Thursday, April 26, 2012

Athy's Architectural Heritage

Architecturally Athy is an interesting example of an Irish provincial town which owes its post medieval development to its role as a market town.  The town centre square laid out in the early 1700s was the important start of that development, creating as it did what was known as ‘the Market Square’.  Here it was that the commercial side of local farming was centered and was to be for another 250 years or more.  To the Market Square of the settler’s town of Athy came the cattle jobbers and buyers with farmers and food producers, all anxious to buy or sell.  The town which had last seen war during the Confederate period of the 1640s was then enjoying an extended peace which prompted the redevelopment of the town centre.

The buildings now lying in Emily Square are mostly of the 19th century, with evidence of 18th century buildings in the Town Hall and the entrance to what was the town Shambles.  The Shambles was the town’s meat market, with stalls lining both sides of the short laneway which was entranced through the archway between present day Andersons and the Emigrant pub. 

The Courthouse building in what we now call the ‘Back Square’ is an unusual building, standing alone at the edge of Emily Square and backing on to the River Barrow.  Curved gables with tall granite chimney stacks and arched colonnades on both sides of the building allow the Courthouse to present an almost exotic backdrop to the local urban landscape.  I have often wondered about the relevance of the stone finials rising high above the roof of the Courthouse.  Built at the expense of the Duke of Leinster in 1852, were they I wonder symbols associated with the Free Masons of which the Duke was Grand Master.  However, my research has failed to show any connection with any known Masonic symbols.

As one might expect of a provincial urban settlement, and an Irish one at that, the remaining buildings of architectural merit in the town are by and large public buildings.  The Town Hall, the Courthouse, the former Workhouse and the Model School (before its recent destruction) are all fine buildings, with an architectural provenance which is impressive.

Frederick Darling, one of the founders of the Royal Institute of Architects of Ireland, is believed to have designed both the Model School and the Courthouse.  The Workhouse building, now St. Vincent’s Hospital, was the work of George Wilkinson who oversaw the building of the Irish Workhouses in the years immediately preceding the Great Famine.

The Town Hall, much added to and altered since it was first built in the 1720s, may have been designed by Richard Cassels.  He designed Carton House Maynooth and Leinster House Dublin for the Duke of Leinster and while no documentary proof exists to confirm his involvement with Athy’s Town Hall, it is more than likely that he did design the building for his patron, the Duke of Leinster.

The earlier mentioned Frederick Darling was the Architect responsible for St. Michael’s Church on the Carlow Road and the Presbyterian Church and Manse on the Dublin Road.  Churches are a dominant feature of Athy’s landscape, with church buildings located on four of the major approach roads to the town.  Not included amongst these is Athy’s most exciting modern building – the Dominican Church off Convent Lane.  Its extraordinary roofline and dramatic interior gives us one of the best examples of modern Irish church architecture.

Our two St. Michael’s Churches, one erected in 1840, the other 124 years later, provide an interesting contrast.  Facing eastwards for worship is a traditional practice in the Christian world and the longitudinal axis of most churches is therefore west – east, with entrances on the west side and altars on the east.  The Dominican Church and St. Michael’s Church of Ireland both diverge from this tradition.  In the case of St. Michael’s it is clear that limitations on the site donated by the Duke of Leinster and the need to have the entrance adjoin the roadway caused the altar to be placed on the west side of the church.  No such restrictions applied to St. Dominic’s so placing the altar of that church on what would appear to be a southwest orientation was a break with church tradition.  However, I recall that the previous Dominican Church on the same site had its altar facing north.  I wonder why this was?

Everywhere one looks carefully around the town can be seen interesting remains of a building heritage which has been accumulated over many years.  It is not just the buildings such as those mentioned in this article which make up this built heritage.  It includes the work of craftsmen now long gone which can be seen in the jostle stones, the archways and the many other examples of fine craftwork which adorn the public and vernacular buildings of our town.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Frank O'Brien

He was born just days after Rory O’Connor led anti-treaty forces in occupying the Four Courts in Dublin.  That action was the start of the Irish Civil War.  For someone born in turbulent times Frank O’Brien possesses none of the characteristics of a combatitive man.  He is always the genial host presiding over his emporium with calmness and a courtesy which speaks of old world charm and manners.

Frank will be 90 years of age on 22nd April.  When you mention the name of Frank O’Brien the talk must be of Athy.  When you mention Athy the name Frank O’Brien comes to the fore.  Both are synonymous, not just because Frank has spent a long lifetime working out of what was his father’s and his grandfather’s grocery cum public house in the centre of the town.  Rather it is the more than obvious pride in his home town, a pride which is apparent even to those whose passing glances might catch the altered Sweet Afton signs at the top of the O’Brien shop windows. 

Not a local event goes unnoticed in the O’Brien household but is announced with pride and no little panache by the deft use of handmade posters and other paper memorabilia displayed in the windows facing out onto Emily Square. 

Many have described Frank as a historian, something he would never claim for himself.  His memories are the stuff which historians mine, culling from 90 years of local experience and knowledge the stories, the family histories and the connections which go to make up a community’s past.

I have lost count of the number of times I have turned to Frank O’Brien to unravel for me some local mystery.  What to me was a mystery was to Frank O’Brien a matter of detail which he could extract from a memory going back decades before my time.  He is a repository of local knowledge, carefully stored and shaped, ready to be retrieved and made available to anyone who appreciates and values the importance of local knowledge. 

I have known Frank for many years and until more recent years did not appreciate his worth, his value to a community which is still emerging crab like from a past shaped by historic allegiances and connections.  The garrison town description is one which I and my classmates were familiar with when a particular Christian Brother wished to express his annoyance with the young fellows from Athy. 

The emergence of a noticeable community spirit amongst the townspeople of Athy was signalled with the Church building campaign of the 1950s and the subsequent swimming pool funding appeal.  Many other projects have come and gone since those days but an important touchstone for all of them was the willingness of people like Frank O’Brien to metaphorically carry the flag for Athy. 

Pride of place is the hallmark of Frank O’Brien’s contribution to the local community.  We look to Frank’s shop windows at any time of the year to see a positive message, spelling out all that is best and all that is of value in our community. 

At 90 years of age Frank has achieved a wonderful stage in his life and can look back with satisfaction and pride at his contribution to his local community.  All of us can contribute in so many different ways to the life of our community.  Frank O’Brien’s contribution is one of encouragement, one of acknowledgement and one of singular pride in the town of his birth.

It is 138 years since the O’Brien name first appeared over the door of the grocery and spirit merchants shop in Emily Square.  Frank’s grandfather Stephen O’Brien, a Kilkenny man, bought the business from James Leahy, a member of Athy’s Town Commissioners who was elected a Member of Parliament for South Kildare in 1880.  When Stephen O’Brien died in 1919 at the age of 76 years the business was taken over by Frank’s father Francis O’Brien.  Frank has been the owner and proprietor of O’Briens since 1970.

The three storey three bay building which houses Athy’s only remaining bar and grocery business has an excellent shop front, with heavily engaged columns.  It is a landmark building in the town in much the same way as Frank O’Brien himself is an iconic figure in the social landscape of Athy. 

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Helen Corr and Bruce Ismay - Titanic survivors

At 11.40 p.m. on 14th April 1912 the Titanic, the world’s largest passenger ship, struck an iceberg while on its maiden voyage to New York.  Two hours and forty minutes later the gigantic ship, which was believed to be unsinkable, plunged to the bottom of the Atlantic.  More than 1500 persons lost their lives that night.  Amongst the 705 survivors was Helen Corr, a third class passenger.

Helen was just 16 years of age when she embarked at Queenstown, now Cobh, on the emigrant trail to America.  Her younger sister Theresa was the wife of my father’s younger brother Frank Taaffe from Legga, Moyne, Co. Longford.  Our branch of the Taaffe family has lived in that part of North County Longford for generations.  I never met my Aunt’s sister Helen who having escaped from the sinking Titanic lived out her long life in New York.  She died in 1980, just a year before I made my first transatlantic trip to the United States.

I am told that in common with most other survivors of that awful night, she never spoke of her experiences on the Titanic.  If questioned she merely confined herself to explaining that she was saved because she walked from the third class passenger area to the first class passengers deck.  How or why she did this was never explained, nor did she ever give any further details of the events of that night. 

She was accommodated with some second and many other third class female passengers in Lifeboat No. 16 which was lowered from the port side of the Titanic almost an hour and a half after the Titanic struck the iceberg.  It was one of the few lifeboats still available, ten having already departed, many with spare capacity and none of them carrying third class passengers.  Lifeboats 16 and 13 which were launched at approximately the same time carried a full complement of mostly third class female passengers.  They were amongst the last lifeboats to be launched.  Amongst those in these lifeboats were a high percentage of girls from County Longford and Cavan, many of whom had shared third class cabins.  These included Katie Connolly, the McCoy sisters Agnes and Alice, Mary McGovern, Katie Mullen, Kate Kilnagh, the Murphy sisters Margaret and Kate, Julia Smith, as well as Helen Corr.  The Murphy sisters and Katie Mullen shared a cabin, as did Mary McGovern, Julia Smith and Mary Glynn from County Clare.  They were among the 40 third class Irish passengers who survived.  73 Irish third class passengers died that night. 

Evidence before the American and British enquiries spoke of third class passengers not being allowed to come up on deck while the lifeboats were being launched.  Reference was also made to gates blocking the third class passengers but obviously the Longford girls made their way to the lifeboat decks in a group.  Theirs, I believe, was the group of third class passengers which one sympathetic steward had led to the lifeboats, as was later reported to the Titanic enquiry. 

Most of the Titanic’s 1,523 victims were never found.  Of the 328 bodies recovered after the Titanic sank 118 remained unidentified.  A total of 150 bodies were brought to Halifax, Nova Scotia and buried there, while 59 bodies were taken elsewhere for burial.  Another 119 bodies taken from the water were later reburied at sea.

I believe that Helen Corr never returned to Ireland, but married an Irishman Patrick Sweeney in 1922.  Tragically her husband died in 1928 following a railway accident and the Titanic survivor who had no children never re-married.  She sponsored no less than five members of the Longford Taaffes to go to America in the 1940s and the 1950s and three of them married and remained in New York. 

Another survivor of that night was Bruce Ismay, the chairman of the White Star Line which owned the Titanic.  He escaped from the sinking ship in circumstances which remain controversial even to this day.  The ship’s officers in filling the lifeboats gave priority to women and children and many stories were subsequently told of heroic behaviour by some of the men on the Titanic who met certain death with grim courage.  Not so Ismay who left in one of the first lifeboats to be lowered from the Titanic.  The American Enquiry which started the day after the survivors reached New York was particularly scathing of Ismay.  He subsequently resigned as Chairman of the White Star Line. 

Following his retirement Bruce Ismay bought Costello Lodge and Fishery in Connemara and lived there on and off until his death in 1936.  His next door neighbour was my father-in-law John Spellman who managed the nearby Fermoyle Fishery and I often heard him talk of the quiet man who survived the Titanic and lived in virtual isolation in neighbouring Costello Lodge.  The Connemara people knew of the ignominy which attached to Ismay, but nevertheless they spoke not unkindly of the man whose wife was extremely good to the poor of the locality. 

On 15th April at 2.20 a.m. a bell will be tolled in St. Patrick’s Church, Lahardane, Co. Mayo to commemorate the 11 parishioners from the small Mayo parish who died when the Titanic sank.  14 persons from the parish, 3 men and 11 women, boarded the Titanic at Queenstown on 11th April 1912.  Lahardane is today known as ‘Ireland’s Titanic village’ and it is there that the unspeakable tragedy that was the loss of so many lives on the night of 15th April 1912 is remembered each year.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Cuan Mhuire Drug Treatment Centre

On Thursday night I attended a seminar in Athy’s Art Centre on drugs and alcohol addiction.  In the 140 years since it was built the Centre, which doubles as the Methodist Church on Sundays, can hardly ever have hosted a more important gathering.  Young people were to the fore as the Chairman of the Joint Policing Committee, Councillor James Mahon, introduced the speakers.

One such speaker, a young man, now a volunteer in Athy’s Cuan Mhuire, introduced himself as a recovering heroin addict and an alcoholic.  He spoke eloquently and movingly of his life as an addict and how he had managed to turn his life around while a resident in Cuan Mhuire.  It was an inspiring address which received a well deserved round of applause from the audience which filled the 100 seater auditorium.  Listening to the young man, whose name regrettably I omitted to note, I thought of the difficulties presented to the founder of Cuan Mhuire after she had opened the Centre in Athy.  Sister Consilio’s story is well known and has been chronicled in the past by several writers.  What may not be so well known or remembered are the difficulties presented for Sr. Consilio and her team of volunteers when some of the civic leaders of Athy raised objections to her drug rehabilitation centre in the town.  I recall members of Athy Urban District Council expressing fears as to the consequences of having a drug treatment unit in Cuan Mhuire, which the more pessimistic of them felt would inevitably draw ‘a bad rough crowd to the South Kildare town’.  Indeed the concerns expressed found voice also amongst many townspeople.  Those fears proved in the long term to be unfounded, even though there was a period in the Centre’s early life when the business of the local District Court devoted an inordinate amount of time to persons associated, rightly or wrongly, with Cuan Mhuire.

Cuan Mhuire today provides residential detoxification and treatment for alcohol, drugs and other addictions.  The Athy Centre, founded in 1966, was the first Cuan Mhuire in Ireland.  Today there are Cuan Mhuire treatment centres in Bruree, Co. Limerick, Coolarne, Co. Galway, Farnanes, Co. Cork and Newry Town.  There are also a number of after care centres providing facilities for addicts in recovery and their families.  Seven of these centres are located in counties Tipperary, Monaghan, Limerick, Kerry, Galway, Cork and Dublin.  To complete the treatment programme residential transition houses are available to allow former Cuan Mhuire residents to live independently until they can secure their own accommodation.  Five such houses are located throughout Ireland. 

The open door policy practiced by Cuan Mhuire provides a unique treatment programme for approximately 3,000 persons every year.  It is a venture which was first started by Sr. Consilio of the Sisters of Mercy in a disused building attached to the Mercy Convent in Athy.  As a member of the Mercy congregation Sister Consilio received support and assistance from the members of her local convent and from her Sisters of Mercy superiors.  The continued success of the Cuan Mhuire venture, which is now the country’s largest multi site addiction treatment provider, is further proof of the outstanding work by members of the Sisters of Mercy since the congregation’s foundation in 1831.

The seminar in the Arts Centre brought home to me the extraordinary achievements of Sr. Consilio and her team of volunteers over the last 46 years.  It was the unscripted talk given by the young recovering heroin addict which awakened in me the realisation that Cuan Mhuire has proved to be a wonderful example of what can be achieved by determination and an unwillingness to accept failure.  Sr. Consilio and the young man who spoke in the Arts Centre last Thursday evening should be an inspiration for us all. 

Congratulations to everyone involved in organising the seminar and staffing the various stands which offered material on community based services for those afflicted by addiction or otherwise troubled in their lives.  It was an excellently organised and well attended function, no doubt thanks to the hard work of the Rapid organisation, Sergeant Tom Harte of the local Garda Station and the Joint Policing Committee  chaired by Councillor William Mahon.

Athy Heritage Centre will be the venue for a lecture entitled ‘Titanic – Kildare Connections’ by the author James Durney on Tuesday, 10th April at 7.30 p.m.  I understand there is no admission fee.  The lecture is being held in conjunction with the exhibition presently in the Heritage Centre on ‘Athy in 1912’, the year that the world’s most luxurious liner sank on its maiden voyage.