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!