Tuesday, June 24, 2014

The Irish Volunteers in Athy

The Irish Volunteers were formed at a public meeting in the Rotunda, Dublin on 25th November 1913.  This followed a meeting in Wynne’s Hotel Dublin eleven days previously when a provisional committee headed up by Eoin MacNeill was appointed.  Included on that committee were The O’Rahilly, Bulmer Hobson, P.H. Pearse, Sean McDiarmada, Eamon Ceannt, Sean Fitzgibbon, J.A. Deakin, Pierce Beasley and Joseph Campbell.  The initial meeting was called in a response to an article by Eoin MacNeill in which he called on Irish Nationalists to arm themselves in defence of Home Rule.  It was also a response, not unexpected, to the earlier arming of the Ulster Loyalists in opposition to Home Rule. 

The volunteer movement developed quite rapidly and so far as I can ascertain the first volunteer group in County Kildare was formed in Athy on 9th May, 1914.  Volunteers had formed in Carlow town on 30th April and in Portlaoise, then Maryborough, just six days before the Athy group was formed.

Monasterevin and Castledermot volunteer groups followed later that same month and before long every area in South Kildare had a company of Irish Volunteers.  The books of reference prepared by the Department of Defence in 1949 for use by the investigation staff of the Bureau of Military History confirms the formation of Irish Volunteer companies in Wolfhill on the 6th of June, Vicarstown on the 2nd June and Ballitore on the 7th of August, 1914. 

A report in the Kildare Observer on 8th April 1914 gave a detailed account of Irish Volunteers from South Kildare on manoeuvres. 

‘Athy Battalion accompanied by St. Michael’s prize band and St. Patrick’s Band, a mounted troop, ambulance and nursing corps held a route march on Sunday last.  Leaving Athy about 3 o’clock 500 strong the four companies under Captains Bergin, Doran, Glespen and O’Brien marched to Moone.  On the way Bert, Narraghmore, Foxhill, Kilmead and other units joined the Battalion.  A short rest was permitted at Birtown.  On arrival at Moone, Castledermot, Belan and local sections received the visitors.  A meeting was held subsequently and speeches delivered.’

The occasion appears to have been the recent formation of the Irish Volunteers in Moone and on arrival in the village a public meeting was held chaired by the local curate, Fr. Francis O’Donohue.  Fr. O’Donohue, who was ordained two years previously, served as curate in Moone from 1913 to 1921 and died aged 49 years in 1935.  Addressing the assembled volunteers he spoke of the spirited enthusiasm in the parish of Moone and how the splendid gathering of volunteers gave an impetus to the volunteer movement.  J.B. Deegan of Athy also spoke, warning that the volunteers would get more rifles in spite of the government and ‘when all of the volunteers of the country were armed they would know what to do.’

W.G. Doyle, whom I believe was a school teacher who retired in the late 1950s as principal of Moone National School, welcomed the volunteers.  Referring to the Howth gun running following which British soldiers shot and killed a number of civilians on Dublin Quays Mr. Doyle said ‘the lives of three Irish people were lost a few days ago in Dublin by being murdered by Scotch soldiers who should be called the Kings own butchers.’  Concluding Mr. Doyle expressed the hope that his words would have the effect of helping the volunteers to stand together and if necessary ‘to die together in the glorious cause of freedom of Ireland.’

The four volunteer companies from Athy were led by Captains Bergin, Doran, Glespen and O’Brien.  Captain Bergin was J.J. Bergin of Maybrook.  Glespen was undoubtedly a member of the Glespen family of Duke Street but he has not been positively identified.  As for O’Brien I hazard a guess that it was Stephen O’Brien of Emily Square.  Doran may have been employed by Minch Nortons and was I believe heavily involved in the local G.A.A. Club.  If anyone can confirm any of these details I would be delighted to hear from them.

The Irish Volunteers in Athy not only had infantry corps but also a mounted company as befitting a part of the country where horses were an important part of farming life.  Indeed the Volunteer Cavalry Corps of 1914 followed the example of the Volunteers formed in the 1790s when Athy again had a cavalry corps under the leadership of the Duke of Leinster and Colonel Fitzgerald of Geraldine House.

Athy’s involvement in the Nationalist movement of the pre 1916 period was not limited to the Irish Volunteers.  A branch of Cumann na mBan, which was an auxiliary female corps to the Irish Volunteers, was formed in Athy in July 1914.  On the following 23rd of August a Fianna Eireann branch was also set up in the town.  This was a Nationalist youth organisation first organised in 1909 by Countess Markievicz.  Unfortunately I have been unable to get any detailed information on either of these two groups. 

I feel that there must be records or documents relating to the local Volunteers, the Cumann na mBan or Fianna Eireann to be discovered in Athy.  I would love to hear from anyone who can add to the available knowledge of these nationalist groups who played their part in the events which led to the Anglo Irish Treaty of 1921. 

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Mary English Principal St. Michael's Primary School

“Mol an òige agus tiocfaidh siad” I am reminded as I write the ancient Irish saying of the young girl who came to Athy from the west of Ireland forty four years ago to teach in the Convent Primary School.  She was retracing the journey made in the opposite direction by her mother who with her parents and her siblings left Athy for Westport several decades previously.  The parents were Richard Phelan of Clogh and Frances Lawler of Churchtown who for a period were the owners of the public house in Duke Street later acquired by Barney Dunne.  Mary Grady, granddaughter of Richard and Frances Phelan was joined on her first teaching day in St. Michael’s School by her colleagues Ann Fenlon and the late Mary Lohan, who like Mary had just graduated from Carysfort College.  Their arrival in 1970 followed the intake one year previously of the first lay teachers to be employed in Athy’s Convent Primary School, where at one time upwards of 20 nuns were employed.

I first got to know the woman whom the school children know as the “Prìomhoide”, when as a young girl she met and later married my pal, Frank English.  Sadly Frank is no longer with us to share the memories of those days. 

Mary was appointed Principal of St. Michael’s Primary School on the 1st of September 1993 following the retirement of Sr. Joseph, who was the last of a long line of Mercy Sister Principals stretching back to 1852.  As the first, and to date, the only lay Principal of what is now known as Scoil Mhicil Naofa, Mary English has a remarkable track record as an innovative and inspiring school Principal.  She has overseen the expansion of the school to cater for over 800 pupils while managing staff numbers which in recent years reached a peak of 61 teachers and 32 special needs assistants.  Her drive to provide educational opportunities for those most in need inspired her to address literacy and numeracy issues with special classes and helped  attain special designation for Scoil Mhicil Naofa as a DEIS School.  The extra staff allocated under that scheme guaranteed smaller class sizes so vital for those pupils with special needs.

Thanks to the pioneering work of the Sisters of Mercy and especially Sr. Rosarii classes for traveller children were already in place in the school when Mary took over as Principal.  However, she has managed to integrate those young children into mainstream classes to the benefit of the children themselves and to the wider pupil population generally.

Uniquely, Mary was responsible for establishing special classes in the school for children in the autistic spectrum.  The first such classes commenced in 1998 with 12 children who were bussed to Athy each day from around County Kildare and adjoining counties.  These were the first such classes provided in this region with at one time upwards of 36 children attending.  With the opening of similar facilities in other schools in the area the numbers now attending the Scoil Mhicil Naofa classes for children on the autistic spectrum has stabilised at 30.

Approximately 5 years ago a planned programme was put in place to implement a co-educational policy for all national schools in Athy.  This policy is now fully operational and both Scoil Mhicil Naofa and Scoil Phadraigh Naofa have boys and girls on their roles sharing experiences and learning.  The fact that the transition was made so smoothly is a compliment to the teachers of both schools but especially to the Principals involved Mary English and Catherine Gillis.

As Principal of Scoil Mhicil Naofa for the past 21 years Mary has seen many changes and dealt with many problems.  Lack of finance is for every provincial school a perennial issue but with the help of the School Board and the Parents Association the former Convent National School has been able over the years to ensure that every pupil irrespective of family background has had an equal opportunity to progress their education to their best advantage.

Over the years I have been aware of the multi faceted range of activities engaged in by pupils of Scoil Mhicil Naofa.  Encouraged by their teachers the young pupils have embarked on many projects from pairing with Northern Ireland School pupils to the very latest project, the publication of a newspaper.  Parents have always been encouraged to participate with their children and the Halla Mòr has on many occasions hosted gatherings of pupils, teachers and parents celebrating yet another successful project by the young pupils of Scoil Mhicil Naofa.

Mary English has been to the forefront in encouraging her teachers and pupils to widen their experiences and knowledge by participating in these school projects.  She has proved to be an innovative leader of her school and now retires after 21 years as Principal with only one regret – that the new building to meet the needs of co-education is not yet in place.  However, Mary can look back on a career marked with success. Perhaps her greatest achievement is having developed an inclusive school where learning potential is maximised irrespective of one’s culture, religion or social background.

Happy retirement Mary.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Edmund Burke and Lord Downes

Strolling recently through Gerrard Street, London, now the centre of London’s Chinese community, I came across a blue wall plaque which read ‘Edmund Burke, author and statesman lived here’.  He is just one of many Irish men and women who have been remembered with plaques placed on public and private buildings in London. 

Burke, who was born in Dublin, attended the Ballitore Quaker School before graduating from Trinity College Dublin.  He is recognised as having had more influence on the world of political thought than any other man of his time.  Burke was a lifelong friend of Richard Shackleton, with whom he attended the Quaker school in Ballitore which was operated by Shackleton’s father.  He corresponded with Shackleton throughout his lifetime and following Shackleton’s death with Shackleton’s daughter Mary Leadbetter.

Burke arrived in London in 1750 having enrolled in the Middle Temple as a law student some years previously.  He subsequently gave up his legal studies and in 1756 he published his first book, ‘A Vindication of Natural Society’.  That same year he married Jane Nugent and became a Member of Parliament.  Two years later he bought an estate in the Buckingham village as it then was of Beaconsfield. 

Beaconsfield lies about 25 miles from London and it is here that Burke, who died a year before the 1798 rebellion, is buried.  He lies within the little parish church of Beaconsfield with his wife, his only son and his brother.  Burke, anticipating that attempts would be made to have him buried in Westminster Abbey, stipulated in his Will that he was to be buried with his son Richard who died aged 34 years in 1794.  The English House of Commons did indeed agree that the honour of internment in Westminster Abbey be afforded to Burke’s remains but the explicit instructions in Burke’s Will overruled this. 

In the Beaconsfield Church between the pews there was once a large brass plate in the form of a Celtic cross set into the flags with the following inscription.  ‘In the vault beneath in a wooden coffin lie the remains of the Right Honourable Edmund Burke’.  The inscription continued with the explanation that it was place there in 1862 by a number of Burke’s friends including Lord Downes ‘their object being to mark the grave of the greatest of their name’.  The plaque was subsequently removed and replaced with a simple plaque with the name ‘Edmund Burke’. 

Lord Downes lived in Bert House, Athy.  As the former Sir Ulysses de Burgh he succeeded his uncle, the first Lord Downes, who died unmarried in 1826.  The first Lord Downes who had also lived in Bert House was the Chief Justice of Ireland, having been appointed in place of Lord Kilwarden who was assassinated in Thomas Street, Dublin during the Emmet Rebellion of 1803.  The former Chief Justice was the son of Robert Downes, one time Sovereign of Athy Town Council.  It was his successor, the second Lord Downes, who donated the clock which now adorns Athy Town Hall.  He did so in 1846 soon after the Borough Council of which he was a member was abolished.  The Borough Council in turn purchased a bell from the first Anglican church which was located in Emily Square and hung it on the Town Hall.

There are also two memorials on the interior church wall to Burke.  The higher of the two wall plaques reads ‘near this place lies interred all that was mortal of the Right Honourable Edmund Burke who died on 9th July 1797 aged 68 years.  In the same grave are deposited the remains of his only son Richard Burke Esquire representative in parliament for the Borough of Malton who died on the 2nd of August 1794, aged 35 and of his brother Richard Burke Esquire, Barrister at Law and Recorder of the city of Bristol who died on the 4th of February 1794 and of his widow Jane Mary Burke who died on the 2nd of April 1812, aged 78.

The lower of the two wall plaques is in two parts.  The upper part consists of a bust of Burke and the lower of the Burke coat of arms with the inscription ‘Edmund Burke patriot, orator, statesman lived at Butler’s Court, formerly Gregonies in this parish from 1769 to 1797.  This memorial placed here by public inscription records the undying honour in which his name is held, July 9th 1898.

Beaconsfield is also the last resting place of G.K. Chesterton who died in 1936.  His burial took place in the Catholic cemetery in the town and his grave is marked with a tombstone sculpted by Eric Gill.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

The end of 199 years of local government in Athy

After 499 years of municipal government Athy Town Council, successor to Athy Urban District Council, Athy Town Commissioners and Athy Borough Council will shortly be no more.  The opportunity to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the granting of Athy’s first Charter has been denied to us.  On many levels the disbandment of town councils is a regrettable retrograde step.  Even as I pen this article, just two days before our town council goes out of business, there is still huge uncertainty as to how Kildare County Council will deal with the competing needs and aspirations of the different urban centres within the county.  The desire for decentralisation, which was a topic of discussion and debate in the 1960s and later, has ended in a move towards centralisation and abandonment of the local government model which saw governments and state departments share authority with local communities.

In recent weeks and at a critical time in the run up to the local elections it was announced that funding was being provided for the Southern Distributor Road, or what we have in the past called the Outer Relief Road.  A subsequent press report described how one million euro was being provided to progress the road proposal.  The ring fencing of the 30 or 40 million euro necessary to build the road was not apparently on offer so we may have to wait for another election to get the additional funding for the long awaited road works. 

The refusal of Athy Urban District Council and its successor, Athy Town Council, to move away from the Inner Relief Road project in favour of the Outer Relief Road was perhaps the greatest mistake made by some of our elected Councillors.  Their failure to act on the wishes of the majority of the local people who supported the Outer Relief Road ended in the Planning Appeal Board’s decision to reject the Council’s plan for an Inner Relief Road.  Further delay was occasioned by a fruitless and no doubt costly judicial review application by the local authority to the High Court in an attempt to overturn the Planning Appeal Board’s decision.

As time passed the Celtic Tiger disappeared, and so did the money which was once so readily available for major road works.  By the time Kildare County Council and Athy Town Council came to realise that the Outer Relief Road was the best option, funding was no longer available.  The opportunity had been lost and now we must I presume rely on forthcoming elections to squeeze funding from a shrunken public purse for a road project which is long overdue.

With the abolition of Athy Town Council their minute books will, I understand, be archived in the County Library in Newbridge.  The earliest minute book for the years 1738-1783 is in the Public Records Office in Belfast and records the limited work of the Sovereigns of Athy and the 12 town burgesses, all of whom were nominated by the head of the Kildare family.  Court Leets, presided over by the town sovereign, a feature of 18th century local government in Athy, were mentioned in the minute book.  This was a court which tried petty offences and also regulated the production of bread and ale within the town boundary.  It was a function no longer exercised by the town commissioners of the 19th century.  In October 1887 the minute book of the town commissioners recorded the appointment of a committee to form a fire brigade in the town.  Agreement was reached to purchase 12 zinc buckets and a barrel or tub ‘for the better working of the fire engine’.

When we come to Athy Urban District Council at the start of the 20th century we find the Council after a long period of opposition agreeing to take corrective action in relation to periodic typhoid outbreaks in the town by providing a supply of good water and a sewerage system for the people of Athy.

The Town Council of this century saw many of its functions taken over by Kildare County Council and the emergence of voluntary housing associations.  In turn the Council sought to exercise a role in the economic regeneration of the town, complemented by a similar role in the social and cultural life of the town.  A limited measure of success in both roles marked the final years of Athy Town Council.

After 499 years of town government we are left with what my late colleague Paddy Wright often described as ‘the fag end of the county’, only now it will be governed from Naas.