Tuesday, July 25, 2017

An 18th century gold ring and reflections on Athy of that time

A gentleman’s gold wedding ring was gifted to the local Heritage Centre during the last week by Maisie Sale.  Her late husband Ken was a good friend of the local Museum Society and played a big part in setting up the first museum room, then located in St. Mary’s convent school almost 33 years ago.  Ken found the ring in a field where Mansfield Grove houses were later built.  The ring is inscribed ‘G.S. January 10 1733’.  It comes from a time when following the end of the Williamite wars the developing town of Athy began to attract a fresh influx of English settlers.  Athy was always a settler’s town, but the relative calm and stability which followed the Williamite wars provided the stimulus for growth which was to be a feature of life in Athy in the 18th century.


Commercial activity, rather than manufacture, provided the basis for the town development.  As a market town with a rich agricultural hinterland Athy was ideally located to benefit from road improvements in the first half of the 18th century.  Until 1720 the River Barrow afforded the only link with the sea ports of New Ross and Waterford.  However, that river link was sufficient to establish Athy as an important regional market centre at a time when roads were of the most primitive type.


In 1727 the first Turnpike Road Act was passed.  Turnpike roads were built and maintained by local business people and landlords who derived an income from tolls collected from traffic using the roads.  Athy had a turnpike road running through the town, with three turnpike gates.  One gate was located on the Dublin Road on the town side of St. Michael’s Cemetery, while a second turnpike gate was in a position across St. John’s Street (now Duke Street) at its junction with Green Alley.  The third turnpike gate and the last gate to remain in position was on the Castlecomer Road at Beggar’s End, approximately 700 yards from Whites Castle. 


Athy had been home to settlers from England since its foundation and it continued to attract settlers up to the early part of the 18th century.  They brought with them the expertise which was to provide the foundation for the commercial and later the manufacturing development of the town.  Athy was also home to the native Irish Catholics against whom religious restrictions were enforced up to the middle of the 18th century.  The Dominicans who fled from Athy in 1698 were still absent when the gold ring was inscribed.  Ten years would pass before the Dominicans felt safe to return to the town but even then a local man, John Jackson, could write to Dublin Castle in March 1743 and claim ‘I cannot find that there is or has been any popish priests or regular clergy in this corporation’.  The Parish Priest at the time was Fr. Daniel Fitzpatrick who lived outside the town in County Laois.  Other dissenting groups included the Presbyterians, whose Minister for 31 years from 1720 was Rev. John McGachin.  The Quakers had a relatively strong presence in Athy in 1733, even though a purpose built Quaker meeting house was not constructed until 1780.


Being a self-sufficient community, Athy in 1733 had its own bakers, masons, tailors, shoe makers, nail makers and a host of other craftsmen required to meet local needs, amongst whom was local gunsmith John Davisson.  Athy was also an assizes town where serious crime was tried.  After the assizes held in the town in August 1722 the following proclamation was published and posted in a broadside format throughout the South Kildare area.  ‘The Grand Jury at a general assize and general gaol delivery held at Athy the first day of August 1722 did present Toby Byrne of Narraghmore Yeoman to be a tory robber and rapparee out in arms and on his keeping and not amenable to law.’ 


In 1756 the town population was 1779, almost treble the figure of 100 years previously.  Athy’s transition from village to town was marked by the erection in or about 1720 of a large building in the centre of the town.  It served not only as a town hall, but also as a courthouse and market house.  Around the same time a military barracks was erected on the edge of the town to house the garrison previously billeted in Whites Castle. 


Athy was a corporate town governed by an elected sovereign and burgesses since the granting of its second charter in 1613.  Five years after the date on the wedding ring the local Borough Council held a meeting to disenfranchise Graham Bradford who had been convicted in the local Court of perjury and transported to America.


The gold ring reminds us of a time lost in history and the importance of written records which allow us to look back at times past and people who have gone before us.


Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Sisters of Mercy Athy

Successive generations of young Athy people have benefited from the educational work of the Sisters of Mercy since Mother Vincent Whitty and her two companions travelled from the Baggot St. convent in Dublin to take charge of the new Mercy convent in Athy in October 1852. Mother Vincent was later to bring the educational mission of the Sisters of Mercy to Australia, where she was joined by several nuns and postulants from the Athy Convent including Sr. Mary Potter who had entered the Athy Convent in June 1866.  This was the same Sr. Mary who 13 years later was appointed Superior of the Australian congregation, a position she held until her death in 1927.  Both Mother Vincent Whitty and Sr. Mary Potter, with Bishop James Quinn of Brisbane [a brother of the Athy Parish Priest Fr. Andrew Quinn], were the founders of the Catholic education system in the Brisbane diocese of Australia. 


Despite the fact that the local Athy people had been collecting funds for a convent building since the spring of 1843, the Sisters of Mercy in Baggot St. had to advance £300 to the local fund to allow the new convent to be completed.  When the convent building was completed in October 1852 there was no school building as such and the nuns and the children used the local Parish Church as a school throughout the winter months.  That changed the following year when Sr. Teresa Maher, formerly of Kilrush who had entered the Dublin noviciate, was sent to replace Mother Whitty in Athy.  The Carlow Sisters of Mercy sent two sisters of Teresa Maher to the Athy convent, while their father Patrick Maher gave £10,000 to build school rooms for the young Athy pupils. 


The years immediately following the Great Famine were marked by social and educational deprivation and it was in this environment that the Sisters of Mercy worked to provide a basic education for every child.  The welfare of the children and their families were also catered for by the Sisters of Mercy who arrived in Athy at a time when the town was home to poverty, deprivation and disease.  Much has changed in the intervening years and the poverty and slum dwellings of yesteryear are no longer even a memory. 


Apart from attending to the educational needs of the local children, the Sisters of Mercy also provided nursing services in the workhouse, now St. Vincent’s Hospital.  House visitations to the sick and elderly and especially to the poorer families of the area was other important element of the work of the Sisters of Mercy who were known as ‘walking sisters’.  We can never hope to know the extent and range of assistance provided quietly and without fuss by the Sisters of Mercy over many decades for the most needy members of our local community. 

The following photograph was taken at the Sisters of Mercy Convent Athy in May 1961.











Back [left to right]:     Sr. Aidan, Sr. Enda, Sr. Teresa, Sr. Alphonsus, Sr. Immaculata, Sr. Philomena, Sr. Bernard and Sr. Rosarii.


Front [left to right]:     Sr. Assumpta, Sr. Michael, Sr. Margaret, Sr. Carmel and Sr. Benignus.


Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Edward Grainger Army Surgeon

Edward Grainger, a surgeon in Birmingham, published in 1815 an account of his working life under the title ‘Medical and Surgical Remarks, including a description of a simple and effective method of removing polypi from the uterus, tonsils from the throat, etc.’  The book was a compilation of surgical procedures Grainger carried out throughout his career.


As a young man he had been the regimental surgeon attached to a regiment at dragoons stationed at the Barracks, Athy in 1798.  As was the custom at the time each cavalry regiment had a surgeon who ranked as a captain and an assistant surgeon who had the status of Lieutenant, though neither surgeon outside of their medical responsibility exercised any military command.  Their principal role was to provide medical care to the troopers serving with the regiment, as well as advising the commanding officer on matters concerning the health of the regiment’s men.


In the tumultuous year of 1798 Grainger was stationed in Athy as the principal surgeon and his assistant surgeon was a man called Spencer.  Grainger struck up a friendship with Dr. Johnson, a physician in the town.  Grainger’s colleague Spencer assisted Johnson in treating a patient outside the town when they were induced to visit a man in a neighbouring cabin who was lying there with what was described as ‘a bad leg’.  It was clear to Spencer that the amputation of this man’s leg was necessary.  Grainger was asked to perform the operation.  Grainger left a vivid description of the scene that met him the next day.  ‘I never shall forget the scene.  In a dark hole, with no more light than could be admitted through an aperture in a wall of 6 inches square, on some straw, on the bare earth, there was extended the most squalid, wretched figure, that I ever met in my sight. 


Near his wretched straw was a fire formed of Kilkenny coal, which ignites without a flame.  The bluish livid light which was thrown from this fire and the spectre before me, enabled me to discover the skeleton of a leg thrust out of the straw, naked, denuded of all vessels, and muscles, and skin, as are bones collected in a charnel house’.


Grainger does not state what was the nature of the illness suffered by this poor unfortunate creature, but his more fulsome description of the condition of the leg would indicate that there was some extreme form of infection in the leg that Grainger was quite certain threatened the life of the patient.  He went on to write ‘this poor man was ordered some porter and wine, and nourishing food, for to have amputated the limb in  his then weak state, would have been to doom him to certain death. As soon as he could bear the operation I amputated the limb above the knee’. 


This was in the days before anaesthesia and antiseptic surgery. Joseph Lister, the distinguished British surgeon who pioneered antiseptic surgery recorded the amputations he carried out in the years 1864-1866 and noted that almost half his patients died after surgery.  Miraculously Grainger’s patient survived.  Grainger was curious as to how long the man had suffered with his leg and wrote, ‘I learned from the man that this leg had always been cold, and took to swell.  That he knew nothing of the cause of the present disease; that it swelled and became inflamed, and then became as if it were dead; that the soft parts gradually waste away.  So firmly was he and all his friends convinced the disease arose from witchcraft, that he had never applied for any medical assistance before the request of Dr. Johnson, who was accidentally riding by, to see him.  This was the sum of all I could collect from this man or his relations, who were the most ignorant poor creatures that I had met with.’


After his army service Grainger returned to England.  His eldest son, also named Edward, trained as a surgeon under his father and established a distinguished anatomy school in Southwark, London in 1819.  Much of the success of Grainger’s anatomy school was attributed to the fact that Grainger had no problem in getting corpses from ‘resurrection men’ or body snatchers, as they were commonly known.  The grisly trade of body snatchers would reach its apogee in Edinburgh in the 1820s with the arrest and execution of the Irish body snatchers William Burke and William Hare.  Sadly, for Grainger he would see his protégé and eldest son Edward die of consumption at the age of only 27, while his younger son Richard Grainger would go on to have an even more distinguished medical career than his father or his elder brother, culminating in his election to the Royal Society in London in 1846. 


Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Bill Ryan Teacher - John Macdougald Doctor

This week I am writing of two men, a generation apart, both of whom made a huge contribution to the local community here in Athy.  While both lived for many years in the town, neither were natives of Athy.  Bill Ryan, a native of County Tipperary, was a teacher for many years in the secondary school of the local Christian Brothers.  Dr. John Macdougald, a native of Dublin, came to Athy in 1974 and having practiced here as a General Practitioner for the last 43 years, retired from his medical practice last week. 


Bill Ryan died at the relatively young age of 67 forty years ago and the anniversary of his death occurs on 5th July.  He taught me in the local Christian Brothers School for 5 or 6 years until I finished my Leaving Certificate in the summer of 1960.  Of all the teachers I had, apart from the legendary Sr. Brendan of my junior school, Bill Ryan, or ‘Mr. Ryan’ as he was always addressed, was the best.  He instilled a love of history and literature in a class of young boys whose interest during their teenage years were understandably centred on sports and girls.  An avid Fianna Fail supporter, whose allegiance to De Valera was never in question, Bill Ryan brought politics and Irish social history to life for young enquiring minds.  He did so without once betraying his responsibility as a teacher by unfair or partisan portrayal of Irish political life or character. 


Strangely, although he was a Tipperary man, I can never recall Bill Ryan referring to his native county’s many successes on the hurling field.  Sport apparently played little part in his life but outside of school hours he was a dedicated member of the Social Club’s Dramatic Society.  He featured in many of the plays performed in the St. John’s Lane Social Club and in the local Town Hall during the 1940s and the 1950s.  But it was as a teacher that I remember with fondness the man from Tipperary.  I can still visualise him standing at the top of the class talking to us about events reported in the national newspaper of the day, with one hand clinking the loose change in his trousers pocket.


He earned the respect and gratitude of his pupils, for he treated us as young adults who had a right to know and to understand what was happening in the world.  His standing among the pupils of the Christian Brothers School can be gauged by the fact that of all the teachers he did not have a nickname.  He was simply ‘Mr. Ryan’.  He was a first class teacher who was highly effective in forming young minds in the pursuit of knowledge.  He died just a few years after he retired and now that I am at an age which was denied to him I am saddened to think that such a good man did not live to enjoy very many years of retirement with his wife Noreen. 


To Dr. John Macdougald I wish many years of happy retirement after so many years of devoted service to his patients in Athy and district.  I use the term ‘devoted service’ as I have never come across a doctor, or indeed a member of any other profession, who has given of himself or herself with such courtesy and dedication as has John Macdougald.  Many are the stories I have heard over the years of patients visited by Dr. John following up to enquire how an earlier diagnosed health problem was progressing.  The house calls were made by a man who shared a genuine concern for his patients and who always went that extra mile to reassure the concerned patient.  As a general medical practitioner John Macdougald is an exceptionally kind doctor who brought compassion, care and consideration to his practice of medicine, qualities which are sometimes wanting in a profession which is occasionally unfairly criticised. 

He served his patients and the wider community in a manner which has drawn unstinted praise from the general public.  No wonder then that when news of his retirement became public several persons contacted me to speak of his kindness and thoughtfulness.  John now starts on a well deserved retirement and good wishes are extended to him and to his wife Carol as they begin a new phase of life together.