Tuesday, September 24, 2019
The village of Castledermot in medieval times was a relatively peaceful settlement compared to its near neighbour, Athy, which as a fortress village was garrisoned to protect its inhabitants and those living within the Pale. It was in Castledermot that the first gathering of Norman overlords came together in what is now accepted as the first Parliamentary type gathering on the island of Ireland. Parliamentary sessions were subsequently held in Castledermot on many occasions, confirming the village as a relatively safe place for visiting overlords and village citizens alike. I was reminded of the continuing importance of Castledermot which extended long beyond the medieval stage of its development when learning of a lecture to be given by Ger Whelan this Tuesday, 24th Sept. at 8.00p.m. in Teach Diarmada, Castledermot. I had previously done some limited research on the Castledermot men who served in the war, but my efforts in that regard pale into insignificance compared to the wide-ranging research undertaken by Ger Whelan. He has discovered an enormous amount of detail relating not only to the Castledermot, Moone, Kilkea and Dunmanogue men who served, but also the one female native of the village who served overseas as a nurse in the U.S.A. army. I have always believed that the majority of the Irish men who enlisted during 1914-18 did so because of lack of employment. However, men who were members of the National Volunteers also enlisted following John Redmond’s call to arms during a rally in Woodenbridge. Would this explain why many from Athy and Castledermot went overseas to fight the Germans. What I wonder would explain why four Lawler brothers and three Byrne brothers, all from Castledermot, enlisted during the war. Their story and that of many more Castledermot men will be told by Ger Whelan at his lecture tonight. Of the four Lawler brothers, three, Daniel, Joseph and Patrick survived. Their brother John (Military Medal Winner) died not in battle but as a result of injuries sustained in a train crash near Blargies on 5th March 1919. Two train collided, resulting in the deaths of 14 British army soldiers including John Lawler and one French soldier. In the Roll of men from Castledermot and district published in 1916 who were described as ‘serving his majesty’s forces’ the Lawlers named were John, Patrick and Peter, with another Patrick Lawler listed as another enlistee. Another local family with several family members who joined up were the Byrne family of Barnhill, Castledermot. Cornelius Byrne and his brother Thomas were killed in action, while their brother Robert survived and later went on to serve in the Second World War. Their father, I understand, was himself a soldier and I believe was known locally as ‘soldier’ Byrne. All of this information comes courtesy of Ger Whelan whom I spoke with briefly a few days ago and whose knowledge of Castledermot locals’ involvement in the war is prodigious. His research to date shows that 82 men from Castledermot served in the war, of whom 38 died. The first man to be killed was William Whelan who although born in Rathoe, Co. Carlow to Castledermot parents lived in the south Kildare village. He enlisted in the Royal Dublin Fusiliers and arrived in France just four days before he was killed on 27th August 1914. He was the first man from the county of Kildare to die in that war and today he lies buried in a mass grave in Clary, France. Both Clem Roche and I following research some years ago could only identify 23 Castledermot men who were killed in the war but Ger Whelan has made a huge contribution to Castledermot’s history by identifying 38 local men who died. Even then my figure of 23 included the two Hannon brothers, John and Ian, who although born in the parish of Castledermot were living for many years before they enlisted in Ardreigh House, Athy where I am now writing this article. Another interesting discovery by Ger was the one Castledermot born female who served during the 1914/’18 war. Mary Timmons had emigrated to America and served as a nurse in the U.S.A. army. Her story and that of the other Castledermot enlistees will be the subject of Ger Whelan’s lecture in Castledermot tonight at 8.00 p.m. It should not be missed. Another unmissable event is the War of Independence exhibition currently ongoing in Athy’s Heritage Centre. The exhibition which runs until early October shows another side of the fighting Irish. Irish men in the British Army at a time when the Irish Volunteers were preparing to fight the British would presents a unique picture of a country divided. However, it was the terms of the 1922 Treaty which separated one-time comrades and plunged the country into civil war. If anyone has any information of any relations who fought in the war, Ger Whelan would be pleased to hear from you and he can be contacted via email on firstname.lastname@example.org or alternatively you can bring the information with you to the lecture tonight.
Tuesday, September 17, 2019
The fifth book in the series ‘The Buildings of Ireland’ has just been published by Yale University Press under the title ‘Central Leinster – The Counties of Kildare Laois and Offaly’. It follows several years after earlier publications on Dublin, North Leinster, North-West Ulster, South Ulster which were the initial publications in a sister series to those on English, Scottish and Welsh buildings compiled over many years by Nikolaus Pevsner. The author of the Central Leinster book is Dr. Andrew Tierney who has produced what the Times Literary Supplement rightly describes as a ‘great feat of publishing in the best traditions of architectural history.’ The buildings in Athy receive extensive coverage in the book which offers a tremendous amount of detail of which I was not previously aware. St. Michael’s Church of Ireland, designed by Frederick Darley, architect for the Ecclesiastical Commissioners for the Archdioceses of Dublin, was the architect for the Offaly Street church, also the Model School on the Dublin Road, the church in Kilberry and the former Corn Exchange, now the Courthouse in Emily Square. Darley’s wooden communion rail in St. Michael’s Church was replaced by brass rails in 1893, while the original pulpit entered from a doorway high up in the wall left of the altar was replaced in 1861 by a pulpit erected in memory of Rev. Frederick Trench who was killed following an accident at Preston’s Gate the previous year. Tierney describes the church interior as ‘chaste’, while he refers to the church organ as ‘a large and ungainly imposition in the ritual south transept.’ The nearby rector’s house on Church Road was designed by Deane & Woodward, the contractor being local man Mark Cross who built many houses in and around Athy in the mid-1800s including houses in Janeville Lane and Connolly’s Lane. Hammer dressed limestone blocks taken from the nearby town jail which had closed in 1860 were used in the building of the rector’s house. St. Michael’s Catholic Church opened in 1964 is described as a rehash of O’Connor and Aylward’s design for Our Lady of Lourdes Church in Sean McDermott Street Dublin which was built ten years earlier. The most interesting features of St. Michael’s Church are the furnishings from the earlier church including the pulpit which was erected in 1901 by James Pearse, father of Padraig and William Pearse. The former Dominican Church designed by John Thompson and Partners and opened the year after the Parish Church was the first example in Ireland of the type of roof structure popularised by Felix Candela in Mexico and Sam Scorer in England in the late 1950s. The dramatic hyperbolic paraboloid roof of reinforced concrete was Fr. Pollock’s choice of modern church design which attracted huge interest when the church first opened and continues today to attract much attention as the town’s library. The Presbyterian Church, built in 1857, to David Taylor’s design is described by Tierney as ‘a rather plain early English gothic hall’. The adjoining manse, which was built by a local builder William Crampton in 1866 finds favour with Tierney who sees it as ‘a delightful composition with bargeboards.’ The Methodist Church built in 1874 is mentioned as an early Decorated T-plan building designed by Darley and Holbrook. The Athy churches are indicative of the religious diversity of the south Kildare population and are a valid expression of the developing architectural styles since the 1830s. The Model School and former Agricultural School on the Dublin Road in 1851 was the work of Frederick Darley who was engaged by the Board of National Education in the last year of the Great Famine to design model schools for every county in Ireland. Tierney acknowledges that Darley’s building is ‘eye catching and picturesque in its massing’. Not so impressive in his judgment is the 1858 Convent of Mercy school building at Mount Hawkins which he describes as ‘large and stately if cumbersomely asymmetrical.’ The Town Hall is surprisingly noted in the book as ‘ungainly looking’, while the Courthouse is stated to be an early Irish example of a neo Jacobean public building. St. Vincent’s Hospital, the former Workhouse built to George Wilkinson’s design, has been much changed over the years but in the double gabled wings are to be found the narrow gangways between raised wooden floors on which the inmates once bedded down for the night. White’s Castle, which Tierney describes as an ‘unusually substantial three storey tower at the heart of Athy’ is described by him as a good example of the use of castles as jails in the 19th century given its ‘haggard, decaying exteriors and forbiddingly small post medieval windows.’ Woodstock Castle, built of loosely coarse rubble as was the medieval church at Bothar Bui, are also mentioned but both sadly are now fenced off and have been for some years. There are no plans that I am aware of to carry out any restoration work on these the oldest buildings in Athy, both of which will deteriorate further if nothing is done to protect and preserve them.
Tuesday, September 10, 2019
The large attendance at the Blueway meeting held in the Town Library on Tuesday evening was a heartening reminder that the people of Athy are alive to the huge opportunities which can follow the development of this waterway project. I have seldom witnessed a greater involvement by the general public with any public realm project and the hope is that the project will move ahead without any great delay. The shifting sands of our town’s economic life has seen the once great market town which was largely dependent on its rich agricultural hinterland glide into an unhealthy state where shops and factories have closed. Athy’s fate in that regard is no different than that of many other provincial towns in Ireland and in neighbouring England and Wales. Urban streetscapes throughout all of these countries display an increasing number of vacant premises and charity shops. The loss of business can be attributed to many reasons including internet trading, property charges and the rise of the out of town shopping centres providing free parking for their customers. The traditional town centre which is now slowly but surely losing its primacy as a shopping centre for local needs must now adjust to meet the changing retail world. I was in Hay-on-Wye last week, a small town with a population of approximately 2,000, located on the Marches between England and Wales. In that respect it mirrors Athy’s position in olden times when Athy was positioned on the Marches of Kildare which marked the boundaries between the settlers within and the Pale and the wild Irish occupying the lands on the far side of the river Barrow. Hay-on-Wye was in decline when in 1961 a young Richard Booth opened a second hand book shop there. His first shop soon gave way to a succession of second-hand book shops so that within a few years Hay-on-Wye became the world’s first book town. I first visited Hay in 1983 at a time when there were approximately 29 second-hand book shops including two huge shops, one of which was the town’s former cinema. Booth created the concept of the book town and invigorated Hay’s economy as antique shops and restaurants opened in previously vacant premises to meet the needs of the book lovers who arrived in the town. Hay is still thriving as the world’s first and perhaps best book town of the 20 or so book towns which have since opened up in places as far away as America and Australia. What is of interest is the enormous change brought about in the economic character of the town of Hay by one man’s initiative. Richard Booth was an innovative eccentric, but he had the courage, the tenacity and the brilliance to pursue a dream which brought enormous benefit to his part of Wales. Here in Athy we must look at the revival of the town’s fortunes by taking advantage of the town’s unique waterway features. The Blueway Project offers us a wonderful opportunity to remarket the town as a place to visit and enjoy. Tourism is one way of reviving the town’s fortunes and the success of the Athy boat tours is an example of what can be achieved in that regard. The Blueway Project however is but one element of what needs to be put in place if Athy is to have an impact as a tourism centre. The Shackleton Museum, the planning for which is ongoing, is the second element of the town’s tourism plan which I feel needs to be complemented by an appropriate development and use of White’s Castle. We now need to take bold and imaginative initiatives at this stage, as did Richard Booth so many years ago, if we hope to revitalise the economic life of Athy. We need industry, we need services but in addition we need to broaden the town’s economic life plan to include a drive for a share of the benefits of national and international tourism. The Blueway and the Shackleton Museum lead the way, but we must also see the adoption of White’s Castle into the town’s tourism initiative as a positive and indeed essential part of our future planning. Richard Booth brought prosperity to the small market town at the foot of the Black Mountains in Wales by selling second-hand books. Kildare County Council and the people of Athy can help to revive the withering economy of our market town if both cooperate in pushing ahead with the Blueway Project and the Shackleton Museum. To Kildare County Council falls the opportunity now of taking the bold but worthwhile initiative of acquiring White’s Castle to ensure it can be part of the town’s tourism plan for the future.
Tuesday, September 3, 2019
‘Why don’t you write about what’s happening today in the town?’, ‘why are you always writing about history?’, the questions came from a reader who apparently oblivious to the headline on the column, ‘Eye on the Past’ believed I should concentrate less on the past and more on the present. I have always thought that week in week out I give a mix of the past and of the present, at all times highlighting the good things about my adopted town. Another reader has often complained to me that my occasional references to the canal side factory and in particular its old name, no longer used, deters visitors and potential investors from coming near Athy. So this week I cast around for a subject which might satisfy my two unhappy readers and hopefully at the same time strike a chord with locals as well as former residents now living away from their home town in south Kildare. In the last 15 years Athy has received more families, who have come here to live, than at any other time in its 800-year history. The town population for more than 100 years up to 1995 or thereabouts hovered between 3,500 and 4,000. The current population is nearly 11,000, quite an increase for a provincial town and one which might be expected to pose difficulties for the town’s infrastructural and social facilities. Those of us living here for years past are sometimes oblivious to the good and bad issues affecting the town which are all too apparent to newcomers. For that reason I sought the help of a new arrival in Athy, someone who has been here long enough to identify what pleases and what issues, if any, cause displeasure and concern. My informant newly arrived within the last few months and dare I say it, possibly a Brexit refugee from the English mainland, expressed overall satisfaction with Athy and its people. What I asked do you like about Athy? The first answer astonished me, given the traffic issues which have affected the town for so long. ‘Easy to get around by car and on foot’. I wondered if the car movement is as easy as claimed, however the claim that ‘everyone is friendly’ certainly rings true. The town’s urban streetscape with the triple communication corridors of river, canal and rail line cutting across the original Anglo Norman linear type settlement is a feature unique to Athy. It was described by my informant as a place with a sense of history. Surprisingly the architectural merits of the town square with the town hall and the courthouse did not figure among the features liked about Athy. The former Dominican Church, now the town library, figured large as a likeable feature of Athy, not for its architectural qualities but for its excellence as a library. The variety of sporting facilities in the town came in for honourable mention, with particular reference to the current upsurge of interest in water sports. Club activities were praised and the variety of clubs, sporting and non-sporting, catering for young and adult members, spoke of an active and healthy community. For a town which in the 1920s and earlier had over 40 pubs, the current small number of public houses still operating were rated as very good. The People’s Park and the children’s playground earned further bonus points for Athy, while the educational campus on the Monasterevin Road featuring primary schools, secondary schools and the Gaelscoil merited special praise. To my surprise there was no mention of the town’s swimming pool and sports complex at Greenhills whose predecessor in the Peoples Park was built following an energetic community drive in the 1960s and later. It’s a nice town to live in declared my informant, but surely I said there must be something with which you might not be too happy. The expected avalanche of complaints did not materialise. Instead I got a few understated references, hardly complaints, concerning the lack of a local greengrocer and the absence of bicycle racks in the town. The lack of a fence around the children’s playground was another issue which was put in the scales to weigh up the merits of the south Kildare town. No doubt many reading this Eye on the Past could come up with an exhaustive list of good points about Athy. I am always struck by the praise which visitors to Athy have for the town. Looking at the town through visitors’ eyes one can recognise as if for the first time the architectural merits of the public buildings of Athy. The River Barrow and the Grand Canal are unique physical features not enjoyed by any other town in the county and they help shape and provide a wonderful landscape background to the town. Overall visitors would appear to regard Athy as a good town to visit, while new residents regard it as a good place in which to live. Those of us who have lived here during the 1950s remember a vibrant business town where business is now in urgent need of renewal. The outer relief road soon to be built and the work now ongoing in connection with the town’s regeneration plan gives hope that visitors, new family arrivals and old Athy stock will share a common success story insofar as the future of Athy is concerned.