Thursday, June 24, 2010

Unique Irish historical document

I am told it weighs 20 kilogrammes. It is claimed that each and every page of the 5,000 pages of the 10 volume report provide the most detailed insight ever into any military operation in world history. The fact that it was an operation carried out on the streets of an Irish town within living memory and culminated in the death of 14 innocent persons makes the Saville report a unique Irish historical document. My postman may not have realised this as he delivered two extremely heavy parcels containing the Saville report to me this morning.

It was Sunday afternoon the 30th of January 1972 when a citizens protest march against internment without trial organised by the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association set off from Bishops Field in the Creggan Estate, Derry intending to finish at the city's Guild Hall. Just a week earlier I had left Monagan town having spent three years there amongst people whose lives and associations were touched by border activities, both legal and illegal. During my time there, which immediately preceded the start of the “troubles” I often visited Armagh and Belfast city. As the “troubles” developed my visits became less frequent but my familiarity with those cities forged a link with Northern Ireland and Northern Ireland affairs which was never to be broken.

Imagine then my horror on hearing that the Sunday afternoon protest march had resulted in the killing of 13 men on the streets of their home town and the injuring of 15 more, one of whom later died. The tragic events of that day were to find an echo in similar murderous atrocities over the years that followed as Northern Ireland descended deeper and deeper into a frightening and frightful state of war.

“Bloody Sunday” in Irish history described the day on Sunday the 21st of November 1920 when IRA volunteers went to addresses throughout the city of Dublin to shoot, in what can only be described as a cowardly fashion, English officers and men who were believed to be intelligence officers. 14 men were shot dead that day while in bed or in their bedrooms in much the same way as cowardly Irregulars shot the two Connor Scarteen brothers in Kenmare on the 9th of September 1922 during the civil war. However, following the murderous activities of the paratroopers in Derry on the last Sunday of January 1972, that Sabbath day would thereafter be inevitably known as “Bloody Sunday”.

The Derry killings led to a storm of protest and on the following day some public institutions in the North and shops in Derry closed as catholic workers went on strike. Society in Northern Ireland was polarised on religious grounds in 1972 much more so than it is today and here in the South a national day of mourning was called for Wednesday the 2nd of February as the funerals of the 12 of those killed took place in the North.

The sense of outrage felt by so many people found expression in protest marches organised following “Bloody Sunday”. I had just joined AnCo, The Industrial Training Authority and was working in Carrisbrook House in Ballsbridge. On the national day of mourning, Wednesday 2nd February, the entire staff of AnCo led by their Director General, Jack Agnew silently marched from Ballsbridge to the British Embassy in Merrion Square. That same evening the British Embassy was burnt to the ground.

The subsequent Widgery report on the “Bloody Sunday” shootings which comprised 61 pages (compared to 5000 pages of the Saville report) concluded that shots had been fired at the British soldiers before they returned fire. Much of the credit for the reopening of the investigation into “Bloody Sunday” must go to Jane Winter, Director of British and Irish Rights Watch and Belfast solicitor Patricia Coyle whose work on unearthing documents on the events in Derry led to Professor Dermot Walsh's report 13 years ago. “Bloody Sunday Tribunal Enquiry, a resounding defeat for both truth, justice and rule of law” prompted Taoiseach Bertie Ahern to press the British Prime Minister, Tony Blair for a new enquiry. To Blair's credit he agreed and the Saville enquiry opened in Derry on the 3rd of April 1998. 12 years later a new British Prime Minister David Cameron apologised on behalf of the British nation for the “unjustifiable” killing of 14 civilians in Derry 28 years ago.

Apologies are due by many others from all sides of different conflicts in this island going back as far as the Irish War of Independence and the bitter civil war which followed. Unfortunately for many the opportunity to apologise has long gone. All that is left now is sorrow at the savagery which marked the actions of so many.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Proud history of I.C.A.

The link between Athy I.C.A. and Robert Owen, the father of the co-operative movement, or co-partnership in industry might seem at first to be somewhat tenuous. Owen, who was born in 1771 in the Welsh village of Newtown, became a legend in his own lifetime, combining his success as a businessman with that of rational thinker on education and his pioneering role as social reformer. Owen, who died in 1858, influenced many people including John Vandaleur who having attended a talk given by Owen in Dublin returned home to Limerick and founded the Rahaline Co-operative Association in 1830. Within three years the Workers co-operative centered in the area around Bunratty had failed and the next stage in the development of co-operatives in Ireland would not come for another 56 years.

Horace Plunkett, son of Lord Dunsany, imbued with the ideals of Robert Owen, started the next co-operative in Ireland when he founded the Dunsany Co-operative Society. Plunkett was to devote himself to the development of the co-operative movement in Ireland and assisting him in that task was Robert Anderson whom he had chosen as the first co-operative organiser in 1889. Anderson would become a central figure in the co-operative movement in Ireland as secretary of the Irish Agricultural Organisation Society.

It was the work of Horace Plunkett and an address given by the Irish writer George Russell at the A.G.M. of the I.A.O.S. in December 1909 which inspired a number of women attending that meeting to organise an Irish version of the Woman’s Co-operative Guilds which were to be found in Britain.

Mrs. Ellice Pilkington whose brother Sir Thomas Esmond was a member of the I.A.O.S. was appointed the first organiser of the Woman’s Movement which was to be called the Society of the United Irishwomen. The first branch was set up in Bree, Co. Wexford on 15th June 1910 and the national organisation was registered as a co-operative society which in its initial years was helped financially and otherwise by the I.A.O.S. and the organisers of the co-operative movement in Ireland.

The Society of the United Irishwomen changed its name in 1935 to the Irish Countrywomen’s Association. It was, by and large, perceived to be a rural organisation catering for those whose families worked on the land. In the years after the name change, town associations were formed to cater for the needs of women in Irish towns and villages.

Athy I.C.A. was founded in October 1957 when a small group of local women from the town and surrounding countryside came together in the Macra na Feirme rooms in the Town Hall. Those involved and whose names have come down to us were Eileen Condron, Carrie McDonald, Gertie Gray, Mrs. Siobhan Kingston, Mrs. McNamara of Park House and Mrs. Elizabeth Kemp of the Model School. All have now passed on, with Mrs. Siobhan Kingston being the sole survivor when the Guild celebrated its 50th anniversary three years ago. The first President of Athy I.C.A. Guild was Eileen Condron.

As a national organisation the I.C.A. campaigned for rural water schemes, rural electricity schemes and organised summer schools from 1929 onwards at different locations throughout the country. The summer camps offered the first organised adult education courses in Ireland and since 1954 the I.C.A. Adult Education College at An Grianán has provided hundreds of courses for adults. In that year An Grianán at Termonfechin, Co. Louth was given to the I.C.A. by the W.H. Kellogg Foundation of America in trust ‘for the health, recreation and welfare of the people of Ireland.’ The Kellogg Foundation gave a further grant to the I.C.A. in 1967 to help finance the building of a horticultural college for girls in Grianán. That college unfortunately closed in 2003.

It is over 40 years since I was invited to give a talk at An Grianán to a small group of women on the role of local authorities in the annual Tidy Towns Competition. I was then a very young Town Clerk of Kells in Co. Meath which had achieved a small measure of success in that competition. I can still recall that evening as it was my first time to speak at a public gathering and it showed!

Athy’s I.C.A. members now meet in the Dominican Hall and apart from raising monies for charity are actively involved in cookery lessons (Italian and Thai I’m told), line dancing, digital photography, painting and a range of other interesting activities. Commencing on 18th July the local Guild members will be putting on an exhibition in the Heritage Centre. ‘Reeling in the Years’ will be an exhibition jointly organised by Athy and Fontstown Guilds to celebrate the centenary of the I.C.A. and offers an opportunity for the younger generation to see how life was lived in years gone by.

From Robert Owen to Horace Plunkett to Ellice Pilkington to Eileen Condron and the other ladies of Athy of 1957 there is a link which stretches back four if not five generations. The co-operative movement, the seed of which was first sown by Robert Owen and nurtured on Irish soil by Horace Plunkett, blooms today in the work and achievements of the members of the Irish Countrywomen’s Association.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Passing of Kevin Maher

I was in Hay-on-Wye in the upper Wye Valley on the borders of England and Wales when news reached me of the death of Kevin Maher. Kevin was the subject of a previous Eye on the Past (No. 633) when I wrote of his immense contribution to the sporting and social history of Athy over many decades. A son of the legendary ‘Bapty’ Maher, Kevin, the sports man, graced the local golfing scene as the winner of the Captain’s Prize in Athy on two successive years, as well as the winner of numerous competitions over the years. He was a member of the Athy Golf Club Committee since 1947 and in later years was a trustee of the club. His sporting prowess extended to rugby and it was here that he suffered perhaps his greatest sporting disappointment when Athy lost the 1948 Provincial Towns Cup to Dundalk. The only score of that game was a penalty kicked by Frank Johnson for Drogheda, who for many years sat as a District Justice in Naas and Newbridge.

Kevin played a prominent part in the formation of the local Old Folks Committee and was responsible for the Committee’s subsequent acquisition of No. 82 Leinster Street which for many years served as the Old Folks Centre. A veterinary surgeon by profession, Kevin was elected Chairman of the Veterinary Benevolent Fund in 1981, a position which he continued to occupy for the next 23 years.

A gracious man, Kevin was intensely interested in his native town and I can recall many occasions when he wrote to me or contacted me by phone to clarify some matter or other the subject of one of my articles. His passing is a sad blow for his family and our sympathy goes to his wife Molly and to the Maher family.

I have been visiting the attractive market town of Hay-on-Wye, known simply by locals as ‘Hay’, for close on thirty years. My first visit was prompted by a television programme on the town and the role of Richard Booth in creating a book town out of the decaying economy of a Welsh market town. Booth opened his first book shop in Hay in 1961 in what was the old fire station. He was then just 23 years old and his success in acquiring libraries and book collections and selling on the books encouraged other book dealers to join him in Hay. Six or seven years later Booth purchased the town cinema and converted it into what was then and may still be the largest secondhand book shop in Britain. Today Hay-on-Wye boasts no less than 28 secondhand book shops in a town with a population of about 1,750.

The town’s success story, originally founded on book sales, has now been further strengthened with the continuing success of the Hay Festival of Literature and the Arts. First started in 1988 the festival which runs from the last week of May to the first week in June attracts an enormous number of world class writers. It was said by Bill Clinton to be ‘the Woodstock of the mind’, a claim which thousands of visitors who attend the festival each year would support. To the extraordinary attraction of the Welsh book town must be added the unique attractiveness of the independently owned local shops which offer a range and diversity of products and goods not likely to be matched by any of the international conglomerates which are to be found today in every shopping centre in Britain and Ireland.

Hay-on-Wye, a onetime fortified town on the Marches of Wales as Athy was on the Marches of Kildare, has become the book capital of Britain. It is twinned with the Belgium book town of Redu which, encouraged by Richard Booth’s success in the 1960s, started up its own secondhand book shop enterprises in 1984. Books have energised Hay’s economy, a fact which I can confirm having witnessed the enormous improvements in the town during my visits over the last thirty years.

When I visit Hay I am always reminded of Herbert Armstrong, the local Solicitor who was hanged for the murder of his domineering wife in 1922. Armstrong, of diminutive stature, a retired Army officer and a member of the local Masonic Lodge, attempted to poison another local solicitor whose offices were directly opposite Armstrongs. The failed attempt prompted police to exhume Mrs. Armstrong’s body and it was found that she had died of arsenic poisoning. Armstrong was tried, convicted and hanged in nearby Gloucester Prison on 31st May 1922. His offices and those of his lucky colleague are still operating in Hay as solicitors’ practices.

If you ever get the opportunity to visit Hay-on-Wye seize the chance to enjoy one of the great little towns of either Britain or Ireland, even if arsenic and solicitors do not find favour with you.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Eye 913

‘And we moor, we don’t park’. The information came as canal boat 4B glided to a halt at the Ardreigh mooring following a short trip up the Canal, as well as the Barrow, to mark the latest fitting out of the 98 year old former by-traders boat.

It was a balmy summer evening when the boat’s current owners, Eunice and Cliff Jeffers with a few friends on board manoeuvred the former turf boat away from Ardreigh in the direction of the Railway Bridge and beyond. For many months past I had been a daily interested onlooker as the boat was revamped and its housing reshaped while it was moored in the Canal cutting just beyond my end garden wall at Ardreigh. The work progressed slowly but steadily as Cliff, oft times alone, but occasionally with help, enthusiastically refitted one of the remaining by-boats on the Irish Canal system.

Canal boat 4B was built in Portadown for Sir John Purser Griffith of the Leinster Carbonised Turf Company in Turraun, Co. Offaly, primarily to draw turf from the midland bog. It was fitted with a 15hp Bollinder engine which powered the 20 ton boat, with a capacity to carry 40 tons of turf. By-traders boats, as they were called, were manned by two crew members and 4B had Joe Daly as its first skipper, with Jim Bracken as his assistant. Turf deliveries to Dublin in the years immediately prior to the 1916 Rebellion and for many years thereafter, was its principal trade. On return journeys Guinness and a host of other goods formed the cargo as the 4B wound its way through the Canal locks which had been operational long before railways and tarmacadam roadways were thought of.

Just as war in Europe erupted in 1939 the boat’s ownership changed and James Doyle of Allenwood, known as ‘Big Jim Doyle’ became its new skipper. He used the 4B during the Second World War to bring turf from the Midlands to Dublin. At the end of the war the boat was acquired by Jack Gill, a canal boatman who already operated another by boat, the 31B. It was in the 1950s when publican Jack O’Neill purchased the 4B that it began to make regular trips on the lower Barrow navigation. It was then used to transport timber and it was maybe at that time that the 4B first was seen in this area.

It continued to be used commercially, even after the closure of the freight carrying business on the Grand Canal in 1959. Purchased by Carroll brothers of Carrick-on-Suir the 4B was used to draw washed sand from the riverbed at Mooncoin. I am told by Eunice Jeffers that the sand was taken from the riverbed at low tide and loaded into the 4B which brought it to Carrick-on-Suir where it was stockpiled for subsequent sale to local builders.

After 58 years of constant use as a cargo boat the 4B was sold and over the next few years was converted for use as a leisure boat. The Bollinder engine was replaced with a Thames Trader lorry engine and the Johnson family brought the now revamped 4B onto the Shannon River where it was used for almost 30 years. In 2001 the boat returned to the Grand Canal and was based at Hazelhatch, Co. Kildare where it was used as a house boat until purchased four years ago by Eunice and Cliff Jeffers.

The 4B travelled the Canal waters last week as far as the dry dock before returning and moving upstream of the Barrow as far as the former Bachelors factory. It was a journey which brought the boat through two Canal locks and under two bridges, built over 200 years ago but which still showcase the skill and ingenuity of 18th century engineers. The lock walls examined up close as the 4B was manoeuvred in place to move up and down the Canal system reminded me of the extraordinary skills of the 18th century stonemasons who cut and shaped the limestone stones which lined those walls. Their size and weight held the carved stones in place without the need for any visible form of mortar, while the sheer scale of the work in digging out the Canal system by hand over two centuries ago left me full of admiration.

Passing under Augustus Bridge I saw for the first time the steel plating, now rusting, which was put in place in the 1890s when the previously humpbacked 18th century bridge was replaced by a more traffic friendly bridge to ease the passage of farmers carts travelling to the towns fairs and markets.

On the River Barrow we passed under the bridge erected two years before the 1798 Rebellion by the ‘Knight of the Trowel James Delahunty’. There is an inscription on the river side of the bridge facing Carlow which I could not read. Is there anyone out there with a good camera who might be able to take for me a photograph of the inscription which unfortunately appears to have weathered very badly?

A wonderful trip on the Athy waterways ended for this land lubber with the quote at the beginning of the article. I remembered both with immense pleasure.