Thursday, February 28, 2008

Bert House

I read in the papers recently that Bert House, that magnificent mansion just off the main Athy/Monasterevin Road, is for sale at a price in excess of €3 million. In my young days Bert House was owned and lived in by ‘the Lady Geoghegans’. Lady Geoghegan and her sister were long time residents of Bert House, having moved in around 1909 and it was sometime in the mid 1960’s, after one of them died, that the survivor moved out to live in a new bungalow in the locality. I don’t know anything about the family background of the elderly ladies whom the locals always referred to as ‘the Lady Geoghegans’. In any event Bert House was sold off for the first time almost 60 years ago when in 1968 or thereabouts Joe Kelly, a racing driver, purchased it from the last of it’s long time residents. I gather Kelly did a considerable amount of work on refurbishing the house, although he never lived there. It was subsequently sold and since then has passed through a succession of new owners, none of whom have ever equalled ‘the Lady Geoghegans’’ length of residence in what is the largest mansion in South Kildare.

Bert House was built between 1720 and 1730 for Captain William Burgh who was Comptroller and Accountant General for Ireland to a design prepared by his brother Thomas Burgh of Oldtown. Thomas was Barrack Overseer in Ireland, a position to which he was appointed in 1701 and was responsible for the building of Trinity College Library, Dr. Steevens Hospital, Dublin and Collins Barracks in Dublin. The latter building is now part of the National Museum of Ireland. The original Bert House consisted of a central block of seven bays, three storey high over a basement. The overlapping side wings were added early in the 19th century. It’s a house steeped in history and the people who lived in Bert House figured prominently in Irish history at various times.

Captain William Burgh, the first owner of the house, was born in 1667, son of Ulysses Burgh of Dromkeen, Co. Leitrim. He was succeeded by his only son Thomas Burgh whose sister Elizabeth was married in 1734 to Chief Baron Anthony Foster. Their son, John Foster, was to be the last Speaker in the Irish House of Commons. Thomas Burgh was born in 1696 and while he sat in Parliament as Member for Lanesboro in Co. Longford he never represented Athy in that capacity. He was however a freeman of Athy Borough and served as Sovereign of Athy Borough Council in 1755. He married Ann Downes, daughter of the Bishop of Cork and Ross whose wife was Catherine, sister of Robert, 19th Earl of Kildare. His wife’s brother Robert Downes was later to sit as a Member of Parliament for Kildare and was appointed Sovereign of Athy Borough Council in 1749. Thomas Burgh, while resident at Bert House, was the owner of extensive tracts of land in and around South Kildare. The present house has approximately 165 acres of land surrounding it.

When Thomas Burgh died in 1758 he was succeeded by his eldest son, William, who was just 17 years of age. William was the first Burgh of Bert House to represent Athy in Parliament which he did between 1768 and 1776. He later lived in England and he died in York in 1808. A monument to his memory by the famous sculptor Sir Richard Westmacott is to be found in York Minster.

When William left Bert House his younger brother Thomas succeeded him as Member of Parliament for Athy and he continued to do so until 1790. Thomas, who had previously resided in Chapelizod, Co. Dublin succeeded to the Bert House estate in 1808 but was to die just two years later.

The Parliamentary connection was maintained by Thomas Burgh’s sister Anne who in 1767 married Walter Hussey. Born in Donore, Co. Kildare, Hussey who was regarded as the finest Orator of his day represented Athy Borough Council in the Irish House of Commons between 1769 and 1776.

On the death of Thomas Burgh of Bert in 1810 he was succeeded by his only son, Ulysses. Born in 1788, Ulysses married Maria Bagenal of Bagnelstown in 1815. He was a member of the Borough Council of Athy until it’s disbandment in 1840 and served as Sovereign of Athy in 1834 and again in 1840. In that latter year he was succeeded as Athy’s Town Sovereign by Rev. F.S. Trench, the local Church of England Rector, who held that position when the Borough Council was abolished.

Ulysses Burgh succeeded to the title of Lord Downes in 1826 on the death of his cousin William Downes who had been appointed Lord Chief Justice in 1803 following the assassination of Lord Kilwarden during the Robert Emmet Rebellion. William Downes, son of the former Sovereign of Athy Robert Downes, had been created Lord Downes in 1822 on his retirement as Chief Justice. Dying without male issue the title passed to his cousin Ulysses Burgh of Bert. It was Ulysses Burgh who as Lord Downes presented a clock to the people of Athy in 1846 which is presently on the front wall of the Town Hall.

When Lord Downes of Bert died in 1863 he was succeeded by his eldest daughter, Charlotte who had married Lt. General James Colborne in 1851. Colborne was the son of John Colborne who led the 52nd Light Infantry in the decisive manoeuvre which secured the English victory of Waterloo. He was later Commander in charge of the British Army in Ireland and was raised to the title of Lord Seaton in 1839. Charlotte’s husband, James Colborne, succeeded to his father’s title in 1863 and it was as Lord and Lady Seaton that James and Charlotte came to live in Bert House following the death of Lord Downes. The house remained in their ownership until 1909 when it was sold to ‘the Lady Geoghegans’.

Bert House is not only the largest mansion in this area, but also retains an enormous amount of links with the history of South Kildare and Ireland generally. It is hoped that whoever buys it, Bert House will once again become an integral part of the social and economic life of Athy and the surrounding areas.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Into every life a little rain must fall!

The weather is an everyday topic of conversation in Ireland. Whether it has the same topicality in other countries, I don’t know, but here in what the visitors call the Emerald Isle we have a particular fascination with anything climatical. It is not so much a topic of conversation as an integral part of a common place greeting, such as ‘lovely weather today’ or more usually ‘more rain on the way’, which are put to those we meet without any preliminary remarks or greetings.

The fascination with the weather in Ireland must surely be related in some way or other to the country’s long-standing dependence on agriculture. The importance of weather in lives devoted to agriculture can be appreciated when one considers that in the years before industrialisation bad weather meant no work and no work meant no pay, the result being hunger within the average family. No wonder, then, that the man in the street became somewhat fixated in what was happening or was expected to happen weather-wise as the working day dawned.

The gathering of weather-related information goes back a long time. How far back, I don’t know, but here in Athy there is a history of involvement in compiling weather data extending back at least 80 years. From 1929 until 1943, a rainfall station operated at Crom a Boo bridge. That same bridge, the work of James Delahunty, ‘Knight of the Trowel’ and completed just two years before the 1798 Rebellion, has been a silent witness to many events and occurrences over the centuries. Decapitated heads have hung from the bridge as a warning to local United Irishmen of the punishment awaiting those who sought to overturn the government of the day. While still in its infancy, the bridge provided safe passage over the River Barrow for Nicholas Grey of Rockfield House and his companion as they started out on their journey to Dublin to join in Emmet’s uprising.

But in 1929 Crom a Boo bridge provided a base for a more practical purpose, when a rainfall station was located there. The modern device for measuring rainfall is a simple enough one consisting of a copper cylinder with a glass bottle inside. The collected rainfall is decanted into a graduated cylinder, giving readings in millimetres. A daily record is kept of the rainfall measured and the information collected is forwarded each month to Met Eireann. Who looked after the rainfall station at Crom a Boo bridge up to 1943 I have been unable to discover and, indeed, I cannot identify exactly where the station was located vis à vis the bridge itself.

The local rainfall station in Athy was relocated to the Vocational School on the Carlow Road in 1943. St Brigid’s School had been opened in 1930 by the then minister for education Thomas Derrig and the late Tony Byrne of St Joseph’s Terrace was in charge of the station in the latter years of his period as school caretaker. I assume that his predecessors in that position were also involved in operating the rainfall station at the school.

Tony Byrne continued operating the rainfall station when in 1980 it was moved to his house at St Joseph’s Terrace, where it remained until Tony’s death in 2003. At the same time, a second station operated at Minch Nortons from 1981 to 2004. Following Tony Byrne’s death, his widow continued to supply rainfall measurements to the Met Office and a member of the Byrne family, I believe, still operates a rainfall station at nearby Levitstown.

Today at Chanterlands, Seosamh May operates a weather recording station on behalf of the Met Office. In addition to rainfall measurement, Seosamh records on a daily basis air temperature, humidity and soil temperatures. His is one of approximately 70 climate stations in Ireland where comprehensive data is compiled each day and forwarded monthly to Dublin. The climate station was previously located at Kilberry from about 1950 until 1993, when it was relocated to Chanterlands from where it has operated on a daily basis for the last 15 years.

I visited the station recently and courtesy of Seosamh May saw at first hand the compact yet seemingly complicated operation which gives the daily weather readings for Athy. The readings are taken at 9am Greenwich Mean Time every day, which means, of course, that during Irish summertime they are taken an hour later at 10am.

The main components of the weather station are a Stevenson’s Screen, a grass minimum thermometer, a rainfall gauge and three soil thermometers. The Stevenson’s Screen was designed originally by Thomas Stevenson, who was the father of the famous author Robert Louis Stevenson. It is a double-louvered box with four thermometers inside. A dry bulb thermometer gives the current air temperature at the time of reading, while a wet bulb thermometer records the temperature of evaporation. Both readings give the relative humidity at reading time. The air maximum thermometer records the highest temperature in a 24-hour period. The air minimum thermometer gives the lowest temperature for the same period. The first three of these thermometers are mercury instruments and the fourth is an alcohol instrument.

On the ground there is a grass minimum thermometer which is also alcohol based, which rests on two ‘Y’ shaped pegs at a 2º slant, with it’s bulb touching grass blade tips. It records the lowest ground temperature during the previous night. The rainfall gauge is similar to that previously described and the rainfall is recorded every day, as are all the other weather measurements.

About a year ago, three soil thermometers were added to the weather station at Chanterlands. These are right-angled instruments and are inserted into the bare soil to depths of 50mms, 100mms and 200mms to give the soil temperature at these respective levels. The information gathered in relation to soil temperature is of benefit to agriculturalists and horticulturalists, for when the soil temperature at 100mms depth reaches 6º C and upwards the grass starts to grow.

Cloud cover is also measured at the Athy weather station and is measured on a scale of 0 Okta, which indicates no cloud, to 9 Okta, which indicates total cloud cover. Visibility is measured and recorded up to 40 meters, 40 meters beyond and less than 20 meters. The state of the ground is recorded on a scale of 0-9 and any special type of weather in a 24-hour period is recorded using code numbers, for example, 2 indicates slow/sleet, 3 hail, 4 thunder, 6 gale and 7 fog.

Keeping daily weather records requires enormous dedication and Seosamh May has successfully under-taken this onerous task for the last 15 years. As an aside, he told me of the difference between a ‘rain day’ and a ‘wet day’. Rain days have rainfall of 0.2mms or above, while wet days have rainfall of 1.0mm or more. Last January, we had 23 rain days and 21 wet days, while the highest temperature recorded this year was on 23 January with almost 14.5º Celsius. The highest temperature recorded at the Athy weather station since 1993 was 31.3º Celsius on 18 July 2006. The heaviest rainfall in any 36-hour period was slightly above 3.5 inches, commencing on 15 May 2000. On the following day just over three inches of rainfall fell. In case you thought that January of this year was bad in terms of rainfall, the wettest month since 1993 was September 1999 when over eight inches of rain fell. This January we had five inches of rain, at a time when the town water supply was cut off, but unfortunately we were unable to avail of either source of water.

Thanks to Seosamh May for showing me around Athy’s weather station and for explaining the intricacies of the system, and thanks also to Joe Lyons of the Met Office in Dublin who supplied most of the information about climatic recordings in the past.

Friday, February 8, 2008

Tallaght-fornia dreamin’ for MacKenna’s Corner Boys

Last week I travelled to the Civic Theatre in the heart of the new township of Tallaght for the first night of John MacKenna’s latest play, ‘Corner Boys’. The theatre, part of the complex of buildings which were built up around the Tallaght Square shopping development is a cultural oasis. In an incongruous setting it stands almost as a beacon of light, reflecting well on the community which however seems to make greater use of the nearby cinema complex than it does of the theatre itself. I journeyed up the motorway somewhat apprehensively, wondering as to whether our local writer who has given us some wonderful literary works could once again provide a memorable night of entertainment. John MacKenna’s previous play, ‘Who By Fire’, received enthusiastic responses from his audiences last year, but less than favourable comments from the critics who seem more perplexed than enlightened by what they saw.

‘Corner Boys’, the writer tells us, is a play of laughter, love, missed opportunity and tragedy. Clearly the whole gamut of human emotion seems to have found a voice and a setting in his play, if the advance publicity is to be believed. It’s a play about the lives of ordinary people and people certainly did not come any more ordinary than the corner boys which once populated the street corners of provincial Ireland of past years.

If you are of an age which started out in the decades before television captured the minds and eyes of the Irish people you will have seen the corner boys. MacKenna’s play is located on a street corner in nearby Castledermot, but here in Athy we had two prime street corners where our local corner boys congregated each day without fail. Carolan’s Corner and O’Rourke-Glynn’s Corner were the focal points for the men who, no matter what age they were, and some were quite old, were always referred to and readily identified as corner boys. They stood there, apparently motionless, their backs to the wall, watching, observing, recognising, and where recognition did not come, enquiring amongst themselves. Their world was encompassed within the horizons of their vision, their eyes looking up and down the street, seldom moving, seldom missing, always recording, even if not always understanding.

Their commentary on the comings and goings in the street passed for conversation. They were for the most part quiet, seldom if ever garrulous as they stood with hands in trousers pockets, removed only to retrieve a cigarette from the mouth, sometimes balancing on one leg with the other leg extended behind and resting against the wall.

Traffic movement in the days of the corner boys was unlike the continuous cavalcade we have come to know today. The sparse traffic moved slowly, allowing time for those passing to be identified and the strangers to be noted. Comments were the life blood of the community of corner boys. Their minds no doubt struggled to maintain a balance between observing, commenting and ruminating and in this way the day passed. What I wondered would the fertile imagination of the former teacher from Castledermot come up with in a play centered on the dialogue of men who spent their days hanging around the corners of small towns and villages.

It was the famous theatrical critic of the 1940’s, James Agate, who described the essence of theatre as ‘excitement shared in company and moreover excitement packed into something under three hours.’ After the 1½ hour performance, with a 15 min. interval of ‘Corner Boys’, I could not but admit that John MacKenna had by Agate’s definition captured the essence of theatre with his latest play. This was a play punctuated during it’s first half particularly, by raucous laughter as the audience reacted, at least most of them did, at the ribaldry of the three corner boys, and occasionally the antics of the two girls acting out their roles as shop assistants. The second half of the play swung the audience’s emotions the other way as the reality of the disappointed lives of the young people unfolded in scenes which were tense and devoid of the frivolity and merriment of the play’s opening.

The play’s theme is difficult to define. That in some strange way is one of the strength’s of MacKenna’s work. The interpretation of what you see and hear allows for different conclusions. Is it the questionable struggle of the genders which shows in the character of Alice the indomitable strength of the female contrasting with the weakness of the corner boys? Is it a story of love and jealously amongst a small group within a provincial town, or a story of hopelessness emphasised in the words of one of the actors who complains that ‘poverty is a life sentence – the only way to get time off is to die young’.

‘Corner Boys’ is a fine piece of work which one must see in its entirety to appreciate. The opening scenes, if seen in isolation, might lead one to conclude that it was nothing more than a vehicle for a few old male jokes and less than savoury male-type behaviour. The truth however, is that John MacKenna has written a fine piece for the theatre and happily the players under the direction of Marian Brophy have done his work justice. The one scene, which coming in the middle of the first act, seemed not to fit in as well as the rest of the play was the Parish Priest’s sermon in which he tells his parishioners how they should live their lives. This for me was the only part of the play which did not come across as well as the director and the author might have hoped.

A good play, with excellent direction by Marian Brophy of Carlow, was further enhanced by strong acting by Cora Fenton playing the part of Alice Dungan, and Charlie Hughes playing her brother Billy. Cora Fenton was exceptionally good and John MacKenna, himself a fine actor, gave a performance which was overshadowed by his two colleagues. Noel Lambe gave one of his best performances to date and newcomer Teresa Cahill can be well pleased on her debut role with the ‘Water to Wine Theatre Company’.

A well written play, with good performances by the five actors and excellent direction by Marian Brophy should ensure a successful tour for ‘Corner Boys’. It will come to the Town Hall Athy for three nights commencing on 3rd March, Dunamaise Theatre Portlaoise on Thursday 14th February, Eire Óg Hall Carlow on 8th March, finishing in the Moate Club Naas on 14th and 15th March. A total of 22 venues will be toured by the company between 6th February and 15th March, with what promises to be a very successful play for the Castledermot-born writer. You should go and see it at a venue near you.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

From the Shamrock Shore to Van Diemen’s Land

In 2001, Peter Carey’s book on The History of the Kelly Gang was published to critical acclaim and won for its Australian author the Booker Prize. What I had found interesting in Carey’s account of Ned Kelly was the knowledge displayed by the writer of little-known events which occurred in provincial Ireland during the 1798 period. Here is an extract from his book.
‘At Beveridge Catholic School, we learned the traitors better than the saints so at 5 yr of age I could recite the names John Cockayne Edward Abby even poor Anthony Perry who finally betrayed the rebels after the English set his head alight with pitch and gunpowder. Likewise but contrary I knew the names of the Athy blacksmiths Tom Murray and Owen Finn they would not betray the rebels though they was flogged and tortured the whole town echoing with their screams.’

Clearly news of what had occurred in Athy in ’98 had crossed the world and in particular to Australia, in all probability courtesy of some unfortu-nate convict from this area deported down under after conviction at the local assizes and after a spell spent in the local jail awaiting transfer to a waiting hulk in Queenstown or Dublin.

Students of Irish history will be familiar with Australian place names such as Botany Bay and Van Diemen’s Land, the first the bay into which convict ships sailed and the latter, now renamed Tasmania, where the unfortunate Irish, English, Welsh and Scottish convicts, male and female, were to serve out their sentences. How many men and women from South Kildare were deported it is unclear, but among the numbers were undoubtedly many of our townspeople who after serving their sentences made a new life for themselves in Australia.

Added to their numbers were the young girls who as part of the Orphan Emigration Scheme which followed the Great Famine left the workhouse in Athy and other Irish workhouses on the long journey which ended in Australia. The first group of girls from South Kildare went out in 1849. The Emigration Scheme was stated to be a voluntary scheme, which presupposes that the Board of Guardians cooperated, but I wonder to what extent the young girls or their parents, where known, were consulted or volunteered to emigrate to the far side of the world.

What happened to these young girls after their arrival in Botany Bay is the subject of continuing research, but it can be expected that their descendents are now part of the wider population of Australia and perhaps even Tasmania, the island state which received its last convict from the old world in 1852. Four years later, the island’s name was changed from Van Diemen’s Land to Tasmania in honour of the man who had discovered it over 200 years previously.

Australia has always had a strong Irish connection and the influence of Irish settlers is evident in the country’s heritage of song and literature. The most popular Australian ballad, insofar as the Irish are concerned, must surely be The Wild Colonial Boy.

The exploits of Jack Duggan, ‘born and reared in Castlemaine’, was immortalised in a song which perhaps reflected his fellow country-men’s affection for Irish outlaws and a dislike for authority born and nurtured out of decades of state oppression in their homeland.

The literary output of Irish emigrants, despite their contribution to Australian literary heritage, may not have been as strong as might be expected, given that by 1891 more than 23% of the Australian population consisted of Irish-born men or women. This is understandable, given that the majority of Irish emigrants were relatively uneducated. The Irish Australian writings which have come down to us include the works of Charles Gavin Duffy, Peter Lalor and Dunbrin-born James Malone. Lalor from County Laois, brother of the Irish patriot James Fintan Lalor, was the leader of the gold miners who, in blockading the Eureka Stockade in 1854, struck a blow for democracy, creating what is generally acknowledged to be one of the great symbolic events in Australian labour history. The famous American writer Mark Twain later wrote of the events at Eureka Stockade, where the gold diggers rebelled against oppressive laws and corrupt officials, as “the finest thing in Australian history. It was a revolution - small in size but politically it was a strike for liberty, a struggle for a principle, a stand against injustice and oppression”.

Peter Lalor who had emigrated from County Laois just two years previously was 27 years of age when he took charge of the rebel miners at Eureka, and by the time government troops had regained control 14 miners were dead and another eight were later to die of their wounds. Among the wounded was Peter Lalor himself. Most of those involved were Irish and the ‘failed’ revolt led to the democratisation of the Australian State of Victoria.

Almost 38 years later, Fr James Malone, a native of Dunbrin, Athy left Ireland for Australia where he would remain a Parish Priest in various Australian parishes until his death in 1948. A man of exceptional literary taste, he wrote several books and contributed many articles to Australian magazines during his lifetime. The Purple Dust published in 1910 was his account of a tour through Egypt and Palestine, originally written for an Australian magazine Austral Light and serialised in that magazine over a two-year period. The trip started in February 1907 and ended in Athy, where Fr Malone was visiting his family and relatives for the first time since emigrating in 1892. He was a lecturer and writer on English literature and poetry and published in 1915 his lectures which he titled Talks about Poets and Poetry, having published some years previously a work titled The Australian Poet. Of particular interest to Athy readers is his own book of poetry Wild Briar and Wattle-Blossom, published in Melbourne in 1914, in which a number of photographs appeared. The captions accompanying the photographs were A Home on the Barrow, A Scene on the Barrow and The Old Whitewashed Schoolhouse in Shanganamore. The poems, some of which were Australian in content, were reflections of an Irishman’s memories of his home place, the most well-known of which was The Old Whitewashed Schoolhouse of Shanganamore, the opening lines of which read: Through the bogs of Dunbrin, leaping pool after pool, ‘Up and follow the leader’s the law of the school; A plunge at the stile with the risk of a spill, For the best bunch of cowslips on green

Cowsey’s hill - A race for the rath through the long meadow grass, Through the boldest heart quakes at the dread “fairy pass” - A leap for the hazel, a rustling of boughs - Hush! It’s only the gadfly that’s driving the cows.

And ended with the lines: And some day I’ll come back from that South Ocean’s shore To sleep ’neath the shamrocks of Shanganamore.

Fr Malone, so far as I am aware, never did return to Ireland and when he died on 16 July 1948, he was buried in the mortuary chapel at Geelong, Australia.