Thursday, September 25, 2003

Athy 75 - and correction to No. 567

The pitfalls in researching local history were brought home to me this week on the day that my article on Abraham Boulger V.C. appeared in this paper.  You may recall that I wrote of the recent finding of the grave of Boulger during a FAS cleanup of the old section of Crookstown Cemetery.  As you would expect of somebody who was going to print on the subject I phoned a number of people who were understood to have been involved with the FAS Project to confirm the finding of Boulger’s grave.  “Yes the grave of the Victoria Cross winner is in Crookstown” was the answer which tended to confirm Boulger’s residency in the Ardscull area and the likelihood of an error in previous publications which gave his last resting place as Ballymore in Co. Westmeath.

My article aroused a lot of interest and a few phone calls on the very day the article appeared and it prompted me to take an assisted trip to Crookstown to see for myself what I believed was the forgotten grave of a brave Victorian soldier.  Imagine my dismay to discover not the expected grave but rather the grave of Abraham Joseph Boulger whom the headstone described as “the second son of Lieutenant Colonel A. Boulger V.C. who died on December 9th, 1891 aged 23 years”.  This was the grave discovered during the FAS Scheme and the gravestone information transmitted by word of mouth from one person to another eventually reached me as indicating the last resting place of Abraham Boulger V.C.  If there is a lesson to be learned it is the old one of never believing everything you hear, little of what you read and nothing at all of what politicians tell you.

However, the information gleaned from the visit to Crookstown Cemetery was of immense interest to Abraham Boulger’s grandson who also contacted me following the article.  He had been trying to trace his ancestor Abraham Joseph Boulger who so far as family records disclosed disappeared without trace while still a young man.  The mystery was solved on finding his grave in Crookstown Cemetery where he was buried in December 1891.  So my original article, even though based on incorrect information, did in the end prove of some use.

Now to a different subject and one which has interested me ever since the late Dan Meany made me aware of the road race known as the “Athy 75”.  This was a road race for motor cyclists which was first organised by the Athy Motor Cycle and Car Club in May 1925.  It was run over a 9½ mile long course, starting a few hundred yards on the Ardscull side of the entrance to what was Taylors Farm at Russellstown.  The circuit went past Ardscull, turning left at Fontstown Crossroads down to Booleigh Crossroads, turning left back towards Athy, turning left at Tullygorey Crossroads and out to the Dublin Road at Russellstown Cross.  The race was held annually up to 1930 when following the tragic killing of a competitor for the second year in succession the Athy 75 was thereafter canceled.  It was the first motorcycle road race to be run in the Irish Free State under the powers granted to the Minister for Local Government which enabled him to close public roads temporarily for the purposes of racing.

The late Des McHugh was very helpful to me when I first became aware of the Athy 75 .  He remembered races and those involved in them but now that I have gathered together additional information on the Athy race I have more questions which remain to be answered. 

Thirty five competitors rode out their machines in the inaugural event on Saturday, 16th May 1925 on a day which was marred by heavy rain.  Local riders included H. Cogan on a 490 Norton, T.S. Pearson on a 349 A.J.S., P.J. Ryan on a 250 B.S.A., C.W. Taylor on a 345 Rover, Tim Kelly on a 349 A.J.S., W.K. Hosie on a 350 A.J.S. and W.D. Taylor on a 349 A.J.S.  There may have been other local riders amongst the 35 who competed in that first race, but I have not yet identified them.  In subsequent years more locals competed and these included Jack Yeats and Harry Sargent of Fair Green, Naas, a shop assistant working in Athy who entered the 1929 race under the nom de plume “Sonny Boy”.  He crashed at the Moat of Ardscull within a quarter of a mile of the start and died in the Meath Hospital, Dublin on 26th June.  He was Assistant Secretary of the Athy Motor Cycle and Car Club at the time of his death.

Another local rider in the 1929 race was J.S. McMenamin who rode a 499 Rudge Whitworth.  When the final Athy 75 was run off in 1930 the only local rider amongst the 43 competitors was J.G. Yates (sic), presumably the same man who in previous years was listed as Jack Yeats.  I would like to get some information on the various local men mentioned who participated in the Athy 75 races and to hear from anybody who has any information, photographs or memorabilia relating to the races.

Athy Motor Cycle and Car Club in the late 1920’s had as its President C.W. Taylor with M.W. Whelan as Treasurer and F.K. Jackson as Assistant to the Honorary Secretary A.G. Taylor.  F.A. Youell had acted as the Club Honorary Secretary in its earlier years.  The Directors of the Club included R.H. Anderson, .K. Hosie, J. Duthie, T. Kelly, W.D. Taylor, J.C. Reynolds, J. Greene, Dr. J. O’Neill, C.W. Henderson, H. Cogan, Captain W. Kehoe, Dr. Kilbride, A. Hamilton and W. Cotton.  Quite a lot of those names I can identify but inevitably there are some who are unknown to me.

The Athy Club was very active in the second half of the 1920’s, running speed trials and social events as well as the Athy 75.  It appears to have disbanded in or around 1934.  I would welcome hearing from anyone who can give me any information on the Athy Motor Cycle and Car Club, its members and especially the famous motor cycle road race organised by the club for six years from 1925.  I hope to devote a future article or two to the Athy 75 in the years 1925 to 1930.

Thursday, September 18, 2003

Abraham Boulder Victoria Cross

My good friend Dick Corrigan of Garrettstown contacted me a few weeks ago with news of what seemed to be a spectacular discovery during a recent FAS sponsored clear up of the old section of Crookstown Cemetery.  Those working on the project had found what was believed to be the forgotten grave of a soldier who during his lifetime was awarded the highest British Military award for courage - The Victoria Cross.  The name mentioned was not recorded in any of the many publications listing the elite band of men and women who had been accorded this award.  Was there a possibility that here in the Griese valley lay one of the truly forgotten heroes of the past whose name had been overlooked by military historians?

I have in the past visited Crookstown Cemetery where Andrew Delaney, a Ballitore man who died of gas poisoning in World War I lies buried, as does Fr. Stafford, former Parish Priest of Crookstown and previously Chaplain in the 1914-18 War.  I had not before seen the headstone for the Victoria Cross winner which was recently rediscovered by the FAS workers.  It transpired that the headstone marked the last resting place of Abraham Boulger who was the first man from Co. Kildare to win the Victoria Cross.

Boulger was born in Kilcullen on a date which has been given as August 1830 in one publication, September 1835 in another while 1827 is the date fixed on by one historian.  All however are agreed that Boulger was born in Kilcullen and that as a young man he enlisted in the 84th Regiment, an infantry regiment known later as the York and Lancaster Regiment and which is now disbanded.  Boulger served with his Regiment in India during the Indian Mutiny of 1857.  He fought in various actions between 12th July and 25th September 1857, displaying according to the official citation “distinguished bravery and forwardness as a skirmisher in all twelve actions”. 

The Victoria Cross Medal was instituted by Queen Victoria at the end of the Crimean War in 1856 for “conspicuous bravery ….. in the presence of the enemy”.  Before then the only medals awarded to serving soldiers were for good conduct or long service.  Uniquely the bronze medal is still cast from Russian guns captured at Sebastopol during the Crimean War.  It hangs from a crimson ribbon and being the highest award for bravery it takes precedence over all other military medals.

Abraham Boulger was a lance Corporal at the start of the Indian Mutiny but by the time he retired from the Army in 1887 he had reached the rank of Lieutenant Colonel.  When he died on 23rd January 1900 Boulger was residing in the vicinity of the Moat of Ardscull, but exactly where I have yet to find out.  Boulger was buried in Crookstown Cemetery but surprisingly all the publications which mention Boulger and his Victoria Cross refer to his burial at Ballymore in Co. Westmeath.

We can now say with certainty that the first Kildare man to win the Victoria Cross lies in Crookstown Cemetery, but what I wonder was his connection with Ardscull.  I would like to hear from anyone who can help me out in relation to that.

Another County Kildare born Victoria Cross winner was Charles Fitzclarence who unlike Boulger has no known grave.  Fitzclarence who was born in Bishopscourt, Co. Kildare won his Victoria Cross for bravery at the siege of Mafeking during the Boer War.  He was killed during the First World War on 12th November 1914.  Aged 49 years when he died fighting in the Polygon Wood near Zennebeke in Belgium, his body like that of so many of his comrades was never found and he consequently has no known grave.

Charles Fitzclarence is of interest to Athy readers because his grandmother was Ann de Burgh, daughter of General Sir Ulysses de Burgh of Bert House.  General de Burgh succeeded his cousin William Downes who on his retirement as Lord Chief Justice in 1822 was created Baron Downes.  Given that this year marks the 200th anniversary of the Emmet Rising it is interesting to note that William Downes succeeded Lord Kilwarden as Lord Chief Justice following Kilwarden’s assassination by a mob in Thomas Street, Dublin on the first night of Robert Emmet’s Rebellion.  General de Burgh became the 2nd Lord Downes in 1826 and he continued to live in Bert House until he died in 1864.  He had two daughters, the earlier mentioned Ann who married the Earl of Clonmel and whose grandson Charles Fitzclarence was to win the Victoria Cross and Charlotte who married James Colburne who in 1863 became Lord Seaton.  This was the same Lord Seaton who on coming to live in Bert House in 1863 unwittingly found himself the centre of a local controversy.  Apparently some local traders in Athy, anxious to show their loyalty to “King and Country” got up an address of welcome to Lord Seaton which was duly presented amidst much fuss and publicity but before a number of other traders and public figures had an opportunity to append their signatures.  The result was letters of protest to the local newspaper about the address being touted by the local town commissioners “for selected people to sign”.  The controversy was immortalised in the Ballad entitled “The Travels and Sad Fate of a Celebrated Address” which opened with the following lines.

            “Oh where, and O where is our famed bland Address gone?
Oh ‘tis gone around Athy, in John Robert’s care to roam,
And it’s O is my heart I do wish it safe at home.
It’s gone up to the Shruleen, and along by Beggar’s End,
And in among the paupers - ev’ry where we have a friend;
It’s gone down Preston’s Gate, and around by Meeting-lane,
And surely in Rathstewart we for names sha’n’t seek in vain.”

Abraham Boulger’s headstone records family details which might prompt some of my readers to recall details in relation to the Boulger family.  Abraham’s wife was Mary who died on 2nd January 1945, aged 80 years.  His daughter Alice Ellen Boulger died aged 20 years on 17th April 1917 and his second daughter Agnes died on 11th August 1970.  His son William A. Boulger died on 20th August 1981.  I don’t have any information as to where any members of the family were living but I would welcome hearing from any of my readers who can give me any information in relation to the Boulger family.  Abraham Boulger’s Victoria Cross Medal is on display in the York and Lancaster Regiment Museum in Rotherham, South Yorkshire, England.

Thursday, September 11, 2003

Johnny McEvoy

Johnny McEvoy passed away just weeks after Kildare lost yet another Leinster Final to its near neighbour Laois.  A native of Woodstock Street, Athy, Johnny played in goal for Kildare in the Leinster Final of 1938 when the Laois men were victorious.  That game was played in Croke Park on Sunday, 7th August 1938 and Johnny died just two days after the 65th anniversary of that Laois victory. 

I first met Johnny about 14 years ago after I had started to research the golden years of Gaelic football in Athy.  Names of men I had never heard of before were encountered during that research and I was left wondering as to why they had been forgotten.  The explanation was a simple one and bore no evidence of anything other than forgetfulness engendered by the passage of time.  For as each generation remembers and can recall the personalities and events of its own time, so equally those of another era are laid aside and forgotten.

Johnny McEvoy was an Athy man born during the troubled years of World War I.  His father was a local Postman and Johnny’s brother, the late Mick McEvoy who lived in St. Joseph’s Terrace, was also a Postman during his working life.  His sister Mary Esther Brophy, better known to neighbours and friends as “Molly”, died in 1945.  For young lads growing up in Athy in the 1920’s football and an occasional swim in the nearby river or canal were the only pastimes readily and freely available.  Neither activity placed any reliance on class or creed and a willingness to participate was the only prerequisite to enjoyment and the prospect of sporting success.

Johnny McEvoy was obviously a good footballer.  He had to be to hold his place amongst the men who made up the town’s Gaelic football team during the decade which brought Athy its greatest footballing success.  Men such as Paddy (Cuddy) Chanders, Barney Dunne, Jim Fox, Tommy Mulhall, Mick Mannion, George Comerford and Paul Matthew’s were all county players and they were the backbone of the teams which represented Athy in the 1930’s.  The previous decade had witnessed the resurgence of Gaelic football in Athy, due in large measure to Seamus Malone and Br. Egan who were both teachers in the local Christian Brothers School.  Defeats in the County Senior Championship Finals of 1923, 1926 and 1927 had damaged the local club’s pride but the will to succeed was never lost.  Athy Gaelic Football Club won the Kildare Senior Championship for the first time in 1933 and repeated that success the following year.  Johnny McEvoy was only 18 years old when the first senior title came to the town but with the debacle of the “Cuddy” Chanders affairs centered around “Cuddy’s” demotion for the All Ireland Football Final of 1935,  Johnny was soon to take over the role of goalkeeper on the Athy senior team.  It was in that capacity that Johnny McEvoy lined out with Athy when it faced Sarsfield in the 1937 County Senior Final played in Naas on 17th July 1938.  That day Athy won its third title in five years on the scoreline of 3-6 to 1-6.  Even before the final had been played Johnny’s goal stopping abilities had come to the attention of the County selectors and he was selected for his native county.  His first match was against Cavan played on 14th November 1937 in a repeat of the 1935 All Ireland Final which Kildare had lost.  This time the Kildare men were victorious and Johnny McEvoy from Athy kept a clean sheet.  Johnny went on to represent County Kildare during 1938 and into 1939 when he played his last inter county match against Meath on 9th July of that year.  This was an extraordinary game which was played in Drogheda and the controversy to which it gave rise involved the Kildare goalkeeper, Johnny McEvoy.  The game was the Leinster Semi-final and was of particular importance to the Kildare players who had been defeated in the previous years Leinster Final by Laois.  In the final moments of the game with Kildare holding on to a one point lead a Meath forward was tripped by Athy man John Rochford inside the 14 yard line but to the left of the goal.  The referee blew for a free and as he did the ball was passed to a nearby Meath player who threw it to the net.  The Kildare players, including the goalkeeper Johnny McEvoy, protested that they had stopped playing on hearing the whistle.  The referee allowed the goal claiming to have played the advantage and then blew the final whistle.  Consternation reigned and the Kildare County Board lodged an appeal with the Leinster Council supported by Affidavits sworn by a number of players including Johnny McEvoy.  It was all in vain and the appeal was disallowed.  That was Johnny’s last game for Kildare as the County Board withdrew the Kildare team from the National Football League and only rejoined the following year’s championship after a narrow vote in favour of doing so.

In the meantime Johnny McEvoy who had been working as a despatch clerk in the local Asbestos Factory joined the Garda Siochana and thereafter his football was to be played in Dublin.  Johnny was privileged to work with the great athlete and footballer Larry Stanley and he had the unique distinction of winning a Dublin Senior Championship medal with the Garda team in 1948 to add to the Kildare medal won with Athy in 1937.  Johnny also lined out for the Dublin County team on a few occasions.  Of all the medals won by Johnny over the years, he once told me that his most prized ones were the minor Street League medal won by him as a member of the Barrack Street team in 1930 and the Midland’s School medal won while playing for Athy Christian Brother’s School.

Last week I attended the removal of Johnny’s remains to Mount Argus and listened while Fr. Ralph who had just returned from Scotland and was about to go on mission work to Africa spoke of his association with the man from Athy.  Fr. Ralph spoke of his own tenuous links with County Kildare having as he said a brother who was married to “Jodie Mulhall, whose father Tommy Mulhall like Johnny also played football for Kildare.”  When I heard the name Tommy Mulhall my interest was immediately aroused.  Was he by any chance the legendary Tommy Mulhall from Athy whose footballing prowess in the 1930’s and into the 1940’s marked him out as the greatest outfield player ever to come from Athy?  I spoke to Fr. Ralph afterwards and was delighted to have my question answered in the affirmative.  Fr. Ralph may not have known it but Johnny McEvoy and Tommy Mulhall played together on the Athy team which won the 1937 Kildare Championship and were teammates on the Kildare team which lost the 1938 Leinster Final to Laois, and again on that day in July 1939 when the referee’s whistle deprived the Kildare men of a place in the 1939 Final.

Johnny McEvoy was one of a number of past players who in 1990 were presented with honorary membership of Athy Gaelic Football Club and on that occasion Johnny spoke eloquently and with pride on behalf of all the guests.  With his former Garda colleagues Joe Hughes and Gerry Stynes, Johnny received a civic reception from Athy Urban District Council in September 1996 on the occasion of the 57th anniversary of their enlistment in the Garda Siochana.

I cherish memories of the various times I met Johnny and the letters which he sent to me from time to time, all neatly written in the copper plated hand of somebody who took pride in everything he did.  Johnny McEvoy was proud of his Athy roots and all of us in Athy can say that we were proud of the man, who in his youth helped bring honour to his Club and County.

To his wife Sheila and to his family John, Patrick, Michael, Brendan, Catherine and Marie we extend our sympathies.    

Thursday, September 4, 2003

Herbert Holt

The Macmillan Dictionary of Canadian Biography has the following entry;

“Holt, Sir Herbert Samuel (1856-1941), financier, who was born in Dublin, Ireland on February 12th 1856.  He studied civil engineering in Ireland and came to Canada in 1875.  For several years he was employed on the staffs of several railways in Ontario and Quebec as an engineer and in 1883/’84 he was engineer and superintendent of construction on the prairie and mountain divisions of the Canadian Pacific Railway.  He then became a railway contractor and between 1884 and 1892 he carried out several contracts in different parts of Canada, the last in partnership with Messrs. MacKenzie and Mann.  After 1892 he turned his attention to banking and finance, and he was president of the Sovereign Bank from 1902 to 1904 and of the Royal Bank from 1907 to 1934.  He then became Chairman of the Board of the Royal Bank and he retained this position until his death at Montreal, Quebec on September 29th 1941.  He was created a knight bachelor in 1915.”

The brief entry for Holt who was the most powerful Canadian businessman for more than 40 years prior to the Great Depression makes no mention of his links with Athy.  Holt was born on 12th February 1855 to William Grattan Holt of Geashill, Co. Offaly and his wife Mary Jane (nee Hannon), daughter of Mr. and Mrs. John Hannon of Prumplestown Mills, Castledermot.  Geashill was the place of birth and not Dublin as stated in the Macmillan Dictionary and the child was baptised in St. Mary’s Parish Church, Geashill the following 26th April.  William Grattan Holt was the youngest son of Samuel and Ann Holt who held leases of lands totalling more than 450 acres at Coolavacooace and Haggart Farm, both near Carbury in Co. Kildare.  On marrying Mary Jane Hannon, William Grattan Holt took a five year lease on a 291 acre farm known as Ballycrystal in Geashill, Co. Offaly.  It proved not to be a successful enterprise and on expiration of the lease Holt moved to a smaller farm at nearby Alderboro.  This too proved to be an unsuccessful venture and the sudden death of William Holt in December 1862 at the age of 35 years plunged his wife and four young children into poverty.  Mary Jane Holt had no option but to give up the Alderboro Farm and move to Portarlington where she got work as a housekeeper.  Her two sons, Thomas, aged nine years and Herbert, one year younger, were taken into the care of their uncle, Henry Hannon, who had succeeded his father John as proprietor of Prumplestown Mills in Castledermot. 

The two young Holt boys were placed in the Dundalk Institute, an agricultural school already attended by members of the Hannon family.  There they remained for two years and after that the Holt brothers attended Athy Model Agricultural School.  Attached to the Model School which had opened on the Dublin Road on 12th August 1852 the Agricultural School was intended to showcase the best farming methods in the South Kildare area by using up to date techniques and offering advice and guidance to local farmers.  It also offered training for young men desirous of becoming Agricultural Teachers or Land Stewards and the pupils attending the Agricultural School did so as boarders.  Athy’s Model Agricultural School when opened in 1852 had approximately 19 acres of farmland.  It was extended three years later to 64½ acres and under the guidance of William Ledlie who was appointed Agriculturist in 1860, the school flourished.  Thomas and Herbert Holt remained as pupils of Athy’s Agricultural School for 1½ years.  During the principalship of Mrs. Ellis Kemp who retired in the 1960’s, a press was found on the school premises which bore the name “H. Holt” carved into it.  I wonder is it still there?

The Holt brothers next transferred from Athy to the Albert Agricultural Training Institute in Glasnevin, Dublin where they spent the next two years.  All this time they were in the care of their uncle Henry Hannon of Prumplestown Mills who later came to live in Ardreigh House, Athy where he died in 1904.  Within the Hannon family it is believed that Henry Hannon presented Herbert Holt and his brother Tom with £100 after both had finished in the Albert Institute to enable them to travel to Canada “to make their fortunes”.  Herbert, the one time pupil of Athy’s Agricultural Model School would do just that in spectacular fashion and would in time become Canada’s most prominent businessman.

The Holt brothers arrived in Canada in 1873 and not 1875 as stated in Macmillan’s Dictionary of Biography.  Herbert held a variety of jobs before making his fortune helping to build the Canadian Pacific Railway between 1883 and 1886.  He took up residence in Montreal in 1892 and before long he got control of the gas and electricity outlets for the city when he successfully managed a merger of existing public utility companies to head up the Montreal Light, Heat and Power Company.

However it is as President of Canada’s Royal Bank, which position he occupied from 1901 to 1934, that Herbert Holt is best remembered today.  He joined the Royal Bank after an earlier stint as President of a Toronto based bank, “The Sovereign”, and led the bank’s expansion which saw it become in time Canada’s largest banking institution.  At the same time Holt was a board member of numerous commercial companies including such prestigious ones as Canadian Pacific and Sun Life.  Holt’s name was synonymous with corporate business in Canada and he was believed to be Canada’s richest businessman.  When the Great Depression came in 1929 and business failures became the order of the day Holt, like everyone else, was placed under tremendous pressure.  In his case, however, having played such a prominent part in the development of Canadian business he became associated in the public mind with the problems stemming from the Depression.  One unfortunate result of this was the attempted assassination of Herbert Holt in 1932 by the President of the Montreal Stock Exchange, W.E. Luther.  Mr. Luther who suffered substantial losses in stocks and shares held in companies controlled by Herbert Holt, shot at Holt as he arrived in his offices in Central Montreal.  Believing he had killed Holt, Luther returned to his own home and committed suicide.  Holt was in fact uninjured and his power and influence in Canada and Montreal was amply confirmed by the local and National newspaper’s failure to publicise what had happened. 

Holt retired as President of the Royal Bank in 1934 and concentrated his energies on the building of a mansion on the outskirts of Nassau in the Bahamas.  When it was finished, he called his summer retreat Ballycrystal, recalling the name of the farm his father had leased in Geashill, Co. Offaly but which he lost when the young Herbert Holt was just one year old.

Canada’s most famous businessman and banker died in Montreal in September 1941.  So far as I can ascertain he never returned to Ireland after emigrating in 1873.