Thursday, December 24, 2009

Shrine is a link with our past

The Marian Shrine at Rathstewart is a constant reminder of the great community spirit which saw the men and women of St. Joseph’s Terrace coming together in what were difficult times to commemorate the Marian year of 1954. Throughout the past 55 years the shrine has been maintained exceptionally well and no tribute of mine can be sufficiently conscious of the dedicated work undertaken over the decades by many local people in that area.

The stone used in building the Marian Shrine was originally part of the main entrance of Lamberton House in Timahoe, Co. Laois and was donated by P.J. Hume Auctioneer Portlaoise. John Murphy of St. Michael’s Terrace erected the stone, as he did the entrance to St. Dominic’s Church and both remain a lasting testimony to his skill and craftsmanship.

Maynooth College presented the statute, while Matt McHugh of Offaly Street designed and made the gates in his Janeville Lane Foundry. Many others, including Tom Daly of Stanhope St. and Frank O’Brien Snr. Of Emily Square donated items for the Shrine. Fr. Vincent Steen, Parish Priest, donated the holy water font and the cross and also some shrubs from the grounds of St. Michael’s Parish Church. This Church was subsequently demolished and the surrounding ground cemented over so the shrubs still thriving in the Marian Shrine are a link with our treasured past. It’s of interest to note that when St. Michael’s Parish Church was demolished in 1960 grass sods were removed from the Church grounds and transplanted to the Shrine. The cross on the top of the Shrine also came from the old Parish Church.

The photograph of the Shrine was, I believe, taken on the occasion of the official opening and blessing which took place on Ascension Thursday in May 1955. I was a mass server that day and with a lot of my mass serving colleagues took part in the ceremony. Work on the Shrine had been delayed due to the cement strike and hence the time lag in blessing the Shrine some months after the Marian year had ended. The original Marian Shrine Committee included Jim Fleming, Paddy Doyle, Tony Byrne, Eddie Delahunt and Joe O’Neill. There were many more men and women involved in the venture and perhaps my readers can help me compile a full list of those who over the years were part of the Marian Shrine Committee.The second photograph is a fine interior view of St. Michael’s Church which was built in 1808. It was in this Church that the first mission in Ireland was held by the Vincentian Fathers in 1842. The side altars were the gifts of Mrs. Hayden of Cardenton, grandmother of M.P. Minch of Rockfield House and of his grandfather. The stations of the cross were presented by Michael Lawler, Park House, while the pulpit on the left of the picture was gifted in 1904 by the local parishioners to mark the Golden Jubilee of the ordination of their Parish Priest Canon Germaine. The Church demolished in 1960 will be remembered by many, while the Marian Shrine in Rathstewart, now in its 55th year, maintains a constant link with that Church which served the people of Athy for 152 years.

Happy Christmas and a happy New Year to my readers.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

When old images trigger reflections on times past

I am always delighted to be shown photographs of times past in South Kildare and am particularly pleased when given the opportunity of copying photographs such as that which appears with today’s article.

Nowadays with modern gismos such as scanners and computers, photographs can be scanned in seconds, while someone as far away as Australia can download the results via computer email.

Today’s photograph shows a happy group of bakery workers. They were employed in Bradbury’s Bakery which was established by Tom Bradbury in his Stanhope Street premises in 1938. Those photographed were confectioners and they produced the magnificent fancies and cakes for which Bradbury’s were famous throughout the length and breadth of Leinster.

The photograph which I am told was taken in the small back yard of the original Bradbury Bakery premises in Stanhope Street shows from the left at the rear Betty Whelan, Denis Prendergast, Nancy O’Rourke, Louise Harrington and Paddy Prendergast. In front from left are Mary Harrington and on the right Mary O’Rourke.

The man in the centre of the front row has not been positively identified, some claiming it was Laurence Church, others believing it to be a Murphy from Offaly Street. Strange to relate that the photograph shows no less than three sets of siblings, the Prendergast brothers from Milltown, the Harrington sisters from Woodbine and the O’Rourke sisters from Stanhope Street. Betty Whelan was from the Carlow Road where her father who worked on the railway lived with his family in the railway crossing gate cottage.

Old photographs can be difficult to date and sometimes nearly impossible to identify in terms of location and those photographed. Even as I wrote the opening lines of this piece I began to have doubts as to the accuracy of the claims made in relation to the photograph being of Stanhope Street vintage, rather than of the later Leinster Street bakery to where Bradburys moved in 1950 or thereabouts.

Paddy Prendergast I’m told was born in 1930 and he looks very much like a 20 or 21 year old in the photograph which would date it to 1950 or 1951. If either date is correct then undoubtedly the photograph was taken in the vicinity of the Leinster Street bakery. No doubt someone out there can solve the questions regarding the date and location of the photograph.

Recently I came across a reference to Henry Bettesworth Phillips, impresario and owner of the Carl Rosa Opera Company, who operated a piano and music business in Derry and Belfast for many years. He was born in Athy on 23rd December 1866, the third child of Henry St. John Phillips and his wife Jane who were both members of the Church of Ireland. His father Henry was the local Station Master and his son’s birthplace was recorded in the local Church records as Athy Railway Station. The Great Western and Southern Railway had been extended to Athy and beyond just 20 years previously.

Uniquely the Station Master with the double barrel name of St. John Phillips was described in the Birth Certificates of some of his ten children as a Station Master, Watchmaker and Jeweller. What connection, if any, had he with the St. John family who were jewellers and watchmakers in Athy?

The young Henry won a scholarship as a boy soloist in the Choir of the Church of Ireland Cathedral in Derry in 1877 and it was in that city that he finished his education. He soon became the head choir boy and on Christmas Eve 1881 he took the solo soprano role in a performance of the first part of Handel’s Messiah. A local newspaper described him as having “a voice of extraordinary sweetness”.

After leaving school he became apprenticed to a music business in Derry before setting up business on his own account in that city in 1891. Phillips Piano and Music Warehouse would remain an important part of the Derry business scene for many decades. In 1907 he opened a second music shop in Belfast just a short distance from the famous Ulster Hall. Henry promoted concerts in Belfast, Derry and Dublin and one of his first such ventures featured the visit Hallé Orchestra with Hans Richter.

He also brought eminent soloists such as Kreisler, Clara Butt and John McCormack to the Belfast stage but perhaps the high point of his impresario career was the performance he promoted in Belfast in 1909 of the world’s greatest tenor Enrico Caruso.

Following the outbreak of World War 1 Henry Phillips founded an opera company which however ran into financial difficulties before being taken over by the well established and more famous Carl Rosa Company. A few years later Phillips gained control of the company which he ran until his death in 1950. He had moved to England in 1911 but kept on the Derry and Belfast shops, the latter however he sold at the end of the war.

Henry Phillips continued his concert promotion work after the War and in 1935 and 1936 achieved great success with a number of concerts put on in Derry given by John McCormack, violinist Fritz Kreisler and American singer Paul Robeson. The impresario and opera company owner Henry B. Phillips who first saw life in the Station Master’s house in Athy in 1866 passed away in London in 1950.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Barrow reminds us of her presence

The River Barrow had cut a channel through this part of the country long before there was any settlement here. It was the ability to travel by boat from the sea up the river which brought the first Anglo Normans to these parts. What was essentially a forested area soon became a medieval village located on the west bank of the river near to where the river was fordable at its shallowest point. The subsequent development of the village overcame many vicissitudes including war before it blossomed in more peaceful times as an incorporated borough and an important market town.

The River Barrow was an important element in that early development, offering as it did the only reliable channel of communication and transport to and from the south Kildare settlement. The arrival of the Grand Canal in 1791 brought great economic benefits to the town of Athy which by dint of its geographical location now found itself as one of the great centres of commerce on the transport route between Dublin and the southern ports of New Ross and Waterford. It was an advantage which depended on the continuing success of canal trade, which success was fortunately duplicated when the railway came to Athy in August 1846. The steam train became the popular carrier of passengers and freight, replacing the slower canal boat and again Athy was ideally positioned to take advantage of the new development in transport.

The early importance of the River Barrow was a matter of historical interest only as the 19th and 20th century passed. By then it no longer fulfilled any worthwhile role as a channel of transport but instead came into its own as a location for sporting activities. Rowing contests on the River Barrow were an important mid-19th century activity and extensive newspaper reports of the time confirmed the river’s undisputed relevance in terms of the social life of the local townspeople. Thomas Rawson in compiling his Statistical Survey of County Kildare published by the Dublin Society in 1807 wrote that the Barrow ‘gave a great supply of salmon 20 or 30 being frequently caught at the bridge of Athy and all the Spring season when meat was scarce and dear, salmon could be had for three half pence and two pence a pound’.

The boating activities of a few decades later brought added attention to the River Barrow. The Athy Regatta which took place on the river on 15 August 1856 was a revival of an earlier regatta which had lapsed some years previously. Amongst the prizes that day was a silver challenge cup on offer for the winners of a two-oared boat race confined to Athy residents. A press report of the regatta two years later noted that ‘the embankments presented a thronged and animated appearance’. The following year Athy’s Regatta Ball was held in the local town hall where a string band entertained from 9.30 pm while ‘Mr. Doyle, Professor of Dancing, Baltinglass’ acted as MC. The success of the local regatta moved the editor of the Leinster Express to write in his paper of 30 July 1859 ‘there is not in Ireland an inland town that can boast a more public spirit than Athy’. What a wonderful compliment for a community just ten years after the Great Famine had weakened, if not destroyed, large elements of Irish community life.

The normally benign river passing silently and endlessly through the town sometimes show a different side of its nature. In the height of winter its banks are more often than not insufficient to hold the high volume of water which flows downstream. It is then that here in Athy we take notice of the river as its banks overflow and the river waters cascade across the town Square and further downstream envelops Lords Island and other low lying lands in a watery grave.

During the week I had to drive through Rathstewart and found the road at Lower St Joseph’s Terrace submerged in water. Reading back on newspaper accounts of winter floods of the past, Rathstewart always figured prominently amongst the areas affected. Indeed until this year’s flooding of Corran Ard housing estate, flooding problems in Athy have in the past generally been confined to the Rathstewart area. Urban councillors over the years have been faced with demands to take action in relation to flooding at Rathstewart, but in practical terms nothing could ever be done. When the urban council purchased two acres of land for £180 from the Sisters of Mercy in 1932 as a site on which to build houses to replace those condemned as part of the slum clearance programme, the flood problems associated with the Rathstewart area were already well known. Messrs Duggan Brothers of Templemore built the St Joseph Terrace houses using Athy brick and as can be seen today the foundation for the houses were raised above the level of the roadway and hopefully sufficiently high to escape the perennial winter floods which always affect the area. Nevertheless over the years since the houses were first occupied in January 1936 there have been many occasions where the locals have experienced enormous difficulties due to flooding on the River Barrow.

The last great flood in Athy was experienced in February 1990 when the River Barrow again burst its banks to leave the houses in St Joseph’s Terrace cut off. At the same time the courthouse in Emily Square presented a scene I had not previously witnessed as swans swam around the building. The River Barrow never allows us to forget its presence and usually takes the opportunity each winter to remind us of the care we must exercise in terms of maintaining flood plains and other natural forms of runoffs from Irish rivers.

During the week I came across a reference to ‘Shamrock Road’. It arose in 1902 at a time when the then urban council was attempting to secure lands at the rear of old St Michael’s Cemetery as an extension to the overcrowded cemetery. The entrance to the lands identified as owned by Hollands was to be through St Michaels or ‘if feasible, to be made from Shamrock Road’. It would seem that ‘Shamrock Road’ was what we know as ‘Kildare Road’. Can anyone throw light on the subject? Finally I had a query during the week from an overseas reader regarding ‘Pipers Amusements’ which used to travel around Ireland 70 or so years ago.

I have found one reference to ‘Pipers’ in an urban council minutes of a meeting in October 1933 when mention was made of ‘living vans’ (presumably caravans) in the Pound Field. Does anyone remember Pipers Amusements or indeed any of the other travelling shows or amusements which visited Athy over the years?

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Treasure unearthed in London book shop

‘A good book is the best of friends, the same today and forever’.

I can’t recall who penned these words but they strike a chord with me given my interest in books and the printed word. Over the years I have discovered many great books and some not so good, but all of them nevertheless gave enjoyment, while sometimes proving useful and informative. Earlier this year while on a visit to a second-hand book shop in Charing Cross Road, London I came across the two volume set of Kitty O’Shea’s book, ‘Charles Stewart Parnell, his Love Story and Political Life’.

I first purchased a copy of these volumes in Greene’s bookshop in Clare Street, Dublin perhaps 35 years or so ago. I was working then in Baggot Street and Greene’s bookshop and Parson’s book shop on Baggot Street Bridge where May O’Flaherty held court, were almost daily ports of call.

Despite already having a copy of Kitty O’Shea’s book I decided to buy the set on sale at the Charing Cross Road book shop. The book was very reasonably priced and was a nice copy, despite some adoring mother having inscribed a dedication on the fly leaf.

Some months later a copy of the same book was for auction in England. The book was inscribed by Kitty O’Shea, using her married name Katherine Parnell and with it was a letter signed by Gladstone, the British Prime Minister addressed to Captain O’Shea MP. I have always had a high regard for William Ewart Gladstone, the first British Prime Minister ever to take a considerate view to what the British call ‘The Irish Question’.

He drew up the first Home Rule Bill and resigned in 1886 when many of his own party voted against the measure, thereby ensuring its defeat. One of the longest serving Westminster politicians, Gladstone finally resigned from politics in 1894 when he was 84 years of age. His espousal of the cause of Irish Home Rule was just one of the many causes which marked his as the greatest political career of the 19th century.

Gladstone’s letter, coupled with Kitty O’Shea’s inscribed book, was the prize I succeeded in securing at the auction and some weeks later both items arrived in Athy. Katherine Parnell had inscribed Volume 1 of her book to ‘T.S. Curtis with kind regards’. Her writing looked familiar and I wondered where I had seen it before. I turned to the other recently acquired volumes of the same book and there in the same hand with obviously the same pen was the inscription ‘Norah, with dearest love from mother.’ It was Kitty O’Shea’s handwriting and she had signed the volumes published in 1914 to her daughter Norah. You can imagine my delight at such an unexpected find.

Kitty O’Shea married Charles Stewart Parnell just five months before he died in Brighton on 6 October 1891. Their relationship which began soon after they met in 1880 resulted in the birth of three children, the first of whom died soon after birth, while the other two daughters of Parnell lived until 1909 and 1947 respectively. Both married and his daughter Clare had an only daughter who died in 1941. There is no surviving direct descendant of Parnell.

Norah, to whom Kitty O’Shea inscribed her book, was her second child by Captain O’Shea and was born seven years before Parnell met her mother. Norah continued to live with her mother Kitty following Parnell’s death and they moved house on several occasions over the years, always living on the south coast of England, before returning to Brighton.

The book, ‘Charles Stewart Parnell, his Love Story and Political Life’, was published in 1914 at a time when Katherine Parnell was in dire financial straits and is believed to have been edited by her son Gerard O’Shea. Reviewed by the national newspapers of the day the book was lambasted by many, although the London Times in its review gave an accurate resume of the book and commented that it gave a new insight into the Parnell O’Shea relationship which redeemed Captain O’Shea’s reputation from the previously made charge of connivance in his wife’s affair with Parnell.

The book sales allowed the impoverished Kitty to live in some comfort and shortly before she died in 1921 she moved to the seaside town of Littlehampton. Her daughter Norah, who had by then moved to London as her mother’s health and wealth improved, now returned to Littlehampton.

Katherine Parnell passed away on 5 February 1921, 30 years after the death of the Irish leader. In contrast to the huge funeral which Parnell was given in Dublin, his wife Kitty’s coffin was followed by only two horsedrawn carriages, one of which was empty as it passed slowly through the streets of Littlehampton to the local cemetery. Her grave is marked with a cross inscribed ‘To the beloved memory of Katherine, widow of Charles Stewart Parnell – born 30th January 1845. Died 5th February 1921, Fide et Amore.’

Kitty’s daughter Norah was penniless following her mother’s death and sought help from the Irish Parliamentarian TP O’Connor who got her a position as a nursery governess in a London hospital. She used the name Norah Woods, rather than O’Shea, because of the notoriety attached to her mother’s name which, even so many years after Parnell’s death, was still likely to lead to troublesome questions. Norah died aged 50 years on 16 July 1923 and was buried next to her mother at Littlehampton.

She left a box containing relics of her mother’s relationship with Parnell which in 1956 was passed to Sir Shane Leslie who eventually gave the contents to the Kilmainham Jail Museum in Dublin.

How the book inscribed by Kitty to her daughter Norah came to be in the second-hand bookshop in Charing Cross Road is a mystery. The happy coincidence of a book auction purchase of a book inscribed by Katherine Parnell allowed a book inscribed ‘To Norah from her mother’ to be identified as written by the former Kitty O’Shea whose love for the Irish political leader Charles Stewart Parnell had far reaching and lasting consequences for the political destiny of the Irish people.

Your own opportunity to buy books of interest comes with the Lions book sale scheduled to take place in the premises next to the Emigrant Pub at Barrow Quay on Saturday and Sunday, 28 and 29 November.

The premises have been kindly lent for the book sale by John Gallagher and books will be on sale on Saturday from 10am to 6pm and on Sunday from noon to 5p.m. All proceeds go to local charities and donations of good clean books are very welcome. Books can be left into the offices of Taaffe & Co. at Edmund Rice Square, Athy up to and including Friday and into the book sale premises on either Saturday and Sunday.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Identification successfully complete

With the help of a number of readers and especially Matt Perse, the Athy players, officials and supporters whose photograph appeared here some weeks ago have now been identified. For the record the photograph is reproduced again, with all the names. The team’s goalkeeper, who now lives in Kill, believes that the photograph was taken in 1958, possibly on the occasion of a quarter final match against Raheens which Athy lost narrowly. However, he has since had second thoughts as he felt that Brendan Kehoe played in that match, yet Brendan is not included in the photograph. Can any of my readers identify when and where the photograph was taken?

The photograph shows at the back from left Matt Murray, Tom Clandillon, Tony Taaffe, Eugene Deering, Mick Carolan, Joe Day, Hugh Moran, Joe McEvoy, John Sullivan, Sean Vernal, Tim O’Sullivan, Brendan McNulty, John Flood, Lazerian Kehoe, Harry Mulhall, Johnny Wynne, Noel Rochford and Derek Candy. In front from left are Anthony O’Sullivan, Ambrose McConville, Brendan Owens, Mick Dooley, Johnny Morrissey, Andy Smith, Danny Kavanagh and Terry Holligan. The two young boys are Matt Murray Junior and his brother Thomas.

I had a call recently from Denis Doyle of Letterkenny who worked for years in the tourism business in the northwest of the country. His father was Denis Doyle, a brother of Jim, Jackie, Joe and Pat Doyle, all members of an old Athy family. Denis married Kathleen Looney, daughter of John Looney of Woodstock Street, who survived the horrors of World War I in which he served as a stretcher bearer. Kathleen Looney worked as a dressmaker in Duke Street, while her brother Paddy married and lived in 16 Woodstock Street and another brother John emigrated to England. Her only sister Maisie married Joe Hanley, a Sergeant Major in the Irish Army, and they also lived in Woodstock Street for a time before moving to Dublin.

I would appreciate hearing from any of the readers of the column who know the Doyle or Looney families.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Events mark our maturing as a people

This past weekend Athy hosted a number of events, one of which brought us face to face with our distant past observed as never before by a mature and confident Irish people. The other event was in its own way a mark of our growing confidence as a nation and our belief in the importance of our native language. Remembering a lost generation destroyed during World War I on Remembrance Sunday in St. Michael’s Cemetery was in a sense recalling the town’s recent history as a ‘garrison town’. On the other hand the taking over by the Gaelscoil of the recently built school building at Rathstewart spoke of a growing confidence in the Irishness of a people living in what was once an Anglo Norman town.

Our native language has been on the retreat for centuries. Indeed here in this part of County Kildare Irish has not been the everyday language of the local people for more than 200 years. Various attempts to revive the language were made over the years. The Gaelic League established in Dublin in 1893 as Conradh na Gaeilge opened a branch in Athy, when exactly I cannot say, but a contemporary note records that the Athy branch was ‘revived’ in January 1919. This was at a time when the anglicisation of Ireland was at its height and everything Irish was being thrust aside in favour of English ways. It was also a time when the law discriminated against the Irish language. Padraig Pearse in his only appearance before the Courts unsuccessfully defended a carter who insisted in putting his name on his cart in Irish rather than in English. Here in Athy an Irish teacher based in the newly opened Technical School in Stanhope Street was convicted and fined at the Petty Sessions held in the Courthouse for signing his name in Irish.

Brigid Darby, National school teacher, who lived with her mother in Leinster Street, was Treasurer of the Gaelic League, the Secretary being James Kealy, while Michael Dooley, shopkeeper of Duke Street, was the League President. The latter was also Chairman of the local Sinn Fein Club and the Gaelic League and Sinn Fein would appear to have shared many of the same members. The League put on Irish classes in the evening and employed James Tierney of Woodstock Street for that purpose, but for whatever reason the League appears to have discontinued operating in Athy in and around December 1921. It was revived again sometime in the late 1940s by Kevin Meany and others, but like its predecessors seems to have run out of steam after a few uneventful years. A further revival of the Gaelic League in the 1950s involving the late Paddy Walsh, Kevin Meany and others, also petered out after a while.

It was the setting up of Athy’s Glór na nGael in 1994 which in time proved to be the most successful Irish organisation in the town. The initiative came from Kathleen Robinson during her term as President of the local Chamber of Commerce. She organised the first Seachtain na nGaeilge. The aim was to encourage local shopkeepers to make use of the Irish language for one week in the year during the course of their business. Advertising signs in Irish, coupled with the effort to speak in Irish, was the aim of the Chamber of Commerce sponsored Seachtain na nGaeilge over the following few years. It was people such as Peadar O’Murchú, the late Paddy Walsh, Maisie Candy, David Murphy, John Watchorn and Kathleen Robinson who over the years kept the language movement alive here in Athy. Glór na nGael set up the first Gaelscoil in Athy in December 2004, using Aontas Ógra’s premises adjoining the former Dreamland Ballroom to accommodate its first Junior Infants Class. 21 young boys and girls enrolled that first week and their teacher was Michael O’Cuinneagain. The following November Sinead Ni Nualláin from Graiguecullen in Carlow joined the teaching staff and today Sinead is Principal of the seven teacher Gaelscoil Atha Í. In November 2005 the Gaelscoil moved from the Aontas Ogra premises to the Athy Soccer Clubhouse at the Showgrounds. There the classes expanded each year and were housed in the Soccer Clubhouse which accommodated two classes and in four prefabricated buildings.

The inter-denominational and co-educational school now caters for 144 pupils, with seven teachers. They are Sinead Ni Nualláin, Treasa Ni Earchaí, Fiona Nic Seon, Gobnait Bhreathnach, Doireann Ni Raghnaigh, Eamonn O’Ceidigh and Sorcha ni Mhisteil. The Gaelscoil is part of the Gaelscoil movement which operates under the Department of Education but its teachers are not part of the panel system operated by the Department. This is to ensure that only Irish speaking teachers are employed within the Gaelscoil system. Pupils start at junior infant level and by the end of their second year in senior infants most will have a marked proficiency in the Irish language. All subjects with the exception of English are taught through Irish.

Last Saturday I joined my first grandchild Rachel on the school’s Open Day which coincided with the transfer of the Gaelscoil from the Athy Soccer Club premises to the purpose-built school in Rathstewart. The building, just one year old, had previously housed part of St. Patrick’s Boys National School which has now transferred to another new building on the same campus. The Gaelscoil children, as you can imagine, were excited viewing their new school and parents and teachers alike shared in the excitement of their new premises. I was delighted to meet Sinead Ni Nualláin, School Principal, whose father Seamus and her grandfather Jim, who was in his time a member of Carlow Urban District Council, encouraged the use of Irish and so Sinead from a young age developed a proficiency in the speaking of our native tongue.

It is one of the great regrets of my life that despite fourteen years of primary and secondary education I was never able to speak the Irish language, other than badly. I blame the system of Irish teaching in vogue during my years in the Christian Brothers School. It was a system imposed by departmental mandarins whose lack of appreciation of what was required to develop Irish as a spoken language was indefensible. I left the educational system, like so many of my peers, disliking the Irish language, the teaching of which was so unappealing and quite frankly downright depressing. If, like me, you would like to repair the damage of an inadequate schooling in our native tongue, note that the Gaelscoil will be holding Irish language classes every Monday evening in its new school at Rathstewart, with beginners’ classes at 7 p.m. and improver classes at 8.15 p.m.

Two launches during the past week have given us here in Athy a cultural fillip, just in time for the forthcoming Christmas season. I missed the launch of ‘Skin’ Kelly’s book, ‘Winner alright – Skinner alright’, but made amends the following day by buying the book. I began reading it that same evening and enjoyed it so much that I did not put it down until the last page was reached. It is a delightful book, easy to read and well written. A thoroughly enjoyable book, it is highly recommended.

The Photographic Society’s exhibition in the Wet Paint Gallery (which used to be Miss Dallon’s shop combined with part of the old Leinster Arms Hotel) is a fine example of the artistic qualities of some of Athy’s finest photographers. Many of the Society’s members are truly artists with cameras, with the ability to capture and reproduce images as good as any created by artists working in different mediums. The Exhibition, which continues for a few weeks, is well worth a visit. The Photographic Society’s annual calendar is also on sale and it again shows twelve examples of the Society’s members best photographic work in and around Athy. It will make a wonderful gift for Christmas, especially for Athy people living abroad.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Remembering our war dead

Her mother wore a poppy every Remembrance Sunday. She wore it around the house but seldom ventured outside the door that particular Sunday as she would ordinarily do every other day of the year. ‘Why do you wear that thing mother?’ her young daughter asked, her enquiry born of curiosity as much as a growing awareness of a young Free Stater’s dislike of emblems of a failed empire.

Some years were to pass before the mother explained to her daughter why she wore the poppy. ‘It’s to remember my young brother Michael – he was just 19 years of age when he died’. Michael Territt’s sister would continue to remember her long lost young brother, even as she grew into old age. For years she treasured the last poppy she was able to buy on the streets of Athy, keeping it for that one Sunday each year when with hundreds of other mothers and sisters her thoughts turned to a time when young men left Athy with high spirits never to return.

Michael Territt died of his wounds in Flanders on 22nd June 1916, aged 19 years. He had enlisted in the Dublin Fusiliers the previous year, exchanging the Territt family home in Chapel Lane, Athy for the Military Barracks in Naas. He landed in Gallipoli in October 1915 and left the following January for Alexandria before travelling on to France. Wounded at Mailly Wood, Flanders on 20th June 1916 he died two days later. Michael Territt is buried in Mailly – Maillet Communal Cemetery and the army records show that he was survived by his mother Mrs. M.A. Territt of Chapel Lane, Athy. There was no mention of his brothers or sisters.

The story of Michael Joseph Territt and his part in the first World War is the same story told and retold hundreds of times in every town and village in Ireland. The euphoria of war time exploits shorn of the depravity of death and mangled bodies was in itself sufficient encouragement for young Irish men to enlist after August 1914. The boredom of unemployment, coupled with the opportunity for travel overseas, was more than enough to encourage even the most reluctant to don the khaki and shoulder the much vaunted Lee Enfield. Much encouragement came from the local Church and civic leaders, who from a recruiting platform positioned under the Town Hall clock in Emily Square called on the young local men to join the ranks, ‘to fight the Hun’ – ‘to fight for the cause of little Belgium’. The Parish Priest and the Chairman of the Urban District Council led the call for local recruits and the local men joined up in their hundreds. Those who enlisted were paraded to the local railway station behind the Leinster Street Fife and Drum Band, cheered on by the women folk of the town. The people of Athy it seemed shared a common mission, seldom if ever before matched or ever again equalled. There were a few disapproving voices, but only a very small minority who caught up in the Gaelic League Movement saw little reason to support the country which had denied Home Rule to the Irish people.

No one questioned the decision of the young men who volunteered to serve abroad following the declaration of war. No one questioned their motives and certainly no one questioned their allegiance to the country of their birth. The young men of Athy left these shores with the support and with the good wishes of those they left behind.

What happened while they were away fighting and dying in the mud of Flanders fields to turn that support into disapproval, culminating at the end of war into denial? When those young men who were fortunate to survive the war returned home after November 1918 they came back to a country which had experienced the Easter Rebellion of 1916. This was soon followed by the execution of its leaders and a shift in support for the emerging Sinn Fein organisation left the returning soldiers isolated and cut adrift from the public support they had previously enjoyed. As they returned to their homes having spent up to four years experiencing the horrors of war torn Europe these battle hardened young men found themselves, not as war heroes as they might have expected, but as an embarrassing reminder of an earlier failed parliamentary movement for Home Rule.

I remember as a young lad a number of local men who decades after the war were still suffering the effects of gas poisoning and other injuries sustained in France and Flanders. They were a forgotten generation, forgotten not just by local Church and civic leaders who had encouraged them to enlist, but also forgotten, indeed positively ignored, by a townspeople, some of whom actively, most however passively, had supported the drive for Irish independence. If the War of Independence and the subsequent Civil War were difficult times for surviving Irish soldiers of World War I (some of whom were summarily executed), the post Independence period also brought its difficulties. The comradeship of war kept alive in British Legion halls throughout Ireland and by the annual Remembrance Sunday ceremonies held throughout the Free State in the 1920s disappeared soon after the election of the first Fianna Fáil government in 1932. De Valera’s nation building had no place of honour for the men of 1914-18.

It was a later generation, more tolerant and perhaps less prejudiced, which sought to recover for Irish history a past generation’s part in our common history. Twenty or so years ago it was inconceivable that any Irish person would wear a poppy in public on Remembrance Sunday or that any form of ceremony would be held in an Irish provincial town to commemorate the men who died in the First World War. But it did happen here in Athy and I am proud to say that I was part of a small group who publicly acknowledged the part that a past but forgotten generation of Athy men played in the ever developing history of Athy.

In St. Michael’s old Cemetery are the graves of six Athy soldiers who died at home during World War I. On next Sunday, 8th November at 3.00 p.m., a short ceremony will take place in St. Michael’s cemetery to honour the memory of all those men from Athy and district who died in the Great War. Many of those men have no known grave. Others like Michael Territt lie in graves close to where they died in battle. Remembrance Sunday is the one day in the yearly calendar when we can show our respects for our town’s war dead. I hope you can join in the Remembrance ceremony in St. Michael’s next Sunday at 3.30 p.m.

Last week Johnny Timpson passed away after a long battle with illness. He attended the Christian Brothers Schools in St. John’s Lane where he excelled as a Latin scholar and was a fine footballer in his day. Johnny came from an old Athy family and like many of those families he too had members of his extended family who fought and died in World War I.

Like me, Johnny was born of a generation which was not decimated by war. Michael Territt and his generation bore the brunt of war and in return got little or no appreciation for what they and their families suffered. We can still make amends for that omission.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Enjoying success on the field of play

Last Sunday the sporting people of Kilmead, Booleigh, Narraghmore, Ballitore, Calverstown, Kilgowan, Brewel, Blackhall, Ballymount, Usk, Moone and Mullaghmast celebrated their local team’s highly popular success in the Kildare Senior Football Championship Final. St. Laurences, founded in 1957 had become Senior County Champions for the first time in the Club's 52 year old history.

On the same Sunday and in the same venue, St. Conleth’s Park, Newbridge, Athy’s minor footballers became Kildare Minor Champions for the second year in succession. Meanwhile back home in Athy that same Sunday afternoon yet another club, Woodstock Celts, still in its infancy as a club, won another match in its unstoppable march to securing a league and cup double in Division 2 of the Kildare District Football League.

Athy Gaelic Football Club, founded in 1887, played its first County Senior Final in 1923 when it got a drubbing at the hands (feet more appropriately) of Naas who scored two goals and 5 points to no score for the Athy men. Some of the names from that game bring back memories. Tom Moore and his brother John, Jim Clancy, Mickey Grant, Mick Mahon and Tom Forrestal of Castledermot. Twenty years ago I was privileged to interview Tom Forrestal who was then 92 years of age. He recalled for me many of the players who played for Athy in the 1923 final. Men such as Eddie ‘Sapper’ O’Neill, who later emigrated to America and captained the New York team which defeated All Ireland champions Kerry and Tom, otherwise known as ‘Golly’ Germaine. He told me that the then Club chairman presented each of the players with a medal inscribed with the name of the recipient. I wonder how many of those medals have survived?

Athy’s defeat in the 1923 Senior County Final was to be repeated in 1926 and 1927 before the mantle of Senior Champions finally came to rest on Athy shoulders in 1933. It was a success repeated the following year and again in 1937.

St. Laurences first footballing success came with the winning of the Minor Football Championship in 1974 when Athy were the defeated finalists. The Club’s first appearance in a County Senior Final was on 12th September 1982 when Sarsfields, who had been defeated the previous year, gained the upper hand by two goals and 11 points to 4 points. Three further County Final defeats awaited the St. Laurences men before last Sunday’s victory. The 1992 final saw Clane run out winners, while Allenwood defeated the South Kildare men 12 years later. The following year St. Laurences suffered another disappointing Final defeat and the prospects for success in 2009 did not augur well after the team played three games in 15 days leading up to the County Final. Awaiting them were Moorefield, generally regarded as the best team in the County and heavily tipped to win.

The final score tells the tale. St. Laurences won convincingly and by a margin of 10 points brought the Dermot Bourke Cup to Narraghmore for the first time. It was a great victory for a great Club which in its short life has made extraordinary strides in developing a club structure which is the envy of the Lilywhite sporting world.

In contrast Woodstock Celts is a small club centered on the Woodstock area of Athy which plays its matches on a local pitch in the shadow of the nearby 14th century castle. The enthusiasm of the local lads is matched by skill and a competitiveness which has secured for them victory in Division 2 Club Championship in their first year back in the Kildare District Football League. Last Sunday as the Athy Minors and the St. Laurences Seniors won their matches in St. Conleth’s Park, the Woodstock Celts team playing at home beat Allenwood Celtic on a score line of 5 goals to nil. This victory put them 6 points clear in the Division 2 League and well on their way to becoming League champions. Theirs is a remarkable feat which in the light of last Sunday’s victories in Newbridge is likely to be overlooked. Well done to Tommy Connell, Gary Foley, Michael Lawless, Patrick O’Brien, Robbie Donoher, Kieran Walsh, Ricky Moriarty, James Fennell, Dean Connell, Jonathan Fennell, Kirby Fennell, Mark Brennan, James Lammon, Brian Lawless, Kiwi Mulhall and Mick Doogue, all of whom make up the Woodstock Celts playing squad.

Athy Gaelic Football Club has struggled for success on the football field in recent years. Long gone are the halcyon days of the 1930s and 1940s when Athy figured in many County Senior Finals. Even success in the lower grades over the years eluded the sportsmen of Geraldine Park. Victory for the Athy Minors was achieved for the first time in 1936, repeated in 1937 and not again achieved until 1956. Ten years were to pass before the next Minor County Final victory and 1973 witnessed the last Minor championship for Athy until last year. 2008 was Athy Minor’s first championship final win for 35 years when the team, captained by Brian Kinahan, defeated a more fancied Sarsfield team.

Last Sunday before St. Laurences took to the field Athy Minors lined out against a fancied Naas side. At half time the Athy lads led Naas by 5 points to 2. At the end of full time the lead had been reduced to one point but the victory went to Athy for the second year in succession. Only twice before has Athy Gaelic Football Club won back to back victories in County Finals – the minors of 1936 and 1937 and the seniors of 1933 and 1934. Unfortunately, Club records for those years no longer exist but I would imagine that many of those who played for Athy Seniors in 1941 and 1942 were Minor players five years earlier. The Minors of 1933 and 1934 may have included Richard Donovan, Tom Wall, Michael Birney, Tadgh Brennan, John Rochford, Thomas Ryan, Joe Gibbons, Pat Mulhall, William Chanders and Dan O’Shaughnessy. We might never know if they did play on those Minor winning teams but what we do know is that in 2009 a team of young fellows brought the Minor title back to Geraldine Park for the second year in succession. Their names are worth recording, James Roycroft, Sean Ronan, Luke Thomas, Wesley Clare, David Hyland, Barry Purcell, David O’Toole, Liam McGovern, Kevin Feeley, Niall Kelly, Darroch Mulhall, Corey Moore, Tony Gibbons, Cian Reynolds and Keelan Bolger. The team manager is Joe Kinahan, assisted by Minor selectors Denis Sullivan and Ger Clancy.

The men of St. Laurences, the youngsters of Athy and the players of Woodstock Celts have achieved great sporting success within the past week. The Athy Minors victory is another addition to a chequered club history which with all clubs tends to be measured in terms of success on the playing field. For St. Laurences the 2009 Senior Championship represents a milestone which will forever be recalled, whatever the future holds for the Club. Well done to all concerned.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Europe’s premier Antarctic event and it’s happening in Athy

For the last nine years the local Heritage Centre has hosted the Shackleton Autumn School over the October Bank Holiday weekend. It has grown in status over the years, hosting as it does each year a gathering of overseas polar experts who bring to an Irish audience an unrivalled knowledge and experience of polar affairs. This year the weekend’s event will have lecturers from Norway, America and England and many overseas visitors will be arriving in Athy to take part in what has become Europe’s premier Antarctic event.

The mixture of lectures, exhibitions, drama and film has proved to be a winning formula. With the other local festivals such as the Bluegrass Festival, the Athy Waterways Festival and the Medieval Festival, the Shackleton weekend provides a welcome addition to the social and cultural life of the town.

This year on the opening Friday night the Shackleton Memorial Lecture will be given by Caroline Casey. Caroline is registered blind but despite this has packed more into her short life than many of us could hope to do in a lifetime. You may recall her journey across India on an elephant some years ago, a trip which got nationwide coverage on radio and TV. On her return from the Indian continent Caroline founded the Aisling Project now re-named Kanchi which works to facilitate the integration of persons with disabilities into the work force. From that she developed and presented on Irish TV the O² Ability Awards. Her achievements in the face of enormous difficulties have been recognised nationally and internationally, culminating in her appointment as a Young Global Leader of the World Economic Forum in 2006. She was the first and only Irish person appointed to that forum and further honours came courtesy of the National University of Ireland when she was awarded an honorary doctorate. Two years ago she received the Eisenhower Fellowship.

Earlier on Friday evening and prior to Caroline Casey’s talk, Alexandra Shackleton, granddaughter of Ernest Shackleton, will launch the book ‘The Shackleton Letters: Behind the Scenes of the Nimrod Expedition’, a book published by the Erskine Press of Norwich, England. The choice of Athy Heritage Centre to launch the book written by Regina Daly is quite an achievement for the Shackleton Autumn School. Unquestionably the launch confirms the growing importance of the Shackleton weekend within Antarctic exploration circles. The Shackleton School’s own publication, ‘Nimrod’ – Volume 3 will be on sale during and after that weekend. It includes some of the lectures given at the 2008 School and with previously issued volumes 1 and 2 provides a well ordered and comprehensive coverage of lectures in past years.

On Saturday 24th October the lectures commence at 10.30 a.m. with a talk by Hans Kjell Larsen, a native of Norway on his fellow countryman and grandfather, the Antarctic pioneer Captain C.A. Larsen. This is followed at 12noon by Professor Andrew Lambert’s talk on the Franklin Expedition. That expedition remains to this day shrouded in mystery following the disappearance of it’s ships and all their crew in the Arctic.

Dr. David Wilson, the grand nephew of Dr. Edward Wilson who perished with Captain Scott’s Polar party, will give an illustrated talk on Shackleton’s Nimrod Expedition. Dr. Russell Porter from Rhode Island College, U.S.A. will give the final talk on Saturday on the subject of the Franklin Expedition. Sunday morning will have particular interest for book lovers when Dr. Michael Rosove, a Professor of Medicine at the University of California and the author of several books on Antarctic history, gives his talk on ‘The Great Books of Shackletonia’. Dublin-born Marie Herbert who with her husband Wally spent years with the Inuit in Greenland will conclude the Sunday morning lectures and in the afternoon a selection of unusual and long forgotten early polar films will be shown in the Town Hall.

Sunday night sees the first performance in Athy of John MacKenna’s new play, ‘We Once Sang Like Other Men’. This prolific writer has produced a body of work including novels, short stories and plays which has been scarcely paralleled by any other modern Irish writer. Adding to his literary achievements is John’s continuing involvement as an actor and in his new play directed by Marion Brophy John plays the role of Peter the fisherman, in a modern re-telling of an age old tale. We had hoped to have the local writer’s new play as the first drama to be shown on the stage of the new Arts Centre in Woodstock Street, but unfortunately it’s not possible pending the completion of planned fitting out work. Instead the play will be staged in the Town Hall on Sunday night, 25th October commencing at 9.00 p.m. The bus tour through ‘Shackleton country’ will conclude the weekend’s activities. Those wishing to travel should assemble at the Heritage Centre no later than 10.00 a.m. on the Bank Holiday Monday.

This year the exhibition to run in conjunction with the Autumn School tells the story of Shackleton’s Nimrod Expedition. This was the first expedition led by the Kilkea-born explorer and it will feature several priceless artefacts from the 1907-1909 Expedition never before displayed in this country. The Scott Polar Institute of Cambridge has cooperated with the Heritage Centre in putting on this Exhibition. Some of the items on display will include equipment from that expedition, together with tins of food carried by the explorers as they traversed the Antarctic continent. Other items include Shackleton’s sledging flag and a copy of the route chart prepared for the search party which set out to find Captain Scott and his companions who perished on the later Terra Nova Expedition. There will be many more important artefacts on display, including a unique original copy of the book ‘Aurora Australis’ which was the very first book printed on the Antarctic Continent.

The help of Kildare County Council, Athy Town Council, Tegral, Athy Credit Union, Athy Chamber of Commerce and Diageo in supporting the Shackleton School is acknowledged. The continuing support of the local people of Athy and district is also welcomed and an invitation is extended to all our readers to attend the official opening of the Autumn School at 7pm on Friday, 23rd October in Athy Heritage Centre. The wine reception that evening will be sponsored by the Carlton Abbey Hotel.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

The War of Independence and its aftermath

The Nationalist newspaper of 28 May 1921 carried a report of the burial of William Connor and James Lacey, both IRA members who had been killed 12 days earlier. They had been members of an eight-man ambush party which planned to attack at Barrowhouse a group of RIC men who were travelling on bicycles from Ballylinan Barracks to nearby Grangemellon Barracks. The IRA men were members of the B. Company 5th Battalion Carlow Brigade of which Joe Maher of Cullinagh was captain, having replaced John Lynch who left the locality in 1919.

The company lieutenants were John Whelan of Grange, Ballylinan and Joe Lacey of Clopook, Ballylinan. The brigade commandant was Eamon Malone of Barrowhouse whose name is commemorated in Malone Place, a small council housing scheme at the end of Woodstock Street here in Athy. Malone was described as a ‘small, wiry, courageous but rather delicate man - an excellent soldier but not a great organiser’.

He had been one of the leaders of the hunger strike in Mountjoy Jail in 1919 and on his release became the officer in command of the Carlow Brigade. He would die aged 45 years and today lies buried in the same Barrowhouse graveyard as Connor and Lacey. The Irish National Volunteers were formed in Athy on 9 May 1914, followed two months later by the setting up of a local branch of Cumann na mBan. In August 1914 the youth group Fianna Éireann was established in the town. Michael O’Kelly, a native of Loughrea in County Galway and one time editor of the Leinster Leader gave a statement to the Bureau of Military History in May 1955 which dealt with nationalist activities in County Kildare between 1913 and 1922. He described the first muster of the National Volunteers which took place at the Gibbet Rath in Kildare on 7 June 1914, a place enshrined in Irish history following the massacre of 1798. ‘Upwards of 1,000 volunteers attended, including contingents from Athy, Newbridge and Kildare. Among the speakers that day was Denis Kilbride, the local member of parliament. At Athy on the 11th of the same month there was a big parade of the volunteers of South Kildare in the spacious enclo-sure of the Agricultural Society grounds. Captain G. Bergin, J. Doyle and F. O’Brien were in command at the parade. The Athy Battalion had by this time four full companies, numbering in all nearly 1,000 men, while it had also the distinction of possessing what was then the only mounted troop in Ireland.’ I have been unable to identify who G. Bergin was and I am wondering whether in fact the reference was to J.J. Bergin of Maybrook. J. Doyle and F. O’Brien have not been positively identified but I am reasonably certain as to their identity. Following the start of World War I the ranks of the National Volunteers were depleted and O’Kelly claimed:- ‘In County Kildare only a skeleton organisation remained.’

Following reorganisation of the Irish Volunteers, Monasterevin and for a time Kildare town, were with Athy, part of the Carlow Brigade area in which there were six battalions. The 5th battalion was centered on south Kildare, with Athy as the A Company, Barrowhouse and Ballylinan the B Company, and Castledermot the C Company. John Hayden of Offaly Street was captain of the A Company, and as mentioned earlier Joe Maher was in charge of the B company, while in Castledermot Paddy Cosgrave was the local leader.

The first IRA casualty in the area was John Byrne who suffered fatal burns while assisting in destruction of the Luggacurran R.I.C. Barracks on 20 April 1920. Three months later Athy courthouse was burned down by a lone IRA activist whose action was not authorised and who found himself court marshalled as a result. The ambush at Barrowhouse on 16 May 1921 was authorised but the eight men who took part were poorly equipped in terms of arms and ammunition. The participants in what would result in the last of the pre-truce casualties involving members of the Carlow Brigade were Captain Joe Maher of Cullenagh, Lieutenant Joe Lacey of Barrowhouse, Paddy Dooley of Kilabbin, Maganey, Mick Maher of Barrowhouse, Jack O’Brien of Barrowhouse, Joe Ryan of Kilmoroney, James Lacey of Barrowhouse and William Connor of Barrowhouse. Jack O’Brien, the last surviving member of the unsuccessful ambush was inter-viewed by Jack McKenna many years ago when O’Brien was living in Kilkenny following his retirement from the Gardai and he confirmed the names of the eight men involved.

Six days after the Barrowhouse ambush members of the A Company attacked the RIC barracks located in the old military barracks at Barrack Lane, Athy. The attack lasted 20 or 30 minutes and seemed at best to have been a futile attempt to revenge the killing of the two IRA men in Barrowhouse. No casualties were reported on either side after the local IRA men withdrew. The truce came shortly thereafter, and 11 of July 1921 marked the official end of hostilities between the British forces which included the RIC and the IRA.

The Civil War, which would start with the seizure of the Four Courts in Dublin on 13 April 1922 and lasted for 14 months saw more casualties in the South Kildare area than in the almost 3_ years duration of the War of Independence. Thomas Dunne was killed in Castledermot on 16 June 1922, while Laurence Sweeney and Sylvester Sheppard died on the same day, July

1922. Sweeney was killed in Castledermot and Sheppard in an ambush at Grangemellon. The Graney ambush of 24 October 1922 resulted in the killing of three young Free State soldiers, Edward Byrne, Patrick Allison and James Murphy.

The history of the Republican move-ment in South Kildare during the War of Independence might seem unimpressive when compared with the Republican activities in West Cork and North Tipperary during the same period. Monthly activity in south Kildare was admittedly low key but nevertheless the involvement of many local men (not all of whom have been or can now be identified) gave proof that the so called garrison town was prepared to play its part in the national struggle.

The Nationalist newspaper carried a report on the 9 of April 1950 under the heading, ‘A Thousand Veterans Parade, Athy’ of I.R.A. veterans from eight midland counties marching in Athy in the towns Easter Parade. Surviving members of the local IRA also paraded in Athy to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Easter Rising, but sadly when the 90th anniversary came around two years ago there were no survivors left. Instead the platform party included the sons and daughter of a few of those local men, namely Joe May, Bapty Maher and J.J. O’Byrne who were imprisoned for their IRA involvement during the War of Independence.

On Easter Monday, 13 April 2009, Athy Heritage Centre will host an exhibition ‘The War of Independence and its aftermath’ which will run for two weeks. It will feature memorabilia and material from the War of Independence period and the Civil War, with particular reference to south Kildare and the area covered by the 5th Battalion of the Carlow Brigade IRA Margaret Walsh of the heritage centre would be interested in hearing from anyone with memorabilia, photographs or documents relating to the War of Independence or the Civil War which might be made available on loan to the centre for the duration of the exhibition. She can be contacted on (059) 8633075.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Getting their teeth into clearing slums

Grandpa lost his tooth because he did not wash his teeth when he was young. My four-year-old grand-daughter’s pronouncement over the Christmas period, made unexpectedly and without obvious connection to what went before, prompted laughter. Later that day as I was reading Jack London’s The People of the Abyss my thoughts went back to that day just before Christmas 1960 when Athy’s only dentist, who came to the town one or perhaps two afternoons a week from neighbouring Naas, thought it necessary to remove the now missing tooth. It was my first visit to a dentist and one prompted by the medical requirements of Kildare County Council before I took up appointment as a clerical officer in the council offices at St. Marys, Naas. Dental procedures in those days apparently did not include tooth fillings and so a spot indicating decay, no matter how insignificant, resulted in an extraction.

Looking back at the dental procedures and indeed what I can recall of the dental equipment of almost 50 years ago I marvel at what improvements have been made in the meantime. Glancing back even further still to the time when Jack London spent some time in the East End of London before writing of the conditions in which the Londoners, the emigrant Irish and the Jewish families lived, I am frankly astonished at the improvements in living conditions over the last 100 years or so.

Jack London, the illegitimate son of an Irish father and an American by birth was just 25-years old when in 1902 he went to live for seven weeks in the East End of London. What he found were appalling conditions and it prompted me to question whether those conditions in any way mirrored what was to be found on this side of the Irish Sea. Remember his East End sojourn was five years before the Old Age Pension of 5 shillings per week for those over 70 years old was first brought in. Up to then the elderly, the unemployed and the disabled had to rely on charity and indeed ultimately the Workhouse. This is how Jack London described what he found.

There are 300,000 people in London divided into families that live in one room tenements ..... another 600,000 live in over-crowded conditions which are deemed unhealthy ..... not only are houses let, they are sub-let and sub-let down to the very last room ..... beds are let on the 3 relay system - that is 3 tenants to a bed, each occupying it 8 hours ..... while the floor space beneath the bed is likewise let on the 3 relay system.

One in every 4 in London dies on public charity, while 939 out of every 1,000 die in poverty. There are streets in London where out of every 100 children born in a year 50 die the following year and of the 50 that remain 25 die before they are 5 years old.’

Friedrick Engels 58 years earlier when he was just 25-years of age wrote of the conditions of the working class in England and of the London area which was the subject of Jack London’s social enquiry.

The houses are occupied from cellar to garret, filthy within and without, and their appearance is such that no human being could possibly wish to live in them. But all this is nothing in comparison with the dwellings in the narrow courts and alleys between the streets ..... in which the filth and tottering ruins surpass all description. Scarcely a window pane can be found, the walls are crumbling, door posts and window frames loose and broken, doors of old boards nailed together or altogether wanting where no doors are needed, there being nothing to steal. Here live the poorest of the poor, the worst paid workers with thieves and the victims of prostitution indiscriminately huddled together, the majority Irish or of Irish extraction ..... it often happens that an Irish family is crowed into one bed, often a heap of filthy straw or quilts of old sacking cover all in indiscriminate heap where all alike are degraded by want and wretchedness.

Six years after Engels published in Germany his findings, Henry Mayhew, an English born journalist, published in serial form his research into London Labour and the London Poor. Re-issued many times since, Mayhew’s sociological record is an interesting and graphic account of how the poor lived and the various means, legal and otherwise, adopted by them to survive. Subsequent issues of his work were published as separate volumes with titles such as Mayhew’s Underworld, Mayhew’s Characters and Mayhew’s London. Mayhew, in describing the Low Lodging Houses in London where beds were let out nightly with 2 or 3 persons to a bed and numbers sleeping on the kitchen floor during busy periods wrote approvingly of the behaviour of Irish women living in London.

The extent of the poverty highlighted by Engels, Mayhew and Jack London was eventually acknowledged when the British government of 1904 established a Royal Commission to enquire into the working of the Poor Laws which had been operated for the previous 70 years. Included amongst the Commis-sioners appointed was Beatrice Webb who with her husband Sydney and George Bernard Shaw was a leading member of the Fabian Society which was to be one of the founding organisations of the English Labour Party. Subsequently, school meals came to be provided by the State for children in need following the passing of the Schools Meals Act. Old Age Pensions followed in 1908, together with a raft of legislation aimed at child protection out of which emerged the origins of the welfare State we now enjoy today.

Jack London’s The People of the Abyss which I read over Christmas coupled with my grand-daughter’s comment of a missing tooth set me on a train of thought which prompted this week’s article. However, I failed to address the question I had posed earlier on which was did the conditions found by Jack London in the East End of Britain’s capital city in any way mirror the conditions to be found in Athy at that time? I have before me an extract from a report prepared by Dr. James Kilbride, the local medical officer of health, following on his inspection of the living conditions of what he described as the working classes in Athy just 3 years after Jack London’s book was first published.

The floors in many houses are lower than the laneway in front and the fall of the yard is to the back door, consequently the floors are wet and sodden in rainy weather and frequently are flooded. In less than a dozen cases was there found any sanitary accommodation ..... in some rooms the only light admitted is through a few (sometimes only one) small panes of glass found in the wall, sufficient light or air cannot find entrance to these rooms ..... there are many houses which should be closed as unfit for human habitation.

Whatever the answer to my question it is clear that the Irish government of 1932 acted decisively in adopting a National Slum Clearance Programme and so helped to eradicate a social evil which condemned many families to live in substandard and unhealthy accommodation. That programme was put into effect at the start of the Economic war when Irish workers and farmers were experiencing the most oppressed conditions ever experienced by the fledging Irish State.

Happy New Year to the Eye on the Pastreaders.