Thursday, February 28, 2002

Afforestation in South Kildare

Sawyerswood, Brackney Wood, Blackwood, Rathconnell Wood, the last remains of the vast woods which in medieval times and earlier cloaked the Irish countryside, or are they a more recent addition to the Irish landscape? Undoubtedly they are ancient woods, but how old we do not know. Perhaps they were planted with the help of bounties paid by the Dublin Society towards the end of the 18th century. In 1783 over 65,000 trees were propagated in Ireland under the Dublin Society Scheme, and seven years later the number of trees propagated with the assistance of bounties increased to over 3,750,000. The bounties offered for tree planting were paid out of funds made available by the Irish Parliament. This scheme unfortunately was discontinued following the passing of the Act of Union.

Kildare County Council which was set up following the enactment of the Local Government Act of 1898 was one of the first Local Authorities in Ireland to take up the question of afforestation. In 1906 the Council then, as now, based in the county capital of Naas sought to compliment the State forestry efforts by adopting a county based afforestation programme which was intended to be funded by the Council itself. The County Council tried to secure two sites regarded as suitable for experimental tree planting at Brackney [known locally as Brackna], just three miles outside Athy on the Stradbally road and at Kingswood Bog Common, a place which I have not been able to locate. The latter commons consisted of almost 600 acres but because of claims in relation to ancient grazing rights made by local farmers the County Council were not able to pursue their plans for tree planting in that area. This left Brackney then covered in scrub and extending to about 100 acres which was owned by Lord Gough. He was willing to vest the property in the County Council but nevertheless protracted negotiation took place before the deal was finalised in 1907. The County Council, despite having indicated that it would fund the scheme itself, then approached the Department for financial assistance towards the cost of the afforestation scheme and succeeded in securing a grant of £500, subject however to the County Council providing a similar sum from its own resources. The Council agreed to proceed on that basis and a rate of half a penny in the pound over the entire county was struck which brought in a total of £677=3=2. The County Committee of Agriculture gave a grant of £75 towards the Scheme, and Lord Gough made a contribution of £235 which was the price which the County Council had agreed to pay for the land. Thus a tree planting fund of £1,487=3=2 was available to the County Council.

Kildare County Council had at its disposal the expertise of a forestry expert, Mr. A.C. Forbes who worked for the Department and on his advice it was decided to clear and plant ten acres of the ground in Brackney every year so that in ten years time the entire 100 acres would be under wood. The cost of clearing the scrub land and planting it with trees was estimated to cost £100 each year with little or no expense arising thereafter. A mixture of European Larch, Beech, Austrian and Corsican Pines, Douglas and Silver firs were planted in December 1907, but by June of the following year Mr. Forbes had to report that while the trees were on the whole doing well, upwards of two thirds of the European Larch had died.

The success of the scheme led to the Duke of Leinster giving as a free gift to the County Council, Corballis Hill near Ballitore for the purpose of afforestation and a further 30 acres were acquired for planning at Pollardstown. Kildare County Council having led the way in county based afforestation programmes handed over responsibility for the scheme to the County Committee of Agriculture. Brackney Wood as we know it today clearly owes its continued existence as a forest to the County Council Scheme which started 95 years ago. Even before the County Council acquired the 100 acre site it was known as Brackney Wood, a fact which is confirmed by a perusal of the earliest Ordnance Survey maps for the county. Quite clearly the scrub land which was revitalised under the County Council Tree Planting Scheme of 1907 was only then being restored to its former wooded state which had endured for centuries previously.

Some weeks ago I got a phone call from Professor Fox of University College Cork who was making enquiries about Canon Richard Bagot, one time Rector of Fontstown. The Reverend Canon, whose father and grandfather in their day also had the living of Fontstown Parish, was a pioneer of dairy reform in 19th century Ireland. In fact he established the first creamery in Ireland in Hospital, Co. Limerick and published a handbook on creameries and a further book entitled “Easy Lessons in Dairying”. Cannon Bagot who died in 1894 at the relatively young age of 65 years is one of the great men of another generation whose contribution to Irish life is now almost forgotten. Some of you may remember his daughters, Elizabeth and Olivia, two elderly spinsters who lived at Shamrock Lodge on the Kildare Road into the 1950’s. I hope to write of Cannon Richard Bagot and the Bagot family in a future article but in the meantime today’s National newspapers bring news of another local person who has created a piece of history insofar as Athy is concerned.

Clare O’Flaherty who was born in Athy to Jim O’Flaherty and Carmel Glespen, formerly of Duke Street, has just been named as the new Irish Ambassador to Finland. She is the first Athy-born person to achieve such an important post within the Department of Foreign Affairs. Our congratulations go to Clare, whose sister Colette is a senior member of the National Library staff in Dublin and whose parents Jim and Carmel are living in Greystones, Co. Wicklow. Jim will be remembered as an official in the local Post Office for many years and a founder member of the Credit Union office in Athy before leaving to become Post Master in Greystones in the late 1960’s.

Thursday, February 21, 2002

Yates Family and Tobacco Growing in South Kildare

It started with a photograph from the 1940’s which showed a number of farm workers harvesting tobacco leaves on a South Kildare farm. What an unusual sight you might think and certainly one not normally to be seen outside those countries where warm climates afford the ideal growing conditions for growing tobacco plants. But this was during the hard economic days of the Second World War when Ireland’s merchant navy was beset by belligerent U-boats and dangerous cross Atlantic trips were justifiable only when the cargo was life giving food products. Tobacco, that noxious weed so beloved of film stars and star gazers alike, in those distant days, was a luxury item which found little space in the holds of ships which then crossed and re-crossed the war torn seas and oceans of the world. It was the resulting shortage of tobacco leaves which saw a number of enterprising farmers in South Kildare undertake the growing of a crop which was previously foreign to our soil.

But let me return to the reason why the photo was shown to me in the first place. I was intrigued by the story of a young Church of Ireland family who left Ballincarrig, Co. Offaly at the start of the 1900’s and came to these parts of County Kildare to take over three separate farms. The young men and their sisters all bore the name Yates and to Grangemellon House arrived Jonathan Yates and his sisters Phoebe and Sarah. The last named was the only member of the triumvirate to marry when in 1915 she wed Jack McCullagh of Sawyerswood, both of whom later emigrated to Canada. Her brother Jonathan, a single man had died two years previously and he was buried in Kilberry where his sister Phoebe was to join him in January 1924. When the Yates’ came to Grangemellon, their brother Tom took up the tenancy of a farm at Lipstown, Narraghmore and it was from there that Tom Yates came to Grangemellon following the death of his brother Jonathan in 1913. The photograph mentioned at the start of this article captured a scene on Tom Yates farm in Grangemellon approximately 30 years later.

Another brother, William Yates came from County Offaly as the tenant of a farm at Ballycullane and it was he who patented in 1908, the Yates hay lifter, a model of which is to be seen in the local Heritage Centre in the Town Hall. William married a Miss Jackson and later moved to Leinster Lodge which he sold on retiring in the late 1930’s. Two other male members of the County Offaly Yates family were James, a civil servant who moved to Belfast and Henry a Minister in the Church of Ireland who later became Archdeacon of Killaloe.

Why was it that three branches of the Yates family set up homes in South Kildare at the turn of the last Century? Was it an extension of the policy first put in place by the Duke of Leinster in the 1850’s to strengthen the established Church in South Kildare by giving farm tenancies to members of that Church or was it merely a co-incidence that most of the best farmlands in South Kildare passed from one Church of Ireland tenant to another? The question raises issues which could form the basis of an interesting study of the relationship between land succession and religious adherences in South Kildare during the later half of the 19th Century and the first half of the 20th Century. Howsoever the various Yates family members from County Offaly came to live in close proximity to each other in South Kildare, the unfolding history of their lives saw Ballycullane passing out of their hands when William Yates left for Leinster Lodge. The Lipstown Narraghmore lands initially farmed by Tom Yates subsequently passed to his eldest son Garret. He it was who eventually sold on those lands to Willie Fennin leaving the Grangemellon holdings as the only farmland still in the ownership of the Yates family. It was Tommy Yates Junior who took over Grangemellon from his father in 1961. He was the youngest member of the five children of Tom Yates and Annette Hewitt of County Longford who married in 1926. Of Tom’s three sisters, Freda is a retired School Teacher, Sheila is married to Billy Shaw of Carlow while Joan who married Dan Connolly of Ballyfoyle has passed away.

The farm at Grangemellon has an imposing residence. Grangemellon House was built probably in the middle of the 18th Century. The farm land was a mixed farm of about 200 acres with cattle, sheep and tillage requiring a workforce of five or six men in the 1930’s and a complement of six horses. Tobacco growing in the early 1940’s was perhaps one on the more unusual farming activities of the time. Tom Yates Senior propagated tobacco plants in glass protected hot beds of which he had about twenty during those years. The plants grown from seed were bedded in clay enriched with horse manure and when strong enough, the plants were sold on to neighbouring farmers. As well as propagating tobacco plants, the Yates farm was also involved in growing and harvesting tobacco leaves. The young plants were transplanted to drills of about 36 inches wide and during the growing season they were treated in much the same way as tomato plants. When the tobacco plants reached maturity, their leaves were harvested and drawn into the tobacco house. In the photograph accompanying this article, the leaves are shown hanging from the frame of a horse drawn dray. When the frames were full, the dray was returned to the tobacco house where the frames and the hanging leaves were lifted off and left to hang in a wood lined drying room. Coal braziers were lit to dry the leaves and when that primary drying process was finished, the leaves were sold onto Greene’s of Kilkea Lodge where they underwent further drying. It was there that the Excise men graded the tobacco leaves for the purpose of quantifying the duty payable. The finished plant was then sold onto the factories to provide the raw material for the Irish Tobacco Industry.

Tom Yates Junior who married Shirley Armstrong from Manorhamilton, Co. Leitrim some years after she came to work in Shaw’s of Athy is with his son Bruce, the present occupiers of Grangemellon Farm. Tom has seen many changes in his time and recalls the farming emergency of 1947 when the weather caused a national crisis and threatened that years harvest. The mixed farming of earlier years has given way to agricultural specialization while the combustion engine signaled the death knell of both the farm labourer and the farm horse alike. Times have changed but the unfolding story of life on an Irish farm is a never ending one where memories of tobacco growing days in the 1940’s provide a unique insight into the ingenuity and foresight of the men who worked the soil.

Thursday, February 14, 2002

Aidan Tierney

Aidan Tierney visited Athy last August on a quick trip from his home in New Zealand where he has lived for over 25 years. Aidan’s parents Patrick and Edith Tierney lived at Salisbury House just outside Athy on the Monasterevin side of the town from the late 1920’s. It was from there that Aidan attended the Christian Brother’s School in St. John’s lane where he was a pupil with the likes of Jimmy Bradbury, Leopold Kelly, Jimmy Bolger, Michael May, Mickey Quinn, John Dunphy, Tom Pender, Ger Byrne and John Behan of Rathstewart. When he left school, Aidan worked on the family farm and was soon involved with the local branch of Macra Na Feirme organisation. In 1963 he was appointed Honorary Secretary of Macra, a position which he was to hold for the following three years. During the early 1960’s he was also a member of the original co-operative buying group which under the late Fred Henderson of Ardmore subsequently developed into the Farmers Co-op now restyled Liffey Mills and which still operates out of premises on the Kildare Road.

During his time in Ireland, Aidan was a member of the National Farming Association and amongst the members then he recalls Frank Jackson, Ivan Bergin, Bill Diamond, Dermot Mullan, Bill Hendy, Tim Fennin, Charlie Chambers, Dermot Doyle and Jack Kingston.

In 1966 Aidan was sent as part of a herd testing team from Ireland to help out the New Zealand Dairy Board on a two year contract. He did not return to Athy at the end of his two year contract as in the meantime he met his future wife, Roselia Potroz a lady of Polish extraction whom he married in New Zealand in 1969. Following the birth of their first son Kevin, Aidan and his wife Roselia came to Ireland in 1971. While living in Athy from November 1972, Aidan was involved with the Mullinahown Cooperative Society in setting up in Ireland a cattle tagging agency. The Allflex Cattle Ear Tag System which he had first encountered in New Zealand after his arrival in 1966 is now a multi-million pound business employing over 50 people and supplying the entire Irish farming industry.

Aidan and Roselia with their young son Colm who was born in St. Vincent’s Hospital, Athy and his New Zealand born sibling Kevin, finally left Athy and South Kildare towards the end of 1975 to return to New Zealand. Aidan purchased a Dairy Farm with 160 acres at Taranaki on the western side of the North Island of New Zealand. Unlike the dairy farms of England and Ireland, the warm climate of the Southern Hemisphere allows the animals to remain on grass all year round ruling out the need for sheds, slurry disposal and many of the hundred and one jobs involved in maintaining winter stock in Ireland. Aidan continued to farm at Taranaki until 1990 when he bought a farm of about 320 acres further north on the Island which allowed him to increase his stock levels to 250 cows. At the same time he had a 20 acre kiwi fruit farm and harvested a fruit delicacy which first made its appearance on Irish supermarket shelves over 20 years. In the meantime the Tierney family had expanded with the arrival of Allana, Paul, Liam and Stephanie. Aidan retired from full time farming in 1997 having combined his agricultural responsibilities for nineteen and a half years as a Marketing Consultant for a local newspaper, The Farming Independent. He is now part of a partnership which operates a 50 acre Kiwi Fruit Farm in his adopted country, New Zealand.

When Aidan and his wife returned to Athy last August, they did so as part of a round the world trip which saw them journeying to Youghal in Co. Cork for the wedding of their Athy born son Colm to an Irish girl. For the man born at Salisbury, Athy, Co. Kildare over sixty years ago, New Zealand has been a pleasant and a happy land. While the Islands of New Zealand are wetter than Australia, they nevertheless provide a pleasant temperate climate where the cost of agricultural production is far less than that in Ireland. There is little meal fed to cattle and no shed work in New Zealand unlike Ireland where costs are substantially higher. One of the many contrasts between Irish and New Zealand farming is that provided by the free market economy of the latter as contrasted with the subsidy based agricultural life of Ireland. The New Zealand farmer operates without the benefit of any subsidies but is also free of the restrictive quotas such as that relating to milk production in Ireland.

There is no surprise to find that one and half million of those living in New Zealand are of Irish extraction. Taranaki has its Irish Social Club with up to three hundred members of second and third generation Irish and in New Zealand as elsewhere, Irish pubs are springing up everywhere. Amongst Aidan Tierney’s near neighbours are Athy folk John Alcock and his sister Sheila who is married to a Galway man. John is now retired and living in the beach area of the Bay of Plenty. Recent visitors to that part of the world included John Doyle formerly of the Heath and Anna May McHugh who with Breda Ovington met Aidan in New Zealand while on a recent visit. P.J. Kirwan of K. Gardens was another one who renewed acquaintances with Aidan while visiting his brother Noel who is also living in New Zealand.

The Tierney farm at Salisbury is now farmed by Aidan’s brother Philip, but for Aidan the Christian Brother educated man from Athy, New Zealand is now his home. He is part of the Irish diaspora which over the centuries has helped to create an overseas Irish world, which we who remain on the island of Ireland, can be immeasurably proud.

The History and Family Research Centre based in Newbridge is hosting a Local History Seminar on Thursday, 28th February at 8.00pm in the Newbridge Arts Centre. The purpose of the Seminar is to acquaint people with the current state of the Local Studies Collection and to address concerns over access to that material and research facilities. It is also intended to outline the plans for the development of the History and Family Research Centre which incorporates Local Studies, Archives and the Kildare Heritage and Genealogy Project. Anyone with an interest in local history or in genealogy will find the Seminar of interest.

Thursday, February 7, 2002

John O'Donovan - Antiquarian

There is something unremitting about rain in the early spring that can weary even the most determined traveler. Much less can one imagine the motivation of a man who would travel the length and breadth of Kildare in the harsh and unforgiving winter months.

One such man was the antiquarian and historian John O’Donovan. Almost single-handedly through his researches in Irish history and archaeology he revitalised the then dormant interest in the Irish language and the history of people and place in Ireland.

As a scholar his achievements were of monumental significance. His editing and publication of the Annals of the Irish Four Masters would be sufficient to distinguish him amongst the scholars and writers of the last century. Added to this work he traveled the length and breadth of the country in the employ of the Ordnance Survey from 1830 to 1842. From October to December of 1837 O’Donovan spent his days and nights by horse and by foot travelling the highways and byways of the county of Kildare. On his travels he sought out every bit of historical or archaeological information that he could find. He began his researches in Maynooth on October 18th, 1837. In that one day he traversed “the Parishes of Leixlip, Confey, Donaghmore and Kilmacreddock and took notice of all the remarkable things connected with them that came under my observation”. He noted a well called Shaughlin’s Well in the Parish of Maynooth. The well had been a popular place for locals to visit and was a place where he was told that many miraculous cures had been effected. He wrote

“There was for many years an iron cup appended to a chain at it for the use of those who frequented it which some sacrilegious hand coveting took off a few years ago.”

Two days later he could be found in the Parishes of Kildrought, Doneycomper and Stacummey where he obtained as much information as he possibly could about the local English pronunciations and the names. He regretted to note that there was no possibility of getting it pronounced in Irish for the language had become almost entirely extinct in this part of the country.

O’Donovan was in the habit of communicating his discoveries on a daily basis to the Ordnance Survey in Dublin, with detailed descriptions of the places he went to and the people he met, while at the same time casting a critical eye over previous histories of the areas and the local traditions that he had encountered. In his endeavours O’Donovan was often times accompanied by T. O’Connor and J. O’Keeffe who did parallel researches in areas adjoining O’Donovans. From the Ordnance Survey letters there is an impression of great urgency about the work that O’Donovan and his colleagues were doing and a sense that much of the information that they were recording would be lost were they not out there collecting it on a day-to-day basis.

In many ways the works they were doing were not appreciated. O’Connor described their arrival in Clane on November 3rd, 1837. Thus :-
“We just arrived and with the greatest possible difficulty found a reception which, from its badness, will, I fear, prove injurious at least to me, as I feel on this evening rather discreetly affected with a cold arising from the very cold wettings I got in Carbery. This is a most wretched village, though it is a post town.”

The flurry of letters which the Ordnance Survey received on a day-to-day basis recorded not only the works done but often the frustrations and the limitations of the fieldwork. O’Donovan constantly wrote to the Ordnance Survey in Dublin in search of further materials, which would aid him in his field works. Often his letters would contain detailed instructions to his contemporaries in the Ordnance Survey including such men as Eugene O’Curry, his brother-in-law, the great social historian of ancient Ireland whose book on the Manners and Customs of Ancient Ireland was regarded as a classic in its day.

Sometimes in O’Donovan’s letters there is this underlying tension between his ambition to record as much as possible and the difficulty in coping with the inclement weather conditions in winter. Travelling by canal boat from Mullingar to Dublin O’Donovan arrived in the early hours of the morning of 12th November, finding himself exhausted and sleepy and unable to travel to Naas to meet up with his colleagues O’Connor and O’Keeffe to complete their works there.

Even though he found himself physically unable to make the journey he was anxious to assess the works they had done. O’Donovan showed a touching concern for his colleagues in the field while writing from Athy on November 20th, 1837. He recommended that his friend O’Keeffe be returned to Dublin for a while. He noted the weather was very severe and might injure O’Keeffe instead of improving his health. For a week in late November 1837 O’Donovan and his colleagues used Athy as a base in which to conduct their researches in the areas surrounding it. By the end of November they moved to Kildare town to explore the north of the county. His enthusiasm for his works seem to have dimmed somewhat towards the end of the year and he had developed a very poor opinion of the people and places in that part of Kildare. Visiting Monasterevin on December 3rd, 1837 he wrote as follows :-
“I visited Monasterevin yesterday but could find no feature or tradition there to throw any light on its history. The people are entirely anglicised and have lost all their ancient traditions. I long to get to Connaught again, as those of my own province are not only exceedingly ignorant on the subject of my enquiry, but also boorish and unobliging.”

The period spent in Kildare town seemed to be a difficult one for O’Donovan. Of his future plans he wrote :-
“If I can get over the writing for Kildare I think we might be able to finish the Kings County in about six weeks, but the wretched town of Kildare nearly killed me and I am now so nervous that I can scarcely hold the pen.”

Towards the end of December he visited the Moate of Ardscull a couple of miles outside of Athy. In recording his thoughts on that Moate he referred to James Hardiman’s history of Ardscull and surroundings. The errors and contradictions of Hardiman’s writings infuriated O’Donovan. He noted cantankerously :-
“It is astonishing that such a man, ‘a man of keen, discerning and of clear intellect and of vast information’ as Hardiman could insult the public by such glaring nonsense. If Hardiman knew that I wrote in this manner about his book he would become my most bitter enemy. But I don’t care about the feelings of any man, friend or foe. Nothing for me but plain honest truth. No quibbling, equivocating, disguising or suppression. No confounding of names or periods. No assumption without proof. No conjecture in the shape of positiviness! You will say that I am getting mad again. This weather is so sublime that it will throw one back three centuries.”

O’Donovan completed his work in Kildare by the end of 1837. O’Donovan died in Dublin 1862 from rheumatic fever which his friends and colleagues believed was brought on due to the many years he had spent in inclement weather on outdoor work for the Ordnance Survey.