Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Seán Óg O Ceallacháin and Athy

The recent death of Seán Óg O Ceallacháin sent me searching amongst my sports books and in particular amongst the G.A.A. books on my shelves.  Seán Óg’s name appears as the author or co-author of several books on our national games but it was ‘Seán Óg His Own Story’ published in 1988 which held most interest for me.  His life story, which had another 25 years to run when the book first appeared in print, detailed his involvement in amateur dramatics and Gaelic sport before he became the world’s longest serving sports reporter.

He recalled the Dublin Drama Group ‘Walkinstown Players’, of which he was a member, visiting Athy on several occasions, the first time on 4th March, 1954 when Walter Mackens play ‘Home is the Hero’ was staged in the Town Hall.  Seán Óg remembered that occasion which was marked by exceptionally bad weather and a good reaction from the local audience.  ‘Despite a terrific gale, snow, hail and sleet, theatre lovers in the town turned out in force to see a play about which much had been written in the daily Press.  The audience reaction to the play was fantastic, and indeed pleasing from our view point.’  Seán Óg and his colleagues had travelled to Athy to put on the performance in aid of the Churchtown and Kilberry School’s improvement fund. 

The following year the Walkinstown Players again performed in Athy, this time in St. John’s Hall.  T.C. Murray’s one act play ‘Spring’ was performed prior to being put on in the All Ireland Drama Festival in Athlone, together with a repeat performance of the three act play ‘Home is the Hero’.  The Dublin group was being facilitated by Athy’s Social Club Players in their preparation for the All Ireland Drama Festival.  Seán Óg in his memoirs referred to ‘our good friends in Athy’ and went on to explain how the ‘reaction of the audience helped immeasurably in polishing up the production.’ 

Athy was apparently a welcoming venue for the Walkinstown Players for Seán Óg recalls another performance in St. John’s Hall.  This time ‘Bugle in the Blood’, a play by Listowel national teacher and author Bryan McMahon was performed on the Thursday and Sunday before Christmas to a packed hall.

Seán Óg, who won a Leinster Senior Hurling Championship with Dublin, also played Gaelic football.  He joined the Clanna Gael Football Club in 1945 and played on the club’s senior team with Athy man Tommy Mulhall.  Tommy, regarded as one of the best, if not the best footballer to have played with Athy, was a county and interprovincial Gaelic football player.  He transferred from the Athy club to the Dublin based club Clanna Gael when he left his native town to work in the city. 

Seán Óg is best remembered during the latter part of his career as the voice of the Sunday evening G.A.A. results programme.  His past connections with Athy may not be so well known, but his book which he signed for me so many years ago makes an interesting addition to any Athy man’s library.

In recent years there has been a veritable avalanche of books published on G.A.A. matters, with players, managers and clubs all committing their stories to print.  Last week I purchased what at first sight appears to be a wonderfully detailed book with an imaginative layout on the history of the St. Stephen’s G.A.A. club in Kilkenny.  Written by Tommy Lanigan, it is possibly one of the most comprehensive club histories I have ever come across.  Here in County Kildare a number of clubs including St. Lawrences, Castledermot, Clane, Naas, Carbery and Kilcock have all produced club histories, copies of which I have been lucky to acquire over the years.  Apart from booklets produced for the Rheban and Castlemitchell clubs and the earlier mentioned books on St. Lawrences and Castledermot, nothing has yet been published on the first G.A.A. club established in South Kildare.  The Athy Club was of course that club.  Can we hope that someone will take on the task of committing to print the story of the club which gave us such great players as Tommy Mulhall, George Comerford, Danny Flood, Mick Carolan, Michael Foley and the young emerging stars of today.  I would like to think that the Athy G.A.A. Club history is a book, which sometime in the future, I can add to my collection of G.A.A. club histories. 

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Municipal Government in Athy

In four months time Athy Town Council will hold it’s Annual General Meeting when the incoming chairman of the Council and first citizen of Athy will be elected for the following year.  If Minister Hogan’s proposals for the reorganisation of local government goes ahead as planned it will be the last A.G.M. of the Town Council.  It will also mark the end of an annual election procedure which dates back to 1515. 

It was Henry VIII, the man who gave himself many wives and gave us the Reformation, who in happier times, at the request of Gerald Fitzgerald, the Earl of Kildare, granted a Charter to the inhabitants of Athy.  It was due to the Earl of Kildare’s ‘agreeable and fruitful service’ and for the greater safety and security of the town which was positioned on the ‘frontier of the March of our Irish enemies’ that the grant was made.  On the same day an almost identical charter was granted to the town of Kildare, another Fitzgerald stronghold.

The primary purpose of the charter was to licence the inhabitants of Athy to ‘erect, construct, build and strengthen the same town with fosses and walls of stone and lime’.  It also entitled the locals of Athy each year on the feast of St. Michael, the Archangel to ‘elect and make among themselves one Provost to guard and govern the said town.’

It is from that charter of almost 500 years ago that we date the start of municipal government in Athy.  During those five centuries the form of local government has been altered several times.  The original borough council headed up by an elected Provost was replaced by a Borough Council and an elected Sovereign following a further Charter granted by James I in 1611.  At the same time King James granted borough status to an additional 46 other Irish towns and villages, bringing to 101 the number of borough Councils in Ireland.  His action was prompted by the desire to further the plantation of Ireland and to secure a Protestant majority in parliament.  This was achieved by empowering borough Councils to elect members of parliament and Athy Borough Council returned two members of parliament until 1800 when the Act of Union was passed.

Athy Borough Council was itself abolished following the passing of the Municipal Corporation Reform Act of 1840.  That first reform of Local Government in Ireland resulted from the undemocratic nature of the borough Councils such as Athy where the franchise was vested solely in 11 members of the Council, all of whom were nominated by the Duke of Leinster.  The Duke effectively controlled the borough council and few, if any, of the local residents were ever nominated/elected to it.  Indeed Catholics were excluded from membership of the borough council from 1691 and even Dissenters were excluded from membership, because of the Test Act, until 1780.  The first and only Catholic elected/nominated to sit on Athy Borough Council during the years following 1691 was Thomas Fitzgerald of Geraldine House who was a member from the early part of the 1800s.

The abolition of Athy Borough Council left the town without municipal government for a few years until the local residents petitioned Dublin Castle to adopt the status of Town Commissioners.  This resulted in the first ever democratic election even if the electorate was restricted and thereafter there developed a party political system which many will feel has weakened local government in this town ever since.  The Town Commissioners were in turn replaced by an Urban District Council in 1900 and a few years ago the name was changed back to Athy Town Council.

Common to all these bodies extending back to 1550 was the right of their members to elect a leader, initially a Provost, later a Sovereign and then from the 1840s a Chairman.  As first citizen of the town the Provost and later the Sovereign had extraordinary wide powers, including the raising of tolls and the holding of Municipal Courts.  The present chairman of Athy Town Council has none of these powers but he still occupies a key role in the municipal affairs of the town which for right or wrong will no longer be the case following the implementation of Minister Hogan’s local government reforms.

The pity is that the Minister feels it necessary or desirable to put his reforms in place.  It is not clear whether this is for financial reasons or because of dissatisfaction with the present Local Government structure and its apparent inability to deal effectively and efficiently with the needs of modern day living.  Whatever the reason the loss of municipal self governance enjoyed by the town of Athy for almost 500 years will be a sad blow for the town.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Johnny Watchorn and Mai Preisler

Within the space of a few weeks Athy has lost two of its most stalwart campaigners.  You may think it strange of me, or indeed of anyone else, to regard any person as a campaigner on behalf of the town which has grown from a village to town through uncounted generations.  For their part Johnny Watchorn and Mai Preisler would have seen their active participation in so many aspects of town life as the normal requirements of community living.  But their involvement in the life of Athy went far beyond that normally expected.  Johnny Watchorn was an exceptional individual who for almost 80 years made an enormous contribution to the town of his birth.  Equally Mai Preisler, although not a native of Athy, was a person who made a significant contribution to her adopted town over several decades.

I have come across press reports of the young Johnny Watchorn in the last 1930s when he graced the stage of the local Town Hall.  In those early days Johnny was a committed member of the Athy Musical Society.  His working life encompassed such diverse roles as legal secretary to local solicitor Henry Grattan Donnelly who in the 1940s had offices over what was then Maxwell Motors of Duke Street.  Johnny later joined Charlie Maxwell’s firm as a car salesman and he would in time become a director of Maxwell Motors which continues in business to this day.  It was as a campaigner and a consistent advocate for the development of Athy that Johnny stood out amongst his peers over several decades.  He was a founder member of Athy Development Association which was responsible for establishing Athy’s first industrial estate.  The realisation that job creation was the lifeblood of the community prompted Johnny and his colleagues in the Development Association to focus their talents and energies on the difficult task of attracting new industry to Athy.  Their successful work, voluntary and unpaid, which as time went on was largely unacknowledged, nevertheless gave Johnny and his colleagues in the development association justifiable pride and satisfaction.

Growing up in Athy I knew of Johnny Watchorn but it was only when I came back to the town in 1982 that I came to realise the extent of his contribution to the local community.  Apart from being a successful businessman he was also hugely encouraging of any effort to improve the commercial and social life of the town.  Numerous were the meetings I attended of different organisations and groups in the town over the years and invariably Johnny Watchorn was in attendance to lend his assistance and encouragement to the task in hand. 

He was a man who loved his native town and whose contribution to its wellbeing was unequalled, but perhaps Johnny would regard his work in the Lions Club at local and national level as perhaps his most important legacy.  As part of the largest charitable organisations in the world, Athy Lions Club was formed in 1971.  Johnny Watchorn was a founder member of the Club and remained a member until his recent passing.  A past president of Athy Lions Club, he was for many years a member of the National Executive of the organisation and devoted much of his time to promoting the work of Lionism in Ireland.

Mai Preisler was a campaigner on environmental and planning issues who with her late husband Jens was an extremely active member of An Taisce for many years.  At one time that much maligned organisation was the only recognisable safeguard this country had against the sometimes appallingly destructive proposals of developers who were so often assisted and facilitated by politicians of questionable standards.  Mai lent her support at difficult times for An Taisce, ever mindful that our generation are but the guardians of a built and environmental heritage which must be passed on to future generations.  It was Mai with Megan Maguire and others in the local branch of An Taisce who successfully campaigned over 40 years ago to stop the demolition of Athy’s Town Hall.  That fine building which might otherwise be long given over to car parking spaces is now home to the town’s heritage centre and the local library.

Johnny Watchorn and Mai Preisler were campaigners whose contributions to Athy were important in terms of community awareness and enrichment.  Their passing is a loss to the local community of which they were a part for so many years and our sympathies go to their families at these sad times.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Athy in the 1860s

Athy Regatta was held in 1859 and again in 1860 when victory in the principal race went to two locals Daniel Cobbe and Thomas Dillon.  An interesting aside to the race was the attempt by Cobbe and Dillon to purchase a newly built boat owned by John Haughton of Ardreigh Mills to use in the race.  However, their opponents, local men by the name of Doran and Delaney, sealed the deal for twenty guineas by using the newly installed electric telegraph, while Dillon was still travelling from Athy to Ardreigh to negotiate a deal.  Cobbe and Dillon had no option but to acquire ‘Gypsey’, a Carlow boat.  Thousands thronged Athy for the race and ‘Gypsey’ oared by Cobbe and Dillon won by a dozen lengths in a time a little over 9 minutes.  The newspapers report noted that ‘when the victors were on terra firma they were placed on chairs triumphantly carried through the town proceeded by their boat and oars.’

Two weeks later the People’s Park was the site for the holding of the Kildare, Queens County and Carlow Horticultural Association Show which was being revived after a lapse of seven or eight years.  The following May the same association held its spring show in Athy’s corn exchange. 

The summer of 1861 saw excitement on Duke Street when two gunsmiths, Michael Melay and William Cullen had a race along the length of Athy’s main street.  Melay was on a velocipede, while Cullen was using his own hand driven invention which he called ‘the patent ziramza’.  Both men, whom I assume were locals, were subsequently prosecuted by the local Council under the Town Improvements Act.  No doubt many of the town’s population of 4,113 enjoyed the event and gave much needed business later that day to the town’s 44 public houses. 

The difficulties which affected the Athy horserace meeting seem to have transferred to the regatta as in 1861 the regatta committee, for whatever reason, was not disposed to hold the annual event.  Messrs Cobbe and Dillon who had won the Corporation Challenge Cup the previous year for boats and crews from Athy, challenged the regatta secretary to hold the regatta.  When the committee took no steps to do so Cobbe and Dillon arranged to row the course and claimed their second victory.  The two locals were of course anxious to win the valuable silver trophy three times in succession as they could then claim ownership.  In 1862 when the regatta committee again declined to organise the annual races Messrs Cobbe and Dillon issued a challenge which was taken up by two locals, Delany and Keeffe.  The race was won by Dillon and Cobbe who then claimed ownership of the Corporation Challenge Cup which was never again raced for and Athy regatta races were never again held. 

Somewhere today there may be a silver cup once known as the Corporation Challenge Cup which was the centrepiece of the once popular annual regatta which brought thousands of spectators onto the streets and river banks of Athy.

The 1860s were seemingly a bad period for Athy for in addition to losing the county assizes to Naas and the closure of the local jail, sporting Athy lost in quick succession the annual horserace meeting and the annual regatta.  Undaunted some locals tried to reverse the town’s fortunes for in July 1862 the local newspaper reported ‘Athy pony races came off on Wednesday in a small but well laid out course about 10 minutes walk from Athy ..... the programme comprised two pony races, hack, donkey and men racing.’

Two months later the inaugural exhibition of the Kildare Agricultural Society was held.  August the following year the People’s Park was the venue for the inaugural reunion of the Grand Leinster Archery Fete held over two days.  A large marquee was erected in the park, while the archery contest for men and women took place in the adjoining field which was walled in.  The band of the 86th Regiment performed in the park, while on the road outside were ‘cigar or light men, roulettes, targets, etc.’

Neither the horticultural show nor the archery contest proved attractive for the locals as the subsequent newspaper report claimed:  ‘We regret to learn that the inhabitants of Athy and neighbourhood did not come forward to the support of the recent archery meeting in the manner they might.  Last year there was a similar complaint to make with respect to the agricultural exhibition and if there is not some person energetic enough to keep up the credit of the town we fear it may even be minus the latter.’

The horticultural show did survive and in 1864 it was held in a large marquee on the same day and in an adjoining field as the county cattle show.  Was this, I wonder, the earliest reference to the Showgrounds which in time would become the homes of the GAA Club, the Rugby Club, the Soccer Club and Athy’s Tennis Club?