Thursday, November 29, 2007

The courthouse and the Duke of Leinster

I was at the last sitting of the District Court in Tullow last week. The town which was the place of execution of Fr John Murphy of Boolavogue in 1798 has lost out in the drive to centralise services, which appears to be motivated by cost cutting than by any desire to better serve the communities of rural Ireland. The courtroom, admittedly Dickensian in appearance and in the facilities it provides, was crowded with litigants, gardaí and others. Not an unusual occurrence ,I was told, confirming (if such confirmation was needed) that there is a need for a local court in the area which from now on will be served by a court sitting in Carlow.

I was reminded of the furore that built up in Athy when plans were put in place to close the jail on the Carlow Road and move the prisoners to Naas. This happened in 1859 and, like many other occasions, when the public are stirred to anger by bureaucracy, the opposition came too late to make any difference to the decision already taken and even then in part implemented. The closure of Athy town jail came one year after the transfer of the summer assizes from Athy to Naas and precisely 29 years after the gaol had been constructed to replace what was regarded as the inhuman conditions of the previous lock-up located in White’s Castle. These conditions were so bad that an inspector of jails was moved to report:

“Athy Gaol is without exception the worst county gaol I have met with, in terms of accommodation, having neither yards, pumps, hospital, Chapel or property day rooms”.

When the jail on the Carlow Road was opened in 1830, it consisted of 30 cells built in a semi-circular form, with five yards and a governor’s house. Subsequent prison reports showed that an average of 48 prisoners, male and female, were detained there, most of them serving prison terms of seven years. This was the period of imprisonment applicable to most crimes of that time, even for what we would now regard as minor offences. The alternative to a seven-year prison term was deportation to Van Diemen’s land, then the principal place of overseas confinement for Irish rebels and those convicted of criminal offences.

The mood of the Athy people in 1859, following the announcement of the closure of the town jail and the earlier loss of the summer assizes, showed a frisson of resistance which had last manifested itself during the 1798 period. The leaders in the local community, by and large local shopkeepers, were to the forefront in lamenting the failure of the Duke of Leinster in pushing the claim of Athy town to retain its own jail and the summer assizes. Whether or not the Duke had any significant say in the matter is debatable but, as the patron of the town and the man who prior to the abolition of the borough council in 1840 held the reins of local power, it was to be expected that he would bear the brunt of local frustration.

Even as the local businessmen criticised the duke for his alleged inaction on the two issues, the town fathers in their role as town commissioners were still operating under a well-established system whereby they acted only if and when the duke had been consulted by them and consented to what they proposed. The previous borough council for Athy had been abolished in 1840, as were many other similar boroughs at that time because they were regarded as ‘rotten’ boroughs whose power was exercised at the behest of their patrons and not the people of the towns which they were presumed to serve.

The Duke of Leinster appointed the members of the borough council and exercised the right, prior to the passing of the Act of Union, to nominate two members of parliament to represent the borough council in the Irish House of Parliament. Despite the appointment of town commissioners in 1842, the Duke of Leinster continued to exercise control over the affairs of the town, but the events of 1859 represented the first ripple of opposition to the man whose family for so long were undisputed lords of Athy.

Reading the minutes of the meetings of the town commissioners in the decades following the closure of the town jail and the loss of the summer assizes, one can see the council gradually moving away from the control hitherto exercised by the Duke of Leinster over the town’s affairs. The break for freedom was finally copper-fastened with the passing of the Local Government Act of 1899, which lead to the setting up of Athy Urban District Council. Control of the town’s affairs now rests, as it has for the last 100 years or more, with local men and women elected by their own townspeople.

The loss of a courthouse, as has now happened in Tullow, is the loss of a vital element of community infrastructure which bodes ill for the future vitality of the local community.

An open invitation to readers

Next Thursday, 6 December, the third volume in the Eye on Athy’s Past series of books, being edited versions of my articles which appeared in the Kildare Nationalist, will be launched in the Town Hall Library at 8pm. The book of 200 pages deals with a wide range of Athy folk and events and documents life in Athy as some of us may have known it, but which is probably unfamiliar, if not unknown, to many. The launch of the book will be performed by Barbara Sheridan, Editor of the Laois Nationalist, who first approached me more than 15 years ago with a request to write a weekly article on local history. Barbara was then the local correspondent for Athy and South Kildare and quite frankly when I was first approached I turned her down. However, she renewed her request and with some reluctance and indeed uncertainty as to what I could pen on a regular basis, I wrote that first article 15 years ago.

Over the years I have met and talked to many locals, both about themselves and local events of the past. It has been a most rewarding, and I may say, at times, a humbling experience, to listen to men and women who have contributed during their lifetime to the well-being of our local community. The interviews have on many occasions complemented my own ongoing research into Athy’s history and helped to give a human touch to the everyday happenings that make up the social history of our place.

I have been helped over the years by many persons who have either given generously of their time for interviews or else directed me to events or people which were later the subject of an Eye on the Past article. Many others have written to me over the years and I especially appreciate those men and women now living in England who put pen to paper to share their knowledge of Athy with me. The history of emigration from Athy remains to be told in detail, but I am pleased that so many of those living abroad have had the opportunity of learning more of their hometown through the medium of the weekly Eye on the Past.

An invitation is extended to all of you to come along to the book launch on Thursday, 6 December at 8pm in the Town Library.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Literary launches and a week filled with memories

An eventful few days during the past week saw me attending two book launches and meeting the family of a pioneer trade union activist on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of his death. It was also the week when I learned of the shooting dead of a young Athy man while wearing the uniform of the RIC during the War of Independence.

But firstly to the book launches which I believe to be unique, given that they were of books independently penned by a father and his young son and both of which were launched within days of each other. For John MacKenna, the launching of one of his books is by now a common enough event, but nevertheless his latest literary offering brought together a great gathering in the local Heritage Centre. Launched by Joe Taylor, the man of many voices on our national radio station, MacKenna’s continuing literary insight into the landscapes of South Kildare, and in particular Castledermot, proves yet again his mastery of the written word.

His son, Ewan, at just 23 years of age, had his first venture in the book production launched in Dublin just a few days afterwards. Ewan, who is a sports reporter with the Sunday Tribune, has written the story of Armagh footballer Oisin McConville’s addiction to gambling. The launch of a first book is always a memorable event and while Ewan MacKenna will no doubt pen many more publications, this, his first book, will always hold special memories for him. ‘The Gambler --Oisin McConville’s Story’ is published by Mainstream and is available in all good bookshops.

On Thursday 15 November I met the family of the late Christy Supple who died 40 years ago in London and whose remains were brought back to his native town for burial in St. Michael’s Cemetery. His widow, Kathleen, who is 86 years old travelled from Harrow in London with her son Tom to be at her husband’s graveside on the 40th anniversary of his death and with them was her son Joe who travelled from British Columbia in Canada.

Christy Supple was for me, and I’m sure for many locals, an overlooked figure from Athy’s past who in the 1920’s and later played a leading part in developing the trade union movement in South Kildare. I have written previously of Christy’s involvement in the Farm Workers Strike of 1919 and of his attempts to extend membership of the Transport Union in South Kildare before and after that time. It was a difficult period for everyone, the War of Independence brought with it murder and mayhem and in it’s wake followed the lawlessness which was inevitably created by those who took advantage of the situation. Christy Supple’s task in organising the farm labourers of South Kildare at an age when he was just a few years out of his teens and in the midst of civil unrest was an unenviable one. The truce between the British Authorities and the I.R.A. which came into effect on 11th July 1921 did little to ease the burden of the lowly paid Irish farm labourers and towards the end of 1922, even as the Civil War raged, they went on strike. Christy Supple was to the forefront of the dispute, which was extended in January 1923 to parts of County Waterford.

Athy Urban District Council tried to arbitrate between the union and the local farmers, but to no avail. The Minister for Industry and Commerce next took the initiative to bring the parties together but before he could do so the Ministry authorities arrested Christy Supple on 29th January 1923. His arrest came about as a result of a letter he had sent to a worker on Melrose’s farm in Grangenolvin. In that letter Supple, as Branch Secretary of the Transport Union, called upon the workman to strike and continued, ‘failing to do so we will be compelled to take drastic action against you and the employer’. The workman by name Melville apparently ignored the call to strike and was subsequently attacked by a person or persons unknown and shot in the hand. This at a time when the Civil War was at its most intense was a relatively unremarkable criminal act for which no-one was ever subsequently convicted. However, suspicion attached to the Trade Union Branch Secretary who had written to Melville and so Christy Supple was arrested and lodged in Carlow jail. While he was incarcerated the situation in South Kildare worsened and a number of farmers haggards were burned. Claim and counterclaim came from the workers and from the Farmers Union, each blaming the other for what happened. Some workmen who broke the strike had their houses attacked and a threshing machine and a straw elevator were destroyed on lands at Bennettsbridge. A number of farm labourers who were picketing in the Bennettsbridge area were arrested and held in military custody for three months. The situation in South Kildare was so bad that a troop of Free State soldiers took over the Town Hall in the centre of Athy on 9th March 1923 where they remained billeted for over eight months.

In the meantime Christy Supple continued to be detained in Carlow Jail and during the period of his imprisonment his mother took suddenly ill while travelling from Athy to Carlow to visit her son and died soon afterwards. Christy’s request for leave to attend his mother’s funeral was refused. This would rankle with him for the rest of his life and would later prompt his dying wish to be brought back to Athy to be buried alongside his mother.

Christy Supple was eventually released from prison late in 1923 and as to his sub-sequent career I have but sketchy details. He was elected to Athy Urban District Council in June 1925 at a time when he was living at the Bleach. I believe he may have been living with his married sister, Mrs. Margaret Corcoran. Like so many others from the town of Athy he emigrated to England sometime in the 1930’s where he married Kathleen Walsh of Clon-bern, Tuam in 1944. Their eldest son, Tom, was born in 1948 and three years later the Supple family returned to Athy where their second son Joe was born in 1953. They lived for a while in the Bleach with Mrs. Corcoran before renting a house at 2/6 a week opposite Plewman’s Terrace. Christy was by now working in the Asbestos factory but in 1955 the Supple family returned to England. Christy died in London on 15th November 1967, aged 69 years, and his remains were brought back to his native place to be buried alongside his mother. In addition to his immediate family he was survived by his brother Tom from Foxhill and his sisters Mrs. Corcoran and Molly Dalton. His other brother Joe had died in Dublin in 1953.

Christy Supple’s story can only be told in part as there is still much to learn of the young man, who encouraged by William O’Brien of the Dublin Transport Union set out as early as 1918 to unionise the work-ers of South Kildare. His story is one of courage and enduring hardship and meeting his family in Athy on the 40th anniversary of his death was a great privilege.

Earlier in the week as a small group of local men gathered to commemorate the men from Athy who died in World War One I learned of the killing of another Athy man. Unlike his townsmen who were killed in war by members of an opposing army, young Edward Doran was shot and killed by a fellow Irishman on 17th May 1921 as he went about his duties as a member of the R.I.C. I was told he was shot as he attempted to take down a tricolour from a pole but the official records disclose that he and his colleague John Dunne, who was also killed, were serving jurors summonses in the village of Kinnity when they were fired on. Dunne, aged 22 years, was from Kilconly in Tuam, while 24 year old Edward Doran was from Athy. Prior to joining the R.I.C. less than three years previously Doran had worked as a gardener for Minch’s of Rockfield. I understand his sister was a secretary in Minch Nortons, although my informant claims that she worked for local Solicitors Malcomson & Law. Was he I wonder a brother of Frank Doran who lived for many years in County Cork and whom I believe occasionally wrote on G.A.A. matters? If anyone has any information on the family of Edward Doran I would be delighted to hear from them.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Three funerals and a happy surprise

During the past week, I attended the funerals of two men, who in their different ways and at different times were prominent in our community here in Athy. George Hayden I first came to know when, on returning to Athy, I joined the local badminton section of the Rugby Club, where he was the steward. A courteous gentleman, George Hayden was liked by everyone who was privileged to know him. An unassuming man he was, as described by Mark Bergin, president of the Rugby Club in his brief eulogy at the funeral mass, “a man of integrity”. In the local Heritage Centre, there is a unique memorial made from World War I bullets and pieces of marble which were sent to Mrs Hayden of Churchtown in memory of her two sons Aloysius and Patrick who were killed in the Great War. It was through George Hayden’s generosity and thoughtfulness that this important commemorative artefact of war was donated to the Heritage Centre some years ago. It will always remain a memorial, not only to the Hayden brothers, but for me also a reminder of the quiet gracious gentleman who extended courtesy and assistance to everybody who came in contact with him.

Brian Maguire also passed away last week, less than two years after his beloved Megan went to her maker. Both Megan and Brian were for many years actively involved in the community amongst whom they came to live in July 1957.

As a dispensary doctor, Dr Brian saw the raw underbelly of poverty and deprivation at close quarters. For Athy, in the 1950s and for a long time afterwards, was unlike the bustling, traffic clogged town of today. Job opportunities were few and far between and the emigration boat provided the only respite from the numbing effects of enforced idleness.

The young doctor on arrival in Athy was to spend the rest of his life working among the people who came to appreciate the thoughtfulness which he brought to the care of his patients, especially the elderly. His involvement with the Committee for the Care of the Elderly is well known and was documented by me some years ago in a previous Eye on the Past. His passing and that of George Hayden, both in advanced years, removes from the local community two men of integrity whose lives were an example to all of us.

Of their generation also was the late Ivan Bergin, who died a few weeks ago. I was away at the time and regretfully failed to note his passing. Ivan Bergin was a quiet modest man whose father, the legendary JJ Bergin, was an important figure both nationally and locally in the Ireland of 50 years ago.

Ivan was perhaps best known for submitting the winning design for the Macra na Feirme badge in a competition 60 years ago.

Members of the newly-formed organisation were invited to submit proposals and the winning design was forwarded by the young farmer from Athy, which featured ears of wheat, oats and barley framing a ploughman and a pair of horses ploughing a field. The design prepared by Ivan Bergin continues today as the Macra na Feirme logo.

Some months ago I wrote of Christy Supple, trade union activist who led the South Kildare Farm Workers Strike in the early 1920s. Christy was also an urban councillor for Athy and, if memory serves me right, was a member of Kildare County Council. He died in England on 15 November 1967 to where he had emigrated some years previously. His remains were returned to his native Athy for burial in St Michael’s Cemetery.

Following my article on this forgotten leader of the working man’s move-ment in this area, I was fortunate to make contact with his son Joe, who lives in America. I found to my delight that Christy Supple’s wife was still alive and living in London and that he was also survived by two sons. The Supple family members are travelling to Athy for the 40th anniversary of Christy’s death and I hope to meet them and to learn more of the story of the man who was harshly imprisoned for his trade union activities during the course of the Farm Labourers’ Strike in 1923.

Christy Supple was the kind of man who made things happen. He was an activist who worked hard to better the lives of the workmen he represented and in so doing he suffered hugely. His is a story I hope to deal with in greater detail at some time in the near future.

In the meantime I finish off this week’s article with a photograph taken seven years ago on the occasion of the celebration of the centenary of Athy Urban District Council. Sadly, two of the former councillors in that photograph, Megan Maguire and George ‘Mossy’ Reilly are no longer with us.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Remembering the fallen in the First World War

Remembrance Sunday, 11 November, will this year fall on the 89th anniversary of the day that the First World War ended. At 11 o’clock on the morning of 11 November 1918 the guns fell silent across the battlefields where almost 10 million men and women had lost their lives during the previous 52 months. The carnage of war was unfortunately to be replaced by an even more relentless destroyer of human life as the great flu epidemic which marked the final months of the Great War took its toll throughout the world. More people worldwide were to die during the few months of the influenza outbreak than were killed in the 1914-18 war.
The killing of approximately 35,000 Irish men in the World War and the maiming of even more men and women must have had a depressing effect on the national psyche at a time when the Irish people were about to embark on the final push for independence. 129 Athy men were killed in the war, the vast majority of whom were blown to bits or submerged in the mud of Flanders, never again to be found. Few bodies were recovered from where they fell and so the families of these dead men never had a graveside at which they could grieve. Perhaps even more tragic however, insofar as the fathers, mothers, widows and children of these men were concerned, was the change in attitudes back home in Ireland brought about by the emergence of Sinn Fein and the drive for Irish independence. Men who paraded to the railway station in Athy, accompanied by the Leinster Street Fife and Drum Band to the cheers of the townspeople, found on their return from war that they were at best ignored, but often times regarded as an embarrassment in an Ireland where Republican nationalism had gripped the public’s imagination and set the course for the island’s political future.

However, freedom for Ireland was a desire also shared by many of the men who fought in the First World War and indeed there were many amongst them who had enlisted in the belief that by doing so they were helping the cause of Home Rule. After all, had not the local Urban District Councillors actively encouraged them to enlist to fight in France and Flanders as soon as war was declared in

1914. The same encouragement was coming from every quarter. Canon Mackey, the Parish Priest of Athy, had often canvassed their support for the war from public platforms in Emily Square, as had many other highly regarded and respected persons in the town. No wonder then that the young men of Athy and the surrounding countryside enlisted in their hundreds and joined the British Army in the fight against Germany.

The shame of it is that those thought lucky or fortunate enough to survive the human carnage which was the First World War returned to a country and a town whose people rejected the overseas war and those who had fought in it. Not only were the survivors of the war rejected, but shamefully those who died were ignored. That is until recent years when a more reasoned response to the events of the 1914-18 period and its aftermath caused us and our Republican government to re-assess the contribution which the World War I soldiers made to the shared history of our country. The Irish Peace Tower at Messines now stands as our Nation’s symbolic remembrance of the Great War dead and in Athy the plaque placed on the Town Hall wall by the Town Council last year is Athy’s acknowledgement of our gratitude to the local men who died and those who survived the 1914-18 war.Local men like the Kelly brothers, Denis, John and Owen, the Curtis brothers, John, Laurence and Patrick, the Hayden brothers, Aloysius and Patrick and the Stafford brothers, Edward and Thomas. I could go on and on until the 219 men from Athy and district who died in the Great War were all listed. Theirs was a lost generation, lost not only to family and friends, but also to the collective memory of a community which should never have forgotten these young men. They were of our town, friends and neighbours and their deaths created a void within families, neighbourhoods and the wider community which took several generations to replace.

Next Sunday, November 11th, there will be an opportunity to remember the memory of all Athy men killed in the 1914-18 War and by so doing acknowledging the debt we owe them and their families for what they suffered. At 3.00 pm in St. Michael’s Old Cemetery a short service of remembrance will take place at the graves of the six Athy men who enlisted and died during the First World War and who are buried in the local cemetery. Later that evening at 8.00 p.m. in the Methodist Church at Woodstock Street a presentation of theatre, music and poetry will take place to remember the men of Athy and district who died in the war. You are encouraged to attend either or both events. After all, one hour or so of your time is little to offer in return for those who lost their lives all those years ago.

It’s a coincidence that on Friday night next, 9 November, John MacKenna who over 15 years ago initiated the Remembrance ceremonies in St. Michael’s Cemetery, will have his new book launched in the Heritage Centre. “The River Field” is a book of short stories, all set in a 12 acre triangular field near Castledermot and covering the period stretching back as far as 1763. John is regarded as one of the most accomplished writers in this country and his talents have been recognised with awards for his fiction and most recently for a radio play which won an international prize in New York. It’s good to see his writings in print because after the last of his first three books which was published in 1998 he waited another 8 years before publishing his most recent book, “Things You Should Know”.

The 55 year old Castledermot man, often regarded as a successor to McGahern’s literary genius, has yet again produced a body of work which shows a masterful literary talent at work. I understand the official launch of the book will be by Joe Taylor of RTE fame and will take place in the Heritage Centre on Friday, 9 November at 8.00 p.m. It will be an opportunity to join in the celebration and to buy a signed copy of a book which I believe will be a best seller. Even better still you might take the opportunity to disagree with something he might have to say on the night and so keep up the tradition which is slowly building up of controversial debate within the confines of the Town Hall!