Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Athy's Architectural and Social Heritage as seen on a walking trip from Barrow Quay to Ardreigh Lock

Heritage Week prompted me to review some elements of the town’s story insofar as it related to buildings and structures along the Barrow trackway between the harbour at Emily Square and Ardreigh lock. I was pressed into service during Heritage Week to walk the route with which I was very familiar since my young days in Offaly Street. However, like many of those who walked with me on Saturday morning, as a youngster I had no knowledge of the history behind the bricks and the stones which have stood in some cases for centuries past. Theirs was a past which we have only begun to unravel in recent years and in doing so we are beginning to understand how the local townspeople of the past shaped our local history and the history of our country. St. Michael’s Church at the top of Offaly Street which presents a handsome architectural backdrop when viewed from Church Road can also be viewed from the Barrow trackway. It was consecrated on 15th September 1841 to replace an earlier church located in Market Square between the Town Hall and what in the 18th century was known as Rotten Row. It was claimed by a 19th century local historian that stone used in the building of the 13th century Dominican Friary was used in the building of that the first post reformation church in Athy. If so it’s quite possible that the same stone was used in the building of the present St. Michael’s, thus providing a link to the medieval village of 800 years ago. St. Michael’s was designed by the architect, Frederick Darley whose contribution to Irish architecture includes inter alia, the Royal Dublin Society building and the Kings Inns, Dublin. He was retained by the Duke of Leinster in connection with the refurbishment of Kilkea Castle and presumably because of his relationship with the Duke, Darley is represented by considerable architectural heritage here in Athy. In addition to St. Michael’s Church, Darley who was one of the founder members of the Royal Institute of Architects in Ireland was also the architect for the Presbyterian Church and Manse, the Model School, and it is believed, the Courthouse which was originally built as the towns corn exchange. The Rector of St. Michael’s Athy when St. Michael’s was built was Rev. Frederick Trench, whose wife Helena was a niece of Spencer Perceval, the British Prime Minister assassinated in the lobby of the House of Commons in 1812. Rev. Frederick had his own problem with some of his parishioners for as a High Church cleric and friend of John Keble of the Oxford Movement, his celebration of feast days did not find favour with some of his parishioners. Michael Carey, a local man whose diaries are in the National Library wrote of Trench in February 1851: ‘The Rev. Mr. Trench has taken down all the emblems from his popish windows and made an apology to his congregation. The Duke and the Bishop condemned them at once. He stated to the congregation that he had not the slightest notion of Puseyism or Popery. My publicly denouncing the pictures and windows before the congregation on that Sunday set them all going….. Other buildings mentioned in the walk to Ardreigh included Mount Offaly House, once the home of the Disney family, the town jail on the Carlow Road and Dukes Lodge. However, before reaching the last-mentioned house, the walkers passed under the One Horse Bridge. Built in 1791 or thereabouts, the bridge allowed the horse drawn canal barges to exit the Grand Canal and enter the Barrow navigation. Just ahead was the railway bridge built in 1918 as one of the earliest pre-stressed concrete bridges in Ireland. It was built to carry the railway line from Athy to the Wolfhill coalmine which was re-opened at the end of World War 1. The work on the railway line was carried out by local men and by a large number of workmen from Belfast. It was those same Belfast men who are believed to have brought to Athy the Spanish Flu which would kill untold millions worldwide. Belfast had the first recorded incident of the 1918 flu in Ireland and Athy was the first County Kildare town where the flu epidemic took hold. The Saturday morning heritage walk ended at Ardreigh Lock near to where Ardreigh mill once stood. All that is left today of the substantial mill building are the stumps of the outer walls and the millrace which once powered the mill wheel. The story of the Haughton’s and the Hannon families, the proprietors of the Ardreigh mill and the mill at Duke Street concluded the walk

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

The sinking of RMS Leinster and Athy man William Keegan

On 10th October 1918 the Royal Mail Steamer Leinster left the harbour at Kingstown, as Dun Laoghaire was then called, for the Welsh port of Holyhead. It was embarking on a dangerous journey as since the previous year German submarines had attacked ships making that same journey. On board the RMS Leinster were civilian passengers, military personnel, post office sorters and the ships crew, totalling all, it is now believed to be almost 780 persons. Shortly after 9.30am a German torpedo struck the ship’s port side. An account of the tragedy given by London civilian Arthur Lewis was published in the Royal National Lifeboats Institute magazine, ‘The Lifeboat’ on 1st November 1918. Lewis reported that the ship began to dip slightly forward when first struck and about 12 minutes later a second torpedo struck causing a tremendous explosion amidship. He described how after the first torpedo struck the ships crew began to lower the life boats, with calls for ‘women and children first’. When the second torpedo struck the ship began to sink quickly. With cries of ‘jump’ and realising there was little prospect of getting into lifeboats the sea was soon full of struggling men and women. When RMS Leinster sank more than 500 persons lost their lives. There is still uncertainty as to the numbers lost in the Irish Seas greatest maritime tragedy as no passenger lists existed and rather strangely the military authorities were aware that 18 soldiers had boarded the Leinster without their names being recorded. Philip Lecane, whose excellent account of the tragedy ‘Torpedoed – The RMS Leinster Disaster’ was published in 2005 claims that for reasons not explained the military authorities did not want the presence on board of the unnamed 18 soldiers to be known. Amongst the passengers may have been Athy man William Keegan. The local paper, The Leinster Leader, reported on 19th October 1918 ‘2nd Lieutenant W. Keegan R.F.A. Ballyroe House travelled on the ill fated Leinster. He is safe.’ However he is not listed in Lecane’s comprehensive list of the 493 military personnel who were on board the ship, 340 of whom perished in the disaster. Was Keegan perhaps one of the 18 unlisted soldiers whose presence on board were known to the authorities, but who for whatever reason were never identified? William Keegan of Ballyroe Lodge was the son of the late Martin Keegan who had died on 31st March 1915. Martin was a farmer and a district councillor for Athy No. 1 rural district. I believe he may also have been the proprietor of Keegans brickworks, but this has yet to be confirmed. His son William attended the Christian Brothers School in Athy, and later Mount St. Joseph’s, Roscrea before graduating from Queens University Galway. He joined the firm of Kaye, Parrys and Ross of Kildare Street, Dublin and later joined the British Army’s Royal Engineers in 1915. The Kildare Observer of 13th May 1916 carried a report of William Keegan of Ballyroe, Athy and his part in the defence of Trinity College. There is some confusion as to whether the reference incorrectly referred to William Keegan rather than to his brother James. The mystery of William Keegan’s involvement in the defence of Trinity College and whether or not he was on board the RMS Leinster may never be resolved. Keegan left the army in 1920 with the rank of Captain and took up an appointment as chief engineer to the public works department in Hong Kong. He died on 14th May 1929, after falling from the veranda of the government civil hospital in Hong Kong. The Nationalist and Leinster Times of 18th May 1929 reported his death and noted ‘Captain Keegan was a general favourite with old and young and was the idol of his home where his death leaves a great shadow of loneliness’. This October the sinking of RMS Leinster will be remembered in Dun Laoghaire with a series of events to commemorate the men, women and children who died in the Irish Sea 100 years ago. The National Maritime Museum located in the former Mariner’s Church in Dun Laoghaire is hosting an exhibition on the RMS Leinster disaster. An official commemoration will take place in Dun Laoghaire on Wednesday 10th October with a wreath laying ceremony and involvement of members of the defence forces. In a fitting tribute to the 21 postal sorters who perished in the Leinster An Post will issue in October a special edition stamp to mark the centenary. Finally, at 8 p.m. on 10th October there will be a one night only performance of ‘Fatal Voyage’ at the Pavilion theatre Dun Laoghaire. The Athy man, William Keegan, may or may not have escaped from the sinking ship RMS Leinster on 10th October 1918, the same day that James Mullen of Kilcock and Richard Mooney of Naas were killed in action in France.

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

GAA protests against conscription August 1918

As August 1918 approached, the Athy Show committee completed arrangements for the annual Show scheduled for Thursday, the 15th day of the month. Local newspapers carried advertisements for the Show which indicated an unusual combination of competitive races. The agricultural labourers’ race over jumps was to be followed by a boy’s relay race and a driving and horse jumping competition. Pride of place was reserved for what was described as the ‘horse jumping championship of All Ireland’. An admission fee of one shilling allowed one to enjoy not only those competitions, but also a step dancing competition and what was described as a ‘slack wire performance’. Bands were promised to be in attendance and no doubt Athy Pipers Club and the Leinster Street fife and drum band were expected to take part. That summer, the last summer of the four-year long world war, witnessed labour problems on the Verschoyle estate in Kilberry. The local farm labourers employed by A.R. Verschoyle of Cloney Castle went on strike following their employer’s refusal to entertain a demand for a wage increase of five shillings to bring their weekly wage to 30 shillings per week. The enlistment of local men during the war had created labour shortages and the South Kildare Labour Union had organised the local farm labourers in seeking better terms for its members. A large-scale labour strike threatened for south Kildare was reportedly averted in the last week of August. At the same time the Dublin based Irish Transport Workers Union increased its membership by taking over the South Kildare Labour Union. Unrest in south Kildare was not confined to the tillage fields. Public protests supported by local church and civic leaders had followed the British government’s planned extension of conscription to Ireland. The conscription crisis erupted at the start of April 1918 and in early May more than seventy of the country’s Sinn Fein leaders were arrested and imprisoned. They were allegedly involved in a wartime plot with Germany and in following up that claim the British government issued a proclamation on 4th July requiring ‘all meetings, assemblies or processions in public places’ to require an authorisation from the local R.I.C. The General Secretary of the G.A.A., Luke O’Toole, called a meeting of the G.A.A. Central Council for 22nd July, following which a decision was taken that G.A.A. clubs would not conform to the British government’s Proclamation. The G.A.A. authorities decided to organise a day of protest scheduled for Sunday 4th August 1918 when G.A.A. clubs throughout the country were directed to hold G.A.A. matches at 3 p.m. Designated as Gaelic Sunday it was the G.A.A.’s response to the governments order of 4th July which five days later saw crown forces prevent an Ulster championship match taking place in Coothill. About 1,500 camogie, football and hurling matches were played on Gaelic Sunday without any interference from the R.I.C. or crown forces. The County Kildare list of matches included a football match in Athy between the local team and Bert. Another game was scheduled for Clane between Clane and Mainham. The Leinster Leader of 10th August carried the following report on that match. ‘Clane and Mainham met at Clane on Sunday in a friendly football contest when Mainham attained an easy victory. There was a fair attendance. Mr. W. Merriman had to relinquish the post of referee in order to play the duty of collecting a team to represent Clane devolving upon him. The fact that several prominent players were in the immediate vicinity and yet declined to play is a matter which we consider cause for strict investigation at the next meeting of the County Board. The action of those individuals will hardly commend itself to the general body of the Gaels of Kildare – quite the opposite we consider.’ The country’s response to the British government’s order of 4th July was such that the government was forced to claim that it had never intended to interfere with ordinary meetings, games or sports. The exemption however did not apply to political utterances or Sinn Fein activity. Athy teacher J.J. O’Byrne was arrested for reading the Sinn Fein manifesto in Emily Square on 15th August as part of a nationwide act of defiance by Sinn Fein clubs. O’Byrne who was secretary of Athy Sinn Fein club, was imprisoned while awaiting trial and two months later he received one year’s hard labour for ‘making a statement likely to cause disaffection in contravention of the Defence of the Realm Regulations’. The month of August 1918 ended as had the previous 48 months with the death of many Athy men fighting overseas. The summer month of August was for many Athy families ‘a wicked month’, a headline later enshrined in Irish literary history by the Clare born writer, Edna O’Brien.

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

The planned reordering of Emily Square

The proposed works to the front of Emily Square have gathered quite a lot of interest and generated much discussion amongst the people of Athy. The works comprise eight elements and include footpath widening and resurfacing, replacement of all existing trees with a single specimen tree and the reconfiguration of traffic to give a one-way system running north to south on the east side of the Town Hall. The design proposals prepared for Kildare County Council by the Paul Hogarth Company of Kilkenny are intended to improve the aesthetic quality of the front Square, while improving it’s functioning for pedestrians, vehicles and events and improving the setting of historic buildings and features within the Square. The views of the public on the present state of the front Square was canvassed during two open public consultations, when the project team shared thoughts and ideas on plans for Athy’s principal public space. Interestingly the majority of the local people made negative comments about the front Square, with ‘dangerous uneven surfaces’ the most comment complaint voiced. Quite a significant number of people felt that the front Square was cluttered with too many signs, lamp posts and trees. The existing tree planting was encouraged by Patrick Shaffrey, a consultant employed by Athy Urban District Council in connection with the Inner Relief Road project. I supported Mr. Shaffrey’s tree planting suggestion, as did all the members of Athy UDC, but unfortunately for reasons not fully understood the trees created damage to the surface of the Square and the uncontrolled tree growth impeded the view of the historic Town Hall. Early photographs of Emily Square show that as originally planned it was an open space in the very heart of the town which provided the focal point of all major community events. It was here that various local markets were held and it was in Emily Square that the Land League meetings of the 1880s took place. Platforms on which civic and church leaders stood to canvas support for the World War 1 effort were placed in front of the Town Hall and it was from similar platforms also that the likes of Arthur Griffith, Eamon De Valera and others spread the message of Irish nationalism in the immediate aftermath of the 1916 Rising. The regeneration of the open public space in the town centre is a laudable proposal, creating as it will a space for cultural outdoor events and activities involving the local community. There are two monuments presently in the front Square, one of which could with advantage be relocated. The fountain donated by the Duke of Leinster is a forgotten and neglected piece of our local history, despite recent claims to the contrary. It could with benefit to the decluttering of the Square be moved to the People’s Park, which was also gifted by the Duke of Leinster to the people of Athy. There it could be sited on one of the several mounds in the park and become an attractive feature in the People’s Park. The 1798 monument should remain in the front Square, even if it is to be moved to another site within the Square. It represents an important reminder of Athy’s troubled past, as does the memorial plaque on the front wall of the Town Hall to the local men who died in the 1914-18 war. The reopening of the Square as a public space justifies the removal of the existing trees which have been allowed to grow uncontrolled since they were planted. The proposal to replace them with a single specimen tree near to the Leinster Street side of the Square needs to be looked at. The view from the front of the Square down to the Town Hall should as far as possible be unimpeded. Would not trees planted on the two outer edges of the Square be better? Any such trees planted could be maintained in the same fashion as the recently planted trees in O’Connell Street Dublin and could prove to be an attractive feature. The proposed removal of parking facilities from the front Square has caused some controversy. The concerns in that regard could be dealt with by Kildare County Council acquiring the nearby Abbey site, to be part developed for parking, with the riverside portion used for apartment/shop development. The traffic re-routing proposals in the improvement plan may present the greatest difficulties. The opening of the outer relief road will take the heavy-duty traffic out of the town centre and I believe the current town road system is capable of dealing with the remainder of the traffic. If I am correct then the proposal to reroute traffic from the Carlow Road down through the back Square and existing at Whites Castle should not be necessary. This part of an otherwise excellent improvement plan is fraught with difficulties, but in the overall scheme of things the improvement plan merits the Athy people’s support.