Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Athy's Sporting Heritage

Association football, soccer to you and me, Gaelic football, rugby and tennis, all played within the confines of a unique sporting complex, gives Athy a remarkable place in the annals of Irish provincial sport.  Is there anywhere in this small island of ours a comparable sporting facility as is to be found in the South Kildare town of Athy?  I was prompted to ask that question when last week I happened to be in Athy’s tennis club marvelling at the wonderful club facilities which include six all weather courts and a fine clubhouse. 

By all accounts Athy has a rich sporting heritage extending back as far as the early part of the 19th century.  Looking back over newspaper reports of the past I can find accounts of the revival of Athy boat races in August 1855 after a lapse of twenty years.  The races which attracted an attendance of between 4,000 and 5,000 people were held on a stretch of the River Barrow with the main event for a silver challenge cup confined to local boats crewed by local men.  One of the organising committee was Mark Cross who the previous July had commenced work on building the corn exchange which 150 years later is now the local Courthouse.

Two years later on 9th May 1857 the Kildare Observer carried the following report on Athy’s horseracing meeting.  ‘Such a sensation was never yet seen in the quiet and unexcitable district of Athy and its vicinity as the dawning of this eventful day created ..... the roads leading to the racecourse were speedily thronged with a motley crew of thimble ringers, card setters, trick o’loop men, followed by no less accomplished creed of roulette and shooting gallery proprietors, musicians and all those who imbued with a mercantile and enterprising spirit sought the most eligible positions for the forthcoming avocations ..... the proceedings and amusements of the day came off satisfactorily ..... the racing was throughout contested with the greatest spirit’.  There were four races in all, three of which were contested by five horses, with four horses in the last race.

Two months later the foundation stone of the town’s gas works was laid by Martin Kavanagh, Chairman of the Town Commissioners.  Gas lighting was introduced into some of the principal shops in Athy the following December.  Local sporting events were not confined to those organised by local committees as evidenced by the following report in August 1857.  ‘On Thursday last a philanthropic pedestrian volunteered for the public amusement to walk within an hour the distance of eight miles backwards and forwards through the town of Athy.  He accomplished the feat with five minutes to spare.’  Regrettably the newspaper report omitted to give us the name of the hardy individual involved.

The Athy Regatta for 1857 was reported ‘not as good as in past years’ despite the attendance of crews from Brunswick and Dublin rowing clubs and Carlow.  The horse race meeting was advertised to be held over two days in May 1858 on the Bray course and prompted the following letter to the editor of the Kildare Observer, ‘Athy races once bid fair for  celebrating, that was in 1843 when 14 first rate horses from the Curragh ran for the Athy stakes ..... but in those days the right men were in the right place. 

The following reply appeared on the 17th of April, ‘he lauds the meeting of 1843 when the Athy Cup was limited to a radius of one mile – in 1857 and in 1858 it is extended to eight miles radius – the other races of the meeting are open to the world ..... I suspect his aim is to try and establish the more suitable game of “flat racing” at which the “weeds” would have a better chance of winning with four stone seven pound over one mile than the floundering “garrons” as he designates them, that carry twelve stone over three miles .....’

Athy Regatta was held in August 1858 with the first race at 1.00 p.m.  The local newspaper reported ‘the embankments presented a thronged and animated appearance.  A police force under the command of Constable Dobbs was in attendance and preserved order throughout the day.’ 

The Athy Regatta Ball was advertised to be held on 10th August 1859 and the Kildare Observer was moved to claim ‘there is not in Ireland an inland town that can boast of more public spirit than Athy or among whose inhabitants so many friendly and social reunions are reciprocated.’

That public spirit was not in evidence when a letter appeared in the newspaper on 30th July 1859 complaining of ‘nuisance of a most dangerous character carried on every Sabbath day on the road from Kilberry to Dunrally Bridge, that of throwing large metal balls - a number of men and boys regularly spend the whole of the Lord’s Day at that disgraceful and dangerous amusement almost in sight of a police station.’

Further displacement of Athy’s public spirit was recorded when there were disturbances at the 1858 Athy horserace meeting involving one of the stewards who was subsequently prosecuted and convicted.  The affair led to the discontinuance of the race at the Bray course.  Incidentally can anyone pinpoint where the Bray course was located?

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

David Neill

David Neill was half a generation ahead of me and so, although we were both of Offaly Street, we never shared a youthful friendship.  However, he was part of the memories gathered by me during years spent in No. 6 and later No. 5 Offaly Street.  Memories of families who lived in the street – treasured memories of happy times spent amongst people who although not rich in the material sense were nevertheless happy and content.

David’s funeral last week brought members of some of those families who once lived in Offaly Street back to Athy to pay their respects.  Next door neighbours Tommy Tuohy and Brendan Murphy were joined by members of the Kelly, Moore and Taaffe families, all of whom lived in close proximity to each other over 60 years ago.  In those days there was a sense of pride in our own street – our own part of Athy where we knew our neighbours and treasured friendships which endured over the years.  We identified with our neighbours foibles, measured ourselves against their achievements and took pride and shared sorry in equal measure in the trials of everyday life. 

David was part of that simple life we all enjoyed then and he reaffirmed his Offaly Street allegiances when he married May Breen, whose family were residents of Offaly Street long before the Taaffes migrated from Castlecomer in 1945.

Brendan Murphy, whose family home next door to the Neills was torn down and rebuilt during the Celtic Tiger years, travelled from Tramore where he now lives in retirement.  He remembers better than I could Alec Neill and his formidable wife and the almost daily visits by Mrs. Neill to her next door neighbours, the Murphys.  On the far side of the Neill home lived the Tuohy family and Fr. Tommy Tuohy, fulfilling a now well established tradition of officiating at ‘Offaly Street funerals’,  once again officiated at the funeral mass in St. Michael’s Parish Church.

Offaly Street is now changed, with only Marjorie Kelly and Nan Breen still living in the houses where their respective families lived for so long.  It is still a street of memories – a street where the past is reflected in the seemingly unchanging house fronts of another era.  What I can remember with some pride is the way in which the adults of 60 or so years ago played their part in the local community.  David Neill was one such man.  He was one of several who week in week out went from house to house collecting money for the Parish Church Building Fund.  Later on David was a member of the Swimming Pool Fundraising Committee which worked tirelessly to collect monies to build the town’s first swimming pool.  He was also one of the early members of the local Credit Union and in most recent years was actively involved with Athy’s Rugby Club.

Like so many others in the town David Neill contributed in his quiet but effective way to the well being of the local community.  Athy of the 1950s and 1960s was marked by a huge upsurge in community centered activity.  It was a time of whole hearted involvement by many locals seeking to provide facilities which were lacking in the town.  We now have a Credit Union and a swimming pool thanks to the voluntary work of people like David Neill and we can boast of superb facilities in our local sports clubs, once again due to the voluntary work of generations of Athy men and women.

On a personal note I want to record the passing of historian Robert Kee and poet Dennis O’Driscoll.  Robert Kee’s book ‘The Green Flag’ was the catalyst which awakened my interest in Irish history, while Dennis O’Driscoll’s poetic work has been a favourite of mine ever since I first came across a copy of his collected works published in 2004.  Strangely I never met Dennis O’Driscoll, yet when I look at Kim Haughton’s photo of the poet which graces the cover of his collected works I am conscious that I am looking at a man who was very familiar to me.  Yet I cannot say why.  His poem ‘The Home Town’ has the following lines which seem appropriate to include in a tribute to a volunteer of the past :

‘And a bond deepened between you: you responded to its easygoing wit,
its readiness to lift a hand, took pride in its sizeable stadium, watched
the river flee beneath the bridge like a non-stop mainline train.

Hardly a day passes that the town does not cross your mind,
and though, officially, you’ve left behind the confines of its square,
acquired what lawyers call new domicile, it still answers to home.’ 

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Grand Canal Engineers - David Aher, John Killally and Doonane Collieries

We give little thought to the roads and canals which bisect our towns, when they were first laid down and how they developed over the centuries.  I was reminded of this when perusing the Biographical Dictionary of Civil Engineers noting those civil engineers who were responsible for the roads which we use today.

One such was David Aher, born in 1780, who began his studies as a civil engineer at the age of 15.  He found himself in the Athy area in 1803 when his employers, the Grand Canal Company, leased a number of collieries at Doonane near Athy.  At the time the company was proposing to construct a branch canal from Athy to the Doonane collieries for the purpose of both draining the mines and for transportation of the extracted coal.  Over the course of the next two years Aher devoted much of his time to designing a tunnel to take the canal to the coal face, but the scheme was ultimately abandoned in 1805.  Shortly afterwards he left the employment of the Grand Canal Company and became a manager of collieries owned by the Ormonde family in Castlecomer.  His time there was very fruitful and he made marked improvements in both the mining and boring machinery used in the collieries.  He was also employed by the bogs commissioners and he made a significant contribution to the surveying of the bogs of Ireland in that period.  Not content with working on both mines and bogs he was responsible for the laying out of the main roads through County Kilkenny, including the roads from Castlecomer to Athy and Castlecomer to Kilkenny. 

A colleague of Aher's in the Grand Canal Company, John Killally, was a surveyor and canal engineer born in England. We know little about his working life before he came to Ireland.  He joined the Grand Canal Company in 1794, becoming its chief engineer in 1798.  In 1810 he was sent to Doonane to report on the collieries owned by the company which Aher had previously worked on.    He was clearly unimpressed by the collieries and their workings and reported to the company on 6th April 1810 that the prospects for the collieries ‘were by no means flattering’.  He was clearly not enamoured with the collieries to the point that he threatened to resign if the company compelled him to take over the position of manager of the collieries. 
The principal claim to fame of the colliery at Doonane was its location for the first steam engine in Ireland installed in the 1740s. William Tighe in his book, ‘Statistic Observations Relative to County Kilkenny’ published in 1802 wrote of a Mr. Finlan who had installed at the Coolbawn colliery in Castlecomer two steam engines, one of which was named 'Curragh'. Finlan had learnt his trade on the steam engine at Doonane from a young age and his intelligence and ability had attracted offers of work from England but he remained in Ireland. At Coolbawn, as at Doonane, the engines were used to drain the pits of water.  Tighe observed that no thought had been given to using the steam engines to extract coal themselves from the pits, except by the labour of the men. The tunnel that Aher had designed for Doonane would have helped drain the workings and facilitate the introduction of steam engines in extracting coal from the pits.

There was an ongoing debate within the Grand Canal Company itself over the appropriateness or otherwise of the purchase of the collieries and their exploitation by the company.  The matter came under the review of the House of Commons in 1812.  It appears from these hearings that the reason that the Grand Canal extensions to the collieries did not proceed was because of the expense in paying royalties to a land owner by the name of Dean Walsh.  It is clear from the House of Commons’ reports that the ownership and the management of the collieries remained a matter of some debate with the Grand Canal Company. The distinguished engineer, Richard Griffiths, remembered now for his work on the townland boundaries in Ireland and his 'Griffiths Valuation', reported on Doonane in 1814 noting that the collieries were still being worked and much of their product was consumed in the Athy, Carlow and Kilkenny area, while the remainder was brought by canal from Athy to Dublin, Tullamore and Limerick.

The mines are now gone but the road laid out by John Aher from Athy to Castlecomer continues to serve our town to this day

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Mary Hughes

Christmas is a time of good cheer and good will but is also sadly a time when we mourn the passing of loved ones.  To that long list of the dead our recent Christmas has added several more members of our local community.  Some were better known than others, but all were cherished by family and community alike.

Mary Hughes, known affectionately as ‘Ma’ Hughes, died in her 88th year.  She came to Athy in 1949 when she and her husband Joe purchased No. 51 Leinster Street which previously housed Dooley’s Bakery.  For the next 51 years she carried on a drapery business at the corner premises, retiring 11 years ago. 

From Borrisokane in Co. Tipperary she worked for a while as a nanny for a wealthy Catholic family in Portadown where she met and married a widower, Joe Hughes, with two children.  The move to Athy in 1949 was a merciful escape from the savage bigotry which prevailed in Portadown of 60 years ago, but which by all accounts has since somewhat lessened and is still today nevertheless evident in the County Armagh town.  Mary and Joe Hughes would rear 11 children to add to the two children which Joe had with his first wife.  Theirs was a happy home and the Hughes children added enormously to the community life, firstly of Leinster Street and later of the wider town of Athy. 

Mary’s husband Joe died in 1990 and 11 years later ‘Ma’ Hughes retired from business and went to live in her newly built house at Shanrath, Athy.  She was a wonderful enterprising businesswoman for whom her Catholic faith was an important part of her everyday life. 

Her son Brian, now living in Canada, who like myself attended the local Christian Brothers School, returned to Athy for his mother’s funeral.  It was Brian who told me that another old school mate from the 1950s, Frank Power, passed away last September in Vancouver, Canada.  Frank’s father was an official in the Bank of Ireland in Emily Square and the Power family lived in Janeville House which is now lying vacant in the laneway leading to the newly built Church of Ireland Hall.

A sad coincidence was the passing of Barrowhouse residents Marie O’Meara who worked in Perry’s of Duke Street and Lily Langton, widow of the late Denis Langton.  Both will be sadly missed by their families and friends.

Mary Miller, wife of Johnny Miller, with whom I attended school and often played football, also passed away.  The loss of a lifelong partner is a tragic loss and my sympathy goes to Johnny and his family.  Just a few weeks ago I wrote of Zoltan Zinn Collis, a wonderfully brave man who with his sister Edith survived the horrors of Belsen Concentration Camp.  Little did I know that within two weeks of Zoltan’s death his beloved sister Edith would herself pass away while staying with the Collis family over the Christmas period in Athy.

Sean Doherty who worked for so many years on Benny Anderson’s farm also died over Christmas and as I am writing this article I have learned of the deaths of Val Mackey and Elizabeth Rigney.  Val was a former ambulance driver who on retirement set up a taxi business.  He was an exceptionally nice man whom I never knew to be offensive to anyone and who worked long and hard hours at his business.  Elizabeth was a sister of the late Martin Rigney and had been a patient in St. Vincent’s Hospital for some years past.

Mrs. Bridget Howe, the mother of a large family and Mary Kate Byrne of Maganey, aged 108 years and reputedly Ireland’s oldest person, are also remembered in this callover of members of our local community who passed away over the extended Christmas period.  Readers of this column will have memories of many of those who have recently gone to their maker and the community’s collective sadness at their passing is a reflection of the esteem with which each of them were held.

Returning to ‘Ma’ Hughes, on the last day she opened her shop for business in 51 Leinster Street I took photographs of the shop interior and of Mrs. Hughes and staff and the customers who came to wish her well.  By a strange coincidence I came across the photographs about a week before she died but to my embarrassment I cannot now remember where I put them.  But for that omission this Eye would have been graced by a photograph of ‘Ma’ Hughes’ emporium and of the good lady herself.

My sympathies go to the families and friends of all those who departed this life over the Christmas festive season.  Each and every death is a loss not only to a family but also to the wider community and on their passing we acknowledge those who in so many different ways contributed to the life of our local community here in Athy.