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an ever-increasing list of publications on the subjects, while regretfully much research at local level remains largely unpublished.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.


Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Dell Kane, Eileen McKenna

His right hand reached out as the coffined remains of his neighbour approached near where he stood at the side of the nave central aisle.  He touched the top of the polished oak coffin in a gesture of affection, acknowledging a neighbourly friendship extending back many years.  It was the second time in 18 months that Ned came to St. Michael’s Parish Church to pay his respects to a deceased next-door neighbour.  The previous occasion was the funeral mass for Danny Kane and now it was Danny’s wife Dell who was about to make her final journey to join Danny in St. Michael’s cemetery. 


The neighbour’s final farewell was for many in St. Michael’s Church that day an unseen poignant moment in a ceremony marked by a beautifully worded and delivered eulogy given by our new Parish Priest.  His presence at parishioner’s funerals together with that of our beloved past pastor, Fr. Philip Dennehy, confirms and reaffirms the re-emergence of the Parish of St. Michael’s as an important part of family and community life in this part of south Kildare. 


Fidelma Kane was one of the fifteen members of the Blanchfield family, an old Athy family with roots extending back for generations.  The Blanchfields for decades lived at the top of Leinster Street from where the head of the family once operated a sawmill.  Fidelma married Danny Kane of Glassealy in 1972 and they had 8 children, 5 boys and 3 girls.  At the funeral Mass their eldest son Gavin spoke with feeling and eloquence of his mother.  His words resonated with me and I was prompted to recall my own mother who died 22 years ago.  My mother and Dell Kane shared qualities which we have come to associate with the best type of Irish motherhood.  Gavin’s address was a wonderful tribute to a mother whom he described as the Kane family glue and the lynchpin for the extended Blanchfield family.  The funeral brought together members of many of the old Athy families who came to remember a well liked woman and her family connections with Athy which stretched back through the generations. 


Another death which sadly occurred over the Christmas period was that of Eileen McKenna, whose husband Tom predeceased her by a few short months.  Both Tom and Eileen were regular attendants in St. Michael’s Cemetery for the annual Remembrance Day commemoration for Athy victims of war, particularly those of World War I.  Eileen’s maternal uncle, Michael Byrne, like so many young Athy men who enlisted during the 1914-18 war, died in 1918.  He was one of six World War I soldiers who died during that war and who are buried in the town’s local cemetery.  It was a fate denied to many other Athy men who lost their lives during the Great War, some of whom lie buried in marked graves overseas.  Sadly the remains of many more of their former colleagues and former townsmen were never recovered and deprived of a Christian burial they lie where they died in a strange land undiscovered, unknown and largely forgotten.


The lives of these men, no matter how short or how uneventful they may have been within their own community, deserve to be remembered.  This is why in the local Heritage Centre we have sought to highlight the importance of local history, being the history of our local people.  The local is what makes history and it’s the lives of people like Dell Kane and Eileen McKenna which makes Athy what it is today.  Many lives seem ordinary but on closer examination the ordinary can become extraordinary and it is those lives that help shape the character of our local community.  There is always a danger of overlooking the ordinary stories of everyday life, but without those ordinary stories and those ordinary lives we cannot hope to understand how our community has come together with shared experiences and common goals.


The simple gesture of the neighbour touching the coffin as it was brought down the nave of St. Michael’s Church brought home to me the importance of community ties established and strengthened by shared experiences.  Athy for all its problems, actual or perceived, is a town where neighbourliness is to the fore and where family life can be enjoyed for the most part in a safe and secure environment. 


Over the Christmas period we also lost from our local community Paddy Whelan of Gallowshill, Donal Flanagan of Ardscull, Alice Lawler of Kilberry, Jimmy Connell of St. Joseph’s Terrace, Liam Hyland of Rosebran and Patrick Hayes of Kilcrow.  Our sympathy goes to their families, relatives and friends.