Tuesday, October 29, 2019

A vision for the Shackleton Museum

On Friday I addressed those gathered in the Town Hall for the opening of this year’s Shackleton Autumn School. Part of my speech follows, being my thoughts on one aspect of the town’s future development potential. Athy historically developed as a market town, providing services and retailing outlets for the wider hinterland of south Kildare, west Wicklow and eastern part of Laois. The industrial development of the 1930s saw Athy benefitting ahead of other towns possibly because of the debacle surrounding the loss of the sugar factory to Carlow in the 1920s. Industrial employment in Athy was at its highest in the late 1950s and 1960s, but the closure of two large factories and job reductions in Athy’s oldest industry saw the beginning of the decline in the commercial life of the town. That decline accelerated in recent years prompting the local Lions Club to commission the production of a regeneration plan for the town. That plan recognising the strength of the area’s natural and man built heritage and the strength of it’s cultural and historical links pointed to tourism as the often neglected element of the area’s economic revival strategy. The development of the Shackleton Museum offers an opportunity to improve the town’s tourism take, which if coupled with an appropriately themed development of Whites Castle could prove invaluable in the revival of the town’s fortunes. This was the point I was making when I made the following remarks:- ‘The people of Athy were slow to recognise Ernest Shackleton as someone who was born within the towns hinterland. It was a failure initially born out of a lack of awareness and a mindset stultified by war weariness. For in the years following Shackleton’s death, the Irish people were pre-occupied with shoring up a nation shattered by war and civil conflict. The polar adventures of the Kilkea born Shackleton were understandably overlooked by the Irish people. Whenever they were reported, the National press invariably claimed Shackleton to be a native of Kilkee, Co. Clare. Research in connection with Athy’s application for Heritage town status in the late 1980s correctly identified the south Kildare place of his birth and from that emerged the initial Shackleton themed Exhibition in Athy’s Heritage Centre. A giant step was taken with the opening of the first Shackleton Autumn School in 2001. This was a recognition of Shackleton’s greatness as a Polar Explorer and appropriately commemorated the Explorer in the County of his birth. The celebration of Shackleton’s remarkable gift for leadership found further expression in the commissioning of the wonderfully executed statue of Shackleton by Mark Richards which now stands proudly outside this building. The re-naming of the Heritage Centre as a Shackleton Museum and the planned re-ordering and re-fitting of the extended museum to occupy the entire former Town Hall, marks a new phase in Athy’s continuing effort to reclaim the Polar Explorer as its own. Our vision for the Shackleton Museum is to build a museum which can be a National and International reference point for polar enthusiasts as well as International and Irish visitors alike. It will, I believe, be the only Museum in the world dedicated to Shackleton and will tell his story through words, images and innovative interpretations as well as displaying our own unique collection of artefacts. The Museum development signals a change in the economic model on which the Town of Athy has developed over the years. The Town’s regeneration plan commissioned by Athy Lions Club recognises the importance of tourism as an element in the future growth strategy for this area. The Shackleton Museum will be an important part of the town’s tourism infrastructure which will allow Athy to reposition itself as a tourist destination.’ Athy is at a crossroads in terms of its transition from market town status to that of a thriving urban centre hoping to benefit from a mix of industry, main street commercial activity and an improving tourism sector. The tourism element can hopefully be fashioned out of the planned Blueway development and the Shackleton Museum experience, complemented by an appropriate museum development in Whites Castle. It is vitally important that the castle sited in such a prominent position in the heart of the town is secured for the public and adopted for use in attracting visitors to Athy.

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Athy's Shackleton Autumn School

The 19th annual Shackleton School opens on Friday evening, 25th October in the aptly named Shackleton Museum Athy. The museum originally opened in 1983 in a school room in Mount St. Marys and known as Athy Museum was later rebranded as Athy’s Heritage Centre. This name change came about when Bord Failte granted heritage town status to our town and partially funded the design and refitting of the ground floor of the early 18th century Town Hall, part of which had previously been used as a fire station. The latest name change is in recognition of the Centre’s development over the years as the only permanent exhibition space anywhere in the world devoted to the polar explorer who was born in nearby Kilkea. An important part of that development was the first Shackleton Autumn School which opened in October 2001 with a number of lectures dealing with various aspects of Shackleton’s life and his polar explorations. That first autumn school attracted visitors to Athy over the October bank holiday weekend who might not otherwise have had an opportunity or indeed a reason to come to Athy. In the intervening years the organisers of the autumn school have built up a valuable working relationship with polar experts throughout the world including the Scott Polar Research Institute in Cambridge, the Fram Museum in Oslo and the South Australian Museum, Melbourne. The relationships with these institutions have encouraged and promoted contacts with polar experts and scholars throughout the world. As a result the small county Kildare town has become known over the last 19 years as the centre of the world’s most important annual polar seminar. Since the first autumn school we have welcomed as lecturers, polar experts and explorers from Australia, Norway, America, Great Britain, Canada, Spain, Germany, France, Belgium and New Zealand. While our October audiences have included visitors not only from those countries but also Japan, India, Switzerland, the Netherlands and Italy. This year the autumn school will be officially opened on Friday 25th October at 7.30p.m., followed by the launch of the book ‘Shackleton and his stowaway’ published by Methuen and written by Andy Dickinson. Earlier in the day the internationally acclaimed sculptor, Mark Richards, who created the Shackleton statue located in Emily Square will conduct a workshop for Leaving Certificate students from schools in the south of the county. Throughout the weekend the museum will host an exhibition on Shackleton’s last expedition aboard the ‘Quest’. It was while on that expedition that Shackleton died and the ship’s cabin in which he drew his last breadth was acquired by the museum some time ago and will be one of the many Shackleton related exhibits on display when the planned re-design and re-fitting of the Shackleton Museum is completed. The lectures start at 10.00am on Saturday morning with a lecture from the well-known ornithologist Jim Bransfield from Cobh, County Cork who will talk about the discovery of Antarctica 200 years ago by the Cork born sailor, Edward Bransfield. Thereafter Paul Davies of the Devon Cornwall Polar Society will lecture on the diverse range of books published about the Polar regions. A significant lecture that same morning will be from Dr. Dirk Notz in relation to climate change, an issue which is to the forefront of most news reports these days. As a climate researcher Dirk has led numerous expeditions to the Antarctic and focusses on understanding the past and future evolution of sea ice in the Polar regions. Former BBC science correspondent, David Whitehouse will lecture about the Apollo 11 Moon Landings in this the 50th anniversary year of that landing. This will be followed by perhaps one of the highlights of the weekend, the ‘Endurance diary inquiry’. For those fans of the Antiques Roadshow they will recall a broadcast from Belfast last Summer where a diary belonging to one of the members of Shackleton’s Endurance crew was unearthed. The authenticity of this diary will be scrutinised by a panel of experts with the support of Nicky Jeffreys, the owner of the diary. The diary itself will be on display in the Shackleton Museum over the weekend for those anxious to see this unique document. The lectures will continue into Sunday where a variety of different topics will be explored including the life and voyages of the Dundalk born explorer, Sir Leopold McClintock and the rescue of Shackleton’s men from Elephant Island after the Endurance expedition. The Sunday afternoons sessions will end with the showing of the ‘Flight of the Eagle’, an Oscar nominated film telling the story of a doomed balloon expedition to the North Pole in 1897. The events over the weekend will include what we believe to be the premiere in Ireland of the two man play ‘Shackleton and his Stowaway’, which will be performed in Athy’s Arts Centre on Sunday the 27th October 8pm. The play played to packed audiences in London and it will be well worth seeing. The Autumn School would not be possible without the continuing sponsorship of Kildare County Council, Athy International Concentrates, Athy Lions Club and Bradburys restaurant.

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Forgotten Place Names of Athy

Looking through the place names and street names recorded for Athy in the census of 1901 and that of 1911 I was surprised to find how many of those names mentioned are no longer remembered. The earlier census shows for that part of the town on the east side of the river Barrow several names no longer in use and in all probability long forgotten. Where were Back Lane, Carroll’s Court, Chapel Hill, Garden Lane, Kellys Lane and Kyles Row? Matthews Lane, New Row and Porters Row complete the list of long lost local place names of 118 years ago. Chapel Hill had disappeared from the 1911 census records, while Emily Square, so named after the Duke of Leinster’s wife and Lord Edward Fitzgerald’s mother, was noted as Market Square in both the 1901 and 1911 census. For Athy west of the river Barrow place names now no longer used include Canal Lane, Higginsons Lane, James Place and Keatings Lane. Other names long since forgotten include New Gardens, Newmans Row, Tanyard Lane and Tay Lane. Names still remembered and occasionally used today include Dry Docks, Shrewleen Lane, Barrack Lane and Street and Blackparks. The lost named places accounted for many of the lanes, courts and alleyways which were demolished during the slum clearance programme of the mid-1930s. That programme was an initiative of the government of the day which allowed Athy Urban District Council to demolish the small unsanitary dwelling houses of which there were many to be found throughout the town of Athy. Generally two roomed single storied houses built in the previous century without proper sanitary facilities and lacking running water were all privately owned by local landlords. The tenants from those houses were accommodated in public authority housing newly built at Dooley’s Terrace and St. Joseph’s Terrace, as the houses they vacated were demolished. The last of those house types were to be found in more recent years in Blackparks where the landlord was Mr. Plewman who lived nearby in the house which is now the offices of Minch Malt. The two roomed houses, all with small rear yards, were served by a single water pump outside on the public footpath. I had the pleasure of interviewing 85 year old Sarah Davis some months ago when she shared with me her memories of growing up in Blackparks. I was pleasantly surprised to find that Sarah could recall with astonishing accuracy the names of the families and the various family members who lived in Blackparks. There is a photograph in the local Heritage Centre of a car passing through Blackparks during the Gordon Bennett Race of 1903. Many will recall the row of small houses known as Blackparks facing onto the Kilkenny Road but the 1903 photograph shows not only that row of houses opposite Plewman’s Terrace, but also three other houses facing onto what is now The Bleach cottages. Those first three houses I am told by Sarah were demolished during the 1930s. With the housing developments of the recent pre-recession years many new housing estates came into existence in Athy. So many in fact that I have difficulty in recognising their names or where many of them are located. If the new estate names are unfamiliar to many of us, the old place names once readily identifiable and part of everyday conversation in and around Athy are unlikely ever to be resurrected. Like the laneways they once identified their names have now disappeared, seldom if ever again to be recalled in conversation. Following on the recent article which accompanied the photograph of an Athy Gaelic Football team of the 1930s I received a lot of background information on ‘old man’ Mulhall. His football medals are now held by Lily Bracken and thanks to Lily I hope soon to revisit ‘old man’ Mulhall’s story. In the meantime I am looking for information on ‘Tarman’ Cunningham who was on the same football team with Martin Cunningham in 1937. If you can help me I would like to hear from you. The War of Independence Exhibition currently running in the Heritage Centre and which was to finish on Friday 11th October will now continue until Monday 21st October. The exhibition which tells a story of South Kildare’s involvement in that war has generated a lot of interest. It’s an exhibition which will not be revisited for many years so this week presents a not to be missed opportunity to see it.

Tuesday, October 8, 2019

Sr. Eileen Ryan of Athy's Sisters of Mercy

With the recent death of Sr. Eileen Ryan our local community has lost another link in a history stretching back 167 years to the post famine year when the Sisters of Mercy arrived in Athy. A native of County Limerick Sr. Eileen was one of five daughters of John and Margaret Ryan, three of whom joined religious orders. She entered the Athy Convent in July 1959 when vocations to religious life were plentiful as evidenced by an entry in the convent annals which recorded 55 nuns from Athy Convent attending a retreat given by the local Dominican friar, Fr. Pollack a few years later. She took the name Sr. Loreta the following July and made her first profession in June 1962. That September Sr. Loreta joined the staff of St. Michael’s school and made her final profession in June 1965. Within four months she began her Bachelor of Arts study in UCD and her replacement in St. Michael’s school was Miss T. McGrath who was the first lay teacher to join the teaching staff of the convent primary school. There are presently 52 lay teachers in the primary school and no Sisters of Mercy. Sr. Loreta graduated with a B.A. in 1968 and a year later received a diploma in education. She then joined the staff of St. Mary’s Secondary school where she was to remain teaching for many years. The first Mercy sisters who arrived in Athy on 10th October 1852 travelled from Dublin by rail and on arrival at the local railway station they were brought by horse and carriage with closed window blinds to the newly built convent. 118 years were to pass before the Athy Sisters of Mercy acquired a motor car. Four young nuns were chosen to take driving lessons and one of the those chosen was the former Eileen Ryan from County Limerick. Twelve years after Sister Loreta joined the staff of St. Mary’s secondary school she was appointed to a teaching post in Makuni, Kenya. On 31st August 1981 together with Sr. Catherine, who had previously worked in St. Vincents Hospital, Sr. Loreta travelled to Kenya where she was to remain for three years. The work of the Sisters of Mercy from the Athy Convent was not just limited to educating local girls, but included service in hospitals and schools as far apart as Kenya, Nairobi and Brazil. An unusual extension of their missionary work saw Sr. Cecilia travelling to Germany to give catechetical instruction to USA army families. Sr. Loreta celebrated the Silver Jubilee of her profession in 1987, the same year the adjoining schools of Scoil Eoin and Scoil Mhuire, built at a cost of £1.7million, were officially opened. In September 1996 Sr. Eileen took a year’s sabbatical from teaching in Scoil Mhuire to do voluntary work in the Mercy International Centre, Baggot Street, Dublin. During her teaching career Sr. Eileen proved to be very popular with fellow teachers and pupils alike. Her life as a Sister of Mercy mirrored in so many ways the lives of the many Sisters of Mercy who were part of the religious community in the Athy Convent following its foundation in 1852. From the time the first convent school was opened in Athy an unbroken succession of Sisters of Mercy devoted their lives to improving through education the lives of the young people of Athy and district. Their generosity of spirit in visiting and providing for the poorer families of Athy at a time when there were limited social services available is also worthy of mention. The local Wheelchair Association and Cuan Mhuire, together with the House of Galilee, are important legacies of Athy’s Sisters of Mercy. No less important were the Youth Clubs and the still active Travellers Club set up by Sisters of Mercy who for decades from the 1870s provided nursing care in the former workhouse, now St. Vincent’s Hospital. Sister Loreta who adopted the name Sr. Eileen in later years was but one of the many generously spirited women who worked in communities throughout Ireland and the world as members of a religious order which had its first Sister of Mercy professed in Dublin in December 1831. With her passing the curtain has further closed on our memories of those wonderful women of the cloth. The War of Independence Exhibition presently running in the Shackleton Museum, Town Hall, Athy will end on Friday, 11th October. This is a very important exhibition which recalls and honours the men and women from South Kildare who participated in Ireland’s struggle for independence. It’s an exhibition not to be missed. It will be followed by an exhibition on Ernest Shackleton’s last polar expedition which will open on Friday 25th October as part of the 19th Annual Shackleton Autumn School.

Tuesday, October 1, 2019

Athy Gaelic Football teams of the past

During the week Con Ronan gave me a photograph of an Athy Gaelic Football team which had a note on it indicating that the photograph was taken “about 1937”. The photograph had the following names reading from left to right at the back, Jack Dunne, Michael Ryan, an unnamed spectator, Patsy Ryan, Dick Loughman, Matt Murray, “the Great Tarman” Cunningham, Jack Lawler, ? Wall and J. Mahon. Middle row “old man” Mulhall, Billy Chanders, Patrick Mahon and Michael Mullery. Front row John Campbell, M. Higgins, “Skurt” Doyle, “Bunny” Chanders, Lar Murray and S. Kelly. Amongst my own GAA papers I found a photocopy of the same photograph with a note indicating it was of an Athy junior football team, winners of the County Kildare league. Athy teams won the Senior Championship in 1937 and in the same year the 1934 Junior Football League. The final of the 1934 league was played in Kildare town on the 21st of March 1937. The names typed on the photocopy by and large confirmed the names as they appeared on the back of the photograph I received this week. However the names of the first four men at the back from the left are given as J. Dunne, M. Ryan, R. Ryan and M. Birney. The man second from the right at the back is named as P. Coogan. The photograph is definitely not of the senior team which won the County Final in 1937. Was it then the junior team which won the 1934 league final that same year? I had doubts as to whether the photograph is of a 1937 team. A newspaper report following Athy’s success in the senior championship final in 1942 referred to “youths played a big part in Sunday’s triumph. Seven members of the Athy team are under 22 years and one under 18 --- such youngsters as D. Shaughnessy, T. Fox and L. Murray are notable newcomers to this year’s team”. Why Lar Murray was described as a youngster in 1942 I do not understand as he was a member of the successful senior team of 1937. Can anyone help me determine when the team photograph was taken and at what level the team played. In the very front of the photograph is pictured the team trainer “Skurt” Doyle. The origin of his nickname is unknown to me but Jack Doyle was a unique character. Born in 1883 he joined the Dublin Fusiliers and served in India and Egypt. He played rugby for his regiment and also ran in marathons with some success. Jack was captured with many of his army comrades following the battle of Mons and was imprisoned in Limburg for the duration of the war. He was one of the first Athy players to be selected for the County Kildare senior team. He was the County senior goalkeeper between May 1921 and April 1922. Looking through the team records for the 1930’s I find Jim Cunningham who played centre half back for Athy and who won senior championship medals with the club in 1933 and 1934. He was not a member of the successful 1937 senior team. Was he I wonder the player referred to in the photograph as “the Great Tarman Cunningham”. On the left of the middle row is pictured a player described as “old man” Mulhall whom I believe may have been Martin Mulhall who featured on Athy’s intermediate team of 1931. While going through the notes of an interview I had with the late Ned Cranny many years ago I noticed for the first time that one of the players on the Athy teams of 1922 and 1923 was Paddy Hayden. Was he I wonder Paddy Hayden of Offaly Street who was imprisoned during the War of Independence. That war and the subsequent Civil War had a detrimental effect on the town’s Gaelic Football Club which in its early years was known as the Geraldine’s. It was a junior club then and won its first junior championship in 1907 but went into decline soon after losing the 1913 junior final. Enlistments during the 1914 – 18 war caused the club to lose many members. The local Christian Brothers started a new club for minor footballs which was called the Young Emmets and it was during that club’s existence that a playing field was secured from the South Kildare Agricultural Society. The football players of the distant past are understandably unremembered today but it would be a great pity if we did not try to revive their names, their images and details of their playing careers as members of Athy Gaelic Football Club.