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.