Thursday, April 25, 2002

500th Edition of Eye on the Past

This week I had intended to complete the story of the Verschoyles of Kilberry, land owners of the last century whose lands extended over the area once occupied by the followers of St. Baire whose name gave us the anglicised placename, Kilberry. So much for my intentions. But you will no doubt forgive me if I instead indulge myself somewhat this week. After all this is the 500th edition of the Eye on the Past and as such worthy of some recognition, even if only by myself!

Eye on the Past No. 1 appeared in the Nationalist and Leinster Times on 25th September 1992, just two weeks before the Kildare Nationalist first arrived on the newsagent stands. The last paragraph of that first article promised that “Eye on the Past will each week deal with a topic of interest from the history of South Kildare where we will delve into the rich vein of local history which remains to be discovered and related in future articles.”

I wonder if I wrote that piece more in hope than in any real expectation that I could unravel the hidden stories of this part of County Kildare. After all, little or nothing had been previously put in print in relation to our local history. The one exception was Michael “Crutch” Malone’s “Annals of Athy”, published in the early 1930’s. Strangely I was to come across some years ago Malone’s manuscript notes for the Annals which had been incorporated into one of the many minute books of the Athy Urban District Council. Sadly those same volumes were water damaged during the time they were stored in the then dilapidated Town Hall in the years before that building was handsomely restored.

Whatever my expectations when I wrote that first article in 1992 I have to say that the intervening years have proved to me that there is an enormous interest in local history. Indeed it’s an interest which is growing apace fed on the burgeoning diet of books and booklets which are published every year on every aspect of Irish local history. To my shame I have not yet completed my oft promised History of Athy and as I write this article the manuscript of the town’s story on which I worked on and off for so many years still lies within the deep recesses of my desk. I must return to it again someday soon, if only to ensure that no-one else will be held responsible for my errors of omission or interpretation.

The public’s response to the Eye on the Past series has always been encouraging and nowhere is that more evident than in the many kindnesses shown to me over the years by those whom I have been privileged to interview. There have been many happy occasions when the interviewees have shared with me stories, some of which unfortunately could not be reproduced in print for one reason or another. There have been sad moments too, occasioned by memories of times past and events of another age. People’s memories of the hard times are not always recalled with nostalgia. There can sometimes be a trace of bitterness and of regret that the opportunities to work in one’s own town or country were not available when young men wanted to live out their lives with their own families. The result was a steady stream of emigration from the town of Athy - the same town which over the centuries had itself welcomed overseas settlers who were to make their home in the Anglo-Norman town on the River Barrow.

The story of Athy is a fascinating one. It’s a story of conquest and settlement, development and decline, but above all a history of a townspeople of different creeds and sometimes of different nationalities who over time found a common ground in their desire to develop and sustain an urban community. Local history for all its diversity can be broken down into the lives of the people who live, work and play in any one place, and Athy affords someone like myself a unique opportunity to delve into and record events and people. I have often wondered at the range of interest evidenced in the lives of the most humble of persons. Their life stories carry within them the nuggets from which local history is fashioned. I have been very fortunate in meeting and listening over the years to many men and women whose experiences of times past have provided an interesting and informative infill to my own generalised background knowledge of life in Athy in the 1940’s and 1950’s. Even more welcome was the opportunity to talk to those whose life experiences went back into earlier decades of the 20th century.

In the ten years I have been penning the Eye on the Past the cultural life of Athy has been enhanced by the opening of a heritage centre in the early 18th century Town Hall. More than anything else that centre was the realisation of a dream which originated in a meeting held in early 1983, attended by the likes of the late Pat Mulhall and the late Bertie Doyle with the then County Manager, Gerry Ward. It was Gerry Ward’s support for the newly established Athy Museum Society and his agreement to re-locate the local museum in a small room in the Town Hall which ultimately lead to the drive to have Athy designated as a heritage town. The Urban Council made the formal submission to An Bord Failte for the much sought heritage status and the funding which would follow. The town’s story stretching back to the 12th century provided an ideal historical framework to support that application. Almost inevitably, Bord Failte approval was received, ultimately resulting in the refurbishing of the ground floor of the Town Hall as a new heritage centre for Athy. We are extremely lucky to have such a fine facility as the Heritage Centre and with the ever increasing interest in local history, there is always an opportunity for local people to contribute in one way or another to the continuing success of the Centre.

I hope those faithful readers who each week read Eye on the Past have enjoyed the first 500 articles. I have certainly enjoyed researching and writing them. My thanks go to the many men and women who over the last ten years or so have given of their time to share their experiences with me and ultimately with the readers of the Kildare Nationalist. One final thank you and its to the lady who ten years ago while a reporter covering the Athy area asked me to write what was a new series for her Eye on Athy page. Barbara Sheridan is now news editor of the newspaper and it’s Barbara you have to blame if my weekly meanderings are not to your liking. By the way, if you would like to read the articles in book form, you can still get Eye on Athy’s Past - Vol. 2 which has articles published in the Kildare Nationalist between June 1995 and April 1997. Volume I is out of print but whatever copies are available can be obtained in the local book shops and in the local Heritage Centre.

Thursday, April 18, 2002

Verschoyle (Part 1)

The name Verschoyle is remembered in connection with land ownership in the Kilberry area of Athy. Today the only reminder of the extensive land holdings which were once in the Verschoyle name are the shooting rights which are reserved to members the same family. On the other side of Athy at Ardreigh, there lived up to 1956 a man whom I and many others believed was a retired English Army Officer. He was, or so I always thought, a retired Army General and while he lived behind the closed gates of Ardreigh House, nothing was ever said or done to alter that perception.

The man in question was Ainslie Verschoyle. The eldest son of Robert and Gertrude Verschoyle he was born in England in 1875. As a young man, he was involved in a number of different business enterprises including the operation of a fleet of carriages in the university town of Oxford. A well travelled man, he once operated a Hotel in the South of France, while another of his innovative businesses was organising trekking parties in the Rocky Mountains. Verschoyle was also involved in motor racing when that sport was still in its infancy. It was an interest he retained until the end of his days and one which allowed him to indulge his passion for driving sports cars.

Those who recall Verschoyle of Ardreigh House invariably mention the man in the context of sports cars and gun dogs. Indeed, he was heavily involved in gun dog trials and founded the Irish Fields Trial Association of which he was president until he died. An excellent trainer of gun dogs, he won many trophies in field trials which for many years were held on his lands at Athy. Shooting and fishing were part of his sporting repertoire and I can recall a story told to me many years ago of the master of Ardreigh House as Verschoyle was commonly known. The gate lodge was home to the Bolger’s and one day when one of their chickens encroached on Verschoyle’s lawn, it was swiftly dispatched with a well aimed shot from the front door of Ardreigh House followed by the bellowed instructions “Bolger, there’s chicken soup on the lawn”.

There was also a romantic and sentimental side to the man as evidenced in a story recounted to me some years ago by Manchester based Sarah Allen who as a young girl lived with her grandmother at Ardreigh. Mrs. Lawler worked as a cook for Ainslie Verschoyle and occasionally her young grand daughter Sarah was sent into Athy to collect a newspaper. Sarah still recalled over fifty years later the one and only occasion she walked through the front door of Ardreigh House, when invited to do so following one newspaper trip to town. She recalled the luxury of walking on carpets for the very first time in her life and Verschoyle’s gentle demeanor as he brought her into the dining room beyond the hall to show her his late wife’s harp. It stood in a corner of the room, a poignant reminder of his late wife Eleanor whom he had married in 1903, the year of the Gordon Bennett Race.

Ainslie Verschoyle and his wife Eleanor had no children and when Mrs. Verschoyle died in 1925 at their home in the Pyrennes, her husband Ainslie returned to England. When exactly he returned to Ireland I cannot say but the information available to me at present would indicate that Ainslie Verschoyle moved to Ardreigh House in the early 1930’s. There he was to live for over twenty years in the splendid surroundings of a house which had been built in the final years of the Great Famine, for the Haughton’s who were a Quaker family.

I have not traced any records of Ainslie Verschoyle’s supposed Military Service and given his business interests in so many country’s while he was still a young man, it is likely that he had no connection at all with the British Army. In that respect, he was different than his only brother Henry who served as a Colonel in the Royal Army Service Corps and who died in 1967 aged 80 years. Ainslie Verschoyle had three sisters Catherine Eleanor and Lucy, only one of whom appear to have married. He died on 1st March 1956 and Ardreigh House was subsequently purchased by Georgie Farrell , a man who in his time acquired and sold many of the big houses in this area.

On the Northern side of Athy lies Kilberry, once home to another Verschoyle family who were cousins of Ainslie Verschoyle. Ainslie’s grandfather Joseph Verschoyle was brother of Robert Verschoyle of Kilberry and both were sons of James Verschoyle, Bishop of Kilalla who died in 1834. The Kilberry lands came into the possession of the Verschoyle’s while James Verschoyle was Dean of St. Patrick’s in Dublin. He had been appointed Dean four years before the Year of Rebellion 1798 and was eventually raised to the Bishopric of Kilalla in 1810.

The Bishop’s son, Robert Verschoyle who was born in 1792 and who qualified as a Barrister in 1818 lived for most of the year in Kilberry but during the London season he was based at 116 Eaton Square, London. The Kilberry residence of the Verschoyle’s was known as Abbey Farm, built it was believed, on the site of a ruined Abbey. Winnifred Letts, the poet, playwright and fiction writer who married William Henry Verschoyle in 1926 wrote eloquently of rural Leinster and her book of reminiscences titled “Knockmaroon” published in 1933 has a wistful charm which owes much to the long standing Verschoyle links with the Kilberry area. She wrote of Abbey Farm as being
“surrounded by little stumps of castles, one in the farmyard proudly rules the hay rick. Another, Castle Reddy, in a field, was its legends of buried treasure and of the old La Rede Family……… just by the avenue gates lies the old Churchyard and the ivy buried nave of the Church of St. Baire which has become “Berry” in these days. Ruins of the Abbey stand close to the house”.

Next week I will continue the story of the Verschoyle families and their connections with Kilberry.

Thursday, April 11, 2002

Corporal Anthony Ovington - Royal Dublin Fusiliers

Recently Clem Ryan, a history teacher in Scoil Mhuire came to me with a number of letters which came into his possession some years ago. He was anxious to trace the owners of the letters and his best efforts in that regard had proved less than successful. Two of those letters concern a young man named Anthony Ovington who died in France on 13 November 1916. A Corporal in the Royal Dublin Fusiliers he was born at Woodfield, Co. Wicklow and was apparently known to his friends and acquaintances as Tony. One of the letters is a copy of the original and is dated 9 December [presumably 1916]. It was from a fellow soldier who served in France with Tony Ovington and was addressed to Mrs. Ovington, whether Tony’s mother or wife, I do not know. The letter writer was Sgt. T. Priest who was apparently well known to the Ovington family. In his letter of 9 December Priest refers to Mrs. Ovington's letter of seven days previously and continues.

“I regret to say I have bad news for you about poor Tony. It was only yesterday I heard definitely the very sad news that he was dead. Until then I hoped that he might be only wounded and in hospital but alas my hopes were not realized. Tony and I went into action on the 13th November and I came out of it without a scratch, but poor Tony was knocked out. I don’t know how I came out of it safely. It was a perfect hell. I am feeling awfully lonely after Tony and indeed so is everyone in the company. He was loved and admired by all for his simple and jovial manner, but none of them can miss him as I do as he was a true and faithful comrade, but we must all die sooner or later and I think there is no one more prepared for death than a person going into battle. I have no doubt that poor Tony is quite happy now. Needless to say Mrs. Ovington you and your family have my deepest sympathy in the irreparable loss which you have sustained in the death of dear Tony.”

The second letter, also from Sgt. Priest, is an original letter dated 12 January 1917 and sent from “Somewhere in France” to those whom he addressed as “My dear fellas”. After acknowledging a letter received from them Sgt. Priest continued.

“I know that Tony has been reported as missing but he is now reported as killed on the 13th November. Well you would like to hear something about the battle. I cannot tell you very much. It commenced about 6.00 a.m. on the morning of the 13th November and was practically over the next day. I saw Tony immediately after the start but I never saw him afterwards although I searched the ground we had captured two or three days after the attack but I could not find him. One fellow states he saw Tony dead on the German front lines in a dugout. His pay book and identification disc have been sent into the orderly room which shows that he must have been found and buried. Yes we were expecting that the attack was coming off but did not know the exact date until the day before it actually came off. Tony was not with the machine guns in the attack. Any letters you have sent to him will probably be returned to you by Head Quarters if the address of the sender is known. Yes, if I get back to Ireland I shall certainly call to see you”.

He concludes with a reference to his friends father, mother, brothers and sisters before signing off as “your sincere friend”.

The battle referred to, in which Tony Ovington died, was the Battle of Ancre which started on Monday, 13 November 1916. Part of the extended Somme battlefield the engagement at Ancre resulted in the capture of Beaucourt. On the same day as Tony Ovington died upwards of 360 German soldiers of the 62nd Regiment were buried alive when a 30,000 lb. mine was detonated by the British at Hawthorn Crater. On 13 November James Dunne, the 20 year old son of Mr. and Mrs. Peter Dunne of 3 Offaly Street, Athy like Tony Ovington a member of the 10th Batallion Dublin Fusiliers was also killed on the Somme. [I believe James had a brother and one sister who later became a nun]. The bodies of Tony Ovington and James Dunne were never identified and their names are recorded on the Thiepval Memorial in France. This Memorial to the missing of the Somme, records the names of more than 72,000 men who died on the Somme up to 20 March 1918 and who have no known grave. Over 90% of those commemorated died between July and November 1916.

Sergeant Priest whose letters would indicate a friendship with the family of Tony Ovington, was from Knockroe in Co. Roscommon. How Priest and Ovington came to know each other becomes apparent when their regimental numbers are checked. Priest had the Regimental Number 25462 while Tony Ovington had the next number 25463. Both men had obviously enlisted on the same day. Was this the first time they met or were they workmates who decided to enlist together? Probably Tony Ovington, on weekend leave home from the Royal Dublin Fusiliers Barracks in Naas or elsewhere was at one time or another accompanied by his friend Thomas Priest who later corresponded with the Ovington family when the 10th Battalion went overseas.

Thomas Priest, the kindly Sergeant who survived the battle of Ancre in which his friend Tony Ovington died, was killed in action in France on Sunday, 11 February 1917. He never did get the opportunity to return to Ireland or to re-visit his friend’s family. Priest is buried in Ancre Cemetery, Beaumont-Hamel near the Somme which was enlarged after the Armistic of 1918. The majority of those buried in that cemetery died on 1 July, 3 September or 13 November 1916 and of the 2540 graves, 1335 contain the remains of unidentified soldiers. It is possible, that the two Irishmen, Tony Ovington and Thomas Priest, two friends who died within three months of each other, may have been reunited in death in the cemetery of Ancre on the Somme?

Who were the Ovington family and where did they live? I would be delighted to get any information which would help to give us a better understanding of the young man and his friend Thomas Priest who died more than 85 years ago. The letters passed on to me by Clem Ryan will be returned to the descendants of Tony Ovington if they wish to contact me. Otherwise they will be retained in the Heritage Centre where so many relics and mementos of the Great War are kept for display and for future research purposes.

As I mentioned in the book published last year on Athy Urban District Council, that Council ordered that a list be compiled of Athy men who enlisted to fight in World War I and those killed or wounded in action. The list if compiled cannot be traced and I have tried for sometime to put together details of those men. I would welcome any information from any source to allow a comprehensive record of Athy’s involvement in World War I to be put together.

Thursday, April 4, 2002

St. John's Lane / Mrs. Peg English

There has been a huge response to the recent Eye on the Past dealing with the forthcoming class re-union for those with whom I spent many happy school days up to 1960. Sadly at least two former classmates mentioned in that article have passed away, while the whereabouts of a few more have yet to be traced. I am looking forward to hearing from anyone who can help to track down those former pupils of the Christian Brothers School in St. John’s Lane, no matter how far they have moved away from the banks of the River Barrow.

Mention of St. John’s Lane recalls for me the many many times I passed up and down that same lane for upwards of 12 years while attending the Primary School and afterwards the Secondary School in the 1950’s and the ‘60’s. It’s many years since I walked up or down what remains of St. John’s Lane since the car park was laid out and the public space thereby created was named Edmund Rice Square. The Town Council’s decision to charge an hourly rate to use the car park which rate payers’ monies provided in the first instance prompted many, including myself, to move up St. John’s Lane to find an alternative parking space.

It’s over 40 years, since as a pedestrian, I used that same stretch of laneway, passing what was once the Christian Brother’s Monastery on the way to the gated entrance of the school yard. As a teenager, living in an era when there was respect for the institutions of Church and State I always blessed myself when passing a Church and that included the Christian Brother’s Monastery in St. John’s Lane. Would you believe that after the lapse of almost 40 years while recently walking past what was once the doorway to the Christian Brother’s Monastery, but now a private house, my right hand instinctively began to make the sign of the cross. I chuckled and ruefully acknowledged that a habit developed in youth is difficult to lay aside and marveled how it was triggered by walking past a building which was familiar to me so many years ago.

St. John’s Lane now starts and ends, depending on your direction, at the corner of where St. John’s Cemetery joins Edmund Rice Square. At one time the lane turned at that point and bounded by buildings on both sides headed in a straight line to meet Duke Street at a point directly opposite Herterich’s Pork Butchers. As one walked down the lane on leaving the Christian Brothers School, Carbery’s Carpentry and Joinery Works was immediately on the right, with St. John’s Cemetery on the left. At the turn, Carbery’s private house was on the left, with an entrance to their building yard directly in front as one faced the River Barrow. Turning right and heading towards Duke Street the first building on the left belonged to the Defence Forces and housed the local L.D.F. Centre. Immediately adjoining that was Vernal’s forge and beyond the forge the side of Mrs. Haslam’s house which faced out onto the small square fronting Duke Street. [Has anyone ever seen a photograph of that same square? I have searched for years for a reproduction of a scene which was once so familiar to thousands of young school goers, but as yet without any success]. On the right hand side of St. John’s Lane as you turned the corner and headed towards Duke Street was a high wall shielding a yard at the rear of Shaws and beyond it one small house occupied by the English family immediately before Shaws shop, which if I’m correct, extended to just two shop windows on that side of the lane.

Mrs. Peg English lived in that small house with her children, Frank, Ann and Tommy. The latter was named after his father who was known to everybody in Athy as Tommy “Buggy” rather than Tommy English as he was born. Tommy “Buggy” was reared by the Buggy family and the name stuck, particularly during Tommy’s time as a fine Gaelic footballer with the local club in the early 1940’s. He was a member of the Athy senior team which won the Kildare County Senior Championships in 1942. Like many others from Athy he emigrated to England in the late 1940’s to work on the building construction sites. His wife Peg and his young family continued to live in St. John’s Lane and theirs was the only house on that part of St. John’s Lane during the 1950’s.

The history of emigration from the town of Athy in the 1940’s is the story of men like Paddy “Gussler” Croake of St. John’s Lane, John “Parnell” Rochford, Johnny Day, Denis “Bunny” Chanders, his brother William “Skinner” Chanders and many others who found work overseas where none was to be had in their hometown. Some returned to Athy in later years, but many others like Peter Twomey of Barrack Yard who died in Luton in his 90th year spent the remainder of their lives amongst the sometimes inhospitable atmosphere of English towns. The Irish in those days were favoured for the hard rough building work which was shunned by men born on the English mainland, even if the boarding houses of Bradford and Leeds like many other English towns oftentimes bore evidence of the discrimination which allowed “No Irish need apply” signs to proliferate. But that’s a story for another day.

Peg English, the one time resident of St. John’s Lane died last week and her passing revived for me memories of the time when I passed her door four times a day going to and coming from school. I got to know Peg English after she moved to St. Patrick’s Avenue, because of my friendship with her eldest son Frank. She and her sister Kitty O’Mara, who died some years ago, were members of an old Athy family and in sharp contrast to the oft repeated claim that Athy is a settlers town of West Brits, Peg English was an Irish Republican and a staunch and unflinching supporter of the political party born out of the anti-Treaty side following the Civil War. She was a lady of indomitable spirit who loved a cigarette, even though she knew it was bad for a constitution already weakened by the debilitating effects of asthma. As a fellow sufferer, but a non-smoker, I often gently chided her about her smoking habit, but in truth it provided a comfort and a form of relaxation which her age and spirit entitled her to have. I was reminded of my own father, a non-smoker throughout his working life, who on retiring liked nothing more than to drag on a cigarette with an awkwardness which clearly demonstrated previous decades of abstinence.

The funeral Mass for Peg English was celebrated by a family friend, Fr. John Paul Sheridan who nine years ago left the Athy parish after a curacy of three years to return to the Ferns dioceses. With Peggy English’s death passed the last link with that part of St. John’s Lane which was so familiar to me during the 1950’s. Carbery’s, Vernal’s and the Christian Brothers Monastery and School have long departed and the small house which was home to the English family now forms part of Shaw’s Department Store. Edmund Rice Square today has no visible evidence of that period in our lives and memories alone hold the fading reflections of youthful school trips down St. John’s Lane.