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. 


Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Cara formerly Aontas Ogra

The 60th anniversary of the founding of Cara, since renamed Aontas Ogra, will be marked with a birthday celebration in the club premises which was formally part of the old Dreamland Ballroom on Saturday, 23rd September at 8.00 p.m.  It promises to be a night of joyful celebration for its current members, while for past members, including those of us who were founder members, it will be a nostalgic night as we remember past events and friends and colleagues, many of whom have since passed away. 


Twenty years ago after celebrations for the 40th anniversary of its foundation I wrote the following. 


‘There will be a meeting in the lower classroom after school which you should all attend."  Brother Brett, Headmaster of the Christian Brothers School in Athy, taciturn as ever, addressed his remarks to eager third year pupils.  The year was 1957.  Later that day the noisy gathering of schoolboys was addressed by a fellow student, Michael O'Neill, who had obtained Brother Brett's permission to hold the meeting.  Michael was from Kerry and arrived in Athy about one and a half years previously when his father took up work as a farm steward with Shaws of Cardenton.  His rich mellifluous Kerry accent soon earned Michael the nickname "Aru".  As he stood before his schoolmates that day he spoke firstly in Irish and then in English.


Michael, a native Irish speaker, wanted to start an Athy branch of an Irish youth organisation which up to then had only one other branch in Ireland.  "Cara" or Friends of the Irish Language sought to bring the Irish language and culture to the forefront and Michael was anxious to enrol his school mates as club members.  As far as I can recall Pat Flinter, a classmate of mine, was one of Michael's acolytes that afternoon and so must share with him the honour of founding the organisation which was later to become Aontas Ogra. 


Our early attempts at promoting the speaking of Irish was less than successful.  The margins of Irish culture were in time pushed out to encompass dancing, not necessarily confined to the walls of Limerick or the high caul cap.  Truth to tell we did start out with Irish dancing classes which of course necessitated the readily obtained co-operation of our female colleagues from St. Mary's Convent School.  Margo Clandillon, Sheila Kehoe, Betty Clancy, Catherine Millar, Josie Murphy, Claire Bracken and Olga Rowan were just some of the names which immediately come to mind when I recall Sunday afternoon spent in St. John's Hall or the Town Hall struggling through the intricacies of Irish dancing.  Whatever the quality of our dancing our interpersonal skills were being nicely honed, from the intermingling with the girls from St. Mary's.’  Frank English, Eddie Hearns, Pat Timpson, Mick Robinson, George Robinson, Anthony Prendergast and many others had occasion to remember with some pleasure those innocent days. 


A Club outing to the Rock of Dunamaise on a hot Sunday afternoon is remembered as boys and girls, each with a bicycle walked in formation down the hill into Stradbally whistling the theme tune from the Bridge on the River Kwai.  Several trips to the only other Cara group then in Dublin with club premises in the basement of Molesworth Street was also a welcome diversion from school and the narrow confines of provincial life of the late 1950's.  Another highlight in those young days was a trip to the Scalp, a part of outer Dublin never before known to us but where we stored up enough memories to last a lifetime.’


At a more recent birthday celebration of a former member of Aontas Ogra photographs of some of our youthful Aontas Ogra outings were eagerly poured over.  They included coverage of the trip to the Rock of Dunamaise (which I can still vividly recall) and a pageant in St. John’s Hall (which I cannot recall at all).  Once familiar faces captured on film all those years ago in some instances did not immediately bring names to mind, while others were instantly and unmistakably recognised. 


Everything comes to an end and for those who attended the initial meeting in 1957 this meant that by June 1960 we had passed out of the secondary school system.  With many of those involved leaving Athy to take up employment in Dublin and elsewhere Cara was to continue with new members but with one person who throughout the years has been the lynchpin in the organisation.  Billy Browne is still associated with the Club, carrying on a proud tradition going back sixty years.  Honoured in the past by the Town Council and by the Lions Club International for his contribution to the youth affairs in Athy, Billy and all the other leaders involved with the club over the years epitomise the commitment, dedication and support which marks the continuing success of the organisation founded in Athy sixty years ago.  Past members and partners are invited to the 60th birthday celebration on Saturday 23rd September.


Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Athy in the early decades of the 19th century

Sporadic outbursts of ribbonmen activity in and around the south Kildare area was a common enough feature of life in the early part of the 19th century.  The burning of the Athy residence of Chief Constable Dolman in 1825 was however regarded as an isolated incident for which two local men, Ging and Hutchinson, were arrested.  Conditions in the area continued to improve to the extent that the local Yeomanry were disbanded just 30 years after the ’98 Rebellion.  The Duke of Leinster was sufficiently encouraged to embark on a building project in Athy.  In July 1825 Michael Carey, a local man, noted that the Duke had laid out “Coffey’s ground for his lodge”.  The lodge built on the Carlow Road site was a hunting and fishing lodge which to this day is known as Dukes Lodge.


Despite the earlier confidence which led to the disbandment of the local Yeomanry the British Prime Minister Wellington, felt it necessary to advise the King that Ireland was on the verge of rebellion which could only be resolved by the granting of Catholic Emancipation.  Sir Robert Peel, who succeeded Wellington as Prime Minister, introduced in the House of Commons the Catholic Relief Bill which was enacted in August 1829 as an “Act for the Relief of His Majesty’s Roman Catholic Subjects”.


Whether in celebration of Catholic Emancipation or a simple act of defiance a green flag with white ribbons at the top was erected on a pole in the centre of Athy.  If it was an act of defiance it was the only apparent evidence of anti-Government activity in Athy about that time.  The countryside had become even more peaceful than before no doubt due to the setting up of the County Constabulary.  Col. Fitzgerald of Geraldine House, who had been the subject of complaints by Thomas Rawson during the ’98 Rebellion, had been stood down as a Magistrate.  As a Catholic Fitzgerald, while not involved in rebellious activity, was nevertheless suspected of sympathising with the leaders of the United Irishmen.  With the passing of Catholic Emancipation, a measure deemed necessary to forestall another rebellion, the way was open for Catholic gentry at least to be accommodated amongst the ruling classes.  Col. Fitzgerald was elected a Burgess of Athy Borough Council in 1832 and elected Town Sovereign the same year.  The following year he was reinstated to his position as a Magistrate.


1832 was also the year that cholera was reported, firstly in Belfast on the 15th of March and ten days later in Dublin.  By the middle of the year cholera had struck Athy and would remain a threat to the townspeople for many months.  The earlier mentioned Michael Carey noted that cholera “raged in Athy from May to November 1832”.  He was later to report that five residents of Barrack Street died of cholera on the 7th of February 1833.


Despite the difficulties of that time local man Mark Cross who lived in Emily Square was busily engaged in several building projects in the town.  He built small houses in Janeville Lane and Connolly’s Lane which was located off Meeting Lane.  These houses almost 100 years after they were built would be declared unfit for human habitation during the slum clearance programmes of the 1930’s.  Mark Cross was also recorded as building the Freemasons Hall in January 1842.  I have never come across any other reference to this building and wonder where it was located.


Perhaps the most important building projects in Athy at that time were the construction of the Fever Hospital, the new Town Jail and the Workhouse.  The building of the Fever Hospital was financed by a Mr. Keating who following the burning of his house in Market Square was the recipient of a public subscription totalling £300.  Mr. Kavanagh generously donated the money so that a local Fever Hospital could be built.  The new Town Jail, replacing the prison quarters in Whites Castle, was opened in 1830 and 14 years later Athy’s Workhouse was opened.


1832 was also the year of Reform which for Ireland saw the passing of the Representation Of The People (Ireland) Act.  This Act increased Irish representation in the House of Commons from 100 to 105 members of Parliament while the introduction of the £10 franchise in Irish Boroughs increased the numbers of those entitled to vote.  Athy Borough Council, which had existed from 1515 and which was represented in Parliament by two Members of Parliament from 1613, was abolished in 1840.  The Town Commissioners elections, which were held in Athy soon thereafter, gave local business people their first opportunity to participate in a local election process.  That exercise kindled a spirit of independence which developed over the years and ultimately led to the formation of the Irish Free State.