Thursday, September 30, 2010

County Kildare Links with Malta

‘Did you lamp the sham?’  The question was put to me in Malta many miles from the County Galway town of Tuam where apparently every male can be referred to as ‘sham’ and where the sighting of a ‘sham’ merits the term ‘lamping’.  I was on the Mediterranean island for an Athy wedding where the guarantee of sunshine is proving more and more attractive for Irish people accustomed to a less warmer and much wetter climate. 

It was the father of the bride, himself a County Galway man, who put the puzzling question to me, meriting a non committal response which underlined my ignorance of the Tuam cant.  I was reminded when he explained his question and its origins of a similar feeling of bewilderment when within days of taking up a job in Monaghan town many years ago I was asked ‘how are the care?’.  Every Irish town apparently has its own linguistic peculiarities and I’m sure that many of those who moved to Athy within the last few years have come across some of the local Athy sayings which alone have common currency in the South Kildare town.

Wherever I go abroad I am always surprised at the smallness of this world of ours as links and connections become apparent with our own town on the River Barrow.  Malta, an island of 400,000 or so persons, was for a short time the base for many Athy born soldiers who fought in the Crimean War.  The local harbours were filled with British transport ships on their way to the Crimea and as the war progressed hospitals were set up in Malta to cater for the sick and wounded British soldiers, some of whom were from South Kildare and the town of Athy.

But even further back in history an English soldier whose actions and orders during the 1798 Rebellion affected the people of Athy and South Kildare was to be found in Malta.  Sir Ralph Abercromby was Commander in Chief of the British Army in Ireland during the ’98 rebellion and he spearheaded the systematic and brutal suppression of the United Irishmen’s Rising.  Two years later he was transferred to Malta to become Commander in Chief of the British Command in the Mediterranean.  He would later be replaced by Horatio Nelson who commanded the British fleet which defeated Napoleon’s French fleet off Cape Trafalgar in one of the biggest naval battles of the period. 

Britain had taken control of Malta in 1799 and the sixth Governor of the Island was a Kildare man, Richard More O’Farrell.  He was appointed Governor of Malta in 1847, the first Catholic appointed to that position.  He was 50 years of age at the time of his appointment and had previously served as Member of Parliament for his native County of Kildare for 17 years.  His appointment was somewhat controversial in British circles as he was a Catholic, but the British Prime Minister obviously felt that his religious beliefs made him a suitable candidate as Governor of an island whose population was largely Catholic.  O’Farrell appears to have been an energetic Governor whose period of office saw many improvements on the island.  Despite O’Farrell’s apparent success Queen Victoria received demands for his removal from a Republican group with anti-Catholic leanings supported by elements of the British establishment.  O’Farrell resigned the governorship in May 1851 on the grounds that he would not serve under Lord John Russell, the British Prime Minister who had the Ecclesiastical Tithes Bill passed into law in opposition to the Papal Bull which created the Catholic hierarchy in England.  He died in 1880 having been returned again as M.P. for County Kildare from 1859 to 1865.

As a teenager I was a member of the local Knights of Malta and in the city of Valetta, Malta’s capital city, is to be found the Church of St. John the Baptist.  Built by the Knights of St. John in the 16th century the Church was the Knights’ religious headquarters until their downfall in the mid 19th century.  The organisation first founded in the 11th century as a nursing brotherhood later took on responsibility for defending pilgrims to the Holy Land and occupied Rhodes as its powerbase.  Later in the 16th century the Knights of the Order of St. John were granted Malta by Charles V of Spain and they were responsible for making Malta the last Christian outpost in Europe.  It was Napoleon who having captured Malta hastened the decline of the ancient Order which by virtue of its island association was generally known as the Order of Malta. 

Decades earlier the strict observance of the Order’s rules had fallen into disrepute, so much so that the Catholic organisation allowed a Protestant branch to be formed in England.  Ultimately shortly after More O’Farrell left Malta the English branch of the Order broke away from the sovereign Order of Malta.  It declared its own sovereignty under the title of the Order of St. John of Jerusalem which later gave rise to the St. John’s Ambulance Brigade.  Today the original Order of St. John is known as the Order of Malta, with representatives in many countries throughout the world.  Our local branch here in Athy has been functioning for over 50 years.   

Malta was host to a large gathering of Athy folk last week all enjoying the wedding of Jane Timoney and Eamon Walsh.  It was a lovely occasion graced by the families and friends of the young couple to whom goes our best wishes for their future happiness.  As for ‘the sham’ I did ‘lamp’ him!

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