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.