Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Colm Walshe's music trail - Made of Athy

There is a growing realisation that our urban heritage is a key resource in helping to promote the development of Athy. There is no doubt our ancient town is badly in need of regeneration and the news of impending job losses in nearby Kilberry reinforces the need for even greater effort on all our parts to help that process. Heritage is a word once largely misunderstood and loudly condemned for allegedly holding back Athy’s drive for more and better jobs. That misunderstanding goes back a decade or two but has now been corrected as many of us have begun to appreciate the importance that attaches to familiar streetscapes and buildings in our town. Athy’s urban heritage comprises not only what we refer to as the built heritage, but also the intangible heritage created by literary and musical associations involving Athy, it’s writers and musicians, living or dead. I was reminded of this when approached some time ago by Colm Walsh with his plans for the creation of a music trail through and around Athy. His is a unique idea which draws on some distinctive aspects of the town’s musical heritage. Last week the first of the planned music trail plaques was unveiled by the grandson of Johnny Cash at the former Dreamland ballroom. It will be followed by the unveiling of a number of other plaques based around the town honouring musicians associated with Athy, whether directly or indirectly by way of family connections. I was particularly pleased to learn that Joe O’Neill and Padence Murphy, two Athy stalwarts who in the 1940s and beyond graced many local dancehalls with their orchestras The Stardust and The Sorrento, were honoured with a plaque unveiled by the Ceann Chomhairle Sean O’Fearghail T.D. at the district council offices at Rathstewart last Saturday. On Friday, November 2nd Emily Square can expect to be crowded by popular music followers when Johnny Marr, founder with Morrissey of The Smiths, unveils the third plaque in the Athy music trail series. Johnny’s parents were natives of Athy who emigrated to England in the early 1960s and Johnny Maher, as he was then known, later changed his surname to Marr. He is recognised as one of the most influential guitar players in British rock music history and has been the recipient of a number of awards. These include the Inspiration Award presented at the Ivor Novello awards in London and an award by NME for ‘Rewriting the history of music with one of the worlds greatest ever bands – The Smiths’. Johnny as a young fellow spent many summer holidays in Athy and his links with the town will be recalled on the plaque which he will unveil on 2nd November. Later in the year and into the new year further plaques will be unveiled to give Athy a unique music trail emphasising a key part of Athy’s cultural heritage. Another element of our heritage was evident during the Bank Holiday weekend when the 18th Ernest Shackleton Autumn School was held in the Town Hall. Never before had the 300-year-old building played host to so many visitors from abroad. Amongst those visitors were 27 Norwegians, many of them associated with the famous Fram Museum in Oslo who came to Athy recognising the important role that the south Kildare town has secured for itself in the world of polar studies. Here in Athy we have developed over the last 18 years a unique position as providers of the world’s only permanent exhibition to Kilkea born polar explorer Ernest Shackleton. The foresight of Kildare County Council in commissioning the wonderfully artistic Shackleton sculpture now standing in Emily Square was commendable and confirms the importance which must be attached to investment in our own distinctive heritage. Athy needs more investment, especially with regard to the built heritage of the town and here the County Council’s plans for the much-anticipated improvement of the town square are vital to help encourage local business confidence. On Thursday 8th November the Arts Centre in Woodstock Street will be the venue for a unique show devised by David Walsh with the title ‘The Bravest Little Town in the World’. The performance will form part of the local centenary commemorations for the ending of World War I. Athy is the bravest little town referred to in the show’s title and recognises the high number of young men from the locality who enlisted during the 1914-’18 war. Clem Roche published in the last year or so a book giving details of those young Athy men who died during the Great War. The book is on sale in the local Heritage Centre.

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

The Irish Presidency and the Presidents who came to Athy

The Irish Constitution of 1937 which established the office of President was adopted by referendum rather than by the Dáil of that year. As a consequence it can be rightly considered as a people’s constitution and not one allied to any one political party. The role of the President is that of Head of State, but his or her functions are largely symbolic and ceremonial. Real political power rests with the Houses of the Oireachtas, while the President, irrespective of his or her background, is required to be above politics. The first President of Ireland was County Roscommon born Douglas Hyde, who prior to taking up office had already played an important part in the Gaelic cultural revival of the late 19th century. He was the first President of the Gaelic League and when elected President in 1938 was 78 years of age. He was succeeded by Seán T. Ó’Ceallaigh who, so far as I can ascertain, was the first Irish President to visit Athy in an official capacity. Sean T. had been in Athy, first as Minister for Local Government when officially opening in 1932 the Michael Dooley’s Terrace Housing Scheme. He would return at least twice to Athy as President of Ireland. One visit was to the County Show in the Showgrounds and the second occasion was to join a formal dinner in the Leinster Arms Hotel, organised I believe, by Macra na Feirme. Éamon de Valera was President from 1959 to 1973 and while he passed through Athy on several occasions, he did not make a formal visit to the south Kildare town. As Sinn Fein leader and later as leader of the Fianna Fáil party, he attended a number of meetings in Athy over the years. The first such visit was in the company of Arthur Griffith when he spoke from a platform in front of the Town Hall in 1919. His one-time political colleague, Erskine Childers, succeeded Eamonn de Valera as President in June 1973. Erskine Childers, whose father was executed during the Civil War, died suddenly in November 1974. The fifth Irish President was the former Chief Justice Cearbhall O’Dalaigh. He was the first President to resign from the position which he did towards the end of his second year in office. He did so, he claimed, to protect the dignity of the office following disparaging remarks by the then Minister of Defence, Paddy Donegan, after President O’Dalaigh referred an Emergency Powers Bill to the Supreme Court. Next in line was Patrick Hillary, a former government minister and EEC commissioner who held the presidency from 1976 to 1990. Like his predecessors, Cearbhall O’Dalaigh and Erskine Childers, President Hillary did not come to Athy on official business during his 14 years in office. President Mary Robinson’s visit to Athy in 1994 to unveil the monument commemorating the founding of Macra na Feirme marked the first occasion in several decades that an Irish President came to Athy. Hers was a presidency which showed greater relevance than ever before and as she claimed in her inaugural address the Ireland she represented was a new Ireland, open, tolerant and inclusive. Her resignation from the highest office in the land to take up the post of United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights was a disappointing and surprising end to an inspiring period as our President. Our first female President was succeeded by Mary McAleese, who like her predecessor brought a sense of energy to the position which was lacking during the time of the elderly male former politicians who had gone before them. The 9th President of Ireland is Michael D. Higgins, a man who has been a good friend to Athy as a government minister and as President of Ireland. Michael D. came to Athy when as Minister for Arts and Culture he opened the Aiseiri boat project in Nelson Street. The Aiseiri was an old canal boat recovered from the canal in Tullamore and brought to Athy where it was to undergo restoration over several years. The participants in that community project were young unemployed boys and girls and Michael D. approved funding for what was a very important community project. He returned a few years later as the Aiseiri project neared completion to open a Jim Flack exhibition in the local Heritage Centre. The canal boat when fully restored operated as a short trip touring vessel on the Barrow and the Grand Canal and was the precursor of the current boat hire project which has proved very successful. Michael D. Higgins’s visit to Athy as President of Ireland occurred when he opened the SHACKLETON AUTUMN SCHOOL in October 2012. His attendance that Friday evening in the Town Hall created enormous interest and the venue was full to capacity for what was a memorable occasion. President Michael D. Higgins has done our country proud, particularly so during the early years of the Decade of Commemoration. We can be justifiably proud of his cultured contribution to Irish public life.

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Shackleton Autumn School 2018

In late October 1908 the Kildare-born explorer, Ernest Shackleton, was about to commence a long journey from his base camp to the South Pole. As it turned out he would not achieve his objective of being the first man to the South Pole. He would come within 90 miles of it after three months of unrelenting slog in extraordinary challenging conditions. In writing to his wife, Emily Shackleton, afterwards of his decision to turn back from the Pole because the supplies he had were insufficient to feed his men to get them back safely, he reckoned that she would prefer ‘to have a live donkey than a dead lion’. This decision would propel him to worldwide fame and his subsequent heroics in the Antarctic with the loss of his ship ‘Endurance’ in 1915 would ensure a place for him in the pantheon of polar explorers. His is a life we have celebrated in Athy every October over the last 18 years and the measure of the success of the event is that this year Athy will play host to a party of 29 Norwegian visitors from Oslo. Some of these visitors have come to Athy before, but for the vast majority of them this will be their first experience of our town and no doubt they will get a warm and vibrant welcome from the people of Athy. Their primary focus of course will be on the events around the Shackleton Autumn School over the weekend of 26th-29th October, which promises to be as diverse, entertaining and educational as it always is. The day to day events will commence with a master class with sculptor Mark Richards who sculpted the magnificent statue of Shackleton which adorns the back square. Mark will be taking students of Ardscoil na Tríonóide and Athy Community College through the steps in creating a sculpture. Later that evening, in the Athy Heritage-Centre Museum, the Norwegian Ambassador to Ireland will open an exhibition called ‘Exploring Shackleton’ which tells the story of Shackleton’s life from cradle to grave. The Exhibition will be on loan to Athy Museum from the Norwegian Polar Museum, the Fram Museum, in Oslo. Across the weekend there will be a full range of lectures covering a wide variety of topics. For those who have a particular interest in the sea and the environment, Dr. Kelly Hogan of the British Antarctic Survey will talk about the knowledge that people can gain from the study of the sea floor on the polar regions. The American shipwreck hunter David Mearns will be talking about his extraordinary career in locating some of the most iconic ships lost at sea over the last number of centuries, while Dr. Jim McAdam from Queens University Belfast, will speak about the Irish patriot sailor and adventurer, Conor O’Brien, whose boat the Ilen is currently being restored in Baltimore, County Cork. For anybody with an interest in the future development of the Shackleton Museum they can hear more details about this in the Icebreakers segment on Saturday afternoon. Entry to that particular part of the weekend is free. Local interest will also centre on Dr. Sharon Greene, from Kilkea, who will talk about Kathleen Shackleton, Ernest’s younger sister, who had as rich and varied life as an artist all over the world. The German explorer, Arved Fuchs who was the first person to reach both the North and South Pole on foot in the same year, will also be lecturing on the morning of Sunday, 28th October. He has had quite an extraordinary adventuring life and his is a lecture not to be missed. One of the highlights of the weekend will be undoubtedly the performance of the play, ‘Shackleton’s carpenter’ written by the playwright Gail Louw, being performed in Athy’s Arts Centre. This one man show, performed by the English actor Malcolm Rennie, tells the story of Harry McNish, the carpenter and shipwright whose work on the lifeboat the James Caird was fundamental to the survival of Shackleton’s men after their ship Endurance was lost. Reviews of the play from the UK have been extraordinarily positive and it is particularly pleasing that the Arts Centre has an opportunity to host such a prestigious production. While it is very welcome to see so many visitors from abroad coming to our town over the October Bank Holiday weekend, it is also important that people of the town take the opportunity of participating in some of the events over the four days.

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Kathleen Coburn

During the week we buried Kathleen Coburn, who like myself was a child born during the war who grew up in Athy of the 1950s. We Offaly Street lads, two Kellys, two Moores, two Whites, two Cashs, one Webster and two Taaffes at different times were readily identifiable with the vibrant street where we lived and played. A short distance separated us from the fellows in Leinster Street, but we were poles apart insofar as our afterschool hours were concerned. The girls from either street were invisible to us, at least until we gradually recognised that football and stone throwing battles were not the only enjoyable youthful pastimes. For that reason, Kathleen Coburn and her friends, Maura Hyland, Reiltin Blanchfield, Lily McHugh and Maura Dooley, all of whom lived in close proximity to each other, either at the top of Leinster Street or in St. Michael’s Terrace, did not cross our human radar screens. The Blanchfield’s timber yard was the girl’s usual playground, with an occasional foray into the railway station end of the People’s Park. We Offaly Streeters played in the Sunderland side of the same park and seldom, if ever, ventured beyond the invisible boundary line which separated the two sections. It was much later that I first came across Kathleen who by then was working in the offices of that wonderful Athy man, Tadgh Brennan. Kathleen’s father Tommy Stynes died at a relatively young age. I remember his shop at 10 Leinster Street from where he carried on business as an undertaker and a hackney service man. Am I imagining things when I visualise petrol pumps outside his Leinster Street shop? And what is that I hear of a juke box in his shop, something which we Offaly Street lads, accustomed to Kitty Websters and Sylvesters, could never imagine. Kathleen’s parents, I am told, after marrying first lived in the Emily Row house where Tos Quinn now has his offices. That premises would later house the Solicitors practice of Tadgh Brennan, son of the old I.R.A. man and local District Court Clerk, Fintan Brennan. It was for Tadgh Brennan that the young Kathleen Stynes went to work. I am told that Kathleen was just passed her 14th birthday when she was given the job of bringing the letters from Tadgh’s office to the Post Office every evening. She was 17 years of age when she joined the secretarial staff and had served 61 years in that practice now owned by Tos Quinn when she sadly died. I first got to know Kathleen when I returned to Athy in 1982 and found her to be a person who was helpful, thoughtful and at all times generous of spirit. Her involvement in the Dominican choir extended back over many years, and her colleagues in the choir, augmented I believe by some of the parish choir members, paid a fitting musical goodbye at St. Michael’s Parish Church on the evening of the reception of her remains in the church and at the next day’s funeral mass. Casting my mind back to the 1950s and the near neighbours of the Stynes family in No. 10 Leinster Street I remember Kitty and Bridie McLoughlin. Their father James and his wife Agnes had a pub next to the Stynes’ and further on was located Ms. Blanchfields, then Ger and Lottie Moriarty. Next door to the Moriartys were Mattie and Kathy Murray and finally Tom Hyland and his wife Margaret. Across what was once the open space were Jim and Brigid Blanchfield, with a large family of 15 children. Sad to think all has now changed. The parents have passed away, as indeed have some of the children and those that remain are to be found in many cases far from their home town of Athy. Kathleen Coburn, who was predeceased by her husband Paddy, was one of six children of Tommy and Sheila Stynes and she is survived by her daughter Sandra, her son Padraig, her granddaughters Anna, Grace, Orlaith and her siblings Phil, Anthony, Kenneth, Pascal and Finbarr. Our sympathies are extended to the family, friends and colleagues of Kathleen Coburn.

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Athy's links with the O'Connell Monument Committee 1862-1888

Canon John O’Hanlon, Parish Priest and secretary of the Daniel O’Connell Monument Committee wrote a report of the committee’s work which resulted in the erection of the O’Connell monument in Dublin. The project had started with an attempt by the people of Clare to erect a column surmounted by a statue of Daniel O’Connell where the courthouse formally stood in Ennis and from where O’Connell was returned as an M.P. in 1828. As work on the column continued the local committee ran out of funds. However, money to complete the Ennis monument was soon collected when the proprietor of the Freeman’s Journal, John Gray, and a number of other persons including the ’98 historian, Dr. Richard Madden, came together to help and that group later decided to raise a national monument in honour of Daniel O’Connell in Dublin city. Canon O’Hanlon’s report on the work of the O’Connell Monument Committee published in 1888 made several references to Athy’s involvement in the project. We learned that on Monday 16th October 1862 a meeting of the townspeople was held in Kavanagh’s hotel in Athy. O’Hanlon recorded that an ‘influential committee was formed and several subscriptions were paid before the meeting separated. Arrangements were made for the reception of other contributions.’ Another interesting link with Athy was provided by Fr. John O’Rourke who was responsible for drafting an appeal addressed to the people of Ireland in support of a national collection planned for St. Patrick’s Day two years after the monument project was first mooted. Apparently the funds raised at that point were less than sufficient and Fr. O’Rourke, who had served as a curate in Athy in 1851/’52, was moved to write: ‘if the O’Connell testimonial be not now made what it ought to be, the mistake can never be retrieved; it will be a monument not to his glory, but of our shame, and our children will look upon it with sorrow and despise us.’ The well-chosen words of the one-time Athy curate who would write in 1874 the earliest published account of the Great Famine under the title ‘History of the Great Famine of 1847’ prompted a ready response throughout the country. This enabled the foundation stone of the O’Connell monument to be laid in Sackville Street by the Dublin Lord Mayor on Monday, 8th August 1864. A sub-committee was appointed to select a suitable design for the monument. Amongst their members was the earlier mentioned Fr. John O’Rourke. The sub-committee decided to hold a competition for the design of the monument and although 60 entries were received, none were successful. A second competition was held but the designs submitted were deemed to be ‘wanting in grandeur and simplicity’. It was eventually decided to give the commission to John Henry Foley, the noted Irish sculptor then based in London. Originally expected to be completed within three years of Foley’s appointment, the subsequent delay caused concern which turned to dismay with Foley’s death in August 1874. The unveiling ceremony initially planned to coincide with the centenary of O’Connell’s birth on 6th August 1875 had to be postponed indefinitely. Fr. O’Rourke and John Gray were sent to London to inspect the substantially completed O’Connell monument, but no further work was possible while the sculptor’s estate was probated in London. Court proceedings concerning Foley’s estate caused further delay, but eventually work on completing the monument recommenced after an interval of nearly three years with Foley’s assistant, Thomas Brock, in charge. Twenty years after the O’Connell monument project was initiated the Liberator’s statue was unveiled on 15th August 1882. Amongst the early subscriptions by Athy folk was the sum of £21-1-6 recorded in January 1863. James Leahy contributed £1-10-0, followed by John Lord, Solicitor, Dr. Thomas Kinsey and R. Stein, each of whom donated £1 to the fund. The local parish priest, Fr. Andrew Quinn, joined his curates Fr. McManus and Fr. Doyle in contributing 10 shillings each. Amongst those contributors also was Thomas Peppard, Town Commissioner, who was a member of the platform party at the Monster Repeal Meeting addressed by Daniel O’Connell at Mullaghmast on Sunday, 1st October 1843. Sixty-eight other locals contributed on that occasion and two weeks later five further contributions were submitted through James Lawler of the Nags Head Hotel, Athy. Athy’s involvement in raising funds for the O’Connell monument continued throughout 1864, with a further £5-5-10 paid in by contributors who included the local Christian Brothers and Dr. Ferris, each contributing ten shillings. The outlining rural areas were also committed to the project and during 1864 the Parish Priest of Castledermot, Archdeacon Laurence Dunne forwarded £6-4-3 from the parishioners of Moone, £4-15-5 from Castledermot and £3-4-9 from Levitstown. The Archdeacon’s personal contribution of £1 was separately noted, as was the ten shillings contributed by each of his curates, Fr. John Fogarty and Fr. James Germaine. The O’Connell monument stands today, a proud reminder of a past generation’s tribute to a great Irish leader.