 1840’s. The National Bank also had a local office from about 1850 while the Hibernian Bank established a branch in Athy in March 1856, following the collapse of the Tipperary Bank and the suicide of its founder, John Sadlier.

The prosperity of the time was reflected in the social happenings of the period. On Friday, 15th August, 1856 the Athy Regatta, revived after a lapse of some years, took place on the River Barrow with six races. The most important race was for two oared boats, the property of persons residing at least one year within the town boundary, to be rowed and steered by local residents. With an entrance fee of ten shillings per boat, clearly it was a richman’s sport! A press report of the 1858 Regatta noted that “the embankments presented a thronged and animated appearance”, while the Athy Regatta Ball for 1859 advertised tickets at 7/6, the patrons to be entertained by a string band from 9.30p.m. with Mr. Doyle, Professor of Dancing, Baltinglass, as the master of ceremonies. The Leinster Express of 30th July, 1859 with reference to the Ball noted:
“There is not in Ireland an inland town that can boast of more public spirit than Athy or among whose inhabitants so many friendly and social reunions are reciprocated.”

The public spirit so apparent in 1859 quickly dissipated when the Stewards of Athy Regatta procrastinated throughout the summer of 1861 with no prospect of the Regatta taking place that year. Much annoyed by this were local oarsmen Daniel Cobbe and Francis Dillon who had won the Silver Challenge Cup renamed the Corporation Challenge Cup the previous year.

Popular feeling apparently ran in favour of Cobbe and Dillon as evidenced by a ballad sheet printed and circulated in Athy during November and December 1861 titled “Athy Regatta Rhymes.” It commenced:-

Oh! Remember, remember,
The Nineteenth of November
Frustrates a contemptible “do;”
I do not see why
The ONE sport of Athy,
Should be stopped by the `whims or mean
schemes of a FEW.

The two local oarsmen inserted an advertisement in the Leinster Express on 9 November, 1861 in which they announced the holding of the Athy Regatta on Tuesday, 19th November “two challenges having been sent to the Secretary and the Committee not wishing to act in the manner we the present holders of the cups hereby appoint the above day. The cups have to be won 3 times successively and if successful we will claim this as our second year.” The intrepid oarsmen duly won the race. Faced with the same official reluctance in 1862 Cobbe and Dillon acted as before. Challenged on this occasion by Delaney and Keefe, victory went yet again to Cobbe and Dillon in what was to be the last of the once popular Athy Regattas. I wonder if the Silver Cup which was won outright by Cobbe and Dillon is still in Athy.

On 7 May, 1857, steeplechase racing was revived in Athy after a lapse of many years. Four races were held on the Bray course which attracted a total entry of 19 horses, a matter of some satisfaction to the Stewards, Thomas Fitzgerald J.P., Thomas H. Pope J.P., Anthony Weldon, Hugh Maguire, Joseph Butler and A. Kavanagh, Race Treasurer. The local Newspaper reported :-

“Such a sensation was never yet seen in the quiet and unexcitable district of Athy and its vicinity as the dawning of this eventful day created.

….. the roads leading to the race course were speedily thronged with a motley crew of thimble riggers, card settlers, trick a loop men, followed by the no less accomplished creed of roulette and shooting gallery proprietors, musicians and all those who imbued with a mercantile and enterprising spirit sought the most eligible position for their forthcoming avocations ….. the proceedings and amusements of the day came off satisfactorily ….. the racing was throughout contested with the greatest spirit.”

However, local horse racing was not long in resurrecting its critics. On 27 March, 1858, a local correspondent using the nom de plume “short grass” drew critical comparison between the races of 1843 and the previous years’ event implying the reason with his comment “in those days the right men were in the right place.” In 1858 the races were held once again during which “disturbances occurred subsequently action taken against one of the stewards, he was fined.” The races were not held in 1859. In 1860 Thomas Fitzgerald J.P. was instrumental in reviving the races which were held on Friday evening, 20 April over the Bray course. About 1,000 people attended the meeting and enjoyed the main race for the Athy Cup over a three mile course. The 1862 meeting was run over “a small but well laid out course about 10 minutes walk from the town”, but despite Fitzgeralds best efforts, Athy’s tenuous claim to racing fame had slipped away.

Equally unsuccessful was the inaugural reunion of the Grand Leinster Archery Fete arranged for the Peoples Park, Athy on Friday, 7th August, 1863 and the following day. The archery competitions for men and women took place in the adjoining field which was walled in with the Band of the 86th Regiment performing in the park. The Leinster Express of 15 August reported :-

“We regret to learn that the inhabitants of Athy and neighbourhood did not come forward to the support of the recent archery meeting ….. in the manner they might.

Last year there was a similar complaint to make with respect to the agricultural exhibition and if there is not some person energetic enough to keep up the credit of the town, we fear it may be even minus the latter …..”

Some things never change!