Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Bishop James Quinn (brother of Athy's Parish Priest Dr. Andrew Quinn)

St. Patrick’s Day is the one time in the year when the Irish diaspora gets to celebrate our national festival.  Its origins lie in a feast day celebrated by the Catholic church since the early 17th century, but nowadays it has become the focus of cultural events internationally.


This led me to reflect on the contributions made by those men and women who have left our shores over the last century and a half for economic and other reasons.  One such individual was James Quinn. There is some confusion over Quinn’s birthplace.  A lot of early publications cite his birth place in 1819 as Athy, while more recent research indicates that he may have born in Rathmore, near Naas. Notwithstanding same it is clear that he had strong and ongoing links with Athy during his life.  I touched on Quinn’s life briefly in an Eye on the Past many years ago when writing about the Parish Priests who had served in the Catholic Church here in Athy. 


Quinn was an interesting, if not divisive, character who trained for the priesthood in the Irish College in Rome, graduating in 1845.  After his ordination he returned to Ireland and he began a lifelong association with the Sisters of Mercy. He was based in Blackrock and also acted as a chaplain to the Sisters of Mercy in Baggot Street, Dublin.  He particularly assisted in sourcing volunteers amongst the Sisters of Mercy to travel to the Crimea to nurse British soldiers wounded in the war there.  Quinn himself wrote of a journey to Kinsale in the company of two Sisters of Mercy to a convent seeking volunteers for this expedition to the Crimea.  Arriving early in the morning in Kinsale he went to the Convent’s chapel to perform his morning’s devotions, admitting somewhat ruefully that he fell asleep while kneeling in the chapel, only to be awoken by a Sister of Mercy perplexed at the presence of a man in her chapel at such an early hour.  Quinn had previously travelled to Amiens in France with the Sisters of Mercy in 1852 to make a tour of the hospital system.  This mission was of fundamental importance in the establishment of the Mater Hospital in Dublin.


By the time the Mater Hospital was founded in 1861 Quinn was already on his way to Australia after his appointment as the first Bishop of Brisbane.  His was a dynamic, if not  domineering presence in this young diocese which he found in a weakened and financially parlous state.  His dynamism did not endear himself to a lot of his parishioners, nor to some of the local clergy and he found himself in a number of quarrels which appeared to bedevil his episcopacy in the decades thereafter.  Utilising his good relations with the Sisters of Mercy he encouraged the establishment of a novitiate in Brisbane for the training of sisters for the order.  With the assistance of his brother, Dr. Andrew Quinn, who was a Parish Priest in Athy, many young women left Athy for the novitiate in Brisbane.  Several of the young women sent back accounts of their voyage to Australia.  One wrote, ‘we could not sleep for the incessant uproar of sailors, ducks, sheep, etc. which were perhaps sea sick or else giving way to great rejoicing at the prospect of a pleasure trip to Australia.’  The exigencies of the voyage did not prevent these young women from performing their religious obligations.  One described a Saturday afternoon on the deck of the ship as follows:-  ‘Confessions on deck, the captain helped to make the confessional, poles covered with the sail.  On Sunday 30 communicants.  All assembled for rosary at 10.  We are getting at home in our strange abode.  It seems as if almighty God has taken the power of fretting from me.’  Another nun wrote of her initial impression of the native aboriginal people of Australia, as follows:-  ‘I never saw such fearful looking creatures as the natives, especially the women.  Some are bare headed, others so completely covered with feathers that one would think feathers, not hair, grew on them.  They are painted in all colours.’  And on arrival:-  ‘On Saturday we reached Brisbane.  The Bishop and Fr. Connolly came for us and drove us to the convent where we got a very warm reception.  The prayers of the Sisters saved us.  For 3 whole weeks it was gale after gale.  All is over now and we are quite well and happy.’


Quinn’s own brother Matthew, who had also studied in Rome, had gone to India as a missionary in 1847 but because of health issues returned in 1853.  After assisting in raising an army of Irish volunteers to defend the papal states in the 1860s he went out to Australia in 1865 and was appointed the first Bishop of Bathurst. In all, four Quinn brothers joined the priesthood.


James Quinn died on 16th August 1881 and his funeral was attended by representatives of many faiths, including the Anglican Church and also Rabbi Phillips.  He is commemorated in a number of places in Queensland and principally by a life size statue by Signor Simonetti in St. Stephen’s Cathedral which was installed in 1892.                             

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Danny Kane and Mary Fleming

Danny Kane and Mary Fleming came from a similar rural background in South Kildare.  Danny was from Oldgrange, while Mary was from the nearby townland of Fontstown.  In age they were a generation apart but both passed away within weeks of each other.  Mary was an extremely devout person whose commitment to her church never waivered, while Danny’s work ethic was an essential part of his approach to life. 

Mary left Ireland as a young girl in 1937 at the height of the economic war.  She would spend the next 67 years of her life in England where she qualified as a nurse and midwife.  Even in retirement she continued working as a health visitor in Northampton, near to the home place of the great English poet John Clare.  She was however never lost to Ireland or to the extended Fleming family and she returned to Athy 12 years ago.  Here in Athy she renewed her commitment to the local parish in the same way as she had committed herself as a volunteer in her UK parish over many years.

Danny Kane, who was one of the most agreeable persons one could meet, left school like so many of his peers at an early age.  His lack of formal education did not in any way impinge on his ability to relate to people and he enjoyed an excellent relationship with everyone as he passed through life.  While working on local farms at an early age he developed an extraordinary work ethic which he maintained all his life.

In or about 1971 Danny purchased a small grocery shop at 32 Woodstock Street.  I am told that the enterprising young man from Oldgrange found that the mortgage repayments exceeded his income and so with friends Syl Bell and Eddie Ryan he purchased a chip van.  Travelling to various functions in the area selling chips proved profitable and prompted Danny to open a chipper in part of the existing grocery shop in Woodstock Street.  In time Danny gave over the entire premises to the fish and chip business and it flourished while Danny was the proprietor before selling it on in 1998. 

Legion are the stories I have heard of Danny’s thoughtfulness and generosity during his time as the shop proprietor in Woodstock Street.  It was the same spirit and thoughtfulness which saw him working later in his life as a volunteer driver for the Cancer Society.  After retiring from the business he had built up over 26 years Danny worked for a time as a driver for his brother-in-law Fergal Blanchfield.  This was followed by a spell as a driver with local hardware firm Griffin Hawe Ltd. and later as a taxi driver for Vals Cabs and Ernest O’Rourke-Glynn.

Sadly in more recent years Danny was troubled by a heart complaint brought on unquestionably by a life of hard work and long hours.  He was scheduled to have heart surgery for some time past but health cutbacks caused the operation to be postponed several times.  When at last the call came it was via a text message while Danny was attending 12 mass at St. Michael’s Parish Church.  He was admitted to St. James’s Hospital the following morning but tragically following a 14 hour operation died shortly after being transferred to the intensive care unit.

Danny is survived by his wife Fidelma who on their marriage in 1972 brought together two families, Kanes and Blanchfields, who are long associated with this part of the county of Kildare.  Fidelma and their 8 adult children have lost a wonderful caring husband and father and a man for whom the local community came out in their hundreds to honour on the occasion of his funeral. 

The contrasting lifestyles of both Danny Kane and Mary Fleming, both from rural backgrounds, were founded on commitment, one to the church, the other to the family.  Mary, who remained single throughout her whole life, found contentment and purpose in the Catholic Church and in her later years on returning to Ireland found great happiness with the extended family members, young and old, with whom she spent her final days.  Danny found great happiness in his family life and the life stories of Danny and Mary while different in so many ways show that their passages through life were marked by dedicated commitment to life’s true values.  Our sympathies go to the families and friends of Mary Fleming and Danny Kane. 

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Ireland's commemoration of World War 1 since the 1920s(2)

In Athy where 223 men from the town and the surrounding district died during the 1914/18 war, I joined a few friends on Remembrance Sunday 1986 to publicly commemorate for the first time in over 50 years the local men who had died in that war.  The ceremony was held in St. Michael’s cemetery where six World War I soldiers who died at home were buried and I am proud to say that the Remembrance Sunday commemorations have been held every year since then, with ever growing numbers attending. 


It is often claimed that commemorations in the North of Ireland were organised for many years on religious or political grounds.  For many Catholic families who had lost sons or fathers in the war, collective commemoration in public was not deemed appropriate, particularly in nationalist areas of Belfast.  For many Catholics in the North the 1914/18 commemoration were viewed as loyalist events and the war itself as a futile conflict to be ignored.  Participation in the annual commemoration events was seen as a badge of loyalty.  The divergence of opinion was noticeable from the first Armistice Day commemoration held on the 1st of November 1919 when in Belfast businesses stopped for two minutes silence at 11.00 a.m.  At the same time there was no mass observation in Derry city.  In Dublin a demonstration was held on that first anniversary, but it was accompanied by rowdy scenes, with clashes between Unionist and Nationalist supporters.  The newspapers reported ‘hardly had the Trinity students concluded the singing of “God Save the King” when a crowd of young men, mostly students from the National University, appeared in College Green shouting and singing “the Soldiers Song”.  A scene of wild disorder followed. 


In 1966 the Taoiseach Sean Lemass, a one time critic of remembrance ceremonies in Ireland acknowledged that Irish men who had enlisted in the British Army during World War I ‘were motivated by the highest purpose and died in their tens of thousands in Flanders and Gallipoli believing they were giving their lives in the cause of human liberty everywhere, not excluding Ireland.’


One of the first cross community approaches in Northern Ireland in re-telling the 1914/18 war story in a bipartisan way was the 1993 publication by the West Belfast Youth and Community Development Project which told of the Somme story as one involving both the 36th Ulster Division and the 16th Division.  It was after all the Battle of the Somme which brought Republican and Loyalists together as one and where both traditions suffered huge losses fighting in a common cause.  Despite this the Somme had always been seen by Loyalists as a 36th Ulster Division conflict which was highlighted on many orange lodge banners as central to loyalism.  The 1993 project recognised Republican involvement and losses on the Somme for what was the first time in the North’s modern history.


The IRA ceasefire in 1994 prompted the SDLP in Belfast to attend as a body for the first time Remembrance Sunday commemorations in that city.  That same year the SDLP took part in commemoration ceremonies in Armagh, Omagh and Enniskillen.  The SDLP Mayor of Derry, John Kerr, was the first Mayor to lay a wreath during the 1995 ceremonies in Derry and two years later Belfast’s first nationalist Mayor, Alban Maginness participated in the city’s remembrance ceremonies.  He was accompanied by the Lord Mayor of Dublin when laying a poppy wreath during the Somme commemorations on the 1st of July. 


The first cross border approach to joint commemoration resulted in the opening of the Irish Peace Park at Messines in 1998 by the English, Irish and Belgium Heads of State.  This was an initiative by Glen Barr and Paddy Harte, a Fine Gael T.D.  The park with the round tower commemorates Loyalist and Republican involvement at Messines in June 1917 when they fought side by side as part of the 10th, 16th and 36th Divisions.


Perhaps one of the most far reaching participations in Remembrance Sunday events in recent years was that of Belfast’s first Sinn Fein Mayor Alex Maskey in 2002.  His participation and that of all the other participants previous mentioned was a long overdue recognition that people from both traditions shared the losses and sacrifices which marked the 1914/18 war.


The renewal of interest in commemorating the dead of World War 1 has seen the establishment of a Western Front Association in 1980 and the setting up of branches of the Dublin Fusiliers Association in Dublin and Belfast.  The Somme Association set up in 1990 provides a platform for the communities in Northern Ireland to share a common heritage – a heritage of loss and sacrifice endured by the men from Northern Ireland of the 16th and 36th Divisions.


Nevertheless, First World War commemorations will remain for many a controversial subject for some time to come given its roots and the complexities of what is a contested past.

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Ireland's commemoration of World War 1 since the 1920s(1)

Men and women from both parts of the island of Ireland played prominent parts in World War I.  Their response to the call for volunteers was a cross community response.  However, when it came to commemorate and remember the awful events of those troubled years the community’s response in the South and in the North of this island were radically different.


Here in the South World War I commemorations during the 1920s and early 1930s were largely confined to participants who had returned from the war.  Armistices Day parades were somewhat muted affairs in the South and in Athy these parades were not actively supported by the local population.  However, it was accepted that the men who had gone overseas should be allowed to commemorate their colleagues who fell in battle.  It was an ambivalent attitude by the local population whose church and civic leaders during the war years had actively encouraged local men to enlist.  Many did enlist – Athy earning for itself the oft repeated claim of having given proportionately more men to the war than any other town in Ireland.  ‘Do as Athy has done’, urged the recruitment officers as they sought to swell the ranks during the final years of the war.


Despite this, World War I commemoration in Athy and generally throughout Southern Ireland was always problematic.  19th July 1919 was designated ‘Peace Day’ in Britain and plans were made to mark the day in Dublin.  A large parade was organised to start from Dublin Castle and included a large number of demobilised soldiers and sailors organised by regiment and led by their former officers.  The Dublin newspapers reported however that upwards of 3,000 Irish Nationalist Veterans boycotted the event and also reported that ‘some cheers were raised as demobilised soldiers passed, but the regular troops were received by the most part in silence.’  Later that evening scuffles broke out in the city between Sinn Fein supporters and some of the participating soldiers, a clear indication that war commemoration in the capital city challenged cultural and political allegiances.


The subsequent Armistice commemorations in Dublin also led to disorder as it did in the following years.  On 11th November 1923 and 1924 a temporary cenotaph was erected in College Green outside Trinity College and a large crowd attended to mark the anniversary.  Fighting between Nationalists and ex-service men prompted the Garda Commissioner to refuse permission for College Green to be used again.  In 1925 the commemoration moved to St. Stephen’s Green and a year later to the Phoenix Park where it was held for the next decade.  Following the election of a Fianna Fáil government in 1932 and the start of the economic war it became less easy to continue the Remembrance Sunday commemorations and the annual ceremonies ceased in and around the mid-1930s. 


In July 1919 it was agreed to erect in Dublin a Great War Memorial home to be used by ex-servicemen.  This did not meet with official approval and the plan was dropped but in the meantime it was agreed to have some form of a war memorial erected.  Funds were contributed by the public and approximately £42,000 was collected.  £5,000 of those funds was used to publish ‘Ireland’s Memorial Records’ of which 100 copies of the eight volume set were printed and distributed to all the principal libraries in Ireland.  A further £1,500 was spent on replacing wooden crosses with stone crosses on battlefields where the Irish Divisions had fought. 


In 1924 a committee was formed to consider proposals for a permanent memorial in Dublin to Irish men and women killed in the First World War.  The committee suggested Merrion Square and later St. Stephen’s Green as suitable memorial sites.  Public opposition to these proposals prompted the Irish government lead by W.T. Cosgrove to set up its own war memorial committee. 


Eventually the war memorial committee completed its work and a site at Islandbridge across the River Liffey opposite the Phoenix Park obelisk about 3 kilometres from O’Connell Street on grounds not too far distant from Kilmainham Jail was chosen.  Work on the Islandbridge Memorial started in 1932 but it was not until 1938 that it was completed.  The Islandbridge memorial park designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens is one of four gardens in Ireland designed by this world famous architect and is not only a place of remembrance but also of great architectural interest and beauty.  An official opening planned for July 1939 was postponed indefinitely due to the threat of war. 



From 1940 to 1970 the British Legion held annual Armistice Day ceremonies at Islandbridge.  Because of the troubles in the North the Park memorial was closed between 1971 and 1988.  It only reopened in 1988 in response to criticism of the Irish government’s attitude to World War I remembrance in the face of the Enniskillen bombings of the previous year. 


Another six years were to pass before the Islandbridge memorial park was formally opened in 1994 and for the first time an Irish government minister attended with the then Minister for Finance, Bertie Aherne, representing the Irish government.

……………….TO BE CONTINUED NEXT WEEK…………..                

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Athy's libraries of the past

In the days immediately following the Great Famine Athy had a reading room where a lending library was available with books to borrow, in addition to the Irish and English daily newspapers.  That first library was operated by the Athy Literary and Scientific Institute which was founded in September 1848, its facilities being available for ‘the young men of Athy engaged in mercantile pursuits during the day.’  The Institute’s stated objective was ‘the study and advancement of science and literature.’  The Institute’s library was established following a committee meeting on 2nd December 1848 and while books could be borrowed by members, dictionaries, atlases and periodicals were not to be lent.  The library received gifts of books from many locals including shop owner Alexander Duncan who stated that he was doing so ‘as an earnest of the interest he felt in the society.’


A year later on 3rd October 1849 the institute became known as ‘The Athy Mechanics Institute’.  The Grand Jury room in the Town Hall which had been used for meetings and lectures and housed the institute’s library, proved inadequate.  On 1st August 1850 the members of the Mechanics Institute agreed to rent three rooms in Edward Duggan’s house.  The location of Duggan’s house is not known but a letter to the local press in November 1863 referred to ‘a large swamp around the rooms of the lamented exchange bounded on the west by the Barrow, on the east by the dock and the Literary Mechanics reading room and on the south by that part of Emily Square known as “rotten row” and on the north by public houses and the bridewell’.


The select committee of the House of Commons on public libraries heard evidence in 1849 and in relation to Ireland Mr. G. Hamilton M.P. claimed: ‘The Irish people do not read because they have no access to books, not because they cannot read.’  The Mechanics Institute Library, restricted as it was to members who paid ten shillings per year membership fee, was a private members library and so could not be regarded as Athy’s first public library.


The first public library in the town of Athy opened in the Town Hall on 1st December 1927.  It was operated by Kildare County Council as the local Urban District Council had earlier relinquished its powers under the Public Libraries Act.  A local library committee was set up and was intended to comprise the local Parish Priest Canon Mackey and his three curates, Fr. Ryan, Fr. Browne and Fr. Kinnane who were to be joined by Rev. Dunlop, the local Church of Ireland Rector and Rev. Meek of the Presbyterian Church.  The six clerics were to have had as fellow committee members five local Urban District Councillors and the Town Clerk James Lawler who would act as the library secretary.  However, Canon Mackey, who had earlier crossed swords with the local Council, refused to come on the Committee for what he declared were ‘reasons obvious to the Council’.  He was joined in his boycott of the library committee by his senior Curate, Fr. Kinnane.  The Committee in time brought on board more lay members and the first librarian appointed was Mr. B. Brambley of Emily Square. 


Choosing ‘suitable titles for Athy folk’ as reported in the local newspapers, was a task assigned to the library sub-committee comprising Fr. M. Browne, T.C. O’Gorman, Manager of the local Hibernian Bank and P.J. Murphy, draper from Emily Square.  The library opened on 1st December 1927 and initially stayed open one evening a week from 7 to 9 p.m.  This was soon extended to two evenings a week.  From these early beginnings the library service in Athy developed, moving from the Town Hall to the Courthouse and back again to the Town Hall, all the time staying within the confines of Emily Square.  On Thursday March 1st our new library will be officially opened in the former Dominican Church on the opposite side of the River Barrow to Emily Square. 


I remember the library of the 1950s.  It opened in the evening times only to give access to the books which were shelved in a small room in the Town Hall which up to recently was used as a reference room.  Accessed by the doorway and stairs opposite the house of Mrs. Josephine Gibbons, the scarcity of motor traffic presented no great dangers for library users.  Nowadays that same entrance leading onto Emily Row is deemed too dangerous to use and is permanently closed.


The new community library which opens on Thursday March 1st will be a formidable addition to the cultural landscape of Athy.  The Heritage Centre, the Arts Centre and the community library form a cultural triumvirate ready to celebrate our place, our people, our past and by doing so enrich our lives and make Athy a better place in which to live.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Carol Taaffe's Essay on Athy's old Libratry

The planned opening of Athy’s new library in the architectural gem which was the Dominican Church prompts me to hand over this week’s Eye on the Past to my daughter Carol, from whose article ‘Reading in the Duke’s ballroom’ the following extracts are taken.  The full article appeared in No. 49 of the Dublin Review five years ago.


‘When I came to write about a library, I began to think about community.  And when I thought about community, the first that sprang to mind was one that I had left behind.  In Dublin, we usually went to the library on Saturday mornings.  It was one of the weekend rituals, like trotting to the newsagent along the small path dozens of children had worn through an undeveloped patch of housing estate.  To a six-year-old, the estate was vast, a concrete prairie.  The town we moved to, Athy, seemed more hemmed in.  Passing strangers were much more likely to call you by name to ask if you were doing the messages, or remark on who you looked like, or tell you that they knew your grandfather.  Until we moved there, I didn’t look like anyone but myself.  And I was shy.  Urban anonymity, I quickly decided, suited me much better.  Even now, when I come back to Athy, strangers will tell me they haven’t seen me in ages, or give me something to pass on to my father, or continue a story that they assume I understand……….


Athy library is typical of libraries in those small rural towns that the Carnegie movement never reached.  Instead of the Romanesque buildings found in Dublin suburbs, or the contemporary architectural showpieces that popped up in some of the larger provincial towns during the boom, most rural libraries occupy buildings constructed for other purposes: market houses, churches, courthouses.  On a grey day, the streets surrounding Athy library can seem shabby.  The vacant shop windows are multiplying.  But the anchor for these meandering streets is the imposing stone building that divides the large market square, the oldest part of which dates to the 1740s.  It was then a market house with a broad arcade.  By the early nineteenth century that arcade was blocked in with stone, but the building still retained a degree of elegance until a third floor was added in 1913, leaving it fat and heavy, with a more forbidding appearance.  Over the preceding century it had become the administrative centre of the garrison town, serving as courthouse and home to the borough council.  This was where Lord Norbury, the infamous ‘hanging judge’ presided over the trials of those implicated in the rebellion of 1798.  On the front wall, there are still two stone reliefs displaying the scales of justice, one overlaid with the Irish harp, the other with the British crown.  It is in the first-floor ballroom, added by a later duke, that the library now resides……….


Reading is a solitary activity, but the library is a social space.  It is a funny contradiction, and one I used to resolve by spending as little time in libraries as possible.  But this modern community library is far from the place I remember.  In the straitened 1980s, Athy library was still housed in a dark room in the courthouse building across the square.  To a small child, it seemed very likely that the librarian had taken inspiration from the magistrates who preceded her.  Getting to the appropriate shelves meant clattering through a series of low chairs and tables that were always too closely spaced.  Clattering back in the opposite direction was not encouraged.  Straying from child to adult sections was not allowed.  Supervision was total.  The strange darkness was a product of the building’s Tudor Revival architecture.  At the back there was still what looked like a barred cell sitting open to the air……….


When I visited the library as a child, it was generally for escapism.  And perhaps I spent more time playing outside in the cells than I did in the dank reading room.  I did not pay attention to it, any more than I paid attention to a sense of community, or history, or belonging.  It was simply there.  In the hotchpotch of a building at the centre of the town that houses the current library, I now realize, is stored nearly three centuries of community life.  And I also realize by now that the stories I grew up on, about the town I refused to belong to, long ago seeped in without my noticing.  So I came to understand that this community library is Athy’s natural heart and its best resource.’


Sr. Cecilia Hall and Sr. Immaculata of the Sisters of Mercy, Athy

The past is slipping away with a quickening pace which increases as the years pass.  My thoughts as I attended the funeral of Sr. Cecelia Hall, a Sister of Mercy, who entered the convent in Athy almost 77 years ago.  A native of Killenaule, Co. Tipperary, she joined the Sisters of Mercy with her own sister, later Sr. Claude, on 8th September 1940.  Sister Cecelia and Sr. Claude were just two of the many young female siblings who over the years entered the Convent of Mercy here in Athy.  Families as far afield as the counties on the Western seaboard gave us young girls who devoted their lives as Sisters of Mercy to education, patient care in the County Home, later St. Vincent’s Hospital, and social work among the poor of Athy. 


Just eleven days before Sr. Cecilia’s funeral another funeral journey to St. Michael’s Cemetery saw the removal of the remains of Sr. Immaculata to the Sisters of Mercy section of the local cemetery.  The death of these two elderly nuns represents another breach in the extraordinary line up of religious whose lives were committed over a period of almost 165 years to service within our community here in Athy. 


I have always been intrigued as to how young girls from counties as far apart as Kerry and Mayo and so distant from the Lily White county came to the convent in Athy.  Was it due to the encouragement of religious in their own parishes to join the Sisters of Mercy and the subsequent distribution by higher authority of postulants to various Mercy houses throughout Ireland?  I gather that those wishing to join the Sisters of Mercy were not encouraged to enter convents in their own area and so movement throughout the country was an inevitable consequence.  Even though local girls were generally encouraged to enter convents some distance from their native towns there are several instances where a number of local girls had joined the local convent.  Amongst these were a  sister of Dan Carbery of St. John’s who was professed as Sr. Frances de Sales and Sr. Michael, one-time superioress of the convent who was a Hickey from Kilberry. 


The enormous contribution which the Sisters of Mercy made to education and the welfare of our local community can never be adequately measured.  However, as I wrote at the top of this piece the past is slipping fast.  As each member of the Sisters of Mercy pass away their legacy recedes further and further.  Not too many years ago the extensive building known as the Convent of Mercy housed a full complement of nuns and postulants.  The convent closed in May 2000 and the aging Sisters of Mercy left behind in the grounds of their old convent the small cemetery which held the remains of the nuns who died over the years.  The first death was recorded on 29th April 1866 with the passing of a young postulant, Mary Ryan.  She was one of three Ryan sisters who entered the convent in Athy less than 20 years after the Great Famine. 


The new St. Michaels Cemetery now has a section reserved for the Sisters of Mercy as it has for the Christian Brothers and members of the clergy who died in recent years.  Sadly the Sisters of Mercy who died during the currency of the Mercy convent remain in the small cemetery which was attached to that convent.  The subsequent development of apartments in the vicinity of the cemetery has consigned that sacred space to virtual obscurity which given the proud history of the Sisters of Mercy in Athy is a sad reflection on our passing history. 


The past is slipping away, especially that past which was inhabited by religious sisters and brothers.  They came to Athy just a few years after the Great Famine to provide badly needed education for young boys and girls of the area who up to then lived without much hope of improving their lives.  The Sisters of Mercy and the Christian Brothers gave you, me and many others the opportunities which come with education.  Their value to our community and Irish society in general cannot and should never be understated. 


As the past slips away there is always a danger that even people and events of recent times will be overlooked, misunderstood or incorrectly described.  I came across recently in our local newspapers two references to ‘McDonald Drive’ and in conversation with a few people it would seem that many do not know that the correct name of the estate is ‘McDonnell Drive’.  The estate was built by Athy U.D.C. and opened by the th

[en Minister for Local Government on 24th September 1953.  It was named after Archdeacon Patrick McDonnell, Parish Priest of St. Michael’s for 28 years who died on 1st March 1956. 


We have a proud history here in Athy, but pride must always be accompanied by accuracy if we are not to confirm Henry Ford’s claim that ‘history is bunk’. 

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

The Graney Ambush of 24th October, 1922

It was a full house at last week’s lecture in Castledermot organised by the Castledermot local history group.  The lecture delivered by James Durney, author of several books and historian in residence with Kildare County Council, dealt with the Graney ambush in 1922.  The events of that fateful afternoon, Tuesday 24th October, 1922 were part of the ongoing Irish Civil War which pitched Free State army recruits against those opposed to the Treaty, commonly referred to as the Irregulars. 


96 years have passed since the Graney ambush and all those involved are now dead.  Nevertheless the deadly ambush which resulted in the death of four soldiers of the Irish National Army has the potential to re-awaken old controversies.  This was clearly in the mind of Michael Dempsey, Chairman of the Castledermot History Group, when in his opening remarks he referred to the emotive subject and requested restraint in any contributions from the large audience.  The lecture went ahead without any controversy and many in the audience heard for the first time a detailed and accurate account of what happened that day at Graney Cross. 


I had previously written of the ambush but was not aware that the Irregulars were part of what James Durney described as the ‘O’Connell Column’.  The O’Connell in question was Thomas O’Connell, vice commander of the Carlow Brigade 1920-1922 and officer in command 1922-24.  He was a native of Edenderry and worked for Betty O’Donnell’s father Thomas Prendergast in Carlow as a French polisher.  I have written in a previous Eye on the Past of Thomas O’Connell and of the memorial cross erected near Maganey where he was killed in a road traffic accident on 31st August 1924.  That memorial cross was presented by Mrs. Kearney of Brown St., Carlow to the members of the Old I.R.A. Carlow for erection at the Maganey accident scene.  Regrettably the cross was broken and stolen about three years ago and now only the base of the memorial remains just a few miles distant from the Graney crossroads where O’Connell and his men ambushed their former comrades.


The place chosen for the ambush was where four roads converged at what is known as Graney Cross.  Earlier in the day Free State soldiers under Comdt. Hugh Kenny travelled in a Crossley Tender from Baltinglass for Athy.  Between Castledermot and Athy the Tender ran out of petrol and one of the soldiers went into Athy to get a supply.  On his return the Comdt. decided to go back to Baltinglass and after stopping at Castledermot Post Office for a few minutes continued on the road towards Graney.  Unknown to the Free State soldiers Thomas O’Connell, who with his comrades had taken the Anti-Treaty side, having learned of the soldiers earlier trip through Castldermot and their likely return, set up the ambush at Graney.  All of the ambushers have not been positively identified but amongst those who have been were Laurence O’Neill, James Lillis, Christopher Murphy, Thomas Toole, John Shannon, James Rice, Mick Woods, Ned Kane, Hugh O’Rourke, Seamus O’Toole and Myles Carroll.


Three Free State soldiers were killed that day.  They were James Murphy of Baltinglass, Edward Byrne of Hacketstown and Patrick Allison of Carlow.  A fourth soldier, James Hunt, the driver of the Crossly tender, died the following Saturday.


Thomas O’Connell was subsequently captured and imprisoned, but he managed to escape and was on the run for over a year.  James Lillis was later captured and imprisoned in Carlow Military Barracks where he was executed on 15th January, 1923.  Lillis as adjutant of the Carlow Brigade was one of three officers who entered the Sinn Fein hall in Castledermot on 15th June 1922 to take the hall from Irregular troops.  One of the Irregulars, Thomas Dunne, was shot that day.  Ned Kane from Castledermot was also captured and imprisoned in Carlow and like Lillis was to be executed.  However, with the help of Paddy Cosgrave, another Castledermot men and a high ranking Free State army officer, he was spirited out of the prison and allowed to go on the run.  Seamus O’Toole and Myles Carroll were shot by Free State soldiers at Shean less than two months after the Graney ambush.  O’Toole died at the scene of the shooting, while Carroll died soon afterwards.


Thomas O’Connell’s involvement in the War of Independence and the subsequent Civil War and that of his brother Patrick’s service as a British soldier during World War I indicates the apparent and sometimes obvious conflict in allegiances which prevailed in Irish society and amongst Irish families of that time.  Thomas O’Connell’s brother Patrick had joined the Royal Irish Regiment in December 1915 and was killed at Cambrai on 30th November 1917.


The Civil War was a ruthless cycle of ambushes, killings and executions which left a legacy of bitterness for years afterwards.  Those involved have now passed on and today’s generation can look back at those years of war free of bitterness to hear the stories that for decades remained untold.


Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Athy#s Historical Society and Seamus Hughes' dissertation on the Grant Canal

The recently formed Athy Historical Society has arranged a spring lecture series to commence with a lecture on Thursday 8th February.  The lectures will be held in the Heritage Centre on the second Thursday of each month at 7.30 p.m.  Admission to all lectures is free. 


The first lecture in the series will be given by Marc Guernon under the title ‘No field is innocent’ - the hidden archaeology of South Kildare’.  Marc was part of the archaeological team which excavated the medieval village of Ardreigh prior to the re-alignment of the Carlow Road some years ago.  The second lecture which will take place on Thursday 8th March will deal with ‘Athy and the Great War’.  The lecturer, Clem Roche, published his book ‘Athy and District World War I Roll of Honour 1914-1918’ last year and copies are for sale in the Heritage Centre.  The final lecture scheduled for Thursday 12th April will feature Colm Flynn whose talk under the title ‘Where are you coming from and where are you going?’ will give a detailed exposition of the old roads of South Kildare.  Colm’s book ‘A Tie to the Land’ is available for sale in the Gem.


The developing interest in local history and family history has witnessed the release of an ever-increasing list of publications on the subjects, while regretfully much research at local level remains largely unpublished.  I was particularly pleased to receive some time ago a copy of a dissertation researched and written by local man, Seamus Hughes, as part of his studies in Carlow College.  His subject was the Grand Canal which is of particular relevance to someone bearing the Hughes name as several generations of that family were bargemen on the Grand Canal and the Barrow Line over the years.


Seamus noted that work on the construction of the canal between Monasterevin and Athy commenced in 1789.  The canal from Dublin to Monasterevin had been completed in 1785 and the intention was to enter the River Barrow at Monasterevin and continue the journey downstream towards Athy and beyond.  However, the river between the two south Kildare towns proved to be shallow at various points and the decision was taken to extend the canal to Athy.  Work on the new stretch of the canal was undertaken by a number of private contractors, all of whom were allocated sections of approximately one mile in length to work on.  The engineer in charge was Richard Evans, assisted by William Rhodes, James Oates and Archibold Miller.  Evans’s involvement with other projects which he was reluctant to give up led to him being relieved of his duties and his three assistants took over responsibility for overseeing the work of the various contractors.  By April 1790 Archibold Miller had taken on the role of head engineer to the Grand Canal Company.


Seamus discloses that in April 1790 3,944 men were working on the canal construction works between Monasterevin and Athy.  By March of the following year the canal was open to trade and passenger boats as far as Athy, although final work on the canal locks was still being undertaken. 


The extension of the canal to Athy brought the possibility of huge changes to the south Kildare town.  Canal transport offered tremendous commercial opportunities which were to some extent hampered or delayed by the 1798 rebellion.  The uprising in and around Athy was the subject of local man Patrick O’Kelly’s book on 1798 and the savagery with which the rebels attempt to secure religious and parliamentary freedom was met militated against the possibility of maximising the commercial benefits which should have flowed from the new canal transport system.  In the post 1798 period the country remained unsettled and while the Grand Canal company operated a passenger boat service linking Athy and Dublin it could not hope to compete with the railway company when the railway line was extended to Athy in 1847.  Passenger boat services on the Grand Canal ceased in 1852, while the transport of commercial cargo continued fitfully until 1960.  Seamus Hughes concluded his study by acknowledging that the Grand Canal was of vital importance in the commercialisation of towns, including Athy, which were connected to Dublin by the work of 18th century labourers.


Today the Grand Canal and the Barrow line have taken on a different role.  Passenger traffic and the transport of cargo have been replaced by leisure boating.  Athy’s town centre harbour is now home to a variety of boats bringing life back to the ancient river which had not seen much activity for decades past.  The proposed development of the Barrow Blueway between Lowtown and St. Mullins with a possible waterway hub in Athy offers huge potential for Athy similar in many ways to that which followed the coming of the Grand Canal in 1791 and the arrival of the railway in 1847.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

John Murphy and Nora Walsh

Youthful memories came to mind when I learned of the death last week in Dublin of John Murphy.  The Murphy family lived in St. Michael’s Terrace and Sean, as he was then called, attended school in the local Christian Brothers.  He was a few years younger than myself but Sean, a naturally gregarious youngster, and a wonderful musician, forged friendships which crossed age differences and district divides.  He came into his own when he finished school and got a job in the laboratory of Bowaters (Wallboard) Factory at Tomard.  There under the supervision of Jim Flanagan, the laboratory chemist, he worked with George Robinson, Pat Daly, Tom Flood and many others. 


A good musician, adept at playing the piano and guitar, Sean a few times joined his work colleague George Robinson as an occasional member of Paddens Murphy’s Sorrento Dance Band.  I recall Frank English and myself on a day trip to Tramore meeting up with Sean and some of his Leinster Street friends in a local hostelry.  There was Sean, his tall lanky frame bent over a piano which he played while standing up, his hands moving rhythmically across the keys, while his head and shoulders bobbed in unison to the music.  His was a magical performance as the tunes tumbled out without a pause, each piece taking on a foot tapping life of its own, filling the room with a seamless sound of honky tonk music.  That was Sean Murphy in his element as he went through the entire musical repertoire of Fats Domino, finishing with his own particular favourite ‘I found my thrill on Blueberry Hill’.  That was an exciting musical performance I never forgot.


I subsequently met Sean around the time of his retirement from the Garda Siochana.  A welcome greeting in the Jervis Street shopping centre in Dublin brought us together for the first time in almost 40 years and allowed us to renew acquaintances.  Sean later shared with me many photographs of the variety shows put on by the local factories in St. John’s Hall in the 1960s, in some of which he had featured.  Many of these photographs featured in past Eyes on the Past.  Sean had been a member of the Garda Siochana in Raheny for a number of years and it was from there that he retired, continuing to live in the locality where he died last week.  He was the second member of the Murphy family to join the Garda Siochana, his brother Des being a Sergeant, based I believe, in Co. Westmeath, where he died. 


Youthful memories were also brought to the fore with the passing of Nora Walsh who died during the week at 88 years of age.  Nora, like myself, was a native of the black and amber county and she came to Athy in 1953 to work in Jim Clancy’s Bar on Leinster Street.  In 1957 she married Tommy Walsh who was a shop assistant in M.G. Nolan’s drapery shop, now Moore’s chemist shop, in Duke Street.  With his father Dave Tommy was a member of St. John’s Social Club and both were noted members of the Social Club’s Dramatic Society and featured in many of the plays put on in the Town Hall and St. John’s Hall throughout the late 1940s and the 1950s.


I was a very young school boy when Tommy Walsh and Nora Kenna first crossed my horizon.  They were a young glamorous couple who many of my age and older will remember were active members of the Social Club in St. John’s lane for many years.  The Social Club and that much older local organisation, the C.Y.M.S., one catering for mixed membership, the other exclusively male, in the 1950’s and earlier played important roles in the social life of Athy.


Writing of people and places of 50 years ago I am conscious of the many changes which have taken place in Athy during that period.  The Murphy family have now all gone and the only permanent reminder we have of their time in Athy is the skilled work of their father Joe who built the fine cut stone entrance to the former Dominican Church at the end of Convent Lane.  M.G. Nolan’s drapery store, once a long-established business on Duke Street, is no more, while M.G. himself, who for decades was a County Councillor and an Urban Councillor, is but a memory for an older generation.  The C.Y.M.S. and the Social Club have disappeared from the local community scene, while the Wallboard factory was yet another loss in the everchanging panorama of life in Athy.


The passing of Sean Murphy and Nora Walsh creates more vacant spaces in the line up of youthful memories.  Our sympathies are extended to their families.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Kildare Archaeological Society's first outing 3rd September, 1891

Kildare Archaeological Society Journal for 2016/2017 was published recently.  The Journal which has now reached Part I of Volume 21 has developed over the last 25 years under the editorship of Professor Raymond Gillespie of Maynooth University to become one of the finest journals of its type in Ireland. 


The Archaeological Society was founded at a meeting in Palmerstown House on Saturday 25th April 1891.  The Society’s purpose was ‘the promotion of study and knowledge of the antiquities and objects of interest in the county of Kildare and surrounding districts.’  In its first year the Society organised what was described as its ‘first annual excursion meeting’ which took place on Thursday, 3rd September 1891.  A subsequent report of that meeting recounted how ‘the town of Naas was rendered lively in the morning by the constant stream of vehicles passing through on their way to Killashee where the members assembled at 11.30a.m.’


An inspection of the subterranean passages in Killashee grounds guided by Rev. Denis Murphy was followed by a talk by the same learned Jesuit in the nearby Killashee Church.  The Society members then returned to Naas where another cleric, this time Archdeacon de Burgh, gave a guided tour of St. David’s Church and the nearby rectory.  The Town Hall in Naas was the venue for lunch and afterwards visits to the nearby north Moat and finally to Jigginstown Castle completed the day’s outing.  A note in the subsequent reports of the outing recorded that the railway company issued return tickets to members at single fares and of course those members in 1891 were able to disembark at the railway station in Naas town.


The rules of the Society adapted at the initial meeting in April 1891 stipulated that ‘a journal of the society be published annually’.  The first journal of the County Kildare Archaeological Society was published in 1892 and it continued to be published continuously over the following 125 years.  That first journal comprising 44 pages included a number of notes by Lord Walter Fitzgerald of Kilkea Castle who for the remaining 31 years of his life would play an important role in antiquarian research with particular reference to County Kildare. 

The second issue of the journal came to 154 pages and included a number of articles relating to Athy, as well as a report on the Society’s second annual excursion to Athy on 15th September 1892.  Rev. J. Carroll, previously a curate in Athy, brought the visitors to St. Michael’s medieval Church where he delivered a talk on the 14th century ruin.  From there the Society members and friends walked to Whites Castle where Dr. Comerford, Coadjutor Bishop of Kildare and Loughlin, gave a talk on the history of Athy.  The Chairman of Athy Town Commissioners had arranged a display of records relating to Athy Borough Council which was abolished in 1840 following which the visitors proceeded to Woodstock Castle where Fr. Carroll gave a talk on its history.  The Journal reported, ‘the company then made the first real use of the brakes and carriages which the society had provided ….. and betook themselves in a long stream of vehicles to the charming residence of Lord and Lady Seaton at Bert.’  There lunch was provided for 150 guests and afterwards Rheban Castle was visited.  Some of the Society members travelled to the Castle by coach across Milltown Bridge, while others walked to the banks of the River Barrow where large boats were ready to bring them to the other side.  There Lord Walter Fitzgerald read a paper on Rheban Castle, following which a majority of the visitors had to return to Athy railway station to catch the ‘evening up train’. 


Some sixty of the Society members and friends continued to Grangemellon where they were received by Sir Anthony and Lady Weldon who had invited them to tea at Kilmoroney.  The members were particularly interested in what was described as the ‘wonderful military bridge’ built across the River Barrow by Colonel Weldon.  Sir Anthony Weldon also displayed some of his family treasures including a pair of small tankards presented to Captain William Weldon by the Irish Parliament in 1631 and a watch which once belonged to King Charles I and which came into the Weldon family possession through Bishop William Juxon.  The one-time Bishop of London served as the King’s Chaplain and ministered to Charles I on the scaffold prior to the King’s execution in January 1649.


The current Journal has a wide range of interesting articles, including contributions by Castledermot residents Eamon Kane and Dr. Sharon Greene, who was recently appointed editor of ‘Archaeology Ireland’.  Incidentally the objectives of the Archaeological Society have been broadened since its 1891 foundation to include ‘The promotion and knowledge of history, archaeology and antiquities of the county and the surrounding countryside.’  Membership is open to all and persons wishing to join the Society should contact Greg Connelly at Newington House, Christianstown, Co. Kildare.