Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Athy soldiers at war - Waterloo and Trafalgar

This June the fields of Waterloo in Belgium again reverberated to the roar of canon fire and the crash of muskets as 5,000 military re-enactors from all over the world gathered to mark the bicentenary of Wellington’s victory over Napoleon.

While Wellington’s victory marked the end of the Napoleonic wars it was only the last in a series of engagements over 12 years in what was truly the first global war.

To date I have been unable to link any Athy men with service amongst the ranks of the British Red Coats on the battlefield of Waterloo but given that in excess of 30 per cent of Wellington’s army was Irish it is not unlikely there were Athy men amongst their ranks. The answer may be found in a forthcoming book by Lieutenant Colonel Dan Harvey titled ‘A Bloody Day – The Irish at Waterloo’

Kildare men and indeed Athy men can be found in some of the most significant engagements of the Napoleonic wars.  William Henry Grattan, a cousin of the Irish patriot and politician Henry Grattan, who spent the final years of his life in Kilcullen and is buried in Old St. Michael’s Cemetery, Athy was an officer in the Connaught Rangers.  He joined the regiment in 1809 and served with great distinction in it until 1817.  He participated in some of the most significant actions of the peninsular campaign in Spain and Portugal including the attack on the fortress of Ciudad Rodrigo.  Grattan wrote vividly of his experiences of war in all its cruelties including this description of the aftermath of the assault on Ciudad Rodrigo:
‘the smell from the still burning houses, the groups of dead and wounded, and the broken fragments of different weapons, marked strongly the character of the preceding nights dispute; and even at this late hour, there were many drunken marauders endeavouring to regain, by some fresh act of atrocity, an equivalent for the plunder their brutal state of intoxication had caused them to lose by the hands of their own companions, who robbed indiscriminately man, woman, or child, friend or foe, the dead or the dying!’

The participation of Athy men was not restricted to war on land. The Battle of Trafalgar off the coast of Spain was the defining naval engagement of the Napoleonic wars in which Admiral Nelson led the British forces to victory, though dying at the height of his triumph.

Two men from Athy were present, serving together on the ship HMS Spartiate, 30 year old William Molloy and a teenager the 18 year old Barney Dempsey.  The ship originally called ‘Sparti’ was one of nine ships captured by the Royal Navy from the French at the Battle of the Nile in 1798.  It became involved in the Battle of Trafalgar on 21st October 1805.  The ship itself was at the rear of the Fleet and was not involved in the first few hours of the battle; however it eventually entered the battle in the company of HMS Minotaur where they found themselves up against four French and one Spanish ship.  The English ships performed very well and apparently the rate of fire of both Spartiate and Minotaur was so strong that the French ships ultimately fled, leaving the Spanish ship Neptuno alone to fight against the two British ships which was soon captured it.

The ship returned to England for Nelson’s funeral with Captain Laforey being the flag bearer walking behind Nelson’s coffin. 

On occasions Kildare men could be found fighting on the French side.  The Kildare man Hugh Ware was an Officer in the Irish Legion of Napoleon.  Ware, from Rathcoffey, was by profession a land surveyor. He played a prominent role in the 1798 rebellion in County Kildare, particularly in the North of the county.  After a period of imprisonment he went to France where he had a very distinguished career with the French army. The Wicklow rebel Myles Byrne who served with Ware in Napoleon’s Irish Legion regarded Ware as ‘the bravest of the brave.’

Although Ware’s regiment spent four years in Spain and Portugal it never joined battle directly with British troops. Ironically had the Legion confronted Grattan’s regiment the Connaught Rangers at Fuentes de Onõro in 1811 they would have faced many former 1798 rebels who had joined the Connaught’s after the failure of the rebellion. The Legion was disbanded after Waterloo and Ware retired to Tours where he died on the 5th March 1846.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Council Housing in Athy

The first public housing scheme in Athy followed the adoption by Athy Urban District Council on 15th February 1909 of the Housing of the Working Classes Act of 1890.  The first houses built under that Act were completed and ready for occupation in February 1913.  The houses on the Matthew Lane site, now St. Michael’s Terrace, were built by local firm D. & J. Carbery, while the houses in Meeting Lane were the works of D. Twomey of Leinster Street.  The Woodstock Street site, formerly known as Kelly’s Field, was the location of 6 new houses which were subsequently known as St. Martin’s Terrace.

The First World War and the subsequent Irish War of Independence delayed the Council’s plans for further housing schemes in the town.  In 1923 the Council advertised for builders to tender for constructing eight houses at The Bleach.  Local firm D. & J. Carbery were again the successful tenders and the houses were completed before the end of March 1924. 

Six years later the Council sought to increase its housing stock and the local Councillors under the chairmanship of Patrick Dooley of Leinster Street accompanied the Town Clerk, John Lawler and the town overseer Bland Bramley on an inspection of possible suitable housing sites in the town.  The inspection brought them to the gaol field on the Carlow Road, P.P. Doyle’s field near the County Home and Dr. O’Neill’s field on the Carlow Road.  The ruined and vacant malt house site at Woodstock Street owned by the McHugh family was also inspected, as were the ruins at St. James’s Place, Rigney’s field at Blackparks and Sylvester’s field at The Bleach.  The Council decided to purchase the gaol field on the Carlow Road as well as Rigney’s Field and McHugh’s malt house site.

D. & J. Carbery were once again employed to build 36 houses in the gaol field, now St. Patrick’s Avenue, and nine houses on the McHugh site, now Minch’s Terrace.  The houses at St. Patrick’s Avenue were completed and occupied by the summer of 1931 but completion of the houses in Minch’s Terrace took a little longer, while the Council awaited the adoption of the 1932 Housing Act and the availability of augmented grant aid. 

Despite the Council’s efforts to provide social housing Dr. John Kilbride, whose father Dr. James Kilbride played a major part in improving the sanitary conditions in Athy in the first decade of the century, felt it necessary to report on the town’s unsatisfactory housing situation.  He reported:- 

‘a full exhaustive enquiry into the housing question has been made in the past week.  From this enquiry there is made manifest the appalling fact that in Athy urban area there are 1,292 people living in 323 houses – these houses all containing not more than two apartments, all devoid of any sanitary accommodation whatsoever nearly all in a poor state of repair and many situated in closed off air and sun starved slums.’

There is no vacant house of this class in the town, directly one is vacated there are several applications for it and it is straight away re-occupied – and under these wretched conditions families are being started and children reared.  How we must ask ourselves can children be brought up properly under these conditions?

The housing therefore must be held responsible for all moral shortcomings and the physical ill health that is at present existent in the town.  To emphasise this point in Barrack Street there are 11 people, including married persons, living in a house of two apartments.  On Canal Side there are four houses with no yard at all and in one live 10 people and another shelters 6 people.  In New Row there are 4 houses that serve 1 for 10 people, 1 for 9 people and 2 for 8 people each.  In Rathstewart there are two houses that have only one room and no yard.’

He concluded his report with the following:-

‘It is I consider fundamentally faulty to be building houses leaving the existing hovels still open for occupation.  For every house built let a house be levelled – I would suggest to the Council that in any future scheme they consider desirability of getting the houses built in open avenues off the main roads where children can play about without being in danger of the fast moving motor traffic that daily more and more is found in main streets and thoroughfares.’

The roles played by Dr. James Kilbride and his son Dr. John Kilbride in improving the living conditions of the people of Athy has not been adequately acknowledged.  Both doctors in their time played significant parts in motivating the local Urban District Council to act, somewhat belatedly, in improving living conditions in the South Kildare town.  

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Charity shops and volunteerism

Charity Shops have been a common feature on main streets in provincial towns in England for many years.  As with everything else, Irish towns were somewhat slower in taking up that trend but with the death of the Celtic tiger, Irish provincial towns have thrown up a huge variety of charity shops.  In Athy we have the Lions Book Shop, the Gorta Shop, St. Vincent de Paul and the National Council for the Blind of Ireland all of which provide a very worthwhile and beneficial service for the local community.

The English charity shops are for the most part manned by volunteers, men and women mostly retired who devote a day a week to help the charity and their local community.  Volunteerism is something which is prevalent in many aspects of Irish sporting life but which is not always to be observed in other aspects of community life. 

With a retirement age which has remained unchanged while life expectancy has grown incrementally over the decades every Irish provincial town has a wealth of experience and talent readily available amongst those men and women who have left full or part time employment.  As valuable as a volunteering resource are those housewives who having reared their families now find time on their hands with little or no opportunity to make use of the reservoir of experience and skill which they have amassed over the years.

There are, I’m sure, many men and women in and around the town of Athy who with advantage to both themselves and to the voluntary sector could make themselves available for voluntary work within their local community.  There are many voluntary groups in Athy, so many in fact that regrettably a complete up to date list of such groups is not available.  In short, in the absence of such information, we who live in Athy don’t know the full extent of the voluntary sector in our midst and of course cannot make use of the facilities and services offered by many of these groups. 

There is obviously a serious gap in the information available to the local people in terms of local facilities and services.  One wonders if that information deficit extends to other aspects of our community life.  This is something which will perhaps be dealt with in the town regeneration plan which was recently commissioned and which hopefully will be launched in the next few weeks. 

The absence of a Town Council leaves what I can only describe as “an implementation void” which inhibits our communities’ ability to get things done.  There is an important role for volunteers working in the community and perhaps someone will take up the suggestion of stimulating and coordinating the untapped energies of those who would be only too willing to devote some of their time and energies and skills to the common good.  I know for instance that the Heritage Centre for which there are exciting development plans in the offing is looking for volunteers who would be willing to give a few hours every week to help man the exhibitions in the Town Hall Centre.  If you feel you would like to be associated with the Heritage Centre in its work to further interest in the history of Athy and its people, why not contact me or Margaret Walsh who is the Manageress of the Centre.

There is so much that can usefully be done to re-energise the various associations or groups in the town and so help the town take maximum advantage of the upturn in the economy which is slowly but surely coming about.

It was in July 1859 that the Leinster Express, while reporting on the Athy Regatta which was revived after a lapse of some years, claimed ‘there is not in Ireland an inland town that can boast of more public spirit than Athy’.

That spirit is visible in the work of Athy Lions Club whose members will be offering during next week’s County Show free diabetes and glaucoma screening.  Glaucoma is a potentially blinding condition which is treatable if diagnosed at an early stage.  The free screening for glaucoma, which will be offered in conjunction with the Lions Club’s ‘Fight for Sight’ Programme, takes only a few minutes and affords a real opportunity to raise awareness of a serious condition which affects so many people.

Athy Lions Club first offered free diabetes screening to those attending the ploughing championships in Cardenton.  The initiative has since been taken up by other Lions Clubs and next Sunday’s free diabetes screening will again be available at the County Show.

The work of the local Lions Club members in offering these services to the public is a fine example of the real value of voluntary work within the community.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Jimmy Curtis

The name Curtis is one you will find as you search back through the records for people who lived for generations in this part of South Kildare.  It’s a family name which emerged from the shadows of the First World War when three young brothers from Rockfield, Athy had their lives wrenched from them in the muddy battlefields of France and Flanders.  Laurence, Patrick and John Curtis had enlisted, never to return to home or family and they left behind grieving parents and two younger brothers, Michael and Dan.  The Curtis brothers were not to know that from the neighbouring village of Crookstown another young man, just recently married and a reservist in the British Army had also rejoined his unit.  He too was to die and his grieving widow had his remains brought back to Ireland from Netley Hospital where he died to be buried in Crookstown Cemetery.  Last Sunday, 31st May, was the 100th anniversary of Andrew Delaney’s death.

Two generations on, the two families who suffered those losses in war were brought together when Jimmy Curtis, a nephew of the three Curtis brothers, married Margaret Murphy, granddaughter of Andrew Delaney.  Jimmy Curtis celebrated his 80th birthday last week and this week I want to pay a small tribute to a man who in his young days was one of the more sporting and elegant footballers ever to have played for Castlemitchell Gaelic Football Club.

Jimmy was just 18 years of age when he togged out for the Castlemitchell team in the Intermediate Final of 1953 when the team won the first championship title for the club founded 14 years earlier.  The victory was recorded by the late Mossy Reilly, who himself played on that team, in a ballad which included the lines:-

‘Here’s to Jimmy Curtis, the baby of our side
He kicked balls to the forwards
Some were scored and some were kicked wide.’

The suspension of the entire Castlemitchell team in 1956 did not deflect Jimmy Curtis from advancing his footballing career.  In October 1959 Jimmy was picked for the Kildare Senior County team.  He played full back in that first match against Westmeath in what was the O’Byrne cup final, only for Kildare to lose by 1 point.  Other local players on the team that day included Mick Carolan and Brendan Kehoe.

Jimmy continued to be picked for the County Senior team, always for the full back line and for the most part played alongside Danny Flood who held the full back position for many years.  Jimmy’s last game for his native county was in February 1963 in a National League game against Cork which was played in Cork city. 

Jimmy Curtis continued playing with Castlemitchell and in 1960 the club’s senior team included Jimmy’s brothers Mickey and Lar.  He continued playing with the local club for many years thereafter and captained the Castlemitchell Intermediate team which lost the Intermediate Final in 1965.  He was also on the losing side two years later.

At 40 years of age Jimmy was still gracing the football field when he helped Castlemitchell to win the 1975 Senior League Division 2 title.  I am told that he continued to play for the club until he was 43 years old.  His contribution to the Castlemitchell Club was recognised when in 1980 Jimmy received the Kildare County Board Clubman of the Year award.

I remember Jimmy Curtis not only as a talented footballer but also as a worker in Minch Nortons for almost 35 years.  He was 27 years of age when he married Margaret Murphy, formerly of Convent View, whose father and mother, Jack and Margaret Murphy, were some of the earlier supporters of Athy’s Heritage Centre, having contributed a lot of original material relating to Andrew Delaney who was killed in World War I.  Jimmy and Margaret have 7 daughters, numerous grandchildren and one great granddaughter.  Congratulations to Jimmy on his 80th birthday.

This week we celebrate the 60th anniversary of the ordination of our much loved former Parish Priest, Fr. Philip Dennehy.  Fr. Philip, who was the subject of an Eye on the Past many years ago, continues to work in the Parish of St. Michael’s which he first joined as a young curate in 1963.  He has been with us for 40 years as curate, Parish Priest, and Emeritus Parish Priest.  His spiritual legacy endures, as does the sporting legacy of the Castlemitchell player, Jimmy Curtis, who graced the playing fields in a footballing career which spanned over 25 years.