Thursday, February 22, 2001

Athy in Fiction

“It’s not on any map, true places never are…”, was the claim made in Moby Dick. A historian should disagree, but even the historian knows that the history he traces is to some extent a work of the imagination. Dates and facts only provide the contours of the historical map; to evoke the past the historian generally has to trespass on the territory of fiction, so this week I’ll pay it my dues. In this Eye on the Past, historians’ stories make way for the rival images of poets and novelists (and even a stray photographer).

A diary is not quite fiction and not quite history, so it provides a convenient enough beginning. The first approach to any place is through the eye of the outsider, so we can take Chevalier de Latocnaye’s account of his visit to Athy in 1796 as a first impression of the town.
“I went to Athy, from whence every day there is a service of public boats to Dublin. At the entrance to the village I was stopped by four or five persons who asked for charity - they explained that it was to be used to give decent burial to a poor wretch who had died of hunger. I replied that since he was dead he wanted nothing. This answer did not appear to satisfy them, and so I contributed to the funereal pomp, the occasion being, perhaps, the only one in which the poor fellow’s friends were interested in his concerns.”

Brewer, passing through Athy on his travels around Ireland in 1825 described Athy :-
“Athy, although now decayed, was formerly a place of considerable importance. Its declining state is lamentably contrasted with local circumstances peculiarly favourable to its prosperity. The surrounding country is well adapted to tillage. The Grand Canal, and great southern road to Cork, connect it with the metropolis; and the river Barrow, on which it is seated, is navigable to the opulent trading port of Waterford. These advantages, however, have proved insufficient to retard the decay of a town, unquestionably of high reputation at an early period of national history.”

These passing glances provide a unique approach to late-eighteenth and early nineteenth-century Ireland, one which is particularly appropriate since the travel journal was characteristic of Irish literature of this time. An unsettled partner to imperial Britain, Ireland offered a strange, and sometimes disturbing, aspect to the English traveller, who presented it in his writing (if in sympathetic mood) as an exotic, tragic country. However, the numerous London publications advertised as ‘travels in Ireland’ were only one consequence of a habit of looking at Ireland as an unfamiliar and somehow unknowable place. Even Irish novelists, largely reliant on London publishers and an English readership, presented the places and the people most familiar to them as they would to a stranger – footnotes included. The ‘true places’ they represented in their fiction were not validated as such by sparking recognition or sympathy in the reader, but because the author insisted on their basis in fact, and typically overloaded the novel of the time with footnotes and explanations of local custom. ‘True places’ they may have aspired to present, but they provided a map and a key.

And then, to skip a bit further into the future, there came this: “Why is Kildare like the leg of a man’s trousers? Because it’s got Athy in it.” Maybe not the most auspicious debut in twentieth-century fiction, but having thrown this squib into A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, James Joyce ensured the immortality of a Kildare town whose unpronouncability would prevent generations of American undergraduates from ever getting the joke. However, if it seems that Athy has degenerated from a place to be travelled through into a bad pun, its next most famous appearance in Irish literature should redress the balance. Patrick Kavanagh’s poem Lines written on a seat on the Grand Canal, Dublin, bequeathed both a ‘canal-bank seat for the passer-by’, which sits on the bank of the Grand Canal at Baggot Street Bridge, and these lines:

A swan swims by, head low, with many apologies
And look! a barge comes bringing from Athy
And other far-flung towns, mythologies.

And so Athy is once more a place, and not only a place of fact, but a bringer of mythologies. It may have seemed remote to Kavanagh as he sat by the Grand Canal in Dublin, but Athy was hardly ‘far-flung’. Nevertheless, if Kavanagh could imagine such familiar country as mythological territory, then perhaps other writers could find the ‘true places’ of the imagination by turning back to the familiarity of things known at first-hand.

Having skirted around Athy with the outsider, one writer appears who knows the town and its hinterland as an insider. John MacKenna’s fiction owes some debt to Kavanagh’s fondness for the familiar - with the exception of his novel Clare, he has never stepped outside the environs of Kildare. Readers of his books encounter a litany of local place-names, and anyone who knows Castledermot, or Kilkea, or Offaly Street can find their own perceptions of these places, the histories and associations which have gathered in their own mind, displaced by his fictional reality. And yet the invasion can hardly be resented because the stories which replace them (however momentarily) do not seem out of place. Instead, they can have an uncanny resonance – centring on personal, private events rather than the clash and clamour that is more often taken as the stuff of history, these stories are documents of their own kind.

Which brings me to my final link, and the one that’s closest to factual history – the documentary photograph. On publication of John Minihan’s collection of photographs of Athy, Shadows from the Pale, many Athy people revisited old scenes and old faces in John’s photographs, and a selection of these, taken over a period of thirty years, hangs in the town library. I wonder though, how many see the Athy they know reflected in his collection, because the strangest of truisms is that the places most familiar to us can at times seem equally as foreign. The series of photographs documenting the wake of Katie Tyrell most obviously highlights an aspect of life in the town that is long gone, but in any case it is difficult to look at these photographs with an insider’s eye and not feel, if only for a moment, slightly estranged by them. Perhaps the impression is created by looking at the landscape of the town only slightly altered from its present state, so that a quick glance can trick the onlooker into taking a thirty-year old shot as a recent photograph. Or perhaps an assumed familiarity is disturbed by a view of the place that’s undeniably exact, but still almost imperceptibly (if inevitably) foreign to a personal impression.

However, the different images of a local place that a novelist, or a photographer, or a diarist produce can only take their power from the way they interact with our own imagined places. To find a place that’s not on any map is not usually within the historian’s remit, but now and again it’s these imagined places that yield the truer sense of history.

Gertie Gray

If you are a regular reader of this column you will know that Offaly Street and the families who lived there hold a special place in my memories which stretch back into the hazy 1940’s and the better remembered decade which followed. I still recall the families that lived in our street but with each passing year the jigsaw of memory loses yet another piece.

Last week another link with Offaly Street was lost with the passing of Gertie Gray of Pairc Bhride. Gertie was the daughter of Tom and May McHugh who lived at No. 8 Offaly Street. I understand that Tom and his brother Matt were originally from Co. Donegal and came to Athy via Abbeyleix where they worked in a local foundry. The McHugh brothers established two foundries in Athy, Matt opening his in Meeting Lane while Tom set up his business in Janeville Lane at the back of Offaly Street.

Tom and his family lived for a few years in Butlers Row before moving into No. 8 Offaly Street sometime in the late 1930’s where their landlord was Myles Whelan of Fortbarrington. The hardships and health hazards of those days were reflected in the high mortality rate which Irish towns including Athy experienced before and after the Second World War. There were few families in Offaly Street which did not experience the loss of a young child or even an adult son or daughter during that period and Tom and May McHugh suffered two bereavements in a short space of time. Their daughter Annie died aged 26 years in September 1938 and in May 1940 their eldest son John who was married to Molly O’Rourke died at 30 years of age. They were survived by six siblings, including Gertie who died last week. The eldest daughter May was later to marry Tommy Whelan of Levitstown and they lived in St. Patrick’s Avenue up to 1960 when the entire Whelan family emigrated to England. At Gertie’s funeral last week I met her nephew Oliver Whelan who now operates a successful foundry business in Luton, as did his Grand-father Tom in Janeville Lane so many years ago.

Another daughter Barbara McHugh married Bill Tobin and they lived in Ballylinan where tragically Barbara died in childbirth. Bill who had previously returned from America before marrying Barbara or “Babs” as she was known later returned to New York where I believe he has since died. Following the death of his brother John, Tommy McHugh was the oldest surviving son of the McHugh family and it was Tommy in whom his father Tom invested his hopes for the future. Tommy was a skilled foundry man whose first job was with his father Tom in the Janeville Lane foundry. There he worked with local men such as Mannix Thompson and Des Donaldson, both of whom would later join the I.V.I. Foundry in Leinster Street. Coincidentally Des’s sister Maureen who married John J. Cardiff was buried this week, and many of you will remember his brother Sidney Donaldson who was tragically killed many years ago while attending a car race in the Curragh. Tommy McHugh later took up a position with the newly-opened IVI factory where he was Paddy Timpson’s pre-decessor and where like Paddy he was an extremely important part of the local foundry team. Tommy subsequently left Athy and opened a foundry in Pollerton Road, Carlow from where his mother May originally came and in the latter years of his life he was the manager of the Unidare Foundry in Finglas, Dublin.

The only surviving member today of Tom and May McHugh’s family is their son Matt whom I had the privilege of meeting when he attended his sister Gertie’s funeral. Matt who left Athy in 1942 travelled from Harrow in London where he is now living in retirement. He is still remembered after all those years and both Denis Smyth and Jimmy Kelly who lived in Offaly Street recalled Matt by his nickname of 60 years ago. In a town where everyone has a nickname Matt was known as “Scatcha”, a name without any provenance or apparent meaning, but a name which confirmed that Matt belonged to a close-knit community where affection was evidenced in the language of the ordinary people. He was just sixteen years of age when he left wartime Athy to join the RAF in Belfast and he was 17 years old when he married Cecilia Maher of Clonmel. He spent 7 years in the RAF, serving in India and elsewhere, and he last worked as a chauffeur for the Wimpy Group in England. When he left Athy 59 years ago Matt left behind in the family home in Offaly Street two younger sisters, Gertie and Una. Una later emigrated to England where she married and lived in Sheffield until she died.

Gertie was the only member of Tom and May McHugh’s family to live out her life in Athy where she played an active part in the Parish Choir, the local ICA Guild and the Musical Society. She is survived by her husband Eamonn and family to whom our sympathy is extended.

The McHugh Foundries of Janeville Lane and Meeting Lane flourished at a time when foundry work was an important industry in Athy. The IVI Foundry established by Captain Hosie was the largest foundry in its day, but much needed employment was to be found also at Bergins Foundry and also that operated by Duthie Larges. The local St. Michael’s Cemetery has many examples of the skillful work of the Athy Foundries of the past and amongst them can be found the metal crosses which came from the Janeville Lane Foundry of Tom McHugh.

Time has moved on. Tom McHugh’s foundry is no more and its site will soon form part of a car park for the hotel planned on the site of the 13th century Dominican Friary.

Thursday, February 8, 2001

Jenny Hegarty

“We’ll be excommunicated”. I spoke in jest to my fellow Christian and former neighbour Ricky Kelly as we both exited from St. Michael’s Church at the top of Offaly Street. “Weren’t we terrible eejits to live for so long under the half baked notion that attending a Protestant neighbours funeral would lead to eternal damnation.” There was nothing further to say. We walked on in silence, not giving voice to the collective shame which once marked Irish country lives separated by religious differences of an obscure and doubtful origin. The occasion was the Sunday afternoon funeral of Jenny Hegarty who died at 84 years of age after spending the last 69 years of her life in Athy.

“Miss Hegarty” is how she was known to the hundreds, nay, the thousands of customers she served while in charge of the wool and haberdashery department in Shaws of Duke Street. My mother who herself came to Athy in 1945 did all her shopping in Shaws and Miss Hegarty was a name I came to recognise when as a young lad I was dispatched to return some item or other to Shaws store. For you see my mother was of the old style of shopper who prodded, tested and tried every individual article on sale before parting with her hard earned money.

The wool and haberdashery department was perhaps the most visited department of Shaws store during the 1940’s and 1950’s and for a very good reason. Almost every Irish housewife knitted, sewed and darned. Pullovers, stockings and gloves were the mainstay of the hand knitter whose requirements were always attended to by Miss Hegarty. Do you remember the winter nights spent in winding balls of wool from the hanks in which they were sold in the shops. I hated that boring job of holding the hanks of wool between my outstretched arms while my mother patiently and with a dexterity born of years of experience, calmly wound the balls of wool. That same wool would soon find a shape and a purpose between the knitting needles which were taken out each night after tea plates and cups had been washed and put away. Miss Hegarty was the acknowledged wool expert who helped and advised the vast array of females for whom knitting was a pastime or in many cases, as with my own mother, a necessary form of self help sofar as the family finances were concerned. Jenny was her name, a fact of which I was not aware until her Death Notice appeared in the newspaper. Indeed I am sure many of those same people she had served so well over the years were also unaware of her first name for to all and sundry she was simply “Miss Hegarty”.

She came to Athy in 1932 soon after she left school to take up a position with Sam Shaw in Duke Street. A native of Portarlington she had one brother, Harry Hegarty, who many of my readers will remember as a rural postman serving the Wolfhill area. Harry died 22 years ago and at the time lived, as did Jenny, at 3 Duke Street which is now the offices of the Irish Permanent Building Society. When Jenny first came to Athy she lived in with the other lady assistants in the living quarters attached to Shaws store. Some of the other girls who in their younger days worked in Shaws with Jenny included Etta Eacrett, Anna Breakey, Frances Dobson, Ann Cole, Florrie Bass, Muriel Lazenbey and Miss Leggett. Jenny spent 51 years in the wool and haberdashery department of Shaws and throughout much of that time she was the staff member who trained every new assistant who joined the Duke Street store. It was to Jenny’s counter that the new arrivals were invariably directed on their first day for it was her experience and kind manner which provided the perfect qualifications for passing on to each newcomer the Shaw ethos of sales and service.

Jenny retired almost 18 years ago, all the time living with her brother’s family at No. 3 Duke Street and moving with them in 1993 to Burtown. To everyone who knew her, whether as Miss Hegarty or Jenny, she was the consummate lady, always courteous, always helpful and in her own way an institution in the town where she had lived since 1932. The Sunday afternoon funeral in St. Michael’s was attended by persons representative of the different religious creeds in the town. It was fitting that it was so, for after all Miss Hegarty was known to so many and was liked by everyone she came in contact with during her many years in Athy. May she rest in peace.

Recalling the part played by Shaws in bringing so many young girls to Athy over the decades it strikes me that here is a fruitful field of study for some urban sociologist. Just imagine what the Shaws employment practice meant to the local Protestant Churches in terms of renewal. Many of the girls who joined the firm later married locally at a time when the Ne Temere Decree was still a prohibitive presence in Irish life. However that’s a matter for research for another day, and perhaps by someone other than the present writer.

I got several phone calls following last weeks article with particular reference to Gilbert Carey. Many thanks to all who contacted me. I now have more than sufficient information to pass on to my enquirer from Manchester. However, I need your assistance in relation to another matter. Kevin Kerwin has written to me from Florida with regard to possible family connections in the South Kildare area. His great grand-father Daniel Kirwan, a blacksmith whose own father was James Kirwan of Duke Street, emigrated to America in 1843. Any information helpful to Mr. Kerwin’s enquiry can be passed on through me.

Thursday, February 1, 2001

Bits and Pieces

Chris Corlett, an Archaeologist with Dúchas and recently appointed Secretary of the Society of Antiquaries Ireland gave a first class lecture to an appreciative audience in the Leinster Arms Hotel last Thursday night. His subject was “The Sacred Mountain” known to you and me as Croagh Patrick, located just a few miles away from Westport in County Mayo. He illustrated his presentation with slides and the resulting interesting insight into the legends and archaeology of St. Patrick’s Mountain was well received. Arranged under the auspices of South Kildare An Taisce and Athy Museum Society the lecture was the first in a series which will continue next month with a talk by the recently appointed Heritage Centre Manager, Margaret O’Riordan on the Holy Wells of Ireland.

One of the many interesting letters received by me since Christmas was from Bill Wheeler who lives in Mosely near Birmingham seeking information on a friend of his from Athy with whom he has lost contact. In 1943 Bill Wheeler and Gilbert Carey from Athy joined the British Royal Air Forces as 16 year old aircraft apprentices. They served together until July 1947 at RAF Halton and St. Athan after which they were sent to different units and lost contact with each other until 1951. That year Bill Wheeler was serving in Canada and received a letter from Gilbert which was posted in New York and had been sent to Bill via his own mother who was living in England. That’s the last Bill heard of his Athy friend Gilbert Carey. Bill had previously met Gilbert’s older sister Eileen who worked as a Nurse in a hospital in Totteridge in London, and an older brother Jim Carey who was also in the RAF. If any of my readers can give me any information as to Gilbert Carey or his family I will be pleased to pass it on to his old friend Bill Wheeler.

Writing of soldiers reminds me of a photograph which appeared in the Saturday Herald on 10th June, 1916. The accompanying text read “This is a photograph of Private Michael Bowden (Standing) and Private John Byrne taken at Limburg Lahn in Internment Camp, Germany. Private Bowden previous to the outbreak of the War was a local postman in Athy, Co. Kildare and Private Byrne was head gardener to Mr. Holland, Vetinerary Surgeon, Athy. They were taken prisoners early in 1914.”
I have often wondered what happened to Michael Bowden and John Byrne. Did they survive the War and if so did they return to their native Athy. Does anybody know what happened to them. I would be delighted to get further information on both of these men.

I received a telephone call from a reporter on an Irish Sunday newspaper a few days ago following up a reference in another local paper to my recent piece on the marriage of local girl Bridget Dowling with Alois Hitler, brother of the infamous Adolf Hitler. His interest in the little known association between South Kildare and the German führer was equaled only by my surprise on hearing a recent claim made to me that Auvril and Wilbur Wright, the World’s most famous aeronauts were grandsons of a man who had emigrated from South Kildare at the beginning of the 19th century. My good friend Richard Corrigan, an indefatigable genealogical researcher, was my informant but the evidence to support a County Kildare connection is still subject to verification. More about that again.

Last weeks news regarding the proposed new hotel on the Abbey site at the rear of Emily Square is most welcome. That area has seen many developments over the centuries stretching back to 1253 when the riverside site was the location of the very first Dominican Monastery in Athy. The Friars Preachers, as the Dominicans were known, were a Mendicant Order who survived on the charity of those amongst whom they lived and served. The Monastery of St. Dominic was a substantial complex of buildings and included at the time of the Reformation in the 1540’s a Church, a Bell tower, a chapter house, a dormitory, a large hall, three chambers, a kitchen, a cemetery, an orchard and a garden containing one acre. The Monastery also had ownership of two fishing weirs in the town, six cottages and ten acres of arable land.

The Monastery itself covered an area which ran from the Barrow River to the corner of the present Emily Row and from there up the present Offaly Street returning to the River Barrow via Janeville Lane which is at the side of St. Michael’s Church. The large building or rather two buildings which now occupy the original Dominican Monastery site probably conceal within their grounds the last remaining evidence of the 13th century monastic buildings. Before work commences on the building of the new hotel I hope that adequate time will be set aside to allow for a comprehensive archaeological examination of this ancient monastery site.

Watching the work on the footpath over the Crom-a-Boo bridge last week prompted me to marvel at the excellent bridge builders of the 18th century. Built a few years before the 1798 Rebellion and designed to carry horse-drawn carriages of that era the bridge still continues to carry traffic into it’s third century. But nowadays the traffic is heavy vehicular traffic which could not have been envisaged by those who planned and built the bridge over 200 years ago. Isn’t the strength and sturdiness of that ancient bridge a lasting monument to the foresight, design excellence and workmanship of the men who worked all of those years ago without the modern equipment and facilities available today.

Its near neighbour White’s Castle which has stood guard over that bridge and its predecessors on the River Barrow for almost 600 years is sadly showing that old age puts everyone and everything at risk. The fabric of the building has been deteriorating for some time and in particular what appears to be early 19th century additions in brick are a cause of considerable concern. Whites Castle on account of its location and historical associations is one of the more important buildings in Athy and one can only hope that either the Town Council or the Department of Arts and Culture will move to acquire Whites Castle and thereby ensure its future.