Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Athy in 1932

March 1932 saw a change in the political leadership of this country.  The Cumann na Gaedheal government in place since the founding of the State was replaced by a Fianna Fail government led by Eamon de Valera.  On the day following the setting up of the new government I.R.A. members imprisoned by the tribunal, set up by the previous government, as a result of attacks on members of the Garda Siochana were released.  De Valera had visited Athy earlier in February and addressed farmers at the town fair for what the local newspapers reported was two hours.  He was cheered when he announced to the farmers ‘we will not pay the annuities’.  ‘De Valera Abu’ badges were handed out while the local Cumann na Gaedheal candidate Sidney Minch had posters displaying ‘Vote for Minch and vote for peace’. 

The local Urban District Councillors’ attempt to have the old fever hospital re-opened as a district hospital was still ongoing.  Councillor Bridget Darby, with the support of Councillor Tom Carbery and the Council members, called on the government for a special grant of £25,000 ‘for the relief of unemployment in Athy as there is no part of the county of Kildare suffering so much on account of grave unemployment.’  The unemployment crisis was largely due to the failure of the beet crop the previous year and the uncertainty around the agricultural industry at that time.  Later in the year a group called the Fianna Fail Workers Protection Club addressed the meeting of the Urban District Council on behalf of the unemployed Barrow workers.  The deputation complained that Laois men were preferred for employment on the Barrow Scheme in advance of Kildare men.  The chairman of the club was Tom Carbery and with a membership of 66 it claimed to ‘look after the interests of workers generally and investigate any complaints of harshness.’ 

Athy Courthouse was the venue for the County Kildare G.A.A. convention held in early February.  The Athy delegates at the convention were Fintan Brennan, Willie Mahon and E. Lawler.  1932 saw the setting up of Athy’s new hurling club, while local girls were involved with Athy’s camogie club called ‘Clann Brighde’ which fielded senior and junior teams.  Mrs. Minch was responsible for organising a children’s hockey team, while another new local venture was the newly formed St. Patrick’s fife and drum band in Bert.  The local Councillor Bridget Darby, who was a national school teacher in Churchtown, presented the band members with green and gold sashes.


Arrangements were still being made for the opening of a library in the town.  The latest of many holdups stemmed from the County Library Committee’s order that no books could be supplied for an Athy library until the Urban Council guaranteed that any books lost or stolen would be replaced at the Council’s expense.  When the library eventually opened on Tuesday 19th July 1932 Miss M. Gibbons of Woodstock Street was appointed librarian at a salary of £10 a year.

In May Dr. Kilbride submitted yet another report to the local Council regarding the ‘wretched living conditions in the urban area’.  His report eventually led to the Slum Clearance Programme which saw the demolition of houses in Kellys Lane, Garden Lane, New Row, Janeville Lane, Chapel Lane, Nelson Street, Shrewleen Lane, St. John’s Lane and James Place. 

In July the county Kildare V.E.C. applied to purchase part of the People’s Park as a site for a new technical school.  A letter signed by nearly 200 residents and rate payers protesting against the sale was handed into the Council offices, as was another letter signed by locals who were in favour of the proposal.  The Councillors refused to sell part of the Park and the new technical school was eventually built on a site on the Carlow Road. 

Having received a grant of £5,000 for road works in the town the Council advertised for ‘stone breakers and carters’.  The carters appointed were named as Robert Reid of Woodstock Street, Arthur Lawler, Clonmullin, John Rigney, Blackparks, James Connell, Geraldine and James Birney, Chapel Hill, all of whom were employed at seven shillings a day.  At the same time the Council employed ten stone breakers.

The big event of the year was the Eucharistic Congress held in Dublin between 22nd and 26th June.  The front of the Town Hall was decorated for the Congress, while the decorations in the different streets of the town were reported as having ‘excelled each other, the ideas and design show some brilliant minds and the artistic touch simply holds one in wonder.’  Midnight mass was celebrated in St. Michael’s Parish Church, which was so crowded that the Sisters of Mercy who had charge of the music for the high mass ‘had difficulty in making their way to the organ.’  The Picture Palace in Offaly Street was closed on Sunday during the Congress, while a set of loudspeakers was put in the People’s Park and chairs placed around the trees so that the immense crowd which gathered in the Park could hear the Congress ceremonies transmitted over the radio.

1932 witnessed the start of the Economic War which in the lead up to World War II brought untold hardship to rural and urban communities alike. 

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Johnny Day and emigration

The English accents intermingled with the Irish accents during the prayers of the faithful spoke of family lives separated by the Irish Sea and of a time when emigration scarred previous generations of Irish people.  Athy’s Church of St. Michael’s was the scene of the funeral mass for Johnny Day who passed away last week aged 89 years.  Johnny emigrated to England in 1952 when 25 years of age, having already spent 12 years working at a variety of jobs in his home town.  He was just 13 years of age and a schoolboy in the local Christian Brothers School when he took up his first job in Vernals forge in St. John’s Lane.

The son of Owen Day and the former Margaret Ryan, Johnny was born in Meeting Lane in a house which formed part of a row of houses, some of which were thatched.  They were destroyed by fire in 1930.  With the opening of the Michael Dooley’s housing scheme in 1932 the Day family was allocated the tenancy of No. 44 and it was to there that Johnny returned to live 13 years ago after living for 51 years in England. 

Athy in the 1940s and 1950s was, like many other Irish provincial towns, a place where emigration marked the lives of the majority of local families.  The Day family were no different in that regard than many others.  Johnny’s brother Paddy spent some years in England where he married Vivienne before returning to live in St. Dominic’s Park.  Paddy has since died.   Another family member who emigrated to England and who returned to her hometown of Athy was Johnny’s sister Maisie who married the late Ken Sale.  She now lives in Graysland.  Brothers Michael and Peter Day emigrated to Bedford where Michael died at 55 years of age and where Peter still lives.  Johnny’s youngest brother Joe who was a classmate of mine in the local Christian Brothers School died while living in Athy at a relatively young age.  Sister Gretta and brother Oweny continue to live in Athy.

Irish emigrants in the immediate post World War II years were by and large drawn to England rather than America to where a previous generation went in the years immediately following the Irish War of Independence.  This despite the fact that Athy in the 1950s witnessed somewhat of an industrial revival.  Athy had once enjoyed a long history of industrial activity, ranging from the tanneries of the 18th century to malting and brick building.  However, Athy’s once extensive brick making industry disappeared with the closure of the Athy Tile & Brick Company in the early 1930s.  It was the last of the brickyards which from the middle of the 19th century brought much needed employment to the south Kildare region. 

The setting up of the Asbestos factory in 1937 and opening of the Wallboard factory in 1947 brought new hope and added to the employment potential of the town which up to then relied heavily on local foundries.   Foundry work was a local trade craft which developed in Athy and the experienced foundry skills nurtured in the many small foundries in and around Athy prompted the setting up of the Irish Vehicle Industry (I.V.I.) by Colonel Hosie in the 1920s.  Johnny Day worked for some years in Matt and Mick McHugh’s foundry in Meeting Lane and from 1947 to 1952 in the I.V.I. foundry. 

If the early 1950s gave hope for sustained industrial development in Athy those hopes were not realised and the emigration trend set in the previous decades continued apace. In the last decade or so we have often been reminded of the impact emigration has had on family life in Athy and elsewhere in Ireland with announcements at Sunday masses of the death abroad of one time residents of the town.  During the summer, I attended my brother in law’s funeral in Greenford, London.  A Connemara man who had emigrated to England in the early 1960’s, his final resting place, like so many Irish men and women who took the emigrant boat, was in English soil.  On the day of his funeral I walked part of the extensive Greenford Cemetery noting the Irish names recorded on memorials and the county flags occasionally standing side by side at gravesides with the Irish Tricolour.  Both are a common sight on Irish emigrant graves in London.

Over the centuries Irish history has been marked by a constant flow of emigration from its towns and villages.  To the loss of a generation of young Athy men in World War I must be added the silent haemorrhaging over many decades of a potential workforce whose needs could not be met in their native land.  The story of the Irish diaspora is made up of the individual life stories of men and women such as those of my Connemara brother in law Padraig Spellman and Johnny Day of Athy.  Johnny returned to his home town to live out his remaining years while the Connemara man, born in the heart of the Connemara countryside, ended his days in the sprawling cityscape of London

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

The Athy Wolfhill Railway Line (2)

On the 18th of June 1917 the property agent to the War Department in Ireland advertised that the lands required for the construction of the railway line between Athy and Wolfhill “are taken under the powers contained in the Defence of the Realm Regulations.”   By the 5th of May the Nationalist and Leinster Times reported that “the railway works have caused crowding and congestion in Athy.  The influx of workers has caused overcrowding.”  A further report indicated that the railway line had been extended as far as the River Barrow and that work on the bridge was to start.  In fact the foundations for the bridge were laid in June 1917.  In early July a large number of men arrived from Dublin to work on the railway.  Their arrival prompted the local Medical Officer, Dr. Kilbride, to warn the Urban District Council of “overcrowding in the lanes of Athy.”  The overcrowding was alleviated somewhat by the erection of large structures, akin to field hospitals, on the outskirts of Athy and Ballylinan to accommodate the workers.

During the year fifty Dublin men, previously unemployed, who were brought to Athy with a promise of 30 shillings per week wages and free bed and equipment returned to Dublin soon after their arrival.  Apparently their demands of a wage increase of 8 shillings per week and a reduction of working hours from 60 to 58 hours per week was not accepted.  The local newspaper noted that the Dublin men had a spokesman “who like the agitator Larkin was a bit of a stump orator however he did not succeed in fooling the local workers who remained at work.”   A later newspaper report indicated that about 300 workers went on strike for a few days in August 1917 demanding an increase in the wages of 6 pence per hour for a 60 hour week.  The strike was called off when the workers agreed to terms of 5 shillings and 6 pence per day with a slight reduction in the working hours. 

The air of prosperity about Wolfhill noted by the local newspapers, which was absent in previous years, prompted a claim of overcharging by some railway workers.  Not so, claimed John Meier of Simmons Mills who wrote to the papers on the 27th of August 1917 outlining the prices he charged the miners for various food stuffs.  His prices of 3½ pence for a loaf of bread, 1/8 for a pound of smoked bacon, 3/6 for a pound of tea and sugar at 7 pence a pound did not represent over charging he asserted.

By September 1917 with so many farm workers having enlisted in the British Army the Town Clerk, J.A. Lawler, met Mr. Waller the chief Engineer on the railway project to secure the release of men to help with local harvesting work.  Waller agreed to the release of 200 men for a short period and guaranteed to keep their jobs open for them.

The bridge across the river Barrow was nearing completion in January 1918 and work on the railway was expected to be finished in two to three months thereafter.  As the project neared completion on the 14th of February 1918 the workers went on strike again.  200 men marched into Athy in what would appear to have been an unsuccessful attempt to get Athy men to join the strike.  It was noted in the local press that “tradesmen engaged on the bridge and other skilled work was not affected”.  However, a week later skilled workers were compelled to stop work on the railway line while the railway strikers sought to increase their wages from 5 shillings and 6 pence to 7 shillings and 6 pence per week.  The strikers returned to work following intervention by Denis Kilbride M.P., P.J. Meehan M.P. and Fr. W. Wilson a curate in Luggacurran.  It was agreed to wait for the decision of the Board of Trade regarding the workers demands.  The intervention by a Catholic curate was indicative of the importance of Church figures in Irish society at the time.  It can also be seen as a service to a neighbouring cleric, Rev. James Parkinson P.P. of Ballyadams, whose brother was proprietor of the Wolfhill colliery.

In September 1918 work commenced on taking up the second railway line between Athy and Cherryville, Kildare to be used as the new line between Castlecomer and Kilkenny.  The double line from Athy to Carlow had earlier been reduced to a single line and the lifted rail used to construct the branch line to Wolfhill.  The Railway Bridge across the river Barrow forming part of the Athy Wolfhill line was the first recorded reinforced concrete railway bridge constructed in Ireland.

The Athy Wolfhill railway line opened on the 24th of Sep 1918 and while it was operated by the Great Southern and Western Railway Company in remained in the ownership of the British Government until it passed to the Irish Free State following the Treaty.  In 1929 the Great Southern Railway leased the Athy/Wolfhill rail line from the Irish Government for 999 years.  It was one of the few Irish railway lines never privately owned.  As for the Wolfhill colliery, it’s operating company went into receivership in the summer of 1925 and was later liquidated.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

The Athy Wolfhill Railway Line (1)

Work on the building of the railway line from Athy to Wolfhill colliery started in April 1917.  It was first proposed in June 1912 when the colliery owner, Mr. Parkinson, came before the members of Kildare County Council seeking sanction for the project insofar as it related to the southern part of County Kildare.  At a subsequent meeting of Athy Urban District Council, chaired by James Deegan, Mr. Thomas Reddy Manager of the Gracefield colliery explained that it was intended to run the line beside the road from Wolfhill to Athy.  The mining company he said was prepared to run the trains early in the morning or late at night and so avoid any possible danger to the public.  The company was also willing to drop off passengers outside the town of Athy on market and fair days.  The money to build the railway was to come from the promoters of the scheme.  In return the Urban Council were asked to provide housing accommodation in the town for between 300 and 500 miners.  Both the proposal and the request met with the unanimous approval of the Council members with John Duncan J.P. proposing acceptance, seconded by Thomas Plewman J.P. who claimed that 95% of the people of Athy favoured the project.

The Kildare Observer in a subsequent editorial praised the Urban District Council stating “the time has come for the making of a steady and determined endeavour towards our industrial regeneration.”  The editor expressed the hope “that this new enterprise will bring to Athy and the surrounding country all the advantages of an extensive industrial development.”

The meeting of Kildare County Council saw legal representatives of the colliery owner, the County Council and the Great Southern and Western Railway Company make detailed submissions in connection with the railway project.  The Councillors were informed that the proposed light railway between Athy and the collieries at Gracefield and Modubeagh would extend for 10 miles, 1 furlong and 1.4 chains with 3 miles, 4 furlongs and 6 chains in County Kildare.  It was proposed to have the rail lines laid on a raised track placed on the left hand side of the road going from Athy to Ballylinan, the level of the rails to be 6 inches over the level of the centre of the road.  The county surveyor, Edward Glover, pointed out where work on railways had been commenced but not completed and while not expecting anything of that kind to occur in relation to the Wolfhill line, nevertheless he advised that in the case of abandonment the County Council should seek reinstatement of all roads and public services affected by the work.

The colliery owner, James Parkinson, advised the Council that he had purchased the mining rights of 10,500 acres for £20,000 and hoped in the near future to increase coal productivity each day to 1,000 tonnes in Modubeagh and 500 tonnes in Gracefield.  He pointed out that Modubeagh coalfield had coal supplies for about 60 years and confirmed that the estimated cost of laying the railway line was £70,725.  When asked if he anticipated any difficulty employing labourers when work was started, Mr. Parkinson replied “None whatever, we can easily get Connemara labourers.”

Despite the unanimous support of Kildare County Council and Athy Urban District Council an application had to be submitted to, and approved by, the Lord Lieutenant under the Tramways Acts to allow the construction work to proceed.  By the time war was declared in August 1914 no progress had been made in relation to the Athy Wolfhill railway line.

During the winter of 1916/17 the Chief Secretary travelled from Dublin Castle to Wolfhill to investigate the railway proposal and John O’Connor M.P. made a submission outlining how and why the railway line could be provided as a war measure.  Coal became scarce and very expensive during the war and he claimed that an increased quantity could be secured in Wolfhill and shipped to England if the railway line was put in place.  Mr. O’Connor went so far as the suggest that 1,000 soldiers out of the 4,000 based in the Curragh camp could be employed in building the railway line in three to four weeks.

The Board of Works eventually approved the scheme and J.J. Bergin by then Manager of the Wolfhill colliery, indicated to the local press on the 31s of March 1917 that “fourteen engineers are marking out the course.”  The same newspaper reported “work in connection with the new railway commenced this week when a good deal of local labour was engaged under the engineers attached to the Great Southern and Western Railway Company”.  To discourage farm labourers from applying to work on the railway project where a weekly wage of twenty seven shillings was paid, only men engaged in national service and registered for such work were employed.

To be continued…