Thursday, March 27, 2008

Sharpe practices in the Napoleonic Wars

The Duke of Wellington, or Arthur Wellesley, as he was known to his family, is perhaps the most famous Irish soldier of all time. He is credited with the defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo and securing peace for Europe for the succeeding 50 years. Wellington’s Irishness was a source of embarrassment to him and he played down his Irish origins throughout much of his life. To him is attributed the quote, which is possibly apocryphal, that ‘being born in a stable does not make one a horse’.

Notwithstanding the discomfort that his Irish connections caused Wellington, he had cause to be thankful for his birth place in the service that its soldiers rendered to the Crown in the Napoleonic Wars. In the period preceding the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, somewhere between one fifth and one quarter of the British Army was composed of Irish soldiers.

After Napoleon’s defeat and his final exile to St Helena, there was an explosion in the publication of literature relating to the wars. Particularly prominent were the officers who served under Wellington. This was not to be unexpected as literacy levels among the private soldiers of the time would have been very low. I wrote some years ago of William Grattan, a relation of the great Irish orator and statesman, Henry Grattan, who wrote a series of books about his service in the Connaught Rangers during the Napoleonic wars and who retired to Kilcullen after his military service was over and was buried in Old St Michael’s Cemetery, Athy, Co Kildare.

Notwithstanding that tens of thousands of Irish men served in the ranks of Wellington’s armies, very few of them published accounts of their service and to the best of my knowledge no Athy man ever put pen to paper to record his wartime experiences. However, a young Laois man by the name of Edward ‘Ned’ Costello did, publishing in 1841 Adventures of a Soldier and following up with a revised edition of this book in 1852. Costello was born in Mountmellick on 26 October 1788. He spent his formative years in the town, but at the age of seven, his father moved to Dublin, where he secured an appointment in Dublin Port with the Custom Services. His father was a ‘tidewaiter’, this being an officer empowered and employed by the Customs Service to board ships entering into the port to examine their cargo to ensure there were no attempts by the merchants of the day to evade customs duty. At a young age, Costello himself was apprenticed to a cabinet maker in William Street in Dublin. He was restless and did not stay at this employment long and soon went to live with his uncle, who was a shoemaker. It seems while working with his uncle, he came across an old soldier who had fought in Egypt in 1801, losing a leg.

Fired up by stories of martial endeavour, he enlisted in the Dublin Militia in 1806 and in the following year his regiment was stationed in Derry. There, he volunteered to join the 95th Rifles, being a regular regiment in the British Army. He adapted quickly to the army life and in the summer of 1809 found himself with his regiment in Portugal, where Wellington’s armies were fighting prolonged campaigns against the invading French forces. Life on campaign was very tough. Troops at the time had to endure excessive heat, poor food and disease. Costello was in the thick of the fighting when his regiment stormed the French citadel at Ciudad Rodrigo. Although the battle lasted less than half an hour, the fighting was intense and uncompromising. In the aftermath of the battle, through which Costello emerged unscathed, he went to inspect that portion of citadel in which a mine had been exploded prior to the commencement of the assault. He wrote:

“The sight was heart-rendering in the extreme. The dead lay in heaps, numbers of them stripped. They displayed the most ghastly wounds. Here and there, half buried under the blackened fragments of the wall, or reeking on the surface of the ruin, lay those who had been blown up in the explosion, the remains dreadfully mangled and discoloured. Strewed about were dissevered arms and legs. The 88th Connaught Rangers had suffered most severely at this spot and I observed a number of poor Irish women hopelessly endeavouring to distinguish the burned features of their husbands.”

William Grattan, then a junior officer in the Connaught Rangers, wrote about the battle as follows:

“The smell from the still-burning houses, the groups of dead and wounded, and the broken fragments of different weapons, marked strongly the character of the preceding night’s dispute; and even at this late hour, there were many drunken marauders endeavouring to regain, by some fresh act of atrocity, an equivalent for the plunder their brutal state of intoxication had caused them to lose by the hands of their own companions, who robbed indiscriminately man, woman or child, friend or foe, the dead or the dying!”

Costello, like many soldiers of the time, was not above helping himself to the spoils of war. In the aftermath of the Battle of Vittoria, he came across a Spaniard serving in the French Army carrying a heavy case. In Costello’s own words:

“I compelled him to lay it down, which he did, but only after I had given him a few whacks on the ribs with my rifle. On inspection, I found the portmanteau contained several small bags filled with gold and silver in dublons and dollars. Although I never knew the exact amount, I should think it was not less than £1,000. As I had contributed most towards its capture, I took it as booty and with my comrades gone in another direction, I had no-one to claim a portion of it.”

Costello retired from the Army in 1819. His soldiering did not end there. He returned to Spain in 1819, joining the British Legion to fight in the Carlist wars, essentially a war fought between competing factions in the Spanish monarchy over succession to the throne of Spain. By 1838, he had retired from active service and was appointed a yeoman warder of the Tower of London by the Duke of Wellington, who himself had been appointed the Constable of the Tower in 1826. With his soldiering now behind him, it allowed him to sit down and compose his memoirs. He remained at the Tower for the rest of his life and died there on 27 July 1869.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

The Quakers in Athy

A recent report in the Kildare Nationalist confirmed that what was referred to as the former Quaker Meeting House in Athy was to become a coffee shop/drop in centre for young people. Over 25 years ago I first did some research on the Quakers in Athy and found myself in the Friends Central Library, then housed in Eustace Street in Dublin. Shortly before then I became aware for the very first time of the existence of a Quaker community in Athy, which however had long before died out. The information available on the local members of the Society of Friends, to give them their proper name, was scanty indeed, although I was delighted to come across details of the building of the Quaker Meeting House in Athy in 1780.

The first Quakers in Athy may have been Thomas Weston and his wife who in 1657 ‘received the truth’ from Thomas Loe, an English preacher, who was visiting some friends in County Carlow. They were soon joined by the Bonnett family, the first Quaker family to settle in Carlow. The Bonnetts stayed in Athy for a short while after leaving Carlow before taking up residence at Ardreigh on the banks of the River Barrow. A Quaker meeting was settled in Athy by 1671, the year in which Athy was included in the list of towns where the Leinster Province Meeting was held. The local Quakers met for worship once a week on the 4th day (Wednesday), and every month a district meeting was held in Carlow to transact church business. Athy, as part of the Carlow district, also sent delegates to the Province’s quarterly meetings.

One of the earliest extant records of the Athy Friends relates to a Province Meeting held at Richard Boye’s house in Athy on 20th May 1706. Some of the Quaker families in Athy during the 18th century were the Westons, the Jessops, the Shellys, the Doyles, the Hudsons, the Rushworths, the Bakers, the Thompsons and the Haughtons of Rheban.

A recent book published by the Irish Friends Historical Committee titled ‘The Quaker Meeting Houses of Ireland’ and compiled by David Butler has given us some additional information on the Quakers in Athy. Butler writes:-

‘In 1671 a Province Meeting was held at Athy, at the house of Thomas Weston. The year before, that meeting had encouraged Friends there to build “a convenient meeting house”. Some time later, in 1704, it recorded: “it being under consideration of this meeting that there being a new meeting house built at Athy ..... to pretty general satisfaction, and that it being built at the charge of some particular Friends, and many Friends suggest it better it should be at province charge”. The sum of £50 was raised for it, and the building was conveyed from individual Friends to trustees of Province Meeting. Only four years later it had to be repaired, done at Province expense. The lease of the site was for a very short term, it expired in 1713 and then “as we have two good meetings next it [at Carlow and Castledermot] and that Athy being in a damp place, and not very convenient” it was given up, though not all Friends were happy to let it go. Province Meeting kept a grip on its property: in 1716 “there being several forms that belong to Friends of this Province at Athy Meeting and there being a new Meeting House built at Ballinakill, it is desired that Thomas Weston let Friends have 28 of them”. The Meeting was laid down in 1716 soon, after the lease ended.’

The next reference I found to Quakers in Athy was in an agreement dated December 1732 when Weston undertook to ‘set Friends a large meeting room and a stable for £3 a year and to keep them in repair’. At the Carlow Province quarterly Meeting held on 4th February 1767 it was suggested that ‘Friends of Athy be recommended to conclude among themselves about a convenient place to erect a meeting place.’ An application was subsequently made to the Duke of Leinster for a suitable plot of ground, but nothing further was done to construct a Meeting House. In the meantime the premises rented by the Athy Meeting continued to be used. Compared to the meetings which were then being held at Carlow and Ballitore the Meeting in Athy was quite small. The minutes of the Carlow Province Meeting for 23rd March 1774 noted, ‘Friends of Athy Meeting having for a long time past discontinued collecting with the other Meetings for the relief of the poor on account alleged that they have the rent of their Meeting House annually to pay, it is judged by this Meeting not convenient that said Meeting of Athy should not join in support of that branch or Christian discipline the relief of the poor, therefore this Meeting desires the Friends of Athy will confer among themselves and make report to the next Meeting how much they are willing individually to collect on condition that they be provided with a Meeting place by this Meeting’. The May Meeting recorded that the Athy Friends returned an account of what they were willing to collect monthly for the poor, whereupon the Carlow Province Meeting agreed to provide Athy with a Meeting place at it’s own expense. Thereafter the rent for the Athy Meeting House was paid from Carlow, which by 1776 was £4 per year and in 1778 was payable to John Chandlee of Athy.

In February 1775 Thomas Chandlee who had moved from Dublin to Athy attended his first quarterly Meeting in Athy. A linen draper in Duke Street, Athy, Chandlee prospered in the town and in November 1780 he married Deborah, daughter of Richard and Elizabeth Shackleton of Ballitore.

In 1779 the Duke of Leinster gave a plot of ground to the local Society of Friends in Athy. Steps were immediately taken to erect a Meeting House on the site. Work started in 1779, financed by the Carlow Province, which in turn was funded by the subscriptions of the local Meetings affiliated to the Province. Some concern was expressed at the Province Meeting in December 1779 at the delay in receiving subscriptions for their new building from the Athy Friends. Following further delay the Province Meeting appointed a delegation to visit the Athy Meeting on 13th February 1780. The purpose of the visit was to impress upon the Athy Friends the embarrassing position posed by the local’s failure to respond speedily and adequately to the request for funds for their new Meeting House. The reception received by the delegation was obviously not to their liking for the March 1780 Minutes of the Province Meeting recorded ‘considering their dishonourable dealing (the Meeting) judges it improper to accept of their subscriptions for building the Meeting House there and as the sum of £50 is still wanting towards completing the work, each Meeting is desired to raise such proportion as they can towards it.’ The final cost of the Athy Meeting House completed in 1780 came to £129.5.10 of which the Athy Friends contributed the sum of £52.13.1. A shortfall of £5.2.2 was advanced by the Athy trader Thomas Chandlee and was later repaid to him by the Carlowmen’s Meeting. The breakdown of the final expenditure on the building shows that £56.9.0 was paid to masons for building the Meeting House and the wall around part of the grounds it stood upon. The building had a gallery as the sum of £4.10.0 was paid for timber for the floor and gallery and the same building account mentions three windows, although the present building only has two windows.

The original Quaker Meeting House ran east to west, with an entrance doorway in the west wall approached by a driveway running straight in from the laneway. On the south side of the building was a lawn separating the building from the laneway. Both the lawn and the original entrance are no longer, the former having been lost partially to road widening and partially to the concrete yard which fronts the present entrance. The original building had a gallery and clearly was a higher building than the present structure.

The erection of the Meeting House did not make any appreciable change in the strength of Quakerism in Athy. A public meeting called in 1804 recorded by Mary Dudley found ‘very few of our name in Athy’. Thomas Shillito writing of a visit in 1808 referred to the Athy Quaker Meeting House as ‘the most deplorable Meeting House I have ever sat in, a few months after our sitting with Friends here the whole of the roof fell in’. By 1811 Athy Meeting House was recorded as a very small Meeting and the building itself was in such bad repair that it was considered unsafe to use. The Quaker Meeting House finally ceased to be used as a Meeting House sometime around 1811 but soon thereafter it was taken over by the local Methodists who repaired and re-roofed the building and in doing so possibly reduced the height of the walls.

The last Quaker family in the Athy area were the Hewsons who were shop keepers in the town. Margaret Hewson born in 1838 and Mary Hewson born in 1839 were the last Quaker children born in the town. Nevertheless Alexander Duncan, shop keeper, Methodist and member of the local Town Commissioners writing in 1886 referred to Athy area as having ‘an odd antique of a Quaker’. It is not clear whether the name Meeting House Lane, or as we know it today Meeting Lane, refers to the original Quaker Meeting House or to the Methodist’s use of the building.

Interestingly, Butler in his book refers to the possibility of a burial ground adjoining the Quaker Meeting House, which he thinks might well have been situated in the now empty plot of ground behind the houses lining Meeting Lane. A path apparently formerly led from the Meeting House forecourt past the Meeting House entrance on the west side to a gateway in the wall which enclosed this plot of ground. Quakers usually retained the burial ground when they disposed of a Meeting House but this particular burial ground, if it did exist behind the Athy Meeting House, may have been lost in the absence of an active Meeting or as Butler states ‘by neglect of renewing trustees’.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

The fate of the Leinster Arms

Apart from White’s Castle, the Leinster Arms Hotel was once the most visible landmark in the town of Athy. The ongoing reconstruction of the building and it’s conversion into a number of outlets brings an end to the century’s old history of providing food and shelter for travellers in this one time coaching inn. For a long time the Leinster Arms was the premier inn in Athy, where other smaller establishments such as the Hibernian Hotel and the Railway Hotel, both on Leinster Street, competed for the travellers’ business. Named after the Anglo Norman family which once owned a substantial part of the property which made up the town, the Leinster Arms has been owned by many different people over the years. The last people to operate the premises as a hotel providing accommodation were the business men who employed Miss Darcy as manager of the premises during the 1950’s. Thereafter the increasing popularity of motor traffic led to a fall off in bed occupancy by commercial travellers who up to then formed the bulk of the hotel’s business. The fate of the Leinster Arms as a hotel was determined both by the rise of the motor car and the subsequent fall off in the commercial trade, as well as the raising of hotel standards by the Irish Tourist Board. It’s time had passed and sadly the hotel which we had all come to know so well had to close it’s doors for the last time.
The photo this week shows the Leinster Arms, I suspect sometime in the 1940’s. The absence of motor traffic probably suggests a time during the 2nd World War when petrol shortages kept the few cars in private ownership by and large off the roads.
The 2nd photo is of three men on a local street against the backdrop of a local shop. I haven’t been able to identify the location but the men are well remembered as Jimmy Leonard of Plewman’s Terrace, Peter Germaine, known as ‘Zeter’, and his brother ‘Golly’ Germaine. ‘Golly’ was known by no other name and his proper first name is not known to me. These men will be remembered by everyone who lived in Athy up to the late 1960’s.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Athy’s musical and theatrical tradition

Athy, for so long now without a theatre space, was at one time the centre of a strong musical and theatrical tradition. The Athy Social Club players of the ‘40’s and ‘50’s were one of the finest amateur dramatic groups in this region. Their period of excellence extended for a decade or two but alas did not survive long beyond the swinging sixties. The earliest musical society, also based in Athy, came into being sometime in the late 1930’s and enjoyed its heyday in the 1940’s. It was succeeded after a break of a few years by another musical society which in turn died off after a short while. The third and most recent musical revival ended a few years ago when lack of interest and support led to the effective demise of the Athy Musical and Dramatic Society.

It’s rather a pity, with the recent growth in the town’s population, that efforts are not being made to renew Athy’s musical and theatrical tradition. No doubt the task of doing so is rendered so much more difficult by the absence of a local theatre and Arts Centre, but despite the resource deficiency hopefully the revival of interest in the theatre can be encouraged in other ways.Looking through some photos during the week I came on a large number of them showing the casts of plays and shows which were once put on in the town. The first of those shows a line up of seven local men dressed and blackened up as minstrels in the 1945 musical ‘White Bread and Apple Sauce’ which was put on in the Town Hall. The performers from left to right were:- Kevin Meany, Mick Kelly, Barney Davis, Peter McNulty, Tim White, Gerry Flynn and Jim Dargan. What great troubadours they must have been.
The second photo shows members of the Social Club Players who were cast members of the play ‘The Righteous are Bold’ with the Fr. Matthew Cup won by them in the Drama Feis Dublin. A few weeks ago I showed a photo of another Social Club cast which won the same cup in April 1958. Common to both photos are Tommy Walsh, Ken Reynolds, Jo Lawler and Joe Martin and the photo now reproduced I believe dates from the late 1940’s. The cast includes at the back from left to right :- Pat Mulhall, Tommy Walsh, Ken Reynolds, Liam Ryan, Tadhg Brennan, and in the front D.S. Walsh, Freddie Moore, May Fenelon, Jo Lawler, Claire Moore, Maureen Walsh and Joe Martin.

I wonder if we could ever hope to revive the stage traditions of the past which were once such an important part of the social fabric of our town. The task of doing so would, I believe, be all the easier if we could again have a dedicated theatre space in Athy.