Thursday, July 28, 2011

Tom Webster and Offaly Street

Twice last weekend I received news which brought me back 50 years and more to the street where I spent my youth.  Offaly Street in the 1950’s was a street of young families, a close knit community where everyone knew their neighbours.  By and large we all shared the same deprivations, more financial than social.  There were just two motor car owners in the entire street.  John W. Kehoe, Publican and G.A.A. man extraordinaire and Bob Webster manager of the local cinema were the lucky duo although that exclusive club was later joined by Bill Cash when he came to live in No.  3 Offaly Street.  There was one other car owner, hackney owner Paddy Murphy whose car could be found parked outside his house without causing any inconvenience to passing traffic.  Indeed, there was so little traffic on the street even into the 1960’s that I could park outside our front door  the Morris Minor bought by my father when he retired but which he soon passed on to me. 

The paucity of motorised traffic had its advantages of course.  The street became a playground for the local youngsters and it was news of two of those youngsters of yesteryear which came to me last weekend.  On Saturday I met Teddy Kelly to be told that Willie Moore who had lived in No. 7 Offaly Street, when I was two doors down and Teddy was across the street at No. 27, had celebrated his 70th birthday.  We both jokingly acknowledged our relative youth compared to our elderly friend who has been living in Wexford for many years past. 

The next day at morning mass I was startled to hear news of the death of Tom Webster, like Willie Moore a former neighbour and school friend with whom many happy youthful hours were spent.  Tom lived in Butler’s Row and shared with the Kelly brothers, Leopold and Teddy, the Moore Brothers, Willie and Mickey, the White Brothers, Andrew and Basil and the Taaffe’s, Frank and Seamus, a youthful friendship which was the first and  most enduring friendship of our lives.

As the decades pass, the memories of youth become even more precious as some of those early companions pass away.  With Tom Webster’s death, the once sizeable group has diminished and crowded memories of Offaly Street old now rest with a few survivors. 

Leopold Kelly, a wonderful athlete and a leader of the Offaly Street youngsters of his generation was the first to die.  Just a few short years after his ordination to the Priesthood he passed away and since then he has been joined by Seamus Taaffe, Mickey Moore, Andrew and Basil White and now Tom Webster.  Two late arrivals to Offaly Street and so peripheral to early memories of my youth, Miley and Danny Cash have also passed on. 

As I pass up and down Offaly Street every day of the week on the way to work I marvel at the changes in personnel in the street where for so long the family names were unchanged and constant.  Only two families from those who lived in Offaly Street in the 1940’s and 50’s still retain a presence in today’s street.  Physically Offaly Street is very much as it was 50 or 60 years ago.  Some small changes have of course taken place, not least of which was the partial demolition of Murphy’s house at No. 24 and the conversion of Tuohy’s and Neill’s into shops.

Webster’s sweet shop is closed and sadly has been for some years past while the cinema is a bridal shop.  Everywhere else seems the same as it was so many years ago although if you look at old photographs of Offaly Street you will immediately notice that the drabness of the 1950’s has given way to today’s colour coordinated painted exteriors.

Butler’s Row, where Tom Webster lived, has disappeared to be replaced by an excellent scheme of bungalows built by the Town Council for elderly people.  Many a time Tom, with others from Offaly Street including myself, took advantage of the delightful fruit to be had in Mona Sylvester’s orchard at the top of Butler’s Row.  Tom was an integral part of the group which included Willie Moore, Andrew White, Teddy Kelly and myself who with the dog Toby sported and played in Offaly Street and further afield so many years ago.  Tom, as was common in the 1950’s and later, left school at an early age.  Like his father Jack, he was a member of Athy Fire Brigade and became in time Station Officer at Athlone Fire Brigade Station.  He retired from that position some years ago.

Tom Webster was for many years a part of my life which is forever linked with Offaly Street.  His death brings sadness, yet realisation that with the passing years, the memories of youth remain undimmed.

My sympathy goes to his wife Lill who is a native of Athy and to her family and to Tom’s mother Cis and his brothers and sisters.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Klmoroney House

The Barrow towpath walk day is still a few days away as I sit down to write this Eye on the Past.  Will the weather, I wonder, permit those participating to venture as far a Kilmoroney House that gaunt ghostly roofless shell which stands proudly on rising ground overlooking the river Barrow? 

How, by whom, and when, Kilmoroney House was built we cannot say with any degree of certainty.  Suffice to say that the house did not appear on the Noble and Keenan map of 1752 but did appear in Taylor's map thirty one years later.  Some time in between these two dates the fine two storey over basement buildings of five bays with a balustrade roof parapet was constructed.  On the west side of the house identified as Sportland in Taylor's map there was a two storey wing of four bays.

It is generally known that Kilmoroney House was the home of the Weldon's who arrived in Ireland from England in or around 1600.  Four brothers, Walter, William, Robert and Thomas Weldon acquired large estates in Leix and Kildare and it was Walter Weldon who settled in Athy.  He was a Member of Parliament for Athy Borough in 1613 and his fourth son, William also served in that position in 1661.  Both father and son held the position of High Sheriff of the County of Kildare during their lifetimes.  Later still Walter Weldon from Rahinderry was a Member of Parliament for Athy having been ‘elected’ in 1745 at the age of 21 years.  The lands at Kilmoroney were acquired by a Robert Weldon from the Graham family sometime in the middle of the 18th century and it is probably this Robert Weldon who built Kilmoroney House. 

Several years ago I came across a book published privately in 1908 by two daughters of Helena Lefroy who was born the eldest of four daughters of Reverent Frederick Trench, Rector of Athy and his wife Lady Helena.  The Rector's wife was the daughter of Lord Arden and a niece of Spencer Perceval, the British Prime Minister who was assassinated in the lobby of the House of Commons in 1812.

The Trench's lived in Bert for the first fourteen years of their married life before moving to Kilmoroney House.  In 1816 Kilmoroney was held by Stewart Weldon whose half sister was Frederick Trench's mother.  Anthony Weldon was heir to the property but at fourteen years of age he entered the services of the East India Company and was not heard of again for many years.  His cousin, Stewart Weldon believing him to be dead let Kilmoroney House to Frederick Trench for his life on condition that if Anthony Weldon ever returned the house should revert to the Weldons on Trench's death.  After an absence of thirty years Anthony Weldon did make contact with his family but the Trench's continued to live in Kilmoroney House until the death of the local Rector on the 23rd of November 1860.

The following extract is taken from Helena Lefroy's nee Trench's memoirs:-

‘Kilmoroney as I remember it was situated on a bend or wide loop of the River Barrow - - driving from Athy the river had to be crossed at about a quarter of a mile from the house and as there were no bridge in those days a large float was kept.  On this the carriage usually drawn by two horses was driven and the float was the poled across the river and the carriage driven off the other side’. 

The Levistown Canal cut was in place at that time and the driveway to Kilmoroney House passed over the canal cutting courtesy of a bridge constructed by the Barrow navigation company.  Across from Kilmoroney House on the Carlow Road side of the Levitstown Canal cut is the site of Grangemellon Castle, once the home of the infamous John St. Leger.  He combined membership of the Hell Fire Club with membership of the English House of Commons as Member of Parliament for Athy.  St. Leger, who on occasions is believed to have hosted meetings of the Hell Fire Club in Grangemellon Castle, served as the Athy Borough Parliamentary Member for one year only.  He was ‘elected’ in 1768 and died the following year.  Interestingly St. Leger was replaced as M.P. for Athy by Walter Hussey, regarded as one of the finest orators of his time.  Hussey was married to a sister of William Burgh of Bert House who was also an M.P. for Athy Borough.

After the death of Rev. Frederick Trench in 1860 Kilmoroney House came back into the possession of the Weldon's.  Sir Anthony Weldon who was appointed Colonel in charge of the 4th battalion Leinster Regiment shortly before he died in 1917 lived in Kilmoroney.  His funeral to St. John's cemetery Athy was a large military affair.  He was succeeded by his Anthony who died in Co Donegal in 1971 and he was the last Weldon to be buried in the family vault in St. John's cemetery.  Kilmoroney House was vacated over seventy years ago and the lands taken over by the Land Commission for distribution amongst local farmers. 

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Family History / Bill Fenelon / Nora O'Connor

A phone call late on Monday evening prompted me to watch a programme on RTE 1, ‘Who do you think you are’.  My caller believed the programme would centre around a family, one of whose members came from Athy.  It turned out that my informant was wrong but the TV programme nevertheless proved an interesting insight into a family history which started in Manor Kilbride in the Parish of Baltinglass in the years following the Great Famine.

The story of the Murtagh family was typical of so many Irish families in provincial Ireland.  There were 4 children of the marriage of Andrew Murtagh and Ann Doyle and all were admitted to Naas Workhouse in 1854.  Later that year they emigrated to Canada apparently with the assistance of the local Board of Guardians.  Just five years previously 301 pauper emigrants were sent from Ireland to Quebec in Canada under schemes designed to reduce workhouse numbers, followed by a further 136 in 1852 and approximately 130 the following year.  There were also several localised assisted emigrations of individual pauper families and smaller groups.  The journey the Murtagh family took was one familiar to many Irish families who a few years earlier had fled the country to escape the worst horrors of the Famine.  The 1861 Census for Montreal noted the presence of the Murtagh family in that city, minus their son Patrick who was born in Ireland in 1846.

One of the interesting factors which allowed this T.V. programme to be made was the availability of the Naas Workhouse records which like all old records helped throw an interesting insight into Irish life in the 19th century.  When I was invited some years ago to write a history of Athy’s Workhouse the records for that institution were found to have been destroyed.  The pity is that their destruction left an information void which can never be filled.  Many Athy families took the same route as the Murtaghs travelling in the notorious coffin ships and the later much better equipped ships on the North American route.  Many more embarked for the shorter journey to our near neighbour, Britain.  Their stories have for the most part never been told but the Murtagh family TV programme showed what could be gleaned of family history using the records which still exist.

A community’s history encompasses the lives of its people of different generations and in recent weeks Athy has lost several men and women who have graced the local community.  Kathleen Sunderland, I remember when she lived in the 1950s with her family in the Peoples Park Gate Lodge.  The park was then hugely underused and almost by default remained the exclusive reserve of the youngsters from Offaly Street.  So much so that under the leadership of Leopold Kelly we felt empowered to construct a hut in the public park using timbers brought from Flemings Sawmills in Chapel Lane.  Of course it had a short life span when to our disgust the Duke of Leinster’s agent had our prized hut demolished overnight.

Bill Fenelon was in his time a very active member of the local community.  During the 1960s and beyond he joined with other concerned citizens of this town in a successful attempt to revitalise the town’s industrial life.  It was recognised that the future wellbeing of Athy was dependent on securing further industrial employment to bolster the employment offered by existing industries such as the Wallboard, the I.V.I. and the Asbestos Factories.  Land was purchased by the Town Development Association which was founded by Bill Fenelon and his colleagues and the Industrial Development Authority developed on it the very successful Townparks Industrial Estate.  Bill Fenelon made a very worthwhile contribution to the local community and his passing at an advanced age is deeply regretted.

Nora O’Connor, whose funeral Mass last Sunday was marked with wonderful singing by Jacinta O’Donnell, was a well liked member of the staff of Athy Community College.  She was an engaging, sometimes blunt, but always friendly conversationalist whose cheerful greeting to me always prefaced a tease about something or other.  I enjoyed meeting Nora and her passing is a sad loss for her family, friends and school colleagues.  Sympathy is also extended to the families of Bridget Brennan, Tony Byrne, Elizabeth Byrne, Johnny Moore and Joseph Dowling. 

The lives of near neighbours the Murtaghs from West Wicklow who left these shores over 157 years ago have been recreated by judicious use of public records.  How I wonder will future generations recreate the lives of families living in our community today. 

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Athy's Lions Club Barrow Towpath Walk

Athy Lions Club is part of the world’s largest charitable organisation.  It was in 1971 that 20 local men met in the Leinster Arms Hotel to found the local branch of this international organisation and today four of those original foundation members are still actively involved in Athy Lions Club.  Over the years the Club has made substantial contributions to local charities and was involved in the purchase of the former Dreamland dance hall and the building of 10 sheltered housing units at St. Vincent’s Hospital. 

All this work was done without fanfare, yet willingly by men and women who over the years have themselves contributed to the commercial and business life of Athy.  Their voluntary involvement in the work of the Lions Club is an aspect of their community work which is little known or seldom highlighted.

An unusual initiative by the Lions Club is the forthcoming Barrow Towpath Walk Day planned for Sunday 24th July.  Its purpose is to highlight a little used local leisure amenity which started out life over 200 years ago as part of a new transport system.  It was the coming of the Grand Canal to Athy in 1791 which re-invigorated the commercial life of the town which had once enjoyed prosperity far greater than any of its neighbouring towns.

Throughout the 18th century Athy experienced a steady increase in its population, reaching a figure of 2032 by 1798, with 354 houses.  To the principal streets of the town laid out in the early years of Athy’s developments were added in the 19th century the lanes and alleyways which remained a feature of town life up to the time of the Slum Clearance Programmes of the 1930s. 

The Grand Canal joined the Barrow navigation at Athy and the 43 mile stretch of the River Barrow from Athy to St. Mullins in County Carlow had to be provided with several short canal cuts to enable shallow stretches of the river to be bypassed.  In the days when all boats were towed by horses towpaths were provided and it is on the towpath from Athy to Maganey that the walk will take place on 24th July.

A report on improving the navigation of the River Barrow prepared by a William Chapman of Oldtown, Naas dated 9th October 1789 made the following references to Athy.

‘Convenient landing may be made on both sides for the general use of the town and public – on the west side the Millers Island can be formed into an extensive quay and a good communication made with the end of the bridge – on the east side the slip forming the mill course is at present used as a landing place, it is exceedingly inconvenient for taking away anything on carriages – this however may be amended and there is besides good access to the east side of the town by the Church Lane in front of which there is a dry strand where a quay may be built.’

The Church Lane referred to linked Offaly Street with the River Barrow, passing by the side of St. Michael’s Church which was then located behind the Town Hall.  In another contemporary account of the town in the early 1800s the same lane was referred to as ‘rotten lane’.  The quay referred to in the last line of Chapman’s report was built by William Delahunty at the same time as the bridge of Athy and both were completed in 1796. 

The Barrow towpath walk on 24th July will start from the Barrow Quay where Chapman’s report stated was the site of ‘a dry strand’ just a few years before the 1798 Rebellion.

It is intended to be a leisurely walk to give those participating an opportunity to learn of the history of the Barrow navigation and of the various habitats along the way and the animals and plants to be found there.  This is not a fundraising event, it’s a community engagement initiative by Athy Lions Club which is being sponsored by some generous local businesses including Pettit’s SuperValu.  Do come along for the walk on July 24th.

Another community celebration is planned for Thursday, 14th July when members of Athy Musical and Dramatic Society reprise their show ‘Going for a Song’ in the Clanard Court Hotel.  The show which first played to a huge audience a few weeks ago is being repeated to raise funds for two very worthy local causes – Teach Emmanuel and the Alzheimer’s Unit in St. Vincent’s Hospital.  The show will start at 8.00 p.m. under the direction of Sean McGilly and tickets at €10 (concessions €8) can be purchased in The Gem or in Winkles.