Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Advertisers in the Sisters of Mercy Year Book 1953/'54


The Sisters of Mercy arrived in Athy on 10th October 1852 to take charge of the newly built convent of St. Michael’s.  The convent was constructed between 1843 and 1852 on a site adjoining the Parish Church.  The foundation stone was laid by the Parish Priest of Castledermot, Fr. Dunne, two years before the start of the Great Famine.  Over the years the Sisters of Mercy caused a number of booklets to be published including a series of annual Year Books in the 1950s.  The Year Books were supported by local business people with a variety of advertisements and perusing the 1953/’54 year book provides a fascinating insight into the changes in the local business world over the last 63 years. 

‘Tosh’ Doyle advertised cars for hire from 15 Patrick’s Avenue, while he undertook cycle repairs at Meeting Lane.  O’Rourke Glynns, with the telephone number Athy 45, had a wide range of items for sale from ices and fruits to stationery, toys and dolls.  I was intrigued by the claim that O’Rourke Glynn’s bread was ‘often buttered but never bettered’ as I don’t recall O’Rourke Glynns having any bread making facilities.  Martin Brophy at 27 Duke Street operated one of the many family grocery businesses in Athy, as well as being a tea, wine and spirit merchant.  S. O’Brien of the Square was similarly engaged, as was M. O’Brien of the Nags Head Inn.  J.P. Dillons of Barrow Quay proudly claimed to be a ‘shop with a growing reputation’ and in addition to being a green grocer its proprietor was also a poulterer.  J. O’Brien of the Railway Bar was another grocer and spirit merchant who also offered trade in ‘coal, corn, linseed meal and general feeding stuffs’. 

Something different was offered by Candys of 15 Leinster St. who claimed to stock ‘everything from a needle to an anchor’.  At 4 Duke Street pork butcher and sausage maker E. Herterich offered ‘cooked meats and puddings’ guaranteeing ‘fresh daily, finest quality only.’  Another car hire business was operated at 5 Meeting Lane by Peter Fitzsimons, while not too far away at 42 Leinster Street M. O’Connor, M.P.S.I. advertised ‘pure medical, toilet and veterinary preparations and high-class cosmetics.’ 

An interesting advertisement for M.A. James of 12 Duke Street offered a printing service for wedding invitations, while also acting as an agent for Allied Libraries Limited.  J.W. Kehoe at Offaly Street declared his business motto as ‘courtesy, service, value’ while advertising his tea, wine, spirit and coal business.  M. Bradley carried on business as a newsagent, stationer and tobacconist at 34 Duke Street, while just up the road at William Street Purcell Bros. were family grocers and butter exporters.  The enterprising brothers also carried on a butchering business at Duke Street.

J.J. Stafford of 43 Duke Street had a radio and electrical shop offering sales, service and repairs.  For your fresh daily milk you could rely on Floods of Stanhope Street who also traded in meal and bran, as well as hardware goods.  One advertiser whom I cannot remember was Cash of 62 Leinster St. who offered sweets, cigarettes, confectionary and minerals.  Two doors away at No. 60 was the sweet and confectionery shop advertised under the name ‘Bergin’ without any elaboration on the name.

Two of the biggest employers on the towns main street were Duthie Large Ltd. and Industrial Vehicles (Ireland) Ltd.  The former as agricultural and water engineers offered for sale cars, trucks, tractors and cycles.  Their business enterprise also extended to offering manures and seeds with hardware and radio repairs.  The I.V.I., as it was commonly known, had a Morris car dealership and were also dealers for McCormick International Tractors covering the counties of Kildare and Carlow.  No mention was made of its foundry work but in addition to car, truck and tractor repairs it offered ‘a petrol service from 8.30 a.m. in the morning’.  Michael Finn advertised his garage at Woodstock offering repairs, sales, battery charging and a ‘filling station’.  Who remembers the Vogue Beauty Parlour at 11 William Street, operated by Rose Cullen who offered amongst other services ‘Devon Cold Wave Perms?’  Tullys will be remembered as travel agents, but in 1954 they were general drapers.  Another advertiser was Michael Kelly of 17 Leinster Street who in addition to being a tea, wine and spirit merchant was also a merchant in timber, iron and seeds.  

The change in the shopping landscape of Athy is evidenced in the disappearance of many of the businesses advertised 63 years ago.  Amongst those businesses still with us are Shaws, Doyles of Woodstock St., Clancys, O’Briens of the Nags Head Inn and O’Briens of Emily Square.  Even the Sisters of Mercy Convent has been transformed into a hotel (now temporarily vacant), while the town of Athy welcomes new businesses as the old gives way to the new.


Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Athy's Commercial Life of the 1920s

Coming out of the recent recession its instructive to look back at times past and see how previous generations were affected by business closures.  At the turn of the last century employment opportunities in Athy and South Kildare were largely to be found in the agricultural sector and during the summer months in the local brick making factories.  The tied farm labourer, provided with a cottage by his farmer employer, worked six days a week. The temporary or part time farm worker, usually from the town of Athy was employed, if at all, during the sowing and harvesting seasons.  For many, however, there was little opportunity of earning an honest shilling.  The call to arms in August 1914 represented a welcome opportunity for many unemployed young men to travel abroad and more importantly to earn a regular wage with quite substantial weekly separation allowances payable to wives and children left at home. 


Carriage makers and blacksmiths were an important part of the average Irish provincial towns employment before, during, and for a short time after World War I.  Here in Athy Duke Street was the location of John Glespen’s carriage works, while Hannon’s Mills at Ardreigh and at  Crom a Boo bridge were substantial employers in what was a long-established milling business.  The malting of barley has a long tradition in Athy with many small malting houses once to be found throughout the town.  The old cinema in Offaly Street was the location of one of those malting houses when, unlike today’s operation, malting was very labour intensive.


Duthie Larges was the most successful business in Athy in the 1920s.  At the height of the Irish War of Independence, the firm had to let off 40 men because of a military imposed motor restriction order.  That same month, March 1921, saw the imposition of a curfew in Athy.  It followed the execution of six Irishmen in Mountjoy Jail on the 14th of March.  Those executed included Frank Flood, whose brother Tom would later carry on business in the Railway Hotel in Leinster Street and Patrick Moran who had worked for a time as a barman in Athy.


Duthie Large’s would recover in the years following the Civil War, while the long-established malting business of Minch Norton’s which at one time had malting houses at Stanhope Street as well as at the Grand Canal, would survive and prosper in peacetime. 


In the early years of the newly established Irish Free State, Urban Council workers were obliged to take a 2 shilling and 6 pence reduction in their weekly wage of 40 shillings.  Around the same time, the Hannon milling business first established by the Haughton family closed.  The workers who lost their jobs looked to the Barrow Drainage Scheme for work while others, encouraged by the local Council’s support for the project, placed their employment hopes on the possibility of a sugar beet factory opening in Athy.  The Council workers who had already seen a reduction in their weekly wage packet in May 1925 found themselves losing another 2 and 6 pence per week five months later. Their reduced wage was 35 shillings per week but even that was not enough to balance the Council’s budget and two workmen, John Ryan and Thomas Donohoe, were let go. 


The 1920s was also the start of Henry Hosie’s involvement in the regeneration of Athy’s economic fortunes.  He was the prime mover in the opening up of the Picture Palace in Offaly Street in or around 1925.  I have found a reference to a Cinema Hall in Duke Street in April 1922 but I don’t know if Henry Hosie was involved.  Hosie was also responsible for establishing Industrial Vehicles Ireland Limited, better known as the I.V.I.  He first wrote to the Urban District Council in May 1929 requesting an interview with the members regarding his proposed purchase of part of the Pound Field.  The Council agreed the sale to ‘Captain Hosie as the town is in much need of employment’.   The I.V.I. foundry was the first major factory in Athy and would be followed in 1936 by the Asbestos factory and in 1946 by the Wallboard factory.  All three factories made a huge contribution to the industrialisation of Athy and for a time made industry the main source of employment for the majority of local workers.


I’m reminded of the contribution that Hosie made to the improvements of the town’s fortunes every day as I pass down Offaly Street.  That street was home to a vibrant community in the 1950s and is now a pale shadow of its past.  Kitty Webster’s shop is empty and almost derelict, while the adjoining public house is closed with broken front windows protected by timber planks.  The conversion of Guard Tuohy’s house into a shop premises is unfinished, and the unfinished work adds to the miserable state of the once proud street, which misery is compounded by the nearby vacant former cinema premises.


Athy needs a modern-day Henry Hosie to advance the regeneration plan announced with much enthusiasm two years ago, if our town is to retain its former position as a vibrant business town.


A happy Christmas and a healthy and prosperous New Year to all readers of the Eye.




Tuesday, December 12, 2017

'While Shepherds Watch' and Athy's Musical Heritage

‘While Shepherds Watched’, a musical extravaganza for Christmas, will take place in St. Michael’s Parish Church on Tuesday, 19th December starting at 8p.m.  This year’s performance will be the 25th year of this annual Christmas celebration which was first staged in the Dominican Church in December 1992.  The late Paul Stafford directed that first ‘While Shepherds Watched’, with Ann Marie Heskins as musical director and Eileen Doyle as choir conductor.  For the following 22 years the show was put on in the Dominican Church and it was only in 2015 that the Christmas show transferred to the east bank of the Barrow and St. Michael’s Parish Church. 


Athy has a long tradition of music making.  When next you visit the Carlow County Museum you can see a poster from the early part of the last century advertising a concert in Carlow town which featured members of Athy’s musical society.  Many of the locals involved were no doubt members of the Moonbeam Entertainment Group which put on shows in Athy during the first World War years.  Hanging on the wall of my office is a large poster for a ‘Grand Concert in aid of the Red Cross Fund’ which took place in the Town Hall on Thursday, 18th January 1918.  The entertainers included the Misses Cranwell, Ashmore, Fennell, Nolan, Mr. R. Evans, Rev. P. Kellett, Rev. A.C. Lockett and Mr. Wilson Kelly humourist.  The Moonbeam entertainers put on shows throughout 1921 and 1922 in the local Town Hall and in 1923 in the Comrades Hall.  Those taking part in those latter shows included Mr. and Mrs. Painting, Miss Hosie, Mr. McElwee, Miss Cecil, Miss Toomey and Mr. R. Youell. 


Several other musical societies have brightened up the local cultural scene here in Athy over the last 100 years or so.  The Athy Musical Society, founded in the last year of the Second World War, was particularly active during the latter part of the 1940s.  The annual show put on in the Town Hall brought together a wide range of talents supported by a large cast of local men and women.  The participants in those early shows were captured in black and white photographs which today are a reminder of the great musical performances of the 1940s.  The older readers of this column would remember the musicals ‘White Bread and Apple Sauce’, ‘Cinderella’, ‘Dick Whittington’, ‘Easter Parade’ and ‘Orchards and Onions’.  Names associated with those great shows include May Ward, May Fenelon, Paddy Timpson, Tom Whyte, Peggy Glynn, Dan Meany, Veronica Keane, Betty May, Barney Davis and Jim Dargan.  There were so many other Athy locals who appeared on the Town Hall stage as members of the Athy Musical Society but space does not allow me to add their names to this list.


1963 saw the emergence of another musical society in Athy, the South Kildare Choral Society.  Under the direction of Captain Denis Mellerick of the Army School of Music, that society staged several musicals in the Grove Cinema including ‘The Mikado’ and ‘The Arcadian’.  In 1984 the Athy Musical and Dramatic Society was formed and its first stage show was ‘Happy Days are here again’.  This was followed by ‘Annie Get Your Gun’ in 1987, ‘Carousel’ the following year, ‘Oklahoma’ in 1989 and ‘My Fair Lady’ in 1990.  Later still the Society featured ‘Guys and Dolls’ and ‘Brigadoon’, in addition to a number of dramas including ‘Juno and the Paycock’ and ‘The Year of the Hiker’.  Now 33 years after its foundation Athy’s Musical and Dramatic Society will stage ‘While Shepherds Watched’ on Tuesday 19th December.  It promises to be an enjoyable evening’s entertainment, with the net proceeds from the evenings show going to Pieta House charity.


The musical tradition of the South Kildare Region also found a champion in Brian Lawler who was sadly laid to rest in his native Kilmead last weekend.  As founder and leader of the Ardellis Ceili band his contribution to Irish traditional music was widely recognised and the band’s popularity during the late 1950s matched that of the legendary Gallowglass Ceili band.  Indeed both bands featured many times on Radio Eireann.  The South Kildare townland of Ardellis will be forever associated with Irish traditional music thanks to the late Brian Lawler.


On Thursday 14th December the recently formed Athy Historical Society will host a lecture by Dr. Sharon Greene who was recently appointed editor of the Archaeology Ireland Journal.  The topic is ‘Kathleen Shackleton, artist, illustrator, artic traveller and Blackfoot Indian’.  The lecture for which there is no charge starts at 7.30 p.m. in the Heritage Centre.  Anyone interested in becoming a member of Athy’s newly formed historical society can join on the night, or do so by calling into the Heritage Centre.



Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Lions Club Christmas Food Appeal and poverty in Athy

This coming weekend the Lions Club Christmas Food Appeal will take place in Athy’s local supermarkets.  Members of the local Lions Club, helped by friends and family members, will man the collection boxes on Thursday, Friday and Saturday next to receive donations so that local families in need can be helped over the festive season.  It is called the Food Appeal as the charitable intervention started many years ago with a call for the donation of non-perishable food items for distribution at Christmas time.  A few years ago, because of the logistical difficulties of handling and distributing donated food stuffs, it was decided to seek cash donations instead.  The net effect is the same as all the monies collected are used entirely and solely for the purchase of necessary food stuffs for local families in need. 


At a time when we have a well-developed welfare system it is regrettably true that many needy families, either in temporary distress or experiencing long term difficulties, can be left isolated and in desperate need.  There are not however, within our community at least, the awful tragedies recorded in the minute book of Athy Urban District Council on 5th January 1931.  The Council at its meeting was compelled to pass a motion in the following terms.  ‘That in view of the statements made and beliefs held by the people of Athy, that two recent deaths in the town were the result of starvation, we beg to point out to the Department of Local Government in the interests of truth and of the poor of the town and in the interests of the Home Help Officer that a sworn enquiry into the deaths of Denis K……of Woodstock Street and Thomas G….. of Meeting Lane, Athy is desirable and generally into the way the Home Help is administered.’


Reading that motion, even 86 years after the death of these two local men, is a chilling reminder of the hardships experienced at that time by some members of the local community.  As far back as March 1907 Thomas Plewman, a member of the Urban District Council, drew his fellow Councillors attention to the ‘want of employment and consequent distress amongst the labouring classes in the town of Athy.’  Following a subsequent Council meeting to consider the matter the Councillors agreed to hire extra men for street cleaning for a couple of weeks.


Seven years later the Council decided to appoint a representative committee for the purpose of dealing with ‘any distress that might arise in the urban district in consequence of the war’.  The 1914-’18 war is generally believed to have resulted in greater financial benefits for the families of men who enlisted but nevertheless the Council in January 1915 felt it necessary to direct the relieving officer to ‘the dire distress at present prevailing amongst the poor people in Rathstewart and to ask her to distribute some coal amongst the families for the purpose of airing their houses’.  The same Council noted that ‘about 60 children attending National Schools in Athy are unable by reason of lack of food to take full advantage of the education provided.’


The difficulties posed for the poor of the town were again referenced in the Council minute book of September 1922 when the Kildare County Board of Health appointed the Council and the local Trade Union organiser Christy Supple to deal with all applications for home help in the Athy urban area.  The poor economic circumstances of those years were surprisingly not helped by the failure of local people to take up the Council’s offers of allotments.  The first time allotments were offered was during the Food Production Programme of 1917.  Council land at Gallowshill was on offer for ‘wage earners to till’ but there were no applications in January.  Readvertised in March there were only two applications and the Town Councillors decided not to proceed with the scheme for workers allotments.


A School Meals Committee was established for Athy in 1929, following which breakfasts were provided for necessitous children attending the local Sisters of Mercy School during the winter months.  This was the same year the Council again agreed to employ extra men in the week before Christmas in what was a distress relief measure.  Twenty men were employed to work on the roads and in the local gravel pit at five shillings per day, with three extra carters employed at seven shillings per day.


Reading of the measures taken by the local Council to relieve stress and hardship amongst the poor of Athy reminds us that poverty is everywhere to be found in every year of our lives.  Despite the measures put in place by State agencies to help those in need there are many families who this Christmas and throughout the year need the help of members of the local community.   The Lions Club Christmas Food Appeal is your opportunity to give that help.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Lions Book Shop, a measure of Athy's cultural strength

Books have always interested me.  I am the antithesis of the person who when asked if he wanted a book as a birthday present replied ‘no thanks, I have one already’.  As a long-forgotten philosopher once claimed ‘a good book is the best of friends, the same today and forever.’


I have always measured a town’s cultural strength by the number of bookshops it harbours within its boundaries.  You might think therefore that Athy would not figure large on the cultural graph, but in reality, the town is hugely supportive of a variety of cultural activities.  As for a dedicated bookshop the absence of one is in part compensated by the efforts of The Gem and Winkles to supply a limited stock of newly published works.  The Lions Book Shop opened some years ago in a premises owned by Shaws has proved a popular venue for book lovers.  It is a decidedly welcome asset for the people of Athy and district.


The members of Athy Lions Club which was established in 1971 have been involved in many projects over the years, helping organisations and individuals alike.  Two of the many projects undertaken by the club members were the Sheltered Housing Scheme in the grounds of St. Vincent’s Hospital and the provision of an ambulance for the local Knights of Malta.


Many other worthwhile projects have been completed by the Lions Club but perhaps the opening of the book shop in Duke Street has given the organisation its most prominent and noticeable presence within the Athy community.  In the first few months of its opening the book shop’s opening hours were limited to Saturday only, with Lions members sharing duties as a provincial town’s second hand bookseller for a few hours each week.  Keeping the shop open even for those limited number of hours every Saturday was a difficult task.  The Lions Club was extremely fortunate then to welcome Alice Rowan who volunteered her services to keep the shop open five days a week.  Alice, who had some time previously retired and returned from abroad, has continued in her voluntary role on behalf of the Lions Club for the past six years.  Her huge contribution to the Lions Club work amongst the people of Athy was marked last year with the award to her of honorary life membership of Lions Club International.  That recognition for Alice was the first time in the history of Athy Lions Club that an honorary membership was awarded.  Without the generosity of Shaws Department stores in allowing the Lions Club to use their vacant premises as a book store the project would not have hoped to succeed. 


The book shop receives gifts of books and CDs and by selling them at very reasonable prices undoubtedly helps to encourage many people, who might not otherwise be able to do so, to keep good company by reading the best authors on a variety of subjects.  Books can hold a fascination for many people, and if truth be told, no one could possibly disagreed with Decartes opinion that ‘the reading of a good book is like a conversation with the finest person.’ 


I have been buying and reading books for a long time but my interest in Irish history and English social history has prevented me from devoting any time to reading fiction other than the works of local writer, John MacKenna.  Looking through my books there are two books which because of my interest in local history have proved of particular importance to me over the years.  The first is Byrnes ‘Dictionary of Irish Local History’ published by Mercier Press in 2004.  In the Irish context it is surely the most authoritative reference book for local historians.  It was written by a Joseph Byrne, of whom I have no knowledge, but I would love to meet the man who wrote what is a superb dictionary of local history terms.


The other book which I bought in London some years ago was Charles Arnold – Baker’s ‘The Companion to British History’.  This is a large tome running to 1,386 pages with thousands of facts and opinion pieces on everything relating to British history.  It was written during his spare time over a period of 30 years by Baker who was a Barrister and not a professional historian.


These are two books which I have to say will not in my lifetime leave my bookshelves for the Lions book shop.  However, if any of my readers have books or CDs which they would like to donate for charity Alice in the book shop in Duke Street will be delighted to receive them.



Monday, October 30, 2017

A Shaws shop assistant's story

I was privileged to interview a number of former employees of Shaws over the last two years while working on a history of that firm.  One of those interviewed was a lady who started to work in Shaws of Athy as World War II entered its final phase.  Her story was typical of anyone employed away from their home town or village in those war-torn years.  The memory of those difficult times is now fading, but accounts such as that of the County Tipperary lass brings home to later generations what life was like in Ireland of the 1940s.  Seventy-two years have passed since my interviewee spoke of her journey home on Christmas Eve 1945 but let her take up her story.


‘I left my home in Co. Tipperary in 1944 to take up my apprenticeship with Shaws in Athy.  Being the war years there were no trains, no petrol for cars, so I set off on my high nelly bike for the neighbouring town from where I continued my journey by bus to Naas with my bicycle safely on top.  I reached Naas at 3 p.m. with a ten shilling note in my pocket.  By this time I was hungry but could not afford to spend money on food, as my ten shillings had to last a long long time.  I would need money for a stamp to write home each week, and a penny for church on Sunday mornings and another penny for the Methodist Church on Sunday evenings, which as a staff member of Shaws I had to attend.  I had to wait in Naas ‘til 6 p.m. in order to continue my journey to Athy on the Dublin bus.  Alas, when the bus did arrive, it was full up.  A man who had seen me waiting there for so long, came and told me that a hackney was coming to Naas from Athy to collect some people and he would ask the owner if he had room for me.  The man was Tommy Stynes who kindly brought me to Athy, and I didn’t have to give him any money.


My first Christmas 1945 I worked ‘til 10 p.m. as some customers seemed to get joy from coming in five minutes before closing time.  Between chatting and browsing, they wouldn’t leave til near 10 p.m., never giving a thought as to how far the staff would have to cycle home.  As I worked in the cash desk, I would be almost the last to leave, so it would be 11 p.m. before I could start my journey home.  As it was the war years street lights and directions on sign posts were not allowed, in case of a German invasion.  The roads were not tarred, except the main roads from Dublin to Cork and Dublin to Limerick.  I knew I had to cycle through Maryborough (as it was known then), Mountrath, Borris in Ossory, Roscrea, Dunkevin and then home.  In Mountrath, I turned right, instead of left and went on to Ballyfin, where I met a man “full of Christmas cheer.”  He told me to go back to Mountrath and turn right after the church.  On reaching Roscrea I was so tired I lay on the frosty grass for a while, and then walked ‘til the numbness left my legs.  I arrived home on Christmas morning at 7.30 a.m., spent Christmas Day at home and then cycled back to Athy on Saint Stephen’s Day.  Oh was I tired?  Some of the staff cycled to Gorey, some to Inistioge, and others to different destinations, just to be home for Christmas.  We had no other option.  For three years this was the way we had to go if we were to see “Home Sweet Home”.


It is understandably difficult for anyone accustomed to modern motorways and motorised travel to imagine how important a bicycle was in the life of Irish folk during the war and indeed for many years after it ended.  I remember my father cycling to Tullow, Co. Carlow where he was temporarily filling in for a local sergeant who was indisposed.  Those were the days when the bicycle was the only mode of transport for most people as car ownership was the preserve of the rich and the professional classes.


Last week when writing of past Shackleton Autumn Schools I overlooked the contribution of Liam O’Flynn, Ireland’s foremost piper who performed at two Autumn Schools.  Another omission was the absence of any reference to the Autumn School journal, ‘Nimrod’ which has been produced every year and this year reaches its eleventh edition. 

Monday, October 23, 2017

Shackleton Autumn Schools of past years

On Friday next, the 17th Shackleton Autumn School will be officially opened.  The very first Autumn School was launched with enthusiasm, some little knowledge and lots of ambition but with little realisation of what would be achieved over the following years.  The School has grown to become a truly international event regarded by Polar experts and enthusiasts as the worlds foremost annual Polar gathering.  A relatively small Irish provincial town previously largely known outside the island of Ireland is now known far and wide as a centre for its annual Polar get together.


Looking back over the years and reviewing the visitors books in the Heritage Centre I have identified visitors to the Autumn School from Australia, Japan, New Zealand, Chile, America as well as France, Germany, Netherlands, Spain, Norway and all regions of Great Britain.  The Autumn School had received as guests,  Ambassadors from Japan, Norway and Australia and this year we had hoped for the American Ambassador to Ireland to open the School but unfortunately the ambassadorial appointment is still awaited. 


For me one of the highlights of past years was the attendance of President Michael D. Higgins to open the 2012 Shackleton Autumn School.  This was a great honour for Athy and the local Heritage Centre and confirmed, if such was needed, that the Shackleton Autumn School had become an important national cultural event.  There has been a great variety of national figures who have come to Athy over the last weekend of October since the first school was opened.  One of the early school’s was opened by Brian Keenan, the Northern Ireland writer who was a hostage for several years in the Lebanon with Terry Waite and John McCarthy.  His visit aroused enormous interest and his address in the library of the Town Hall did not disappoint.  David Norris, Joycean scholar was a colourful and highly entertaining guest of honour on the opening night a few years ago.  Another guest on opening night was Fintan O’Toole, Irish Times journalist and writer who gave a thoughtful and incisive exposition of Ireland’s social and political development on the fringe of the European Community.  One of my favourites was Kevin Myers whose address to the audience was followed up by a question and answer session which gave rise to a contribution from the floor making an uncomplimentary mark regarding Kevin’s writing ability.  I must say how disappointed I am that such a wonderful writer as Kevin Myers is deprived of a readership because of the reaction to the very last article he wrote for the Sunday Times.


The Shackleton Autumn School is not just a series of lectures for every programme includes either a musical or a dramatic presentation which always proves an attractive addition to the weekend’s events.  One of the early Autumn Schools featured Aidan Dooley’s dramatic presentation of the Tom Crean story and he returned the following year with the Ernest Shackleton one man show.  Since then Aidan Dooley has presented his shows in London, New York, Dublin and many other venues and we are delighted to welcome him back this year for a further presentation of his Tom Crean show.  It takes place in the Church of Ireland community hall on Sunday starting at 8.30pm.  Tickets costing €10 can be purchased in the local Heritage Centre or at the Church of Ireland Hall on the night.


John MacKenna, author, whose latest book of poetry is now on sale has been a wonderful friend of the Autumn School having acted in several of his own dramatic presentations over the years.  Perhaps his best known contribution was to the “Shackleton Endurance” a musical journey through the story of the Endurance expedition of 1914 - 1917.  John scripted that wonderful story while Brian Hughes composed the music.  Both John and Brian with others put on a wonderful performance in the Visual Arts Centre, Carlow which at the time was the only venue in this area which could cater for the numbers attending.  Brian Hughes whose latest album “This Day Twenty Years” celebrating 20 years of music making was launched last week, also performed during previous Autumn Schools.  One such performance was in Frank O’Brien’s Pub recognised as the School’s Clubroom during the Autumn School weekend, when Brian on the tin whistle teamed up with the late Michael Delaney of Kilkea and Dun Chaoin, Co Kerry whose rendition of local ballads, some written by Michael himself, proved a great hit with visitors and locals alike.  Brian performed on another Shackleton weekend as did the Clancy group of Irish musicians which included Toss Quinn, Martin Cooney, Seamus Byrne and Conor O’Carroll.  Mention must also be made of Jacinta O’Donnell who charmed the overseas visitors when she performed at an Autumn School dinner in the Clanard Court Hotel a few years ago.


The official opening of the 17th Ernest Shackleton Autumn School takes place in Athy’s Heritage Centre at 7.30pm on Friday, 27th of October.  Come along and join the visitors from overseas and from elsewhere in Ireland in celebration of one of the premier events hosted each year in Athy.

Monday, October 2, 2017

17th Annual Shackleton Autumn School 2017

October brings with it a greyness in our morning skies and also unremitting rain.  It is also the month that sees the return of the Shackleton Autumn School to the town of Athy.  This year marks the 17th year of the school which has been a great success since its inception in 2001. 


This year the school will feature lecturers from Ireland, Britain, Norway, Canada, Australia and the US.  The diverse range of events planned by the Autumn School Committee will appeal to many different interests.  The Norwegian Ambassador to Ireland, Ambassador Else Berit Eikeland, will be talking about the importance of polar history to the establishment of the Norwegian National Identity.  Ambassador Eikeland took up office in September 2016 after a career in the Norwegian Foreign Service, laterally as the Polar Ambassador for the Arctic and Antarctica where she represented Norway’s interests in these regions.  Her fellow Norwegian, Anne Melgård, a Curator at the National Library of Norway, will be talking about Norway’s great polar hero, Roald Amundsen, the first man to lead an expedition to the South Pole in December 1911. 


Irish interest will not be neglected as the Galwegian, Enda O’Cioneen, now residing in Kildare, will talk about his exploits on the high seas over the last thirty years.  Many of us will remember when Enda first came to prominence in the early 1980s when he attempted to cross the Atlantic singlehandedly in a 16ft. dinghy, albeit unsuccessfully when he capsized 300 miles short of the west coast of Ireland, but undaunted he completed the trip a few years later as a world first.


A particular feature of this year will be the involvement of the Byrd Polar and Climate Research Centre from Ohio University, Columbus, United States.  This is the premier Polar institution in the United States and its involvement is a notable first for the Athy-Heritage Centre Museum.  As I write this article a crate of artefacts is winging its way from America to Ireland to form the nucleus of an exhibition about the great American polar explorer Admiral Richard E. Byrd.  Byrd’s exploits in the Antarctica in the late 1920s and early 1930s were pioneering in their scale and their ambition.  They effectively paved the way for the scientific research stations and bases which now are located all over the Antarctic continent.  An exhibition dedicated to Byrd’s exploits with the title ‘Ushering in the Age of Mechanical Exploration: Richard E. Byrd’s First and Second Expeditions to Antarctica’ will be opened on the night of 27th October by Miss Laura Kissel, the Polar Curator for the Byrd Polar and Climate Research Centre  Archival Program. 


There is a welcome return to the Shackleton Autumn School for another Galway man, the actor Aidan Dooley.  I can well remember a stormy night in Athy in October 2002 when I sat transfixed by the extraordinary performance of Aidan in his one man show Tom Crean Antarctic Explorer.  To use that old theatrical cliché, ‘he held the audience in the palm of his hand’.  Little did I know that many years later when he came to write a book about his experiences in performing as Tom Crean he was extremely concerned that the polar experts in the audience would not be convinced by his performance!


Since that date he has criss-crossed the world performing the show to huge acclaim.  The performance, which will begin at 8.30 p.m. on the night of Sunday 29th October in the Athy Church of Ireland Community Centre, is bound to be a sell-out event and whether you have an interest in polar history or not you cannot but be enthralled by the drama of the life story of the Kerryman, Tom Crean.


There are a variety of lectures and events which should have some appeal to all of us and I would encourage the people of the town to attend as many events as they possibly can.  As well as the lecturers themselves, there is a wonderful array of nationalities who come and stay in the town for the four days of the Shackleton School and there is a universally positive response to the town and its people from these visitors, which sees many of the same visitors return year after year after year.  The Shackleton Autumn School has been pivotal in establishing Athy as the centre of the commemoration and celebration of the life of the Kildare-born explorer, Sir Ernest Shackleton and it has been a catalyst in the plans for the re-development of the Museum which will gather pace once the Athy Library moves to its new site in the Dominican Church.  There is no doubt that the success of the Shackleton Autumn School will be a source of pride for the people of Athy for many years yet to come.  The Shackleton Autumn School runs over the weekend of 27th-30th October and details of all events can be found on the school’s website, www.shackletonmuseum.com.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Death marks our lives, whether as family members or members of a community, by its inevitability and its regularity.  As we grow older we cannot but realise the sense of loss as relations, friends and acquaintances pass to the other side, sometimes not having reached the biblical three score and ten.  During the past week I attended the funerals of several persons who as members of our local community have in their own way contributed to the life of Athy and its people.  Maureen Kelly, formerly Maureen Moloney, died at 88 years of age and shared with me and three of her siblings, the birth date of May 12th.  Maureen came from an old Athy family with connections by marriage to other old Athy families, the Perses, the Kellys and the Phillips’.  The eldest of 4 sons and 6 daughters of Richard Moloney and Mary Perse, her mother’s brother Edward (Ned) Perse was the father of 21 children.  Her brother Brendan was a school mate of mine in the local Christian Brothers School and her eldest son Richard is the past Captain of Athy Golf Club where he has been one of the club’s most skilful golfers in recent years.


Maureen was a well-known and well-liked member of the local community who was widowed 17 years ago following the death of her husband Dick Kelly.  Dick was the brother of Dolly Phillips who died recently at 92 years of age.  The Moloney, Phillips, Kelly and Perse families are part of the community fabric of the South Kildare area for decades past and the passing of another member of that extended family group is a sad loss for us all.


Our community is ever changing, death not being the only factor in that regard.  As a settlement extending back over 800 years the town of Athy has witnessed over the years the arrival and the departure of families who settled here.  I am reminded as I write these lines that I am myself one such settler, the Taaffe family having arrived here in 1945.  St. Michael’s Cemetery is the final resting place of my father, mother and brother Seamus and it is the resting place, as is St. John’s, Ardreigh and Geraldine cemeteries, of many of those native and non-natives of Athy, who were part of our community in the past.


Albert Rotherham, a native son of Belfast, who arrived in Athy almost forty years ago with his wife Mary, died last week.  He was buried in St. Michael’s cemetery alongside Paddy Begley, a former workmate of his in Borden, who also passed away that same week.  Both men were part of that great life exchange which sees some young persons born and educated in Athy migrate to other parts of the country or emigrate overseas while the town welcomes strangers who in time become an integral part of our local community.  Such were Albert and Paddy and my neighbour in Ardreigh, the County Clare born Maureen Cunnane, who passed away recently.  The life blood of any community is constantly being revived and renewed as the movement of persons inspired by the the search for employment brings new faces to our town while other  once familiar faces disappear.  Albert Rotherham and Paddy Begley worked together in Borden and were members of the Borden basketball team in the 1980s.  Albert played a prominent role with Brother Joseph Quinn and Leon Kenny in the formation of Athy’s Basketball Club.  He was at different times Secretary, Chairman and Treasurer of the club and was particularly proud of having trained Athy’s under 16 basketball team which won a national title at the Community Games held in Mosney.


Athy as an urban settlement owes its origins to French speaking Anglo Normans of the 12th century.  Over the succeeding centuries it has been home to an ever-changing community of men, women and children, many of whom were settlers from overseas.  All of them in their own way, good or bad, contributed to the sense of community and wellbeing of a people who live together in what was a small provincial town.


The ever-changing pattern of life in Athy continues to be reflected in the changing population which saw Albert Rotherham, Pat Begley and Maureen Cunnane become members of a community where the Kelly, Perse, Moloney and Phillips families have been ensconced for generations past.  Our lives are entwined and no matter from where we came, the place where we chose to pitch our last tent is home and it is from there that we make our final journey.


Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Rosanna Fleming's Orphan Emigration Scheme Travel Box

As conditions slowly began to improve following Ireland’s Great Famine of the 1840s, thirty-four young orphan girls who had been inmates of Athy’s workhouse were sent to Australia as part of the British Government’s Orphan Emigration Scheme.  The Scheme was intended to alleviate overcrowding in Irish Workhouses, while at the same time hopefully lessen the gender imbalance in the Australian population.  Amongst the young girls sent out from Athy Workhouse was Rosanna Fleming, 19 years old, from Ballyadams.  She was one of the oldest girls sent to Australia from Athy’s workhouse.


A few months ago I met Jeff Kildea, an Australian historian who was in Ireland for the launch of his most recent book ‘A Biography of Hugh Mahon’.  Jeff is the great great grandson of Rosanna Fleming and I was pleased to bring him to the former workhouse and afterwards to Ballyadams, visiting places associated with his ancestor.  Since then Jeff was invited to address  the 18th annual gathering at the Irish Famine Monument at Sydney’s Hyde Park Barracks.  Of all the distinguished men and women who had addressed previous gatherings at the Irish Famine Monument, Jeff Kildea was the first descendent of a Famine orphan who landed in Sydney to do so.  He spoke of Rosanna Fleming, the former inmate of Athy Workhouse, who on 3rd July 1849 arrived in Australia on the passenger ship ‘Lady Peel’ with 17 other young girls from Athy’s workhouse.  Author, Evelyn Conlon, whom I also met during Jeff Kildea’s visit to Athy in her novel ‘Not the same sky’ closely followed the known historical facts surrounding the Orphan Emigration Scheme girls.  Some of those girls did well, others did not.

Rosanna, who subsequently led a sad and tragic life in Australia, died at the age of 71 years.  She married James Clarke, a native of County Westmeath, just four months after landing in Australia and over the following 17 years they had 9 children. 


By a strange coincidence soon after Jeff Kildea’s visit to Athy I became aware of a joint venture between the Committee for the Commemoration of Irish Famine Victims and the Arbour Hill prison authorities.  They came together to undertake a project called ‘Famine Travel Boxes’.  Travel boxes or trunks were given to each of the young girls who participated in the Orphan Emigration Scheme.  In each trunk was clothing, a needle and thread, a Douay Bible, a Certificate of good character and a Certificate of good health.  The Famine Commemoration Committee engaged with the Arbour Hill authorities to have replica travel trunks made and some of those trunks have been presented to President Michael D. Higgins, the United Nations in New York and two museums in Australia. 


The two groups when approached by me generously agreed to make a travel trunk for presentation to Athy Heritage Centre.  The trunk bearing the name Rosanna Fleming will be formally presented to the Heritage Centre on Tuesday, 26th September at 7.30 p.m.


It is fitting that Athy Heritage Centre is to be the recipient of a Famine travel trunk as here in Athy we have participated in the National Famine Day’s commemorations with a ceremony each year in St. Mary’s famine cemetery.  The National Famine Commemoration Day was first approved by the Irish government in 2015 following a campaign led by Michael Blanch who was responsible for the setting up of the committee for the Commemoration of Irish Famine Victims.  Michael Blanch will be at Athy Heritage Centre for the formal presentation on 26th September.


The Rosanna Fleming travel box will form part of Athy’s permanent local history exhibition in the Heritage Centre to remind visitors of the terrible effect that the Great Famine of 1845-1849 had on the people of Ireland and especially on the people of this part of the country.  Everyone is invited to attend the presentation in the Heritage Centre commencing at 7.30 p.m. on Tuesday, 26th September.


During the past week the formal establishment of a local history society in Athy was finalised and Athy Historical Society is now open for membership.  If you would like to engage with others in research, recording and learning local history, archaeology, folklife or folklore, why not join the society.  A membership fee of €10 per annum is all that is required to participate in the society’s activities which will start with a series of lectures, the first of which will take place in the Heritage Centre on Thursday 12th October at 7.30 p.m.  Further details will issue shortly.  Contact Athy’s Heritage Centre on Ph. (059)8633075 or Seamus Hughes, the society’s honorary treasurer at shughes856@gmail.com if you would like to become a member of Athy’s Historical Society.