Tuesday, April 30, 2019
The recent announcement of the Food and Drinks Hub to be located in the former Model School on the Dublin road is welcome news for Athy. The media announced it as an initiative by Kildare County Council and full marks to the senior officials of that Council for their involvement in what is another important part of the continuing attempt to revive the town’s fortunes. In the reports I read in the local newspapers there was no mention of the woman who came up with the original idea. Liz Fingleton, who lives in what was once part of the Model School residence, first promoted the concept of an interactive visitor centre for Ireland’s food and drinks industry and specifically sought to have it located in the vacant Model School. Liz did an enormous amount of research and canvassed support from several Irish companies before discussing the idea approximately two years ago with Athy’s Enterprise Network which had earlier been established by Athy Lions Club. Following that presentation Liz entered into discussions with Kildare County Council and I can only surmise that the good news which greeted us last week was the end result. Liz’s initial submission outlined the links between tourism and the food industry and how drinks related visitor centres were successful in Ireland. She noted that food and drink were synonymous with Irish tourism and expressed the belief that an interactive food and drinks visitor centre, if designed to world class standards, would bring a positive tourism response. As part of her very detailed submission Liz prepared a suggested tourist trail for Athy related to food production and allied topics. It featured the proposed food and drinks centre in the Model School, the town’s old Market House, Athy’s old corn exchange, Minch Nortons and Boortmalt and diverse but linked elements such as the Canal, the Workhouse and many other less well-known town features. Congratulations to everyone involved in the Food and Drink Hub project, but a special thank you to Liz Fingleton who more than anyone else is responsible for this unique project. Forty-three years ago a young Portarlington man who had learned his trade in Tullamore decided to set up business in Athy. Athy at that time was still home to the I.V.I. foundry, Bowwaters Wallboard factory and the Asbestos factory and the young man from County Laois was quite confident that the south Kildare town offered an unequalled opportunity for the opening of a menswear shop. Today Manleys Menswear celebrates 43 years in business and while the retail life of Leinster Street and indeed the town itself has changed enormously over the intervening years, the Manleys shop has grown from strength to strength. Today Tom Manley who founded the business is joined by his son Philip and his wife Susan in providing a high-class menswear service. For the town of Athy, which has seen the closure of so many retail units over the last 15 years, the continuing success of Manleys Menswear is an acknowledgement that the towns retail sector can be revived and can be successful. Another local success story captured in last week’s newspapers was the award made to Kathleen Cash for her contribution to early childhood education. Kathleen, who is the proprietor of Tir na nOg nursery and Montessori school, was named educator of the year at the national Early Childhood Awards presentation. Early learning schools, whether nurseries, creches or Montessori, were not part of Irish life when I was growing up. I saw my own grandchildren avail of preschool learning and noted how advantageous it was for them when they entered primary education. Irish life has changed so much, even within the limits of a generation or two and so much for the better as evidenced by the exceptionally good work of local pre-school providers in and about south Kildare. People like Liz Fingleton, Tom Manley and Kathleen Cash in their own time and in their own ways have made our town a better place in which to live. There are so many others, often unnoticed, who daily contribute to the wellbeing of our community. Those people are the unsung heroes but today we can acknowledge the unique contribution of Liz Fingleton to the regeneration of the town and that of Tom Manley and Kathleen Cash in the continuing commercial success of Athy.
Friday, April 26, 2019
One of the great pleasures of visiting other countries is the occasional opportunity of meeting people from or in some way connected with Athy. It is almost 30 years since I was first invited to the annual dinner of the Kildare Men’s Association in Manchester. There I met many born in the shortgrass county who for a variety of reasons left Ireland to make a life in the industrial cities of Britain. One such person was Sarah Allen, formerly Sarah Bolger, born in what she described to me as ‘an old house’ off Meeting Lane, Athy in 1932. Her father was Stephen Bolger who worked as a canal boatman towards the latter part of his working life and who was married to Nora Lawler of Ardreigh. Nora’s father, John Lawler, was one of the many local men who fought and died in the First World War. He was a reservist in the Royal Dublin Fusiliers having served in South Africa during the Boer War. He is one of six World War I soldiers who died during that war and are buried in St. Michael’s cemetery, Athy.
Sarah Allen, who has lived in Manchester for many years, has fond memories of youthful days spent in Athy. She recalls picking mushrooms with her mother in Hendy’s field at Ardreigh and being carried in her mother’s arms to see her father while he was working on the sewerage scheme under construction for the houses at Rathstewart. Sadly her mother died when Sarah was five years old, after which she went to live with her grandmother Lizzie Lawler in Ardreigh.
Sarah, whom I met earlier in the summer when she returned to Athy for her step brother’s birthday celebration, spoke to me of Athy’s past and her abiding memories of bygone years. Her memories and those of older generations of Athy folk, whether or not now living in Athy, are the stuff of local history. Their recounted lives and the attendant folk stories allow us to view from a distance the life and lore of past generations which hugely differ from that of the present.
Sarah spent one season working in the local pea factory in Rathstewart before leaving at 15 years of age for London. She was met by her aunt at Euston Station and after a short while got work as a chamber maid in the Royal Hotel, Russel Square. There she remained for two years, earning 22 shilling per week all found. Even then Sarah’s sense of responsibility and duty saw her sending home £1 per week to her father who was then out of work. It was a pattern repeated by so many Irish men and women working and living in England during that post war period. Lack of employment opportunities in Ireland separated families, while the Irish emigrants of London, Manchester and other industrial centres of Great Britain forged an uneasy and sometimes unwelcoming relationship with the war-torn communities on the British mainland.
Sarah endowed with a social conscience and marked with an admirable sense of responsibility paid a prominent role amongst the Irish community in Manchester for many years. The Kildare Men’s Association and the Irish Centre in Manchester were but two of the many organisations with which Sarah was associated with over the years. Now at 85 years of age Sarah has retired from voluntary community work and has time to think back on her life which started in Garden Lane, off Meeting Lane, Athy, extended over some years in Ardreigh before her life experiences were strengthened in the cosmopolitan cities of London and Manchester.
Sarah has proved herself as one of Athy’s finest, bringing as she did to her voluntary work in Manchester the cheerfulness, kindness and wisdom of a girl who first saw the light of day in the town of Athy in the south of Co. Kildare.
Last week marked the 50th anniversary of the death of trade unionist and social activist Christy Supple and his anniversary mass in St. Michael’s Parish Church was attended by his sons Joe and Tommy. I have written previously of Christy and his involvement in the agricultural labourers strike of the early 1920s. Christy encouraged by William O’Brien of the Dublin based Transport Union, set out early in 1918 to unionise the workers of south Kildare. The agricultural workers strike of 1922/’23 was an acrimonious affair and attacks on property resulted in Free State troops having to be billeted in the Town Hall, Athy for 8 months from March 1923. Christy was himself arrested in January of that year and held in Carlow prison for several months. In 1925 he was elected as a member of Athy Urban District Council, but like so many other men and women had to emigrate to England in later years where he died in November 1967, aged 69 years.
Christy Supple’s story is one of courage and commitment to the workers cause but his role in the defence of the agricultural labourers strike of south Kildare is a story which has yet to be written and remembered in his native town.
Athy was the place to be on Monday of last week. The Taoiseach was in town to open Martin Heydon’s constituency office in Leinster Street and later met some local people in the Clanard Court Hotel. On the same day President Michael D. Higgins was on a private visit to Athy, while the assistant Garda Commissioner Fintan Fanning was carrying out his annual inspection at the local Garda Station.
The Taoiseach’s visit was undoubtedly a boost for the local Fine Gael party members and it must be acknowledged was also a very welcome visit to Athy by the country’s most important political figure. In addressing those assembled in the local hotel the Taoiseach acknowledged the urgent need for progressing the outer relief road for which planning permission issued recently. In recounting his own personal experiences of driving through Athy in the past the Taoiseach reassured his listeners, if such reassurance was needed, that the forty year old saga of Athy’s relief road will soon be at an end. The cost of building the road will not, according to the Taoiseach, be an issue and everything now depends on how quickly Kildare County Council and the National Road Authority push ahead with the project.
During the course of his address the Taoiseach paid a special tribute to Moira Finnegan, a staunch Fine Gael member for many years, whom I am told held at one time or another every officer position in the local branch of the party. Due to her sterling work and those of her colleagues, the party flag was kept afloat in this part of the Kildare constituency during many years of Fianna Fail dominance in government.
Moira, who is a native of Mullinalaghta, Co. Longford came to Athy in 1972 to teach in the local Vocational school. Tom O’Donnell was the headmaster in those days and he must have been particularly impressed by the young girl who, as a former CIE official working in Galway, transferred to Dublin so that she could graduate with a university degree. Moira, like myself, attended university at night-time, both of us graduating from UCD, Moira with a B.A., yours truly with a Commerce Degree. Daytime university attendance for our generation was very much limited to the well off and the professional classes so Moira’s attendance at evening classes after a days work was a clear indication of the drive and initiative which was regularly featured in her later role as a branch officer of the Fine Gael party. Moira, who retired from her teacher’s position in Athy Community College ten years ago after 35 years as an Irish, English and Economics teacher, has now retired to live in her native County Longford.
I was intrigued to find that her native place, Mullinalaghta is in the Lough Gowna Valley just up the road from my late father’s homeplace of Legga. Both Mullinalaghta and Legga are not too far from Ballinalee and Granard, two places forever identified with the Irish War of Independence. Not only with that War but also the subsequent Civil War and it is no coincidence that two of the men who figured largely on the Treaty side of that conflict are forever associated with County Longford. Michael Collins’ fiancée Kitty Kirwan was a native of Granard, while the blacksmith of Ballinalee Seán Mac Eoin was, as the name indicates, a native of the Longford village of Ballinalee. Both men, as advocates of the Treaty of 1922, were part of the movement which in time gave us Cumann na nGaedheal and the Fine Gael party. The current Taoiseach’s kind remarks concerning Moira’s long involvement with the Fine Gael party were received with applause and her many friends in Athy wish her well on her retirement back in her native County Longford.
On the day before Athy played host to so many august visitors the members of St. Michael’s branch of O.N.E. played a significant part in the Remembrance Sunday ceremony held in St. Michael’s cemetery. There, a colour party consisting of O.N.E. members, paraded prior to a wreath laying ceremony at the memorial to Athy men who died in war. The prayer service which took place before, during and at the end of the annual Remembrance Sunday ceremony, was conducted by Rev. Olive Donohoe, the local Church of Ireland rector. Thanks must go to the O.N.E. members, Rev. Olive and all those in attendance for keeping alive the town of Athy’s remembrance of the young men from this area who died during the 1914/’18 war. It is particularly important that Athy folk do not forget that ‘lost generation’ because it was the town’s leaders and church leaders of the day who actively encouraged the largely unemployed young men of Athy and district to enlist during the course of that war.
Part of the joy in researching and writing local history is making connections between people and places. The re-imagining and re-assessment of historical figures is an important part of this process. The Royal Irish Academy has been prominent in publishing new studies of major historical figures such as Eamon de Valera and its most recent publication, authored by Fintan O’Toole, ‘Judging Shaw’. This an interesting book which the author regards as a re-introduction to George Bernard Shaw. He states that Shaw, as a contemporary figure, has much more in common with musicians such as Bob Dylan and David Bowie than with the great Victorians, William Gladstone or Anthony Trollope. He observes that Bob Dylan in 2016 became the first artist since Bernard Shaw to achieve the unique distinction of receiving both an Oscar and a Nobel prize. Neither Athy nor Kildare can make any claims to associations with Shaw. Carlow town has that honour with the generous bequests made by the Shaw family over the last century, the shining light of which is that great cultural treasure, the Visual Centre for Contemporary Arts Centre and the George Bernard Shaw Theatre built in the grounds of St. Patrick’s College in Carlow.
I was however intrigued to come across a reference to a meeting between George Bernard Shaw and the Kilkea-born explorer, Ernest Shackleton. After Shackleton’s death in 1922 his brother-in-law, Charles Sarolea published in the Journal, ‘The Contemporary Review’ an article titled ‘Sir Ernest Shackleton a Study in personality’. Sarolea was a Professor of French in Edinburgh University and was also married to Julia Dorman, Shackleton’s sister-in-law. Sarolea describes a lunch date shared with Bernard Shaw and Shackleton where he observed two men who had much in common. Both had a quick and ready wit and though in their temperament and outlook in life they were different both were Irishmen who had established their reputations after leaving these shores. The lunch was marked by a continuous flow of stories and quips between the men which Sarolea described as a ‘continuous firework of story and anecdotes.’
Another great figure of that time was Sir Harry Lauder, the famous music hall singer and comedian. His was a name and a voice that would resonate with my late father’s generation and he enjoyed an extraordinary long career from the end of the Victorian age right into the 1930's.
It is not clear when Harry Lauder first ran into Ernest Shackleton, but certainly by 1909 when Shackleton had returned from the Antarctic they appeared to be moving in the same social circles. At a dinner hosted by a wealthy friend of Shackleton's, Lauder performed a series of songs. It was a lavish affair whereby the table was transformed into a picture of the Antarctic, with artificial snow and real ice, where a large model of Shackleton’s ship ‘Nimrod’ was placed at the edge of an ice barrier thickly populated by penguins with menu cards specially created by the artist, George Marston.
Lauder would go on to celebrate this friendship by releasing a song called ‘The Bounding Bounder’ or 'On the Bounding Sea' in late 1910 which was a comic tale of a joint expedition to the Antarctic involving Harry Lauder and Ernest Shackleton as regaled by Lauder. The recording was released on an Edison wax cylinder and such was the success that it was later released on a 78 record and was still available for sale as late as 1921. It appears that Lauder and Shackleton’s paths frequently crossed and an article in the Cork Examiner of 17th December 1912 reported that both men were embarking upon the Lusitania sailing from Cobh to the United States. Shackleton was heading to America on private business with the intention of delivering lectures about his Nimrod expedition, while Lauder had just completed a series of engagements in London and was to begin a tour of the United States for nine weeks, of mostly major cities such as New York and Chicago.
When the Great War broke out in 1914 it would find Shackleton in the Antarctic again on the ship ‘Endurance’, while Lauder was touring Australia. The war brought great sadness on Lauder’s family, with the loss of his only child, his son John, killed in action while serving with the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders on the Somme in 1916. Lauder spent much of the war years in organising concerts and fundraising appeals, particularly for the charity he established, the Harry Lauder Million Pound Fund for injured Scottish soldiers and sailors for which he received a knighthood in 1919. The death of his son also inspired the writing of the song called ‘The End of the Road’.
Shackleton would find an early death on his expedition to the Antarctic in January ’22, while Lauder would live until February 1950 only fully retiring after World War II during which he made a number of broadcasts with the BBC.
The light reflected in the window of the parochial house in Stanhope Place which I noticed earlier in the week had all the significance of a beacon of revival. Sadly the parochial house, once one of the focal points for the parish of St. Michael’s, had been unoccupied in recent years while the Parish Priest who also had responsibility for Narraghmore and Moone parishes, resided in the rural tranquillity of Crookstown. Our new Parish Priest has now occupied the early 19th century stone fronted parochial house and by this very act has reaffirmed the importance of the Parish Priest living amongst the people he serves. This is not to say that the parishioners of Narraghmore and Moone. deserve any less consideration but in terms of population numbers the parish of St. Michael’s must be seen as the first amongst equals in this part of the diocese.
The parish of St. Michael’s was established I am told in 1670 and the only extant records relating to the priests in the parish record Fr. John Fitzsimons who was ordained a priest in 1673 at 23 years of age. He had the distinction of being ordained by the then Archbishop of Dublin Oliver Plunkett and was appointed Parish Priest of St. Michael’s 24 years later. It is interesting to note that his designation as Parish Priest referred to St. Michael’s, St. John’s, Churchtown, Kilberry and Nicholastown. He was shown in government records as residing in Athy in 1704.
The next recorded Parish Priest was Fr. Daniel Fitzpatrick who was in charge of the parish in 1744 while living over the border in Queens County [now County Laois]. Fr. James Neill or Nele, was Parish Priest of St. Michael’s from 1771 until his death on 28th October 1789. Fr. Maurice Keegan was a curate in Athy for 7 years from 1780 and transferred to nearby Castledermot as Parish Priest where he remained until 1789. He returned that year to St. Michael’s as the Parish Priest and served in that capacity until 26th October 1825. It was during his stewardship of the parish that the Parish Church, then located in Chapel Lane, was torched and burned to the ground. It happened on the night of 7th March, 1800 and was one of a number of Catholic churches in this area and throughout Ireland which were similarly burned out following the 1798 Rebellion. Fr. Fitzpatrick lodged a claim for compensation with the Dublin Castle authorities and those proceeds and presumably further local funding financed the building of St. Michael’s Church, familiar to older residents of the parish which was demolished in 1960.
Following Fr. Fitzpatrick’s death in 1825 I have counted 18 Parish Priests who succeeded him, including the recently appointed Fr. Liam Rigney. Amongst them was Fr. Andrew Quinn who was Parish Priest from 1853-1879. A native of Eadestown, Naas, his brothers were Bishop James Quinn of Brisbane and Bishop Matthew Quinn of Bathurst. Two other Parish Priests who in my young days were remembered in Athy were Canon James Germaine who presided over the parish for 13 years up to 1905. Canon Mackey was another well remembered holder of the office from 1909-1928. Both died in office and both are buried in St. Michael’s Cemetery.
Canon Patrick McDonnell, after whom McDonnell Drive was named, was Parish Priest from 1928-1956. He was the old-style leader of his parish who to a youngster like me attending confessions in the early 1950s was a cross, contrary individual who was unable to deal kindly with the awkward silences of a dumb struck youngster. My tale of woe has been told in a previous Eye, however now that I am approaching Canon McDonnell’s age I can understand and forgive him.
Amongst the Parish Priests of the past we have had a number of priests with interesting backgrounds. Canon Owen Sweeney, who was a dynamic Parish Priest for 5 years from 1980, was the former president of Clonliffe College. Fr. Gerard Tanham, Parish Priest from 2010, was director of the Dublin Institute of Adult Education for 10 years from 1981. Both left their mark on the parish of St. Michael’s and are remembered with great fondness.
In any lookback at the Parish Priests of our parish it would be remiss of me not to mention Fr. Philip Dennehy who first came to Athy as a curate in 1963. He served for 10 years before returning as a Parish Priest in 1985, retiring 21 years later. Now aged 86 years he remains in the parish as Parish Priest Emeritus, a much-loved pastor who has devoted the majority of his ordained life to the parishioners of the Parish of St. Michael’s.
The parish has gone through difficult times since the departure of Monsignor John Wilson in 2009 and the widening of the pastoral responsibility of the Parish Priest for the outlying parishes has increased the difficulties facing the present incumbent. His decision to occupy the Parochial House in Stanhope Place goes a long way to reassuring his parishioners that the regeneration of St. Michael’s parish as a relevant and important part of community life in the area can be expected.
The English and the Irish nations have had an uneasy relationship for centuries but mercifully the appalling ‘No Blacks, No Irish, No Dogs’ boarding house notices of a few decades past are no more. However, the partnership which could and should mark the relationship between neighbouring islands is held back by politicians and historical baggage foisted on us as a result of the Boundary Commission of 1924.
My thoughts on the otherwise amicable relationship between the people of Great Britain and ourselves were prompted by my visit last week for a funeral in West Sussex. I have been a frequent visitor across the Irish Sea and I have always been impressed by the pleasant and courteous manner in which the English and Welsh people meet and greet the Irish. Everywhere one goes on the British mainland there is evidence of Irish connections. I was attending a funeral service in St. Andrew’s Church, Bishopstone, a small church dating from Saxon times with 12th century Norman additions. The Church of England service was an engaging reminder of the ever-slight differences in the services in our own St. Michael’s Church. The Minister in charge was a Sligo man, now retired from his own parish and acting as priest in charge of the church where miniature sized Stations of the Cross and candlesticks spoke of a High Church following, or as the Rev. Minister later put it to me ‘High Churchish’.
I was there to honour the memory of my daughter’s father-in-law who passed away recently. Tim Harward, born in Madras, India where his father was an army Colonel was educated in England and attended Trinity College Dublin in the 1950s. His was an interesting life which saw him work for a time as a theatre critic for the Times, and after service with the 2nd Gurka Rifles in Malaya he worked for several years as an archaeologist in Nepal. I was particularly interested to find that his first book was published in 1964 by Liam Miller’s Dolmen Press and his most recent book on pillar stones in west Nepal was published in Central Malaya 48 years later.
Tim Harward’s connection with Ireland reflected in reverse the links which many Irish men and women have with Great Britain. There are very few Irish families who do not have a family member working or living in retirement on the British mainland. Once such was my friend Eddie Wall who was born in Ardreigh and like me went to school in the local Christian Brothers. Shortly after the funeral service in Bishopstone I received a text from Eddie’s daughter, Helen Hives, telling me that her father had died some days previously. Eddie left school at an early age to work in Andersons and Conroys pubs. He subsequently emigrated to England where he married Evelyn Barrett from Belmullet, county Mayo and it was in Luton that they reared their family.
Eddie had a great love for his native place which he never lost, despite the many years he spent in England. He was delighted to attend the 40th school reunion organised in September 2002 where he renewed acquaintances with men whose faces and ages had changed enormously since last seen as young boys in the Christian Brothers. Eddie kept in touch with me for a number of years after that and I was very saddened to hear of his passing.
The connections between Eddie’s country of birth and the land where his remains will now lie are so many and so varied it is impossible to untangle the two. Even on my short trip last week I met and talked to several strangers, all elderly, many still conversing with the soft lilt of an Irish brogue which they brought with them so many years ago from Ireland. You cannot travel anywhere in England or Wales without meeting an Irish exile who has made his or her home there. The Irish exile has proved to be a trustworthy, hardworking and genial person, becoming in time an integral part of the local community overseas.
Tim Harward and Eddie Wall came from entirely different backgrounds but somehow their lives enshrined, for me at least, an understanding of those transferable qualities which allow the English and the Irish to live in harmony. How I wish those qualities could be utilised to solve the difficulties which still mark relationships on the island of Ireland and which have their origin in the shambolic political settlement of almost 100 years ago.
[I wrote the above lines on Thursday morning and later that afternoon I received a telephone call to say that Tim Harward’s wife Paula, who had spoken so eloquently at his funeral service a few days previously, had tragically died following a road traffic accident earlier in the day.]
Tuesday, April 23, 2019
The recent death of Jimmy Kelly of Chanterlands marked another milestone in the passage of time and the reactivation of memories first gathered during youthful days in Offaly Street. Jimmy was the second son of County Mayo born Garda James Kelly and his Kerry born wife Marie. He was a child of the early 1930s who spent his entire working life in Athy. No more than myself his attachment to the south Kildare town was the result of his father’s transfer to Athy early in his Garda career. For Jimmy his schooling in the local Christian Brothers school and the strong work ethic which he displayed throughout his adult working life were the foundations of his honourable approach to life. He had huge regard and respect for his workmates in the Wallboard factory where he worked during the entire period of that factory’s existence. He shared in the disappointment of his colleagues when the innovative industrial venture first mooted in the pre-World War two years closed down in 1977. The Wallboard company was formed in 1939 but due to the outbreak of World War two the machinery needed to open the factory could not be imported. The factory finally opened in April 1949 only to close 28 years later. Jimmy had treasured memories of his Wallboard colleagues and was always anxious for their role in the industrial life of Athy to be recorded. He knew Athy and his own generation with a knowledge which generously interposed reality and myth and gave to his memories of times past a feeling of nostalgia which we all share. In truth life in Athy of the 1940s and the 1950s was difficult for many families. However, as we look back with the passage of time those difficulties once experienced in youth are sidelined and give way to recollections of happier times. Jimmy was a man who over the years shared many memories with me, but always on the understanding that his name was never to be mentioned. Not that those memories were anything but good and complimentary of the persons and events mentioned. For Jimmy never sought the limelight and would never countenance his name being interposed in the accounts which I frequently wrote about after another friendly chat with the man from Offaly Street. That was the street where the Kellys, the Moores, the Whites, the Websters, the Cashs and the Taaffes of my generation were reared. Jimmy was of an older group of sons who were already part of the local employment force when we younger ones were still playing cowboys and indians in the People’s Park. Paddens Murphy, another Offaly Street man, was of that older generation and in the week that Jimmy Kelly died Paddens Murphy and his colleagues in the Sorrento dance band were honoured with the unveiling of a plaque on the Town Hall. I was in England for the past while and missed Jimmy’s funeral and the plaque unveiling ceremony. I would certainly have liked to have been present for both to mark my respect for the two former residents of Offaly Street. I found it strange to read of the Sorrento band being described as a showband. In the 1940s and the 1950s the musical combinations of the time were either orchestras or bands and even though the Sorrento under Paddens Murphy opened Dreamland with Victor Sylvester, I believe it was always known as Paddens Murphy’s Sorrento dance band. I had hoped that the plaque would be put on the wall of what remains of the Murphy’s house at No. 24 Offaly Street. That for an Offaly Street fellow would I felt be the most appropriate place for such an honour. However, the unveiling of the plaque to the Sorrento band was a remarkable tribute, not just to Paddens Murphy but also to the many local musicians who over the years were part of the Sorrento story. A week in which my old street lost one of its old boys and also saw another old boy honoured is a week tinged with sadness and pride. Memories of times past gives all of us an opportunity to reflect on the passing years and to understand and appreciate the people whose lives touched ours. Jimmy Kelly and Paddens Murphy were part of that past as was Mrs. Maureen Rigney who died within the last week. My sympathies go to the families of Jimmy Kelly and Mrs. Rigney and my regrets to the extended family of Paddens Murphy for missing what was a great occasion and the opportunity to meet old neighbours when they attended the plaque unveiling ceremony at the Town Hall last week.
Tuesday, April 16, 2019
Many of us have been transfixed by the machinations of the Westminster Parliament in London since the Brexit vote. There has been a sense, until very recently, that the public at large had lost interest in parliamentary politics but the daily dissection of parliamentary matters across the water is proof that this is not the case. Kildare and particularly Athy occupied a prominent place in the thoughts and actions of the legislators in Westminster in the 1830’s with the upheaval triggered by the outbreak of the Tithe wars of the 1830’s. It is mostly forgotten today, bookended as it was by Daniel O’Connell’s emancipation campaigns of the 1820’s and the Great Famine of the 1840’s. None the less it was a period of significant civil discord and dissent in Ireland and Athy. The Tithes were a form of tax levied on the population to maintain protestant churches. The taxes were applied to the population whether they were members of the church or not, therefore the Catholic peasantry and the members of the Presbyterian community were also liable for the tax. The war or campaign against Tithes was triggered by the actions of Fr. Martin Doyle, the Parish Priest of Graiguenamanagh, County Kilkenny, the cousin of Bishop Doyle of Kildare and Leighlin when Fr. Doyle refused to pay Tithes on a 40-acre farm which he had in addition to his parochial house. Thereafter the campaign spread rapidly through the country. By 1833 the matter was of such concern that it received considerable attention in the House of Commons. The chief secretary of Ireland E.G. Stanley delivered a substantial speech to the house on February 27th, 1833 where he detailed what he described as the ‘outrages’ in Kildare. The purpose of the speech was to support his promotion of the Disturbances (Ireland) bill which was in his words “for the repression of violence and disturbance, for the protection of life and property and for the maintenance of order”, he described its adoption as “a most imperious and pressing necessity”. Speaking of Athy he referred to reports received from the Chief Constable of the Irish Constabulary. He noted that on the night of the 15th of January 1833 that the house of William Batt, a retired naval officer living at Bray, Athy was entered by several men who robbed Batt of a case of pistols, a fowling piece and some ball cartridges. The house of a Dr. Carter of Castledermot was burnt on the 25th of January, while an armed party went to the house of a farmer called Kelly near Kildangan and demanded the surrender of his arms. Kelly refused, the armed party opened fire and Kelly returned fire wounding one of his assailants in the face. Stanley went on to refer to a letter he had received from a correspondent from Athy in February 1833. This correspondent advised him that members of juries at the last Court sittings had been obliged to carry firearms for their personal protection while attending the courts and that magistrates had been unable to get providers of coaches, caravans or conveyances locally to bring witnesses to court. They had been threatened that their carriages would be broken up if they facilitated the court sittings. Thereafter the Court officials were obliged to order carriages from Dublin to bring witnesses to the Court in Athy. Previously Mr. M. Singleton, a magistrate sitting in Athy, writing from the town on the 23rd of September 1832 informed Stanley of his difficulty in getting a witness to give evidence in relation to an attack on a farmer’s house in Athy. The witness, from Kilkenny, refused to give evidence for fear of the consequences of his actions. Singleton committed him to Carlow jail for his contempt of Court. When next brought before the Court the witness said that he would only give evidence if he could get the approval of his priest. After the intervention of the clergymen the witness was more forthcoming, and the ultimate culprit was committed for trial in Portlaoise later that year. Stanley’s bill was ultimately passed but the Tithe war rumbled on until the late 1830’s and only petered out when responsibility for payment passed to the landlord and not the tenant. Stanley, later to become Earl Derby, would go on to become Prime Minster on three separate occasions. His contribution to Irish affairs is probably better and more positively remembered by reference to “the Stanley letter”. In writing, in 1831, to the 3rd Duke of Leinster he set out the governments proposals to establish the legal basis for national schools in Ireland. The letter was an important stepping point for the establishment of the national schools’ system which remains the basis for primary education in this country to this day.
Tuesday, April 9, 2019
‘On Thursday 19th May 1921 the final phase of the Barrowhouse tragedy was completed when the bodies of two young men, Lacey and Connor, were interred at Barrowhouse graveyard.’ So reported the Leinster Leader a week after the Barrowhouse ambush on Monday 16th May. A subsequent military Court of Enquiry was held in Ballylinan into the deaths of James Lacey and William Connor. The evidence adduced at the enquiry showed that an R.I.C. cycle patrol, consisting of a sergeant and four men, were ambushed at Shanganamore. The patrol consisted of Sergeant John McHale, Constables Grey, Denis Griffin, James Keane and another unidentified constable. The police were cycling in single file when the sergeant saw a man with a gun in his hand running across a field towards a ditch near the road. Sergeant McHale shouted a warning to the patrol to take cover. While they were doing so a volley of shots rang out and one of the constables fell to the ground wounded. The policemen returned fire. After about an hour the attackers withdrew (subsequent reports indicated that the exchange of fire lasted for 10 or 15 minutes). Following a search the R.I.C. found a body lying in the ditch with a shotgun still held in the hand. This was the body of James Lacey in whose pockets ammunition was also found. The enquiry was told that the R.I.C. then withdrew to Athy, returning later with reinforcements. Another search of the ambush scene lead to the discovery of a second body, as well as several shotguns and some ammunition. The Court of Enquiry found that James Lacey and William Connor died from bullet wounds inflicted by crown forces in the execution of their duty. The local newspapers when reporting the incident noted that when news of the ambush reached Athy the streets cleared quickly and were empty before curfew hour. The curfew in force from 10pm to 5am was changed to commence at 9pm following the Barrowhouse ambush. Reprisals by crown forces following I.R.A. activity was a common feature of the War of Independence. Houses in the Barrowhouse area were raided by crown forces following the ambush. Patrick Lynch, a carpenter by trade who lived near the ambush site, subsequently prepared a statement of the R.I.C. raid on his house which culminated in the burning of his home and his workshop. Lynch was first approached by constable Bagley and an unidentified sergeant who questioned him about his involvement with the I.R.A. Lynch had not been involved in the ambush but after being questioned Constable Bagley said to him: ‘it’s only ten chances to one that you will be burned out tonight Lynch’. The R.I.C. search of Lynch’s house left the house contents in disarray and Lynch reported how one man wearing a dark waterproof coat threatened him with a revolver saying, ‘you thought to shoot me up the road today’. However, Constable Denis Griffin intervened and told Lynch, ‘I won’t let him shoot you.’ The following morning at 2am a threshing machine, 40 tons of hay and 20 tons of straw belonging to Martin Lyons were destroyed in an act of reprisal by the crown forces. Patrick Lynch’s home and workshop were burned to the ground, while Mary Malone’s house was also destroyed. On the 3rd of July the house which Constable Griffin rented from Mrs. Hickey at Ballylinan crossroads was burned to the ground. Local newspapers reported how a party of masked men entered at night-time the house occupied by Mrs. Griffin and her children while her husband was away. The I.R.A. burned the house with all its contents. Two days later Constable Griffin was shot and seriously injured when ambushed by a number of men as he cycled from his lodgings to the R.I.C. Barracks in Mountmellick. He was severely wounded in the left groin and was subsequently declared unfit for service in the R.I.C. He would receive the constabulary medal in July 1921 as did Constable James Kane, while Sergeant McHale and Constable Edward Gray were awarded the third-class favourable record for their involvement in the Barrowhouse ambush. The day after the Barrowhouse ambush Constable Martin Doran, formally of Cardenton, Athy was shot and killed in Kinnity, Co. Offaly. A 24 year old single man Doran had joined the R.I.C. three years previously. The R.I.C. barracks in Athy was attacked by the I.R.A. six days after the Barrowhouse ambush. The attack started at about 11pm and lasted for about thirty minutes. There were no casualties. Three days after the ambush Fr. J. Nolan C.C. Athy, assisted by Canon Mackey, P.P. Athy and six other priests celebrated High Mass in Barrowhouse church for James Lacey and William Connor. There was a large congregation in attendance and at the end of the Mass I.R.A. volunteers carried the coffins to the nearby graveyard. The two coffins were placed in the same grave. The last post was sounded by a volunteer and three volleys were fired over the grave. The ambush site at Barrowhouse is today marked by a simple memorial.
Tuesday, April 2, 2019
The highly anticipated second novel from Niamh Boyce, the author of ‘The Herbalist’ will be launched in Athy Library on the 12th April at 7.00 p.m. Published by Penguin books ‘Her Kind’ is an escape into to the imagined events leading to the Alice Kytler witch trials of the 14th century. This will be Niamh’s second historical novel and follows the success she secured with ‘The Herbalist’. That novel was based on the Athy story of the 1940’s involving the infamous Doctor Roderick De Vere, a one-time resident of Beggars End. His story and subsequent trial provided Niamh with the opportunity which every historical novelist desires of exercising freedom to reimagine the past. She did so with aplomb producing a first novel which attracted and pleased a large readership. Now with her second novel, Niamh, a history graduate of University College Galway, returns to a dramatic event in Irish social history. With her new novel she follows in the footsteps of those Irish writers who are particularly noted for the excellence of their historical novels. That list is top heavy with male writers, the most noteworthy being George A. Birmingham and Francis McManus. Birmingham published a number of political novels starting with the ‘Seething Pot’ and continued with ‘The Red Hand of Ulster’, finishing with ‘Up the Rebels’ in 1919. The author’s name was the pseudonym of Church of Ireland canon, James Owen Hannay who for a time was rector in nearby Carnalway, Kilcullen. Francis McManus published a highly regarded historical trilogy in the 1930s which dealt with 18th century Irish peasant life. ‘Stand for Challenge’, ‘Candle for the Proud’ and ‘Men Withering’ still remain firm favourites with readers today. Another name amongst the leading Irish historical novelists is that of Eilis Dillon whose best selling ‘Across the Bitter Sea’ published in 1973 is an impressive historical romance set against the background of the Easter Rebellion. The Kilkenny witch trials of Alice Kytler, which is the centre of Niamh’s new book, brings to mind another famous Kilkenny based historical novel. Thomas Kilroy’s ‘The Big Chapel’ which told the story of the Callan Parish Priest’s dispute in the 1870s with the Catholic Church authorities won many awards when it was published in 1971. The Athy Kilkenny connection is further enhanced by the historical research which was carried out by Niamh which shows that the letter from the Bishop of Ossory to the Justiciar of Ireland accusing Alice Kytler and others of witchcraft was written in, and dispatched from the town of Athy. It is often claimed that there is a book in everyone. But of course few get the inspiration, the time or indeed the courage perhaps to put pen to paper. How did the eldest daughter of my good friends Frank and Ann Boyce come to achieve such success in a relatively short time. Another local and very successful writer, John MacKenna. played a big part in helping to channel the writing talents of the young Niamh Boyce. John’s writers’ classes attended by Niamh encouraged her to write short stories. Her first published piece was a short story ‘Wild Cat Buffet’ which appeared in the Crannog magazine eleven years ago. Niamh’s work has appeared since then in several magazines including Poetry Ireland. Inclusion in that later publication followed her success in winning a Hennessy award in 2012 for her poem ‘Kitty’. I was surprised to hear Niamh declare that despite her success as a novelist, she is happiest when writing poetry. It reminded me that the pen of Thomas Hardy in his later years was devoted exclusively to poetry after a hugely successful novel writing career. Niamh last year published a book of poetry ‘Inside the Wolf’ and her new novel published by Penguin marks a further progress in her development as a writer. The launch takes place in Athy’s new library on Friday, 12th April at 7.00 p.m. An invitation is extended to readers far and wide to attend the launch. Another cultural event worthy of note is the scheduled performance of John MacKenna’s one man play, ‘The Mental’, premiered last year which is to be performed in the Woodbine Bookshop in Kilcullen on the 2nd May. John’s theatrical company, Mend and Makedo, will also stage ‘Between your Love and Mine’, a requiem by Leonard Cohen in the National Concert Hall, Dublin on the 21st September, coincidentally the date of what would have been Cohen’s 85th birthday. The show featuring a cast of eighteen, all from Athy or Carlow will be staged in Carlow, Athy and other venues during the year. The book launch in Athy’s library on Friday 12th April promises to be a further important step for a local writer who on the strength of her published work has become an integral part of the Irish literary scene.