Thursday, May 31, 2012

Opening of Scoil Phádraig Naofa and Memories of Athy C.B.S. Athy

Scoil Phádraig Naofa will be officially opened on Monday next, 11th June, by the Minister for Education.  What was once a Christian Brothers boys school is now a co-educational non-denominational school staffed by female and male lay teachers.  Located in new premises at Tomard, the present primary school is a far cry from the primary school I attended so many years ago.

I remember my first day of my new life in the Christian Brothers Primary School in St. John’s Lane.  More precisely I recall some parts of that first day.  For instance I remember lining up with my school pals on the gravel driveway by the side of St. Joseph’s Boy’s School which led to the Sisters of Mercy Convent.  There we awaited the arrival of the Christian Brother who was to lead us through the town centre to our new school in St. John’s Lane.

My other memory of that day is passing my father as he stood on the corner of the L&N shop in Emily Square.  He had obviously waited to see his fourth son in the long line of school boys coming around Carolan’s Corner and passing along Bryan Brothers and Reid Lawlor’s public house before walking over Crom a Boo bridge to reach the Christian Brothers School.  No doubt I was bursting with pride that day as with my school mates with whom I had spent three years with the nuns in St. Joseph’s, we were now going to the ‘big school’.  I can’t remember anything else of that first day in the Christian Brothers Primary School and indeed can recall only snatches of my first and subsequent years in the school. 

Our journey to St. John’s Lane that day in 1949 came just 88 years after three Christian Brothers arrived in Athy to open a single storey two roomed school in the town.  Brother Stanislaus O’Flanagan and Luke Holland were accompanied by lay brother Patrick Sheely.  They arrived by train at the town’s recently opened railway station and were brought by horse carriage to Greenhills House which was to be the Christian Brothers Monastery for the next 140 years or so.

The construction of the school rooms and the refurbishment of Greenhills House, which some years earlier had been donated to the Sisters of Mercy, was the work of a local committee whose secretary, Mark Bealin, operated a bakery business from 2 William Street.  The committee was formed following an invitation extended by the Dublin Archbishop Paul Cullen to the Christian Brothers to open a school in Athy.  Patrick Maher of Kilrush, a generous benefactor to both the Sisters of Mercy, who arrived in Athy 9 years previously, and to the Christian Brothers, made a substantial contribution to the school building cost.  Indeed, when a further Christian Brothers teacher was required owing to the growing number of pupils, Patrick Maher agreed to pay £30 annually for two years towards his maintenance.

The Christian Brothers Primary School opened its doors on 19th August, 1861.  On that day 120 boys were enrolled.  Eight days previously Archbishop Cullen who was born near Ballitore and who had attended the Quaker School in that South Kildare village, celebrated Mass in St. Michael’s Parish Church and introduced the Christian Brothers to the townspeople.  The following morning he celebrated Mass in the new Monastery in Greenhills House and blessed the two schoolrooms.  The numbers attending the school increased year by year, necessitating the building of an extension to the school in 1873.  At the turn of the century an extra storey was added to the original school house and the extension and the famous iron staircase so well remembered by those who attended the Secondary School was put in place.

Brother Stanislaus O’Flanagan, who was the first superior of the Monastery, left Athy in 1867 to open a Christian Brothers School in Monaghan.  Brother Luke Holland left in 1875 to open the first Christian Brothers School in Newfoundland.  About 35 years ago, while browsing in Greene’s book shop in Clare Street Dublin, I came across a leather bound book with the embossed title ‘Deceased Brothers’.  It turned out to be a necrology of the Christian Brother and by a strange coincidence the first entry recorded the death of Brother Luke Holland in Marino Dublin on 8th January 1900.  The same volume also recorded the deaths of another Stanislaus O’Flanagan and Patrick Sheely who had accompanied him to Athy on 11th August 1861.

Scoil Phádraig Naofa is the successor to the Primary School opened by the Christian Brothers in 1861.  Many thousands have passed through the primary education system which first started with the Athy Poor School as it was called in the early part of the 19th century.  We can be proud of the tradition of education in Athy, the foundation for which was laid by lay teachers over 200 years ago.  Subsequently developed by the Sisters of Mercy and the Christian Brothers, the education of the present and future generations continues in that proud tradition.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

James Redmond and Scoil Mhichil Naofa's 'Dissolving Boundaries'

Last week a man, perhaps little known outside his family circle and the people he worked with over many years, was laid to rest in St. Michael’s Cemetery.  James Redmond was typical of many men and women of this and other communities who go through life causing offence to no-one and paying their dues to society by dint of a lifelong commitment to work. 

James was born in Enniscorthy, Co. Wexford to Jim Redmond and Annie Bradley and his mother went on to have a second family with Michael Kane.  Both sides of the family came to live in Athy and it was from there that James emigrated to England in the early 1960s.  It was a time of yet another Irish recession, one which caused huge unemployment and prompted many young and not so young to take the emigrant boat to Britain.  James worked in Manchester and London and returned in 1972 when he joined the Irish Army.  After 6 or 7 years he left the Defence Forces and worked for a few months in the local I.V.I. Foundry before taking up work with Athy Urban District Council.

James was an outdoor worker with the Urban District Council and later Athy Town Council.  He first worked for the Council at a time when the Acting Town Clerk was the legendary Jimmy O’Higgins.  Jimmy regarded James as a dedicated worker who was almost irreplaceable in the work area for which he, James, was responsible.  He was a conscientious worker who took pride in his job and gave of his best during his long time in the employment of the Council.

I well remember the occasion many years ago when I had to call on James for assistance in solving a drainage problem which had defeated the best efforts of engineers and building contractors alike.  The problem was identified and rectified by James in no time, such was his knowledge and experience in dealing with drainage issues.

James married Bridget Foster who predeceased him and he is survived by his son David and daughter Mary, to whom I extend sympathy on their father’s passing.

I was invited during the week to address the children of Scoil Mhichil Naofa who are involved in a cross border project called ‘Dissolving Boundaries’, where the school children from Athy interact with school children from Portstewart in County Derry.  The boundaries referred to in this project were of course those imposed by a territorial boundary which gave us a Northern Ireland State and a Republic of the 26 counties.  The divide is not just a political one, for automatically when we draw contrasts with Northern Ireland we think in terms of Protestant and Catholic. 

It is starting at the level of young people that gives the best hope of dissolving, however slowly, the boundaries which have encrusted attitudes for decades past.  But what about dissolving boundaries at local community level I thought.  The boundaries here are those created and nurtured by neglecting to commit oneself to the local community by failing to participate in the social, cultural and the sporting life of the town.  This to me is a boundary division which could in time stultify the local community. 

There is always a need for commercial and social interests in the town to come together and work for the future of Athy.  Our town is on the cusp of a wonderful opportunity to develop commercially if the announcements made recently about the building of the outer relief road in 4 years time prove to be true.  Lets hope that the newly reorganised Chamber of Commerce and the Town Council can keep in step with each other as the town seeks to maximise the benefits of moving all through traffic, including heavy goods vehicles, away from the centre of the town. 

There are tremendous opportunities ahead for planning wisely and well for the future of Athy and now is the time to start that process.  It was a lack of proper planning in the past which caused so many men and women who over the years like James Redmond had to leave Athy to achieve the self respect and personal independence that comes with employment.  If we plan properly for the future we should be able to protect existing employment and create new jobs in this part of the county.

James Redmond embraced work and his work ethic reminded me of the lines of Elizabeth Cooke, the self educated poet of the 19th century who celebrated work and workers with these words:- 

‘Hold up your brow in honest pride,
Though rough and dark your hands may be,
Such hands are sap - veins that provide,
The life blood of the nation’s tree’. 

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Sr. Peig Rice and the Sisters of Mercy

The haunting Latin verse, Salve Regina, filled the still air as we stood by the grave of Sr. Peig Rice.  Wednesday afternoon of a mid May day saw her family relations, her community sisters and local townspeople come together to remember yet another Sister of Mercy who had passed from us.  The remaining elderly Sisters of Mercy who once championed the cause of education and nursed the sick and ageing in Athy stood or sat by the graveside of their departed sister as they raised their voices to the heavens.

‘Salve, Regina, mater misericordiae:
Vita, dulcedo, et spes nostra, salve.
Ad te clamamus, exsules, filii Hevae.
Ad te suspiramus, gementes et flentes
in hac lacrimarum valle.
Eia ergo, Advocata nostra,
illos tuos misericordes oculos
ad nos converte.
Et Iesum, benedictum fructum ventris tui,
nobis, post hos exsilium ostende.
O clemens: O pia: O dulcis
Virgo Maria.’

Those same words have been sung on countless occasions since the first member of the Sisters of Mercy congregation in Athy died in 1866.  She was a young postulant who had entered the convent with her two sisters on 8th November 1865.  As the new community, founded just 14 years previously, had no cemetery she was buried in Barrowhouse graveyard.  Sadly, one of her own sisters who had entered the convent with her died a year later and she was buried in the garden of the Sisters of Mercy convent.  The remains of the young postulant were exhumed from the Barrowhouse cemetery and placed beside those of her sister.  The two Ryan sisters were the first burials from amongst the many Sisters of Mercy who graced the corridors of Athy Convent of Mercy over the years.

Sister Peig Rice entered Athy’s Convent of Mercy on 23rd September 1958.  She was received during Easter week and being proud of her Kilkenny background received the name of the Kilkenny patron saint, St. Canice.  She later reverted to using the name Sr. Peig.  It was not very common for 23 year olds to enter convents in those days but Peig Rice had spent some time in St. Martha’s in Navan training to be a poultry instructress, where she enjoyed the companionship of fellow students, some of whom attended her funeral on Wednesday.  I believe Peig may have decided to forego poultry instructing for the more demanding and rewarding role of a nurse.  Trained in the Mater Hospital Dublin she would later spend a year in St. Finbarr’s Hospital in Cork from where she obtained her CMB before returning to St. Vincent’s Hospital, Athy on 1st July 1962.  There she worked under the then Matron, Sr. Dominic, whom she would replace on Sr. Dominic’s retirement in March 1981. 

The Sisters of Mercy first took charge of the Workhouse Hospital in Athy on 24th October 1873 when three sisters from the local Convent came to live in a small building provided for them which they called St. Vincent’s.  The Matron of the Union was still a lay person, the position being held in 1873 by Miss Lindsay.  When the Union Hospital became a County Home on 1st May 1922 Sr. Angela Devereux became Matron and the entire complex was renamed St. Vincent’s.  Following Sr. Angela’s death in 1943 Sr. Vincent Lalor was appointed Matron, a position she held for the next 14 years.  Sr. Dominic was Matron from 1957 to 1981 when Sr. Peig Rice took over the onerous position.  Sr. Peig retired as Matron in December 1996 and involved herself in the local Care of the Elderly Committee and in developing the Alzheimer’s unit in the hospital.

The funeral mass for Sr. Peig was a celebration of thanksgiving for her life, which like her sisters in religion was spent in the service of others.  I am always reminded on the passing of a Sister of Mercy of how the teaching ministry of that Order empowered young Irish women to take charge of their lives and gave them a new vision of their roles in Irish society.  In the same way the caring and nursing ministry which formed a large part of Sr. Peig’s life in the Sisters of Mercy benefitted several generations from Athy and those parts of County Kildare served by St. Vincent’s Hospital.

The contribution of the Sisters of Mercy to the social fabric of our local community cannot be overestimated and the passing of a respected sister such as Sr. Peig brings sharply into focus how much we as a community are indebted to the followers of the Venerable Catherine McAuley who first came to Athy 160 years ago.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

The Great Famine and Athy

In one day in August 1847 soup kitchens set up to alleviate starvation in the Athy Poor Law Union area during the Great Famine supplied food to over 16,000 persons.  This represented slightly more than one third of the population of the area.  The highest dependency on the soup kitchens was in the Ballyadams electoral area where almost 100% of the local population were in receipt of the daily rations which consisted of either bread or meal or one quart of soup, with six ounces of bread.  In the Athy electoral area more than 3,000 hungry individuals representing 22% of the population received food at the town’s soup kitchen.  These figures are a shocking reminder of the poverty and deprivation which was prevalent during the Great Famine in this part of a county which was generally believed to have avoided the worst excesses of that awful time.

Another part of the Famine story insofar as it relates to the town of Athy and the surrounding countryside is to be found in the history of Athy Workhouse.  Athy for so long a frontier town on the borders of the Pale was fortunate to be chosen as the location for one of the 130 workhouses which were built throughout Ireland following the passing of the Irish Poor Relief Act of 1838.  The Act established Poor Law Guardians who were empowered to provide pauper relief in Workhouses.  Athy’s Workhouse, which was built to accommodate 360 adults and 240 children, was opened on 9th January 1844.

Potato blight made its appearance in September of the following year and this soon led to a gradual but rapid increase in the numbers entering the local Workhouse.  The construction of the Great Southern and Western Railway line through Athy to Carlow gave much needed employment in this area during 1845 and into 1846 and so helped to alleviate for a time some of the more damaging effects of the potato crop failure.  The opening of the railway line on 4th August 1846 brought an end to this work and many hundreds of local labourers found themselves without the safeguard of a guaranteed weekly wage.

The continuing failure of the potato crop in 1846 brought further hardship which was reflected in the hugely increased business recorded by Athy’s two pawnbrokers.  Families hard hit by unemployment and food price increases which followed the potato failure were forced to resort to local pawnbrokers to finance day to day living.  However, in many cases the battle for survival outside the Workhouse was soon lost and many had no option but to become inmates of Athy’s Workhouse.

For a time poor relief could only be obtained by entering the Workhouse and on entry families were separated, men from their wives and children from their parents.  Throughout 1846 the numbers entering Athy Workhouse exceeded the capacity of the newly built institution and so two additional temporary workhouses had to be provided at Barrack Street and in a Canal company building at Nelson Street.

At the height of the famine the Athy Workhouses accommodated 1,528 men, women and children at a time when the town’s population was approximately 4,000 persons.  Adding to the problems of the local people was a cholera outbreak which was first recorded in Belfast in December 1848 and which claimed its first Athy victim on 25th July of the following year.  Just as the 1849 harvest was confirming the ending of potato blight, cholera was claiming victims in Athy’s newly built Fever Hospital and the Workhouse.  The Census figures for 1841 and 1851 indicate that more than 1,200 poor persons died in Athy’s Workhouse during the years of the Great Famine.  These unfortunates were buried in St. Mary’s Cemetery across the Grand Canal from the Workhouse.  The town’s population showed a notional decrease of over 1,000 persons during the 1840s.  How much of that population loss was accounted for by death or emigration I cannot calculate but starvation or disease was in time of famine a cause of death for many, even outside the Workhouse.

Last Sunday was designated as Ireland’s Famine Commemoration Day and St. Mary’s Cemetery, Athy was the venue for a Mass to remember the people of this area who died of starvation and/or disease over 165 years ago.  The celebration of a Mass in St. Mary’s Cemetery was, I believe, the first occasion that the Workhouse dead were remembered in this way in the place where they have lain undisturbed and forgotten for decades. 

It is hoped that this will be an annual event to keep alive our understanding of the inhumanity of that part of our past history.