Thursday, July 18, 2002

Death of Charlie Prendergast / Baby Dooley - Local

It’s not unusual for me to attend two funerals in the one week. It’s a common enough occurrence in a town where births and deaths have been recorded for almost 800 years. What was unusual last week was the age span which separated a 91 year old whose remains were brought in procession for burial in St. Michael’s Cemetery and the tiny one month old baby who followed a few days later.

Those who turned out for the funeral Mass for the nonagenarian Charlie Prendergast did so as a mark of respect for the man who was, for as long as many of us can remember, a well known and widely popular member of Athy’s community. My earliest memories of Charlie Prendergast was in Offaly Street where he called on a few occasions to do some electrical repairs for my parents. He was an extremely likeable man with a quiet air of authority, skilled at his job, who could always be relied upon to come whenever required to sort out any electrical emergencies that arose. He passed away just a few weeks after his younger brother Ger and is survived by his sons Michael and John and daughter Philomena.

Looking around me at the funeral I was struck by the realisation that almost all those in attendance represented what I could recognise as families with ties extending back at least two generations in the town. As the older people such as Charlie pass on, they do so largely unnoticed by the new arrivals in the town. The newcomers are destined not to know the Charlie Prendergast’s of our town and those of his generation who in their younger days created and sustained the social, sporting and cultural life of Athy.

If you are regular readers you may remember that I wrote an Eye on the Past on Charlie Prendergast some time ago. There I extolled his qualities as a singer whose wonderful tenor voice for many years was heard to great effect in the local Church. In later years, Charlie who had spent a lifetime in the electrical business, took to golf as a recreational sport and was a much valued and beloved member of the Geraldine Golf Club. His contribution to the local community made over many decades in his middle years and later is known and acknowledged by those of us whose memories of Athy extend back a few decades.

Even as the population figures released today confirm a substantial increase in the population of county Kildare there is a realisation that Athy is changing. The old order passes on and those who replaced them, sometimes with no previous links with the town, have little or no appreciation of those whose lives were spent in the vale of the Barrow near to the Ford of Ae. Charlie Prendergast was one whose adult life was spent in Athy and his passing severs another link with the story of the town stretching back to the 1940’s and beyond.

The tiny baby whose remains were conveyed to St. Michael’s Cemetery just days after those of Charlie Prendergast has now joined the nonagenarian in the anonymity of death. The short service in St. Michael’s Church immediately before the burial was a poignant reminder of the sadness which flows from the loss of a human life which had not the opportunity to stretch to childhood and beyond. Its a particularly sad time for parents and grand-parents alike and the sight of the tiny white coffin carried in the arms of the father and mother is surely one of the saddest funeral images imaginable. The first funeral, that of 91 year old Charlie Prendergast was attended by friends and community members who wanted to pay their respects to a man who richly deserved their tributes. The infant’s funeral was more a family gathering with neighbours and friends who came to sympathise and show their support for the grieving parents.

How many times have you walked behind a hearse making the short journey to St. Michael’s Cemetery? It’s a journey that is made every week, sometimes as last week more than once. The same journey has been repeated thousands of times, ever since St. Michael’s Cemetery was first used as a burial place for the people of the town. The now familiar funeral procession first started when the Church of St. Michael’s was built on the outskirts of the medieval town sometime in the 14th century. The Church, the remains of which still stand in the cemetery and known today as the “Crickeen” was the first Parish Church for the Parish of St. Michael’s. It followed on the siting of two monasteries in the then village of Athy. The first monastery was that of the Trinitarians near to the Castle of Woodstock on the West bank of the River Barrow. The second monastery founded by the Dominican’s in 1253 was in the area recently in the news following the burning of the Abbey House at the rear of Emily Square. It’s strange that in a town with a history stretching back 800 years that there are but two town cemetery’s - St. John’s and St. Michael’s. They do not seem capable of holding the remains of all those who died and were buried in Athy since the 12th century so the question arises in what other locations were the local people buried?

Perhaps many locals were buried in and around the grounds of the original Dominican Monastery located at the rear of Emily Square. It is almost certain that members of the local Dominican Order found a final resting place in a community cemetery which would have been attached to the Monastery founded in the 13th century. If and when work commences on the development planned for the Abbey site it will inevitably be preceded by an archaeological excavation of the site which should reveal for us heretofore unknown details of the Dominicans and their medieval monastery in Athy.

Burial grounds are sacred places and in our small provincial town we have old St. Michael’s Cemetery on the Dublin Road and it’s more recent replacement new St. Michael’s across from it in what was once part of the town’s Fair green. In addition there is St. John’s Cemetery, a direct link with the Monastery of St. John’s which existed in the area between Duke Street and Woodstock Castle in the 13th and 14th century. Within the town’s boundaries there is also the small cemetery within the grounds of the former Convent of Mercy and the earlier mentioned but as yet unconfirmed Dominican Monastery Cemetery at the rear of Emily Square. Just outside the town are to be found Ardreigh Cemetery on the Carlow Road, Geraldine Cemetery on the Kildare Road and Tubberara Cemetery between the Monasterevin Road and the Milltown Road. Just opposite St. Vincent’s Hospital which started out as the town Workhouse is St. Mary’s Cemetery where the famine dead were laid to rest. They were to be joined by those poor unfortunate people who impoverished and diseased died in the Workhouse in the 19th century or in the County Home as it was designated in the following century.

In the mid-1980’s AnCO - The Industrial Training Authority, since re-named FAS, funded a youth training project during which the gravestones in Old St. Michael’s Cemetery were recorded and mapped. A similar project was undertaken in relation to St. John’s Cemetery a few years ago as a Probation Services Project. In both instances much useful information was collected and collated to give those involved in family research another means of verifying family details.

History is recorded on the gravestones in our local cemeteries and last week two additional names were added to the long list of those who have already passed through life to become part of our communities history.

Thursday, July 11, 2002

Carlow / Kildare Brigade I.R.A.

I have been attempting for some time past to put together a detailed account of the activities of the Irish Volunteers in south Kildare during the War of Independence. It is proving a very difficult task, largely because everyone involved in that period of Irish history has passed away, leaving little or no record of their involvement in the armed struggle which started with the Easter Rising of 1916.

Athy and South Kildare with parts of counties Wicklow and Laois formed part of the Carlow/Kildare Brigade area and as such was separated from the North Kildare 1st and 2nd Battalions IRA which were based in Maynooth and Naas. The A Company of the 5th Battalion Carlow/Kildare Brigade was centred in Athy, while the B Company was in Kilrush and Castledermot formed the C Company of the same battalion. The Volunteers in Athy were under the command of Captain John Hayden of Offaly Street and his two lieutenants were his brother Paddy Hayden and Michael Dunne of Barrow Quay. John Hayden was a teacher in the local Christian Brothers school who emigrated to America in the early 1920’s. His son Fergus was subsequently reared by John’s brother Paddy who later lived in St. Patrick’s Avenue and worked as a baker in Bradburys. Paddy Dunne was a barman in Dillon’s of Barrow Quay and he subsequently lived in Duke Street and worked in Batchelor’s Pea Factory in Rathstewart. The company quartermaster was Mick Carroll of Shrewleen Lane.

The volunteers forming the A Company of the 5th Battalion Carlow Brigade included Bill Nolan, St. Michael’s Terrace; Jim Bradley, Barrack Street; Peter Lambe, Blackparks; Billy Browne, Ardreigh; Jack Delahunt, Chapel Hill; Mick Curtis, Castlemitchell; Joe Walsh, Barrack Street; Paddy Keeffe, Ardreigh; Joe May and Jack Bradley, both of Woodstock Street. Another Volunteer was an employee of McHugh’s Chemist of Duke Street whose surname was either Hogan or Teehan. The list of Volunteers in the A Company is incomplete and I would welcome hearing from anyone who can add to that list.

The Athy based volunteers were principally engaged in frustrating the movement of British troops and the Royal Irish Constabulary and destroying Constabulary Barracks which had been vacated as constabulary withdrew from outlying areas. The mail trains on the Waterford/Dublin line were raided on a few occasions and letters intended for Dublin Castle were taken. During the course of the boycott of goods from Belfast members of the A Company torched the abattoir at the Fairgreen in Athy. The abattoir was leased by a London-based company and that company subsequently lodged a compensation claim for malicious damage with Athy Urban District Council. Around the same time the Courthouse in Emily Square was completely destroyed by fire but while the arsonist was an IRA Member his action did not meet with the approval of his superiors. He was subsequently court marshalled and “drummed out” of the local company of the IRA for a short period. The Courthouse was to remain a derelict ruin for several years before it was rebuilt by Kildare County Council.

During most of this period the Carlow Brigade had as its officer in charge Commdt. Eamon Malone of Barrowhouse, Athy. I have previously written of Eamon Malone who was imprisoned for a period in Mountjoy following his arrest in 1919. While in jail he was one of the leaders of the hunger strike in which many of the IRA Prisoners then in Mountjoy were involved. He is remembered today in the name Malone Place which is a small local authority housing scheme at the end of Woodstock Street opened a few years ago.

The B Company based in Kilrush was under the immediate control of Captain Sean Flanagan who was later promoted to Battalion Commandant. I have not been able to identify the members of his company, many of whom were involved in destroying a number of bridges in their area. They succeeded in blowing up Kilboggan Bridge, as well as two other bridges in the Tippeenan area which is in the parish of Fontstown. The most serious incident involving the Kilrush area was the arrest, court martialling and subsequent execution of a local man suspected of passing information to the British authorities.

The C Company of the Carlow Brigade was centred in Castledermot. Paddy Cosgrove was the company captain and it is generally believed that the Castledermot Company was one of the more active units in South Kildare during the War of Independence. They burned down the local RIC Barracks during the course of which Captain Cosgrave suffered serious burns as he re-entered the burning building to rescue a young volunteer who had been injured in a premature explosion. Cosgrave was later brought in secret to the hospital in Athy where he was detained and treated by the hospital staff without word of his whereabouts ever being leaked to the Constabulary in the nearby RIC Barracks. Some members of the Castledermot Company may have also been involved in the burning down of the RIC Barracks in Ballitore although I understand this was an action for which the Dunlavin Volunteers were largely responsible.

The Athy Company made an unsuccessful attack on the RIC Barracks in Athy during the War of Independence. This Barracks had been relocated from White’s Castle to the former Army Barracks in Barrack Lane some years previously. Shots were exchanged between the IRA attackers and the RIC men but so far as I am aware no-one was injured.

Not so fortunate were William Connor and Jim Lacey members of the Ballylinan Company which with Killeshin and Bilboa were also part of the Carlow/Kildare Brigade area. Connor and Lacey were part of an IRA ambush which lay in wait near Barrowhouse for RIC men travelling on bikes between Ballylinan and Maganey. The date was 16th May 1921 and on the previous day guns and ammunition had been brought from Castledermot and delivered to Joe Maher of Cullinagh, leader of the Barrowhouse unit. The ambush proved a disaster for the local IRA men. The two young volunteers, William Connor and Jim Lacey, were shot dead by the RIC men and their bodies were left at the scene of the ambush when their companions withdrew. They were the only IRA volunteers to die in this area during the War of Independence and today the place where they fell in is marked by a simple metal cross. Their bodies lie side by side in the graveyard attached to St. Mary’s Church in Barrowhouse.

Eamon Malone, Commandant of the Carlow/Kildare Brigade married an Athy girl Kathleen Dooley following the treaty and he later lived and worked in England. He died a relatively young man and was subsequently buried in Barrow House graveyard, not far from where his colleagues William Connor and Jim Lacey are buried.

The story of the War of Independence in the South Kildare area needs to be fleshed out more than I have been able to do so in this article. I would like to hear from anyone who can give me any information on the topic and particularly anyone who can help me identify those men who were involved in any of the IRA Companies in Athy, Kilrush, Castledermot or Ballylinan.

Margaret O’Riordan of the Heritage Centre tells me that the trip to Annascaul in County Kerry, the birth place of the Antarctic explorer Tom Crean was postponed due to Kildare’s participation in the Leinster Football Final. The trip will now take place over the weekend of 10th August and anyone interested in travelling should contact Margaret at (0507) 33075.

Thursday, July 4, 2002

World War I Cemeteries

The experience of visiting places associated with our history is probably one of the most interesting aspects of historical study. There are few areas in Europe more closely linked with Athy than the town of Ypres in Southern Belgium and the villages and rural areas lying in the vicinity of the river Somme in France between Gommecourt and Maricourt. Ypres a former garrison town was famous for the production of flax, lace and cotton and for its Cloth Hall, the largest non-religious gothic building in Europe.

When Belgium became embroiled in the first World War on the 4th of August 1914 there was a little reason then to believe that the thriving country town of Ypres would soon become a symbol of the destructive power of warfare. When the war ended on the 11th of November 1918 the entire town had been levelled to the ground and in the surrounding countryside many thousands of Irish men had died. The Western Front across which the German army faced the combined Allied Forces became a burial ground as men fell in battle. Further south the river Somme was to be forever associated with battles between the opposing forces and the most horrific losses of human life imaginable.

I had occasion recently to visit Flanders and the Somme areas associated with World War I. The experience was an extraordinary one. I have often written of Athy men’s involvement in the war but have to admit that I never appreciated or quite grasped the enormity of the loss of human life which occurred on the Western Front during World War I. Everywhere I went in southern Belgium I came to realise that the entire Flanders countryside was a memorial to the dead. Here, there and everywhere, were cemeteries each with headstones of uniform size and shape reminding one of ranks of soldiers on parade. Those cemeteries, sometimes containing thousands of graves, sometimes hundreds or even smaller numbers, are found at the side of roads or located inland and accessed through fields. Each headstone carries the name of a soldier, his rank, regiment, the date he died and often his age and an inscription chosen by his family. Very often a headstone did not bear a name but instead the inscription “A soldier of the Great War” and the words “Known unto God”. This latter phrase was chosen by the English writer Rudyard Kipling who himself lost his son in the war.

The cemeteries, especially the smaller ones, located nearer to farmyards or in farmers fields, are generally battlefield cemeteries containing the remains of soldiers buried where they fell. The larger cemeteries are for the most part where the dead were brought for burial or where, after the war bodies exhumed from outlining areas were brought together. For many thousands who died during World War I there is no identifiable resting place. For that reason a number of memorials were erected in France and Flanders to record the names of those unfortunate men. In the town of Ypres in Flanders is to be found the famous Menin Gate Memorial regarded by many as the most important British War memorial in the world. It records on wall panels the names of approximately 54,000 men who died in various battles in and around Ypres and whose remains were never identified or found. The names of several Athy men are recorded on the Menin Gate Memorial and I was very conscious of that fact when I stood there last week as the Last Post was played by four buglers at preciously 8 o’clock in the evening. Every day of the year the traffic passing through the Menin Gate on one of the main routes into the town of Ypres is stopped while the Last Post is sounded. It is a moving ceremony which has taken place every evening since it was inaugurated on the 2nd of July 1928. The only exception was during World War II when Germans again occupied Ypres. On the memorial gate itself I noted the names of Patrick Flynn, Andrew Reilly, Michael Devoy, Patrick Leonard, Joseph Byrne, James Dillon, Christopher Power, Patrick Tierney, Moses Doyle, Edward Lawler and Henry Hannon all from the town of Athy. These were some of the unfortunate young men from our town who died fighting in Flanders during the first World War and whose bodies were never identified or found.

Just a few short miles outside the town of Ypres I came across the grave of another Athy man killed in that war. It was at Sanctuary Wood Cemetery that I found the last resting place of Patrick Curtis who was 28 years old when he died on Thursday, 5th of November 1914. He was a son of John and Margaret Curtis of Kilcrow and one of three brothers who died in World War I. His was the first World War I grave of an Athy man I came across in Flanders and when I journeyed later into Northern France I had the opportunity of paying my respects at the graveside of John Coulson Hannon who died on the 18th of August 1916 aged 23 years. He is buried in Caterpillar Valley Cemetery near the village of Longueval and his gravestone carries the inscription “Of such is the Kingdom of Heaven” put there at the request of his parents, Mr and Mrs John Hannon of Ardreigh House. John Coulson Hannon was a brother of Norman Hannon who was only 20 years old when he was killed in France on the 16th of May 1915.

Not very far away from Longueval is the small village of Guillemont where another Athy man John Vincent Holland won his Victoria cross. Outside the small village church in Guillemont stands a Celtic cross and as I stood there in the centre of the village my thoughts were of those Athy men who fought and died and those who survived what we still call the Great War. There was surely nothing great about a conflict which sent so many young men to premature deaths and to graves which are scattered throughout the countryside of France and Flanders.

While I was away Ger Prendergast and Dan Meany passed away. Full of years and part and parcel of life in Athy for decades past, both men contributed, each in his own unique way, to the social life of the town. Ger’s entire life was spent with racehorses and during his colourful life he contributed an extraordinary amount to the lore of the town where he had lived for so long. Dan Meany was a man whose interest in Athy and whose knowledge of the people and fabric of the town was combined with a an expertise which resulted in a photographic collection unequalled anywhere else in Athy. For decades he captured on film the events and happenings in the town and the results are an extremely important visual account of the social life of Athy and its people. Both Gerard and Dan will be sadly missed.

The Last Post which represents in military funerals, a last farewell to the dead is an integral part of the daily Menin Gate Memorial ceremonies in Flanders. This week St. Michael’s cemetery echoed to the sound of the Last Post played by two buglers of the Irish Army as a parting salute to their dead colleague, Sean Day. His sudden and untimely death and the manner of his death shocked his neighbours and friends and brought great grief to his family. His funeral in St. Michael’s cemetery was that accorded to a serving soldier and was marked with the military precision and orderliness which one comes to expect on such occasions.

As the Last Post echoed across the graves of St. Michael’s Cemetery I was reminded of the Athy soldiers from a previous generation who died fighting on the Continent over 85 years ago and who are remembered each evening at the Menin Gate in Ypres.

May they all rest in peace.