Thursday, July 27, 2000

'Gus Prendergast'

I first met the man from Mayo in the kitchen of my parents house in Offaly Street almost 30 years ago. He was visiting my mother, his one time neighbour from Cloonfad many years after she had arrived in Athy but soon after he himself had swapped his farm in Culnacleha, Claremorris for a more fertile holding in the heartland of South Kildare. Gus Prendergast who has not lost his Mayo accent had farmed for several frustrating years six divisions of land which made up his holding in County Mayo. It had been in the Prendergast family for four generations and like all land in the west of Ireland was not of the best quality. Fertilizer had little effect on the inhospitable Mayo fields while the heavy rainfall so typical of counties on the Western Seaboard created its own difficulties in the boggy fields which gave reluctant sustenance to grazing cattle.

In common with so many other in Mayo of the 40’s and 50’s, Gus’s brothers emigrated to England to work. His oldest brother John did so at thirteen years of age and lived abroad for seventy one years before passing away last year. His other brothers Pat and Tom also took the all too familiar route and when Gus’s time came, he travelled to Dun Laoghaire where he signed on for essential war work at the Pier side before embarking on the Holyhead mail boat. His first job on the English mainland was in Carlisle where he worked on the railways shunting railway stock before moving to Manchester to work on the building sites. When his father died in 1951, Gus returned home to County Mayo to take over the family farm.

The difficulties of farming a small holding split into six divisions each of which was separated by public roads and at some distance from one another are all too easily imaginable. Most farmers in County Mayo laboured under the same difficulties and the movement of cows from one division to another necessitated advance planning on a military scale as herds were prone to meet and mingle with each other on the public roadways.

Gus, an energetic young farmer with experience gained in the industrial cities of England purchased a Ferguson tractor in 1952. He could now supplement his income by doing hire work for farmers in the locality. However, the unrelenting struggle with the land continued and a recognition that something had to be done to alleviate the problems of the small farmers in the West prompted Gus to become involved with the Irish Farmers Association. The Association had its origins in Macra Na Feirme founded by Stephen Cullinane and others in Athy in 1946. The farming crisis of the 1960’s resulted in a Jarrow type march to the capital city by Irish farmers from all corners of Ireland. Gus joined a number of farming colleagues from County Mayo who walked the 140 miles to Dublin setting out on the second Tuesday of October 1966. They reached their destination at the Department of Agriculture in Dublin one week later. His involvement showed his commitment to farming despite his frustration at the perennial struggle to make a decent living and the lack of assistance from the Dublin based bureaucracy. He is immeasurably proud of his participation on that occasion and recalls with pride his introduction to an I.F.A. meeting in the Leinster Arms Hotel in October 1969 by the late Bill Diamond who was also actively involved in the 1966 campaign.

Athy and South Kildare has welcomed many migrants and immigrants over the centuries and Gus Prendergast was to join them when in 1969 the Land Commission offered him a farm in Ballytore, County Kildare in exchange for the Prendergast family farm in County Mayo. He visited Ballyroe and in his own words “admired the land which was so level and so good compared to anything to be found in County Mayo”. The farm he was shown that day was in his own words a bit run down and the hedges needed cutting but cutting hedges he felt would make a welcome change from the perennial drain cutting duties which were a feature of farming in the West of Ireland. The decision was made. Gus, his wife Mary and their three young sons would move to County Kildare and they arrived in Athy on the 29th April 1969 accompanied by two trucks and a trailer of furniture, machinery and equipment amassed over four generations of living in County Mayo. The Land Commission had already ploughed seven acres before Gus arrived and had arranged for Jim Lazenby and Johnny Neill to deliver twenty bales of hay and straw for the new arrivals. Barley was sown that year after Minch Norton’s gave Gus a quota for nine barrels.

The following year on a trip to Carlow Sugar Factory to get a beet quota, Gus had the good fortune to meet Dick Winters a Mayo man who held a unique Gaelic Football record of having played provincial football for Connacht, Munster and Leinster. The beet quota was secured and indeed increased the following year and from then on Gus reaped the benefits of hard work on land which unlike that in County Mayo gave a reasonable return. Looking back over 31 years spent farming in South Kildare, Gus still finds satisfaction at the opportunity to work his land and move his stock from one field to another without having to go onto the public road. This to a man who had once farmed land divided into six divisions all separated by neighbours lands and public road was a most welcome and obvious benefit of the move to the Midlands. “Having land altogether is a god send” is how he put it as he reflected on the yield one gets from land in Kildare compared to Mayo.

Gus still likes to return to Mayo as often as he can and on those trips he always renews acquaintances with his former neighbours and old friends in and around Cloonfad. On such trips, whether made for weddings, funerals or just weekend trips which he can now make more regularly since his family has grown up, Gus can share a pint with friends in one of the three local pubs in Cloonfad. When he does, he can recall past Sunday’s when his neighbours from Culnacleha quenched the thirst of a weeks’ hard work on the land under the Guise of bona fide travellers from Tulrahan. You see Tulrahan was three miles from Cloonfad entitling Gus and his neighbours to use the facilities of the local Public House on Sunday’s whereas their own townland was not the requisite three miles away. The local Gardai were not for a moment fooled but in those more carefree days common sense prevailed as I am sure it did when my own father as a young garda was stationed in Cloonfad many years previously.

Since he left Mayo, the one and only occasion Gus walked the former Prendergast lands was in the Spring of this year. He was astonished to find how small were the fields he once worked as a young man. He had remembered them over the years as bigger, indeed much much bigger than they actually were and the reality of what he saw on the ground reaffirmed his belief that he had made the right decision in coming to South County Kildare 31 years ago.

Thursday, July 20, 2000

Bits and Pieces - The O'Rahilly, Jacksons, Cycling Bench Marks

A newspaper Report of the Dublin Insurrection of 1916 referred to The O’Rahilly who was killed while leading a charge against a British Barricade in Moore Street on Friday of Easter Week. It noted that the forty one year old Kerry man returned to Ireland after spending some time in America where he had gone for health reasons. He soon became active on both Sinn Fein and the Gaelic League and on the establishment of the Volunteers in November 1913, he was appointment Chairman of the Arms Sub-committee and helped to organise the Howth Gun Running. As an organiser for the Irish Volunteers, he visited Athy in 1914 when a Branch of the organisation was formed in the Town. He addressed a Volunteer meeting in the Town Hall on that occasion. Another speaker at a similar meeting in Athy later that year was Thomas McDonagh who was executed on May, 3rd 1916 for his part in the Easter Rebellion. McDonagh who was a founder member of the Irish Volunteers was a teacher who addressed what was described in the local papers as “A big Volunteer Meeting in Athy”.

Public meetings of Nationalist groups in Athy at that time invariably had the support of St. Patrick’s Band, Athy whose banner was always given pride of place on public platformers. Does anyone know anything of the band and what might have happened to the band instruments and the banners used in band parades?

I am sure that many of my readers will remember Jackson Brothers Limited of Leinster Street, Athy once one of the most prosperous businesses in County Kildare. The business premises included grocery, drapery, hardware and motor departments. In its later years the Grocery was managed by John Dooley of St. Patrick’s Avenue and Kevin Watchorn of Ardrew who had his own business in Duke Street up to some years ago. The Drapery was managed by Bob Bryan and Eric Taylor. Bob with his brother George later opened a drapery shop in the former Commercial House in Emily Square which is now Supermac’s. The Hardware Department was managed by Harold Bryan and Jake Glynn. Harold later moved to Tinahealy, Co. Wicklow where he opened up his own business. The motor department was managed by Ken Jackson and Jim Robertson. In the office were the Proprietor, Francis Jackson, John Harvey and Kathleen Watchorn, now Mrs. Lawler of St. Patrick’s Avenue.

Following the death of Francis Jackson, the business continued under the control of his sons Ken and Francis. They modernised the premises and ran a successful business for a number of years. However, in time the business went into decline and in 1963 a receiver was appointed and Jackson’s was eventually taken over by Quinn Brother’s of Mothill, Co. Leitrim. Quinns continued in business until recent years under the management of Pat Flood who is now retired and living on the Carlow Road. The one time Jackson Premises is now home to Telford’s Hardware Store and Perry’s Supermarket.

It is believed that the first bicycle seen in Athy was a Penny farthing ridden by Gerald Dunne, son of John William Dunne of Raheenahown, Luggacurran, Co . Laois. John William Dunne was a sub-tenant of Lord Landsdowne who with Denis Kilbride was evicted from his holding during the Luggacurran evictions. Another Penny Farthing seen on the streets of Athy in the 1880’s was ridden by A. J. Bergin of Maybrook. The Large’s of Rheban Castle were also noted for their enjoyment of the earliest models of bicycles. The most notable sporting cyclists of the last decade of the 19th Century was the earlier mentioned A. J. Bergin who known locally as Andy. He was a noted cyclist on track and roads in the 1890’s. Incidentally, his younger brother J. J. Bergin who in later years founded the Irish National Ploughing Association was also a good sporting cyclist in the first decade of the 20th Century. J. J. Bergin was an extraordinary man whose achievements were many and varied and whose life story is worthy of a biography. Apart from the setting up of the Ploughing Association, he was very involved with Canon John Hayes and Macra Na Tuaith. As I write this, I have before me a copy of “The Farmer’s Guide”, described as a “Bi-monthly publication with a private circulation in every county”. It is the fourth issue of a four page journal dated the 15th January 1924 which cost one and a half pence, post free. It was printed by M.C. Carey of Athy and published by its owner and Editor, J. J. Bergin of Maybrook, Athy. Containing all the news and prices for farming produce and stock, it also had a small number of short articles on agricultural matters. Of particular interest to locals who will recall the famous ballad penned over fifty years ago concerning the stealing of Bergin’s pig is an advertisement for “Bergin’s Automatic Pig Feeder”. I have only seen one issue of this journal and wonder if any of my readers can tell me for how long “The Farmers Guide” remained in circulation.

Some years ago I set out to identify the bench marks around Athy but stopped after I had recorded five of the marks used by Surveyor’s of the Ordnance Survey. The marks were intended to provide a “bench” or support for a levelling staff in order to determine altitudes above mean sea level. Below the horizontal notch is the broad arrow head used since the middle ages to mark the kings property. Bench marks are to be found on Ordinance Survey Trigonometrical pillars and on prominent buildings. In Athy bench marks are located on a number of buildings. The lower right hand corner of the Town Hall facing the front square and the doorway to what until recently was the ladies toilet at the Courthouse have bench marks. There is also a bench mark on the north side of the Crom a Boo Bridge and on the left pier at the entrance to St. Vincent’s Hospital. St. Vincent’s is also the location of the fifth bench mark which is to be found on the right hand side of the Hospital’s main door. Have a look out for these very distinctive bench marks and if you see any more in and around Athy, perhaps you would let me know.

I will finish this weeks article by asking for your help in compiling background information on six O’Rourke Brother’s who lived in the packing stables alongside the Grand Canal in the early 1900’s. Some members of the O’Rourke family played a very prominent part in the War of Independence but so far I have been unable to get any information other than sketchy details of their involvement. Can you help? The brothers were Mick, Jim, Joe, Tom, Dinny and Fran O’Rourke.

Thursday, July 13, 2000

Peter Corcoran, Terence Rattigan, Anthony Tormey and Matty Cross

This week I want to bring together a few notes from my scrap book of local history culled from many sources over the years. These bits and pieces have an interest which merit their inclusion in the Eye on the Past column and I hope you will agree after you have read what follows.

Did you know that an Athy man once held the British Heavyweight Boxing Title. That man was Peter Corcoran born in our home town in 1740. He was the son of a local farm worker and Peter as a teenager also worked on local farms. At twenty years of age he got into trouble when it is believed he was involved in a drunken brawl which resulted in the death of another local man. Peter Corcoran immediately left Athy and travelled to England, first settling in Bermingham where he was employed as a Coal worker. He later moved to the harbour Town of Portsmouth where he worked as a sailor. At the same time he became involved in prize fighting and after some initial success moved to London to further his boxing career. He took up the tenancy of “The Black Horse Inn” in London’s East End while continuing his boxing activities under the management of Colonel Denis Kelly, then a well known racehorse owner and gambler.

At 29 years of age Corcoran secured his first major boxing success when he defeated one of England’s leading boxers, Bill Turner in Hyde Park. He then went on to meet and beat a number of leading contenders including Tom Dalton, Joe Davis and Bob Smiler. As a result Corcoran got a chance to fight for the British title and he took on the British Champion, Bill Davis at Epsom Downs racecourse on the 18th May 1771. Corcoran won easily knocking out his opponent within one minute of the first round thereby becoming the undisputed British Heavyweight Champion.

Peter Corcoran defended his title on several occasions over the next five years but was to lose in controversial circumstances on the 16th October 1776. The Athy born champion and Harry Sellars boxed for the title outside “The Crown Inn” in Middlesex in a contest which lasted for 32 rounds. At the end Corcoran was defeated in a fight which he was expected to win. It is believed that Corcoran who was heavily in debt prior to the fight won substantial amounts of money by betting on his opponent in what was to be the Irishman’s last fight. He passed out of public notice thereafter and it is not known if he ever returned to his home town of Athy.

Did you know that Terence Rattigan, English playwright and author of “The Winslow Boy” was a great grandson of Bartholomew Rattigan who was born in Athy in 1812. Bartholomew married an English lady, Sarah Abbott and joined the East India Company. The Rattigan’s remained in India and it was their son William who returned to England in 1900. William married twice and by his second wife Evelyn Higgins he had three sons, the first of whom Frank Rattigan was the father of the future playwright. Terence Rattigan, born in London in 1911 was one of England’s leading authors with over thirty plays to his name. I have been unable to locate where in Athy his great grandfather Bartholomew Rattigan was born in 1812 or where he lived before he emigrated to India.

The next story also has an East Indian connection and concerns Anthony Toomey a Catholic who married Martha Cross, a Protestant of Rathconnell, County Kildare in or about 1780. Anthony secured a post in India and went overseas while his young wife stayed behind to await the birth of their first child. Shortly after the birth she received notice of the death of her husband in Bombay. Estranged from her family on account of her marrying a Roman Catholic, Martha became housekeeper to a local Athy Merchant by the name of Purcell. Some fifteen years or so later, Purcell who was quite a wealthy man and accustomed to entertaining officers from the local Military Barracks invited to dinner some officers who had recently arrived in Athy with their regiment from India. During the course of after dinner conversation, Mrs. Toomey’s name was mentioned prompting a reference by one of the officers to his old friend based in India General Toomey. Further enquiries elicited the information that the General’s wife and child had died in England soon after he had arrived in India. Mrs. Toomey, housekeeper to the Purcell’s instinctively knew that the General referred to was her husband who like her had received notification of the others death. Matters were eventually put to right and contact renewed between Martha and her husband Anthony who made arrangements to return to Ireland. Sadly he died a short time before embarking for his native country. Mrs. Toomey received the proceeds of her late husband’s substantial estate and was able to live in comfort for the rest of her days. Mrs. Toomey’s grandson, Mark Toomey was a Solicitor whom I believed established a legal practise in Athy.

I wonder if there is any connections between the former Martha Cross of Rathconnell and Walter Cross whom many of my readers will recall was a Master Plumber who once lived in a little house at the bottom of the Barrow Bridge. Walter or Watty as he was better known locally was a Dublin man who came to Athy in 1925 and who moved to number 23 Duke Street fourteen years later. The little house used in later years by Tom McStay as a Butcher’s Shop was Watty Cross’s Sweet Shop and Ice cream Parlour for many years. I received a lovely letter some time ago from Watty’s daughter Beta who now lives in Scarborough, England in which she gave me the words of a song often sung by her father who had served in the Dublin Fusiliers during World War 1. I will finish this week with the opening lines of “The Dublin Boys”.

“We are the Dublin Boys
We are the Dublin Boys
We know our manners
We earn our tanners
We are respected whereever we go
When we’re marching down O’Connell Street
Doors and windows open wide
With our packs on our backs
And Maxwell in the rack
Shouting left, right, left, right
We are the Dublin Boys”.

Thursday, July 6, 2000

Knights of Malta and the Evans Family

I was reminded of a forgotten Leinster Medal when I met the former Brigid Evans of Offaly Street during the week. Brigid married Anthony Dunne of St. Joseph’s Terrace in 1955 and it was around that same time that a Cadet unit was formed within the local Knights of Malta Corps and Anthony was appointed as Cadet Master.

I joined the Cadets soon afterwards and remember Saturday mornings spent on parade in the school yard in St. John’s Lane where we marched up and down under the watchful eye of Cadet Master Dunne. Anthony was a barber who worked in a back room saloon attached to O’Rourke-Glynns at the corner of Woodstock Street having spent some years in Cunningham’s Barber Shop of Dublin Street, Carlow. In addition to parade drill we learned as best we could about greenstick fractures, clavicles and scapulas before being examined by Dr. Joe O’Neill who certified us for membership of the Knights of Malta. Supplied with a bag of medical aids which generally consisted of a few bandages and some smelling salts and with the ever present water bottle we were suitably uniformed and ready for any disaster. Lucky for us and for all our potential clientele our endeavours were largely confined to Sunday games at Geraldine Park where we sat near the sidelines ready for the inevitable call for assistance. When it came we ran onto the pitch heading in the direction of the hapless victim but carefully timing our advance in the fervent hope that he would rise before our limited medical knowledge was exposed before the gaze of every onlooker.

If assistance was required it was generally confined to giving a drink from the ubiquitous water bottle or helping up the player and bending him over a few times in the hopeful expectation that he was only winded. As a Cadet I could always look to the senior volunteer to take charge of any situation and so the infield trips were not as worrying as one might expect for an inexperienced teenager.

First aid competitions between the Knights of Malta Corps throughout Ireland were held each year and Athy’s Cadet team won the provincial final in Navan in 1958 with a team comprised of Pat Flinter, Anthony Pender, Pat Timpson, Frank English and yours truly. We subsequently represented Leinster in the All Ireland Finals in Limerick but failed to repeat our earlier success.

Anthony Dunne who was our Cadet Master at the time later opened up his own Barbers Shop in what is now Ann’s Flower Shop opposite the Castle Inn. Tragically he died suddenly in 1968 aged 46 years leaving a widow and two young children Martina and Tony.

Talking to his wife Brigid who subsequently remarried I was brought back not only to my Knights of Malta days but even earlier still to Offaly Street where I once lived and where I knew so many wonderful people. Brigid’s parents were Joseph and Mary Evans who lived in the small house at what is now the corner of Beechgrove. Joe whose own father was from Wales died in 1957, the year of the Asian Flu, while Mary died six years later. Their family of four girls and a son John were all brought up in Offaly Street from where Kathy, the eldest, left to take up a job in the famous Jammets Restaurant in Dublin. She later married Tom O’Donnell, a Mayo born Garda and they had seven children. Her sister Nan went to England in the 1940’s and eventually settled in Wolverhampton after marrying Pat Kiely, a Cork man. Eileen who was a neighbour of ours in Offaly Street married Tom Pender of Cardenton and they had two children Noel and Mary. Tom who once worked in the Asbestos factory and later still in the IVI was better known locally as “Tawney” Prendergast.

Brigid’s only brother John lived in the family home in Offaly Street after his parents passed away. John who spent his working life in the IVI apart from a short period with Bord na Mona never married and died six years ago aged 64 years.

Brigid Evans left full time education in 1943 after spending two years in the local Technical School. Like many other women of the time she got a job in the local Batchelor’s Pea Factory where she had as work mates Mary Ward, Ena Mullery, Biddy Bennett of Janeville Lane, the late Mary O’Rourke and her future husband’s sisters Esther, Dinah and Sheila Dunne. She worked there for three years under chargehand Peg Timpson before leaving to join her sister Nan in London. Brigid recalled that early trip to Holyhead sitting on the slatted outside seats of the mail boat before boarding the boat train for the long onward trip to Euston Station. She returned to Ireland after a few months and got back her job in Batchelor’s where she continued working until struck down by Tuberculosis in 1952.

Admitted to Peamount Sanatorium in December 1952 Brigid remained there until discharged in February 1954, completely cured of that most deadly disease by medication and rest alone. Brigid admits to having a great time in Peamount where she made many friends and recalled many happy days. When she married Anthony Dunne in July 1955 her bridesmaid was Vera O’Connor of Navan who had spent time with her in Peamount. Special guests on that day were two of her other good friends from her time in hospital, Anna Mitchell of Athboy and Marie Losty of Kilmessan. Her joyful memories of Peamount dispel the oft held belief that it was an institution full of gloom and misery. “They were fun days” she said, recalling times spent at the hospital cinema and visits by celebrities such as Pete Murray of Radio Luxembourg fame.

The connections made by marriage between the local families of Evans, Dunne and Prendergast bring into focus the widespread dispersal of people over the decades. The Evans family of Offaly Street now have family connections with Dublin, Wolverhampton and Athy while the Prendergast family members are to be found in Dublin, Kildangan and Athy, with the Dunnes, formerly of St. Joseph’s Terrace in London, Bristol, Tralee, Coill Dubh and Graiguecullen.

The economic rigours of the 1940’s and the 1950’s presented few options for young people and the journey to England was all too often the only alternative to unemployment in ones own town. Brigid Evans was one of the very few lucky individuals who got a job and later the chance to marry and settle down in the town where she was born and reared. That in the Ireland of fifty years ago was a rare privilege to be cherished.