Thursday, November 29, 2012

Cholera Outbreak 1832 and Michael Carey's Diary Entries

Cholera reached Ireland for the first time in February 1832.  A cooper, living in a Belfast lodging house by the name of Bernard Murtagh, was the first Irish person to die from the disease.  By the following month Dublin had recorded its first cholera death.

In Athy Michael Carey, a member of the local Church of Ireland, kept a journal in which he recorded local and sometimes national events during the cholera outbreak.  To Carey we are indebted for learning that in November 1833 a collection was started for a new church which was consecrated on the 15th of September 1841.  The church was St. Michael’s Church of Ireland at the top of Offaly Street and Carey’s carefully compiled records show that the church steeple was in the course of construction in August 1856.  A bell housed in the newly constructed steeple was first rung for divine service on 22nd March of the following year.

Michael Carey’s journal entries in connection with the outbreak of cholera in Athy are regrettably incomplete.  The disease appears to have reached the south Kildare town in May 1832, just a month or so after it had been confirmed in Dublin.  Only a few of the local deaths were noted by Carey and the first recorded was that of Thomas Proctor who died on 22nd May, followed by Christy Barrington who died on the 27th of the same month.  Carey would later write, ‘cholera raging in Athy from May to November 1832’.

During that period he noted the cholera deaths of a number of other local persons.  John Duncan died on 19th November 1832 and is recorded as having been interred the same night.  This was in keeping with the measures put in place to stem the spread of cholera.  The Central Board of Health had sought support from the Catholic Archbishop of Dublin, Dr. Daniel Murray, for a ban on wakes and the immediate burial of cholera victims.  The Archbishop was loud his claims that the cholera outbreak was a sign of God’s displeasure at the sins of the Irish people.  The fact that the epidemic had originated in India before transferring via Russia to the European continent and Ireland did little to quench the Archbishop’s claim of the Lord’s wrath on a sinful people.

On the 10th of October John Higginson and his housekeeper were noted by Carey as succumbing to the cholera outbreak.  Four days later Carey recorded the death of a Ned Smith.  Pat Dunne, a local slater, died of cholera on the 15th of February 1833, just eight days after Carey mentioned in his journal the death of five unnamed people from Barrack Street.  The cholera outbreak spread to Ballylinan where Dr. Kysney, a local doctor from Athy, attended cholera cases in the county Laois village in January 1833. 

How many died in Athy during the 1832/’33 cholera epidemic is not known, as there was no legal requirement to register deaths at that time.  Throughout Ireland over 66,000 cases of the disease were recorded and of these more than 25,000 persons died.  Almost 80 per cent of the deaths were in Irish cities or towns and places like Athy where water supplied from public pumps was contaminated by sewerage were particularly vulnerable to the spread of cholera.  Athy would have to wait until 1907 to get a piped water supply system for the townspeople.  In the meantime cholera would return to Irish towns and cities in the spring of 1849, by which time Athy had a workhouse, but more importantly, a fever hospital. 

Within a year of the ending of the first cholera epidemic the economic life of the market town of Athy witnessed a revival with the arrival of the first load of corn into the newly built Barrow Quay.  The date recorded by Carey was 20th April 1834.  The Quay was built following the filling in of the Mill Race which had separated White’s Castle from the mill in Athy’s High street.

There is an extraordinary amount of interesting detail in Michael Carey’s journal, not least of which is the following puzzling entry: 

‘25th December 1843 - Chapel next Convent opened’

The Dominicans purchased Mansergh’s house at the end of Tanyard Lane in August 1845 and moved to the property which is still the site of their friary.  Did the entry ‘Chapel next Convent opened’ refer to a chapel opened by the Dominicans at what was then their Convent in Leinster Street or Convent Lane (now Kirwan’s Lane)? 

The minutes of Athy Borough Council for 7th November 1830 record the financing of ‘a new pavement and curb(sic) stone upon both sides of the main street from the Rev. Mr. Kennelly’s(sic) convent to the high bridge over the Grand Canal.’  Fr. John Kenneally was the local Dominican Prior from 1824 to 1842 and Carey’s reference to the opening of the chapel would seem to refer to the Dominican Chapel.  The Borough minute book entry confirms for me that the Dominican Convent was at that time located on the main street, now Leinster Street.  But was it in what is now Fingletons or on the site of Jim McEvoy’s pub?

The history of Athy requires the careful unravelling of layers of fact, fiction and folklore and nowhere is that more apparent than in seeking to understand the journal of Michael Carey who died in 1859.

On Friday at 8.00 p.m. in the Community Arts Centre there will be a celebration in music and words of the literary work of John MacKenna, whose latest book of poetry, ‘Where Sadness Begins’ has just been published.  This event showcasing the talents of Castledermot’s award winning writer, John MacKenna, and Athy’s finest musician Brian Hughes promises to be a great night.  Admission is free.  Do come along.  

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Mark Wilson of Athy and the 1916 Rebellion

We are facing into a series of centenary commemorations over the next 10 years or so.  These will include the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I and in 2016 the centenary of the Easter Rising.  As a school boy growing up in Athy the Easter Rising was regarded by our Christian Brother teachers as the most important event in Ireland’s long history.  That history stopped so far as the students of the 1950s were concerned with the 1916 Rising and the subsequent execution of Pearse and his colleagues.  As for the First World War it was never mentioned in the Christian Brothers classroom.

As youngsters we listened to and heard of the events in Dublin in April 1916, seeing them as events which scarcely touched the town, the streets or the families so familiar to all of us.  After all there was no connection with Athy, or so we believed.  However, when I delved further into the detail of Irish history and the minutiae of local history I was pleasantly surprised to find that the Dublin Rising of 1916 did have an Athy connection.  Amongst the outnumbered and outgunned Irish volunteers and members of the Irish Citizens Army was Mark Wilson from Athy.  This information comes to us from the statement made in May 1953 by Patrick Colgan, formerly of Maynooth but then living in Killarney, whose statement is now in the Bureau of Irish Military History. 

The relevant part of the statement dealt with Colgan’s arrest and that of a number of other volunteers who had taken part in the rebellion.  The prisoners were marched via the North Quays to O’Connell Bridge and the statement continues:-  ‘in the rank in front of me was a volunteer in uniform.  When people shouted out at us to keep our heads up he used answer that they were never down.  He was a source of great encouragement to me who could easily have cried at the thought of being driven out of Ireland.  This volunteer was Mark Wilson, a Kildare man, a native of Athy who was living in Dublin.’

Who then was this man from Athy who took part in the 1916 Rising in Dublin?  I have discovered that Mark Wilson and Patrick Colgan were detained in Richmond Barracks Dublin following their arrest and were transferred on the 8th of May 1916 to Stafford Detention Barracks.  Wilson’s Dublin address was given as 48 North King Georges Street and also 2 North Kings Street which leads me to believe that it was a corner building fronting on to both Georges Street and King Street. 

In St. Michael’s Old Cemetery there is a gravestone dedicated to James Wilson who died in 1925, aged 50 years and his wife Margaret who died in 1985, aged 85 years.  They were survived by their daughter Nanny.  Was there, I wonder, any connection between this family and Mark Wilson, the 1916 volunteer?  I would like to hear from anyone who can help identify Mark Wilson, the only Athy man so far known to have participated in the Easter Rising in Dublin in 1916. 

Another interesting piece of material which I have recently come across is the reference to bomb making in Athy during the period the Irish Volunteers were developing in late 1917, early 1918.  Patrick Burke, an Irish Volunteer Lieutenant in Bagenalstown, made a statement to the Bureau of Military History over 50 years ago in which he detailed bomb making efforts by his volunteer colleagues.  With the help of a De La Salle brother in the local school the volunteers contrived to make a quantity of explosive material which was stored away for future use.  He continued:-  ‘Sometime in the year 1917 a man named Eamon Price came down to us from Dublin on a volunteer organising campaign.  When he heard about the powder we had made he told us of chaps in Athy who could cast bombs similar to mills bombs, but cruder and worked with a fuse in which this explosives of ours could be used.  I told him we might be able to do some casting of the bomb in Bagenalstown if I could see how the lads in Athy did the job.  I went to Athy where in a disused building some men were engaged making bomb casings on the pattern of the mills bomb.  With a lathe I made in wood a copy of the mills bomb casing and sent it to the men in Athy to make a casing in metal of the mills bomb type.’

Obviously even then the age old tradition of foundry making, with which Athy is still linked today, brought an involvement in revolutionary nationalism which predated by a few months the start of the War of Independence.  It is rather a pity that the information now being available through the witness statements made over 50 years ago is unlikely to lead to a full picture of events in Athy in those days.  However, I give the information now available in the faint hope that someone, somewhere, might be able to fill in more details about events of the second decade of the last century.

The story of Athy folk’s involvement in the War of Independence and the subsequent Civil War is one which will take a lot of work and some luck to unravel.  If you can help identify Mark Wilson or the places or persons involved in the 1918 bomb making in Athy I would be delighted to hear from you.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Pat Henshaw and Frank Meehan

Two people with whom I shared a friendship in recent years passed away last week.  Pat Henshaw, born in Malta but a resident of this country since 1986, came to Athy three years later when her husband Dave purchased a public house in Duke Street.  The one time newspaper journalist who had worked for the Evening News had earlier shown her social commitment when she became a member of the long running anti nuclear protest at Greenham Common. 

Pat and Dave came to live in Athy from Dave’s hometown of Athlone 23 years ago.  Athy was long remembered by Dave as ‘a magic place’ which he had visited on frequent boat trips on the Grand Canal.  Athy was to subsequently benefit hugely from Pat’s involvement in the local community and especially the town’s cultural activities.  At various times she was chairperson of Athy’s Art Group and the Cultural Sub-Committee of Athy Urban District Council.  It was as chairperson of the latter group that she headed up for some years the ‘Cecil Day Lewis Awards’ for young writers.  Her drive and commitment was recognised by the Urban Council when the then chairman of the Council, Councillor Sean Cunnane presented an award to Pat at the Riverbank Theatre in Newbridge some years ago.

It was Pat, together with her husband Dave, who organised the memorable River of Light event when thousands of candles were lit and floated at night time on the River Barrow to highlight and promote the Northern Ireland peace process.  This was an emotional night which brought the people of Athy and district together in an admirable display of unity and hope for the troubled Northern Ireland.  It was yet another example of Pat and Dave’s innovative approach to community activities which showed itself again when both were instrumental in founding the local Traders Association.

Ill health marked Pat’s last years and her gradual withdrawal from active participation in local events was sadly our community’s loss.  Her passing removes from amongst us a woman whose contribution to her adopted town cannot and should not be underestimated.

If Pat Henshaw, a British subject living in Ireland, became more Irish than the Irish themselves, my other friend Frank Meehan of Portlaoise was Irish by birth, but British by inclination.  Grandson of P.A. Meehan and nephew of P.J. Meehan, both of whom were Members of Parliament and Members of the Irish Parliamentary party, Frank was a fervent Royalist and an unrepentant Unionist.  For him the breaking of the links with Britain was a step too far and Frank, never slow to air his views, was almost always out of kilter with his tolerant associates and friends. 

I first met Frank 25 or so years ago, our association coming courtesy of a common interest in local history.  Frank was a member of Laois Heritage Society and its vice president for several years.  His writings on local history are to be found in several journals and he was justifiably proud of his books on the Members of Parliament for Laois/Offaly and the Dail representatives for the same counties.

Frank had a great love for Portlaoise, or more precisely Maryborough as he persisted in naming his home town.  He was meticulous in his research of local history and passionate in his ever vigilant overview of his county’s built heritage.  He railed against the despoilers of the county’s heritage, never once seeing any contradiction in his love of Ireland’s ancient heritage and his unwavering adherence to what he perceived to be the uncontradictable policy of John Redmond and the Irish Parliamentary party.  Frank was a character, to some he was an eccentric throwback to an age which was swept away by Sinn Fein’s success at the 1918 General Election.  Frank never saw himself other than a custodian of the values and principles held by his grandfather and his uncle and of the man whom he saw as the real uncrowned king of Ireland - John Redmond. 

Frank was a courteous man, a man of old world charm who was dealt a bitter blow by Laois County Council many decades ago when his farm in Portlaoise was compulsorily acquired.  He was outraged by the Council’s action in depriving him of his family inheritance and much time and energy were expended by him in his later years railing against the injustice which he felt was caused by the Council.  Frank will be sadly missed but his legacy of written work will be a valuable source of reference for future students of local history in the midlands.

Both Pat Henshaw and Frank Meehan, in their different ways, made noteworthy contributions to their respective local communities.  They will be missed.  Our sympathies go to Dave Henshaw and to the sons and daughters of Frank Meehan.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Gertie Healy

Last week Gertie Healy was laid to rest in St. Michael’s Cemetery.  She had been absent from her usual place at 12 o’clock Sunday mass for a number of weeks but it was only following her passing that I learned she had been seriously ill.  Her final farewell in the church where she attended mass for so many years was marked by what may have been a unique contribution by her brother Joe and her sister Carmel.

Carmel, who is married to Brendan Kehoe formerly of Offaly Street, played the organ accompaniment for her brother Joe singing at Gertie’s funeral mass.  It was a wonderful example of filial love and personalised a service which on too many occasions in the past has been marked by inappropriate and overwrought eulogies of doubtful accuracy. 

Joe May’s singing was a pleasure to hear.  His is a voice of character which was shown at its best with his interpretation of ‘The Prayer’, a song made famous by Celine Dion and Andrea Bocelli.  I understand it was at Gertie’s request that ‘The Prayer’ was sung and its moving words added to the reverence of the occasion:-

            ‘I pray you’ll be our eyes, and watch us where we go
            And teach us to be wise, in times when we don’t know
            Let this be our prayer, when we lose our way
            Lead us to the place, guide us with your grace
            To a place, where we’ll be safe.’

As members of the local community we walked behind the hearse as Gertie made her final journey to St. Michael’s Cemetery.  It’s a journey which has been made thousands of times over the years, ever since the first Parish Church, now in ruins, was erected outside the walls of the medieval village of Athy.  The new St. Michael’s Cemetery laid out in fields which once adjoined the Glebe lands and the towns ancient fairgreen is steadily filling up.  Since it was first opened 50 years ago St. Michael’s new cemetery has received the remains of men folk and women folk well known to us all.  It shows on its tombstones familiar names which in a few decades will be lost to later generations.  I am often reminded of the fleeting nature of fame and fortune when, walking through old St. Michael’s Cemetery, I read without recognition the names etched on the scattered tombstones.  Names once familiar in this area are no longer represented in the Athy of today.  With them has gone the shared memories of a past community, memories which can never again be recovered.

I mentioned in last week’s article the Forgotten People project initiated by the Local History Federations and with Gertie Healy’s passing last week I was reminded yet again of that part of our history which for so long was neglected and overlooked.  Gertie’s parents, Joe May and Hester Dooley, were part of the mainstream of Irish republicanism and in the years following the 1916 Rising they risked their freedom and, if truth be known, their very lives in pursuit of ideals first championed by the United Irishmen of 1798.

Gertie’s father was imprisoned for several months during the War of Independence in Ballykinler Camp, Co. Down, while her mother underwent much privation and difficulties while working as secretary to Piaras Béaslaí and later General Ginger O’Connell.  As a young fellow growing up in Athy in the 1950s I knew nothing of the part Joe May and Hester Dooley and others from Athy played in that War of Independence.  That omission has been in part remedied but much yet remains to be uncovered and acknowledged.

Gertie Healy in her last months faced her illness with a courage which was reminiscent of that displayed by her parents so many decades ago.  Gertie’s family cared for her at home during her last illness and the musical contribution by her brother Joe and sister Carmel at the funeral mass was a fitting tribute to a wonderful lady whose adult nursing life was spent amongst the elderly patients of St. Vincent’s Hospital.

Colm McNulty, formerly of this parish but now living and teaching in Wellington, New Zealand is the author of a recently published book ‘A Brotherhood so Splendid’.  It tells the story of the teachers and former pupils of Wellington College where Colm now teaches, who enlisted to fight in the First World War.  Copies are available for sale in the Gem and if you are interested in an interesting and imaginative mixture of history and dialogue this is a book you should get.