Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Ernest Shackleton's cabin

Two weeks ago a delegation from Athy Heritage Centre Museum travelled to the Municipality of Saltdal in the far North of Norway.  The purpose of the visit was to see Shackleton’s 'Cabin'.  The cabin is the last surviving remnant of the exploration ship the Quest which Sir Ernest Shackleton voyaged towards the Antarctic in 1921, on what would be his last expedition.  In that very cabin on the 5th of January 1922 the great explorer Shackleton died of a heart attack.  After the expedition the ship was bought by a Norwegian boat builder Johan Drage who removed the cabin from the deck of the Quest and brought it to his family home where it has been preserved for almost 90 years.  The current custodian and owner of the cabin is Johan Drage’s great grandson, Ulf Bakke.  After a visit to Athy in March Ulf Bakke felt that Athy Heritage Centre Museum might be an appropriate new home for this important cultural artefact.  Negotiations are ongoing at the moment and if they prove fruitful it is hoped that the cabin will be unveiled at the Ernest Shackleton Autumn School this coming October.

The cabin was at the heart of momentous events in Norway during the German invasion in 1940.  A British expeditionary force was dispatched to Norway in the spring of 1940 by Winston Churchill.  The troops included the first battalion of the Irish Guards.  Amongst their number was second lieutenant Denis Fitzgerald.  The London born Fitzgerald’s father was Lord Henry Fitzgerald, a younger son of the fourth Duke of Leinster and like many of the Leinster family Denis joined the British army at a young age.  On the 14th of May 1940 the Irish Guards were being transported to the Saltdal region on a Polish ship the Chobry.  At midnight the ship was bombed by German aircraft while Fitzgerald was having a shower in his cabin.  With a fellow Irish guardsman, O’Shea, he escaped death by crawling through a porthole and dropping into the sea.  Fitzgerald would publish in 1949 the history of the Irish Guards in the Second World War which, unusually for regimental history, is populated with a lot of detail about the officers and men of the regiment. 

Fitzgerald was not the only soldier with Irish connections serving in Norway.  A fellow officer in the Irish Guards was Lieutenant John Kennedy.  Kennedy was from Bishops Court in North Kildare, from a family whose roots in the County went back to the late 17th century.  Although schooled in Britain, Kennedy spent much of his summers in Kildare and was a popular member of the Kildare Hunt.  Kennedy, along with Fitzgerald, was commended for his gallant conduct during the attack on the Chobry.  The citation states that they 'displayed great calmness and courage and did valuable work in rescuing and caring for the wounded and they were one of the last to leave the ship.  Many lives were saved by the display of coolness in their ability to organise the men'.   Kennedy particularly saw much action with the regiment over the next couple of days. His coolness under fire impressed an officer in the Norwegian army Captain Ellinger.  He wrote “a British plane appeared over us.  I wanted to signal the pilot to help us against enemies on a wooded hill on a right flank to which we were unpleasantly exposed.  An Irish ensign Kennedy, was very helpful, forming an arrow made up of men lying on the ground.  The plane came quite low and the pilot waved to us that he had understood and proceeded on to the target.  We held this position for two hours.  When I was told that the evacuation of Rognan was completed, I then put my men on the lorries and we drove on very tired but very happy”.

In or about the 25th of May 1940 the Irish Guards found themselves in the vicinity of Saltdal trying to hold back the German offensive. 

The cabin in the grounds of Johan Drage’s house was the site of a skirmish between German and British troops and an Irish guardsman died in the vicinity of the cabin.    The guardsmen retreated back to the biggest local town Bodo and shortly after were evacuated back to England. They left behind them six fallen comrades all buried in the main churchyard of Saltdal including the soldier killed at Shackleton’s cabin.  Among those buried in the Saltdal graveyard is 28 year old Norman Jordan from Belfast, 21 year old Michael Arthur Donnelly from Dublin and the Enniskillen born William Rankin.   John Kennedy would go on to fight in North Africa, Italy and the campaign to liberate North-West Europe. Having fought for almost 5 years he died in February 1945 in Holland, two months from war's end

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Griffin Hawes Limited

Griffin Hawes occupy an important and historic building on Athy’s main street but perhaps more importantly the now familiar trading name is part of our local vocabulary.  It was 45 years ago when three young men, none of them natives of Athy, set up a hardware shop in what was previously Mansfield’s Drapery shop.  Brothers Mervyn and Dermot Griffin joined forces with Wesley Hawe to open their hardware shop on 9th May 1969.  The Griffin brothers were from Tinahely, Co. Wicklow and Dermot was working in Duthie Larges Athy, as was Monaghan man Wesley Hawe before they embarked on a lifetime commitment of developing their own business.  Mervyn Griffin who had previously worked in Duthie Larges returned to Athy to join Dermot and Wesley in the venture.

They were not to know when they acquired the building from Mick Mansfield that the Crown House, as the building was called, had figured prominently in the history of Athy.  Was it, as was once claimed, the site of Athy’s first courthouse which was later the location of Rowneys pawn shop.  W.P. St. John, jeweller and watchmaker, was later to acquire the building from Rowneys and it was he who had the old building demolished and replaced by the imposing building we know today.  When the antiquarian, John O’Donovan, was carrying out his place name enquiries in the 1860s he noted that the Crown House was reputed to have been the lodging house for judges and barristers while attending the assizes in Athy. 

If this was not enough a hexagonal stone building standing within the precincts of the Crown House was later identified by the late Niall Meagher as the town’s former cockpit.  It’s strange to acknowledge that cockfighting was once a popular sport in Ireland and would remain popular well into the 20th century.  The Athy cockpit which now forms an integral part of the Griffin Hawe hardware shop was shown on the 1827 estate map prepared for the Duke of Leinster.  Interestingly the 1838 Ordnance Survey map of Ballitore village also records the site of a cockpit just off Cockpit Lane halfway between the Friends meeting house and the Quaker school.  The presence of a cockpit in a Quaker village confirms the widespread appeal of cockfighting as a popular sport in Irish communities of several generations ago. 

It is to the great credit of Griffin Hawes that the three directors agreed to co-operate with Kildare County Council on a restructuring scheme which involved the tedious restoration of the cockpit roof structures as well as the walls of the old building.  The result was a superb restoration job which rescued the one time cockpit which at various times, following the outlawing of cock fighting, was used for housing cattle and stabling horses. 

When Mervyn and Dermot Griffin with their colleague Wesley Hawe opened up for business on 9th May 1969 they aimed to have a store geared to supplying under one roof every possible need in the hardware and builders providers trade.  It was an objective which by dint of hard work they have achieved.  Business recessions have seen the once busy market town lose not one but at least two hardware store competitors.  Duthie Larges and Telfords have departed the local commercial scene, leaving Griffin Hawes alone to celebrate 45 years in business.

Mervyn Griffin and Wesley Hawe have retired from the business to be replaced as Directors by George and Stuart Griffin, sons of Dermot who still retains an interest and an enthusiasm for the business founded with his brother Mervyn and friend Wesley 45 years ago.  Dermot is justifiably proud of the company’s achievement in staying to the forefront of commercial life in Athy.  As a founder member of Athy’s Credit Union he is the proud holder of Credit Union membership card no. two, having at an early stage accepted the invitation of the late Tadgh Brennan to help in the formation of the local branch.

The staff in Griffin Hawes have made a major contribution to the success of the firm over the years and many of those staff members have lengthy service records.  Anne  Prendergast was office manager for 34 years retiring in 2007, while her colleague for over 30 years, Mary Dunne, is still working in the office.  Staff past and present include Carmel Bergin, Anne Nolan, Catherine Kehoe, Joe Brophy (since ordained to the priesthood), Eamon Bambrick, John Butler, Pat Kenna, Eoin Fennell, Martina Myles, Maurice Flinter, Michael Donnelly, Jim Prendergast, Maureen Frazer, Rhona O’Connor, Anthony Nolan, Tony Martin, Peter McEvoy, Bertie Watchorn, Robert Sullivan, Eileen and Katie Ashbolt, Michael Shannon, Bob Lalor and Gary O’Brien and the late deceased employees John Joe Murphy, John Summers, John Prendergast, Tommy Walsh and Andy Smith.  I am conscious that other names may be overlooked but whether mentioned or not Dermot Griffin generously acknowledges the contribution that staff past and present have made to the continuing success of Griffin Hawes. 

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Famine and Cholera in Athy

Adding to the problems of the people of Athy who had already endured four years of famine was an outbreak of cholera in the town in June 1849.  By the 29th of September of that year twenty seven cholera cases were recorded and eleven local cholera victims had died.  A temporary cholera hospital was opened in the town and funds intended for the relief of famine had to be diverted to deal with the cholera epidemic which would remain a threat to public health until the following year. 

Not every town in County Kildare was affected by the cholera epidemic.  Naas for instance remained free of the dreaded disease.  From the 7th of June until the 3rd of October 1849, 141 cholera cases occurred in Maynooth with 47 deaths but not a single case was recorded in Kilcock, only four miles away.

Cholera, which thrived in the unhealthy overcrowded conditions to be found in the narrow lanes and courts of urban settlements, had previously occurred in Athy in 1834.  At that time the treasury had advanced the sum of twenty pounds to the Select Vestry of the local Church of Ireland which had responsibility under the Vestry Act of 1772 for public health in the town of Athy.  The cholera outbreak in 1849 was more serious that the previous occurrence adding fear to the distress and hunger of the local people.  While many cholera deaths were recorded one wonders how accurately deaths caused by the cholera outbreak and those occasioned by malnutrition or other disease were distinguished.  In the 1851 census details of deaths in hospital and sanitary institutions in the period of the 6th of June 1941 to the 31st of March 1851 were detailed.  For Athy the opening of the local workhouse in January 1844 marked the effective commencement date for the census figures given a period which apart from the initial one and a half years largely coincided with the famine years.  During that time a total of 1,205 paupers died in Athy workhouse and the local fever hospital. 

Athy’s population which in 1841 numbered 4,698 had fallen to 3,873 in 1851, which latter figure excluded the inmates of the workhouse.  This represented a loss of 825 persons or a 17.5% decrease.  Between 1831 and 1841 Athy’s population had increased by 4.5% and if one assumes a similar increase for the 10 years to 1851 the town’s projected population would have been 4,909 at the end of that period.  The famine can therefore be seen to have caused a fall in Athy’s population of upwards of 1,036 persons, or a 22.5% decrease.  Of course not all of these losses resulted from famine deaths or cholera deaths.  Emigration to America and England and migration to Dublin city where the population increased during the famine years no doubt accounted for some of the decrease in the town’s population.  Consequently the exact losses attributed to the different factors which contributed to the reduction in the town’s population can now be accurately determined. 

An examination of the minute books of Athy Town Commissioners for the years of the Great Famine shows no reference whatsoever to distress, disease or famine in the town of Athy.  This might suggest that for whatever reason the plight of the poor people did not figure prominently on the political agendas of the day even during the local elections of August 1847.  It might also indicate the possibility that local distress was on a scale no worse than that experienced in the past. 

The absence of any famine related references in the town commissioners minute book coupled with the holding of a Town Council election during ‘Black 47’ may not be especially significant given the fact that the Board of Guardians were charged with responsibility for the workhouse and for the provision of outdoor relief.  The decline in the population, the rise in the workhouse numbers such as to necessitate the opening of two auxiliary workhouses in Athy during the famine and the huge numbers fed at the local soup kitchens all point to widespread distress in South Kildare during the years 1845-1849. 

That there was a workhouse in place in Athy before the potato blight struck undoubtedly served to enable the civil authorities and others to respond to the emergency in a manner which helped minimise the number of deaths in South Kildare from disease and starvation.  Another important factor was Athy’s location among the richest arable lands in Ireland and the existence of a local landlord class sufficiently well off to fund the activities of the local Board of Guardians as first they provided relief in the local workhouse and later outdoor relief for those in need.

The Famine National Commemoration Day took place on Sunday 11th May with ceremonies centred in Strokestown, Co. Roscommon.  On the same day members of Athy’s community led by clergy from the local churches gathered in St. Mary’s cemetery to remember the local victims of the Great Famine.  The lonely graveyard of St. Mary’s where the workhouse dead were buried in unmarked graves was for a short time on Sunday afternoon a place of prayer and remembrance for those unknown men, women and children who succumbed to hunger and disease over 160 years ago.  They should never be forgotten.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

1937'38 Folklore Project and South Kildare Schools

On Tuesday, 6th May at 7.00 p.m. Mary Orford from Kilcullen will give a talk in Athy’s Town Hall on the 1937/38 School Folklore Project, with particular emphasis on the local schools involved.  These schools included the Christian Brothers, Convent of Mercy, Skerries, Kilberry, Levitstown and Churchtown National Schools.  Copies of the original scripts submitted by some of the young pupils 75 years ago will be on display.  It will be a unique opportunity for family members of those pupils and hopefully some of those pupils themselves to see the work which now forms part of Ireland’s historic folklore collection.

The following are the names of the school children who took part in the Folklore Project.

Anthony Byrne,  Rathstewart                         Donnacha O’Maoldownaigh, Foxhill
John Day, Barrack Street                                Joe O’Rourke, Canalside
Joseph Leonard, Blackparks                           Peter O’Rourke, Geraldine Road
Dominic Logue, 6 Bleach Cottages                Martin Rigney
Hugh McEntee, Dooley’s Terrace                  John Wall, 2 Bleach Cottages

Mary Connor                           Castlemitchell
Eileen Heydon                                    Brownstown
John Nolan                              Rheban
Eileen Prendergast                  Churchtown
Brigid Walsh                           Rheban
Mary Wright                           Castlemitchell

Winnie Day                             Town Hall
Madge McCauley                   32 Leinster Street
Nora Moran                             Graiguecullen

Daniel Brennan                       Bert Cross
Kathleen Fitzpatrick
Patrick Fitzpatrick
Edward Pender
Margaret Hutchinson
Mary Hutchinson
William Hutchinson

Josephine Byrne
Kathleen Kenna

Patrick Berry                           Skerries
Laurence Blanchfield              Youngstown
Brigid Dempsey                      Chapel Farm
Julia Dempsey
Lizzie Dunne                           Kilmeade
Nancy Fleming                        Fontstown
Christy Heffernan                   Fontstown
Nancy Gilligan                        Rathconnell
Kathleen Gilligan
Nancy Kavanagh                    Ardellis
Sadie Keegan                          Springhill
Joseph Mahon                         Ballinabarna
Paddy Molloy                         Booleigh
Frances Redmond                   Ardnagrass
John Tansey                            Ballitore

The lecture which will commence at 7.00 p.m. is free and should prove of interest, especially for family members of the young pupils who took part in the Folklore Project so many years ago.