Wednesday, March 26, 2014

William Connor / Benjamin Pelin

I have often wondered to what extent farm labourer militancy (if I could call it such) in South Kildare was due to the influence of William Conner of Inch or for that matter Benjamin Pelin of Ballindrum.  Neither of their names are likely to be recognised today but in their time they were leaders of agrarian movements which for a time gripped the attention and the support of a great number of Irish people.

William Conner lived at Inch just outside Athy.  He was a cousin of Fergus O’Connor, the Chartist and it’s not surprising that despite being a wealthy individual he devoted the best part of his life and a considerable amount of his personal fortune in furthering the cause of Irish tenant farmers.

He first came to public notice when he published a pamphlet in 1822 on agrarian disturbances in County Cork.  Ten years later he delivered a speech on Rack Rents which he later published in pamphlet form under the title the “Speech of William Conner Esquire against Rack Rents, etc.”.  In 1840 another Conner pamphlet was published which he called “The Axe Laid at the Root of Irish Oppression” in which he expressed similar views as those outlined in the earlier publication.  Two years later at a public meeting in Mountmellick, Conner attacked Irish landlordism and subsequently found himself facing charges at the Maryborough sessions.  He was sentenced to six months imprisonment which he served in the local jail.

In 1843 the Devon Commission was set up to examine the state of the law and procedures relating to land occupation in Ireland.  Conner published another pamphlet, “A letter to the Right Hon. the Earl of Devon on the Rack Rent Systems” in which he set out his now well established views.  The Commission reported two years later but its principal recommendation that outgoing tenants be compensated for improvements was not passed into law.  Around the same time Conner was expelled from Daniel O’Connell’s Repeal Association for advocating  a strike of tenant farmers and the withholding of rents until rents were adjusted downwards.  Undeterred William Conner published two letters addressed to the Times newspaper on the subject of Rack Rent, but included in it’s introduction a bitter denunciation of Daniel O’Connell and the other Irish politicians.  Conner was apparently not prepared to accept criticism of his long held views as to the best way forward for tenant farmers.  This lead to a split between himself and that other great agrarian agitator Fintan Lalor which culminated in a dispute between them at a public meeting in Holy Cross, Co. Tipperary in 1847.  Conner was described by Lalor as a mischief maker, while Lalor was in turn accused by Conner of having “rack rented his tenants”.

Within two years Lalor was dead.  Conner continued to publish his well expressed views on rack renting and freedom of tenure which he referred to as “perpetuity of tenure”.  His ideas were subsequently adopted by the Tenant League of 1850 and within time formed the basis of Gladstone’s legislation which gave the Irish tenant farmers the three, fixity of tenure, fair rents and freedom of sale.  Conner’s later years are shrouded in mystery.  I have been unable to unearth any information of when or where he died.  He is not mentioned in the Irish history books.  William Conner is the forgotten agitator who born to wealth spent his life fighting for the cause of Irish tenant farmers.

Almost 50 years separate the Inch resident William Conner from another agrarian agitator, Benjamin Pelin of Ballindrum, Athy.  Pelin who was born of farming stock was 40 years of age when on Sunday, 19th June 1892 he called a meeting for Narraghmore to address issues relating to tenant farmers and landless labourers.  He later explained that the meeting was arranged at the request of a large number of local farmers and labourers concerned at the poverty of the former and the low wages, uncertain employment and bad housing of the latter.  Patrick Byrne, a local man, was appointed chairman of that meeting.  He described himself as a laboring man with a wife and seven children who during “the past 45 years has been working as hard as I am able.  I have had to send away one of my children because employment was scarce in the neighbourhood and now at the turn of life if I happen to be laid up with sickness for three or four weeks, unless I get assistance from neighbours my little house will be broken up”.  Continuing, Byrne claimed that within 100 perches of where he lived was rich fertile soil which as long as he could remember had been “a walk for sheep and bullocks, if my family had the privilege of cultivating this soil I would not have to send away my son for want of employment”. 

He then called upon Benjamin Pelin to explain the purpose of the meeting.  Pelin who received a warm reception from those in attendance posed the questions, “Ask a farmer with 20 acres of poor land trying to support a wife and large family and he will tell you if he got a reduction in rent and security of tenure, all would be well.  Ask a large farmer and he will tell you that what the country wants is a Land Purchase Act that will enable the farmers to become owners of their farms.  A labourer in Narraghmore will tell you that a cottage and a whole acre is what the poor man wants.”  In a lengthy speech Pelin made a case for founding “The Knights of the Plough Union” claiming that “every additional plough set going in this parish means permanent employment for three more men, every additional man means an addition to the wages of the toiler and as the competition for labour increases the social conditions of the people must improve.”

The meeting unanimously agreed to establish the Knights of the Plough and Benjamin Pelin was appointed as its first president, M. McDonald its secretary and John Shannon as treasurer.  The principal objects of the Knights as outlined at the meeting were “to gain possession of the 15 million acres of rich lands of Ireland robbed from the toilers by the landlords and graziers and given over to bullocks and sheep while the people are driven to the roadside, the city slums, the emigrant ship and the poorhouse.”

The final resolution of that first meeting of the Knights of the Plough which was passed unanimously read “that we the working farmers, labourers and artisans of Narraghmore Parish form an organisation to reduce our rents, to compel the rich lands of the parish to be cultivated, to increase the wages of labourers and provide a pension for all labourers over 65 years of age.”

The name of the organisation established at that Narraghmore meeting was obviously prompted by the American Union – The Knights of Labour.  Founded in 1869 the Knights of Labour was initially a secret organisation and one of the earliest American labour groups which in the 1880’s was successful in expanding its operations to become a nationwide union with membership open to all workers.  Under the slogan “an injury to one is the concern of all”, the Knights of Labour unionized labourers and skilled workers and after much success in having labour legislation passed into law, sought a reduction in working hours to eight hours a day.  Agitation for the eight hour day included strikes in Chicago in 1886 which lead to serious conflict between strikers and police, resulting in the death or injury of six strikers.  A strikers meeting called to protest against police brutality ended when a bomb was thrown into the ranks of policemen, killing seven and injuring many more.  That awful incident contributed to the delay for a generation of the adoption of the eight hour day and to the subsequent demise of the Knights of Labour which within a few more years was virtually non existent.

However, when Benjamin Pelin called a meeting for Narraghmore in June 1892 the Knights of Labour were still active in organizing American labour and undoubtedly Pelin’s choice of name, “Knights of the Plough” was influenced by the American Union.


I would be interested in hearing from anyone who may have information on the final years of Benjamin Pelin’s life.

Athy's Mace

Just a few months before I returned to Athy in 1982 the then Urban District Council was engaged in a lively debate on the merits or otherwise of acquiring the mace of Athy Borough which was to be auctioned in Sotheby’s of London on 18th March of that year.  The Councillors were, with one exception, in favour of purchasing the silver mace, the only dissenting voice being that of Councillor Paddy Wright who described the item as “a relic of British imperialism”. 

The County Manager, Gerry Ward, agreed to pursue the matter and he authorised Seamus O’Conchubhair, the County Librarian, to bid up to £10,000 at the auction for the mace.  The estimate given by Sotheby’s was in the region of £5,000 and £9,000 and the Council was to be assisted by the Bank of Ireland who agreed to donate £2,500 towards the purchase price.  The mace which was made by Dublin silversmith, John Williamson, in 1746 weighed 187 ounces and stood 46 ½ inches high.  Originally it had been presented by James Earl of Kildare on the 29th of September 1746 to the Borough of Athy.  James had been a Member of Parliament for Athy Borough from 1741 to 1744.  His father, the 19th Earl of Kildare, died in 1744 and James succeeded to the Earldom.  He was later created Earl of Offaly and Marquess of Kildare and finally Duke of Leinster in 1766.  James was father to Lord Edward Fitzgerald, the 1798 patriot, and to William Robert Fitzgerald who would succeed his father as the second Duke of Leinster.  Athy’s main streets were renamed William Street, Duke Street and Leinster Street after the second Duke when he officially opened Augustus Bridge over the newly built Grand Canal, which bridge was named for his surviving eldest son, Augustus Frederick, who would in time become the third Duke.  The second Duke’s eldest daughter Emily gave her name to what was previously known as Market Square in the centre of the town. 

The mace was intended to be carried by the Sergeant of Mace in front of the Town Sovereign as he and the other Borough officials paraded to and from Borough meetings.  A mace was originally a heavy metal club for battering in chain mail.  Later, because of its resemblance to a sceptre, it was used to symbolize high rank and was generally ornamented with an arched crown at its head and often made of precious metal.  The officers of Athy Borough Council in the 18th century were the Sovereign, two bailiffs, twelve burgesses, a recorder, three Sergeants of Mace, a Town Clerk, a Treasurer, a Bellman, a Weighmaster and an Inspector of Coals and Culm.

The Borough of Athy was abolished in 1840 being one of the many “rotten” Boroughs where the twelve Burgesses who comprised the Borough Council were elected for life by the Duke of Leinster.  Inevitably the Burgesses acted in accordance with the Duke’s instructions and as such did not represent the democratic will of the local people.  Athy Borough, with a number of similar  Boroughs in Ireland, were consequently abolished to be replaced by democratically elected Town Commissioners.  The last Sovereign of the town of Athy was John Butler whom I believe lived in St. John’s House in what is now Edmund Rice Square.  An inscription on the mace reads: “This mace, presented to John Butler by the Corporation of Athy, November 1841”.  The only other inscription found on the silver mace reads: “The gift of the Rt. Honble. James Earl of Kildare to ye Borough of Athy September 29th 1746.”

It is believed that Thomas Butler, son of the man who was gifted the mace in 1841, sold it to the Duke of Leinster in January 1876.  The Irish newspapers of February 1982 carried details of the Sotheby’s auction in which the Athy mace was to feature as one of the more interesting and historical items for sale.  Apparently it had formed part of the estate of the Duke of Leinster whom the Evening Herald of the 27th of February 1982 claimed had “died in poverty in London a few years ago.”

Sotheby’s Auction took place in London on 18th March and Seamus O’Conchubhair, acting on behalf of Athy U.D.C., was unsuccessful in his attempt to have the ancient mace returned to its original home.  A London silversmith by name Richard Vander bought the mace for £15,000 Stg., buying it he said “on a whim because I liked it.  It is one of the finest specimens of a mace for this period and is in remarkable condition”.  He did not rule out the possibility of it finding its way back to Ireland: “If the interest is there, it might end up in a museum in Ireland”.

The exquisitely carved silver mace did not come back to Ireland.  Indeed I remember writing to Mr. Vander at the time to clarify his plans for the mace but there was a deafening silence from across the Irish Sea.  I never knew where the mace was located until recently when on a trip to the Texas University town of Austin I journeyed to San Antonio, home of the famous Alamo.  With a population of something over one million, the former Spanish settlement has a large number of museums, including a Museum of Art which was opened in 1981 in a former brewery.  The museum is home to an array of Greek and Roman antiquities, Asian art, Latin American art and holds a small Irish silver collection, amongst which is to be found the Athy Borough mace.

It was quite an extraordinary feeling to see for the very first time the mace which for almost 100 years symbolised the power and majesty of the corporation of the Anglo Norman town on the River Barrow.  I had previously seen the Naas and Carlow maces in the National Museum in Dublin, but both are quite small compared to the almost majestic 46 ½ inches of exquisitely worked silver which makes up the Athy mace.  Photographs of the mace which I had seen did not do it justice and I had not realised what a truly splendid piece it was until I saw it on exhibition in the San Antonio museum.  I returned a second day to take some photographs of the mace and accompanying this article is one of the many photos taken on that occasion showing the former District Council Chairman who was a successor to the Town Sovereigns of an earlier century standing alongside the Athy mace. 

The description given on the exhibition case reads “Mace of the Borough of Athy, John Williamson, Dublin 1746-1747 chased with the arms of George II and of Fitzgerald and the emblems of Great Britain, France and Ireland.  Presented by James Fitzgerald (1722-1773) 20th Earl of Kildare”.

The mace was included in an exhibition of Irish silver at the De Witt Wallace Decorative Arts Gallery in Williamsburgh, Virginia in 1992 and in the San Antonio Museum of Art in 1993-’94 where it still remains.  The catalogue for that exhibition entitled “The Genius of Irish Silver – a Texas private collection” includes a photograph of the Athy mace. 

The Athy mace now shares, for me at least, pride of place with the legendary Alamo as the star attraction in the Texan town of San Antonio.

Photographs of opening of St. Michael's Parish Church

Older residents of the town will remember the huge fund raising activities which went into the drive for funds for the construction of St. Michael’s Church in the town.  They included weekly house-to- house collections, parish draws, card drives, whist drives, sales of work, concerts, bingo nights, a drama festival, football matches and exhibition golf matches.  This community effort was rewarded when the church was opened and blessed by John Charles McQuaid, Archbishop of Dublin on 19th April 1964.  This week the Eye features two photographs of what the Nationalist of April 24th 1964 headlined “GREAT DAY IN ATHY PARISH”.   The first photograph shows the Archbishop inspecting the Guard of Honour provided by the 6th Field Artillery Regiment F.C.A. under the command of Lieutenant F. McGowan.

The second photograph shows a procession preceding the Archbishop and prominent among them was the Parish Priest of the day, the Very Rev. Vincent Steen, Fr. Mitchell, Fr. Corbett and sub-deacon Brendan Houlihan.  I would like to hear from readers who can help me identify anyone else in the photographs.

Noel Scully

He has often been described as “the last of the old style butchers”.  It’s a claim which finds favour with Noel Scully, but I’m not so sure that it is strictly correct.  Whether it is or not is unimportant for Noel Scully is undoubtedly a great ambassador for the sawdust era of butchering when butchers did their own slaughtering in the rough and ready slaughterhouses which were to be found in Athy up to twenty or so years ago.

Noel left school a few weeks short of his 14th birthday and got his first job in Tim Hickey’s butcher shop in Emily Square.  Interestingly, Hickeys was next door to the town Shambles which was the area set aside for the display and sale of meat during earlier centuries.  Every town had its shambles and this was the only place within the town boundaries where meat could be sold.  To return to Noel, when he started with Tim Hickey it was as a messenger boy and a general helper in the butchers shop.  He worked 55 hours a week for £1.7.6 which in modern currency would amount to €1.75.  Noel stayed working with Hickeys for nearly six years, always hoping that the long awaited apprenticeship to the trade would in time come his way.  It was not to be as in the hungry 1950’s jobs in shops of any description were eagerly sought after and sometimes required a substantial payment to the employer before one could embark on an apprenticeship.  As Noel himself says apprenticeships, especially in Hickeys, were kept for sons of “the people of substance” and so the eager young man from Plewman’s Terrace was not to be accommodated.  Noel left Hickeys and tells me that he found himself without work until my own father who was the local Garda Sergeant got him a summer job in the neighbouring Bord na Mona works.

Noel still hankered after the butchering business and when Brendan Murphy opened up his butcher shop in the town in 1958 he offered Tim Hickey’s one time messenger boy a job as an apprentice butcher.  Athy in the 1950’s had at least six independent butchers.  Ned Ward had two shops in William Street and Stanhope Street, Finbar Purcell was in Duke Street with Kevin O’Toole and Jimmy Martin, while Andy Finn had Barney Day working for him in the shop opposite Mulhalls (now the Castle Inn).  Alfie Coyle had his butchering business in Leinster Street next to Hyland’s present shop, while Tim Hickey had a prime location in Emily Square.  Tom McStay opened his butcher shop at the start of the 1950’s when he bought Wotty Crosse’s little shop in front of the defunct and vacant mill building which once belonged to the Hannons. 

All of the local butchers at that time slaughtered their own heifers and lambs.  Meeting Lane had two slaughter houses, one in McHugh’s Yard used by Tom McStay, the other behind Bapty Mahers used by Tim Hickey and Alfie Coyle.  Finbar Purcell slaughtered behind his shop in Duke Street, while Ned Ward had his slaughter house behind No. 1 Woodstock Street.  The rear of Ned Wynne’s shop in William Street provided slaughtering facilities in the 1960’s for Noel Scully and his predecessor Billy Harris.

I remember witnessing a young heifer going under the pike in Ned Ward’s slaughter house sometime in the late 1950’s.  A pole axe into the forehead was the slaughtering practice of the day, while lambs had a knife drawn across their throats.  None of the local butchers sold pork.  This was the speciality of Ernest Herterich who killed pigs at the rear of his shop in Duke Street.  The other butchers collected blood from their own slaughtering houses which they passed on to Herterichs pork butchers to help make black pudding.

It was an era of butchers blocks and stainless steel hooks with sides of meat hanging from cross irons in the ceilings of local butcher shops.  Meat was not pre cut or pre packed, your order was cut from the side of beef or lamb in front of you.  Shopping in those unhurried days was a time consuming chore for the housewife.  You waited your turn while the customers before you had their orders dealt with.  I remember my own mother who shopped in Tim Hickeys constantly trying to get the best cut of meat.  No matter what it was the piece first proferred by Tim or any of his assistants, Frank Kelly, Tim Junior, Tom Byrne would be rejected, the excess fat trimmed off and unwanted bones cut out before the meat was parceled and made ready for the journey back to 5 Offaly Street. 

Noel Scully spent almost ten years with Brendan Murphy before he got the opportunity of opening up his own butchering business in Stanhope Street.  Billy Harris who had served his time in Finbar Purcells had opened up the shop just a year or two previously and decided that he did not want to continue in the butchering business.  Noel Scully’s name went over the door of the Stanhope Street shop and would remain there for almost thirty years.  Noel remembers fondly some of the young men who worked with him over the years, Jack O’Keeffe, Paul and Sean O’Neill who are now in America and his own son Frank.

Noel who has been a Town Councillor since 1999 has always demonstrated a strong commitment to the local community.  In his young days he was a member of the F.C.A. when the voluntary military force had a base at the back of Ted Vernal’s forge in St. John’s Lane.  He recalls some of the men who paraded with him while in the F.C.A. under the command of Michael Dooley of Nicholastown.  Eamon Stafford, Aidan Stafford, Eamon Walsh, Ambrose McConville, Michael Chanders, Thomas Whelan, John Kelly and Joe Brophy were just some of those men who gave of their free time to bolster the efforts of the F.C.A.  It had been Noel’s ambition at a very early age to join the Irish Army but by the time he was old enough to enlist the butchering trade had taken a hold on his imagination and ambition and so his military dreams were confined to parading with his F.C.A. colleagues in St. John’s Lane. 

One matter which Noel brought to my attention puzzled me somewhat.  It was a football match in Geraldine Park between Athy minors and another club team which was played before a county senior game involving Kildare and Carlow.  Apparently Noel was substituted during the game and the young fellow brought on to take his place was myself.  I am not sure if either myself or the team manager Matt Murray took the blame for Noel’s footballing demotion, but fifty years after the event it still figures large in Noel’s memory.  However, I think he has forgiven me for the part I unwittingly played in his substitution that day. 

Sport of another form provided Noel with his greatest sporting achievement.  Irish greyhouse racing to which he was introduced in the 1970’s has four major events, the St. Ledger, the Derby, Oaks and the Produce Stakes.  It was the last of these which Noel’s dog, “Dilly Don’t Dally” won in 1986 to make Noel Scully of Athy the first County Kildare dog owner to win that major prize.  He tells me that one of Dilly’s prodigy has won the same race many years later.

However, his success in the dog courses cannot even compare with the ballroom dancing successes which he shared over the years with his wife Maureen whom he married in 1963.  They both competed in ballroom dancing competitions all over the country winning many competitions between 1970 and 1982 after which Noel became a Judge on the ballroom circuit.  If that was not enough he has chaired for many years the Bleach and District Community Association and with his present role as a Town Councillor he has been kept busy.  Noel is the eldest of five brothers and five sisters and as he looks back over a life of work and community involvement in his native town of Athy he can be justifiably proud of what he has achieved.