Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Helen Dreelan Matron St. Vincent's Hospital

A nursing career which includes six years spent as an outpost nurse in a nursing station catering for the people of Northern Newfoundland and Labrador comes to an end shortly when Helen Dreelan retires as matron of St. Vincent’s Hospital, Athy.  Helen came to the position in St. Vincent’s Hospital in 1999 and I met her soon afterwards as she was involved with a number of Athy Lions Club fundraising events.  Always helpful and never less than cheerful Helen brought a keen sense of shared responsibility and a wealth of experience to the profession of nursing management.


Helen qualified as a registered nurse in Dublin and later worked as a staff nurse in several different hospitals in the capital city.  She later took charge as head nurse of the urology unit in Galway University Hospital.  In 1987 she joined the Grenfell Regional Hospital services and spent the next six years as the nurse in charge in Mary’s Harbour nursing station in southern Labrador.  For the young Ballymore Eustace native, this was an extraordinary change of working environment as she worked in sub-arctic conditions where the temperature in winter times fell as low as minus thirty degrees.


The Grenfell Regional Health Board was established in 1981 to take over operational responsibility for the delivery of health care and social services in Northern Newfoundland and Labrador.  William Grenfell, an English doctor who first went to Newfoundland and Labrador in 1892 as part of the Royal National Mission to Deep Sea Fishermen, opened cottage hospitals in the villages scattered along the inhospitable coastline of Labrador.  Mary’s Harbour was one of the small coastal villages with a population of a couple of hundred people, situated in the south-east coast of Labrador.  In Labrador itself there are three ethnic groups, the Inuit, the native Americans and descendants of European origins.  The village of Mary’s Harbour has no roadwork to any of the other towns and villages on the Labrador coast.  The nearest village was a 25 min. boat ride or a 10 min. plane trip away.  Medical facilities in the sub-arctic environment of Labrador village of Mary’s Harbour were provided by head nurse Helen and another nurse whose day to day work was complemented by visits every four or six weeks by the District Medical Officer and the District Dentist. 


Winter on the coast of Labrador lasts from November to early May when temperatures can fall so sharply as to freeze rivers and sea alike.  Inshore cod fishing, which is the principal occupation of the coastal villagers in Labrador comes to a standstill in winter, resuming only in May each year.  The summer fishing season is short but busy and October sees the fishermen returning to Mary’s Harbour to prepare for the winter.  Life as an outpost nurse in the Labrador coastal village, as one can imagine, can be extremely challenging.  It was a challenge Helen Dreelan as a nurse from Ireland found simulating during her six years there.  She also found enormous job satisfaction in providing a comprehensive medical service for a scattered community whose lives are regulated by the harsh weather conditions which give a seemingly unending horizon of frozen lakes, snow and ice. 


Helen took up the position of matron of St. Vincent’s Hospital in 1999 and now, in addition to that role, is also Director of Nursing for the Kildare West Wicklow area.  St. Vincent’s Hospital which first opened as a workhouse in January 1844 has seen a large number of both lay and religious masters and matrons in its 173 years’ history.  Many of us will remember the legendary Sr. Dominic who for many years epitomised all that was good in Irish religious life and whose charity earned for her the respect and gratitude of many.


Plans for the building of a new 100 bed hospital unit has been developed and approved during Helen’s stewardship of St. Vincent’s Hospital.  That stewardship has also been marked by many improvements to both the existing building and to the system of care afforded to patients in St. Vincent’s Hospital.   As a nurse manager and matron of the hospital Helen Dreelan has demonstrated admirable management and leadership skills.  Looking back at the history of nursing in Ireland we tend to overlook the enormous contribution made by the religious orders to hospital management in the past.  Helen was the first lay person in recent years to take on the role of matron of St. Vincent’s Hospital and in remembering her contribution we should also acknowledge and recall the contribution of the Sisters of Mercy who first came to work in the former workhouse in the 1870s.


Our congratulations, best wishes and thanks to Helen Dreelan who will be retiring on 30th June.


Tuesday, May 23, 2017

A tour of interesting parts of Athy and South Kildare

I adopted the role of an out of town visitor during the past week as I brought a Galway friend around some of the many interesting parts of south Kildare.  The starting point was Athy’s Heritage Centre where the first-time visitor was impressed by the range and quality of the various exhibitions.  He particularly liked the short films dealing with Andrew Delaney and World War 1, the Gordon Bennett Race of 1902 and the Shackleton ‘Endurance’ expedition of 1914.


A barge trip on the nearby river was promised for another day as we turned our attention to nearby Castledermot.  On the way we passed to look, from a distance, at Kilkea Castle, soon to re-open as a five-star hotel.  Once the home of the Wizard Earl of Kildare it also housed at different periods members of the Jesuit Society and the infamous ’98 informer Thomas Reynolds.  Just beyond the castle we passed Mullaghreelan where the Irish saint Laurence O’Toole, a former archbishop of Dublin, was born.


Castledermot has a host of interesting places, the best known of which is St. James Church with its round tower and high crosses.  These are visible reminders of the 9th century monastery, while the Romanesque archway is believed to be the remains of a 12th century church dedicated to St. Dermot.  The swearing stone and the hogback burial stone add imaginative interest to the scene, even if there may well be doubts as to the historic accuracy of both descriptions.


The substantial remains of the nearby Franciscan Friary founded in the 13th century is all that was left following the Geraldine rebellion of the early 1500s.  It had survived attacks by the Scottish invaders led by Edward Bruce almost 200 years earlier.  Supressed by Henry VIII, as was Athy’s Dominican Friary in the 1540s, the Franciscan monastery became a vacant shell which contains today in the north transept the only example of a cadaver stone in County Kildare.


A stop over for refreshments at the Moone High Cross Inn brought me to the venue where the late Michael Delaney’s book on Kilkea was launched some years ago.  This is a real treasure of a country inn, its wall resplendent with photographs and artefacts telling the story of the surrounding area.  A short journey up the road us to the Moone High Cross.  It is located on the site of one of the early Columban foundations.  The Moone High Cross, one of the finest National monuments in Ireland, is believed to date from about 700 and its elaborate design prompts the belief that the monastery of Moone was well established when the cross was first erected and that the monastery may well have origins near the time of St. Colmcille who died in 597. 


A short detour to Bolton Abbey, the Cistercian Abbey established in 1977, brought with it a pleasant surprise.  We arrived just as five Cistercian monks began to chant their midday prayers.  Many centuries have passed since the same prayerful sounds were heard in nearby Moone and Castledermot and as I watched the elderly Cistercian monks at prayer I became more conscious of the strong ecclesiastical links which mark all areas of south Kildare.


We passed on to Ballitore, the one-time Quaker village, with a built heritage which speaks of prosperous times when Quaker business men were its most prominent residents.  Mary Leadbeater’s house, now the village library and museum, was the first port of call.  It is manned by the newly appointed librarian Pauline Fagan who tells me that she is one of the Birney clan of Kilcullen.  The Quaker museum gives an interesting insight into the lives of the village people of Ballitore of the 19th century.  Their story was captured so well in the writings of Mary Leadbeater whose most famous publication, ‘The Annals of Ballitore’, recently reprinted by Kildare County Library, is for sale in the Ballitore library. 


A visit to the nearby Quaker cemetery to see the recently repaired grave monument for Mary Leadbeater was not possible as the uncontrolled growth of cow parsley at the entrance to the cemetery threatened a sensitive hay fever sufferer. The Shaker store and the Quaker meeting house are worth a visit if you visit Ballitore where Abraham Shackleton started a Quaker boarding school in 1726.  That same school building captured in an early photograph is no more but its most famous pupils, Napper Tandy, Edmund Burke and Paul Cullen are still remembered.  The last named, later to be the first Irish Cardinal of the Catholic Church, was born in Prospect House just a short distance from the village on the way to the town of Athy.


Time did not allow us to visit Killeen Cormac, just three miles north east of Ballitore.  This was a pagan burial place continued in use in Christian times from where ogham stones were removed and placed in our National museum.  Kileen Cormac is believed to be the burial place of King Cormac of Munster. 


My Galway visitor was very impressed with what he saw in a short trip around South Kildare and I must myself admit that I have a better appreciation of the interesting history and heritage of my own area.  Hopefully more visitors will be encouraged to visit the area when the planned Greenway comes into being and the Shackleton Museum plans for the Town Hall are finally realised. 


Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Athy men who served with the Anzacs during World War I

A week or so ago I had the privilege of meeting the Australian author Jeff Kildea who stopped off in Athy on his journey home following the launch of his latest book in Tullamore.  As I mentioned in a previous Eye Jeff’s great great grandmother as a young girl was sent to Australia under the Irish Workhouses Orphan Emigration Scheme at the end of the Great Famine.  Roseanna Fleming was from Ballyadams and thanks to the generosity of spirit of Jim Fleming, Jeff on his visit to Ballyadams was able to learn some of the background to that location’s history.


Visiting Ballyadams Catholic Church which with the nearby national school makes up the visible centre of the townland, our Australian visitor came across a reminder of his youthful Australian past.  There in front of the Church are buried a number of former parish priests of the parish of Ballyadams.  Amongst them lies the remains of Monsignor Walter Hurley who died at Ballyadams on 21st June 1956.  Monsignor Hurley was at one time parish priest of Bondi Beach, Sydney and amongst his parishioners was a young Jeff Kildea.  Indeed I believe the Monsignor baptised Jeff Kildea, the man who visiting Athy and Ballyadams in April 2017 was not aware that his former parish priest lay buried before the parish church where his great great grandmother may have worshiped over 160 years ago.


This discovery by the Australian author of the splendid book ‘Anzacs and Ireland’ was one of the highlights of his visit which included a tour of the remaining blocks of the original Workhouse in Athy opened in January 1844. 


‘Anzacs and Ireland’ published by Cork University Press in 2007 provides an interesting and detailed account of New Zealand and Australian soldiers of World War 1 who spent time in Ireland during the 1916 Rising.   The Australian New Zealand connection with Ireland is based in many instances on a common genealogy and a shared heritage.  Soldiers from these two countries and Ireland fought alongside each other during World War I and Jeff Kildea’s book elaborates on the association between Anzac soldiers and Ireland during a difficult period in our history. 


Athy’s connection with the Anzacs was further clarified for me by data shared by Jackie Greene whose own relation was a member of the Anzacs.  Jackie, who researched the Irish Anzacs database provided by the University of New South Wales, discovered six Athy men who enlisted with the Anzacs during World War I. 


Two of those men enlisted but shortly thereafter were discharged.  They were George Cullen, aged 43 years, originally from Bray, Athy who enlisted in Sydney in April 1916.  Patrick Connor, whose brother had an address at Athy Post Office, also enlisted having previously served in the Royal Field Artillery in England.


Gallowshill born Thomas Smyth enlisted in New South Wales in February 1915 and served as an infantry soldier in Gallipoli and later with the Field Ambulance Brigade in France.  He survived the war, despite being wounded in April 1918 and returned to Australia.  Another enlistee in Australia was Andrew Short who also fought in Gallipoli and France.  I believe he was from the Castleroe Maganey area. 


Gerald Whelan, son of Thomas Whelan of William Street, enlisted in New South Wales in April 1915 and fought with the Anzacs on the Western Front.  He also survived the war, as did Charles Prendergast, another Athy man who unlike the other five men was married.  He had enlisted in Melbourne in September 1914.


Jeff Kildea in his book ‘Anzacs in Ireland’ wrote ‘the time is surely ripe to revive memories of the links between Australia’s soldiers and Ireland – links forged in battle at Gallipoli’.  Thanks to Jackie Greene’s research that link has now been made.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Athy's links with the Crimean War

Amongst my papers is a letter sent from Athy to Dublin on 4th December 1857.  The letter sent, to a now unknown correspondent, was written by a man called John McElwain.  In the letter he requested various types of leather to be sent to him on the following Saturday evening’s goods train. 


He pointed out in the letter that it was most important that he had these goods before Monday as it was a fair day in Athy.  Furthermore he wrote that he was unable to come to Dublin himself as he was indisposed because of the illness of one of his children.  That is all I know about John McElwain and the location of his business in Athy is unknown to me.  Given the materials he was ordering from Dublin I presume he was some form of leather maker and possibly a saddler or harness maker.  What is more intriguing about the letter is the stationery upon which it is written.  At the head of the notepaper is an engraved headpiece of ‘Planting the standard on the Malakhoff September 8th, 1855’.   The capture of the Malakhoff was a culminating action in the Siege of Sevastopol in the Crimean War in 1855.  This was a war fought between the forces of Britain and France as against the Russians.  On that day September 8th 1855 13,000 Russians were killed and 10,000 of the allied soldiers.  It seemed curious to me that a shopkeeper in Athy was using a letter heading commemorating a battle fought in the far-flung Crimea two years previously. 


The Crimean War was one of the most important international events of the 19th century and it was the focus of much attention in the Irish press at the time.  Many thousands of Irishmen served in the war and Irish women were represented by the Sisters of Mercy who travelled to Crimea in December 1854 to nurse the wounded British soldiers.  Their experiences were recorded in journals kept by Sr. Aloysius Doyle and Sr. Joseph Croke.  Sr. Doyle was from Old Kilcullen and had entered the Sisters of Mercy in Carlow in 1851.  She subsequently published her memoirs of her service in the Crimean War in 1896 to raise funds for charitable purposes.  Amongst the many Athy soldiers was Patrick Dowling who enlisted in the British Army on 14th December 1849, giving his occupation on enlistment as a servant.  He joined the 17th Lancers, a cavalry regiment, and fought in the War, receiving recognition for his involvement in the Battles of Alma, Balaclava and Sevastopol.  He was killed in the Charge of the Light Brigade on 25th October 1854.  His Crimean war medal surfaced at Whyte's Auction house in Dublin in 2000.  I understand it was subsequently purchased by a Kildare man and perhaps one day it might find its way to Athy for display in the Athy Heritage Centre-Museum.


The landed class from the Athy area were also represented in the British Army at that time.  Henry William Verschoyle, the son of Robert Verschoyle who lived at Abbey Farm, Kilberry, Athy was one of six children of Robert Verschoyle and Catherine Verschoyle.  Henry was the only one of three sons who survived into adulthood.  Born in 1835 he was commissioned into the Grenadier Guards and served in the Crimean War with distinction having carried the regimental colours of his regiment at the Battles of Alma, Balaclava and was wounded during the Siege of Sevastopol in 1855 but survived the war.  Henry married in December 1856 and continued to live in Kilberry and at 6 Wilton Crescent in London.  He was an accomplished artist and photographer and a large collection of photographic works are held in the Hulton collection in London.  Retiring from the army with the rank of Colonel he spent much of his time sailing.  Indeed he won the Queens Cup at the Cowes Regatta in 1870 and just two days later died suddenly while participating in another race.


Another interesting local connection relates to the institution of the Victoria Cross medal by Queen Victoria at the end of the Crimean War in 1856.  The medal was instituted ‘for conspicuous bravery in the presence of the enemy’.  Uniquely the bronze medal is still cast from Russian guns captured at Sevastopol during the Crimean War.  It is regarded as the highest award for bravery and takes precedence over all other military medals.  The first Kildare man to win a Victoria Cross is remembered in Crookstown Cemetery.  Abraham Bolger, originally from Kilcullen, was awarded his Victoria Cross for his bravery during the Indian mutiny in 1857.  Unusually for a man who began his army service in the ranks Abraham rose to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel and retired from the army in 1887.  He died on 23rd January 1900 having resided for some time close to the Moate of Ardscull.


As to John McElwain, the shopkeeper in Athy whose letter triggered this Eye on the Past, we presume that he must have got his goods on time to ensure that he had a successful fair day!

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Outer Relief Road v. Inner Reliefr Road

Last week local newspapers carried several pages advertising Kildare County Council’s Compulsory Purchase Notice relating to lands to be acquired for the Outer Relief Road on the south side of Athy.  This means we are now approaching the final stretch in the long struggle to get traffic relieving measures in place for the town of Athy.  New roads were first mooted in 1976 when the Urban District Council engaged the services of Fearon & Associates.  Their report, issued some months later, recommended the construction of an Inner Relief Road as an immediate short-term measure, with an Outer Relief Road as a medium to long term solution to the town’s developing traffic problems.


The report like most reports submitted to government agencies was not acted upon and remained out of sight and out of mind for almost ten years.  In 1985 the issue of the relief roads was raised and during the subsequent discussions it became clear that the report which recommended the construction of an Inner Relief Road through the back square also suggested that no development would be allowed along that new road which was to have 6ft. high walls on either side.  So much for the quality of urban planning in the 1970s!


This disclosure prompted much heated debate in the Council chamber and alarm amongst the local townspeople and resulted in a decision to remove the walls from any future road development in the town.  It also prompted the council officials to get a compliant Urban Council to entrust responsibility for any new road development in Athy to Kildare County Council, thereby hoping to limit any further criticism by the townspeople.


Over the following years however the Inner Relief Road became a contentious issue and a matter of great concern to the general public.  In September 1998, the Athy Urban Development Group was formed to oppose the construction of the Inner Relief Road and to promote the alternative outer relief route.  The group organised a petition seeking a plebiscite on the best option for the town.  The petition signed by over 2,000 local people was ignored by the Urban District Council. 


Council officials claimed that the consultants engaged by the Council identified only 15% of the town traffic as ‘through’ traffic.  This apparently strengthened the County Council’s arguments in favour of an Inner Relief Road.  However, these traffic figures, while used by Council officials on several occasions to support the case for an Inner Relief Road subsequently turned out to be incorrect.  The ‘through’ traffic was in fact in the region of 45%, as was subsequently outlined to the Planning Appeal Board hearing by the Council’s own traffic consultants. 


The opponents of the Inner Relief Road, led by the Urban Development Group, consistently put forward the Outer Relief Road as the best solution for the town’s traffic problems.  The nine member Urban District Council was split 6-3 in favour of the Inner Relief Road and the road controversy became a local election issue in June 1999.  That election resulted in the election of five councillors who opposed the Inner Relief Road and favoured the building of the Outer Relief Road, but regrettably within a few weeks of his election one of the Councillors changed his opinion and so gave a majority to the proponents of the Inner Relief Road.


The controversy eventually ended with An Bord Pleanala holding a public hearing following Kildare County Council’s application to build the Inner Relief Road.  The hearing was held in the Stand House Hotel, the Curragh and lasted for a week and a day, with numerous consultants and experts called to give evidence on behalf of Kildare County Council.  The decision of the Planning Board delivered some months later refused permission for the Inner Relief Road.  This is believed to be the first time the Planning Appeal Board rejected a road development proposal by a local authority.  Several years have since passed and it is only within the last couple of years that the Outer Relief Road championed by the local people was actively taken up by Kildare County Council. 


‘But for Taaffe we would have the Outer Relief Road years ago’ is a canard on the same scale of reality as the oft repeated claim that ‘Dunnes Stores were stopped from setting up in Athy by a well-known local trader’.   That nonsense was actually put to me last week by an otherwise intelligent person who for whatever reason failed to understand that myself and the other opponents of the Inner Relief Road supported from an early stage the construction of the Outer Relief Road.  It has taken Kildare County Council 41 years to accept that the Outer Relief Road and not the Inner Relief Road was the best option for the town of Athy.  The Outer Relief Road when built can make a huge contribution to the industrial and commercial development of Athy.