Thursday, June 28, 2007

The Shopkeepers from the Red Hills

History, in all its manifestations, has held me enthralled for as long as I can remember. Many books on the subject have been bought by me over the years, some of which I must confess have not held my interest beyond a few pages. Other books thankfully have taken me on a journey of discovery, rewarding me in equal measure in terms of knowledge and enjoyment. One such book I came across some weeks ago. It was written and published by a Vincent Cleary and it tells the story of the Cleary family of Kildare. Beginning his account of the farming Cleary’s of Red Hills, Kildare whom he claims “emerged in the 1660’s from the cosmic smoke of Cromwell’s rampage”, the author gives an interesting and at times an amusing description of the various branches of the Cleary family. This is one of the better family histories I have come across.

Vincent Cleary, about whom there is no information available, writes with a deft hand, all the time informing us, yet seldom failing to please with his stylish prose. The general practice of parents in naming children after forbearers prompted Cleary to complain

“while family loyalty is admirable, the parsimony with Christian names when litanies were available is infuriating. The clusters of contemporaneous Daniels, Johns and others, all living within the same few square miles makes the task of identifying them as individuals sometimes impossible.”

Describing his own forbearers, the farmer Cleary’s of Knocknagallagh on the slopes of the Red Hills, he has this to say.

“Many aspects of their life were primitive. Drooping moustaches and bristling beards were the fashion. Shaving was rare and painful. Washing only affected the exposed parts of the body”.

The book is full of such wonderfully succinct passages which capture in a moment the images created by the writer’s admirable penmanship.

The Cleary’s, like many other Irish families of the time, suffered the loss of a family member during the first World War. Eugene Cleary died on the Somme in 1916 and Vincent Cleary writes “80 years passed before any member of his family located and visited Eugene’s grave”. His brother Kevin, a shopkeeper in Monasterevin with whom the Cleary family story in this book ends, “always bought a poppy and laid it gently on the counter out of sight of customers. It was done furtively because rabid nationalism was abroad and to display anything but animosity to everything British was to invite trouble”. It was a similar scene played out so many times in Athy by family members remembering loved ones lost in France or Flanders during the 1914-18 War. The Cleary family suffered a double blow with the loss of Eugene’s brother, Alfred, a seaman who went missing in 1923. He was listed on the “Register of Merchant Seamen Missing or Dead” but his fate remains unknown.

The Cleary story ends with Kevin Cleary, shopkeeper, hackney man and undertaker of Monasterevin who died in 1974. Vincent Cleary’s book is a well written account of almost 300 years of a farming family from Red Hills who became shopkeepers, prompting the book title “The Shopkeepers from the Red Hills”. I would urge anyone interested in family history to buy this book and even if your interests do not extend to that genre of local history, get the book anyway for you will enjoy the writing of Vincent Cleary.

During the week I was contacted by a reader who has in his possession a Sampler, worked by a Margaret Barrett at Levetstown in 1844. He is anxious to find out something about the presumably young lady who produced the embroidered piece of material displaying stitching skills in the years before the Great Famine. The richly decorated Sampler has the following quotation.

“O virgin mother ever meek
In our behalf to Jesus speak
That from our hearts all sin effaced
We may through you be mild and chaste”

The colourful work is completed with the following details.

“Margaret Barrett’s Sampler worked at Levetstown school – 27th January 1844.”

The present owner who has had the Sampler for many years made enquiries at our local Levitstown School without any success. It strikes me that Levetstown, spelled with an “e” rather than an “i”, might indicate a location other than the South Kildare townland. If anyone can help to unravel the mystery of Margaret Barrett I would welcome hearing from them.

Another reader passed onto me this week details relating to merchant seaman Stephen Glespen of Duke Street, Athy who was lost at sea on 15th June 1942. He was 26 years of age and the son of John P. and Agnes Glespen of Duke Street. The Glespen family will be remembered by the older generation but I had not previously known of the loss of a family member during World War II. He was remembered on the Tower Hill Memorial near the Tower of London. Can anyone who remembers Stephen Glespen give me some information on the seaman from Athy who lost his life when the SS Thurso sank in June 1942?

It’s a coincidence that recently I received information concerning two Athy men whose fathers were members of the R.I.C. based in Athy. John Patrick Murphy was born in Barrack Street in 1903. His father John was an R.I.C. constable based in the former military barracks in Barrack Lane and his mother was Mary Ryan. John Patrick attended the De La Salle novitiate in Castletown at 16 years of age and remained a De La Salle brother until his death in England in 1990. I first came across him perhaps 10 or more years ago when the late Tim O’Sullivan who had attended the De La Salle School in Waterford spoke of his teacher Brother Murphy of Athy who was responsible for Gaelic games in the school. During the late 1920’s and early 1930’s Brother Murphy bought school teams to Athy to play football with the local G.A.A. team. I wonder if there are any members of Brother Murphy’s family still living in Athy?

Following an article I wrote on White’s Castle last year I received a letter from Cheshire in England telling me that the writer’s grandfather was born in that early 15th century town house. Again the parent was a member of the R.I.C. whose barracks was located in the Castle up to about 1894. James Clandillon had joined the R.I.C. sometime between 1835 and 1840 and served in Roscrea before transferring to Athy where my correspondence grandfather, John George Clandillon, was born in White’s Castle in 1871.

To have been born in a castle which figured so prominently in the Confederate Wars of the 1640’s and the Rebellion of 1798 is a unique claim. The different stories which go to make up family histories are in themselves unique and give us a rare insight into the lives of those who once graced the streets of “our own place”.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

The past is truly a foreign country

I was reminded this week of a book I read many years ago, with the intriguing title Three Lives. It was the book’s title, rather than its contents, which came to mind as I reflected on the happenings of a week that saw three unconnected lives touching my consciousness in different ways. While the men involved never met or knew eachother, they had shared youthful experiences which were common to those born in Ireland in the late 30s or early 40s. These were difficult times, created in part by the economic war of the 1930s, but prolonged and exacerbated by the Second World War. Poverty was everywhere. Not the genteel poverty of today, but the raw uninhibited poverty of an age when children went hungry and families often had to rely on their own remedies to cope with illness because there wasn’t any money to pay a doctor.

As childhood gave way to adulthood, many young boys and girls had to forgo the chance of further education and take up menial dead-end jobs in order to help the family finances. Even for those fortunate enough not to have to do so, the prospect of a job after leaving school was never more than hopeful. These were my thoughts when last week three hitherto unconnected lives became linked, two in death and the third by association with a period in our country’s history where all three shared in the difficulties created by a lack of opportunity.

My brother-in-law, Thomas Spellman, just two months short of his 65th birthday, died alone in his apartment in Neasden in North London. A Connemara man who spent his teenage years shooting and fishing in the fields and lakes of Connemara, he became an expert falconer by dint of his association with the late Ronald Stevens of Fermoyle Lodge. He grew up in the Ireland of the 1940s and ’50s and, as might be expected, wanted to widen his horizons when he reached his majority. Emigration, especially to America, was the normal route taken by young Connemara folk, but Thomas Spellman followed his older brother to London. He settled in Neasden and it was there more than 40 years later that he passed away. He was part of several generations of Irish folk for whom the emigrant boat offered the only prospect of escape from the economically backward and church-dominated society that was post-war Ireland.

John B Keane in his book, Self Portrait, recounted his journey as an emigrant to England in the early 1950s and his account simply but vividly captures the scene at the mail-boat. “Dun Laoghaire for the first time was a heart-breaking experience - the goodbyes to husbands going back after Christmas, chubby-faced boys and girls leaving home for the first time, bewilderment written all over them, hard-faced old stagers who never let on but who felt it the worst of all because they knew only too well what lay before them.”

Thomas Spellman made his life in London, a city cosmopolitan in nature but for all that a lonely city at the edges where so many Irish men and women of my generation and older are still to be found. He died last week, a relatively young man, in the same city he had emigrated to in the early 1960s, far removed from the sights, sounds and smells of Connemara where he was born and had spent his youth.

Joining him in death that same week was another child of the hungry ’40s, Mickser Murray of Athy. Mickser never seized the opportunity to rise above the despair and despondency which once characterised life in Ireland. It is often claimed that our best young people took to the emigrant boats, making their mark in America or Great Britain, where the opportunity to do so did not arise in Ireland. Mickser, I believe, was born in the Barrack Yard, that early 18th century building complex, now no more, which once filled the Athy skyline with its near neighbour, Woodstock Castle. I knew Mickser quite well and felt keenly the many missed opportunities he felt unable to seize which might have allowed him to have a better life. He did not take the emigrant boat, lacking maybe the drive or the initiative, even perhaps the desperation that drove others to make a new life for themselves across the sea. Mickser met a sad death last week in Carlow, after spending some time homeless in our neighbouring town.

Like Thomas Spellman, he was born in an age when dreams of a Celtic Tiger were unknown. Theirs was a generation where privilege was measured in terms of ability to get employment in your own country and where the majority were in those terms underprivileged.

But an even greater loss of privilege was to befall so many of the young Irish men and women of that period. For many of them, indeed the majority of them, the right to an education was denied for one reason or another. I recall many school mates of mine who left school to take up messenger boy jobs, simply because their families needed the small wages which such work offered. Young boys just over 13 years of age decamped from school even before reaching the minimum school leaving age so that an extra few shillings could be added to the family coffers at the end of each week.

I was reminded of this last Tuesday when I enquired of a local who was sitting at Barrow Quay how he had done in his recent university examinations. Retired a few years ago, I knew he had undertaken what for him was a huge leap into the unknown by first sitting his Leaving Certificate examinations and then enrolling in a degree course in University College, Maynooth. He was of the same generation of Thomas Spellman and Mickser Murray, but in his case he was obliged to leave school at 13 years of age after his father died leaving a widow and three young children. As the eldest of the family, my friend had no option but to go out to work and forgo whatever ambitions he might have had for his future education. He was one of the more lucky ones. He did not have to emigrate and managed to have a job in his home town throughout his working life, retiring a few years ago at 65 years of age. Recovering the lost educational opportunities of over 50 years ago is a wonderful personal achievement for him and one that tells another side of the story of those Irish men and women of an earlier generation.

The emigrant, the unfortunate who spent his last years living rough and the scholar of advanced years shared early years in a country that was socially and economically deprived. Their lives never connected but their stories tell us all that was wrong in an independent state which for decades failed to provide the opportunities that we have now come to expect as our right. Thomas Spellman had to leave his beloved Connemara and spend his life working in London. Mickser Murray slipped through the education and welfare nets which might have given him a more meaningful life, while my retired friend is only now reliving the dreams that should have been his over 50 years ago.

The Ireland of today is surely unrecognisable from the country into which we were born.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Great sporting moments from our history

The extraordinary event - TriAthy 2007 has come and gone. Never before has Athy played host to such a huge gathering of sportsmen, over 700 in all, who swam, cycled and ran their way to the finishing line at Barrow Quay. Athy has seen many major sporting events in its time, from All Ireland football and hurling finals played in Geraldine Park to National Ploughing championships run off at Russellstown, but never, I believe, have so many participants been involved in a single event such as took place last weekend. It was a magnificent spectacle, organised on the day with extraordinary precision and fulsome congratulations are due to the organisers who included local man Arthur Lynch. Emily Square in the centre of the town proved its worth yet again, providing as it did welcome space for competitors and bikes alike on a scale which few other towns in Ireland could match. All in all TriAthy was a resounding success and hopefully it will become an annual event in the sporting and social calendar of Athy.

Sporting activity has been a prominent feature of life in Athy for many decades. However, it wasn’t so apparent to a visitor who in 1884 wrote of his time spent in the town of Athy. “There was little sport about Athy.” There may well have been little inducement for sport in those given the social unrest due to Land League activities and chronic unemployment in the area.

We must go back even further than 1884 to find a record of sports in which the locals were actively involved. Cockfighting was one such sport and it retained its popularity amongst the local people right up to the 1920’s. A cockpit was located in Duke Street and hosted regular cock fights up to the middle of the 19th century when the medieval “sport” was made illegal. However, cockfighting still retained a large following in the area up to the 1920’s and beyond.

Another more acceptable form of sport which was popular in Athy over the years was handball. Athy once boasted two handball alleys, one located in Leinster Street, the other in Barrack Lane. The Estate Map of Athy prepared for the Duke of Leinster in 1827 showed both handball courts, the Barrack Lane court lying adjacent to the Military Barracks which had been built in the 1730’s. Clearly the court had been provided primarily for the use of the soldiers, while the Leinster Street court was presumably a commercial venture lying behind one of the local public houses. The Barrack Lane Court survived up to the 1970’s and in fact was replaced by a newly built court provided by the Urban District Council which however remained unused and was demolished after a few years.

Some of the local handballing champions from the past included John Delaney, Tom Aldridge, George Robinson, Jack Delaney, Bill Aldridge, Jim Foley and George Ryan. The last named won a junior All Ireland title in 1946 and so far as I know he was the last All Ireland champion to play out of Athy Handball Club.

Cycling was another sport which caught the publics imagination, even if it did not necessarily involve many locals as active participants. The sport developed in the 1890’s soon after J.P. Dunlop developed the pneumatic tyre. Local cyclists whose names figured prominently in the sport in its early years included C.W. Taylor of Forest Farm, Harry and Bob Large of Rheban, Andy Bergin and his brother J.J. Bergin of Maybrook.

Archery and rowing were two other sports which once figured on the sporting calendar for Athy. I have come across references to archery contests in the Peoples Park in the 1860’s or thereabouts, while around the same time the annual Athy regatta was a prominent local venture. The rowing boats used the same river course taken by the swimmers in the triathlon event last weekend and so popular was the sport that the regatta became and remained a regular event for many years.

Pat Bell in his book on 150 years of cricket in Kildare acknowledged that “Athy can justifiably lay claim to be the oldest cricket club in Kildare. There was a club in the town in 1870 which went by the name of Offaly Cricket Club whose Honorary Secretary was J.F. MacDonald of the Rectory. Two years later Athy Cricket Club was formed but sharing the same secretary”. I have in front of me John Lawrence’s Handbook of Cricket in Ireland for 1872/73, an annual then in its 8th issue which gave a detailed account of the Irish Cricket Club and their activities during the year. For the Athy Cricket Club the following entry appears.

“In 1872 the club played 3 matches, won 1 and lost 2. This club did not play any matches till very late in the season. The first was against the Portarlington, played on the Athy ground, and won by the home club. The return was played on the Portarlington ground, and won by the Portarlington. Both of these matches were played on very wet days. The third match was played against an eleven got up by Sir A.C. Weldon, and played on his domain at Kilmorony, in which the Athy suffered another defeat.”

The other Athy Club, Offaly Cricket Club, is noted merely with an entry as to its Honorary Secretary, H.P. MacDonald, The Rectory, Athy, who was the local Church of Ireland Curate.

In 1895 Athy Cricket Club won the Leinster Intermediate Cup with a team comprised of H.P. Hannon, A.K. Pennycook, H. Eckford, J.A. Duncan, T.J. Whelan, J. O’Neill, W. Keyes, H. O’Neill, A. Hutton and P. O’Neill. Victory in the Intermediate Cup was again secured by Athy Cricket Club in 1896. The sport continued to be played all over South Kildare up to the end of the 1930’s with teams from Ardreigh, Bert, Castlemitchell and Kilkea in addition to the Athy town team. A brief revival of cricket in Athy in the 1980’s saw Athy Cricket Club gain victories in the Midland Plate of 1990 and the Griffin Hawe Cup three years later. Today cricket, like cockfighting, and handball, is no longer an active sport in the Athy area.

To return to the triathlon of last weekend, the high number of participants made me think of the great sporting events which Athy has hosted over the decades. The All Ireland Football Final of 1906 played in Geraldine Park, between Kickhams of Dublin and Fermoy of Cork was obviously an important sporting event as was the Hurling Final of 1908, played in the same venue between Thurles of Tipperary and Kickhams of Dublin on 27th June 1909. It was a great privilege then to host an All Ireland Final as it was last weekend to provide the venue for the most successful triathlon event every held in this country. Here’s hoping TriAthy will become an annual event in the town’s sporting calendar.

Nowadays sporting activities rely on the provision of facilities which were not available decades ago. I can remember togging out at the side of playing fields in Narraghmore, Rheban and Castlemitchell before football matches in the late 1950’s. Inclement weather or otherwise, it made no difference as we struggled to shield our “modesty” which in those innocent days seemed more important than warding off the downpours which always appeared to accompany our visits to outlying rural football pitches. Recently I attended a birthday celebration for a good friend in St. Laurence’s G.A.A. Club and I marvelled at the wonderful facilities now available in the recently opened community complex. It’s a great credit to the people of Narraghmore, Ballitore, Fontstown and the other rural areas which now make up the St. Laurence’s Club. The truly magnificent club house together with several playing fields provide ample evidence of the success of the club which was formed 50 years ago when the G.A.A. clubs of Ballitore and Narraghmore came together. Congratulations to everyone associated with St. Laurence’s G.A.A. Club, not forgetting the good lady whose birthday party prompted my first visit to their new sporting complex.

Thursday, June 7, 2007

Athy and the conscription crisis of 1918

The Nationalist and Leinster Times of 15 December 1917 reported rumours of army conscription in Ireland about to be imposed by the British Government. Such a rumour, if it was true, was an acknowledgement of the failure of voluntary recruiting campaigns during the second half of the First World War.

Conscription had been first imposed on the British mainland in January 1916. Initially, only single men were affected but by May of the same year the attrition on the western front required that married men would also be subjected to the Military Services Act. On 9 May 1918, Lloyd George introduced a Military Services Bill in the House of Commons which, when passed, would impose conscription on Ireland. It became law on 18 April but its implementation was delayed in the face of opposition led by the Catholic bishops of Ireland.

The Nationalist of 20 April reported “opposition to conscription is rife in Athy”. On the following day, Sunday 21 April, an anti-conscription meeting was held in Emily Square, at which Canon Mackey, parish priest of Athy, was the principal speaker. He addressed the large crowd and administered the following pledge to those attending who assented by raising their hands. “Denying the right of the British Government to enforce compulsory service in this country, we pledge ourselves solemnly to one another to resist conscription by the most effective means at our disposal”. Included among the platform speakers were Martin Doyle, chairman of the urban district council, Denis Kilbride, MP, Peter P Doyle, urban district councillor and Sinn Féin club member, and JJ Bergin of the Ancient Order of Hibernians.

On the following Tuesday, a national one-day strike was called as part of the continuing campaign of protest against conscription and in Athy the anti-conscription demonstration took place in the afternoon. All shops and workshops were closed and train services to and from the town were cancelled. Athy Pipers Club marched at the head of a parade of almost 400 women followed by the 500 strong newly-formed South Kildare Labour’s Union. Sinn Féin Club members from Ballyroe, Churchtown, Kilcruise, Ballyadams and Ballintubbert supported by a number of bands, including Athy Fife and Drum Band, also marched. In all, there were between 4,000 and 5,000 marching in the parade, which ended in Emily Square with an address by Peter P Doyle of the local Sinn Féin club. After the meeting, all those who had not previously done so signed the anti-conscription pledge and so ended “the most remarkable demonstration witnessed in Athy during living memory”.

The opposition was to compulsory conscription, not to the war nor to voluntary enlistment in the British army. By now, however, voluntary recruiting was at a virtual standstill.

The British military authorities were later to claim that “no propaganda of any character has been carried on in Ireland since the Rebellion of 1916 and public opinion was sullen or silent in respect of the war aims of the Allies”. Canon Mackey, for so long an avid supporter of recruitment for the British army, was one of the leaders of the anti-conscription campaign. Nevertheless, he would continue to address recruitment meetings in his parish right up to the end of the war. In opposing conscription, Canon Mackey was adopting the Irish hierarchy’s stand on the issue, the same issue which brought together for perhaps the first and only time the local Sinn Féin club and the local branch of the Ancient Order of Hibernians. However, in supporting recruiting in the British army, Canon Mackey differed from Archbishop Walsh of Dublin, within whose dioceses the Parish of St Michael’s, Athy was located.

Archbishop Walsh, who was noted for his strong nationalist sympathies, had supported the Plan of Campaign and later still Sinn Féin and was opposed to recruiting in Ireland. He refused to have anything to do with the war effort and banned the military from placing recruiting posters on the railings of Catholic churches in the Dublin dioceses. The active participation by Canon Mackey in recruiting in Athy appears to have been overlooked by Archbishop Walsh. In contrast, one of his curates in the pro-cathedral, who made a recruiting speech in Bray, was reprimanded before the Vicar Generals on 8 December 1915, just three days after he had publicly supported the recruiting campaign.

What affect the anti-conscription campaign had on recruiting in Athy during the last six months of the war is, in the absence of recruiting records, difficult to assess. However, it is reasonable to presume that the numbers recruited were considerably less than were hoped for.

The recruiting campaign recommenced in August 1918 and continued throughout October, when advertisements appeared in Irish provincial newspapers calling on Irishmen to enlist with the clear indication that if sufficient numbers did not come forward conscription would be enforced

Athy Urban District Council, which in the early years of the war fully supported the war effort, was now apparently divided on the issue. The Irish Recruiting Council sought the council’s support for its recruiting campaign and the October meeting of the council was addressed by Mr O’Brien of the Recruiting Council. The council chairman had to use his casting vote to allow him to speak, four members of the council having voted against the recruiting official being allowed to address the council. Mr O’Brien, as if to acknowledge the closeness of the vote, said: “I thought I would be among friends”, before proceeding to claim that “probably no town in Ireland or in the British Empire or in any part of the world were more volunteers recruited than in Athy in the early years of the war.”

The reference to Athy’s contribution to the early years of the war coming as it did from a member of the Irish Recruiting Council lends support to the thesis, even in the absence of official recruiting figures, that Athy men volunteered in numbers proportionately higher than most other towns in Ireland. Mr O’Brien subsequently addressed a public recruiting meeting in Athy on Tuesday 15 October and two weeks later another recruiting meeting was held in the town hall addressed by Sir Maurice Dockrell, one of the five members of the Irish Recruiting Council.

Dockrell claimed that Athy had done exceedingly well at the start of the war, “probably no town in the UK had done better”.

A local newspaper report of the meeting noted “a section of the audience became clamorous”, platform speakers were told to shut up and the meeting broke up when a verse of “Wrap the Green Flag” was sung by those opposed to recruiting. Even as the Leinster Leaderwas reporting on the recruiting meeting in Athy, its rival, the Nationalist and Leinster Times, on the same date referred to the “collapse of the German and Austrian powers”.

Possibly one of the last recruits from Athy was Reverend William Carroll, curate of St Michael’s Church of Ireland, who was commissioned as a chaplain to the armed forces in October 1918.

There was a huge response to the photographs which appeared in the Eye on the Past two weeks ago. The photograph of the two men sitting in the pub was not, as I indicated, taken in Doyle’s of Woodstock Street, but rather in Munsie Purcell’s of William Street. The photo-graph was taken by Maureen Poole and the two men have been identified by many of the callers as John Stynes and Mick Carroll.

The young boy in the milk cart photographed as it crossed the Crom a Boo bridge was identified as Harry Foley and he was driving a milk cart for Tom Harris of Rheban, Athy.

I am still awaiting the names of the various FCA men who were photographed in St John’s Lane at the back of what was the FCA Hall in the early 1960s.

If anybody can help to identify the young men in question, I would be delighted to hear from them.