Tuesday, January 28, 2014

A plaque for Johan Jagerhorn or a monument to Irish Patriots

I understand that Athy Town Council at its last meeting agreed to erect a plaque in the town to Johan Anders Jagerhorn.  Who is he I hear you cry?  Well it appears he met Lord Edward Fitzgerald in Hamburg in 1796 after they had been introduced to each other at the house of Jagerhorn’s neighbour.  The 39 year old, a native of what was then Sweden but later Finland, never stood on Irish soil.

A man who did was J.J. O’Byrne, a member of Athy’s Sinn Fein Club who, according to the late Hester May whom I interviewed many years ago, stood outside her father’s shop in Duke Street to read the Sinn Fein manifesto in August 1918.  The Nationalist and Leinster Times reporting on the event in its issue of Saturday 24th August 1918 claimed that O’Byrne had addressed a gathering in the town square.  He was one of many others who on the same day throughout Ireland proclaimed the Sinn Fein manifesto in clear defiance of British Rule in Ireland.  J.J. O’Byrne was arrested and tried in Maryborough (now Portlaoise) and sentenced to several months in prison which he served in Maryborough jail. 

Jagerhorn was also incarcerated, in his case for almost two years in the Tower of London following his capture in 1799.  He travelled from Hamburg intending to pass on to Ireland and there to liase with Lord Edward Fitzgerald and the United Irishmen on behalf of the  French revolutionaries.  Included in Volume 2 at page 260 of the ‘Memories and Correspondence of Viscount Castlereagh’ is a detailed examination of Jagerhorn in which he disclosed information regarding Lord Edward Fitzgerald and the insurgent United Irishmen.

A man who did not breach confidence was John Hayden of 7 Offaly Street, Athy.  Captain of the local I.R.A. Brigade during the War of Independence and a teacher in the local Christian Brothers School, he was arrested and imprisoned during the War of Independence.  He was also incarcerated twice during the subsequent Civil War.  John Hayden kept faith with his colleagues and suffered hugely for his involvement in the fight for independence.  At the end of the Civil War he emigrated, as did many of his comrades, to America and remained there for many years before returning to Ireland in the 1930s.

Jagerhorn did play an important part in the establishment of the Finnish homeland and is rightly honoured in that country as a deserving son of Finland.  Many men and women, some local to Athy, others originally not from this part of the country, played their part in furthering the cause of Irish political freedom.  Some lost their lives in what was an unequal struggle.  Others fell to bullets fired by fellow Irishmen in the post treaty civil war years. 

Sylvester Sheppard died at Rosetown on 5th July 1922.  The simple memorial which once marked the place where he lost his life has long disappeared.  The Barrowhouse Ambush memorial to Conor and Lacey is regrettably a poor tribute to two young Irish men who were comrades in arms.  At least their memory is not forgotten and will not be so long as the roadside memorial, poor as it is, remains in place.  Sylvester Sheppard has been forgotten and perhaps the time has come for the Fianna Fáil fraternity in Monasterevin, whose Cumann is named the Sylvester Sheppard Cumann, to replace the missing roadside memorial at Rosetown.

But what of the many local men and women whose involvement in the War of Independence has all but been forgotten?  What about Athy man Mark Wilson who was a volunteer fighting in Dublin during the Rebellion of Easter 1916?  Perhaps it would be more relevant for the Town Council to commemorate these people than to erect a plaque to a Finnish revolutionary.

Joe May was a republican prisoner at Ballykinler Camp, as were Bapty Maher and Richard Murphy.  I have previously written of their involvement in our shared history, as I have of Hester May, formerly Hester Dooley, whose father Michael Dooley is remembered today in the 1930s local housing estate, Dooley’s Terrace.  There are so many more local men and women who deserve to be remembered for their involvement, active or otherwise, in the War of Independence.

Athy in the past has honoured the men of World War I and more recently those who sought political religious freedom as part of the United Irishmen’s rebellion of 1798.  We need to bring the town’s historical commemoration full circle with a suitable expression of gratitude to the men and women of Athy and South Kildare who were part of that final successful push for political freedom which culminated in the Treaty of 1921. 

How about it Athy Town Council?  I cannot understand why you deemed it appropriate or necessary at your last meeting to honour Johan Anders Jagerhorn by erecting a plaque to him in Athy.  It beggars belief, and I believe your decision is a shameful rebuff to the many courageous local men and women who sacrificed so much so that future generations could enjoy the freedom of a self governing nation.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Gerald Manley Hopkins, Francis Thompson and Kensal Green Cemetery

I was walking through rows of forgotten life's.  The grass under foot was wet and in some places sodden with the rainfall of four days previously.  I picked my steps carefully at the same time looking to the right to read the headstones as I passed by.  I was in St. Mary’s Cemetery Kensal Green, London on a Saturday morning to visit the grave of the poet, Francis Thompson.

Thompson regarded with Gerard Manley Hopkins as a leading Catholic poet of the 19th century set out at a young age to be a priest but abandoned his studies for poetry.  Throughout his adult life he struggled with drug addiction and died at 48 years of age in 1907.  The “poet of Catholicism” lived a life of contrasts.   His early failures in studying for the priesthood and later for a career in medicine may have propelled him into a lifelong addiction to opium.  As a result he spent three years as a homeless man on the streets of London until rescued by writers and publishers Wilfred and Alice Meynell. 

Publication of his poetic works followed the intervention of the Meynells but despite his subsequent literary success Thompson relapsed into a life of destitution and drug taking.  He died  of consumption on the 13th November 1907 and was interred three days later in St. Mary’s cemetery Kensal Green.

As the leading Catholic Cemetery in London, St. Mary’s has a significant place in the history of English Catholicism.  The passing of the Catholic Emancipation Act of 1829 and the re-establishment of the English hierarchy in 1850 brought an upsurge in the number of Catholics on the British mainland.  The need for a large cemetery in London for catholic burials was met by the purchase of land which was consecrated and opened in 1858 as St. Mary’s Cemetery. 

St. Mary’s shares a common driveway with the more famous Kensal Green cemetery at the end of which driveway two pathways separate and lead into the adjoining cemeteries.  One is immediately struck by the vast number of Irish names inscribed on gravestones sharing space with Italian names and to a lesser extent Polish names.  Murphy, Doyle, Webster, Howe, McCarthy and even a Taaffe were some of the forgotten lifes I saw inscribed on gravestones as I picked my way carefully in search of Francis Thompson’s last resting place.  The elaborate grave stones favoured by members of the Italian community were not matched by the Irish who opted for more simple grave markers many of which were adorned with shamrocks.

Francis Thompson’s grave is marked by a large plain tomb with an inscription lettered by the controversial English sculptor Eric Gill.  On one end of the tomb is the inscription “Francis Thompson, 1859 to 1907” and beneath it is written the poets own lines “ look for me in the nurseries of heaven”.  On the opposite side of the tomb is a crown of thorns entwined with a wreath of laurel.  A fitting symbol perhaps for a poet who wrote his own epitaph in the concluding lines of the epilogue to “A Judgement in Heaven”.

“A double life the poet lived,
And with a double burthen grieved;
The life of flesh and life of song,
The pangs to both lives that belong”;

Not far  away from Thompson’s grave is that of his benefactor Alice Meynell, herself a poet who died in 1922.  The weathered flat stone which marks her resting place bears only her name and date of death.

As I was leaving the cemetery, I chanced on the fine monument to T.P. O’Connor, Irish member of Parliament described as “Orator, Statesman, Journalist, Irish Patriot, Tribune of the people and citizen of the world”. 

“Tay Pay” as O'Connor was known was a newspaper proprietor and editor as well as an M.P.  He was familiar with the work of Francis Thompson whose most famous work “The Hound of Heaven” opens with the lines:-

            “I fled him, down the night and down the days;
            I fled him down the arches of the years;
            I fled him, down the labyrinthine ways
            of my own mind; and in the mist of tears
            I hid from him, and under running laughter”.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

William Barrington / McKenzie Duel

In early 1787 the 3rd Regiment of Horse, a cavalry regiment, arrived at the Barracks in Athy.  They had been stationed for the preceding year in Clogher, Co. Tyrone.  Amongst their number was a young officer, Robert Rollo Gillespie.  A native of Comber, Co. Down, he had joined the regiment in 1783 very much against his family’s wishes who had anticipated that he would become a lawyer, but he was a man of adventurous spirit and the military life was one that appealed to him most.  During his time in Clogher he made the acquaintance of a Miss Annabel Taylor, the daughter of the Anglican Dean of Clogher.  Having only met in June of 1786 Gillespie and Annabel eloped to Dublin on 24th November 1786 where they were married without the knowledge of either’s family.  Notwithstanding the suddenness of their marriage, the union was welcomed by both families and they returned to Clogher after a short time at Ravensdale, an estate owned by Annabel’s brother in Dublin.  Among their acquaintances at Clogher, and a friend of Annabel’s family, was William Barrington a landowner from Laois whose brother Jonah Barrington would be M.P. for Clogher in 1798.

While they were not long in Athy, living in married quarters in the Barracks, they held a soiree one evening inviting their friend William Barrington and a fellow officer of Gillespie's, Lieutenant McKenzie.  An argument, fuelled by alcohol, broke out between Lieutenant McKenzie and William Barrington, resulting in Barrington challenging McKenzie to a duel the next morning.  Despite the intercession of friends present nothing would dissuade the two from the duel.  Certain sources suggest that Barrington insisted that the duel be held on land belonging to his family in Laois, which appears to have been somewhere half way between Athy and Carlow, but the exact location is not now known.  The next morning both parties appeared at the appointed hour attended by friends.  After an exchange of shots neither suffered any injury.  Accounts differ as to what happened next.  An early memoir of Gillespie suggests that it was proposed that both parties should deem themselves satisfied with the result of the duel shake hands and let the matter be forgotten.  This is something that Jonah Barrington had done at a duel in 1759 and appeared to be a common enough occurrence where both parties had escaped serious injury.  This unfortunately did not occur on this occasion.  Other sources suggest that Barrington, enraged by his failure to wound or kill McKenzie, began a heated argument with Gillespie, while other accounts state that Gillespie was the aggressor in the argument.  In any event a second duel was immediately arranged at handkerchief length, and a single shot from Gillespie’s pistol mortally wounded Barrington.   The memoir of Gillespie’s life published in 1816 suggests that Gillespie sought the forgiveness of Barrington for mortally wounding him, while Jonah Barrington’s own memoirs Personal Sketches of his Own Times suggest that the shooting of his brother was nothing short of murder by Gillespie. Barrington was not present at the duel and his account is coloured by the loss of his brother. He described Gillespie as 'a dangerous man – an impetuous, unsafe companion – capable of anything in his anger'.  Gillespie fled to Athy, then Dublin with his wife, and thereafter to Scotland. Ironically Jonah Barrington would flee Ireland in 1815 to escape his creditors and would end his days in Versaille.

After a number of months in Scotland, Gillespie returned to Ireland and making arrangements in Dublin surrendered himself at Maryborough (now Portlaoise) where he was committed to prison in the town.  At the summer assizes of 1788 and despite a summing up by Judge Bradstreet very much prejudicial to Gillespie, the jury, which included a number of army officers, brought in a verdict of 'justifiable homicide'. 

Gillespie’s life thereafter was to be one of adventure.  After the death of his father in 1791 he went abroad on active service with the British Army.  He was shipwrecked near Madeira on his way out to Jamaica.  He fought wars in the West Indies, India, Java, Sumatra, rising to the rank of Brigadier General and while leading his troops on the 31st of October 1814 attacking the frontier defences of the fort at Kalunga in Java, he was shot through the heart.

His body was brought to Meerut in India for internment and an obelisk was erected to his memory.  A public monument was erected in St. Paul’s Cathedral in London in 1820 and his home town of Comber commemorated him with the erection of a statue to his memory on 4th June 1845.  The monument, a 55 feet high column surmounted with a figure of Rollo Gillespie dominates Comber's main square to this day.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Ballylinan Writers Group

‘Lines from Sleepy Hollow’ is the title of the book launched last week by the Ballylinan Writers Group.  The book is an enjoyable literary saunter, courtesy of an impressive list of local writers ranging from young pupils of Ballylinan National School to the ageless and tireless James Farrell who produced his own book of reminiscences a year or so ago.

Mary Liz Carbery who is administrator of the Molly Kane Writers Centre in Waterford features with her own short story ‘Carol Goes to Eddies’.  This is the second time within recent weeks for one of Mary’s stories to be included in a book of short stories.  Her work first appeared in the Liberty Press publication ‘Little Book of Christmas Memories’ which was launched two weeks ago.  Mary joined such illustrious writers as Roddy Doyle, Dermot Bolger and a host of other well known Irish writers with the inclusion of her story, ‘The Year of the 22’.  Mary was also one of the participants in the Edwardian evening held this week in Cosby Hall Stradbally where she gave a reading to an appreciative audience of one of her short stories.

It has been a great year for Athy based writers, what with the success of Niamh Boyce’s ‘The Herbalist’ and now the emerging talent of Mary Carbery. 

The Ballylinan Writers Group publication features a wonderful collection of short stories, ranging from Tony Lacey’s historical introduction to the village of Ballylinan and its hinterland.  We who live in what was once the garrison town of Athy (as mentioned by Tony) cannot but be envious of the wonderfully extensive history which underpins community life in Ballylinan and its near neighbour Barrowhouse.  It’s a history which comes alive in the essay by Tony Lacey and brought up to date in more recent times in the writings of James Farrell whose experience of life in Ballylinan stretches back over eight decades.

Apart from the pupils of Ballylinan National School there are twelve contributors to the book, all members of the Ballylinan Writers Group.  I understand the Writers Group was set up by Brid Brophy of the South East Laois Arts Committee in 2008.  Meetings are held every two weeks in Flemings of Ballylinan and such well known writers as Ann Egan and John MacKenna have provided writing courses for its members.  Two members of the group who have obviously benefited hugely from their involvement are Bridget Bambrick, who published a book in March 2012 and Ballylinan resident Niamh Boyce, who won this year’s Young Irish Writer of the Year Award.

Their colleagues who have short stories in ‘Lines from Sleepy Hollow’ include Geraldine O’Neill, Dolores McHugh, Mary Carbery, Anthony O’Grady, Liz O’Rourke, Paddy O’Byrne, Aidan McHugh, Marian George, Brid Brophy, Tony Lacey and Jimmy Farrell. 

I end this piece courtesy of a beautiful Christmas card received from John MacKenna, author, playwright and actor with words composed by the man whom I regard as one of the finest Irish writers of his generation.