Thursday, January 26, 2012

Mary 'Dolly' Phillips

Up to recent years Mary Phillips, known to all as ‘Dolly’, was regularly to be seen cycling from her home in Smallford into Athy to do her weekly shopping.  It’s a journey she made times beyond counting, but now that she has reached the venerable age of 90 years the bicycle has been put aside.  This week Dolly celebrated her four score and ten birthday with a family celebration in the Hunting Ground restaurant.

I have known Dolly for the last 25 years or so, ever since her son Dick joined me in what then appeared to be the insurmountable task of rescuing from decades of neglect the garden attached to my house in Ardreigh.  That same garden, once tended with care by the Haughtons and later by the Hannon family, fell into a state of semi wilderness during the residency of widower, the well remembered Mr. Verscoyle.  It was a condition which developed into a more permanent state with the conversion of the house into flats, which remained for 25 years or more.  It was Dolly’s son Dick who initially embarked on the gigantic task of cutting back the unrestricted growth of several decades.  During that time and since I met Dolly on many occasions and I have never failed to be impressed by her irrepressible energy and cheerful manner.

In many ways she reminds me of my own mother.  Both lived through difficult times and reared families, each having five children, in households where the mother had an enormous influence.  The traditional skills of sewing, knitting and darning were well known to both mothers and both had to constantly exercise those skills over many years when young children were growing up. 

Dolly came of an old Athy family and it was as Mary Kelly that she married local man John Phillips in 1942.  John, known as ‘Jack’ worked for local farmers Tierneys of Belview and would later work in the Wallboard factory on the Monasterevin Road when it opened in 1947.  That factory was the first industry to be located in Athy in almost two decades following the opening of the Asbestos Factory in 1936.  Both factories provided enormous employment opportunities in South Kildare during the dark economic days of the 1950s.  Sadly the Bowaters owned factory closed in 1978 and even before then Dolly’s husband, who suffered from ill health, had retired six years previously.   Jack Phillips died in 1980.

Dolly and Jack had five children, John, Dick, Martin, Mary and Rose and it was with her children, her 13 grand children and 6 great grand children and friends that Dolly celebrated her 90th birthday in the Hunting Ground last week.  Congratulations to the happy nonagenarian. 

Some time ago I posed the question of what 25 objects could be identified to best illustrate the history of Athy.  I have had several responses to that article, including two from former residents of the town who are now living in Australia.  Mick Robinson, a former classmate of mine from the Christian Brothers School in St. John’s Lane suggested, among other objects, ‘Bob Webster’s Old Cinema’, ‘the line’, ‘Bapty Mahers’ and the ‘CYMS’.  Interestingly Mike, who understandably also includes our local hospital in that list, still refers to it as ‘the County Home’.  It’s a long time since I heard it called by that name.  It was the name we all once used and the name which struck fear into the hearts of an older generation who always lived under the perceived threat of spending their old age in the County Home.  This was the 1950s and before, when folk memories of the Workhouse were still very much to the fore.  The pre famine building was and is still part of the building fabric of the town, but thankfully the stigma of the Workhouse and the much feared connotations of life in the County Home have long disappeared.

Incidentally the Famine National Commemoration Day will take place next May and it is intended to mark the occasion here in Athy with a ceremony of remembrance in St. Mary’s Cemetery where it is believed that the Athy Workhouse victims of the Great Famine were buried.  More about this at a later date.

Many thanks to Mick Robinson and all the others who have contacted me with suggestions as to the most relevant 25 objects to reflect the story of our town.  If you have any suggestions in that regard why not let me have them before the end of January as I propose to consider all objects put forward for inclusion in an article soon thereafter.

Again best wishes to Dolly Phillips on her 90th birthday.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Athy's Town Hall

A group of 45 national and regional tourist guides arrived in Athy on Thursday to visit the local Heritage Centre and I took the opportunity of briefly outlining the town’s history to them.  Their interest in the Town Hall, that monumental public building dividing the town squares, was a pleasant surprise and made me appreciate yet again the public support which saved the building from destruction in the early 1970s. 

Denis Cogan, the former county architect for Kildare, writing in the Kildare Archaeological Society Journal of 1991 suggested that Athy’s Town Hall may have been the first of the Palladian style civic buildings to be built in Ireland.  The original Town Hall was built in the third or fourth decade of the 18th century.  Bishop Pococke on his tour of Ireland in 1752 made reference to the ‘new market house in Athy’, which reference would tend to support the suggested building period.

Rocques map of Athy, prepared for the Duke of Leinster four years after Pococke’s visit to the town, shows a T shaped building which Denis Cogan believes was an open cross vaulted market house on the ground floor, with a Courtroom and assembly rooms overhead.

Nicholas Sheaff, Director of the Irish Architectural Archives, prepared a brief architectural history of the Town Hall in 1984.  In his report he stated his belief that the square in front of the Town Hall was in all likelihood laid out at the same time as its construction, with the Town Hall designed as the architectural focus.  The style of the building reflected, according to Sheaff, a sophisticated Palladian classicism on the part of the designer suggesting the design came from the offices of Richard Castle or Cassels, the leading Irish Palladian architect of the early 18th century.

The Town Hall has been much altered over the years, with extension both to the front and rear of the original building.  The mid 19th century extension to the front of the building was the most important and consisted of rubble masonary walls with tooled limestone stringcourse.  It was then that the two stone carved plaques representing Justice intertwined with the symbols of Ireland and England were inserted in the walls of the Town Hall.  Cogan believes that this extension was made to improve the existing Courtroom facilities.

I had always believed that the side room on the first floor of the west side of the building where the wooden frieze and canopy with the wall niche was once located indicated the original Courtroom, but Sheaff thought otherwise.  He claimed that the canopy was more likely than not installed by the local freemasons who probably held their meetings in that room.

In 1913 further alterations were made to the Town Hall when the earlier extensions to the front of the building were raised by a story, as was the 18th century centre section, making the entire facade three stories high.

The much altered building was again the subject of building work when in 1969 the central part of the ground floor was adopted for use as a fire station.  With the building of the new Town Council offices at Rathstewart in 1985 the Town Hall became vacant and fell into a derelict state.  Kildare County Council, which had earlier purchased the property from the Duke of Leinster, subsequently restored the building under an Anco Training Scheme which was completed in May 1990.

The oldest element of the Town Hall is the bell which was originally hung from a frame which stood on the roof of the two storey centre section before it was heightened in the mid 18th century.  The bell came from the Church of England Parish Church which stood in the rear square behind the Town Hall before it was demolished following the building of St. Michael’s Church at the top of Offaly Street in 1840.  The bell is marked with the date 1682.

The Building which in its time has housed a market place, a Courthouse, the Freemasons meeting place, assembly rooms, a ballroom cum theatre, a clothes factory, a fire station, Urban Council offices and various caretakers families is now home to Athy’s public library and the town’s Heritage Centre.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

History of Athy in 25 objects

‘History of the World in One Hundred Objects’ was the title of a recent bestselling book which enlivened the retelling of history in an interesting and novel way.  It soon gave way to a series currently running in the Irish Times of the ‘History of Ireland in One Hundred Objects’, the objects in this case being artefacts to be found in the National Museum.  I wasn’t surprised therefore to be presented recently with a challenge by my eldest son Seamus to write of the History of Athy by reference to a limited number of objects.  It struck me that if 100 objects were sufficient to deal with world history, or indeed the history of Ireland, then surely the history of our relatively small urban settlement on the banks of the river Barrow could be more than adequately covered by say twenty five objects.  And so having arbitrarily set this figure of twenty five as the appropriate one for telling the story of Athy I set about identifying the objects which would be the best vehicles to carry the text of a town’s history from foundation to modern times. 

Firstly, the word ‘object’ would have to be defined and its dictionary definition ‘a material thing that can be seen or touched’ more than adequately met my requirements, it allows me to utilise buildings and documents or artefacts as visual props to highlight aspects of the town’s history.  Now the difficult part of the task facing me was identifying the twenty five objects which of necessity must have a connection with Athy and its people.  The period to be covered stretched back eight hundred years to the time of the foundation of the village of Athy and even further if one was to relate the story of the river crossing which was the forerunner of the first settlement.

Perhaps the easiest part of the task would be identifying local buildings, existing or in ruins.  The compiling of a list of possible inclusions in the final twenty five objects must, of course, give us many entries later to be discarded.  So the initial list of objects should be far wider than the final twenty five and so in terms of  buildings, I could include several such as Woodstock Castle, White’s Castle, Crom-a-Boo Bridge, St. Vincent’s Hospital etc. 

There are many more buildings or parts thereof which could or perhaps should be included and I await readers suggestions as to further inclusions.

Identifying suitable ‘material things which can be seen or touched’ is likely to pose greater problems than that posed by the identifying of appropriate buildings.  One such object which came to my notice within the past few weeks was a document which issued following the laying of the cornerstone of Athy’s Jail on the Carlow Road by the Duke of Leinster on the 20th day of June 1826.  It was returned to Athy from Australia and added significantly to what I already knew about the Town Jail which was opened in 1830. 

Other documents appropriate for inclusion in the list of twenty five are the pamphlets published in the 1640s concerning Ireland’s involvement in the English Civil War.  First amongst those pamphlets is one printed in London in 1641 which as the title page states was ‘Sent into England by Mr. Hierome, Minister of God at Athigh in Ireland’. The eight page pamphlet includes a pictorial depiction of ‘Athigh’ surrounded by town walls and in the background a Church.

But the objects to be chosen for the list while having to be historically significant do not have to be rare or indeed immeasurable in terms of cost.  For instance, World War 1 death plaques of which over two hundred were received in homes in the South Kildare area must, I feel, be one of the final twenty five chosen objects.  It would allow the story of the 1914-1918 War to be told and how that war impacted on Athy and district.

There are so many other objects for consideration and inclusion in the final list of the twenty five that it would seem appropriate to seek the assistance of everyone interested in history to help compile that list.

Let me have your suggestions as to objects which bearing in mind the definition should be included in the list of twenty five objects to tell the story of the Town of Athy.  Give me a list of any number of objects and all suggestions received before the end of January will be included in a future article before the twenty five final objects are chosen and are written about.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Photos Leinster Arms Hotel Yard / Athy Carnival Scene

Photographs help to create long lost memories and preserve views of the past.  The photographs with this week’s Eye confirm this, as well as being an eloquent statement of the importance of photographs in recording places, events and people of yesteryear.

The first photograph shows the garage and yard belonging to the Leinster Arms Hotel which in the days before motor cars were stables for visitor’s horses and carriages.  The substantial complex was located in Leinster Street directly opposite the hotel and the present Baronessa Shop occupies what was the front portion of the yard.  In the background can be seen the top of the malting kiln forming part of the maltings which fronted onto Stanhope Street.  I cannot recall if the row of houses on the right hand side of the hotel yard were occupied by hotel staff or tenanted by local families.  Perhaps someone will be able to help me answer that question. 

The second photograph shows a group of locals standing around what we all knew as ‘swing boats’.  That simple popular entertainment was one of the main stays of the annual carnivals which were an important part of community leisure and entertainment up to recent decades.  I recognise a number of those photographed but will hold back identifying any of them to give my readers an opportunity to do so.  Let me know if you can identify anyone in the photograph and the year of the carnival and where it was held.  There are a number of possible locations including the field next to the Dominican Church, the Fairgreen, the People’s Park and Geraldine Park.