Tuesday, July 24, 2018
“Over 3,000 men and women with Kilkenny connections served in World War One, many never came home and their remains are interned among the rows of marble and the poppies of Northern Europe. Almost one third of the Kilkenny’s fallen are in unmarked graves”. These are the words of Mountmellick born T.D. and Minister for Justice Charlie Flanagan as he prepared to unveil the Kilkenny Great War Memorial on Sunday, 15th July. The limestone monument located in the riverside Peace Park has inscribed on it the names of 822 men and women from the county of Kilkenny who died during the 1914/18 war. As the Minister pointed out in his address they had enlisted for a variety of reasons. Some like their neighbouring folk in county Kildare did so to fight for what they believed was a just cause. For many the opportunity to provide financial support for their impoverished families was a major influence while others answered John Redmond’s call to arms in the belief they were helping Ireland’s claim for Home Rule. Whatever the reasons which prompted more than 200,000 Irish men and women to enlist during World War I the sacrifices endured by those who served and the loss of lives were for many decades not adequately or properly addressed by the Irish people. The enlisted men, like those from Athy who were cheered and paraded to the local railway station as they marched off to war, were ignored on their return to Ireland. Many came back from war suffering from physical and psychological injuries and as the Minister pointed out at the unveiling ceremony those men returned to an Ireland they did not recognise. It was as he said “an Ireland that had changed very rapidly from one seeking Home Rule through parliamentary means to an Ireland seeking independence by revolutionary means. Those men and women and their families found themselves on the wrong side of history and the absence of any recognition of this part of our shared history was itself a historic wrong”. It was a wrong recognised by some Kilkenny folk almost 8 years ago when after a national day of commemoration held in the grounds of Kilkenny Castle in July 2010 three men met and decided to remember the Kilkenny men and women who lost their lives in World War I. Cllr,. David Fitzgerald, Gearoid O’Loinsigh and Donal Croghan canvassed others to form what would become the Kilkenny Great War Memorial Committee. Its aim was to record in Kilkenny limestone on a memorial in the County of Kilkenny the names of the Kilkenny men and women who died during the Great War. Here in Athy several years earlier a number of locals got together to commemorate each year on Remembrance Sunday the men and women from Athy and South Kildare who died in the Great War. Our interest in that part of our town’s history was prompted, as no doubt was the Kilkenny group, by the writings of Kevin Myers who alone for many years wrote of the sacrifices of Irish men and women who died in the Great War. It was Kevin Myers who raised the national consciousness of a past which had been obliterated by an earlier drive for independence and a later reluctance to countenance historical involvement in a war fought by Irish men wearing British uniforms. I was pleased to see Kevin Myers as one of the invited guests at the unveiling of the Kilkenny memorial. His attendance was a worthy acknowledgment of his immense contribution to a nations realisation that the Irish men and women who went to war in 1914/18 and later in 1939/45 were part of our nations story and deserved to be remembered. The Kilkenny memorial is magnificent and the engraving of the 827 names onto 14 panels by Molloys of Callan displays a skill level which is highly commendable. The total cost of the memorial, was I believe, €180,000 of which €45,000 was raised by the memorial committee and the balance contributed by Kilkenny County Council. Nearby on the Peace park wall I found a small stone engraved “1916-1991 planted by O.N.E to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Easter Rising”. The Athy branch of the O.N.E. attended the Kilkenny unveiling ceremony and I could not but think of Jim Maher and James Comerford both of whom have written of County Kilkenny’s part in the war of Independence. Comerford’s weighty tome “My Kilkenny IRA days” was published in 1978 and Maher’s work “The flying column-west Kilkenny 1916/1921” was first published in 1987 and republished 3 years ago in an extended edition. The juxtaposition of the 1916 memorial, the attendance of the retired Irish army personal and my remembrance of Kilkenny’s part in the war of Independence reinforced for me the importance of Kilkenny’s war memorial in bringing together the missing strands of our shared history.
Tuesday, July 17, 2018
As a youngster growing up in Offaly Street I knew nothing of the background to the naming of Meeting Lane which was just a short distance from where I lived. It was many years later while doing some research in the Valuation Office, Dublin that I discovered it’s correct name was Meeting House Lane. In much the same way as Michael Dooley’s Terrace has over the years shortened to Dooley’s Terrace the Meeting House name has been abbreviated. The laneway which in the 18th century connected Market Square and the town’s High Street was not, as many have speculated, laid down on the line of the medieval town walls. Preston’s Gate, the last remains of the town’s medieval fortifications was located in what is now Offaly Street but in the 1800’s that part of the street was called Preston’s Gate. The gate itself was situated next to the south wall of the present Credit Union office and was demolished in 1860 following an accident which resulted in the death of the local rector Rev. Frederick Trench. The position of Preston’s Gate would indicate that Meeting House Lane followed the line of the town wall but was several metres inside the wall which extended in a half circle crossing the High Street to reach the River Barrow almost opposite the Parish Church. That lane now known locally as Meeting Lane got it’s full name Meeting House Lane from the meeting house built on a corner site in 1780 for the local Quaker community. The Society of Friends or Quakers as they are generally known had a presence in Athy very soon after that religious group was first established in the north of Ireland by William Edmundson. He established the first Irish Quaker meeting in 1654 and three years later Athy residents Thomas Weston and his wife became the first members of the Society of Friends in this area. A Quaker meeting was established in Athy by 1671 but presumably because the membership was small in numbers those meetings were held in members houses and later in rented premises. This was a position which remained for over 100 years, even though in nearby Ballytore where a Quaker settlement was established later than Athy, the Ballytore folk had their own purpose built meeting house from 1708. The Athy Quakers had to wait until 1780 for their meeting house to be built on a site donated by the Duke of Leinster at the corner of the laneway, just off the towns main street. Thomas Chandlee, a Quaker who had moved from Dublin to Athy to set up a linen drapers business in Duke Street, was the principal promotor of the Athy Quaker Meeting House. He was married to Deborah, a daughter of Richard and Elizabeth Shackleton of Ballytore and his wife was a sister of Mary Leadbetter. The new meeting house built of stone with a slated roof cost 129 pounds 5 shillings and 10 pence to build. The building which many will remember as a dispensary is now used as a youth centre. The original entrance to the meeting house was at the western gable end while the substantial iron railings which still surround the buildings are believed to have been part of the original building. A Quaker burial ground may have been located behind the meeting house but no record remains to confirm this. Strangely, having waited so long for their own purpose built meeting house the local Quaker community seemed to have disappeared from Athy in the early part of the 1800’s. The local Methodists took over the building and remained there until 1872 when a new Methodist church was opened in Woodstock Street. I believe Meeting House Lane was first so called because of the Quaker meeting house located there although it has been suggested that it may well have owed its name to the subsequent Methodist meeting house. I doubt the latter claim as Methodist religious practices are generally referred to as occurring in chapels rather than meeting houses. The last Quakers I have come across in Athy were the Hewson family who in the pre famine years had a shop in Athy. Margaret Hewson born in 1838 and Mary Hewson born in 1839 were the last Quaker children born in Athy. I leave the last word to Alexander Duncan – shopkeeper, member of Athy Town Commissioners and a leading member of the local Methodist community who in 1886 referred to Athy as still “having an odd antique of a Quaker”. I haven’t discovered who they were but the Quakers of Athy will not be forgotten as we recall their part in the naming of Meeting House Lane.
Tuesday, July 10, 2018
The current housing crisis prompts a reminder of the housing problems of a century ago and later when a majority of the families in Athy lived in unsanitary and unfit privately rented houses. The members of Athy Urban Council first addressed the local housing issue in 1909 when they appointed a committee to investigate the possibility of building houses under the Housing of the Working Classes Act which had been passed 19 years earlier. Another three years were to pass before the building contractors started work on three relatively small housing schemes in Athy. A total of 22 houses were completed, eleven houses in what was known as Matthew’s Lane, now St. Michael’s Terrace, five houses at Woodstock Street, now St. Martin’s Terrace and five houses in Meeting House Lane. Two local contractors were employed, as well as Sweeneys of Portarlington. D. & J. Carbery built the houses at St. Matthew’s Lane, while D. Toomey of Leinster Street built the Meeting Lane houses. On completion in February 1913 the houses were let at rents which ranged from three shillings to five shillings per week, but as the Town Clerk later reported none of the tenants were ‘of the labouring classes’. The newly built houses did little to help resolve the critical housing situation and the shocking housing conditions under which many of the local people lived. Dr. James Kilbride first drew attention to those dreadful conditions in a report to the urban councillors in November 1906 in which he noted: ‘In less than a dozen cases was there to be found any sanitary accommodation ….. the floors are wet and sodden in rainy weather and frequently are flooded.’ Despite Dr. Kilbride’s concerns the Councillors were very slow to react as they had been in 1900 when he drew attention to the town water supply which came from ‘wells situated within closely inhabited areas and from their faulty construction are liable to contamination.’ The frequent outbreak of gastro enteritis amongst those drinking water from the pumps confirmed the pumps as the likely source of infectious disease and multiple deaths were recorded each year as a result. Despite this the Councillors resisted for a time the call for a pure water supply scheme for the town and it was not until the Local Government Board required the Council to procure a supply of pure water for Athy that they acted. The local people had to wait until April 1907 before a piped water supply system was available in Athy, but even then the majority of those living in the laneways and courts of the town had to continue to rely on the existing water pumps. The Housing Act of 1932 represented the newly elected Irish government’s plans for tackling the then housing crisis which called out for more public housing and the clearance of the privately owned unsanitary dwellings which housed the majority of families in the country. Athy Urban District Council passed a number of Clearance Orders in 1934 which required the property owners to have designated dwellings vacated within 28 days and the buildings demolished. I have a copy of the No. 2 Clearance Order made 5th October 1934 which lists houses in Canal Side, Blackparks, St. John’s Lane, The Bleach, James’ Place, Upper William Street, Higginsons Lane, Nelson Street, Convent Lane, New Row, Offaly Street, Rathstewart and Woodstock Street. The James’ Place houses were owned by representatives of M.J. Minch and comprised twelve houses where the tenants were Joseph Rochford, Richard Dunne, James Ruan, John Knowles, Thomas Finlay, Mrs. Davis, Richard Goff, James Byrne, Patrick Crowley, Julia Ryan, Chris Carroll and Frank Keyes. The seventeen houses in Higginsons Lane were owned by Mrs. Higginson, while Nelson Street had ten houses owned by Mrs. Higginson and fourteen owned by Mrs. Annie Brennan. All of the houses listed in the Council’s Clearance Order would in time be demolished and the first tenants were allocated houses in the newly built St. Joseph’s Terrace, Upper and Lower, where there were 39 houses, and Michael Dooley’s Terrace which had 56 houses. The extent of the housing crisis in the 1930s can be gauged from the decision of the Council after they appointed tenants from unfit houses belonging to Dan Carbery and the late M.P. Minch. Under the terms of the Clearance Order the houses vacated should have been demolished, but the Council agreed to allow those houses, although unfit, to be used by tenants transferring from Shrewleen Lane houses owned by T.J. Whelan and other houses in New Garden owned by Mrs. Higginson. The Slum Clearance Programme continued and when finished represented the Urban Council’s most successful housing drive. It brought about enormous changes in the living conditions of those in rented accommodation, while changing the appearance and layout of the side streets of our ancient town.
Tuesday, July 3, 2018
A few weeks ago the National Press reported a claim that upwards of forty percent of Gardai were engaged ‘on the beat’. I read the report with surprise as at no time within the past thirty years or so have I seen any evidence of Gardai patrolling the streets of Athy. Their absence is a major drawback to crime prevention and one wonders why Gardai management have not taken steps to remedy the situation. When established in 1922 as Guardians of the Peace, the Garda Siochana drew support from Irish society but that support lessened as daily contact between Gardai and the community they serve has disappeared. There has been a multiplicity of reasons offered for the absence of Gardai on the streets, not sufficient Gardai being the main reason. For this successive governments must be held responsible. As against the claim of insufficient Garda numbers there is the questionable deployment of Gardai on traffic management duties. Quite frankly local communities would much prefer to have Gardai visible on our streets than having them manning speed traps and checking on vehicle drivers documentation. That type of work can be left to others such as the providers of the Go Safe speed vans and so allow the Garda members who spend three years in law enforcement and police training to deal with crime prevention and detection. I don’t have exact figures for the number of Gardai stationed in Athy today. I am aware that the Garda Station is severely undermanned, as indeed is the entire Kildare Garda division compared to other Garda divisions. Today’s Garda numbers in Athy far exceed that to which we were accustomed in the 1960s. However, Athy is a much bigger place than it was fifty years ago and today’s Gardai have to deal with a more complex society than did their colleagues of generations ago. The very first complement of Gardai took up duty in Athy on 15th August 1922 and for a time were based in the Town Hall. The Garda Station was later moved to the old R.I.C. Barracks on Barrack Lane which had been built 200 years previously as a cavalry barracks. The first Garda Sergeant, so far as my research indicates, was Sergeant Cornelius Lillis who had a party of fifteen Gardai with him. The Gardai moved to Leinster Street after the Garda Station in Barrack Lane was attacked during the Civil War. There is uncertainty as to whether Athy’s third Garda Station was opened in the Leinster Arms Hotel or in the hotel on the opposite side of the road which is now Bradburys. A former Garda who served in Athy during the 1920s claimed that the town’s first station was opened with one sergeant and four Gardai whom he named as Garda John Hanley, Garda John Kelly, Garda Patrick Fitzgerald and Garda Joseph McNamara. In those early days Athy was the Garda District headquarters before it was changed to Kildare town. Athy later featured again as the District headquarters before it subsequently came under the District Office in Carlow. Within more recent years it has again reverted to the Kildare division, with Kildare town as the District headquarters. During my young days in Athy the local Gardai consisted for the most part of members who had been stationed in the town for decades past. Amongst them was Garda Michael Tuohy, a Clare man who came to Athy in 1933. He lived in Offaly Street. Also in Offaly Street was Garda James Kelly, a Mayo man who arrived in Athy having transferred from County Kerry in the 1920s. Garda Johnny McMahon, another Mayo man who lived in St. Patrick’s Avenue arrived in Athy in the late 1920s. Garda John Connell from Co. Tipperary came to Athy in 1934 and he also lived in St. Patrick’s Avenue. All of those men were former members of the Old I.R.A. and had been actively involved as young men in the Irish War of Independence. As a youngster living in Offaly Street I knew and respected those men who were regularly to be seen patrolling the streets of Athy. It was a different age, a time when the Gardai were as much community workers as policemen. As rural stations closed and the patrol car replaced the bicycle the Garda on the beat became a feature of the past. While it is generally accepted that crime prevention requires members of the Garda Siochana to be visible in public, the present Garda numbers in Athy do not allow for street patrolling. I believe if Garda resources were better deployed, it would permit greater police visibility on our streets. Perhaps a start can be made by abolishing the Traffic Corps and putting the traffic police back on the beat. However, in the long term we can only hope that the newly appointed Garda Commissioner can lever sufficient funding from the Government to increase Garda numbers.