Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Richard Murphy - Ballykinlan Internee

Research which I carried out in recent years gave me the names of only two Athy men who were interned in Ballykinlar Camp in County Down throughout 1921.  Joe May was arrested on 22nd November 1920 and charged as an I.R.A. officer.  Bapty Maher was arrested around the same time and both were lodged in the guard room of Gough Barracks before being transferred to the former British Army camp in Ballykinlar.  Opened in 1901 the camp had been vacant following the end of World War I but was quickly brought back into use as an internment camp in December 1920 following the assassination of British spies on Bloody Sunday.  The camp was divided into two separate areas, both surrounded by barbed wire fences and each capable of holding approximately 1,000 internees. 

A complete listing of the men interned in Ballykinlar has not survived but efforts to prepare such a list from different sources has revealed that Richard Murphy was another Athy man detained in Ballykinlar Camp in the year immediately preceding the signing of the Anglo Irish Treaty.  His name had not previously been known to me and no address other than Athy was given for him.  Faced with so many Murphy families in Athy I held out faint hope of being able to positively identify the man who over 90 years ago spent almost a year in captivity near the County Down village of Ballykinlar.  I remembered however one Murphy with the name Richard, a school mate and friend of my brother Tony, whose sister Bernie still lives in Athy.  A phone call to Bernie Bowden of Ashville, a sister of that Richard Murphy, brought success.  Richard Murphy, who with Joe May and Bapty Maher was interned in Ballykinlar Camp, was indeed Bernie’s father.  Bernie graciously answered my questions, as did her older brother Billy whom I later contacted that same evening in my attempt to unravel the story of another member of Athy’s freedom fighters.

Richard Murphy was a farmer’s son from Kilcoo, who on leaving school was apprenticed as a motor mechanic to a firm in Cork.  Born in 1894 he later worked for Magees garage in Ardee, Co. Louth.  While working in Ardee he was an active member of the I.R.A. and was the officer in charge of the Ardee Battalion of the South Louth Brigade.  However, this aspect of his career has yet to be properly documented for unfortunately like most men and women involved in the War of Independence Richard Murphy did not talk of the part he played in the drive for independence in post 1916 Ireland.

Conditions in Ballykinlar Camp were the subject of a press report in the Evening Telegraph in March 1921 following an interview with John Rice of Clonegal, Carlow.  He described how many of the prisoners were in delicate health due to the cold and damp conditions in the camp huts.  The food supplied to the internees was described as almost inedible with ‘water soaked potatoes’ supplied with ‘nauseating bacon’ on three days a week.  Sleeping accommodation and sanitary arrangements were described as bad, resulting in ‘disease raging in the camp’.  Several men died while incarcerated in Ballykinlar and Patrick Sloane and Joseph Tormey, both from County Westmeath were shot and killed in January 1921 after they went too close to the wire fence surrounding one of the camps.

The three Athy men were released in December 1921 after spending a year in Ballykinlar Camp.  Their return journey to Athy was an eventful one.  The trains bringing the former internees to the South were attacked by mobs in Portadown and Banbridge.  While the trains were stopped in Banbridge railway station attempts were made by a Unionist mob to get at the men who although weakened by prison camp conditions managed to beat off their attackers.  Eventually the trains crossed into the South, but further trouble awaited those alighting at Thurles station where Black and Tans threw bombs at the train injuring three returning internees, one of whom later died.

Joe May recounted the difficulty the Athy men had in getting a County Down based  railway ticket vendor to understand their request for tickets to travel home to Athy.  Unable to get him to recognise their destination they eventually settled for tickets to Kildare and walked from Kildare town to Athy. 

Richard Murphy who suffered poor health following his year long internment died aged 56 years in 1950, survived by his wife Molly and five children, the eldest of whom, Billy, was just 18 years of age.  Richard, or Dick as he was generally known in Athy, served as a member of Athy Urban District Council from 1928 to 1934.  He carried on a garage and hackney car business in Duke Street next to the then disused Hannons Mill.  He married Molly Dooley, daughter of Patrick Dooley of the bakery, Leinster Street, while his fellow internee, Joe May, married Hester, the daughter of Michael Dooley who was Paddy’s brother.

Richard Murphy was buried in St. Michael’s Cemetery, Athy with members of the Old I.R.A. providing a guard of honour to St. Michael’s Church on the Monday evening and to St. Michael’s Cemetery on the following day.  Richard was one of the forgotten heroes of our country’s struggle for independence, but thankfully his name has now been recovered and will never again be overlooked as we face into several years of remembrance and commemoration of events surrounding 1916, the War of Independence and the Civil War.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Bert House Auction

At a recent book fair in Kilkenny city I bought a copy of the auction catalogue produced by Allen & Townsend Auctioneers of Dublin in connection with the two day sale of fine art and furniture from Bert House, Athy.  The printed catalogue, consisting of 34 pages, came with two extra typed pages of items included in the auction.  The auction itself was held on the 4th and 5th of November 1958, starting at 12 o’clock each day.  Interestingly the directions to Bert House ‘located 2½ miles west of Athy’ were given as via ‘the Athy – Maryboro main road’.  Telephones were apparently not then in common use as evidenced by the telephone number given for Bert House ‘Kilberry 4’.

The auction started on the first day with delph and cutlery, followed by antiques and modern silver items, one of which was described as ‘an important engraved four piece tea and coffee set, Dublin 1845 by Jas Le Bass.’  An extensive range of jewellery was next put under the hammer to be followed by an odd mixture of artefacts ranging from ‘carriage clocks’ to ‘a Persian dagger in sheath’. 

An interesting item and one with a provenance which undoubtedly held interesting connections was ‘an antique silver sword, strap and badge – 3rd Queens Own Bombay Light Cavalry’.  There were also upwards of 15 Bronzes for sale, including a reproduction of Nelson’s Column in Dublin.

The second day of the auction was undoubtedly expected to generate greater interest and higher financial returns than the previous day.  Wednesday saw the auction of cut glass items, followed by antique porcelain and furniture from the drawing room, the ballroom and some ancillary rooms.

Oil paintings, prints, engravings and tapestry works were offered later on that day, with the auction ending with the sale of lace, needlework, embroidery and prayer rugs.  The exquisite furniture, some pieces of which were illustrated in the auction catalogue, included early Chippendale and examples of the furniture makers craft from the continent, with Italian and French furniture figuring prominently.

The paintings offered for sale included the works of several great masters, the purchase of whose work would today generate huge interest and cost a veritable fortune.  The artists identified whose works had hung on the walls of Bert House included Anton Van Ysendyck, Guiseppe Mazzolini, Guido Reni, Jan Brueghel, Sebastian Viancz, Jan Van de Cappelle and Sir Joshua Reynolds.  All these artists are to be found in the great art galleries of the world including the Louvre, the English National Gallery and the Gallery attached to Dulwich College in London. 

The presence of work of such quality in Bert House demonstrates the wealth which was once to be found in the great houses of the Irish landlords of old.  The dispersal of the furniture and paintings from Bert House followed just a few years after similar auctions had been held in Carton House, Maynooth and Kilkea Castle.

The auction results were reported in the Leinster Leader on 15th November under the heading ‘Good Prices for Antiques’.  A total of about £9,000 was realised for what the press report claimed ‘were very good quality articles on sale some of them had been in the house for a couple of hundred years’.  The highest price of €500 was paid for a 16 piece set of tapestry chair covers which were exhibited at the Art Exhibition in Paris in 1922 and were considered to be of superlative quality. 

The most expensive painting at the auction proved to be a woodland scene by 17th century artist Salvatore Rosa whose work found a new home for a payment of £140.  Guido Reni’s painting which today would command a high price was sold for €90.

I wonder what items, if any, offered for sale on those November days 55 years ago remain in and around the Athy area.  I am sure there are stories from the auction of items purchased and now treasured in homes around Athy.

The recent departure from St. Michaels of Fr. Morty O’Shea for parish work in America was followed soon thereafter with news of his serious illness.  Fr. Morty is an inspiring member of the church clergy and every good wish is extended to him for a speedy recovery.

Last week saw the passing at the advanced age of 94 of Mrs. Sheila Stynes, whose husband Tommy predeceased her by almost 57 years.  As a young man I remember Tommy Stynes as a hackney driver who operated out of his premises in Leinster Street.  Only a few weeks ago while interviewing a lady who had worked in Shaws in the 1940s, his name was mentioned as having gallantly come to her aid after she missed her bus in Naas one winter’s evening while travelling to Athy.  Our sympathies go to the Stynes family on the passing of Mrs. Stynes.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Remebering Konrad Peterson

St. Michael’s Cemetery Athy was the scene of an unusual gathering last week when a group of Latvians accompanied by the Latvian Ambassador to Ireland visited the grave of Latvian born Konrad Peterson.

Some years ago I had written of Peterson’s connection with Athy.  Subsequently I received a phone call from an Irish Embassy official seeking further information on the man whom unfortunately I never had the privilege of meeting.  Late last year I received an email from a Latvian journalist who was engaged in writing Konrad Peterson’s biography.  We exchanged information and later in the year I received an invitation to participate in a presentation scheduled for the Stephen’s Green embassy of the Latvian government.  Unfortunately I was already committed and could not attend but last week my journalist contact gave me advance notice of a group visit planned for Peterson’s last resting place in St. Michael’s Cemetery.  It was there I met the Latvian Ambassador Peteris Elferts, the Latvian journalist Sandra Bondarevska and the other Latvians who had come to pay their respects to a hero of the Latvia nation. 

I first came across references to Konrad Peterson in the writings of Todd Andrews whose autobiographies ‘Dublin Made Me’ and ‘Man of No Property’ gave an interesting insight into the troubled times which followed the 1916 Easter Rebellion.  Konrad Peterson who had to flee Latvia in 1907 during the Latvian Revolution of that year came to Dublin to join his uncle Charles Peterson of the pipe firm Kapp Peterson.  He enrolled as a student in University College Dublin and I am told was a participant in the events surrounding the 1913 Dublin lockout. 

Konrad was a friend of the Gifford sisters, two of whom were to marry men whose names figure high in the story of the 1916 Rebellion.  Muriel Gifford married Thomas McDonagh and her sister Grace married Joseph Plunkett the night before he was executed in Kilmainham Jail.  Another Gifford sister Mrs. Sidney Czire who wrote under the nom de plume ‘John Brennan’ gave a detailed statement to the Bureau of Military History in which she referred to the help given by Konrad Peterson to Irish republicans protesting against the visit of the British King and Queen to Dublin in 1911.  ‘John Brennan’ also penned the book ‘The Years Flew By’ dealing with her involvement with Irish Republican activists during the War of Independence. 

Konrad Peterson married an Irish girl, Helen Yates, sometime after he received his naturalisation papers in May 1915.  The couple returned to Riga, the city of Konrad’s birth, soon after Latvia got independence in November 1918.  In Latvia Konrad Peterson is remembered as one of the many young men involved in the 1907 Revolution and as a friend of one of Latvia’s greatest poets, the socialist Janis Rainis. 

Peterson subsequently return to Ireland following a meeting with Tod Andrews at a conference in Sweden.  Andrews, appointed by the Fianna Fail government to head up Bord na Mona, became aware of Peterson’s previous links with Irish republicanism and invited him to take up a management position with Bord na Mona.  Konrad Peterson was to manage Kilberry peat works for many years during which time he lived in Church Road in the house now occupied by the Casey family.  Indeed the late Paddy Casey succeeded Konrad as manager of the Kilberry Works following the latter’s retirement.

Last week a small group of Latvian people, headed by the Latvian Ambassador to Ireland, paid tribute to Konrad Peterson who died in St. Vincent’s Hospital, Athy aged 93 years on 16th January, 1981.  For some time previously he had resided with his daughter and her husband Dr. Dermot Murphy in Whitecastle Lawns, having returned from Canada where all three lived for a time following Konrad’s retirement from Bord na Mona. 

Konrad Peterson’s involvement in the Latvian Revolution and the later rebellion in Dublin gives him a unique place in the respective histories of both countries.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Athy Heritage Centre

Part of Athy’s developing cultural heritage is the Heritage Centre located on the ground floor of the town’s 18th century market house.  Of course that building is no longer used for the purposes for which it was erected in the 1720s for butter markets and egg markets, once the mainstay of the local farming economy, have now long disappeared.  Today the supermarkets have taken the place of the enclosed and open markets for which Athy was famous during the 18th and 19th centuries.  It was a time when the Shambles leading off the market square was the only place licensed for the sale of meat.  Now the Shambles remains in name only, the narrow passageway which led to the mill race running from the eastern side of White’s Castle having long succumbed to development.  The entrance to the Shambles is all that now remains of Athy’s historic meat market. 

The 1820s saw the abandonment of the mill race which when filled in gave us, with the subsequent demolition of St. Michael’s Church, a through road leading from Emily Row to Crom a Boo bridge.  The subsequent reshaping of the town centre and the development of Athy’s quay walls brought a lot of commercial activity with boats docking to unload their cargos at what was previously the slob lands of the medieval town of Athy.

The old market house, now known as the Town Hall, is quite a magnificent building, providing a picturesque backdrop to Emily Square.  The large open space backed by the attractive early 18th century building provides Athy with a very handsome town centre.  There are very few comparable town centres in any provincial town in Ireland and locating the Heritage Centre in the Town Hall was, and continues to be, a wonderful addition to the urban landscape of the town. 

The Heritage Centre is but one of several important elements of the cultural and social life of the town.  Its importance to our understanding of Athy’s past cannot be overestimated.  Nor should we ignore the relevance of seeing the cultural development of our community in terms of what has occurred in the past.  We must learn to appreciate what has been done by those who have gone before us and to understand that every generation makes a contribution to the wellbeing of the community.   The Heritage Centre stands as the focal point for our looking back at past generations.  In doing so we can acknowledge and understand the contribution that those generations have made and hopefully we will learn from what has gone before.

The Heritage centre which has been operating for the past 14 years relies financially for the most part on public contributions made through Athy Town Council and Kildare County Council.  I saw public contributions because the funding for both Councils comes from the public purse, largely by way of rates and taxes.  The other source of funding for the Heritage Centre is from visitor’s admission fees and over the years we have witnessed an increasing number of visitors, including many overseas visitors, stopping off in Athy to visit the Heritage Centre.

In recent times a Friends of Athy Heritage Centre group was set up to help raise funds to facilitate the purchase of historical artefacts and material for the centre.  The Friends group is quite separate from the Heritage Centre itself and is specifically intended to help the centre to enhance and add to the exhibitions relating to the history of Athy and district.

Over the years the Centre has been a recipient of many generous donations, all of which have added to our knowledge and understanding of the town’s history.  Sometimes it is necessary and indeed desirable to supplement that material with items made available for purchase and hence the necessity for a group such as the Friends of the Heritage Centre. 

Membership of the Friends of the Centre gives unlimited access to the Heritage Centre and each Friend receives a quarterly newsletter outlining news of the Centre and events scheduled to take place.  Corporate as well as individual membership is available and details can be had by contacting the Heritage Centre on (059) 8633075.

Last week I mentioned the need for a history of Athy G.A.A. Club and days later I was in the local history department of Newbridge Library looking for press reports on the death of John ‘Skurt’ Doyle.  ‘Skurt’ who was a superb sportsman played for Athy G.A.A. club as well as the county senior team and in later years played rugby for Athy.  He died aged 68 years on 18th July 1953.  A very popular and well known man in Athy, ‘Skurt’s’ passing received, to my surprise, scant coverage in the local newspapers.  I’d like to hear from anyone who may have photographs or background knowledge of John ‘Skurt’ Doyle, as his many sporting achievements deserve to be recorded.  Let me know if you can help.