Tuesday, July 29, 2014

World War 1 and Athy

The first World War marked a change in the nature of war.It also marked the return to foreign battlefields of the fighting Irish. Mons, Gallipoli, Ypres, Somme, Passchendaele were but some of those battlefields where many of the Irishmen who died in battle sunk into the mud, their bodies never to be recovered.  Upwards of 35,000 Irishmen died during the 1914-18 war.Their story and those of  Irishmen who returned home, many shattered in mind and body, is now at last being told.  The men who enlisted in huge numbers following Kitchener’s call for volunteers were on an adventure which they were confidently assured would be over by Christmas 1914.

It was not to be, outflanked by the Germans at Mons the British and French armies dug in and soon a 475 mile long line of trenches stretched across France and Belgium. This was a war which was fought between men in trenches, the essence of which involved attempts to break the stalemate by going over the top.  It meant almost certain death as thousands of men, initially reservists, and professional soldiers and later volunteers stumbled across barbed wire in no man’s land in a desperate attempt to advance into enemy held territory. It was stalemated slaughter.

On the first day that men went over the top at the Somme, the British army suffered 60,000 casualties including approximately 19,000 dead.  This was the heaviest one day loss in British Military history.Massive artillery barrages and the use of gas poison from early 1915 added to the frightening experience facing Irishmen who a few months previously had seldom travelled beyond the limits of their home towns or villages.

These were the Irishmen who were encouraged by their home town church and civic leaders to volunteer to fight abroad. Many as members of the Irish Volunteers formed in Athy on 9th May 1914 in Castledermot eight days later and in Kilcullen on 1st July 1914 answered the call to arms by their leader John Redmond.
Support for Home Rule, the operation of which was suspended for the duration of the war, prompted many Irish men to joined the British Expeditionary Force. Even without Redmond’s encouragement many young men quickly committed themselves on hearing Kitchener’s call for volunteers. The excitement of travel abroad, the glamour of a uniform, the fact that most people supported the war and by no means least, the generous separation allowances paid for wives and children proved persuasive to young men for whom a life of unemployment and poor living conditions was the everyday alternative.

The British Army  mobilised over 9 million soldiers of which over 900,000 died during the war. The figures for Irish men serving in the British army are in the order of 250,000 of which approximately 35,000 died.

Of the Irishmen who returned from the war, their memories were for the most part to remain untold and unrecorded.  The Irish political landscape had changed during their absence. The 1916 Rising and the subsequent execution of its leaders culminated in the overwhelming success of the Sinn Fein party in the general election of November 1918.  The Irish public’s support for the war had dissipated long before that election and the drive for Irish political independence sidelined the soldiers who had fought overseas. Their stories, their memories were irrelevant to a people to whom the British uniform signified the enemy.

Despite this Remembrance Sunday ceremonies were held by the ex soldiers and comrade halls were built during the 1920’s as social centres for the men of the Great War. However the election of the first Fianna Fail government in 1932 marked a major shift in Ireland’s politics and so marked the beginning of the end of widespread remembrance day commemorations in Ireland. The men of 1914-18 forgotten in the drive for independence in the post treaty period now felt further isolated as their country entered into the economic war with Great Britain. Their involvement in the 1914-18 war was not regarded as part of our shared history.
Such was the position throughout the 1940s, the ‘50s and the ‘60s.

In 1988 in Athy from where so many men had enlisted a few friends organised a Remembrance Sunday ceremony in the local cemetery.  It was the first time in almost 55 years that the south Kildare town had publicly acknowledged the contribution of a previous generation of Athy men.  It was some years later before the Irish publics attitude to World War 1 remembrance began to change. That change  in attitude, I believe was largely due to one man, Kevin Myers, Irish Times journalist and columnist, who persistently wrote of the Irishmen’s involvement in the Great War. It was Kevin Myers who brought the forgotten story of Irishmen’s involvement in that war to the attention of the Irish public. His work led to others taking an interest in that overlooked part of our shared history. Today as we approach the centenary of the start of the Great War the Irish nation can be said to have at last acknowledged and to have honoured, as is their due, the men and women who suffered the horrors and the slaughter which marked  the 1914-18 war.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Athy's Lions Club

Athy Lions Club is part of a worldwide organisation which prides itself on being the largest charitable organisation in the world.  Forty three years ago the first meeting to establish a branch of the Lions Club in Athy was hosted by the Kilkenny Lions Club in the Leinster Arms Hotel.  The Club’s Charter, dated 29th June 1971, is now on display in Athy Heritage Centre and records the names of the twenty four  founding members of the club.  The first President of Athy Lions was the late Des McHugh of Duke Street and happily four of those original members have maintained their membership of the club over the years.  Ken Turner, Michael Dwyer, Gerry Cleary and Trevor Shaw are founder members and as such the longest serving members of the club which meets once a month in the Clanard Court Hotel. 

During the past year the Athy Lions have provided assistance to a large number of community based organisations in South Kildare.  These include the Care of the Elderly, Athy Carmelites Fund, Athy Soccer Club, Barrowline Water Sports, The Special Olympics Group, Athy Wheelchair Association and the local Mental Health Group.  In recognition of their contribution to the development of cultural activities in the community the Lions Club also gave grants to the Shackleton Autumn School, the Bluegrass Festival and the organisers of the St. Patrick’s Day Parade.

Apart from financial assistance to those various local groups the Lions members made their own individual contribution by way of voluntary work with a number of community health projects.  At the recent County Show held in the Geraldine Sports complex Lions members manned a stand where opticians offered free eye testing.  This was part of a nationwide Lions project called ‘Fight for Sight’ which resulted in 10% of those tested being referred for glaucoma related treatment. 

Athy Lions Club with the help of Lions members from neighbouring clubs offered free diabetic screening tests at the National Ploughing Championships when they were held in Cardenton.  This initiative was continued last year by Lions Clubs in the South East where the 2013 championships were held.  Another unique community health project undertaken by the Lions Club locally is the ‘Message in a Bottle’ scheme which Lions International initiated some time ago.  Its purpose is to provide information on medication needs and allergies of people living alone for ambulance personnel or other medical personnel attending the person at home in an emergency.  The information on medicines and allergies are noted and put in a bottle to be stored in a fridge, the front door of which displays a sticker indicating the presence of the ‘Message in a Bottle’.  Ambulance staff and medical emergency staff are familiar with the scheme and find it most helpful in averting possible medical mishaps due to lack of knowledge as to an individual’s medication or allergies.  Supplies of the kit are available free of charge from the Lions Book Shop which is located alongside the Post Office in Duke Street or from local pharmacies.

The Lions Book Shop opened last year in vacant premises kindly made available by Shaws and is open to the public from Tuesday to Saturday inclusive.  It is staffed on a voluntary basis by honorary Lions Member Alice Rowan who over the past year has turned the shop into a veritable treasure trove of second hand books.  It has proved to be a most successful venture, providing a useful and much desired facility for readers and book lovers alike. 

Perhaps the most unique project undertaken by the local Lions Club since its foundation was the provision of sheltered housing in the grounds of St. Vincent’s Hospital in 1989.  This project initiated by the Lions Club in conjunction with the Health Board resulted in the building of ten houses which are available to elderly persons.  The houses so provided have proved to be a wonderful addition to the community based health facilities in Athy and South Kildare. 

The work of the Lions Club seldom receives publicity as much of the good work of its members is done quietly and discreetly.  Given the publicity regarding the use of charitable donations to meet salaries and administrative staff of some charities Athy Lions can proudly claim that ‘we care about every cent’.  The Lions Club helps the local community in a number of ways with every cent collected going directly to good causes.  Not one cent is spent on administration, the cost of which is borne by the members themselves. 

Upcoming Lions Club events to raise funds for local charities include a cycle rally in September and an auction in November.  The Club also has a webpage which you can access at www.athylionsclub.com.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Athy's railway footbridge

The foot bridge across the railway tracks at the local railway station has always been presumed to be an integral part of the fabric of the 166 year old railway station.  But for the first 40 years of its life Athy’s railway station was without a foot bridge.  During that time the ‘down’ platform was accessed by crossing the tracks at the Carlow end of the platform.  This arrangement was to change following a tragic accident which was reported in the Nationalist and Leinster Times of 13th February, 1886.  John Hamilton, described as ‘a newspaper vendor’ was struck and killed by the 7.25 a.m. Kilkenny train as he attempted to cross the railway tracks at about 100 yards from the place assigned for passengers and the public to cross. 

At a subsequent meeting of Athy Town Commissioners Mr. M. Doyle raised the need for a foot bridge across the railway at the Athy station.  He proposed ‘that owing to the late accident at Athy station we entreat the railway company to put up a foot crossing as the lives of the people are at all times in danger from the present arrangement.’ 

The foot bridge which now allows safe passage from one platform to the other has a plaque with the following lettering:-  ‘Arrol Brothers Germiston Ironworks Glasgow 1886’.  Was there I wonder any connection between the Arrol Brothers and the Arrol Johnston car company, both located in Glasgow?  The latter company founded in 1895 by Sir William Arrol and George Johnston manufactured the Arrol Johnston motor car, the 1902 model of which is on permanent exhibition in Athy Heritage Centre. 

Just a few hundred yards away from the Heritage Centre is  the other example of the fine engineering skills of the Scottish steel and iron industry of the latter part of the 19th century.  Unfortunately I have been unable to discover what connection, if any, there was between the Arrol brothers, manufacturers of Athy railway station’s footbridge and the Arrol Johnston car company which gave us the famous Arrol Johnston car.  Neither sadly have I been able to discover any information on the unfortunate John  Hamilton, whose death in February 1886 prompted the railway company to erect a footbridge which is still in use today.

I have received a number of queries from people living outside Ireland seeking information on past family members. Paddy Kane, now retired in England, is seeking information on his maternal grandfather, Michael Nolan.  His name was recorded on Paddy’s mother’s wedding certificate and his occupation was given as Master Poulterer.  Paddy’s mother’s name was Bridget Mary Nolan and her mother and Paddy’s grandmother was Pol Alcock of Dooley’s Terrace.  Pol had a son Christy born in the 1890s and a daughter, Mary Bridget born in the early 1900s.  She later gave birth to Bridget Mary Nolan, born 1911, and John Nolan born in 1915 and lived with the two Alcock children and the two Nolan children in Athy. 

Bridget Mary Nolan who married Joseph Kane from Edenderry died in England in 1954 and her brother John who served with the Gordan Highlanders was killed in action in October 1944.  Paddy Kane tells me that his uncle Christy Alcock and his friend James Wall enlisted during World War I and apparently did so while living in Athy.  Paddy’s quest is for information on his maternal grandfather, Michael Nolan. 

Margey Mastik-Quinn’s mother Margaret O’Neill was born in Athy in 1915.  Margaret emigrated to America with her father Michael O’Neill in 1923.  They had lived at 12 Woodstock Street.  Shortly after arriving in America Michael O’Neill died and his young daughter was adopted by the owner of the boarding house where she was living.  Margey who lives in America would like to get information on her grandfather Michael O’Neill who had married Annie Holligan.  From the details given to me I surmise that Annie died before her husband and daughter emigrated. 

If anybody can help Paddy Kane or Margey Mastik-Quinn with their enquiries I would be delighted to hear from them.

During the week I came across the following quote while reading a local newspaper of 30th July, 1859.  ‘There is not in Ireland an inland town that can boast of more public spirit than Athy, or amongst whose inhabitants so many friendly and social re-unions are reciprocated.’  Do you think that this would apply to us today?

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Dermot Healy, May Mulhall remembered

Many tributes have been paid to the writer Dermot Healy who died during the past week.  He is one of the finest Irish writers of his generation whose best work, I believe, was his memoirs published in 1996 under the title ‘The Bend For Home’.  When I learned of his sudden death I took down the book to re-read the wonderful memoir which documented his upbringing in Finea, Co Westmeath where he was born in 1947 and his early years spent in Cavan to where his father, a member of An Garda Siochana, was transferred. 

On the same day that Dermot Healy’s death was announced news reached me of the passing of May Mulhall of Pairc Bhride.  May, a native of Athy, was one of three daughters of ‘Gauchy’ Mulhall and his wife who lived at ‘The Flags’ just over the bridge on the Kilkenny Road. 

The older generation will remember the tall man who was seldom to be seen without his stick.  The nickname was apparently one earned in his youth when his height suggested a clumsiness which disappeared as adulthood was reached.  Gauchy’ operated a small shop at ‘The Flags’ and towards the end of his life he lived with his daughter May and his son in law Michael.   Gauchy’ Mulhall of ‘The Flags’ had three daughters, Tess, Ann and May and like so many of their generation Tess and Ann emigrated to England.  May remained in Athy and married Michael Mulhall and they would rear seven children Geraldine, Maureen, Stephanie, Ann, Pauline, Kieran and David. 

One of the traditional attributes of a Mulhall marrying a Mulhall is that the female of the marriage is believed to become endowed with a cure for the whooping cough.  It is an Irish traditional belief sharing equal standing with the seventh son of the seventh son tradition.  In May’s case the traditional belief was readily accepted and she was recognised locally as the possessor of the cure for what is a very common illness in children.  May’s recipe for the cure was a specially baked brown bread which with generosity and not a little sympathy she gave to those who sought the traditional cure. 

I knew May as a great supporter of the Shackleton Autumn School which brings lecturers on Shackleton and the Antarctic to our local Town Hall every October Bank Holiday weekend.  While May did not attend all the lectures she could be guaranteed to lend her support during the weekend by making an appearance at many of the weekend events.  She was a great supporter of the arts and was seen not only at Town Hall events, but also supported, while her health was good, events in Athy’s Community Arts Centre in Woodstock Street. 

May also played an extremely active part in youth athletics for a long number of years.  She was Treasurer of the Athy Athletic Club for six or seven years in the late 1960’s at a time when the club was regarded as one of the best athletic clubs in Leinster.  The late George Burrell was chairman of the club and May with George, Harry Mulhall and George O’Toole established the local community games committee.  May was secretary of that committee for almost 11 years during which time the committee co-operated with KARE in organising sports for the disabled.  Her other involvement in the local community came courtesy of her volunteer work with Mrs. Quinn’s charity shop in Duke Street. 

May was a kind and very cultured lady whose husband Michael predeceased her seven years ago.  She had a great interest in the history of her native town and took pride in her links with ‘The Flags’ on the Kilkenny Road.  Many a time I recall May amongst those who joined me on the walking tour of our ancient town.  As a native of Athy she had a great knowledge and understanding of the families who lived in the town and was of enormous help to me in my continuing research into the history of our local community.

May is survived by her seven children and her sister Tess who lives in London to whom our sympathies are extended on the death of a wonderful woman.  Our sympathies are also extended to Miriam McGilly on the death of her brother Dermot Healy whose published works are the treasured legacy of a fine writer.