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?