Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Athy's Penny Bank

Banking administration in Ireland has changed, and not for the better, within the last few years.  Long standing bank customers are now faced with extraordinary and ridiculous requests for passports, driving licences and utility bills to prove to bank officials with whom they have been dealing for years that they are who they claim to be.

I had experience of this quite recently when local officials in the bank where I have banked for over 30 years required me to prove who I was before I could operate another account.  This prompted me to question the difficulties facing the customers of St. Dominic’s Penny Bank, which is closing this month, should they wish to use any of the existing financial institutions to open saving accounts.

The Penny Bank is a much valued facility, especially useful for those people who might not be able to avail of banking facilities in our local banks or credit union.  Quite a lot of those people do not have driving licences or passports and consequently will not be able to meet the financial institutions requirements to allow savings accounts to be opened.

I am told that the Penny Bank opened in 1984 and for the last 30 years has provided what is essentially a social service for those unable to avail of main stream banking facilities.  A meeting in the Dominican Priory on 22nd March 1984 chaired by the late Fr. Jim Harris, Prior of St. Dominic’s on 22nd March 1984 agreed to open a Penny Bank.  Present at that meeting were Margo Gough, Ivan Bergin, Donal Murphy, Jack O’Rourke and John Neavyn who acted as Secretary.  The Penny Bank opened for the first time on Saturday, 7th April 1984 from 5.30 p.m. to 8.30 p.m. manned by volunteers Michael Ryan and Tom Walsh. 

Trustees of the Penny Bank were appointed and that role was undertaken by Donal Murphy, Ivan Bergin and John Neavyn.  Appointed as promoters were Patricia Murphy, Maureen Ryan, Peter Grant, Paddy Rochford and Tony Foley.  Ann Handy worked in the Penny Bank Office for many years and in 2003 Phyllis Fennin took over the running of the office with the late Kevin Watchorn.  In recent years St. Dominic’s Penny Bank has been open 6 days a week with Patricia Holligan and Ann Robinson helping out in addition to their normal duties in the Dominican shop.  During the 40 years of the Penny Bank’s existence five Dominican Priors have been in charge of the local Priory.  Fr. Jim Harris, Fr. Con Roche, Fr. Jim Dunleavy, Fr. John Heffernan and the current Prior, Fr. Joe O’Brien.

I understand that the Penny Bank has several thousand customers, all of whom benefit from the Savings Scheme which pays out substantial monies in the weeks prior to Christmas.  The money saved by the local people and made available to them in the lead up to the festive season brings enormous benefit to local shops.  It would be difficult to estimate the value to our local economy of the Penny Bank’s savings money spent in Athy each December but it must be millions of euro rather than thousands.

What will happen if the Penny Bank is not continued?  It cannot be continued by the Dominicans as regrettably the Friar’s preachers will in time be leaving Athy after more than 750 years of service to our community.

The Penny Bank must be saved.  It is a vital service for families who cannot avail of banking facilities.  If it is allowed to die those families will either lose the incentive to save or perhaps keep their savings at home.  Either will be a cause of concern.  Without the regular savings entrusted to the Penny Bank the loss to the local economy will be enormous.  If people, especially elderly people, continue to save and retain their savings by way of cash in their homes issues of personal safety will be a concern.

There is undoubtedly an urgent need for the community to come together to examine how best to retain the Penny Bank in Athy.  There should be no question of its dissolution without every avenue being examined as to the feasibility of retaining what is an essential social service.  It is also a vital local service and a community already facing the loss of its Post Office and its replacement by a sub Post Office should act immediately to stop this further erosion of services in Athy.  The townspeople need to act to help  regenerate the town which has so many natural and manmade assets of sufficient quality to justify its claim to be one of the best situated provincial towns in Leinster.    

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Mapping the Manor of Athy

James Fitzgerald, 20th Earl of Kildare and later 1st Duke of Leinster, commissioned the Anglo French cartographer John Rocques to survey his estates in County Kildare soon after Rocques came to Dublin in 1754.  Rocques had worked in England for 20 years during which time he prepared plans for various important country estates.  On arrival in Dublin he published proposals for a detailed survey of the city which appeared two years later engraved on four sheets.  He also published a town plan of Thurles in 1755 before he embarked on the Kildare estates survey.

The Earl of Kildare’s estates were mapped by Rocques in nearly 170 individual maps which were bound in eight oblong volumes covering approximately 68,000 acres.  Rocques helped by surveyors using theodolite and chain triangulation produced maps of unprecedented accuracy and detail. 

The first maps produced in 1756 were of the Manors of Athy and Woodstock, followed a year later by the Manors of Kildare and Maynooth.  The Athy Manor survey consisted of 20 maps, while that of Woodstock comprised 8 maps.  The Earl’s estates in Castledermot and Graney were mapped in 1758 and two years later maps were presented for the Manors of Kilkea and Rathangan.  The Manor maps were bound in red goatskin, with the title of each Manor surrounded by a decorative border tooled in gold on the upper cover. 

Six of the eight Manor folios were put up for auction by Sothebys of London in 1963.  It was then that Trinity College Dublin purchased the Manor maps for Athy and Kildare, while the Castledermot Folio went to the National Library Dublin.  The Woodstock Manor maps were purchased by the British Library, while Cambridge University acquired the Maynooth Manor Folio.  The Graney Manor Folio was purchased by Yale University.  The missing folios relating to the Manors of Kilkea and Rathangan remained undiscovered for many years until the Kilkea Folio was put up for sale by a London Auction House in 2003.  The Rathangan Manor Folio still remains untraced to this day. 

The original eight volumes were housed in the Duke of Leinster’s Library in Carton House Maynooth until 1849 when the library was sold.  They were then removed to Kilkea Castle where they remained until they were sold privately to a dealer.  It was that dealer, whose identity remains unknown, who put six of the folios up for auction in Sothebys of London in 1963.  Rocques maps of Athy are the earliest maps we have of the town and give a wealth of detail about the town at a time when it was emerging from the medieval past.

Interestingly the Lordship of St. John’s, that is Athy west of the River Barrow, was mapped for the Earl of Kildare by Bernard Scale in 1768.  In the early maps prepared by Rocques the main street of Athy running from the edge of the town on the Kilkenny side to the Dublin side of the town was called St. John’s Street and High Street.  The Bridge at White’s Castle separated the two streets, with High Street the name assigned to the town’s principal shopping street lying on the east side of the river.  Over the bridge was St. John’s Street, obviously a name harping back to the monastery which in the 13th and 14th centuries occupied a site adjacent to the present St. John’s Cemetery.  We still retain the name St. John’s Lane for the laneway which runs at the side of that cemetery, but St. John’s Street has long been renamed Duke Street.  It was the second Duke of Leinster, William Robert Fitzgerald whose name is recalled in the town street names which replaced the original medieval street names in the last decade of the 18th century.

On Thursday, 20th November at 7.30 p.m., Castledermot born writer John MacKenna will have his latest novel launched by radio presenter Joe Duffy.  The launch takes place in the Arboretum, Carlow and promises to be an interesting and entertaining evening with Joe Duffy who presents every afternoon on RTE a programme which has been controversially described as a ‘whingers forum’.  In truth however a more reasoned view would regard his programme as a major contribution to public broadcasting in Ireland.  His programme allows the general public access to the airwaves at a time, insofar as rural Ireland is concerned, when the same airwaves seem almost exclusively serviced by and for those living within the Dublin Pale.  Joe Duffy has recently made a very real contribution to Irish historical studies with his unique compilation of the names of the young children killed during the 1916 Rising.  I understand an open invitation is extended to everybody to attend the book launch in the Arboretum on the 20th and I am sure the author John MacKenna would appreciate support on the night.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Edward Darby and New Mexico resident Maisy McDarby Stanovich

On 21st August 1886 the Kildare Observer under the headline ‘Fatal Accident near Athy’ reported the death of 30 year old Edward McDarby who was killed when the horse and cart in which he was travelling went into the river at Clogorrow.  The jury at the inquest on the following day returned a verdict that ‘the deceased Edward McDarby died from fracture of the spine at the base of the skull from a fall of about 15 feet down a slope, the horse and cart falling on him and death being instantaneous.’  A rider was added calling the attention of the County Surveyor to the imperfect state of the fence on the Clogorrow road.

The unfortunate man was survived by his wife, the former Margaret Lacey and four young children, the eldest a 10 year old daughter and the youngest a son just a few weeks old.  With the loss of the family’s only breadwinner Margaret and her four children were compelled to enter the Workhouse in Athy.  Dr. P.L. O’Neill, who as the County Coroner presided at the inquest, was the medical officer for the Workhouse where the Sisters of Mercy had recently taken over responsibility for the Workhouse infirmary.  Margaret McDarby on entering the Workhouse was detained in the female ward, while her children were housed in a separate section of the building which was opened over 40 years earlier.  The separation of parents from their children was part of the harsh regime which marked the operation of workhouses in the late 19th century.  Within two years of entering the Workhouse Margaret McDarby died.  On 29th March 1888 her remains were brought on the Workhouse trolley across the Stradbally Road to be buried alongside the hundreds of those who had died of starvation or disease during the Great Famine.  Like all those who died in the Workhouse her grave was unmarked.

Fast forward to 2014 when with the magic of internet and email I found myself dealing with queries from a lady in New Mexico who was about to visit Athy from where her grandfather had emigrated.  That grandfather was Edward McDarby who was three years old when his father was killed at Clogorrow and who lost his mother two years later in Athy’s Workhouse.  Edward lived in Athy Workhouse until he was old enough to go to work on the Cosby estate in Stradbally.  He later met and courted Ellen McCarthy who lived with her younger brother Martin in Athy and when Edward emigrated to America in 1909 Ellen followed a year later.  Edward and Ellen married four years later and having settled in Manhattan, New York City had eight children, one of whom was the father of my female correspondent from New Mexico.

Edward, like his father and namesake, died tragically at a young age.  He was 50 years old when in 1933 he was run down by a drunken driver and killed.  New York was then in the grip of the Great Depression and the grieving widow and eight children faced an uncertain future.  Thanks to a very charitable landlady who allowed the McDarby family to live rent free for as long as was necessary, the experience of the Irish Workhouse was not repeated. 

The McDarby children all grew up to do well in America and when I met the visitor from New Mexico  I could not but marvel at the courage of a family which had suffered so many setbacks over two generations.  Maisy McDarby Stanovich came to Athy with her young daughter to visit the sites and places associated with her great grandparents and her grandfather.  A visit was made to St. Vincent’s Hospital where courtesy of the Matron, Helen Dreelan, the American visitors were able to see the now disused old Workhouse wards and what was once the Workhouse Chapel.  We walked from the Chapel to St. Mary’s Cemetery along the same route taken by the Workhouse staff who had brought Margaret McDarby’s body to be buried amongst the unknown and forgotten.

It was a sad and poignant journey for the visitors from New Mexico, recalling a great grandmother whose life was marked by tragedy and loss.  Her story and that of the McDarby family was a familiar enough story in 19th century Ireland.  The journey from Clogorrow to the Workhouse and from there to New York and New Mexico was a long journey extending over several generations.  Family ties stretching outwards and downwards to the present generation were re-enforced and strengthened with the visit to Athy of New Mexico resident Maisy McDarby Stanovich.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Remembrance Sunday 2014

November is the month we remember the dead, not only those of a recent generation but even more particularly the dead of World War 1.  The war which started in August 1914 and was expected to end by Christmas saw nearly 10 million soldiers die before the 52 months of conflict ended at eleven o’clock on the morning of the eleventh day of the eleventh month 1918.  It was a war which brought untold pain, suffering and loss to many families and here in Athy brought news of death to many households. 

While research is continuing into the casualties suffered amongst the reservists and enlisted men of South Kildare the current list of Athy men killed in battle numbers 122.  These men, so many of whose bodies were never recovered and so have no known grave, were part of the town’s population of approximately 3,500 people.  Their loss created immense social and financial problems for families left without husbands, fathers, sons and brothers. 

Added to the grief of those left behind was the awful realisation that the country which had sent these men into battle turned against them on their return to Ireland.  They had been cheered by family and friends as they paraded to the railway station to join up but on being demobbed they found that all had utterly changed.  The church and civic leaders who had encouraged their enlistment were silenced by the emerging nationalist majority.  The surviving men of the war-torn battlefields of France and Flanders found themselves ignored and sidelined in their home town.

Amongst those who returned home from the war were Patrick Berry of Kilmead and Jack ‘Skurt’ Doyle of Athy, both of whom survived years spent in the prisoner of war camp in Limburg.  Not so lucky were Athy men Michael Bowden, John Byrne and Martin Maher who were also prisoners in Limburg.  All these men had taken part in the Battle of Mons which opened on 23rd August 1914 and were captured by the Germans.  Bowden, Byrne and Maher died in Limburg before the war ended.  John Byrne who was a gardener employed by John Holland of Model Farm died on 27th September 1918 just weeks before the Armistice.  His sister was married to Michael Bowden, an Athy postman who died in Limburg on 27th May 1918. 

The surviving soldiers of World War I had memories which they did not share on their return home.  For them remembrance of times spent in rat infested and muddied trenches in France or Flanders must have included recurring themes of death and suffering.  It is difficult for a generation far removed from the savagery of war to understand the hardships endured by these men. 

Recent research by local military historian Clem Roche has identified a number of men from landlocked Athy who served in the British Merchant Navy during the Great War.  This discovery is an interesting addition to our knowledge of Athy men’s participation in World War I.  Theirs is an untold story of bravery on the high seas in the North Atlantic, Mediterranean and the Southern Oceans.  Of those identified to date all appear to have survived the war.

The men who died during World War I were overlooked by the Irish public for many decades.  It was 25 or so years ago that John MacKenna and some friends got together to honour the Athy men who died in war.  The simple ceremony of remembrance was held in St. Michael’s Cemetery and has continued each year since on Remembrance Sunday.  On Sunday next 9th November at 3.00 p.m. local people will again gather in St. Michael’s Cemetery to pay a deserved tribute to the men from Athy and district who died not only in World War I but in all wars.  We will remember young men such as the three Kelly brothers, Denis, John and Owen of Chapel Lane, the three Curtis brothers of Rockfield, John, Lawrence and Patrick and the three Byrne brothers, Anthony, James and Joseph from Chapel Lane, all of whom died during the 1914/18 war. 

This year also the oratorio ‘Still and Distant Voices’ written by John MacKenna with music composed by Mairead O’Flynn which was first performed almost 15 years ago will be again performed in the Arts Centre in Woodstock Street on Thurs. 6th, Friday 7th and Sat. 8th November, 2014 at 8.00 p.m. each evening.

Remembrance Sunday is a day to honour and respect the memory of those young men from Athy and district who died in the 1914-18 war.  In this the centenary year of the start of the war it is perhaps more important than ever that we remember a lost generation.  Do come to St. Michael’s Cemetery on Sunday at 3.00 p.m. and if you can attend the performance in the Arts Centre during the week.