Thursday, April 20, 2000

The Sisters of Mercy leave their Convent

They arrived at a time when Athy was home to poverty, deprivation and disease. Their primary intention was to provide education for the children of local families who could never otherwise hope to aspire to a better life. On arrival by train at the local railway station which had been built six years previously, they were greeted by the local Parish Priest. The three Sisters of Mercy were then driven in a closed horse drawn carriage to the newly built Convent behind the Catholic Church in Stanhope Place. The building, much augmented over the intervening years, was built with the coppers and silver coins of the local people gathered in the years before and after the Great Famine.

Those first Sisters of Mercy were Mother Vincent Whitty, Sr. Gabriel and Sr. Mary and the welcome they received on day of their arrival and on the days following no doubt bode well for the future well being of the Sisters of Mercy in Athy.

Over the years Athy has witnessed many changes, many of which are no doubt faithfully recorded in the Annals of the Sisters of Mercy. The poverty and the slum dwellings of the 1850’s are no longer even a memory, and little visible remains are to be seen today of the wretched hovels of yesteryear. The Convent School opened in 1852 to cater for the young Catholic girls of the town, flourished under the guidance of the newly arrived Sisters of Mercy and in time became part of a two level system of education provided locally by the same Sisters.

Apart from tending to the educational needs of the local girls the Sisters also provided nursing services in the Poor House, now St. Vincent’s Hospital, at a time when professionally trained nurses were unknown. House visitations to the sick and elderly and especially to the poorer families of the area were other important elements of the Sisters of Mercy work locally. We shall never know the extent and range of help which the goodly Sisters provided quietly and without fuss for the most vulnerable in our community. Meanwhile the mission of Cuan Mhuire founded by Sr. Consilio, at one time a nurse in St. Vincent’s Hospital and for many years a Sister of Mercy attached to the Athy community continues.

I was reminded of the events of 148 years ago when I dropped into the Convent on Friday, 19th May knowing that on the following day the last remaining Sisters of Mercy were leaving to take up residence in their new houses at Church Road. The Sisters, all dressed in lay garb, were busy bringing boxes full of small items gathered over the years to their waiting cars in preparation for the short journey to Church Road. This journey was to be a reverse of the journey undertaken by their predecessors from the local railway station so many years ago. This time the trip was by motor car driven by a Nun, no longer readily recognisable as such in the absence of the heavy veil of earlier years.

Times have changed and nowhere was this more obvious in the way that the Sisters of Mercy set about their task of relocating a century and a half of memories from the Convent with which they will always be associated. The vast empty building looked somewhat forlorn as it was shorn of it’s furniture and fittings. History was in the making but unlike 1852 there was no-one to share in the experience as the lock was turned for the last time on the big panelled door of the Convent of Mercy.

How many times was that same door opened in response to the knocking and later the belling of supplicants, not just from Athy but also those passing through the town who could always rely on the charity of the Sisters of Mercy. Many a tale could be told if only the stone walls would unburden themselves. But it is not to be and somehow it seems almost surreal to realise that after 148 years the Convent will never again be a refuge for those in need.

The enclosed cemetery to one side of the Convent building is a forest of metal crosses, each marking the last resting place of nuns and postulants who died while members of the Athy Mercy community. There are 77 such crosses, a sad legacy of lives lived in poverty, chastity and obedience.

I have before mentioned the difficulties of unraveling the different paths who lead so many young women to join the Sisters of Mercy, and specifically the Sisters of Mercy here in Athy. I fondly remember, as will many aging men even of more years than myself that small bundle of joy known as Sr. Brendan who taught so many of us in St. Joseph’s School. She was from The Glens near Dingle in County Kerry but I never discovered how it was that she came to join the Sisters in Athy. The list of those entering the Athy Convent from all parts of Ireland during the 1930’s and 1940’s clearly demonstrated that the Convent in Athy was particularly popular. It was not unusual for several members of the same families to join the Convent and the role call of some of those families begins with the Gavins of Westmeath, who gave us Sr. Francis and Sr. Peter. The Blanchfield family of Thomastown, Co. Kilkenny gave us Sr. Agnes and Sr. Sacred Heart, while the Cowhey family of Buttevant, Co. Cork were represented by Sr. Finbar and Sr. Dolores. The O’Leary’s of Dublin gave us Sr. Joseph and Sr. Carmel, while nearer to home the Malones of Barrowhouse were represented by Sr. Laurence and Sr. Ursula and the Cullen Family of Ballitore by Sr. Joseph and Sr. Cecilia. The list goes on and on and includes Sr. Alphonsus and Sr. Oliver who were Meaghers of Doon, Co. Limerick and the three representatives of the Cosgrave family of Daingean, Co. Galway, Sr. Paul, Sr. Xavier and Sr. Rose.

The work of these nuns and the many other nuns who at one time or other over the last 148 years passed through the doors of Athy’s Mercy Convent is now part of our local history. The last remaining Sisters of Mercy in Athy quietly and without fuss or fanfair left their Convent on Saturday, 20th May to begin a new life in more homely surroundings.

The departure of the Christian Brothers from the town some years ago coincided with the 150th Anniversary of the death of their founder Edmund Ignatius Rice and culminated in the unveiling of a Memorial in the newly named Edmund Rice Square. I am sure the Town Fathers acting on behalf of the grateful people of Athy will no doubt already have in train plans to mark the closure of the Convent of Mercy in a suitable and permanent manner. Maybe it’s time to shed one of the ascendancy names which grace our main streets and squares and name one of them after the foundress of the Sisters of Mercy. This, coupled with an appropriate piece of street sculpture, would add enormously to the heritage of the town.

Extracts from Charles Carey's Journal

Thanks to a referral by Colm Walsh I have been priviliged in the last week to read a Journal kept by a local man Charles Carey during part of the 19th century. It is now in the Manuscript Section of the National Library and for long it has been there I cannot say. It is a most interesting compilation of news, gossip and opinion, the latter particularly evident in the letters Charles Carey wrote to his nephew Michael Carey. Charles, local farmer, wrote to his nephew who was subsequently a printer based in Barrow Quay, Athy with a pen dipped in vitriol rather than in ink. The Journal itself is worthy of note for the extensive chronology he gives of life in Athy between 1823 and 1858. Where else could one hope to find a gem of local information such as the entry which read :-
“The bell was first rung at the Chapel for the death of a man on 7th March, 1830 - he was Bradley, a baker.”

Or what about the entry :-
“The bell first rung for divine service in Athy Church on 22nd March, 1857.”

The reference here and presumably in the previous entry was to St. Michael’s Church in Offaly Street where Mr. Cross had commenced building the Church steeple in June 1856.

The events noted in Carey’s Journal are the stuff of local history, even if some of them are destined never to be more than one liners designed to bring a smile to the face of the reader as in the reference to Andrew Conroy who was interred on 21st June, 1827. Carey appended a note claiming that he had hanged himself in the County Carlow to prevent the Coroner of Kildare benefitting from the Inquest.

The real usefulness of the entries lies in the minutiae of local life which tells us of conditions 175 years ago. For instance we learn of “cholera raging in Athy from May to November, 1832”. This followed by another entry:- “Cholera bad - Six died in Barrack Street, 7th February, 1833.” Elsewhere the names of other unfortunates who died in the Cholera Epidemic are given.

In an entry for January 1847 Charles Carey notes that he is frightened at the aspect of the time, “people dying of hunger - great misery in Ireland - no work for labourers - 100 bankrupt in the South in one week in December - misery never to be forgotten - fever prevalent - trade stagnant and starvation in the land.”

In 1856 he records that a Crimean canon was brought through Athy, unfortunately not detailing where it was journeying to. The departure of local people for America was carefully noted throughout the life of the Journal, and in that regard offers an invaluable record for local historians and genealogists.

As you can imagine the Journal threw up interesting if as yet unclear references. Such is the reference to “Convent Building August 1844”. Was this a reference to the future Convent of Mercy or to the Dominican Convent? A later entry noted :- “Fr. Cremin purchased Mr. Mansergh’s house from Mr. Beasley - 8th August, 1845.” Thus the 1844 reference may well have been to the Convent building at Rathstewart.

A further reference to the consecration of a new Churchyard on 25th March, 1848 may well be a reference to an extension of St. Michael’s cemetery, or perhaps the opening of St. Mary’s Cemetery across the bridge from the present St. Vincent’s Hospital.

Early in the Journal Charles Carey referred to Robert Robinson, a local man who was transported for bigamy in October 1839 to Norfolk Island. In his Journal Carey has transcribed one and possibly the only letter he received from the transportee. It provides a fascinating glimpse of the fate awaiting those transported overseas and raises the question which I cannot yet answer :- Who was the Athy man named Fletcher referred to in that letter? The letter read :-
“My Dear Charles,
I received your kind letter dated 27th March, 1840 but I had not money to pay postage for an answer. I remained four years in Norfolk Island. It is called The Garden of the World. Nothing can equal it in point of beauty, but on the other hand you might lawfully term it The Field of Slaughter. Thank God I always had a good friend in the commandant so I passed my time like the soldiers dog - hunger and ease. Tell the poor people to beware of violating the law. If they saw the scenes I have been obliged to witness they would say the gallows was much preferable. What would you think if you saw one of our poor countrymen receive 100 lashes and then sent out to work - if he did not do his task that day the next day he received the same. The man that has not interest here is very soon settled. I must say that the feeling here is in favour of Irishmen. However, we all stand well to each other. As to myself, Irishmen keep my pocket low. I could not have it and see them in want. I know you will be glad to hear I am at last well off. I arrived here last March twelve months penniless and as I thought friendless. However, God soon raised up a friend for me. By chance I heard of my townsman Mr. Fletcher who is Commissary General here. I waited on him and he had me appointed Watch Housekeeper that day. The duties were such that a man should have the heart of a stone to fulfill them so I resigned in three weeks. I went again to my friend who had me appointed Deputy Jailer where I still remain and shall until I am free which will, if God spares me, be 1st August, 1846. After all, I never enjoyed better health. This country is totally ruined. Property of every sort is of no value. You can buy sheep for 2/6 per head, which four years ago were worth £2 each. Other cattle equally low. Tea 1s. per pound. Sugar 1p. Bread 1p. I understand Bigham is here, badly off.

Let me hear from the children above all things and how the mother is behaving to my dear babes. How I long to see them both. My folly drove me from the children of my heart. Let me know does the mother ever talk of her unfortunate Bob.
Oatland, Van Diemans land.”

One of the last entries of the Journal was made on 22nd October, 1858 when Carey noted “Kavanagh Malting in Cottiers Lane.” I wonder how many people know where Cottiers Lane was located. It is still there, although now known by a different name.

Charles Carey died in his Athy home on 29th January, 1859 leaving his property including no doubt his Journal to his favourite nephew Michael Carey who for many years carried on business as a printer at Barrow Quay.

Thursday, April 13, 2000

Toberara Well

“This lonely and sequestered place, remote from habitation, is on the eastern bank of the river Barrow, one mile and a-half north of Athy town. In its solitude it is a scene of considerable beauty. The name Toberara, or as it was sometimes called Tobbera, probably signifies St. Bara’ Well (Tober-Bara), or according to Mr. Kingsbury in the Statistical Account of Ireland (1814), it means Holy Well; or the well by the Barrow (Tober-Berjos). A church was built herein a most remote age. No ruins now remain standing, but its site may still be traced by the raised surface where the surrounding walls fell in. The older part of the wall, on the northern side, is apparently a portion of the ancient church. The space enclosed is of considerable extent. The well flows from the middle of it, and sends forth a great flood of water constantly, and all the year round - sparkling, bright, and limpid. People came hither from far and near, in olden times, to drink the water and to pray. St. John was the patron saint of the place, and on his festival, the 24th of June, a great concourse of pilgrims was usually present, and this custom continued during the early part of the present century. But like other patron days, or as they were called “pattern days,” it grew to an abuse and had to be prohibited.”

So wrote Athy curate, Rev. J. Carroll in the Journal of the Kildare Archaeological Society in 1891. William Shaw Mason in his PAROCHIAL SURVEY OF IRELAND published in 1814 in relation to Toberara Well wrote: “a holy well among the Roman Catholics considered by them under the patronage of St. John. The Patron Day is 24th June. People come far and near to drink the water, pray and dance.” Dealing with the people of the area Mason acknowledged that “they are poor enough. Oatmeal, potatoes, herrings, eggs with some milk and butter constituted the food of the lower orders. Their fuel is turf, their clothing homemade frieze coats, cotton waistcoats and corduroy breeches, yarn stockings and brogues. The appearance of the women is much bettered, for about 20 years ago they were ragged and bare footed, now no country girl is seen without decent clothing, shoes, stockings, etc.”

Toberara Well had been the focus of public attention, local and regional, for many centuries prior to the clerical edict which put an end to the Pattern Day held each year on the Feast of St. John’s Day.. The details of the original Pilgrimage arrangements insofar as they related to Toberara Well were not to my knowledge reduced to writing and as over 175 years have elapsed since the local Parish Priest put an end to the local Pattern Day will now never be known. In common with other Irish Patron Days St. John’s Day would have been regarded in South Kildare at least as a day of rest. Treated as if it was a Sunday the day was set aside for the annual Pilgrimage to the Holy Well at Tobbera. Indeed throughout Ireland of the 18th and 19th century the 24th of June, St. John the Baptist Day, was a popular feast day. On the eve of 24th June the celebrations started with the lighting of fires on hilltops, a tradition with links to the pre-Christian celebration of the summer solstice. Whether or not this ritual was part of the St. John’s Day celebration in Athy I cannot say with any degree of confidence, but possibly it was. There is no doubt whatsoever regarding the popularity of the Toberara Well Pattern Day which became in time a mixture of religious ceremonies and social enjoyment. The local people gathered in great numbers on what was the feast day of the Patron Saint of the small Churchyard and Church at Tobbera, there to perform the Pilgrimage which had formed part of the local tradition for many centuries past.

We can visualise the shawl covered women and the frieze jacketed men attending at the holy well, probably doing the stations at various points within the Tobbera complex before concluding with the taking of the holy water and the fixing of an offering of cloth or other material on the nearby Whitethorn bush. Such was the traditional holy day pilgrimage of 200 years ago which in time degenerated into the social gatherings which was to cause much offence to the Catholic Church of the time. Drinking, dancing and faction fighting in time became an inextricable part of the Pattern Day, pushing the religious ceremonies into the background. It was all great fun, a great day out for everyone, but in time was suppressed by the local Parish Priest, owing it is believed to the loss of life resulting from faction fighting at the Holy Well.

The question must be posed as to why a graveyard and a Church were to be found in such an isolated spot next to the River Barrow at Tobbera. Churches were built to serve the needs of local people and were invariably located in areas of population. There are few houses in the vicinity of Tobbera today and it’s a difficult enough place to access. Was there a small village in the locality which has since disappeared, leaving only the last resting place of some of the villagers lying next to the tumbled walls of the Church? With a Pattern Day on St. John’s Day we can assume that the Church was dedicated to St. John the Baptist. This was also the Saint who gave his name to the Monastery established in the early 13th century in the shadow of Woodstock Castle and who is still commemorated in the name St. John’s Lane. There are a lot of interesting historical connections still to be unraveled and maybe in time and with some luck the links will be identified and clarified.

Next Sunday, 21st May, the Pilgrimage to Toberara Well anciently held on St. John’s Day will be reactivated after a lapse of almost 175 years. One of the great traditions of South Kildare will once again be revived, even if not to coincide with the traditional Pilgrimage Day under the auspices of our Parish Renewal and Development Group. For some time past a group from Churchtown assisted by FAS workers have been clearing and restoring the fabled Toberara Well in preparation for the Pilgrimage next Sunday. The gathering point for everybody taking part in the Pilgrimage will be St. Vincent’s Hospital which opened in 1841, some years after the last Pattern Day was held in Toberara. Here at 2.00pm next Sunday the First Station will take place before the Pilgrimage continues on foot to Cuan Mhuire for the Second Station. From there a leisurely walk will bring the pilgrims to the entrance to the field giving access to Toberara where another Station will be completed before everybody crosses the fields to the site of the ancient Church, Holy Well and Cemetery for the final Station. Sunday, 21st May has been designated as National Pilgrimage Day and will surely be a great day to celebrate the revival of an ancient South Kildare tradition of the Pilgrimage to Toberara Well.

Thursday, April 6, 2000

Housing Schemes in Athy in the 1930s

In 1932 the Department of Local Government in a move clearly designed to encourage economy in the cost of house building submitted to Athy Urban District Council plans of houses which were to be built in other parts of the country. A three roomed house in Ardee, Co. Louth costing £166. A four roomed house serviced with water and sewerage in Clonmel for £200 and a similar type house in Mullingar for £250. These figures compared very favorably with the £316 which Athy Urban District Council had paid for each of the recently completed houses in St. Patrick’s Avenue. The Council Members attention was however diverted to an issue of greater importance to them as local representatives and that was whether any new houses should be built in concrete or brick. Athy’s brick industry was in the doldrums and the Council agreed to ask the Minister for Local Government to have Athy Brick used in all future housing schemes. At the same time Peter P. Doyle, Proprietor of Athy Tile & Brick Company, the only survivor of the once flourishing brick industry in South Kildare, offered to dispose of a small portion of his field at the rear of McHugh’s Malt Store in Woodstock Street which the Council wanted to acquire if Athy Brick was used in any houses built there. The offer was accepted with the Council agreeing to buy Athy Brick at £3/15 s. per 1,000 bricks delivered on site.

When work commenced on the building of houses in Rathstewart in what was subsequently called “St. Joseph’s Terrace” the Architect on the Scheme advised the local Council that an adequate supply of Athy Brick was not available. He sought permission to use Dolphin’s Barn Brick until the Athy Brick was available. The Council directed that only Athy Brick was to be used, a wise decision at a time when a special meeting of the Council and the local St. Vincent de Paul Society was being arranged to discuss measures to alleviate “present distress prevailing amongst the poor of Athy owing to the recent bad weather”.

Following the official opening of St. Joseph’s Terrace on 5th April, 1934 the Council hosted a luncheon in the Leinster Arms Hotel for Minister Sean T. O’Ceallaigh. One of the guest speakers that afternoon was Peter P. Doyle who thanked the local Council for it’s decision to use local material in the new houses as a result of which he had been able to employ 20 men constantly in the brick yard for over two years.

Before long the relationship between Peter P. Doyle and the local Urban District Council soured somewhat after local carpenter and Councillor Tom Carbery attempted but failed to get his Council colleagues to support his Motion not to use Athy bricks for any housing schemes unless Mr. P.P. Doyle paid trade union wages to the workers he employs in manufacturing the bricks. Clearly there was concern at the issue raised by Councillor Carbery, but apart from Councillor J.P. Dillon who seconded his Motion, none of the other Councillors felt able to vote one way or the other on the issue. The Athy Tile & Brick Company was the only surviving member of the extensive brick industry which had existed in and around Athy at the beginning of the century. Despite the huge increase in Council house building from 1932 onwards the brick industry found it difficult to compete in the face of competition from onsite manufacture of concrete blocks which were cheaper and easier to use. Because of the special efforts made by Athy Urban District Council to use brick in it’s fourth housing scheme, Athy Tile & Brick Company had prospered briefly. Councillor Carbery’s Motion, although not passed by the Council, pointed to difficulties in Doyle’s brick yard and it was not long before those difficulties were to lead to the closure of Athy’s last brick yard.

Following the appointment of tenants to the Convent View houses in January 1936 Peter P. Doyle wrote to the local Council :-

“I noted that at a recent meeting of the Council was a report from the Architect on the floors of the houses in St. Patrick’s Avenue which are affected with dry rot. These houses were built of concrete four years ago and numerous complaints have been made by the tenants since they were occupied. The floors rotting after four years, particularly when the boards were laid on concrete, is a practical proof of the unsuitability of concrete for building purposes and shows concrete is only suitable for engineering purposes or boundary walls. The sum saved by building in concrete will be found to be penny wise and with cost of repairs many pounds foolish. The houses erected in brick at Bleach over ten years ago have given every satisfaction. The cottages in the rural district built over 50 years ago are still as good as ever. All Architect’s agree that bricks are the ideal building material and the firms that use them are a good index of their superiority. We have supplied Athy Bricks to the Christian Brothers, Messrs Guinness, The Great Southern Railway Branch in Athy which is a classic in architecture. The noted Architect Messrs William H. Byrne & Son states :- “We use Athy Brick in the Hibernian Bank, Athy and in several other buildings and we also found them first quality bricks which are the only bricks we use. They are in our opinion good, strong, hard brick and are excellent for facing as well as for backing up walls.” Messrs Bradbury & Evans, Architects & Engineers state :-

“Athy Bricks are harder and better burned than other bricks used in Dublin and their appearance is in our opinion vastly superior.

It is therefore up to the Council to see that the best material is obtained for the erection of houses.

Yours truly,
Peter P. Doyle.”

The struggling brick industry was dealt a mortal blow when in October 1936 the Department of Local Government approved the tender of D. & J. Carbery, Building Contractors of St. John’s Athy to erect 25 houses in Holland’s site on the Geraldine Road. The houses were to be built of concrete blocks rather than Athy Brick for a price which was only marginally cheaper. There is nothing in the Minute Book of Athy Urban District Council to indicate that the local Councillors were in any way concerned at the likely closure of the town’s only brick yard resulting from the proposed use of blocks rather than bricks in the new house scheme. The eventual closure of Athy Tile & Brick Company was inevitable and almost immediate.

Several persons have contacted me about last weeks article inquiring as to the names of some of the original tenants of St. Patrick’s Avenue. Those appointed at tenants included as I wrote last week several whose connection with Athy is unclear. These included :-

Mr. J. O’Connell Lacka, Kildare
Mr. J. O’Regan Ballinamore, Co. Leitrim
Mr. P. Mulcahy Blackpool, England
Mr. Burke 6 Hardwick Street, Dublin
Mrs. E. Healy Drumcondra, Dublin
Nurse O’Donoghue Newbridge
Mr. J.J. Flanagan Portarlington
Mrs. M. O’Brien Enniskillen
Garda M. Noonan Aughrim, Ballinasloe.

Mr. J. Donoher of Leixlip refused the offer of a tenancy as he had no means of keeping animals on the premises, while two Dubliners, one from Blackrock, the other from Rathmines, also turned down the opportunity to move to Athy.

How many of my readers recognise these families who moved into St. Patrick’s Avenue and Athy in 1931? Clearly Garda Noonan transferred to Athy Garda Station and his descendants are still living in Athy but what of the other families? What connection, if any, did they have with Athy. I would like to hear from anyone who could throw some light on the subject.