Thursday, June 30, 2011

Marcus Morgan M.P. Athy and Church tithes

It is the fate of all great writers, after their death, that their diaries and letters are often published.  The minutiae of their everyday lives becomes a source of great interest to their subsequent biographers and the life they led can sometimes overwhelm and distract us from the great works of literature they leave behind them.  However, often times the surviving correspondence gives a unique insight into the world and life of the writer and can assist in putting into context their work in the place of their everyday life. 

I was intrigued to come across a reference in the correspondence of the great satirist Jonathan Swift to Marcus Antonius Morgan.  The letter is succinct and to the point and is a request from Swift to visit Morgan with a view to seeing his private library.  The exact date of the letter is unknown but it is believed to be in or around 1735 and in many ways is an innocuous piece of correspondence.  Its interest to me lies in the fact that Marcus Antonius Morgan was the Member of Parliament for Athy from 1727 to 1752.  The Borough of Athy was controlled by the Duke of Leinster and therefore Morgan’s election would have owed much to the Duke’s influence. Morgan’s father, for various dates between 1693 and 1714, was the MP for the county of Sligo and latterly county Wexford and like his son Marcus was a graduate of Trinity College Dublin.  As a parliamentarian Morgan lived a rather undistinguished life and like many MP’s did not reside in the borough to which he was elected.

Morgan’s principal residence was in Cavan and he retained interest in lands in Meath where he was Sheriff of the county in 1726 and a Governor of the Workhouse from 1736 until his death in 1752.  The extent and the length of his friendship with Jonathan Swift are difficult to establish.  However, it is clear that not long after their first acquaintance the friendship ended.  As the greatest satirist of his age Swift was renowned for his use of humour to attack the politics and social mores of his day.  His greatest work, Gulliver’s Travel, published in 1726, a great part of which was written in Woodbrook House in County Laois, is a wonderful satire on life and human nature during Swift’s own lifetime.  He was to turn his considerable powers on Marcus Antonius Morgan in 1736 with the publication of ‘The Legion Club’ which is marked by a bitter attack on Morgan and his politics.

In March of 1735 Morgan and Richard Bettesworth had been appointed to a committee of the House of Commons in Ireland to review a petition which had been brought against the tithes of agistment.  The tithes were a form of tax on agricultural land payable to the Church of Ireland for the support of its clergy. All landowners were liable for the tax, regardless of their religious persuasion, be they Catholic, Church of Ireland or Dissenter. The tax was deeply unpopular and many of its bitterest opponents were members of the Church of Ireland themselves.  At the time Swift was the Dean of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin and was deeply concerned as to what he saw as another attack on the Irish Church.  The favourable response the petition received from the committee headed by Morgan and Bettesworth was deeply wounding to Swift.  It appears that Swift used his familiarity with Morgan’s private library to mock Morgan, given that the library was clearly a source of great pride to him.  In part of the poem Swift suggests that Morgan’s own books would take offence at Morgan’s actions in parliament with regard to the tithes of agistment. 

            ‘When you walk among your books,
            They reproach you with their looks;
            Bind them fast, or from their shelves
            They’ll come down to right themselves:
            Homer, Plutarch, Virgil, Flaccus,
            All in arms, prepare to back us:
            Soon repent, or put to slaughter
            Every Greek and Roman author.
            Will you, in your factious phrase,
            Send the clergy all to graze;
            And to make your project pass,
            Leave them not a blade of grass?

Ultimately Parliament compromised whereby the right to collect the tithe was removed from pastureland, placing the burden on tillage farming.  The collection of tithes remained an issue in Ireland until the dis-establishment of the Church of Ireland by the Irish Church Act in 1869 and all laws that required tithes to be paid to the Church were appealed.  Morgan remained as Member of Parliament for Athy until his death in 1752 but while his political career did not lend itself to remembrance he has the distinction of being immortalised in Swift’s writings.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Athy and Grandvilliers / John Benchman Minch

The town twinning between Athy and Grandvilliers saw visitors from the French town spending a few days in Athy over the County Show weekend.  Part of the weekend’s programme for the visitors was a history walk of Athy.  It was interesting to notice the reaction of the French visitors when recounting to them some elements of the town’s story and especially the links between the Irish and the French nations. 

The founding of Athy by French speaking Normans whose forebearers came from Normandy and surrounding parts of Northern France was the first documented link between Ireland and France.  It was the 1798 Rebellion which provided the next connection between the French and Irish people.  The French Revolution nine years prior to the United Irishmen Rebellion provided the impetus, as indeed did the earlier American Revolution, for the legislative and religious freedom aspirations of the Irish people.  The 1798 monument in Emily Square provoked particular interest amongst the French visitors and seemed to be the most photographed scene on their tour of Athy.

The plaque on the Town Hall honouring the men from Athy and district who died during the first World War is evidence of the most recent link between France and Athy.  It was of course that four year conflict fought on different fronts but primarily in France and Flanders which brought so much hardship and sorrow to Athy families in the second decade of the last century.  The bodies of many of those unfortunate victims of war from Athy were never found and today they lie in French soil far from their family members who for the most part are themselves buried in St. Michael’s or one of the other local cemeteries. 

As part of the twinning programme a small group is travelling this month from Athy to France to visit a number of World War sites, including the Somme battle site.  I understand the opportunity will be taken to visit the graves of a number of local men who died during the 1914-18 war.  The graves of Athy men who fought in World War 1 are to be found everywhere throughout those parts of the world touched by that war.  One such place is India and the Delhi War Cemetery holds the remains of the only Athy man to be capped as a full international on an Irish rugby team .  He was John Benchman Minch, son of Matthew J. Minch and Elizabeth O’Kelly of Rockfield House.  John was born on 29th July 1880 and two years later his father who was the proprietor of Minch Nortons Maltings firm was elected Member of Parliament for South Kildare.  As a member of the Irish Parliamentary Party he held the South Kildare seat until 1903. 

John B. Minch was educated at Blackrock College Dublin and won the first of his five international caps playing for Ireland against South Africa at Landsdowne Road on 30th November 1912.  The following year he was capped twice playing against England at Landsdowne Road on 8th February 1913 and against Scotland in Edinburgh on 22nd February.  His final two caps were earned in internationals against England at Twickenham on 14th February 1914 and against Scotland at Landsdowne Road two weeks later.

Having qualified as a doctor he joined the Royal Army Medical Corps in September 1914 and rose through the ranks, becoming a captain on 1st April 1915.  He served in India as a medical officer from 1915 and apart from periods spent in Palestine and Malta in the 1930s John B. Minch spent the rest of his army career in India.  He died on 8th November 1942 and is buried in the Delhi War Cemetery.

His brothers Willie and Sydney also enlisted during the First World War.  Both survived the war and both had attained the rank of captain at the war’s conclusion.  Willie Minch died on 29th March 1927 from the after effects of gas poisoning.  He was 32 years of age.  His brother Sydney died on 25th March 1970.  Both are buried in Barrowhouse Cemetery.

The links between Athy and France are very real and tangible.  What commenced with the arrival of an invading force on our shores in 1169 was strengthened with the blood of young men from Athy spilt on the fields of France and Flanders nearly 750 years later.  It is appropriate that today Athy and Grandvilliers share a bond of friendship which has as its foundation historical links stretching back to the founding of our town by French speaking Normans.

The author Hugh Oram has contacted me regarding a book he is presently writing on the history of Flahavans oat millers of County Waterford.  The business was apparently founded in or around 1785 by Dunn family members who were originally from Athy.  He is interested in getting background information on the Dunn family.  If you can help give me a call and I’ll pass on Hugh’s contact details. 

Thursday, June 16, 2011

St. Michael's Cemetery

It was a sobering sight to see so many gathered together in what was once a playground for youngsters in the 1950s and earlier still part of the town’s fair green.  The occasion was the annual cemetery Mass in what we call new St. Michael’s and the grounds which once echoed to the delightful cries of youngsters in the 1950s and the bellowing of cows and calves now holds memories of lives lost within living memory.

As a new graveyard the names on the gravestones are names we recognise and can relate to, bringing memories of times not so long ago when those named shared experiences with us.  As I waited for the Mass to start I walked through the newest part of the cemetery and there recognised name after name of people I knew well, some not so well, but all sharing a common connection as members of our local community.  It’s sad to think of so many friends and acquaintances that have died since the new cemetery was opened in or about 1964.  The gravestones of memories are very real and the last resting place of the Dominican Fathers, the Christian Brothers and the Sisters of Mercy reinforce the feeling of history which pervades St. Michael’s Cemetery.

As I walked between the cemetery plots family members and friends were to be seen sitting or standing alongside the graves of loved ones.  Everywhere I looked I was reminded of persons I once knew and of times which I had shared with them.  A line in Ronald Fletcher’s interesting and poignant book ‘In a Country Churchyard’ published 30 or so years ago came to mind.

‘A country churchyard is more than just a burial place for the dead.  It is a place which reminds us of a living tradition, the people and community of the past which made us what we are.’ 

New St. Michael’s is not yet of an age to allow us to describe it as part of our historical and cultural heritage.  While it offers us opportunities to re-visit our recent social history, only with time can it be expected to become a place of pilgrimage for those interested in our history.  Whenever that occurs I wonder what the visitor will think of the grandiose monuments to be found in a small section of the cemetery.  The Victorians spent large sums of monies on grave monuments and fine examples of the 19th century masons art are to be found scattered around cemeteries in Ireland and England.  Those who today seek to make a cult of death unfortunately tend to be responsible for the production of monuments which are quite simply inappropriate.  The cemetery of St. Michael’s belongs to the whole local community and our generation will be judged by the way in which we care for the religious landscape which is the local cemetery.  Some control should have been exercised over the installation of extensively grandiose monuments in new St. Michael’s.  They present a bizarre scene in a country graveyard. 

If new St. Michael’s cemetery is yet to come of age in terms of its historical value, the same cannot be said of St. Johns in the oldest part of Athy.  Situated on the site of the 12th century priory of St. Thomas the Martyr and the Hospital of St. Johns, this small cemetery has possibly been in use for over 700 years.  The Urban Archaeological Survey of County Kildare conducted by John Bradley and others in 1986 reported that ‘the north wall of the graveyard preserves a portion of the wall 12 metres long which may be part of the original priory or hospital’.  The graveyard contains many ancient gravestones marking the graves of local residents and military men who were based in Athy’s Cavalry Barracks during the 19th century.  In 1998 the members of Athy’s Alternative Project produced a small booklet outlining the history of the graveyard and the results of a survey of the gravestones.  Copies should be in the local library and could usefully be read before a visit to St. Johns.  Honor McCulloch has single handed over many months carried out a major cleanup of St. Johns and it will be opened each Wednesday and Sunday from 2.00 p.m. to 4 p.m. for the summer months.  Do visit St. John’s for a glimpse into our medieval past and the centuries which followed, bearing in mind the lines from Grays’ ‘Elegy in a Country Churchyard’‘The paths of glory lead but to the grave’. 

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Athy Borough Charges

Reading in a local newspaper recently of the €673,000 net profit made by Newbridge Town Commissioners from pay parking reminded me of the explanation offered by Council officials when it was first proposed to bring pay parking to Athy.  Its purpose, the then Urban Council members were informed, was to better regulate traffic and was not a revenue collection exercise.  I did not believe the explanation then and am still not convinced having seen the implementation of pay  parking in Athy in recent years.  Indeed, since the scheme was first brought in, the pay parking areas have been extended and the parking fees have been substantially increased.  This does not to me seem to reflect the need to regulate traffic, rather confirms that its purpose is to raise revenue.

The Town Council as successors to the Borough Corporation which was abolished in 1840 is of course following a well trodden path in extracting money from those with business to transact in Athy.  The former Borough Council collected custom and tolls on fair and market days following the granting of a charter by Henry VIII in 1515.  They continued to be collected up to the 19th century.  Initially the customs and tolls were let each year to the highest bidder, with the successful person having the sole right to collect them within the town on market and fair days.  In the latter years of the Borough Council’s existence the tolls were collected by toll collectors appointed and paid for by the Council.  However, the tolls and customs collected were handed over to the Duke of Leinster, on whose authority it cannot now be ascertained.

Another source of finance were charges for cranage.  A public weighing scales was located in the Market Square and to it came the farmers and dealers who bought and sold their produce by weight.  The schedule of cranage charges for 1817 shows that a half penny was charged for weighing corn, malt, flour, butter, wool hides, coals and culm under 100 lbs. weight and one penny over that weight.  Potatoes were weighed free of charge, while one penny was paid for weighing meat carcasses.

By 1824 the town of Athy had taken to itself additional fairs held on various dates throughout the year, while to the Tuesday market operated by charter the town now added a market on Saturdays.  However, the markets were particularly handicapped by the imposition of tolls at the toll gates on the Dublin Road and the Kilkenny Road.  The resulting falloff in business no doubt prompted the Duke of Leinster in 1824 to propose to the Borough Council the abolition of customs and tolls collected on his behalf on the two weekly market days.  Taxes were still to be imposed and collected on fair days, while on market days coal and culm were still to be subject to custom.  The Duke’s proposal also provided for the retention of the cranage charges which he suggested could finance a scale of payments for the various corporation officials, while an extra half penny custom on coal and culm was to fund a salary for the Town Sovereign. 

The Borough officials in 1824 and the salaries which they were paid or shared were :-

Deputy Sovereign                                 £30.0.0.
Town Clerk                                            £11.7.6.
Billet Master                                          £  2.5.6.
3 Sergeants at Mace                              £6.16.6.
Bellman                                                 £  2.5.6.
Weighmaster at Crane                           £15.0.0.
Weightmasters helpers                           £  5.0.0.
Weight master (Coal and Culm)            £10.0.0.
Receivers on Fair days                          £1.10.0.
3 Assistants on Fair Days                      £1.10.0.
4 Collectors at other Custom Gates      £  3.0.0.          
4 Assistants                                            £1.10.0.
Collector of Market Square                   £1.10.0.

At least the early 19th century town folk had some idea where the tolls and taxes collected on fair and market days were spent.  Unfortunately the same cannot be said for the very generous parking fees now collected by the current Town Council.  Indeed, come to think of it, I have never seen any mention of the amount collected each year in parking fees by the local Council.  Do you think we might be told what is collected and how the money is spent?

Congratulations to the organisers of tri-Athy which was yet again blessed with good weather.  It was by all accounts a very successful two day event and the craft fair held in the grounds of White’s Castle on the Saturday added further colour and interest to the weekend’s activities.  I believe the craft fair will be held every Saturday giving the grounds of White’s Castle a new lease of life and one which those who languished in the cells of the former prison could never have anticipated.  The Sunday morning Farmers Market seems to be going through a difficult period at this time and needs the townspeople’s support if it is to develop.  It would be a shame if either the Farmers Market or the Craft Fair were not to succeed.