Thursday, December 19, 2002

Christmas Shopping in Athy - 1900

Nowadays we expect to be entertained rather than entertain ourselves. In that regard, we are so different from our parents in whose time entertainment was of the home made kind but no less enjoyable for all that. Now we can turn to the television or the radio at any time of the day or night and if dissatisfied with what we find there, put on a compact disc or a video tape. Wherever we look or listen while being entertained, invariably we take in the words and music of other people. Seldom if ever do we take the opportunity to create our own amusement unlike the folk of years gone by.

I was minded of this when I came across a file of papers I had been collecting for some years under the heading “Athy Ballads”. Leafing through its contents made me realise what an important role the local balladeer of bygone days played in the local community. He recorded the key events of the time as well as honouring or sometimes lampooning local characters. The ballads of the days were seldom if ever recorded in print and those which have survived are but a fraction of the many hundreds which were once sung or recited in the hostelries and homes of Athy.

One of the Athy balladeers of the 1930’s and 1940’s was Barney Davis of St. Joseph’s Terrace. His image is captured in some of the photographs of the musical shows which were held in the Town Hall before World War Two. Barney’s best known ballad which perhaps is more correctly described as a recitation piece was called “Doctor Don Roderick de Vere”. It ran to fourteen verses of which the opening lines were

“He searched up and down,
For a house in the town
This darkie secured one quite near
So resolved to win fame
That he hung up the name
Of Doctor Don Roderick de Vere”.

With the arrival of the fourth verse, we knew how and why he was called Doctor de Vere.
“For the weed he searched round
And began to compound
Medicines to him were so dear
Consultations were free
When you called in to see
This Doctor Don Roderick de Vere.

On some shelves he had laid
Many bottles he made
The cure for all your ailments was here
Rodine, Brilliantine, Iodine, Quinnine
Had Doctor Don Roderick de Vere.

Some people who went
for to try his treatment
Spread the news out to folk far and near
That they knew he could tell
If you’d die or get well
This Doctor Don Roderick de Vere.

All stood still and gazed
Every one was amazed
They called him a prophet or seer
On the lips of the rich
And the tramp in the ditch
Was Doctor Don Roderick de Vere”.

Doctor Don Roderick de Vere came to an unfortunate end but he is still recalled by the older generation of Athy people as the man who had the cures for many ailments.

“He has made the dumb talk
And the cripples to walk
He will cure the nose, throat or the ear
He has taken his place
With great men of our race
This Doctor Don Roderick de Vere.

De Vere died in tragic circumstances not long after his release from prison where he had been detained following a conviction for procuring an illegal abortion.

Barney Davis also wrote another, perhaps less well known ballad which he called “The Girls who pick the Peas”.

“You’ve heard about the factory,
You’ve heard about the peas
If you want to know the ins and outs
I’ll put your mind at ease
About the girls who work there
I’ll have you all to know
For I hear them and I see them
As they daily come and go.

The hours for starting work
Is timed from nine to ten
Some are no sooner on the job
When their coming out again
Its a bally good job I’m big and strong
And fed on “Erinox”.
For some faces that I see
Would drive a badger from its box,

The faces that they re-create
Is enough to make me faint
For some are out to advertise
For “Robiallac” paint
The finest bunch of glamour girls
That I have ever seen
Its a pity there’s no hanging
For the wearing of the green.

To see those “Garbos” passing by
You’d be thinking just like me
To a fancy dress ball they’re going
And not to a factory
You’ll meet the Queen of Sheba
With the Princess Ballyroe
The Duchess of Ballylinan
And the Countess Timahoe.

I have heard the thunders roaring
And the clouds burst in the skies
The L.D.F. in training
They’re not bad at making noise
I’ve heard a haggard of sparrows
And a swarm of bumble bees
But theres none can hold a candle
To the girls who pick the peas.

It was in sympathy with the women
That made Bell invent the phone
They were Edison’s inspiration
When he made the gramophone
A talking machine that science failed
To give a constant run
For women hold the secret of
Perpetual motion of their tongue”.

I’d wager that particular ballad did not get too many airings around Athy. I’ll have more local ballads next week. In the meantime, if you can add to the collection, let me know.

Happy Christmas to everyone.

Thursday, November 28, 2002

Christmas Shopping in Athy - 1900

I was going through some old papers during the past week and came across the following article which appeared in the Nationalist just before Christmas 1900. How many of the shopkeepers mentioned have you previously heard of or can you pinpoint where their businesses were located.

The question that has often been asked, whether the old customs, so closely associated with Christmastide, are visibly declining receives a forcible illustration in the affirmative by the want of decoration of the shop windows at the present time. Years ago it was considered an act almost of infidelity to neglect to tastefully arrange the windows of your business establishment, but with modern shopkeepers the question has resolved itself into the eminently practical one whether it pays or not to go to the trouble of giving a cheerful look to the establishment over which he presides. We have much to be thankful for in Athy that this vandalism has made so little progress, and that a good many of our business men have this Christmas given an appearance to their shop windows in consonance with the spirit of the joyful season. We propose to give a short account of the Christmas shopping in Athy which, though meagre in details, may not yet prove uninteresting as regards the capability of our local merchants to provide for their numerous clientele. First on the list comes the great furnishing and general drapery house of Messrs Duncan & Co. which maintains the position it has long upheld of being one of the finest provincial houses in the trade. Here can be seen a splendid display of stock of all kinds suitable for this season. The windows of the large establishments of this well-known firm are artistically decorated, one with all kinds of furniture necessary for modern comfort, another with every class of drapery, and a third with a splendid stock of foot gear. They would well repay a visit. Every class of person is adequately catered for, and the children particularly will be delighted with the splendid stock of Christmas toys, etc. Mr. Michael Murphy’s extensive and well managed establishment as usual makes a successful bid for the patronage it so highly deserves. Turning to the general grocery business, it is unnecessary to do anything further than to refer to such well known establishments as those of Messrs S.J. Glynn, J.P. Whelan, Myles Whelan, William Kealy, T.J. Whelan, Stephen O’Brien, etc., which are all well stocked with a splendid selection of suitable Christmas goods. Mr. Tom Hickey, as usual, caters for an extensive circle of customers. Messrs Duthie, Large, and Co., who are and have been doing a big business in the foundry and iron works trade, have on stock a great variety of every class of agricultural implements. We commend our readers to the advertisement which appears in this issue. Mr. J.J. Byrne has also on hands all classes of machinery and agricultural implements which would well repay inspection by the farming community. Mr. T. Murphy is showing a splendid selection of Christmas goods, and Mr. Coote’s establishment would also well be worthy of a visit from all who desire to purchase the best articles at the most economical cost. Mr. W.W. Baldwin has in stock a very fine selection, and maintains the high standard he has always reached for the supply of the best articles in the drapery line. Turning to the stationery, we notice that the following establishments are well stocked with Christmas goods: Mrs. Noud, Miss James, Miss Stafford, and Mrs. Watts. Mr. T. Murphy, who has recently opened, is doing an excellent business in the grocery line; and the same may be prospectively affirmed of Mr. E.T. Mulhall when he gets the fine old premises belonging to the late Mr. Michael Lawler into working order. Mr. T.J. Brennan’s establishment is also well stocked and would well repay a visit as customers may rely on getting good value from the enterprising proprietor.”

Insofar as I can see the only business mentioned which is still trading is that of O’Brien’s of Emily Square. The present proprietor Frank O’Brien carries on a long family tradition and his is now the oldest continuously operated business house in the town of Athy.

I am intrigued and have been for some time about the possible connections between E.T. Mulhall and the man of the same name who established a Solicitors practice in Athy during the 19th century. Was the Solicitor I wonder the same man who with his brother Michael George Mulhall founded “The Standard” which was South America’s first daily newspaper in English. The year was 1861 and the Mulhall brothers had recently arrived in Argentina from Ireland. Edward had been a professor of English in Carlow College and Edward Thomas was I believe the man who had previously set up a legal practice in Athy. What connection had they with E.T. Mulhall who according to the Nationalist of 1900 was getting “the fine old premises belonging to the late Mr. Michael Lawler into working order.”

Another query this week centers around a disturbance at a Fine Gael meeting at Athy on 24th June 1934. This was during the Blueshirt period of Irish politics and I am anxious to get some information about what happened in Athy on that June day. The Blueshirts originated with the founding of the Army Comrades Association in February 1932 and within five months it was transformed into the National Guard with Eoin O’Duffy, the recently sacked Commissioner of the Garda Siochana, at its head. Within a month the De Valera led government had banned the National Guard and it was replaced by the Young Ireland Association, again led by Eoin O’Duffy. The new association was also banned but in its place was formed the League of Youth which continued under O’Duffy’s leadership until he was replaced by E.J. Cronin. These organisations were formed ostensibly to ensure free speech at political rallies throughout the country, although as events proved it was only at the Cumann na nGaedhall meetings that they assembled uniformed in blue shirts and in military style. It was an interesting period in our history and I have been researching for some time the activity of the Blueshirts in South Kildare. I would like to hear from anyone who can give me any information or who can share with me any photographs or documents relating to that period.

Finally I got a phone call during the week from a man who asked me if I had ever heard of a place in Athy called “the asses gallop”. As it so happens I had and was able to tell him where it was. It strikes me that not many people will have heard of “the asses gallop” and so I pose the question - where is it and how did it get its name?

Thursday, November 21, 2002

Athy Newsletter 1988-1997

On Friday next at 8.00pm the official launch of a community newsletter for Athy will take place in the Leinster Arms Hotel. It will no doubt be a useful publication for a community which has been growing in recent years, largely due to an influx of people who have had no previous links with the town. Their presence gives a welcome boost to the local economy and the newsletter will help to keep them and everyone else in Athy up to date with what is happening in this area.

Over the years Athy has seen many new publications which originated in the south Kildare town. “The Athy Literary Magazine” was published by Thomas French from his printing offices in Market Square, now Emily Square, between 1837 and 1838. Each issue of the magazine consisted of eight pages and was published weekly with an unvarying mixture of articles of local interest, together with extracts from published literary works. Another eleven years was to pass before Athy experienced its next literary bonanza with the publishing and printing of two local newspapers. “The Irish Eastern Counties Herald” appeared on the streets of Athy for the first time on 13th February 1849. Within days it was followed by “The Kildare and Wicklow Chronicle”, another weekly newspaper which like its competitor was also printed in Athy. Unfortunately neither paper survived beyond March 1849. Within three years the first and only issue of “The Press”, a monthly magazine devoted to literature and the arts was published by Samuel Talbot of Athy. Intended as a monthly magazine it did not appear the following month.

The last in a long line of local publications was “Athy Newsletter”, the first issue of which was launched on an unsuspecting public on 2nd April 1988. Its Editor was Noreen Kelleher of Chanterlands. Noreen had been involved in community activities for many years previously and the newsletter which she was to edit and produce over the following nine years was a task undertaken as part of her involvement with the local Community Council. Comprising on average 28 pages per issue the newsletter was a kaleidoscope of news and information but without any comment pieces other than the weekly Editorial.

In that first issue the Editor found space to give an account of the activities of several clubs and associations, some of which are no longer functioning. Included in that category were Athy Junior Chamber, Athy Pitch and Putt Club and the Athy RFC Squash Club. The one page of advertisements for local shops included two that are now closed, Martin’s Newsagents of Duke Street and The Shamrock Stores of Geraldine Road. Other shops have changed hands including T. & B. Jacob’s of Leinster Street and T. & D. Cannings. All of the schools provided material for the monthly newsletter and in that first issue of April 1988 the Scoil Eoin report noted :-

“On March 19th many old friends of the late Liam Ryan gathered in Scoil Eoin to honour a man who taught for 47 years in the school. Mr. Ryan’s widow Noreen and her four sons attended. When Liam Ryan retired his past pupils raised a fund to commemorate in a fitting way his long years of dedicated service. This took the form of a small library of books and other educational material.”

I see in the third issue which came out on 3rd July 1988 a new feature called “Window on the Past”. Was that I wonder where “Eye on the Past” originated? The Parish Priest, Fr. Philip Dennehy, in a letter printed in the newsletter for August took the opportunity of thanking Tegral for providing free of charge slates to re-roof not only St. Michael’s Catholic Church but also the Church of Ireland Parish Church of St. Michael’s. At the same time the Editor wrote in her Editorial of the high level of participation in the publican’s fancy dress ‘Egg and Spoon Race’ which was run as part of the water funanza that summer.

Letters soon started to appear in the Athy Newsletter and in October 1988 one correspondent was vigorously defending the right to have slot machine arcades in Athy. Another letter writer questioned as to “why can’t we have a decent walk along the Barrow River from the town to Ardreigh” for a start. The following month the Editor in her editorial saluted the towns minor hurlers who not only won the County Championship but also the Minor Hurling League. Their success she wrote “is one we should strike to emulate no matter in what sporting, commercial or cultural field we seek success”. The Harvest Ball for December 1988 got a mention, while the newly formed Chamber of Commerce in conjunction with the town traders gave notice of a Christmas Bonanza with a £1,500.00 shopping giveaway.

My eye was caught by a piece in the April 1989 Newsletter which carried a report of the speech made by Jim Ryan, the outgoing chairman of the local Chamber of Commerce. “It is the aim of the Chamber of Commerce to improve the town’s image and to make a significant impact on the commercial and social life of Athy”. The Editor in her following months Editorial could not have envisaged, no more than could the outgoing chairman of the Chamber of Commerce, how little changes have occurred in the following 13 years. Then she wrote, “it is sad but true that the Garda of today does not commend the same respect as did his colleague a generation ago ….. it is claimed that there is an unspoken yet perceptible bias against those who are without influence, without property or without jobs”. Harsh words which however might find an echo in the proceedings presently ongoing in Donegal.

The Athy newsletter continued on for 96 issues, ending in July 1997, with an editorial which carried a sharp rebuke for the local men folk. “Despite the fact that not a single woman sits on the nine member local Council it is women who are spearheading the drive to protect the built heritage and the environment of Athy. It is the women of Athy who have been circulating a petition around Athy to stop the ghastly Inner Relief Road and it is women who have formed a committee for the same purpose …… the Inner Relief Road controversy has brought to the fore those local people whose views for so long were ignored. It is no wonder then that the voice of the people is now been heard through the women folk who for so long played a secondary role in community life.”

The Athy Newsletter produced every month from April 1998 to July 1997 through the dedicated work and energy of Noreen Kelleher was a very important link with the local community. It fulfilled an extremely important function for the people of Athy, disseminating information and news which might not otherwise be found in the pages of local newspapers. It is fascinating to read the back numbers of what was one woman’s unique contribution to our local community. Here’s wishing well to its successor which I understand will appear for the first time this weekend.

On Saturday 7th December the Town Hall will be the venue for a day long seminar by Kildare County Library and Geography Publication to publicise the following publication of a book on County Kildare. The lectures commence at 10.00 a.m. and from then until 4.00 p.m., a total of nine lectures will talk on a variety of topics of County Kildare interest. Admission is free, but because seating is limited to 80 places anyone wishing to attend should contact Mario Corrigan at 045/432690 to book a place.

Thursday, November 14, 2002

Extracts from Kildare Observer 1886

Reading newspaper accounts of life in Athy in years gone by can be both informative and interesting. For instance the following extract from the Kildare Observer of Saturday, 20th February 1886 paints a different picture of Irish provincial life than that which we normally associate with the Land League years of the time.

“Athy Borough Court was held on Saturday by Mr. Michael Lawler J.P., the town magistrate. The cases on the books numbered 39 and were composed principally of charges involving drunkenness, amateur public musicians and snowballers. The courthouse was thronged by a select audience who seemed deeply impressed by the words of wisdom which poured from his worships lips. Sergeant Breslin charged Michael Keogh of snowballing on the public streets on the 25th of February, he was fined 1 penny and costs and Charlie Roberts was charged with snowballing on the 26th, he was also fined 1 penny and costs. Thomas Coleman was charged of being disorderly in the public street. It appeared that he with others followed another young man on the same day who was playing a melodeon through the streets between 9 and 10 on the night of the 7th varying the music by occasional shouting. He was fined 3 pence and costs. Michael Dandy was charged with snowballing throwing but the case against him was struck out when it was mentioned that his mother was seriously ill.”

The same newspaper carried a report of a difference of opinion at a meeting of Athy National League regarding an application for admission to the branch. Michael Kelly was proposed for membership but he was objected to on the grounds that he was a “land grabber”. Apparently Kelly had taken lands from the Duke of Leinster under the terms of the much disputed Leinster Lease and so upset his neighbours who were in dispute with the Duke. What is of perhaps the greater interest is that the land in question had up to 1878 been in the possession of Miss Goold. She was the lady who with Patrick Maher of Kilrush proved to be the most generous benefactors of the Catholic Church in Athy. I have tried for some considerable time to get some background information on Miss Goold or Gould as her name was sometimes spelt but so far without any success. Does anyone have any information on her?

During the year I had occasion to visit the remains of Kilmoroney House and passed on the way up to the former home of the Weldon family a large field which I was informed was “the race course”. Was this I wonder the site of the Dunbrin Races which were held for a number of years towards the latter end of the 19th century. The following report in the Kildare Observer of Saturday, 20th March 1886 gives an account of what I believe was the Dunbrin Races.

“Athy Steeple Chases Thursday - Very disagreeable weather was associated with Athy meeting on Thursday but despite the fact that the adverse atmospherical surroundings must have to some extent interfered with the prospects of the reunion taken on the whole it must be put down as a great success. The special which left the Kingsbridge at 10.30am was fairly well patronised and with country folk turning out in large numbers the attendance was up to a capital average and we must add to this that the sport proved quiet as interesting as the dimensions of the card suggested would be the case, it is unnecessary to say that nothing but fine weather was wanted to make the affair a thorough success. The change in the position of the stand etc. was voted and decided an improvement. Owning to the big field we were somewhat behind at the finish but this was no fault of Mr. Brindley’s who got through a heavy days work with all possible expedition. As usual Mr. James Dunne gave every satisfaction in the starting department so that no hitch tended to mar the pleasure of the sport. The races were a Pony plate of £21, Farmers race of £21, Athy plate of £45 Subscribers plate of £30, The Dunbrin plate of £25, the Railway plate of £21.”

A report in the same newspaper of Saturday, 4th September 1886 may be evidence of the formation of the first GAA Club in Athy. The reference is to an Amateur Athletic Association which could well be an athletic club rather than the football club so further research in the matter will be required. The report read :-

“The Athy Amateur Athletic Association is to be formed and the names of about 30 members were enrolled at a recent meeting, the annual subscription to be 2/6 each. Messrs. Long and Black were appointed honorary secretaries pro temp. Several gentlemen were appointed as a deputation to source subscriptions from the people of the town and neighbourhood in aid of the proposed sport and the meeting adjourned to Thursday night when the matter will be further discussed and the committee and officers appointed. On Thursday evening a further meeting was held at the Town Hall, Athy when it was decided that owing to the lateness of the season the proposed sport will not be held this year.”

There was quite a lot of sporting activity in Athy during the 1880’s. Apart from the Steeplechase Race and the newly formed Amateur Athletic Association the Kildare Observer carried reports of a meeting of Athy Football Club and the local Boat Club. The Football Club was Athy’s Rugby Club whose captain was Anthony Reeves. The Boat Club was a newly constituted Club of which R.T. Lefroy was captain and it had an initial membership of over 50 men. The Athy Rugby Club team which lined out against the Great Southern and Western Railway Team in 1886 was G.F. Black, A. Pennycook, A. Reeves, A. Beveridge, P. Lennon, J. Brown, T. Whelan, M. Whelan, J. Deevy, R. Clandillon, J. Long, H.M. Kan, E. Hinkley, M. Traylor and J. Doyle.

Handball was then a very popular sport in Athy and the Kildare Observer carried a report of a challenge match played at Athy Ballcourt between local player John Delaney and Thomas Cleary of Carlow. Apparently both players were to play games on a home and away basis and Delaney easily won all ten games on his home ground. The proprietor of the Carlow Ballcourt refused to allow Cleary to complete the match in Carlow owing to the heavy beating he got in Athy and consequently Delaney was declared the winner. Such handball matches were played for money and the players were heavily backed by their supporters who were prepared to wager on every aspect of the game. Handball was a gamblers mecca and occupied the part now played in todays society by horseracing.

A letter printed in the local newspapers of 20th November 1886 will strike a chord with those who today still trumpet despair more loudly than they should.

“Dear Sir,

What may I ask has become of the movement to promote Irish manufacture? I fear there is a great agitation for its encouragement about which we heard so much a few years ago has ended in nothing more substantial than smoke. At present you may see in most of the patriotic drapers shops in Athy made up suits of English shoddy which I regret to say is patronised while tailors (second to none) have not enough to do and while excellent tweeds etc. of Irish manufacture may have procured at the very lowest prices. No wonder indeed that this and other towns should be decaying swiftly while local artisans and labourers are thus ignored.”

I finish this week with an account of amateur theatricals in Athy in November 1886 which was reported under the heading “Athy Amateur Negro Minstrels”.

“This troop of amateurs appeared in the Town Hall on Monday and Tuesday last, were very well patronised. The performance on Monday night consisted of a choice selection of music, witty conundrums and Negro sayings in which Mr. Woods as “Tambo” and Roberts as “Bones” proved themselves amateurs of the first water. The performance of Mr. Gibney on the violin and glassettes was capital and received well merited applause, but the stump speech of Mr. John Coleman was the great event of the evening and convults the house with laughter. The dancing of Mr. Kelly was admirable. The performance concluded with the laughable farce of the “Vulcan Van or Black Justice” in which Messrs. McDonald, Woods, Campbell, Heart, Roberts and May acquitted themselves in the manner that evoked loud applause.”

Athy of the 1880’s seemed a very interesting place!

Thursday, October 31, 2002

Kilkea Castle

Kilkea Castle, built in 1181, remains the oldest continuously inhabited castle on this island. It was built for Sir Walter de Riddlesford, a Norman knight who arrived in Ireland as part of the Anglo Norman invasion of 1169. In those early medieval days a castle such as Kilkea was primarily a fortress. Located in the middle of occupied territory it housed a garrison and as such was the focal point for military rule of the south Kildare area. The first building at Kilkea was probably of the motte and bailey type. The motte was an earthen mound, conical in shape and the bailey was a level area around the motte, both of which would have had a wooden stockade surrounding. The original occupiers of Kilkea Castle, the Riddlesford family, died out in the third generation and when a grand-daughter of Sir Walter married Maurice FitzMaurice Fitzgerald, third Baron of Offaly, Kilkea passed to the Fitzgerald family. The castle was leased during the final years of the 17th century and for the entirety of the following century but was otherwise occupied by the Fitzgerald family until it was sold at auction in 1958.

The castle consists of a group of buildings which over time were added to. Two drawings from the early nineteenth century suggest the jumble of buildings that existed at the site. The three central buildings are the large central block stretching from the south-east tower to the north-west tower, the paired barrel vaults at the south-west, and the main gatehouse to the north. These individual buildings are more apparent in the drawing of the castle before its restoration in 1849. The chronology of construction at the site is difficult to gauge. The ‘keep’ like structure at the south-west appears to have been a distinct structure before it was linked to the central block by a chamber placed at its northern end. The general wall thickness of the north wall would suggest that it was a free standing structure. The gatehouse may have been an independent structure such as the ‘keep’ and it is likely that it was only in the fifteenth century when the site underwent large scale alteration that the three buildings were integrated.

The earliest reference to the site was when the King was in possession of the manor and castle of Kilkea in 1373. The first detailed record of buildings at the site appears in the dower of Anastacia Wogan in 1417 which refers to a variety of structures at the site including the ‘white tower’ a kitchen, bakehouse, prison, chapel and the gates of Kilkea. Despite the fourteenth century reference there are no features visible at the present day Kilkea Castle which can be dated before the fifteenth century.

The paired vaults in the south-western side of the site probably date to the fifteenth century. Similar paired vaults are found at Rheban Castle. The cross bow loops in the south wall are similar to an example in the west wall of Whites Castle and may be dated to the fifteenth century. The gunports in the south and east walls of the structure adjoining the later gatehouse suggest a late fifteen century date. The inverted key hole form of gunport first appeared in England in the mid 1370’s at Southampton. The Kilkea examples have the inverted key hole with a cross shape on the vertical slit for the use of a crossbow. There is no secure dating scheme for gun ports due to the stagnation of ideas in the fifteenth century in England which meant that these forms of gunports persisted from the late fourteenth to the late fifteenth century.

The late Hayes-McCoy indicates that the Earl of Kildare received a present of six hand guns from Germany in 1487. The refurbishment of the Castle which is supposed to have taken place in 1426 may have included the insertion of the gunports but only a general date in the fifteenth century can be suggested for them.

The carving on the south wall of the gatehouse is a representation of a human figure being assailed by three different animal type figures. A twelfth century date has been suggested for the carving, but it is more likely to date to the fifteenth century.

The buildings at Kilkea while they might be of an earlier date can only be confidently assigned to the fifteenth century by virtue of the features that are visible. Kilkea Castle was a sizable building to be built in the fifteenth century when the tower house was becoming the accepted form in the Irish countryside. Like Cahir Castle it may be an unusual example of large scale construction in the fifteenth century or alternatively it could be the result of a large scale alteration and renovation of earlier buildings.

Some of the more interesting occupants of Kilkea Castle included the 11th Earl of Kildare, commonly known as the Wizard Earl. He was the son of Silken Thomas and as a result of being educated in Italy he came to be reognised as a dabbler in the occult arts. Stories and legends developed around the Earl who lived at Kilkea Castle. The most commonly heard legend relates to how the Wizard Earl lies in a deep sleep in Mullaghmast from where every seven years he makes a midnight horseride to Kilkea Castle. If ever you meet him it is said that the Earl will be recognised by the silver shoes his horse will be wearing!

The other interesting tenant of Kilkea Castle was Thomas Reynolds who was reputedly a cousin of the famous English painter Joshua Reynolds. Reynolds was a Dublin-based silk merchant who took a lease of Kilkea Castle in 1797. His wife was Anne Witherington, the daughter of a wool merchant, another of whose daughters was married to Wolfe Tone, leader of the United Irishmen. Reynolds joined the movement and no doubt on account of his family connections with Tone, was appointed Colonel of the Kildare men. He attended a number of meetings of the United Irishmen in South Kildare and in the town of Athy and indeed was a familiar figure in the town, even at the events of 1798 were unfolding. What the local United Irishmen did not know was that Thomas Reynolds was a Government informer who was passing information on to Dublin Castle. Inevitably the information proved fatal insofar as the plans for an insurrection in South Kildare was concerned. Reynolds was later the subject of a two volume biography written by his son who sought to show, successfully it must be said, that his father was not an informer.

An ongoing controversy is that relating to the large cut stone table referred to as the ‘rent table’ which up to fifteen or so years ago stood in the grounds of Kilkea Castle. The then owner prior to the sale of the Castle sought to remove the ‘rent table’ which would seem to have originally come from the grounds of Maynooth Castle where it was used when collecting rents from the tenants of the Fitzgerald estates. The table bears the date 1533 but its authenticity is however still subject to verification. In any event the attempt to remove the table from the grounds of Kilkea Castle resulted in Court action and the partly dismantled stone table was seized by the Gardai. Strange to relate it remains to this day in the basement of the Garda Station in Carlow, no doubt waiting for the Wizard Earl to reclaim it on behalf of the Fitzgerald family!

Thursday, October 24, 2002

World War I and South Kildare

On Sunday, 10th November, a short ceremony will take place in St. Michael’s Cemetery at 3.00 o’clock in the afternoon. Its purpose will be to remember those local men who died in World War I on what will be the 84th anniversary of the end of that war.

There is no truly accurate account of the worldwide casualties suffered during the conflict which started in August 1914 and ended in November 1918. The number of men and women killed or injured will never be known as compiling records during warfare was understandably never easy. The best records available to us indicate that in excess of 8½ million men were killed in action or died of wounds or gas poisoning during the 52 months of the war. A staggering 21 million or so men were wounded. There was not a town or village in Ireland which did not contribute some measure of its youthful generation to the grim slaughter which was the Great War.

County Kildare suffered a loss of at least 567 men whose deaths are recorded, while the south Kildare area sustained proportionately greater losses than the rest of the county. Over the years I have often written of Athy men who died in the 1914/18 war, but it was not until this year when I visited Flanders that I came to realise the magnitude of the human slaughter which we rather oddly refer to as The Great War. There was nothing great about the war cemeteries which pitted the Flanders landscape with stone memorials to the dead. The regularity with which one came across war cemeteries was frankly upsetting, while the small Commonwealth grave markers over each grave bore testimony to the sad and awesome harvest of death reaped during the war.

Following the war, here and there throughout Ireland local committees compiled lists of soldiers from their area who had been killed. In Castledermot such a list was compiled, while I have in front of me a Roll in Honour of those from Longford town and county who fell in the Great War. I have mentioned in previous articles that the Urban District Council of the time agreed to compile a list of Athy men who fought in the War. The list if it was ever compiled was not published and indeed a record of the soldiers from this area who served in the War has not survived.

There were few Athy families unaffected by the War and while I have identified about 105 townsmen and a further 83 men from the Athy rural area who died in World War I, no doubt my list is incomplete. Who recalls Edward Conlon of Brackna, a private in the Leinster Regiment who died at sea on Sunday, 20th October 1918. William Corrigan, a Private in the Royal Dublin Fusiliers was another unlucky Athy man killed in the last days of the war on 14th October 1918. Alfred Coyle from Nicholastown was only 22 years old when he died from gas poisoning on 21st August, 1917. Was he any relation of Thomas Coyle of Nurney aged 28 years who was killed in action at St. Quintin in France on 25th August 1918?

The story of Andrew Delaney of Crookstown who died of gas poisoning in Netley Hospital on 31st May 1915 forms part of the World War I display in the local Heritage Centre. A married man, his body was brought home for burial in the local cemetery. He is the only World War I casualty in the Crookstown cemetery, although the former Parish Priest, Fr. Stafford, who was an army chaplain during the war is also buried there. I have been trying for a long time to get information on Fr. Stafford, and would welcome hearing from anyone who could help me. Was Andrew Delaney in any way related to William Delaney, also of Crookstown who was killed in France on 13th March 1916?

The list of names of Athy men killed in the war is like a role call of present day families in the area. Alcock, Bell, Byrne, Connell, Corcoran, Corrigan, Coyle, Cullen, Curtis, Delaney, Devoy, Dillon, Dooley. The list goes on and on, all the time recalling the local family names with which we are so well acquainted.

Earlier this year in company with teachers and students from Wellington College, New Zealand I visited war graves and battle sites in France and Flanders. On looking over the names of the war dead from Athy and district I was intrigued to find one man who had enlisted in the First Battalion of the Wellington Regiment from New Zealand. He was Gilbert Kelly known to his friends as Bertie who was killed in action on 25th September 1916. He was from Ballintubbert and being a Kelly was quite possibly a descendent of Rev. Thomas Kelly who founded the Kellyites in the early years of the 19th century. Bertie Kelly had emigrated to New Zealand but even there he could not avoid the conflict which was raging in Europe. The chances of war in all probability brought him into contact with other men from his hometown of Athy. It was the Battle of the Somme which ultimately claimed Kelly’s life as it did so many others whose early years had been spent in the fields around south Kildare.

Last week I mentioned the Memorial which hopefully will soon be erected by the Town Council to commemorate the townspeoples’ part in the 1798 Rebellion. Wouldn’t it be a wonderful gesture if the Council erected a Memorial to the generation of Athy men who over 80 years ago lost their lives in World War I. It would be a timely gesture and one which would go some way to redressing the awfully sad way in which mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters felt compelled to mourn in private their loved ones who were for so long written out of Irish history.

I can recall it was nine years ago that Athy Museum Society hosted a seminar in the Town Hall on World War I, with particular reference to its impact on County Kildare. It was probably the first time that an Irish provincial town had commemorated its World War dead in that way. Kevin Myers of the Irish Times said at the time “it does no disservice to our nation or what we believe in that we should remember the World War I dead here today”. How right he was and how right it is that we should not forget the men whose last view of Athy was from a train pulling out of the railway station on the first leg of a journey which would end in a foreign grave.

Next Sunday at 3.00pm some of us will gather in St. Michael’s cemetery to remember the young men who lost their lives in World War I. I hope you can join us.

Thursday, October 17, 2002

Letters to Duke of Leinster concerning 1798 activities in Athy

Athy Urban District Council, as it was then called, commissioned a sculpture to be erected at Woodstock Street to commemorate the townspeople’s involvement in the 1798 Rebellion. I gather this sculpture has been completed but there is still no sign of it being displayed near to where a number of local men were hanged over 200 years ago.

During the 200th anniversary commemoration of the 1798 Rebellion many books were published in the North and South of this island, outlining the part played by local communities in the events of that period. The interest generated by these publications was gratifying and this has led to an amount of new information coming into the public domain for the first time.

An interesting cache of letters belonging to William the 2nd Duke of Leinster were acquired by the National Library about two years ago and amongst them were a number relating to Athy. Several local men wrote to the Duke at different times during 1798 and amongst them were Nicholas Ashe, Sovereign of Athy and the infamous Thomas J. Rawson of Glassealy, Athy.

Nicholas Ashe was an interesting character who operated a classical school for boarders in the town. By all accounts, he appears to have been a fair minded individual and a man who did his utmost to maintain peace in Athy. As the Sovereign he exercised some judicial functions but in doing so he fell foul of a number of his fellow loyalists as the following letter which he wrote to the Duke of Leinster on 17th April 1798 explains.

“The indictment of the solder against Conolon and Malone one of your Graces yeomen was quashed. This prevented the exposition of a wretch - who strove to take away the lives of two innocent men - for five guinea’s Blood Money.

I am sorry to add - a Clergyman - was averse to bailing them - tho’ every shadow of imputed guilt was cleared by the inconsistency and prevarication of the Soldiers’ testimony - the bills were thrown out by a shameful interference - had they been found I would have proved a perjury of a most dangerous and bloody tendency ……… I have since been very anxious to get the Soldiers off the town. An opportunity occurred on the Cork being removed by the Kings county. The Capt. expressed a wish to have his men in barracks - I immediately filled up the under part of the Session House - and in five days had an excellent barrack for one hundred men - which took off the town a tax of five hundred and brought in an advantage of three thousand expenditure. This A. Weldon himself cou’d not dispute the advantage, both to town and army - yet he and his party opposed it to the utmost and I with difficulty established it ……… The inhabitants offered to repay my expenses. To this I cou’d not submit to secure the barrack I offered to erect four large sheds and finished one - together with some paling to enclose a yard. But the interference of the party saved me the experience. One hundred and sixteen men are already accommodated. But have this instant received a note from Col. Campbell to provide Quarters for two hundred additional men to come in next Friday. Rawson has been addressed by a party calling themselves the Loyal Protestant Corporation of Athy to memorial Government for a Corps of Infantry. In consequence a number of Protestant boys came headed by Redshaw, to demand their freedom. They knew I refused Weldon Molony - therefore it was more impertinence. They were clamorous and your Grace may suppose I was resolute - Rawson wished to get my signature - and insinuated that it wou’d be dangerous to wait ‘til your Grace cou’d be consulted - It was extreme impudence to expect, I wou’d sign a Corporation Memorial without your advice or that I wou’d sanction the formation of a Corps to exclude our Catholic Brethern. I left them to themselves yesterday, Rawson show’d me the Memorial - it is sufficient to say, he drew it up himself - I saw a curious list of names annexed - I asked Capt. Thomas James Rawson who wou’d be Lieutenants. He cou’d not tell but I hear Ben Braddell first on the List. I hope the second contest shall be between Ben Willcock and Ben Redshaw. At my last Court I proved by testimony of both that Redshaw pointing at me, declared I was a papist at heart, and shou’d soon be counted out - I thought the expression deserved reprehension particularly as some people suspect an Orange Lodge in the town.”

Ashe’s letter gives an interesting insight into the local politics of the time.

The prime mover in the formation of a Loyalist Militia in the town was Thomas Rawson who was himself apparently in a spot of bother as indicated in his letter to the Duke of Leinster of 13 April 1799. The letter written by Rawson when forwarding the Grand Jury Presentments mentioned that the Duke had expressed doubts of some of the town Burgesses and had called on Rawson to resign. This undoubtedly resulted from complaints from the likes of Thomas Fitzgerald of Geraldine, a relation of the Duke who referred to Rawson as the “offal of a dunghill”. Rawson in defending himself to the Duke against the charge of seeking Grand Jury funds to build a house on the bridge of Athy gave the following account.

“The history of any and every barrier in the town of Athy is simply this and the truth can be proved by thousands. When Campbell commanded this garrison he caused barriers of hogsheads, sods and earth to be made on the different approaches and on the centre of the bridge - he was ordered to evacuate the town and it was left for a long time to the sole protection of the yeomanry - weak and threatened as the town then was a large body of rebels having the next night approached within 100 perches of it, I considered it absolutely necessary to put up temporary gates and a paling, at an expense of upwards of £50 out of my pocket - the town was protected. In November last Capt. Nicholson and a company of the Cork City Militia were sent here, he saw the sod work going to decay, he applied to General Dundas, and by the Generals special directions [the inhabitants at large having subscribed a larger sum] strong walls of lime and stone were added to my gates - two large piers and a strong wall and platform were erected on the centre of the bridge under the direction of Capt. Nicholson. In the beginning of May last Gen. Dundas inspected the Athy Inf. New made pikes had been recently found in the back house of a rebel Capt. of the town, several new schemes of insurrection were discovered, for which many have been since convicted by Court Martial - the large house in the Market Square was occupied by a noted rebel from the county of Carlow, and it appearing to the General that the Barrier on the bridge could be commanded from the house, he was pleased to approve of the building a second wall to cover the men - I neglected it for some time - on the account arriving, that a French fleet was out, and destined for this country, I concluded that the town, would as before, be left to the yeomanry. In a hurry I had temporary walls ran up, merely doubling the former barrier, and recollecting that for four months last summer we had lain on the flag way on the bridge, in the open air with stones for our pillows - I covered the walls with a temporary skid of boards which are not even nailed on .

His detailed explanation gives us, for the first time, a sense of the danger and anxiety experienced by the townspeople during the 1798 Rebellion and the measures which were taken to protect the town.

I started off this article by referring to the 1798 memorial which remains to be erected in Athy, even though it has been ready for some years. Perhaps the Town Council will ensure that the Memorial is in place before the national commemoration for Emmet’s Rising of 1803 comes around.

Thursday, October 10, 2002

Nicholas Grey 1798 Rebel / War of Independencde and Civil War Incidents in South Kildare

I attended a number of lectures organised by the County Kildare Federation of Local History Societies last weekend. One of the lectures dealt with the Emmet Rebellion of 1803 and the part played by men from our county in that debacle. Athy’s contribution to Emmet’s attempt to overthrow English rule in Ireland was minuscule, even if the man appointed by Emmet to be overall leader of the county’s rebels was based in the south of the county. He was Nicholas Gray, an attorney originally from county Wexford who in 1803 was living in Rockfield House on the outskirts of Athy. Gray played little or no part in the events of July 1803 and in that regard mirrored what may have been his contribution during the 1798 Rebellion. Richard Madden in his history of the United Irishmen writing of the Battle of Ross described how General Bagenal Harvey “and his aide de camp Mr. Gray, Protestant Attorney, remained upon a neighbouring hill, inactive spectators during ten hours incessant fighting”.

Gray, appointed as General in command of County Kildare by Robert Emmet was expected to march at the head of the Kildare rebels into Dublin when the rebellion broke out. He set out from Athy with his man servant and proceeded as far as Johnstown from where he turned around and came back to Athy. The failure of the Kildare men to respond in sufficient numbers to the call to arms might perhaps be excused on account of Emmet’s inadequate planning and the insufficiency of arms for those expected to participate. For whatever reason Gray felt it appropriate to abandon his responsibilities and the so called `Emmet Rebellion` petered out.

While listening to Seamus Cullen’s lecture I was prompted to think of the men and women from the county who played a part in the War of Independence and the subsequent Civil War. Some weeks ago I wrote briefly of some of the activities of the Carlow/Kildare Brigade in the south Kildare region. It is a topic I hope to return to again if for no better reason than to reduce to print whatever information on the events of those days is known to the generation which followed.

I have before me a sheet of headed notepaper printed “Oglaigh na h’Eireann” with the partly printed address “5th Battalion Head Quarters, Carlow Brigade, Military Barracks, Athy.” The sheet contains a manuscript letter signed by Thomas Finn Commandant and the date 8th July 1922 indicates that the letter was written three months after the anti-treaty forces under Rory O’Connor established their headquarters in the Four Courts, Dublin. Thomas Finn who was from Ballinabarna, Kilmead had been a captain in the Irish Republican Army during the War of Independence.

Another sheet of paper before me, this time a photocopy of a newspaper extract is headed “Court-martial results” and was taken from the Leinster Leader of 21st May 1921. It reads, “Michael Duffy, Poplar Hall, Inchaquire, Co. Kildare. On 25th October 1920 his premises were searched and in a stable a packet of seditious papers were found. These were :- copy of An Toglagh dated 15th August 1920; instructions from Brigade Adjutant IRA and letter from O.C. Carlow Brigade containing appointment of Mr. Duffy as O.C.E. company. In a trough 19 rounds of revolver ammunition and five 12 bore cartridges were found. Accused’s defence was that the trough in which the ammunition was found was outside Poplar Hall and was accessible from the outside. He was found not guilty of having ammunition but was sentenced to two years with hard labour.”

Michael Duffy was one of the small number of men chosen by Eamon de Valera to be officers in the National Army when Fianna Fail went into government for the first time in 1932. De Valera feared that the Army might not look too favorably on the defeat of the outgoing government and immediately sought to draft into the army a number of handpicked followers to bolster support for his government. Michael Duffy entered with the rank of Captain and so far as I can find out his army career was spent as a recruiting officer.

During the Civil War the area around Baltinglass was the centre of much activity and that activity spilled over into the Castledermot area with harrowing results. On 16th June 1922 Thomas Dunne of Carlow Gate, Castledermot, a member of the irregulars or anti-treaty side was killed. Less than three weeks later another two members of the irregulars were killed in action in Castledermot. They were Laurence Sweeney of Stillorgan, Co. Dublin and Sylvester Shepperd of Monasterevin, both of whom died on 5th July 1922. I have an extract from a newspaper which is undated but of some age with a photograph of volunteer Sylvester Shepperd over a report that “on Sunday at 3.00 o’clock a stone will be unveiled at Monasterevin to the memory of Sylvester Shepperd, IRA who was killed in action at Castledermot, Co. Kildare on July 4th 1922.” The best information available to me however indicates that Shepperd and his companion were killed on 5th July.

Another ambush which I have heard of, but as yet cannot get any information on, is reputed to have taken place on the Levitstown/Kilkea road. I am told that on the roadside there was a memorial erected to the memory of those involved but a recent inspection of the site shows no such memorial. There were clues that a memorial of some sort was there at one time, but to what or whom I cannot say. My informant told me that a number of IRA men raided a local big house for arms and afterwards walked along the railway track towards Levitstown. They were accosted on the Levitstown/Kilkea road, with what result I cannot say. I would welcome any information in relation to this incident.

Some years ago an interviewee referred to an ambush at Maganey but had no information as to when it occurred or who was involved. Was it by any chance the same event as believed to have occurred on the Levitstown to Kilkea road? Maganey did figure in a tragic accident involving an IRA officer but that was after peace had been restored to Ireland. Tommy O’Connell was Commandant of the IRA Brigade located in Carlow town and was responsible for organising the Carlow Brigade Flying Column. O’Connell died tragically in a road traffic accident at Maganey after his car had a tyre blowout causing his vehicle to overturn.

The O’Rahilly who died during the 1916 Insurrection visited Athy and delivered a splendid speech in the Town Hall on 9th May 1914 following which the Irish Volunteers were formed in the town. Thomas McDonagh, poet and author, another man to die following the 1916 Insurrection also addressed the Irish Volunteers in Athy. The Volunteers were formed in Ballitore on 7th August 1914, just days after the start of World War I and at a time when many men from that area and other parts of South Kildare were enlisting to fight in France and Flanders.

It would be wrong to presume that men who enlisted in the British Army and those who stayed behind and subsequently joined the National struggle for independence constituted two separate and distinct strands of Irish society. Despite the formation of the Volunteers in Athy and Ballitore in 1914 there was not then a clear consensus as to Ireland’s future whether as an independent state or as a member of the British empire. Those who fought for independence chose the path which differed initially at least from that of the majority of the population but in time the majority view changed. The Sinn Fein election successes of 1917 marked a watershed in the changing attitudes of Irish people. The likes of John Finn of Ballinabarna, Paddy Fleming of The Swan and Michael Duffy of Inchaquire made a major contribution to the course of Irish history but so did those unfortunate local men who died in foreign battles during World War I.

Our history is full of such contradictions but all of us who have benefited from the sacrifices made by men and women of an earlier generation have an obligation to acquaint ourselves with the lessons of the past. For that reason I would like to hear from anyone who can help me fill in the missing pieces regarding the Volunteer movement in South Kildare during the years 1914 - 1923.

Thursday, October 3, 2002

Andy Smith, 42 Leinster St. and his daughter Peggy

Human memory can play tricks with the past. I had always believed that No. 42 Leinster Street was a grocery shop and public house at the time it belonged to Andy Smith. I was wrong, for the premises which was next door to the Co-op Stores did not hold a liquor licence. It was a grocery shop with a store given over to dry feed stuffs for supply to local farmers.

Andy Smith was from Drumboe near Cootehill and came to Athy to work as a barman with Louis O’Mara’s mother in her pub in Leinster Street. He had previously served time in Belfast and in Ferbane, county Offaly in which latter village he featured on the local football team. His arrival in Athy was in the 1920’s and pre-dated his marriage in 1930 to Kathleen McKenna, daughter of Tom McKenna, a railway worker who lived at the Railway company house on the Carlow road before he moved to 28 St. Patrick’s Avenue.

After marrying Andy and Kathleen Smith lived with Tom McKenna in St. Patrick’s Avenue before renting a house in Offaly Street in 1937 from Myles Whelan. That was the same house that my parents moved to in the early 1950’s when it was vacated by Tom White and his family. The youngest member of the Smith family, Dolores, was born in 5 Offaly Street just shortly before Andy Smith purchased No. 42 Leinster Street. In 1940 the Smith family, now including six children, Peggy, Peter, Kitty, Andrew, Mary and Dolores moved to Leinster Street which was to be the Smith home for the next 28 years.

Last week I had the great pleasure of talking to Peggy Smith who was in Athy for a short holiday from her home in New Jersey. Peggy emigrated to America in 1954 but she still recalls with fondness the town where she spent her youth as a student in the local convent school. Her memories are of the wealth of characters of the time and of the carefree days when as a young girl she was involved in the local Gaelic League. Kevin Meany of St. Patrick’s Avenue and Tom McDonnell of the Technical School were two of the local organisers of the League which met each Monday night in the ballroom of the Town Hall. The Tennis Club on the Carlow Road and dances in the Town Hall and in the Social Club in St. John’s Lane were other favourite social outlets of the time.

Peggy attended St. Mary’s Convent School where her classmates included Tessie Flanagan, Finola Smyth, Noreen Tierney, Frances Fenlon, Sheila Doogue, Maureen Rigney, Betty Myles, Patsy Butterfield, Kathleen Coogan, Breda Delahunt and Irene McNamara. She later went to work for her father before transferring to McClellans grocery shop at Duke Street. McClellans was noted for its exceptionally large china department located to the rear of the shop. Jim Fennin who at that time worked in Myles Whelan’s grocery shop later bought McClellans and Peggy continued to work there with Kathleen Curtis. When Kathleen married John Cusack her position was taken by Helen Walsh. The McClellans shop, later Jim Fennin’s, is now Perry’s Supermarket.

Peggy left for America on 1st October 1954 and still recalls with some misgivings the American wake held in 42 Leinster Street the night before her departure. The happiness and joy of seeing so many friends and relations was tinged with an overwhelming sense of sadness as the night progressed and the time for leaving home for the last time drew near. Strange to relate that of a family of four girls and two boys, the girls, of which Peggy was the eldest, each in turn emigrated to America. The boys, Peter and Andrew, stayed in Athy. Peggy returned to Ireland towards the end of 1955 with the intention of travelling back to the States with her younger sister Kitty. However, Kitty’s visa was delayed and so Peggy worked for a few months with Paddy Dillon in his newly opened grocery shop in what is now the J-1 restaurant at Emily Square. The two sisters left for America in May 1956 to be followed by their sisters Mary in 1958 and Dolores in 1961.

Peggy married in May 1960, Thomas J. O’Sullivan from the Bronx, whose father had emigrated from the Dingle peninsula. They had five children, Thomas, Andrew, Kathleen, Susan and Margaret. Her father Andrew Smith sold 42 Leinster Street in 1968, approximately five years after his wife, the former Kathleen McKenna passed away. He moved for the second time to No. 28 St. Patrick’s Avenue where he lived until his death in December 1970.

Looking back on her time in 42 Leinster Street, Peggy remembers the Smith home as an open house for many people, some of whom dropped in for the Rosary which was said every May and October just after the tea. Every Sunday night a card game took place at No. 42 with the likes of Jim Dooley, Johnny Mahon, Tom McKenna and “Verser” Prendergast taking part. Greatly treasured are the memories of the tea room which was in fact the dry goods store at the back of the shop. Gaelic games played an important part in the life of Andy Smith who was a long standing member of the local football club and of the Geraldine grounds committee. It was customary for county teams playing in Geraldine Park to have a meal after every match and the unofficial tea rooms in Smiths was always the venue. The dry food stuffs were removed from the storeroom, the floorboards were meticulously scrubbed down and trestle tables were brought in in preparation for the players who descended on 42 Leinster Street to partake of Mrs. Smith’s homecooking. Mrs. Alcock of Dooley’s Terrace lent her assistance, while the Smith girls served the players at the tables.

As a young girl Peggy often accompanied her grand-father Tom McKenna on his usual Sunday morning walk “down the line” as far as “Bummeries” and from there up to the Carlow road where the customary stop was made at Barrington’s public house. There Tom could, and did avail of the bone fide traveler’s rule which allowed anyone who travelled three miles from home to take a drink on Sunday afternoons.

I was intrigued to hear Peggy speak of old “Nanny” Whelan, a blind woman who lived in the vicinity of Shrewleen Lane and who each day walked unassisted to Leinster Street to get her dinner. Initially “Nanny” went to Mrs. O’Mara’s but when Andy Smith opened his grocery shop in 1940, “Nanny” shortened her daily journey and called to Smiths where she sat down in front of the fire in the shop to eat what may have been her only meal of the day. On occasions when “Nanny” was unable to make the trip down town, Peggy was dispatched to Shrewleen Lane with a covered basket containing the old ladies dinner. “Nanny” Walsh, who always dressed in black and wore a shawl lived alone in her small two roomed house which is long gone. She apparently lost her sight when she was 10 or 11 years old but little else is known of her. I would like to hear from anyone who recalls “Nanny” Whelan.

Peggy O’Sullivan, eldest daughter of Andy and Kathleen Smith returned to America last week. She brought with her refreshed memories of her youth spent in Athy during the war years and the frugal times which followed. Athy has changed in the 48 years she has been away. New houses have been built in the green fields where once she played. The drab streetscape of the 1940’s has given way to the colour strewn shop fronts of today, while the once derelict Town Hall and its near neighbour, the Courthouse once again give cause to have pride in Athy’s town centre. The only feature of provincial Irish town life which puzzles the New Jersey based native of Athy is the all pervasive steel shuttering in local shop windows.

The days of the open door and evening recitations of the rosary in the kitchen are no more. The memories however, are still as vivid as the day they were first formed all those years ago.

Thursday, September 26, 2002

Athy 150 Years Ago and the Coming of the Sisters of Mercy

One hundred and fifty years ago Athy was noted as having made a decided improvement in its appearance compared to ten years previously. New houses had been built and several old ones renovated while the streets were well paved and kept in good order. However, the townspeople were still relying on public water pumps for water which was untreated and quite often unfit for consumption. An outbreak of cholera had occurred in 1832 and 17 years later just as the worst excesses of the Famine were abating, cholera hit again. The first cholera case was diagnosed in Athy on 25th June 1849 and between then and 29th September of the same year 27 cholera sufferers were reported resulting in the death of 11 locals.

Prostitution flourished on the streets of Athy of 150 years ago, prompting the Town Commissioners to post a notice warning that “persons keeping places of public resort for the sale of refreshment of any kind who knowingly supply any common prostitute or allow them to assemble on his premises will be prosecuted according to the Law”. Thomas Roberts was appointed by the Council to apprehend and prosecute prostitutes and beggars for which he was paid 4/= per week with an additional 2/6 for each conviction of a prostitute. The cases summarily disposed of by the local magistrates confirmed that Mr. Roberts was quite successful in apprehending the “ladies of the night” who were generally fined £1 for each offence, or one month in default of payment.

One hundred and fifty years ago the first Presbyterian settlers who had arrived from Pershire in Scotland in response to the Duke of Leinster’s offer of land in South Kildare were settling into their new homes. On 17th August 1851 a meeting of the Scottish families presided over by Rev. Patterson of Bray and Rev. Powell of Carlow agreed to establish a Presbyterian ministry in Athy. Within five years the “Scot’s” Church was built on a site on the Dublin Road. Nearby and just across the main Athy / Dublin road was the newly opened Model School where boys and girls of all denominations attended school.

In January 1852 Samuel Talbot published from Athy the first edition of what was intended to be a monthly magazine devoted “to the advancement of Science, Literature and the Industrial Arts”. It was the only edition ever published. Consisting of 36 pages it included a report of the lecture given the previous November at a meeting of Athy Mechanics Institute by its secretary Thomas Cross. The Mechanics Institute was part of a countrywide movement which had originated in England intended for the instructions of artisans or mechanics as they were then known, in scientific principals underlying their trade. The local institute was formed from the nucleus of the Athy Literary and Scientific Institute which had been founded in Athy in 1849. Athy’s Mechanic Institute, although intended for skilled workers, was largely dependent for its membership on the middle class elements of the town who made use of its reading room where newspapers and magazines were available.

Just two years previously and despite the ending of the four year long Famine the local Workhouse, then but ten years old, and built to accommodate 600 persons was still experiencing overcrowding. An Orphan Emigration Scheme initiated in March 1848 and intended to rid the Irish workhouses of teenage girls by sending them to Australia met with the approval of the local Board of Guardians. When the last boat sailed in April 1850 as part of the Orphan Emigration Scheme, 42 teenage girls who had been inmates in Athy’s Workhouse had emigrated to start new lives on the other side of the world.

Prior to the opening of the Model School in 1852 the children of the town, or rather those whose parents wished them to be educated, attended the local Poor School. The school building had been provided by Colonel Fitzgerald of Geraldine House on ground which at one time formed part of the commonage of Clonmullion. The teachers Patrick O’Rourke and Ann Doogan catered for 150 or so boys and approximately 40 girls who attended classes regularly. In the spring of 1843 the local Catholic clergy called a meeting of their parishioners to promote the idea of establishing in the town a school to be run by nuns. Arrangements were made to take up a weekly collection and in August 1844 the Parish Priest of Castledermot laid the first stone of the new convent building. The weekly collection continued for a few years but stopped in 1847 because of the difficulties experienced during the Famine. Fr. Thomas Greene and his colleague Fr. John Harold, both of whom were curates of St. Michael’s Parish, resumed the weekly collection in 1849 but despite their best efforts the funds necessary to complete work on the convent and school were not forthcoming. Eventually the sum of £300 was advanced by the Superioress of the Convent of Mercy, Baggot Street, Dublin to enable the building work to be completed.

Nine years after the first public meeting held to discuss the school project the Sisters of Mercy were ready to take over the newly built convent and school. On 10th October 1852 Sr. Mary Gabrielle Sherlock and Sr. Mary Angela Rowland left the Baggot Street Convent of the Sisters of Mercy and travelled by horsedrawn carriage to Kingsbridge Railway Station. On arrival they bought tickets to convey themselves and their luggage to Athy on the Great Southern Western Railway line which had been extended only six years previously to Athy and Carlow. On arrival in Athy the nuns were met by the local clergy and brought to the newly built convent building.

In August 1854 the Athy Convent was adopted as a branch house of the earlier established Carlow Convent of Mercy and two sisters were sent from Carlow to replace the Dublin nuns. Sr. Mary Teresa Maher and Sr. Mary Xavier Downey arrived in Athy on 2nd February 1855 and were jointed by two novices from Dublin, Sr. Mary Joseph Leader and Sr. Mary Magdaline. A description of the convent at that time reads :-

“A three storey house of hammered lime stone 95ft. by 20. The Hall, Parlours, Community Room, Corridors and Cells well lighted and ventilated. The hall door is very fine, having outer casings and massive pillars supporting an ornamental canopy all of cut stone. The community rooms a beautiful spacious room has its cornice elegantly designed in stonework and the door ornamented in woodwork. The hall and reception room with ceilings suitably designed in stonework and doors correspond with those of the community room. The oratory is small. It is specially ornamented with stonework on the ceiling and cornice. The vine leaf and grape are most artistically carried through the design.”

One hundred and fifty years later what was once the Convent of Mercy no longer echoes to the sound of prayer or the patter of feet hurrying to or from Chapel or classroom. The last Sister of Mercy to teach in the local Convent National School was Sr. Teresa Ann Nagle who retired on 11th June 2001. The Sisters of Mercy who took vows of poverty, chastity and obedience as well as a vow to serve the poor, sick and those lacking education are now facing new and different challenges posed by an Irish society which is everchanging. Whatever the future may hold for the Sisters of Mercy the rich heritage of Mercy education which they developed in Athy and district over the past 150 years will continue to live on. On Thursday, October 10th a special service will take place in St. Michael’s Parish Church at 12noon to celebrate the sequicentenary of the arrival of the Sisters of Mercy in Athy. Its an occasion which deserves to be supported in great numbers by the people of Athy and district.

Thursday, September 19, 2002

Athy C.B.S. Reunion

The Class Reunion has come and gone. It has taken more than 40 years to bring together the lads who shared their young days as schoolboys in Athy. Many persons contacted me over the past week about the reunion which seems to have caught the public attention and ignited its imagination in a very positive way. The general public seems to have looked upon the weekend reunion as an event which highlighted something good about the town in sharp contrast to the seemingly never-ending bad press which grabs the headlines almost every week.

The Class Reunion was just that. It was the coming together of fellows who were companions and colleagues in a particular class which began in St. Joseph’s School in 1946 and finally ended with the Leaving Certificate Examination of 1960. In between those years some fellows left school while others joined the class, either as new arrivals in Athy or alternatively as pupils coming in from outlying rural areas.

As you can well imagine the opening event scheduled for the evening of Friday 20th September in the Leinster Arms Hotel was intended to allow everyone to renew old acquaintances. For men who may not have seen each other for more than 40 years name tags were an essential aid. But truth to tell, while faces and bodies may have become extended and distorted, yet somehow or other the faces from the past were easily superimposed on the aging creatures who trooped into the Leinster Arms. We knew each other, even if a surreptitious glance at a name tag was required on occasions to confirm and in some cases to put a name on a particular face.

That first meeting after the passage of so many years was a great occasion. Imagine my surprise and delight at meeting Paddy Bracken whose family left Athy in 1956. The Bracken’s lived at the corner house, now undergoing reconstruction, opposite the Courthouse and Paddy was not only a classmate, but also one of the Offaly Street youngsters who played together each day of the week. Paddy was immediately recognisable and had a wonderful fund of stories and memories of his days as a youngster in Athy. I was particularly amused by his recall of the famous hurling matches between the Offaly Street lads and the St. Patrick’s Avenue fellas and how those occasional encounters finally came to an end. Paddy contends that the St. Patrick’s Avenue lads deliberately set out to put one of the Offaly Street lads out of commission, courtesy of a skelp of a hurley. Both the perpetrator and the victim enjoyed Paddy’s telling of the story and marveled at his unshaken belief that the head injury inflicted on the awkward Offaly Street player was premeditated and deliberate. As the victim on the occasion in question, all I can say is that the perpetrator who was even more awkward than myself was highly unlikely to have been able to execute a plan of attack with such deadly precision.

Writing of the St. Patrick’s Avenue lads, they were ably represented by Jimmy Malone who travelled from California, and locally based Mick Rowan. The Offaly Street crew were there in the person of Teddy Kelly, Willie Moore and myself. I hadn’t seen or met Willie for many many years and he too had great memories and stories of times in Offaly Street and in the cauldron of learning we called the Christian Brothers School. While Willie travelled from Wexford, a lot of the lads living in and around Athy gave their support.

John Mealy and Jack Murphy who spent a substantial part of their working lives in Bradbury’s Bakeries were there swopping stories of their school days and both astonished me with the clarity of youthful memories culled from so many years back. Two of the great surprises of the reunion was tracing Christy Southwell and Eddie Wall, both of whom left Athy and their classmates long before the class began to break up as it did when our 14th birthday was reached. As it turned out Christy was located in the Curragh where he has lived ever since his time in the Army, while Eddie now lives in Luton, England. Another to travel from England for the occasion was Joe Gordan who was with us in primary school until his father left the Athy area. Joe’s father was a farm steward on Taylor’s farm on the Dublin Road and Joe who entered the Christian Brothers is now the Provincial of the English Province. Another to make the trip from England was Brendan Ward and he enlivened the weekends proceedings with his banter and lively personality.

I can still remember the morning Brother Brett walked into our classroom, leaned over my desk and shook the hand of Enda Dooley who was sitting behind me. “Congratulations on your father’s election to the Dail” he said to Enda. I think that was the first realisation I had that Enda’s father Paddy Dooley, Principal of Kilberry National School, was standing for the Dail, for in common with my classmates I had no interest in the affairs of State. Our lives centered in those far off days around football and the fairer sex. Enda travelled from County Longford for the reunion, as did George Robinson whom I have been privileged to meet on many occasions in the intervening years. Two men I hadn’t seen for years were Pat Timpson, formerly of St. Patrick’s Avenue and Kerry O’Sullivan, originally from Aughaboura. Kerry was another of our visitors from England, while Pat made the cross country trip from Sligo.

The longest journeys were made by Mick Robinson and Seamus Ryan who travelled from Australia and China respectively. Clearly they were delighted to meet old school pals such as Eddie Hearns, now living in Dublin, and the local lads including Eddie Ryan, Jack Carr, Peter Whelan and P.J. Hyland. Like myself they had not met Frankie Bradbury since we all left school. Frankie travelled from Kilkenny winning hands down the laurels for the fellow possessing the exilir of youth in greatest abundance. He looked more like a 25 year old than somebody who is entering his 7th decade.

Joe Brophy came from Dublin and entertained Paddy Lannigan and Brian Finn with stories of his days on the buses. Another visitor from England was John Prendergast whose father Charlie sadly died just a few weeks ago. Paddy Mulhall travelled from Kildare town, while P.J. Wall from Arles met up with Noel Scully, now one of Town Fathers and Michael O’Meara, now a publican in Dublin. John Roche, after spending his Army years in the bomb disposal unit, is well used to the pressures associated with his role in the local Credit Union, even if Frank English, another of our Town Fathers and Fintan Kinsella might claim, that after years in the Christian Brothers School we were all experienced in bomb disposal work.

The weekend reunion was a great experience for everyone involved, and no-one enjoyed it more than another of our weekend visitors, Brendan McKenna who swapped yarns with locals Jim Malone and Ted Wynne, Reggie Lalor and Jerry Carbery.

On Sunday afternoon a service of remembrance and commemoration was held in the local schoolyards where the names of 16 former classmates who had died were read aloud. Little did we know that another name would be added to those who had passed away before the reunion finished later that evening. Michael Cardiff was to attend the reunion but he was not able to do so as he was struck down by illness in some recent weeks. He died on Sunday afternoon, even as his former classmates gathered together for possibly the last time.

With his passing another thread in the tapestry of our youth had unravelled.

Thursday, September 12, 2002

Extract from Christian Brother Annals

I was reading through some notes from the Annals of the Christian Brothers in advance of the class reunion last weekend and what I found may be of interest to some readers. It was a short history compiled of the early years of the Christian Brothers in Athy which opened as follows :-

“On the ground now occupied by the Brothers’ house and schools, stood formerly a monastery of Crossed Friars, built about the year 1253, by Richard de St. Michael Lord of Rheban. It was granted in the 17th of Charles II to Dame Mary Meredith.

The present dwellinghouse was built upwards of 100 years previous to its being handed over to the Brothers. During the above time it passed into several hands, mostly Protestant, until at last it and the adjoining fields were purchased by His Grace, The Most Rev. Dr. Cullen Lord Archbishop of Dublin and Glendalough.

The whole concern containing about 12 acres, was handed over by His Lordship, the aforesaid Paul Cullen to the Very Rev. Andrew Quinn, P.P. Athy, and Canon of the Archdiocese of Dublin, who subsequently built two school-rooms by the aid of the parishioners and a few friends, but chiefly by the assistance of the generous and truly charitable Mr. Pat Maher of Kilrush in this county (Kildare), who principally at the suggestion of his eldest daughter, Mrs. Mary Teresa Maher, Superioress of the Convent of Mercy, St. Michael’s, Athy, gave £400.

When the Schools were finished in the August of 1861, three Brothers, viz - John Stanislaus Flanagan, director - Francis Luke Holland, sub-director - and John Patrick Sheehy, lay-brother, were sent by our Very Rev. Brother, Michael Paul O’Riordan, Superior General, to conduct the establishment, which was put into the possession of the Brothers on the 8th August 1861.”

The Annals, after making some references to the local Model School, continued :-

“The Brothers commenced the Schools on the 19th of August 1861 having some months previously obtained the consent and signature of the above Dr. A. Quinn to the following conditions :-

1. The Premises to be occupied by the Brothers to be put into proper repair, and furnished.
2. Two Schools to be built (each 36 feet by 26, with a lecture-room 10ft. wide between) on a site convenient to the House.
3. The Brothers to have the management of the Schools and to be allowed the observance of their Rules in the same manner as enjoyed by them in other places.
4. The School-pence paid by the children, to be at the disposal of the Brothers for the benefit of the Schools.
5. £30 a-year to be allowed each Brothers, this sum to be realised by subscriptions, collections, or sermon, as the Very Rev. Dr. Quinn may appoint.
6. The Brothers to be prepared to take charge of the Schools in the month of December, if necessary.

The part of the land not occupied by the Brothers is held by the Parish Priest who received the rent of it. The Brothers have nothing to do with the payment of taxes, etc. This being done by the Parish Priest.

Soon after the coming of the Brothers the above-mentioned Dr. Cullen, Archbishop said Mass in the Domestic Chapel, after which he blessed all the rooms and house. From that morning the Brothers have enjoyed the privilege of having the Blessed Sacrament in the house.

Shortly after the opening of the School it was found necessary to secure the services of a third School Brother. He was accordingly applied for by Dr. Cullen, who succeeded in obtaining him on the same condition as the three Brothers already mentioned. The salary of the fourth Brother (Hugh Francis Sweeney, novice) was procured for 2 years by the before-mentioned Mrs. M. T. Maher, from her father. Both Mrs. and Mr. Maher deserve the grateful remembrance of the Brothers.

The grounds about the dwellinghouse and schools continued in a very neglected state for about 3 months after the coming of the Brothers - then a few of the influential men of the town undertook to defray the expenses necessary to be incurred, and the place was rendered somewhat comfortable before the Brothers entered their Annual retreat before Christmas 1861.

The very necessary appendage of gas was introduced into the house in the beginning of January 1862 at an expense of £20, which sum was supplied by the benevolent Mr. P. Maher.

On the second Sunday of January this year, a Lending Library was opened for the benefit of the children and others who might wish to join it. Mr. Maher gave £5 for the purchase of books. For some months after it could only number 8 or 9 members.

According to the present arrangements the salary of the Brothers is procured by means of two collections every year, made at the doors of the Parish Church - one in February, the other in August. These collections are totally in the hands of the Parish Priest who, if they did not realise the required sum is bound to make up the residue as best he can.

On 31st July 1862 the Brothers held the first public examination of their pupils at which His Grace, The Most Rev. Paul Cullen presided. The examination was held in the room occupied by the junior pupils, the desks were removed, and a platform was erected at the lower end of the room on which the children stood while undergoing the examination. The visitors, who amounted to very near 300 persons, sat on chairs, or stood facing the children. The chairs, for the occasions were abundantly supplied by well-wishers in the town, who, moreover, sent as much carpeting as covered the whole floor and platform. The walls and window recesses were tastefully decorated with evergreen and flowers. There were present besides the Archbishop - the Very Rev. Canon Quinn P.P. of Athy; Rev. H. M. Manus, D.D., Rev. Thomas Doyle; Rev. Eugene Clarke, P.P., Narraghmore and many more. The examination commenced at 11 o’clock and continued until 3 o’clock during which time the audience displayed the greatest interest. At the conclusion the pupils presented the Archbishop with an address which was read by Master John Lawler.”

If ever you walk up St. John’s Lane past the entrance to what was the Christian Brothers Monastery you may notice that the crest about the doorway gives the year 1862. It was in 1911 that the high wall around the monastery similar to that which still encloses St. John’s Cemetery was lowered and a new entrance provided to the Monastery on which was surmounted the Christian Brothers’ crest with the date of the foundation of the Athy house. Clearly a mistake was made when 1862 was given as that date.

Thursday, September 5, 2002

C.B.S. Class Re-union

Michael Robinson will set out from Brisbane Australia this Wednesday morning to travel to Athy. Seamus Ryan will commence his journey in Beijing, China. His destination, like Michael’s, will be Athy. Jimmy Malone will travel from California, while Joe Gordon makes the comparatively short trip from Manchester. All are travelling back to the town where some or all of their schooldays were spent during the 1950’s and earlier. The occasion is a class re-union for men, many of whom started school as four year olds in St. Joseph’s Boy’s School where they were taught by Sisters of Mercy, Bernadette, Brendan and Alberta in the years immediately following the Second World War. Transferring to the Christian Brothers Primary School in St. John’s Lane in or about 1949 they were taught over the following five years by a succession of Christian Brothers and one lay teacher. From that period Christian Brothers O’Loughran, Flaherty and Smith are recalled as well as Bob Martin, a lay teacher who later took up the principalship of Ballyroe National School.

Classes and colleagues changed over the years. Some youngsters skipped classes, others stayed back for an extra year, but eventually most of them passed the hurdle which was the Primary Certificate Examination taken in the Sixth Class. Class numbers were by today’s standards quite large. The Second Class rollbook for 1950 shows 57 youngsters, while the Third Year Class had 62 young, if not so eager, students. In the early 1950’s sickness exacted its toll amongst the frail youngsters and the untimely deaths of Paddy Dowling, George Ryan and Myles Cash were a sad blow to their classmates.

Many of those who sat the Primary Certificate Examination passed on into secondary school. Others however went out into the world of work on reaching 14 years of age. Family circumstances often dictated that a young fellow’s academic career had to be curtailed to ensure a family’s survival during the harsh economic climate of the 1950’s. Not that many of those who left school at 14 and sometimes even younger objected to being taken from school. Given the opportunity, most of us would have followed the same route. After all, the prospect of earning a few shillings as a messenger boy or working with a local farmer sounded far more exciting than spending the daylight hours stuck in the classroom. The 1950’s were difficult times for most local families. Jobs were scarce in the town and such employment as was available required a young man to work in unhealthy conditions which over time would damage health and shorten life expectancy. For many, even such grim employment prospects were limited and the mail boat journey to Holyhead was as familiar to many Athy men and women as the train journey to Dublin is to present day locals.

As those with whom we started school in 1946/1947 left the educational system others remained on in secondary school. We had no choice in the matter, for if we had, the school yard would soon have been but a memory. In any event we stayed on in secondary school, each morning making the trip up St. John’s Lane and climbing the metal stairs to the school rooms on the first floor. The upper story of the school building consisted of three rooms, one of which in time was divided by a curtain to make an extra room. The teachers were Brother Brett, who was the headmaster, and Brother Keogh, with lay teachers Bill Ryan and Paddy Riordan. All but Riordan were there for the entire period my classmates spent in secondary school up to 1960.

In the third year of secondary school you sat your Intermediate Certificate Examination and it was the common practice in the 1950’s to repeat your Inter Cert. I know I did, as did some of my classmates. During the first three years of secondary school there was a steady stream of students leaving to take up employment. This exodus became an avalanche after the Inter Certificate and following years classes had but a sixth of the number which had started school 12 years previously in St. Joseph’s at Rathstewart. In the meantime of course many young lads joined the class from outlying country areas but while they swelled the class numbers in first and second year, they seldom stayed for the full six years of secondary school.

The final hurdle was the Leaving Certificate Examination of 1960 and the class size that year was the largest ever known in the Christian Brothers School. It was all of eleven students and compares with this years Leaving Certificate class of 64 students. Coming after previous Leaving Certificate classes where there had been three or four students and a single student on at least one previous occasion, a class of eleven was a significant improvement.

I was talking yesterday to a pupil from this years Leaving Certificate class, and marveled to hear that most of the students will attend university or some form of third level education. From the class of 1960 only one student had the opportunity to go to university on a full time basis and that was at a time when the only restriction on entry to university was your parents ability to pay the university fees. Times certainly have changed and nowhere is that better demonstrated than in the opportunities for further education now available for present day students.

All of the above is by way of background explanation to the travails of those one time youngsters now in their 60th year or thereabouts who will come together this weekend for the first time since they left school. For some it will be the first time to meet for over 40 years or more. On Friday evening the Leinster Arms Hotel will host the gathering of past pupils where the years will be wound back, memories dusted down and friendships renewed. On Saturday afternoon a civic reception in the Town Council offices will be followed by a further reception in Scoil Eoin. Later that evening the former pupils and their partners will sit down to dinner with a number of invited guests at Kilkea Golf Club Restaurant. On the last day of the weekend reunion a service of remembrance and commemoration will take place in the yard of the old school in St. John’s Lane and will be followed by a tree planting ceremony in Edmund Rice Square and a going away reception.

In conjunction with the class reunion a photographic exhibition will be held in the Heritage Centre which will be of particular interest to anyone who remembers the people or the events of Athy of the 1950’s.

Thursday, August 29, 2002

Athy U.D.C. Now Athy Town Council

The change was made imperceptibly and without fuss or fanfare. It wasn’t just a change of name but it was the name change highlighted on headed notepaper received in correspondence some days later which alerted me to what had happened. It was the first time that illustrious body had changed its name since it was set up in 1898, but even then it had been superimposed on an institution with a history stretching back to the 16th century.

I am referring to Athy Town Council which up to December 31st last was known as Athy Urban District Council but which at midnight that night changed its name. The links with the 16th century are very real as it was Henry VIII, who so far as we can ascertain, granted the first charter to the village of Athy, thereby constituting it a borough. There is the possibility that a previous charter had been in place but research to date has not unearthed any evidence of it.

The charter of 1515 was granted by the English King to the village founded by Anglo Norman’s in the 12th century and peopled by settlers from the English mainland. It established the office of Town Provost, who had overall charge of the town’s affairs and who was elected each year by the Burgesses of the town on the Feast of St. Michael. His modern equivalent would be town Mayor. However, Mayors today share power and authority with administrators and consequently wield less power than their medieval predecessors.

In addition to the Office of Town Provost, Henry VIII’s charter established a borough council comprised of 12 burgesses who were to be elected by the freemen of the village of Athy. In time the appointment of the burgesses of the town was exercised by the head of the House of Leinster, by what authority, if any, we cannot say. The Earl of Kildare whose successor was later to be elevated to the Dukedom of Leinster thereafter nominated his own friends as burgesses of the market town. This situation continued even when the new Charter granted to Athy in 1613 under which a town Sovereign was elected each year to take charge of the town’s affairs. The Borough Council continued in place with powers similar to those provided under the earlier charter.

Athy Borough Council, an unelected body, consisting of members who were by and large non-residents of the town with no apparent proprietary interest in south Kildare continued in existence until the passing of the Municipal Corporations Act, 1840. Up to 1800 Athy Borough Council returned two Members of Parliament to the House of Commons. It was not however active in improving the infrastructure of a town whose population had increased to almost 5,000 by the early decades of the 19th century. The undemocratic nature of the Borough Councils such as Athy and their failure to make proper provision for the development of urban areas signaled the need for the reform of Local Government in Ireland. This culminated in the Municipal Corporations Act, 1840 when a large number of Borough Councils, including Athy, were abolished.

For a short time Athy was without any form of municipal government but in the mid 1840’s the people of the town petitioned the Dublin authorities for Athy to be granted Town Commission status. When granted it lead to the first municipal elections for public representatives on the new body which was named Athy Town Commission. The previous office of Town Sovereign which had replaced the earlier Town Provost was itself replaced by the Office of Chairman of the Town Commissioners. The Commissioners who were elected at regular intervals thereafter set about their task of improving the paving, lighting and cleaning of the streets of the town. With the limited powers available to them the Commissioners continued to develop the towns facilities over the following 60 years. The passing of the Local Government Act, 1898 put County Local Government on a representative basis and at the same time gave Town Commissioners the right to be reconstituted as Urban District Councils.

On 14th November of that year Athy Town Commissioners agreed to submit a petition to the Local Government Board to separate the town of Athy from the rural district and to constitute it an urban district. For some unexplained reason the petition was not submitted and a further petition agreed by the Town Commissioners in February 1899 was sent forward following which a public enquiry was held in the town hall. As a result of this enquiry Athy was constituted an Urban District Council with effect from 1st April, 1900. This was the third time in the form of local government for the town was changed since Henry VIII’s charter of 1515. It would not be the last.

The next 100 years witnessed the most active period in the development of public services in the town under the mandate of the Urban District Council. The Slum Clearance Programme of the 1930’s initiated under the housing programmes of the first De Valera led government together with the provision of a piped water supply system in the second decade of the 20th century were the highlights of the Council’s successes over the years. During the periods when the town was governed by a Borough Council, Town Commissioner or Urban District Council, the chief administrator of the town was the Town Clerk. Initially a part-time job it later required the services of a full-time official who was based in the municipal offices in the Town Hall. The Clerk of the Urban District Council was appointed by the members of the Council on the recommendation of the Local Appointments Commission and as such was an officer of the Council. However, under recent changes in the Local Government structure the recruitment of personnel for the town of Athy is now centralised to Kildare County Council and the Town Clerk of Athy is employed directly by that Council. Athy Urban District Council has also had its title changed to Athy Town Council.

As successors to the Borough Council, the Town Commissioners and the Urban District Council, Athy Town Council continues to serve the local people, even if the changes heralded with the change of name confirm that the roles of town councils are to be reduced in the drive to centralise Local Government in this country.

The photo exhibition presently in the Heritage Centre is to be augmented for the Christian Brothers Class Re-union scheduled for the weekend of 20th September. Photographs relating to Athy and school groups during the 1940’s and later will be on display. The Heritage Centre would like to hear from anyone who has any photographs which could be lent for the period of the exhibition. All photographs will be returned to the owners at the end of September when the exhibition closes. If you have any suitable material for display please contact Margaret O’Riordan at (0507) 33075.