Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Ancient road works and the turnpike road through Athy

Athy of the 18th century had a population mix of Catholics, Established Church adherents, Quakers and other dissenters, each socially removed from each other yet commercially interdependent. Catholics, excluded from holding land or government office, concentrated on commercial pursuits as did the Quakers who came to Athy towards the end of the 17th century. By 1750 Catholics owned a large proportion of the local ale houses. Despite their commercial involvement, Catholics had no voice in the running of their town and would have none for another 80 years. Little or no effort appears to have been made by the numerically superior Catholics of the town to gain some measure of representation on the Borough Council. The poorer classes were powerless in the face of religious and economic hardship while their better off co-religionists, for the most part shopkeepers and innkeepers, saw little merit in jeopardising their position and status by engaging in public agitation. Inland towns such as Athy benefitted enormously from improved road making practises of the 18th century. Prior to then, responsibility for road repairs rested on individual householders organised on a parochial basis. Under an Act of 1612, each warden of the Established Church was obliged to convene meetings of his parish on the Tuesday and Wednesday of Easter week. At these annual meetings, two parishioners were appointed surveyors of whatever road works were considered necessary. Over a period of 6 days each year, every householder was required to provide free labour on the roads, while landlords and farmers supplied horses, carts and drivers. In this way, the 17th century Irish roads were maintained. In 1727, the first Turnpike Act was passed. In time, turnpike roads led to most of the important towns in Ireland. These were built and maintained by business people and landlords, who derived an income from tolls collected on traffic using the turnpike roads. Athy had a turnpike road running through the town from Kilcullen through Castlecomer to Kilkenny. There were three turnpike gates on the road in and around the town of Athy where tolls were paid. One gate was located on the Dublin Road on the town side of St. Michael’s Medieval Church, while another gate was placed across St. John’s Street (the present Duke Street) at its junction with Green Alley. The third turnpike gate and the longest to remain in use was on the Castlecomer Road at Beggars End approximately 700 yards from White’s Castle. The following advertisement in the Universal Adviser of 2nd July 1757 indicates how important road improvements resulting from the Turnpike Acts were in developing public transport to and from Dublin. ‘Whereas there is now set up a STAGE-COACH, which begun to run the 14th of June, 1757, from the City of Dublin thro’ Athy and Castlecomer, to the City of Kilkenny. It sets off from Dublin on every Tuesday, and from Kilkenny on every Friday; and as the Road is 12 Miles shorter than the Carlow Road, the Owners of the Coach are determined to charge but 12s. each Person which is 2s less than any other Stage-coach charges, allowing twenty Pound Luggage to each inside Passenger, and ten Pounds ditto to each outside Passenger. The Road from Kilcullen thro’ Athy to Kilkenny being now in the best Repair of any Turnpike in this Kingdom, and the Inns well situated, and furnished with all Kinds of Entertainment for Man and Horse, it is not doubted that the Munster Gentlemen will, for their own Conveniency, make Use of this Road. The Stages the Coach stops at are as follows, viz. Going from Dublin they breakfast at Rathcool, dine in Kilcullen, and lie in Athy; next day they breakfast in Castlecomer, and dine in Kilkenny. Coming from Kilkenny they breakfast in Castlecomer, dine in Athy, and lie in Kilcullen; next day they breakfast in Johnstown, and dine in Dublin – The Company may see the Safety and speedy Dispatch of this Coach, which is by dining at their Journey’s-End the second Day, instead of coming into Town late at Night. – Prices from Dublin for each Stage, are, to Naas, 5s. to Kilcullen, 6s. to Athy, 8s to Castlecomer 10s. 6d. – Returning from Kilkenny to Athy, 6s. to Kilcullen, 8s. to Naas, 9s and so in Proportion to or from any other Place on said Road. Places to be taken at Mr. Edmond Cavanagh’s, Grocer at the Raven in High-street, Dublin, and at Mr. Dunphy’s, at the Sun in Cole-Market, Kilkenny, and sets off precisely at six o’Clock in the Morning. And any Person who does not attend at said hour, forfeits their Earnest Money. Half of the Money to be paid as Earnest, the Remainder at the End of their Journey. – The Proprietors beg Leave to assure their Company and Friends, that the greatest Care shall be taken to keep the best Horses, and the Coach to be always in Good Repair.’

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

'Having it Away' by Seamus Murphy

‘Published by Castledermot Press’ was what caught my eye as I perused the books in the Connolly book shop located next to Dolphin House Court at the rear of the Clarence Hotel in Dublin. My immediate thoughts were that the well known Castledermot born writer John MacKenna had escaped from his mainstream publishers to start his own publishing house. But no, the address of the Castledermot Press was given as Bray, Co. Wicklow and the book ‘Having it Away – a story of freedom, friendship and I.R.A. jailbreak’ was authored by Seamus Murphy. The juxtaposition of the name and the words ‘I.R.A. jailbreak’ brought immediate recognition for I had intended a few years ago to write an ‘Eye’ on the young Castledermot man who was involved in the I.R.A. raids on a British army depot at Arborfield near London in August 1955. I made some enquiries at the time but never met Seamus Murphy and the intended article never materialised. Now the book I had taken from the shelves of the Dublin book shop gave me the opportunity of reading a first-hand account of the raid, the subsequent imprisonment of three of those involved and the escape of Seamus Murphy from Wakefield Prison in February 1959. Accounts of prison escapes have been a frequent enough source of material for books published by I.R.A. members, whether veterans of the War of Independence or members of the various splinter groups which emerged in more recent years. One of the earliest publications of that type was written by Fr. Patrick Doyle, later Parish Priest of Naas, while he was Rector of Knockbeg College in Carlow. ‘The escape from Mountjoy – and other prison experiences of an Irish Volunteer – Padraic Fleming’ told the story of the imprisonment of the man from the Swan and his escape from Mountjoy Jail. His story was retold in the 1971 Anvil book publication ‘Sworn to be free – the complete book of I.R.A. jailbreaks 1918-1921’. The chapter on Fleming was written by Lochlinn MacGlynn and he recounted in depressing detail the privations and hardships endured by the Laois man before he finally escaped on 29th March 1919. As Ireland emerged from the Second World War, Noel Hartnett edited a series of talks first broadcast from Radio Eireann and published under the title ‘Prison Escapes’. Amongst the stories was that of Piarais Beaslaoi’s escape from Strangeways Prison Manchester in October 1919 and Eamon de Valera’s escape from Lincoln Jail in February of the same year. The story of Irish republicans imprisoned in English jails and post 1916 Welsh detention camps have been well documented and Dr. Ruan O’Donnell of Limerick University has brought the story up to date with his two recent volumes on I.R.A. members in English prisons from 1968 to 1985. Seamus Murphy’s book is a valuable addition to the growing literary output dealing with the incarceration of Irish republicans in English prisons. The three most famous personal accounts of this genre were of course O’Donovan Rossa’s ‘Prison Life – Six years in English prisons’, Tom Clarke’s account of his 15 years behind bars in ‘Glimpses of an Irish felon’s prison life’ and Michael Davitt’s ‘Leaves from a prison diary’. In ‘Having it Away’ Seamus Murphy tells us of his involvement in the I.R.A. raid on the arms depot in Arborfield in 1955 when he was just 20 years old. The I.R.A. raiding party of ten men, led by Ruairi O’Bradaigh, seized a large amount of guns and ammunition, all of which were subsequently recovered and three of the raiders were captured. Seamus Murphy, Donal Murphy (no relation) and Joe Doyle were later tried and sentenced to life imprisonment. It was from Wakefield Prison that Seamus Murphy escaped, where one of his fellow prisoners was the I.R.A. Chief of Staff, Cathal Goulding. His escape was facilitated by an I.R.A. splinter group associated with Joe Christle, working with Cyprian rebel sympathisers living in London. Seamus Murphy died aged 80 years on 2nd November 2015, survived by his wife Betty, his son Pearse and his two sisters. I end with the opening lines of his book which are a beautifully worded description of his prison cell. ‘It measured little bigger than a tomb. In the whitewashed walls the pattern of the brickwork stood out, irregular lines of staggered rectangles, ridged edges black and grimy with the dust of years. At one end was a long narrow window, set high in the wall, it’s small squares of cracked glass were coated in grime, and stoutly encased in a lattice work of flaking rusted metal. Generations of spiders had found quiet refuge in the holes and fissures that scarred the plasterwork about the window frame, adding their webbed traceries and mummified flies to the accumulation.’

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Canon Owen Sweeney

With the death of Canon Owen Sweeney, former Parish Priest of St. Michael’s, the Irish Church has lost one of its most energetic clerics who during his time in Athy gave positive expression of the church’s concern and care for the people of the parish. He was born on 27th July 1927 and was ordained on 25th May 1952. From 1960 he worked in England as part of the Irish Emigrant Chaplaincy Scheme which evolved from a decision of the Episcopal Committee for Emigration established in 1953 by the Irish hierarchy. That early decision to send a Columban priest to England to develop the mission effort amongst Irish men working on the building of English motorways lead to the founding of the Irish Emigrant Chaplaincy Scheme and its extension to other job situations employing Irish emigrant labour. Fr. Sweeney was part of that chaplaincy scheme from 1960-1963 and again from 1964-1966. Incidentally another subsequent Parish Priest of St. Michael’s, Fr. Gerard Tanham, spent four years from 1973 as a member of the Irish Emigrant Chaplaincy Scheme. Fr. Sweeney was president of Clonliffe College Dublin from 1976-1980. Founded in 1854 as the seminary for the training of priests for the Archdiocese of Dublin, Clonliffe today holds the burial place of it’s founder, the Ballitore born and first Cardinal of the Irish church, Paul Cullen. It was following his presidency of Clonliffe that Fr. Sweeney came to Athy in 1980 as our Parish Priest. He was to remain here for five years, during which time he showed qualities which endeared him to the people of Athy and district. The 1980s perhaps marked the beginning of the withdrawal of centuries old commitment of the Irish to the Catholic Church. It was still a period marked by regular Mass attendance and commitment to devotions, sodalities and all the religious events which those of us of a certain age associate with our younger days. Canon Sweeney was an energetic friendly individual who oversaw the religious welfare of his parishioners, assisted by a full team of curates. However, his concern for the welfare of the parishioners of St. Michaels extended beyond their religious or spiritual needs. He took an active part in helping to develop a community centre for Athy and committed parish funds to help acquire the vacant Dreamland ballroom. The ballroom on the Kilkenny Road was opened on Friday, 14th July 1961 by the Reynolds brothers with the legendary Victor Sylvester orchestra on stage. That same night Paddens Murphy’s local band members provided support for Sylvester’s orchestra for what may have been the most important engagement of their musical careers. By the early 1980s the once flourishing showband dancing had collapsed and Dreamland ballroom, which for 20 years had been such a huge part of all our social lives, had fallen idle. Canon Sweeney on behalf of Athy Parish of St. Michaels in conjunction with Athy Lions Club purchased the ballroom for use as a community centre and ownership was vested in trustees nominated by the local Lions Club and St. Michael’s Parish. Today the centre, now renamed A.R.C.H., continues to provide community sports space as well as a club premises for Aontas Ogra members. Canon Sweeney’s active involvement in the acquisition and subsequent development of the A.R.C.H. Centre was but one of his many contributions to the welfare of the local community here in Athy during his period as Parish Priest. Since Canon Sweeney’s departure from Athy nearly 33 years ago the townspeople have helped celebrate the 750th anniversary of the arrival of the Dominican Order in Athy. Sadly, not too many years since then the Dominican mission in Athy came to a close and a proud chapter in our local history was completed. With the falloff in vocations to the priesthood the work of the priest has become more difficult. Here in Athy the priests of St. Michael’s Parish have to serve the needs of the congregations of six churches, five in rural areas as well as the town’s Parish church. It is a challenging responsibility in difficult times and prompts us to remember with gratitude the good work done in the past by men such as Canon Owen Sweeney whose passing at an advanced age is much regretted.

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Great Famine Commemmoration 2018

On Sunday 13th May at 3.00 p.m. the annual Great Famine Commemoration Service will take place in Athy’s former workhouse cemetary. The once neglected cemetary of St. Mary’s located just over the canal bridge on the road leading to Ballintubbert has in recent years been reclaimed and restored to reflect its importance as the last resting place of the more than twelve hundred men, women and children who died in the workhouse and the nearby fever hospital during the years of the Great Famine. The Great Famine of the 1840’s, so called to distinguish it from the all too frequent famines which over the centuries caused so much distress and hardship in Ireland, was a cataclysm unequalled in Irish history. More than one million Irish men, women and children died during the period 1845 to 1849 while another one million or so fled overseas to escape starvation, disease and death. While growing up in Athy in the 1950’s and attending school in the town, I was aware of the Great Famine as it affected towns and villages on Ireland’s western seaboard. There was, however, no reference by the teachers in our local school to the effects of the Great Famine on the people living in the short grass County of Kildare. Undoubtedly, the greater loss of life resulting from starvation and disease was witnessed in the poor regions of Counties Cork, Kerry and Mayo but what prompted the absence of any collective memory here in Athy of the unfortunates who died in the local workhouse? After all the Great Famine brought about a substantial fall in the population in County Kildare. Between 1841 and 1851, the County’s population fell by almost 16.5 per cent and population decline in the County continued thereafter until the first population increase was noted in 1946. Athy’s population which in 1841 totalled 4698 had fallen to 3873 in 1851 which figure excluded the inmates of the local workhouse. This represented an actual loss of 825 persons or a 17.5 per cent decrease. Between 1831 and 1841, the town’s population had increased by 4.5 per cent and given a similar likely increase in the ten years to 1851, the town population would have reached 4909 at the end of that period. The famine can therefore be seen to have caused a possible fall in Athy’s population of upwards of 1036 persons. Of course, not all of that loss is likely to have resulted from starvation or disease as perhaps some families left the town of Athy to make a new life overseas. Adding to the misery of the time was a cholera outbreak which reached Athy in June 1849. A temporary cholera hospital was opened in the town to cater for those affected by the outbreak. Cholera was particularly rampant amongst the poor people who lived in the unsanitary overcrowded conditions to be found in narrow lanes and courts of Athy town. The census figures for deaths in the local workhouse, the adjoining fever hospital and the temporary cholera hospital during the years of the Great Famine show that 1,205 deaths were recorded. With the reduction already noted in the town’s population, the possibility of approximately 2,000 deaths in Athy from starvation and/or disease during the Great Famine of 1845 to 1849 can be suggested. Next Sunday we can remember those unfortunate men, women and children from our town and district who died during a catastrophic period in our history. The ecumenical service will start at 3.00 p.m. in the former workhouse cemetery of St. Mary’s. The announcement of the closure of Athy’s Coca Cola plant brought gloom and dismay to our town which was already struggling to regain the commercial success of past years. The announcement came the day before the official opening of Athy’s new library and represented a setback for those working on the regeneration plan for the town. However, as explained by the C.E.O. of Kildare County Council, Peter Carey, the library opening was another positive implementation step for the towns regeneration and will be followed in the short to medium term by the Southern Distributor Road, the town square improvement scheme and the improved extension for the new Heritage Centre/Shackleton Museum. Minister Michael Ring when opening the library spoke of the Government’s commitment to the growth of industry in Athy which will be hugely facilitated by the new by-pass road. The jobs to be lost in Coca Cola must be replaced quickly but we are fortunate that the current town regeneration plan gives us a unique opportunity to achieve this aim.

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Volunteerism in Athy

I wrote in Eye on the Past No. 1174 of volunteerism and of the many men and women in and around Athy who with advantage to themselves and to the voluntary sector make themselves available for voluntary work within their local community. I mentioned then the local Heritage Centre which was looking for volunteers willing to make themselves available for a few hours each week to help staff exhibitions in the Town Hall Centre. There was a good response to that request and I was reminded to put out the call again for volunteers to do some voluntary work on a regular basis in our local community. There are a large number of local organisations staffed by volunteers which one could join. For instance, the local St. Vincent de Paul Society which I regard as one of the most important voluntary organisations in the town does extraordinary good work assisting families who are experiencing difficult times. The members of the Society organise an annual collection in the weeks leading up to Christmas. The monies collected are but a small proportion of the Society’s outlay in helping local families in distress. The St. Vincent de Paul Society relies not only on the annual collection but also on the continuing generosity of families at local and national level who are in a position to help to alleviate the hardships endured by less well-off families. The Society meets weekly and operates a charity shop in William Street. I was in Geraldine Park last Thursday evening for a young girls football match between Athy Gaelic Football Club and the arch enemy of old, Castlemitchell Gaelic Football Club. Times have changed, not only in terms of the now friendly relationship between local clubs, but also insofar as the once male dominated sport, at junior level at least, is attracting increasing participation from young girls. Looking after the young players involves a huge commitment from parents and GAA club officials alike and the latter particularly deserve our praise for their unstinted voluntary commitment. There are many other examples of local boys and girls, men and women, giving of their time and working behind the scenes for local clubs or for the good of the local community. One group whose work is very much in the public eye, but whom I feel are nevertheless not as appreciated as they should be, is the Tidy Towns Committee. How often have I seen those volunteers at evening time armed with sweeping brushes and shovels working away tending to public areas in the town and cleaning up the litter which if left unattended would disfigure so many of our local neighbourhoods. The current Tidy Towns Committee has been in existence since its reorganisation in 1997. Indeed, Tidy Towns Committees in Athy go back to a time when I was a member of Athy Urban District Council and it was one of several committees established at that time to promote the wellbeing of the local community. The very first Tidy Towns Committee worked under the chairmanship of Dr. John Macdougald. The present Committee operates under the chairmanship of Ger Kelly and he is ably assisted by members of the committee, including Hilary May, Brendan Moloney, Patricia Berry, Martin Donnelly and Brian Fitzpatrick. The Tidy Towns volunteers meet in Emily Square at 7.00 p.m. every Friday and from there start their work on your and my behalf to clean up areas which need attention. Called the ‘Tidy Towns Committee’ their work has resulted in a huge improvement in the appearance of the town and the approach roads to Athy. However, much work remains to be done and more volunteers are needed. If you are in a position to help why not drop down to Emily Square next Friday at 7.00 p.m. I gather anyone turning up to do some voluntary work will be very welcome. The success of the Tidy Towns Committee’s efforts can be measured by the huge improvements in votes received by Athy in the annual Tidy Towns competition. Athy did not enter the competition in 1996, but did so the following year after the then Town Clerk, Tommy Maddock, with the help and encouragement of others re-established the Tidy Town Committee under the chairmanship of Ger Kelly. Athy’s efforts in 1997 gained 166 points in the National competition. Last year that figure had increased to 274 points, thanks to the work of the committee and the volunteers past and present. The Committee’s work in cleaning up the banks of the River Barrow was the subject of a Millennium Award and a few weeks ago the annual river clean up was again the focus of the volunteer’s work. There are many organisations and clubs in the town staffed and run by volunteers and it is that same type of voluntary work which prompted the Leinster Express in July 1859 to declare ‘there is not in Ireland an inland town which can boast of more public spirit than Athy.’ That spirit is still evident today and the men and women of the local Tidy Towns Committee embody that public spirit which our community cannot do without. When I sat down to write this piece I wondered how many clubs/organisations are there in Athy? There is no directory for the town which one can consult, and its absence prompts a suggestion that there is a need for a town directory.