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.