Thursday, October 25, 2012

Athy's Hidden Gems and Forgotten People

In last week’s article I mentioned the ‘Hidden Gems & Forgotten People’ project which is shortly to be officially launched by the Federation of Local History Societies of Ireland and the Ulster Federation of Local Studies.  Both bodies operating from different parts of our island are national organisations catering for local history societies.  The Ulster Federation and its sister Federation in the south has in the past cooperated on a number of historical projects, most recently being the digitisation of photographs taken as part of ‘Our Place’ project.  This was a photographic study of modern Ireland using the Lawrence photographs of 100 years ago as the comparative basis to show Ireland then and now.  The results are on the National Library network for all to view.

The ‘Hidden Gems’ project is one which allows local history societies and individuals alike to bring to local and national attention interesting but lesser known places and those forgotten people whose personality and past achievements merit being remembered today.  The almost 150 member societies of the Federation of Local History Societies of Ireland are participating in the Project which has been up and running on a trial basis for the past few months.  The initial results can be viewed on the website  Anyone with an interest in participating in the project is invited to submit suitable material to Larry Breen who is managing the project on behalf of the Federation.  He can be contacted at 8 The Paddocks, Naas, Co. Kildare or by E-mail at  Written submissions should not exceed 500 words and should be accompanied by a photograph or sketch.

Submissions were made for Athy and inevitably they included the man whom I regard as epitomizing much that was best in the world of 19th century Ireland.  Rev. Thomas Kelly of Ballintubbert is a prime example of the‘Forgotten People’ who in their time made a very real contribution to Irish life.  He established his own breakaway group from the Anglican Church and for over 50 years headed up the ‘Kellyites’.  As a native of Ballintubbert it was inevitable that when he opened churches for his followers Athy was chosen as well as Portarlington, Waterford and Dublin.  Kelly is perhaps best known today for his extensive contribution to church hymnology than for his leadership of the Kellyite congregations which faded away soon after his death in 1856.  Thomas Kelly is buried in the churchyard of Ballintubbert Church. 

Another Athy man included in the developing ‘Hidden Gems & Forgotten People’  portfolio is Patrick O’Kelly of Kilcoo whose book ‘1798 Rebellion’ gave us a detailed account of events in this area during the ‘Year of Rebellion’.  Kelly was the author of a number of books, all of which were published in Dublin prior to his death in 1851.  However, he is largely forgotten today and it is principally through his now rare ’98 book that he is remembered by serious students of Irish history.

The former Quaker meeting house built in 1782 was another Athy inclusion in the ‘Hidden Gems’ project.  Bert House, built between 1720 and 1730 for Burgh family was also included as another local hidden gem.  The large mansion on the Monasterevin Road is a residence of some importance which at one time was the home of Lord Downes, the former Chief Justice of Ireland.

Two structures, one of which was long overlooked, the other largely ignored, were included as hidden gems because of their uniqueness.  The cock pit located in the premises of Griffin Hawe in Duke Street is believed to have been a 17th century building, constructed at a time when cock fighting was still the favourite pastime of the gentry.  The building which was restored over 40 years ago by Kildare County Council under the guidance of the then county architect, Niall Meagher, is worthy of inclusion of one of Athy’s hidden gems. 

Often seen, but seldom admired, is the Horsebridge, or more correctly the One Horse Bridge, which spans the River Barrow where it meets the Grand Canal.  The original bridge arches were reduced as part of the Barrow Drainage Scheme of the 1920s in order to alleviate flooding.  The well worn path across the bridge allowed a horse pulling a canal boat to make the transition from canal to river and vice versa.  It is surely a hidden gem of late 18th century stone masons work. 

The ‘Hidden Gems and Forgotten People’ project is one which gives everybody an opportunity to bring before a wider public, interesting or inspiring individuals of the past and interesting or important places which time has conspired to consign to lost memories.

Larry Breen of the Federation of Local History Societies of Ireland will be delighted to receive suitable contributions for inclusion in the ‘Hidden Gems & Forgotten People’ project.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Visit to Kilcullen and Harristown House

I was reminded of the Hidden Gems Project recently initiated by the Federation of Local History Societies of Ireland when last Saturday after a meeting of Local History Societies from Kildare County those attending were brought on a tour of two of Kilcullen’s attractions.

The first was the Camphill Community Garden nestling below the bridge of Kilcullen and bordering the River Liffey.  The Camphill Community have been based in Kilcullen for about 20 years but it’s only within recent months that the garden, now open to the public, was developed.  Our guide for the afternoon was Nessa Dunlea, a Kilcullen native who over the years has done an enormous amount of community work for her beloved town.  I was previously unaware of the Camphill Garden and found it to be a very pleasant and peaceful oasis in the middle of Kilcullen which anyone visiting the town should arrange to see.  With some additional development it could be easily transformed into a must see venue for visitors and locals alike and deserves inclusion as one of Kilcullen’s hidden gems.

Afterwards, Nessa arranged for us to travel a short distance on the Ballymore Eustace side of Kilcullen to visit Harristown House, the one time home of the La Touche family.  It is now home to the Beaumonts and Hubert Beaumont gave his visitors, by prior arrangement, a guided tour of this fine house.  The nine bay, three storey over basement house was originally built on a smaller scale in the 1760s for the Eustace family who sold the house and the Harristown Estate to John La Touche in or about 1785.  It was John La Touche who had the house extended some years later but before doing so he arranged for the Naas to Dunlavin Road which crossed the estate near to the big house to be diverted.  The new road and the new bridge bearing the date 1788, both of which he financed, went by the edge of the Harristown Estate, leaving the previous road bridge crossing the River Liffey as perhaps the finest bridge serving private grounds to be seen anywhere in these islands.

The house was extensively damaged by fire in 1891 and was subsequently restored, only to be sold by the La Touche family in the 1920s.  Harristown House and Estate was later purchased by Michael Beaumont, a grandson of Michael Grace, formerly of Gracefield, Co. Laois who with his brother William had emigrated to South America in 1865.  Both men made their fortunes there and while William Grace went to live in New York where he was later elected Mayor his brother Michael returned to live in England.  Harristown House was completely restored by Michael Beaumont and his wife Doreen and from their home in Wootton, Buckinghamshire, the former home of the Duke of Buckingham, they brought fireplaces, doors, interior fittings, together with fine furniture and portraits which are now to be found in Harristown House.  Amongst those is a full length portrait of George Canning, the anti-slavery campaigner and former Prime Minister of Britain whose statue today stands in Parliament Square, London.  Canning was an ancestor of the present owner of Harristown House and indeed the British Prime Ministerial connection is again noted with Tony Blair who now lives in what was part of the Wootton home of the Beaumont family. 

Doreen Beaumont, grandmother of the present owner of Harristown House, did extensive work on preserving the house prior to her death in November 2000.  The Chinese room has wonderful 16th century hand painted silk wallpaper depicting birds in strong vibrant colours.  Another fascinating feature was the Elizabethan oak panelling in one of the principal bedrooms which came from a Tudor house in England.  The guided tour by its owner Hubert Beaumont was a most comprehensive and enjoyable one and clearly demonstrated that Harristown House is yet another of Kilcullen’s hidden gems.  If you ever have the opportunity of visiting Harristown House, and I gather it is open to the public on selected days and times during the year, make sure to include it on your list of places to visit. 

Approaching Athy from the Dublin direction travellers now come to the roundabout at Gallowshill, which by its name speaks of a time when the rising ground in that locality was the site of the town’s gallows.  The roundabout is now home to an interesting installation piece (if that is the right term) put there by Kildare County Council as the public art element of recent public road works.  The lock gates are a readily identifiable element of canal infrastructure and remind us of the time when Athy, the meeting place of the Grand Canal and the River Barrow, was a thriving Canal town.  Freight and passengers travelled up and down the Canal long before the railway line was extended to Athy.  The Grand Canal brought prosperity to Athy.  It brought jobs and it brought a range of fine buildings, many of which still stand today.  Athy truly was a Canal town in the past, but even today the Canal remains an important part of the infrastructure of the town awaiting the upsurge of leisure boating on the water corridor which connects us with so many other parts of Ireland.  Congratulations to Kildare County Council for what is a delightful and meaningful addition to the public art of Athy.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

12th Shackleton Autum School and Eric Hobsbawm Marxist Historian

On Friday 26th October President Michael D. Higgins will visit Athy to officially open the 12th Shackleton Autumn School.  This will be President Higgins’ first visit as Uachtarain na hEireann to the south Kildare town and marks an important step in the short history of the Autumn School.  Over the last 11 years the Town Hall venue has hosted an extraordinary variety of Antarctic experts who have travelled from America, Norway, England and elsewhere to address audiences interested in Polar history, Polar studies and research.

The Shackleton Autumn School has been one of Athy’s great achievements over the past decade.  At a time when the recession is biting deep into the heart of the town’s economic wellbeing it is gratifying to acknowledge the voluntary workers who have brought the school to the preeminent position it occupies today. 

This year the Shackleton Autumn School, in addition to welcoming the President of Ireland, will also play host to the grandsons and granddaughter of three famous Antarctic explorers, Ernest Shackleton, Captain Robert Scott and Tom Crean.  So far as I am aware the attendance of Alexandra Shackleton, Falcon Scott and Brendan O'Brien over the October Bank Holiday weekend marks the first occasion that these three distinguished families have come together to mark an Antarctic related event in Ireland.  It will be a unique occasion and one which confirms the worldwide status which today attaches to the event which started in Athy in 2001.  Athy’s Shackleton Autumn School is today widely regarded as the world’s most important annual Antarctic conference, a boast of which we can be justifiably proud. 

President Higgins will arrive in Athy on Friday 26th October.  The evening will commence with a wine reception in the Heritage Centre at 7.00pm, followed by the official opening by the President.  There has always been a very good attendance on the School’s opening night and it’s expected that the people of Athy will come to the Heritage Centre to greet our President on the occasion of his first official visit to the town.

This year the School will host an exhibition on Captain Scott’s 1910-1913  expedition.  The exhibition will tell the story of Scott, who reached the South Pole only to die while on the return trip.  It will feature artefacts relating to Tom Crean and Patrick Keohane, two Irishmen who both served on that expedition.  As always, there is a wide variety of lectures to choose from.  Kari Herbert will talk about Shackleton’s wife Emily and the wives of other Polar explorers over the bank holiday weekend, while the distinguished scientist, Dr. Gabrielle Walker, familiar to many from her work with BBC television and radio, will talk about the scientific legacy of the heroic era of Polar exploration.  Other lecturers will focus on the Irishmen who served with Captain Scott, a German expedition to the Antarctic in 1912 and many other aspects of Antarctic history.  One unique event will be the launch of a reprint of ‘Antarctic Days’, a book, first published in 1913 about Shackleton’s Nimrod expedition.  On Sunday night, 28th October, Athy Community Arts Centre will host an exhibition of the Polar photography of the American artist J.J. L’Heureux, followed by a performance by the English folk singer Jake Wilson of his own composition ‘All’s Well’, inspired by the story of Captain Scott’s ill-fated expedition.  Full details of the School are available from the website

Earlier this month Eric Hobsbawm, widely regarded as Britain’s most distinguished Marxist historian died at 95 years of age.  His membership of the Communist party no doubt prompted and guided his many publications on social history which commenced with his 1948 publication ‘Labour’s Turning Point’, an edited collection of documents from the era of the Fabian Society.  He will perhaps be best remembered for his detailed and readable studies of social protest in the 19th century and his influential ‘Age of’  series which started with ‘The Age of Revolution 1789-1848’.  It was followed by ‘The Age of Capital 1848-1875’ and by ‘The Age of Empire 1875-1914’.  The last of the series ‘The Age of Extremes 1914-1991’ appeared some years ago, bringing to a close a defining work much admired for the quality of the writing as the depth of its social analysis.  Hobsbawm was a regular attender at the Hay Literary Festival which takes place each year in the small Welsh village of Hay-on-Wye.  Like Athy’s Shackleton Autumn School the Hay Literary Festival has become an annual event which has grown in importance year by year.  Both have brought worldwide identification and recognition to two small urban areas, even if Athy must at this stage at least give way to the Hay festival as the premier festival of its type in these islands.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Fred Leo's Concert Party visits Athy in 1917

Christmas was not far away when posters appeared on the streets of Athy advertising Fred Leo and his famous Irish concert party.  The year was 1917 and Fred and his company were to give performances on the 6th and 7th of December in Athy’s Town Hall.  The performers had earlier showcased their talents in Kilbeggan and after Athy were scheduled to travel to Goresbridge.

The detailed information we have today in relation to these wandering troubadours comes to us courtesy of the Royal Irish Constabulary.  The R.I.C. was enjoined to report on the performances which the authorities felt bordered on the seditious.  For that reason the Public Records Office which holds the State’s archives has a range of interesting reports filed by local R.I.C. Officers on the shows put on by Fred Leo and his players. 

The advertising poster commandeered by the R.I.C. and forwarded to Police headquarters with almost daily reports was headlined ‘We 6’.  This was the number of artists involved and included Carroll Malone, described as Dublin’s youngest tenor, Miss Josie Dene, soubrette and dancer and Miss A.C. Sheehan, soprano and pianiste.  Fred Leo was described as a comedian, with Miss Annie Tucker as a champion dancer, Feis Ceol medallist and Oireachteas winner.  It was the artist whose name appeared at the end of the poster who most interested the R.I.C.  Seamus M’Donnell promoted himself as ‘Ireland’s Lightning Cartoonist’, with a promise to feature ‘your history from Owen Roe O’Neill to de Valera’.

Admission prices varied from 8 pence to 2 shillings and 4 pence and the advertised programme of ‘Irish – Ireland Songs, recitations and skits’ was rounded off with the call ‘Éire óg Abú’.

Athy based R.I.C. Sergeant Thomas Traynor wrote a report on 10th December 1917 for his superiors, following the performances on the 6th and 7th of that month.  He attended both night’s performances with Constable James Power from the local barracks and reported that the ‘most objectionable part of the programme was the sketching and speeches by Seamus M’Donnell which had a tendency to cause disaffection and to injure recruiting for the Army’.

About 100 attended the show, mostly boys, on the night of the 6th to see M’Donnell drawing a sketch of Countess Markievitz and commenting on her role in the previous year’s rebellion in Dublin.  Traynor reported M’Donnell as saying, ‘she was a dead shot and did for one anyway.  I would back her against anyone in giving the peelers or men in khaki their medicine.’  M’Donnell was reported as praising the Irish Rebellion for stopping conscription and threatening that ‘should John Bull attempt a dirty trick on us we would not leave a bit of khaki in Ireland.’ 

Constable Power’s report confirmed that the most objectionable part of the programme was the sketches and remarks of Seamus M’Donnell.  Referring to the separation allowances then payable to wives of soldiers fighting overseas M’Donnell was reported as claiming that ‘the separation allowance people were despicable wretches taking the blood money and they should be ashamed of themselves for having anyone belonging to them fighting for John Bull.’

For the audience whom Constable Power described as ‘young lads all having Sinn Fein tendencies’, the cartoonist patter went down well and on the second night a larger audience was in the hall.  Interestingly Constable Power noted in his report that ‘no respectable people were present’.

The separation allowance women of the town were unlikely to be in the audience on either night and if they were present the R.I.C. would undoubtedly have had a riot on their hands.  The same women were often reported, particularly towards the latter end of the 1914-18 war, as being involved with altercations with local Sinn Feiners whose anti-recruiting meetings in Emily Square they sought to disrupt.  I can recall reading a local newspaper report of the time which described the wives of soldiers fighting overseas shaking their ‘ring’ papers at the Sinn Feiners, while loudly shouting down the platform speakers.  The ‘ring’ papers were the separation allowance books, so called because of the circular stamp embossed each time the weekly allowance was paid to the local women.

The National Archives hold a vast treasure of documents which sometimes helped to provide an insight into life in provincial Ireland of generations past.  The report so carefully prepared by Sergeant Traynor and Constable Power in their barracks at the end of Barrack Lane, Athy in December 1917 gives an interesting account of a time when Irish Nationalism was becoming more prominent in the South Kildare area.  The Easter Rising and the release of the Irish prisoners in December 1916 created a momentum which would gather pace, culminating in the start of the War of Independence in January 1919.  What part Seamus M’Donnell played in whipping up support for the Nationalist cause as he toured the country with Fred Leo’s concert party we will never know.