Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Remembering Athy's World War I Dead - 'Still and Distant Voices'

The Great War of 1914-1918 had a profound and lasting impact on the town of Athy and its hinterland.  Research indicates that upwards of 213 men from Athy and outlying districts died in what was supposed to be ‘the war to end all wars’. It is difficult to determine the actual number of Athy men who served in the war as many joined up in England, Scotland and some as far away as Australia and Canada.  In June 1915 the Leinster Leader reported that 1600 men from Athy and its environs had enlisted and that number had increased, by how much we don’t know, before the war ended in November 1918. 

According to the 1911 census figures, the population of Athy was just over three and a half thousand people, so it is reasonable to speculate that during the 52 months of the war almost every family in the town had a son, father, relative or neighbour who was at the war front. 

William Whelan of Castledermot was the first man from South Kildare to be killed in action.  He died on the 28th August 1914 and four days later William Corcoran of Offaly Street became the first Athy man to die in battle.  Irish Guardsman Patrick Heydon of Churchtown died on the 4th of September and was buried in Villers Cotterets Wood along with 98 other officers and men of the 4th (Guards) Brigade who fought to cover the retreat of their comrades following the defeat at Mons.

Athy men fought and died in every major battle in France and Flanders and they are buried in cemeteries or remembered on monuments which are to be found all along the 400 miles of the Western Front.  Nineteen sons of South Kildare are remembered on the Menin Gate in Ypres.  Seventeen men who died at the Somme are remembered at the Thiepval Memorial, along with 70,000 others who died there between July 1915 and March 1918 and have no known grave.

Eight men are named at Tyne Cot, where those who died in the battle of Passchendaele are remembered. Five more at Loos, four at Cambrai, and two Athy men, Christopher Flynn and Andrew Pender, lie in Artillery Wood in the same cemetery as the Meath poet Francis Ledwidge.

Local man David Walsh is probably best known as a director of plays with Athy Musical and Dramatic Society and Athy Drama Group, but he also has a keen interest in the Athy men who fought in the Great War.  Over the past ten years he has visited and photographed the graves of almost all of the Athy and South Kildare casualties who lie in France or Flanders.  I’m told that at each grave or monument David left  Irish and Kildare flags with some clay from ‘the Crickeen’ in Old St. Michaels cemetery, along with a drop of Irish whiskey to remember and honour the sacrifice of these brave young men, who in the words of Tom Kettle ‘Died not for flag, nor King, nor Emperor,- But for a dream, born in a herdsman’s shed, And for the secret Scripture of the poor.’

It is therefore no surprise that David brings his two passions together for a performance in the Athy Community Arts Centre on Woodstock Street, with the staging of ‘Still and Distant Voices, an oratorio for the Men of Athy’ who fell in the Great War. Written by John MacKenna, with music by Mairead O’Flynn, the oratorio was first staged in Athy’s Presbyterian Church in 1990 and now on the centenary of the start of the war it is to be revived.

For this production David has drawn on the experience of the people he has worked with in the past, as well as some new faces; Chris Fingleton, Tony Cardiff, Noel Kavanagh, Eileen Doyle and Amanda Barry from Athy Musical and Dramatic Society, Damien Walsh and Deirdre Walsh from ONE4The Road Theatre Company, Gerard O’Shea of the Moat Theatre in Naas, as well as newcomers Brian Kelly from Kilmead and Susan Walsh who recently starred in the movie ‘All About Eva’. 

The production is a poignant and moving story of the Great War as seen through the eyes of a young couple from South Kildare, a servant girl and her soldier boyfriend in the late summer of 1914.  It is a tender and beautiful story told against the backdrop of  death and destruction which one hundred years ago marked the daily lives of soldiers in that small part of a foreign land we now know as Passchendaele. 

There are just three performances, Thursday 6th, Friday 7th and Saturday 8th November at 8.00 p.m. sharp in the Arts Centre on Woodstock Street. Tickets are available from the Gem and Winkles.

If you do nothing else on remembrance weekend, go and see this show in Athy’s Art Centre.  I highly recommend it.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

John MacKenna, Brian Hughes and the Musical 'Endurance'

When literature and music are brought together one is almost always assured of a performance not to be missed.  Such were my thoughts when John MacKenna, prize winning author and Brian Hughes, a first class traditional musician, announced the project on which both have been engaged for the past 12 months.  The project involved a musical composition by Brian Hughes to which the writer John MacKenna provided a narrative.  The combined work in music and words is to mark the centenary of Ernest Shackleton’s Endurance expedition to the Antarctic.

2014 marks the centenary of the Endurance expedition, the greatest survival story ever told.  In 1914 Ernest Shackleton and the ship Endurance left Europe as the First World War was commencing.  Shackleton, the Kilkea, Co. Kildare born Antarctic explorer and his crew hoped to achieve one of the last great feats by crossing the Antarctic from coast to coast.  What followed was one of the most daring and adventurous escapes in the history of Polar exploration.

The musical suite composed by Brian Hughes featuring the Monasterevin Gospel Choir with Brian Hughes and a host of other musicians including Shana Daby and Seamus Brett will be launched as a CD on Sunday, 26th October 2014.  The CD launch is on the same night as the first public performance of the work which will take place in the George Bernard Shaw Theatre Carlow, starting at 8.00 p.m.  The performance will feature not only the composer, the writer and the Monasterevin Gospel Choir, but also the Kildare County Orchestra.

The stage presentation also includes a multi media element devised by Craig Blackwell, making this a unique and innovative performance of the story of Shackleton’s Endurance expedition.  The combination of words, music and visual presentation promises an evening of entertainment not to be missed.

The work was commissioned by Athy Heritage Centre as part of the centenary celebrations of the 1914 Endurance Antarctic expedition.  The County Kildare born explorer is the subject of an exhibition in the Athy Heritage Centre which is the only permanent exhibition anywhere in the world dedicated to Shackleton. 

Brian Hughes, who in the past has released a number of CDs of traditional Irish music, highlighted for me the work which as the composer he undertook to match the music and the mood to the events which make up the Endurance story.  The principal movements of the composer’s suite highlight the optimism of the parting, the devastation arising from the ship’s destruction, the crew’s hopelessness when drifting on ice, culminating in the courageous voyage of the James Caird and the dramatic rescue of the crew members.  The beautiful musical suite by Brian Hughes is complemented by the written words of John MacKenna which both the musician and the writer will perform on the Carlow stage on Sunday, 26th October.

The performance will be officially opened by Ernest Shackleton’s granddaughter, Alexandra Shackleton.  Alexandra, as patron of the Shackleton Autumn School now in its 14th year, will be attending the Autumn School which opens in Athy Heritage Centre on Friday 24th October.  The performance in the George Bernard Shaw Theatre Carlow is part of this year’s Shackleton Autumn School for which bookings can be made by contacting the Heritage Centre on (059)8633075 or by email at athyheritage@eircom.net.

Castledermot born John MacKenna, who to date has produced an extraordinary range of literary works comprising poems, plays, short stories and novels, has written another novel which will be launched on Thursday, 20th November.  The venue, an unusual one for a literary event, is the Arboretum Garden Centre in Carlow where radio personality Joe Duffy will launch John’s novel, ‘Joseph’.  John’s literary works have been the subject of several awards including the Irish Times fiction prize for 1993.  His book of short stories, ‘The Fallen’ reviewed in the Sunday Times by Penny Perrick was described as ‘raw beautiful stories set in and around Athy’ by a writer who was ‘marvellously enriching’.  Further accolades came with his first novel, ‘Clare’, which has just been republished, when Irish novelist Kevin Casey described MacKenna ‘as a writer of increasing confidence and power’.  His literary style drew comparisons with John McGahern when Kate Donovan reviewed his book, ‘The Last Fine Summer’ for the Irish Times.

John MacKenna is a writer whose previous works were usually set in the rural background of South Kildare, bringing comparisons with Hardy’s affinity with Wessex.  The new novel, ‘Joseph’ breaks with this literary fascination with place and as one of the most notable contemporary Irish fiction writers MacKenna extends his literary borders with his latest work.  The launch is on 20th November and an  invitation is extended to all to attend this notable event.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

The 14th Shackleton Autumn School

The October Bank Holiday weekend will see many overseas visitors arriving in Athy to attend the 14th Ernest Shackleton Autumn School.  The school has become such an important feature in the calendar of Polar studies that many of the attendees from the United States, United Kingdom and Spain had booked their trips to Ireland almost twelve months in advance.  It is also an important social event in the life of the town and it gives local businesses a much needed boost before the run up to Christmas. 

The weekend will commence on the evening of Friday, 24th October when the newly appointed Chief Executive of Kildare County Council, Mr Peter Carey will officially open the school and launch the exhibition ‘The Crossing of Antarctica’.  The exhibition tells the story of the epic first crossing of Antarctica by the Commonwealth Transantarctic expedition of 1955-1958.  The exhibition is drawn from the photography of the New Zealander George Lowe who was part of the successful team which climbed Mount Everest in 1953.

The exhibition will be complemented by artefacts from a number of private collections and it will be a unique opportunity to learn more about the expedition which, inspired by Shackleton’s 1914 Endurance Expedition, succeeded in crossing the Antarctic. The expedition will also feature in a talk by Dr. Huw Lewis-Jones whose book on the Commonwealth Transantarctic expedition has just been published. 

In tandem with the opening the Shackleton School will host the launch of the latest biography of the Kilkea born Ernest Shackleton.  The book titled ‘Shackleton by Endurance we Conquer’ is the latest publication from Michael Smith, the acclaimed author of ‘Tom Crean-Antarctic Explorer’.  Michael has dedicated the last 10 years to celebrating in print the Irish heroes of Polar exploration.  His new book has generated huge interest at home and abroad and a big attendance is expected on the night of the launch.  The book will be launched by the actor and writer Aidan Dooley who has performed his one man show 'Tom Crean' to acclaim all over the world. That show was first performed to an appreciative audience at the Shackleton Autumn School in Athy Town Hall in 2002.

The Shackleton School committee have packed an extraordinary array of events into the weekend together with lectures on various Polar topics across Saturday and Sunday covering both Arctic and Antarctic exploration. Included are lectures on 'Shackleton and his life in poetry' by Jim Mayer and one on the Russian Antarctic Expedition of 1819 – 1821 by American academic, Dr. Rip Bulkeley.  Other lectures include the forgotten Victorian explorer Benjamin Leigh Smith by Professor P.J. Capelotti while the early study of the natural history of the Arctic will feature in Dr. Leah Devlin's talk. Modern day exploration will be catered for by Tim Jarvis who recently recreated the famous boat journey taken by Shackleton from Elephant Island to South Georgia to save the crew of the ship Endurance which had been crushed in the polar ice.

Two Irish lecturers also feature, Dr. Rorke Bryan will lecture on his time in Antarctica since the 1960s, while Dinah Molloy will speak about her research into the environmental data she has recovered from the logs of Arctic whaling ships of the 19th century.

Of particular significance, for local people, will be the premiere of the original composition 'Shackleton’s Endurance' at the George Bernard Shaw Theatre in Carlow on Sunday the 26th October.  It is a musical composition by our distinguished traditional musician, Brian Hughes and award winning writer, John MacKenna which captures in music and words key elements of the Endurance expedition from its departure in 1914 to the rescue of its crew from Elephant Island in 1916.  This is a countywide project with Brian and John being joined onstage by the Kildare County Orchestra and the Monasterevin Gospel Choir, while the graphic artist Craig Blackwell has designed the unique multimedia element for the stage performance.  Such has been the demand for tickets for the performance that it is being held in the George Bernard Shaw Theatre in Carlow rather than Athy’s Art Centre to cater for the large numbers wishing to attend.  The performance will also see the launch of the CD of 'Shackleton’s Endurance'. 

The school is an important feature in Athy’s cultural heritage calendar and I would urge as many locals as possible to attend as many events as they can as it is a wonderful opportunity to celebrate the life and legacy of a local hero, Ernest Shackleton.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Athy's Photographic Club

In the early 1980s a few enthusiasts sharing a common interest in photography came together to form the town’s first modern day photographic club.  There is a possibility that an earlier photographic club existed many decades ago but the possibility has yet to be confirmed.  The initial meeting was held in the Leinster Arms Hotel and was attended by Pat O’Rourke, Gerry Lynch, ‘Bargie’ Robinson, Kieran Brown, Mary MacKenna, David Anderson, and the late Malachy Cardiff. 

After almost thirty years the photographic club is still active and holds meetings on the first and third Tuesday of every month in the Woodstock Community Centre.  Over the years its members, past and present, have recorded a veritable treasure trove of images of Athy people, places and events, bringing life to the ever evolving story of our town. 

Several years ago the photographic club members participated, as indeed did members of the general public, in a photographic survey of the town over a seven day period.  That project resulted in the compilation of a unique collection of photographs and videos of everyday life in South Kildare, the importance of which will become more evident as the years progress. 

Individual members of the photographic club have proven themselves first class photographic social historians, recording as they do on a regular basis the comings and goings of our local community at both work and play.  The club has encouraged its members to do this pioneering work and by dint of its various workshops, organised for beginners and more experienced photographers alike, has made a major contribution to recording the life of our community.  This will undoubtedly prove of immense value to future students of our local history.

Athy’s Photographic Club is a member of the Irish Photographic Federation which is one of the most prestigious photographic societies in this country.  Club Chairman, Noel Kelly, this year entered a panel of portraits in the National Competition organised by the Federation and was awarded a distinction.  His was the first such national award granted to an Athy Photographic Club member.

The Vice-Chairman of the local club is Paddy Joe Ryan of Gouleyduff whose unique photographs of Irish wildlife display a professionalism which belies his amateur status.  Secretary of the Club is Con Doyle, while the purse strings are controlled by Pat Fleming.  Peadar Doogue, who for many years has been photographing Athy and its people, is the club’s public relations officer.

Each year the club organises an annual photographic exhibition which this year opens in the Heritage Centre in the Town Hall on Friday 10th October at 8.00 p.m.  Admission to the exhibition is free and on the same night the Club’s Annual Photographic Calendar will be launched.  This I believe will be the ninth year of the Club’s calendar which has found an appreciative audience not only here in Athy, but understandably wherever Athy people are to be found abroad.  This year’s calendar, again devoted to images of Athy, is dedicated to former club member Terence Farrell who at 39 years of age died earlier this year.  Terence was a loyal and dedicated member of the Photographic Club and the Club members in honour of his memory agreed to pass on the profits from the sale of the calendar to St. Brigid’s Hospice in the Curragh.

Friday 10th October at 8.00 p.m. will see the launch of this year’s photographic exhibition and the launch of the Photographic Calendar for 2015.  Do come along to the Heritage Centre and support one of Athy’s most active groups whose contribution to the cultural heritage of our town deserves to be recognised and acknowledged.