Thursday, June 24, 1999

Athy Boro Council in 1746 and Athy at the turn of the 19th Century

In 1746, the normally calm proceedings of the Athy Borough Council were thrown into disarray by the removal from office as free burgesses of the town of Thomas Keatinge, Robert Percy and Nicholas Aylward. The last two named were removed from office on 25th June 1746 for attending a public meeting convened by Keatinge for the purpose of electing a burgess in place of John Jackson deceased. The meeting was called by public notice for a premises known as the Queen’s Head, Athy and by so doing, Keatinge was guilty of impersonating the Sovereign of the town.

The names of the Borough officials, Burgesses and Freemen of Athy in 1746 with one or two exceptions, clearly indicate Anglo Norman or English antecedents. It is note worthy that the families which controlled Athy almost 250 years ago, are no longer represented amongst the present population. The names include:-

William Willock, Town Clerk Thomas Rutledge } Bailiffs
William Bradford, Sovereign William Hoysted }

Thomas Burgh John Berry
Robert Downes Moore Disney
George Bradford John Browne
Edward Harman Joshua Johnston

Walter Weldon Edmund Lewis
Edward Wale James McRoberts
Thomas Weldon Robert Fitzpatrick
Jn. Hoysted Richard Nelson

It was these men who developed the commercial life of Athy and in some cases, provided the financial backing and expertise for the limited industrial growth which the town experienced after 1700. Michael Devoy, a one time resident of the town writing in 1803 tells us that Athy in the 18th century had one of the best and most extensive tanyards in Ireland. Rocques map of Athy West of the Barrow prepared in 1768 shows two very large tanyards. Located at Beggar’s End was a 24 pit tannery owned and operated by Geo. King. At the rear of St. John’s Street, now Duke Street, in the area known to this day as the Tanyard, the Daker family had a 41 pit tannery. This latter tannery was to go into decline and eventually close around 1790 following the death of George Daker. King’s tanyard appears to have suffered a similar fate, as no trace of the once extensive tanyard is shown on a town map of 1831. Tanning was not lost completely to Athy, as a number of small tanyards were to be found in the town during the 19th century. In 1842 James Doyle had a small tanning business in St. John’s while Stephen Wilson of William Street had a somewhat larger tanyard. These were the sole remnants of the once extensive industry which provided much needed employment to the men of Athy in the previous century.

Brewing and distilling were industries also to the fore in Athy of the 18th century. Devoy indicates that Athy was once “the most extensive town in Athy for distilling whiskey”, having 14 working stills in the area. Whiskey making apparently went into rapid decline as Devoy reported in 1809 that “none has been worked here these 20 years”. Brewing in Athy had a longer history. In 1768, Dan Mansergh operated a brewery at the rear of St. John’s Street, and we find the same brewery listed in 1831 with another brewery located between the then closed Daker Tanyard and Duke Street. Malt for the brewing and distilling industries was available locally, there being no less than three malthouses in Athy in 1768. One was operated by Francis Carthy at a site immediately adjoining the Turnpike Gate on the Castlecomer Road, no doubt located there to avoid payment of turnpike tolls. Richard Wall operated a malthouse on the site of the present Minch Norton Malthouse in William Street, while Thomas Kelly had a malting plant at the rear of the present Super Valu Supermarket. Malting was to remain in Athy despite the closure of the stills and breweries and today represents an important part of the town’s industrial activity.

The linen industry was another important element of town and rural life in South Kildare towards the end of the 18th century. On 1790 the French traveller Charles Tetienne Coquebert de Montbret made an overnight stop in Athy. He visited Monavullagh bog where he reported on a number of women retting flax. This process involved the preparation of flax by steeping it in water. An important clue to the existence of linen manufacture in Athy lies in the names given to the locality which in the 18th century lay immediately behind Beggars End. The Bleach and The Bleach Yard are obvious references to the bleaching process carried on in those localities in the past. In a pamphlet published in 1809, Rev. Thomas Kelly of Ballintubbert made reference to a weaving shed established in Athy to give employment to the young men of the area. The conclusion is that weaving of linen was not an uncommon practise in Athy of that time. Another clue to the probable existence of the linen industry in and around Athy was the number of linen drapers in the town. One of these drapers was the Quaker, Thomas Chandlee who had a shop in Athy in the latter part of the 18th century. This was the same Thomas Chandlee who in 1780 was responsible for the building of the Quaker Meeting House in Meeting Lane. This was the first purpose built meeting house for the Quaker Community in Athy although they had been in the area since the latter part of the 17th century.

The second half of the 18th century was a period of improvement in farming methods, and there sprang up throughout the country small groups anxious to encourage such development. About 1780, a farming society was formed in Athy by a local Glassealy landlord, Thomas Rawson, and the local tanner George Daker. The society flourished for a number of years, holding monthly meetings which the landed gentry encouraged the “lower classes” to attend.

On 8th August 1782 the Irish antiquarian Austin Cooper, following a visit to Athy wrote -
“Athy is a small town situated on the River Barrow over which is a plain bridge of arches with a low square castle adjoining on the east side. Here is a market house, Church and County Courthouse, nothing remarkable in elegance of building. On the north west side of the town is a plain horse barracks and near it another old castle”.

No sign of traffic congestion in those days !

Thursday, June 17, 1999

Hannah Spellmans 90th Birthday - Deaths of Frank Foley and 'Wexford' Foley

I was at a birthday party during the week which I enjoyed immensely. My enjoyment owed much to the sense of immortality felt when I realised that the party girl was 90 years of age. She was born in the year the old age pension was first awarded. Then you had to be over 70 years of age to get the princely sum of five shillings a week. Hannah Spellman, after a lifetime spent amongst the rugged beauty of Connemara is now a city dweller. Her proud boast is that she was baptised by Canon Sheehan of Doneraile the priests whose novels were the staple diet of Irish readers during the first half of this century. ‘Geoffrey Austin Student’, ‘The Triumph of Failure’, ‘Luke Delmege’ and ‘My New Curate’ were some of the titles which came from the pen of Canon Sheehan between 1897 and 1912. I would imagine that there was not an Irish home without one of Canon Sheehan’s books up to 40 years ago despite or perhaps because he gave his readers an insight into the quaint peasantry habits which were never far removed from our own lives.

Ninety years ago Ernest Shackleton was still on one of his Antarctic expeditions and was to come within one hundred miles of the South Pole, and the English Channel was being crossed by aeroplane for the first time. The Great War was still five years away and the ten million or so men and women who were killed in that War were still part of the largely rural communities into which they had been born.

Take a step back ninety years from the year in which the future Hannah Spellman was born and you are in 1819, twenty six years before the Irish famine broke on the Irish scene with such devastating effects. That was also the year the future Queen Victoria was born and the same year English soldiers shot and killed eleven men who were among a crowd gathered for a reform meeting at St. Peter’s field, Manchester. The Peterloo Massacre caused widespread indignation and ultimately advanced the cause of parliamentary reform.

Ninety years is a somewhat comforting length of time in which to view one’s own age and so it was that I took heart and encouragement from my mother in law’s good fortune in maintaining her health and cheerfulness for so long. Maybe there was something in the water used by Canon Sheehan in his small church in Doneraile so many years ago that encouraged longevity.

When you get to such a great age there is more than ample opportunity to look back and remember people you have met. Hannah Spellman is no different in that regard than anyone else except that she has a veritable legion of memories relating to persons who figured prominently in history. She met Bruce Ismay, the owner of The Titanic and the man who was said to have survived the sinking of that ship by dressing up as a woman and entering one of the lifeboats. That at least was the story which Connemara folk told of Ismay long after the immense liner had sunk on her maiden voyage in 1912 with the loss of nearly sixteen hundred persons. Many of the steerage passengers on that fateful voyage were from the West of Ireland and it is no wonder the people from the Connemara countryside held fast to their belief that Ismay had cheated death in this way.

Inevitably the War of Independence must hold memories for someone of ninety years of age. Hannah Spellman recalled the ambush set up outside her parents house at Kilbrack, County Cork when men of the Cork flying column positioned themselves behind the rails of the gate lodge leading to Kilbrack House. The inevitable casualties on the English side resulted in a rampage of terror for days afterwards and may have been the cause of her uncle’s subsequent killing. Tom Hannon was her mother’s brother and he died a young man of a wound sustained in a shoot out with English soldiers.

Being a Cork woman with the name Nagle the future Hannah Spellman can claim a family connection with Nano Nagle foundress of the Presentation Sisters. Indeed the Nagle family tree which was carefully compiled over the years is drawn out with justifiable pride to show that the 90 year old is the great grand niece of Nano Nagle.

“Did you ever meet Michael Collins” ? I asked, ever hopeful that perhaps even a fleeting glance as he passeed through Doneraile could be turned into a prolonged meeting with one of the great figures of twentieth century Ireland. The answer is no, for the woman had and still has no interest in politics or the people who once populated the shady environments of militarism before they succumbed to the politics of the Irish Free State.

My mother in law travelled from Galway to Athy not realising that when she set out on the long journey that she was doing so to celebrate her ninetieth birthday. She had about her on the day her extended family, many of whom travelled from abroad as well as from the extremities of the island of Ireland. The grand lady had a great day.

In the same week as her ninetieth birthday was celebrated, two local men passed away before they had reached the biblical three score and ten. Frank Foley was a class mate of mine in the Christian Brothers Primary School. “Yah” was his nickname, derived, I understand, from his great fondness of cowboy films and his habit of using the cowboys “yah” in his everyday conversation. Like so many of his contemporaries in the Athy of the 1950’s, Frank left school once the compulsory school age of fourteen years was reached. He left to join the local L&N Stores in Emily Square as a messenger boy later joining the asbestos factory. He subsequently spent some time in England as almost every working man in Athy has done before returning to work in Minch Nortons. He retired from there some years ago and was in poor health in recent years. I knew Frank quite well and remember with fondness our time together in the classrooms of St. John’s. I didn’t know “Wexford” Foley as well but nevertheless recognised him as did everyone in Athy as a congenial man who was an intrinsic part of life in the town. How the extraordinary nickname “Wexford” came to be bestowed on him I cannot say but to those who knew him he was never called anything else. Both “Yah” and “Wexford” lived in the same terrace in Dooley’s Terrace and neither had married. I presume, perhaps wrongly, that they were related to each other, being members of the extended Foley family which must be one of the oldest families in the town.

In response to those who contacted me about last week’s article on the Luggacurran evictions, I will return to that subject again in the very near future. This week, as you can see, is my opportunity to pay a small tribute to a lady who was the very opposite of the music hall version of the mother in law. The Cork woman who moved to Connemara where she lived for over fifty years before moving into Galway city is almost as good as her daughter who keeps me in line. Could I say anymore.

Thursday, June 10, 1999

Luggacurran Evictions

I received a letter during the week from a Kilkenny reader following a recent documentary on Radio Kilkenny concerning the Luggacurran evictions. He asked for information about Fr. John Maher who at the time of the evictions was one of the Catholic curates in Luggacurran. Maher was the acknowledged leader of the Plan of Campaign in the area which culminated in the series of evictions which started on 22nd March, 1887 and finally ended in June 1889. He was born in Ballyoughan, Bagenalstown, Co. Carlow and entered St. Patrick’s College in Carlow where he was ordained in 1880. He spent time as a curate in Stradbally, Hacketstown and Clonmore before arriving in Luggacurran in or about May 1886. Around the same time Lord Lansdowne who was the Landlord of vast tracts of land in Luggacurran, visited his County Kerry Estates just outside Kenmare. The small holdings in Kerry consisted of poor land, mountainous for the most part, and Lansdowne offered rent abatements of upwards of thirty-five per cent to his Kerry tenants. News of this soon reached his tenants in Luggacurran who demanded similar terms which were refused. The stage was then set for what would eventually be known throughout Ireland as the Luggacurran Evictions.

The principal tenants on the Lansdowne Estate in Luggacurran were John William Dunne and Denis Kilbride who between them held over 2,100 acres. Both had as sub-tenants small farmers who held their lands from Dunne or Kilbride rather than from Lansdowne. The Plan of Campaign had been initiated in Ireland in October 1886 when it was proposed that where a landlord refused rent reductions tenants would offer rents they considered to be fair. On these being refused by the Landlord the rents would go into an “Estate Fund” for the support of evicted tenants.

It is not certain who initiated the Plan of Campaign in Luggacurran but Fr. Maher’s leadership through the campaign would lead one to believe that he was the person responsible. His brother, Fr. William Maher, was also a priest in the Kildare and Leighlin diocese and he had successfully operated the Plan of Campaign in his own parish. It is quite likely that encouraged by this Fr. John Maher embarked on a course of action which would have far reaching consequences for the families in the Luggacurran area.

Folk memories of Fr. Maher passed down to the present generation relate how the curate preached the Plan of Campaign from the altar every Sunday, encouraging the tenant farmers to withhold their rents from Lord Lansdowne. The inevitable happened. On Tuesday morning, 22nd March 1887 the emergency men, as the evicting party were called, travelled to Denis Kilbride’s house in Luggacurran. They carried with them ladders, crow bars and hatchets. In anticipation of his eviction local men had some time earlier removed all of Kilbride’s hay from his haggards and brought them to a safe place. William O’Brien, one of Parnell’s leading Lieutenants, arrived in Luggacurran the morning of 22nd March when he was presented with an address of welcome by a deputation from Athy’s Branch of the Irish National League. The deputation included Rev. John Staples, Catholic Curate of St. Michael’s, Athy who as Vice President of the League read the address which concluded with the words :- “May your efforts and eloquent words sound the knell of Landlordism on the Lansdowne Estates of Luggacurran today.” O’Brien and those assembled to greet him then walked towards Kilbride’s house to await the arrival of the emergency men. When the crow bar crew arrived accompanied by a large force of policemen they immediately set about attempting to gain entry to Kilbride’s house. Their early efforts were thwarted by the occupants who had barricaded every door and window. Entry was eventually made through the roof and at about 3.00 o’clock in the afternoon after almost four hours work the first of Lord Lansdowne’s tenants was evicted. On completion of the eviction the emergency men withdrew, leaving some of their numbers and a number of policemen to guard Kilbride’s house. Some of the policemen returned to Luggacurran village while the greater number of them marched back to Athy. Later that day a large gathering of Luggacurran folk was addressed by William O’Brien while he stood on the ditch adjoining Kilbride’s Avenue. The speaker was introduced by a Fr. John Maher who asserted that the Luggacurran tenants were determined to win the fight with Lord Lansdowne.

On the following day nine families, the heads of which were either labourers or sub-tenants to Denis Kilbride, were evicted from their holdings. Those evicted on that second day included Thomas Kelly, who occupied the gate lodge at the entrance to the avenue leading to Kilbride’s residence. Kelly, his wife and three children, the eldest eight years, the youngest two years were put out of their house with minimum force.

The emergency men then proceeded to the cottage of John Ryan, a married labourer with seven children who were evicted without resistance. All the while a large group of people watched in silence as their neighbours were forced from their homes. Others evicted that day were Michael Lawler, his wife and four children, the youngest being one month old; Thomas Reddy, his wife and five children and two of Reddy’s relatives aged eighty-five and eighty-three years. Ed Conroy, a sub-tenant of Kilbrides was evicted with his wife and four children, the youngest only five months, and was soon to be joined on the side of the road by Michael Cranny, his wife and thirteen children, and Thomas Rigney, his wife and three children.

The evictions continued until 30th April, 1887 when forty families had been forced from their homes for failing to pay Lord Lansdowne’s rent. Two tenant farmers due for eviction paid their rent, an action which caused considerable bad feeling in the Luggacurran area, especially when it was realised that the men who were brothers were among the first to join the Plan of Campaign. Fr. Maher was particularly vociferous in his condemnation of anyone who broke ranks with the campaigners and Hurlbert in his book “Ireland Under Coercion” quoted Fr. Maher as saying :- “They must all stand or fall together”.

Fr. Maher’s activities resulted in his arrest and subsequent imprisonment in Kilkenny Gaol in May 1889 for a speech delivered by him in Luggacurran in support of the Plan of Campaign. He was released from Gaol after serving one month and on his journey back to Luggacurran was met by welcoming committees at Kilkenny and Carlow. While he was in Kilkenny Gaol the evictions resumed after a lapse of nearly two years. Tuesday, 28th May 1889 saw the emergency men back in Luggacurran and when the Luggacurran evictions ended later that year the local attitude to Fr. John Maher had changed dramatically. The disillusioned campaigners turned against him and when he left Luggacurran in June 1881 for Monasterevin Parish it is claimed that he was booed by those he had once lead in the fight against Landlordism. He was later appointed Parish Priest of Clonasleigh where he lived from 1903 to 1911. He died in Dublin in January 1916.

Thursday, June 3, 1999

Kildares Loss and Local Election Outcome

“Ah! Have you given up writing the article for The Nationalist” asked the elderly female caller but before I could answer she continued “I miss it, it’s the first thing I read in the paper every week”. She wasn’t the only anxious enquirer during the two weeks of my enforced absence. How could I explain that, after nearly six years of meeting weekly deadlines, it was politicians who caused me to miss, for two weeks in succession, the Eye on Athy page of your weekly newspaper. The politicians in the lead up to local elections had booked an advertisement to replace your scribes’ weekly jottings. As some wag said to me “maybe it was to make sure you didn’t write anything about the Inner Relief Road”.

The last two weeks have witnessed many changes, some good, others not so welcome. Croke Park was a cacophony of sound mostly emanating from Offaly breasts as the footballers of Kildare went out of this year’s football championship. Even my travelling companion, whose passion for football would rouse a latter day Rip Van Winkle could not raise a ripple of dissent or a muscle in rage as our heroes crumbled under the unceasing waves of the Offaly gaels (sic).

Local hero Christy Byrne, who had a magnificent game that Sunday afternoon, could not save his team mates from the defeat which had been presaged by a couple of lack lustre games towards the end of the league season. We can now take an enforced holiday from football for the rest of the year and still bask in the glory and glamour which Kildare invested in Gaelic football during the great summer of ’98.

The disappointment of Croke Park was compensated for by the happenings in Dreamland Ballroom the previous Saturday. It was here in the hall of so many romances where we once strutted our stuff that the Town Clerk oversaw the election count for Athy Urban District Council. This year there was an important issue before the electorate and one which obviously shaped the outcome of the election. The Inner Relief Road controversy which has raged for some years past, was in danger of being side-lined a week or two before the elections. It would have been if the Council officials who have in the past shown little stomach for public debate on the issue had succeeded in having the Town Development Plan adopted before the 11th June. That it wasn’t owes much to a stroke of luck which saw proceedings in the High Court initiated by a building contractor who possibly felt that his plans were being sacrificed in the headlong rush to get the Inner Relief Road off the election agenda. The High Court decided that the outgoing Council should not consider the plan and that this task should be left to the newly-elected Council. As a result the Inner Relief Road remained an issue before and during the local elections and now has given us a new Town Council with a specific mandate on the issue.

Despite the changes brought about in the composition of the Town Council following the election, arrangements were already in hand for the out-going Council to meet three days afterwards for the purposes of adopting the Development Plan. I have never before come across a record of any out-going Council meeting after an election to make decisions committing those newly elected to a course of action they might not want. That surely was not intended by the legislators and the meeting, if it had gone ahead, would have given cause for complaint that the spirit of the law, not its substance, had been breached.

I was somewhat aghast to read in the papers of the suggestion that the Development Plan would not be considered by the new Council until June 2000. Isn’t it tragic to think that even before the newly-elected Council takes office, they are being subjected to this type of nonsense. The adoption of the Town Development Plan is for the new Town Council and one can expect that the public representatives we have elected will act quickly and responsibly in the matter. Suggestions that the Plan would next be considered in June 2000 is both unhelpful and inconsiderate and can only raise the hackles of those who, rightly or wrongly regard the adoption of the Development Plan as a precursor to an economic boom in Athy. There is no reason why the extraordinary speed with which the officials directed the latter stages of the Town Development Plan consultation process prior to the local elections could not be repeated so as to ensure its early adoption. But don’t hold your breath dear reader for speed is not a natural attribute of council officials. Otherwise why are we still waiting for speed limits to be extended outside the town and why is it that there has not been any concerted attempt to implement any form of traffic management to ease the town’s traffic problems.

Athy Urban Development Group played a highly significant part in highlighting the Inner Relief Road as a local election issue. Those involved in that group are for the most part uninvolved in party politics, being housewives and men whose only interest is their home town of Athy. The forty or so men and women walked every housing estate dropping leaflets which explained to the public the facts surrounding the inner relief road and laying to rest the myth that Athy’s future development depended on such a roadway being built.

Democracy has prevailed even if the whingers on the sideline still refuse to acknowledge that the Inner Relief Road was an election issue. Every excuse under the sun will be canvassed in support of their claim that the election was not an exercise of the local people’s franchise for or against the road plans. The facts show that every candidate who opposed the inner relief road increased his vote substantially while those who supported the road showed a dramatic loss of votes over previous election results. The people of Athy have spoken with a clarity which deserves to be listened to and councillors and officials might now take on board their views. The time has now come for a united approach on a by-pass for Athy with a complementary new street system, which would allow our town to develop in a natural and progressive way. Our new Town Council must ensure that we are not cursed by future generations for complicity in the destruction of our town which could only result from the building of an Inner Relief Road.