Tuesday, March 31, 2020

The plague village of Eyam

The great plague of London in 1665 was until this year the last substantial epidemic in England. London had three major epidemics, of what later came to be known as the Black Death, between 1563 and 1665. Central government and local authorities tried to control the spread of the plague in 1665 by isolating those affected and restricting the movement of others. It was the destruction of large parts of London during the Great Fire of September 1665 which finally relieved London of the conditions which helped to spread the Black Death. The last visitation of the plague on the mainland of England occurred in the Derbyshire village of Eyam in September 1665. I visited Eyam two years ago, travelling from the Welsh border town of Hay on Wye through the beautiful English Peak District. Eyam is located in the heart of the Derbyshire Peak District and will forever be associated with the plague of 1665/’66 which claimed over 259 lives during a period of self-imposed quarantine. Eyam is a beautiful and historic place which today is known as the Plague Village. Its story is one of community heroism and effective leadership by two clergymen – the 26-year-old Rector of Eyam, Rev. William Mompresson and his predecessor Rev. Thomas Stanley. The latter, a staunch Puritan, had served in the parish for 16 years but resigned on the passing of the Act of Uniformity and the introduction of the new Book of Common Prayer. When the first plague death occurred in the village the two clerics called a public meeting to decide on future action. The villager’s decision would make Eyam one of the most famous villages in the annals of English social history. The plague arrived in the village when a box of clothes was delivered from London to the village tailor. The infected clothing caused the death of the tailor and his death on 6th September was the first of 259 deaths in the village over the next thirteen months. In a village with a population of approximately 350 this was an extraordinary high death rate. The reason it was so high was because the villagers, guided by their rector and his predecessor, agreed to impost a ‘cordon sanitaire’ around the village. They agreed to isolate themselves in the village to prevent the spread of the plague beyond Eyam. The quarantine was effective as no deaths occurred outside the village. The villagers had to be fed and as the village was not self sufficient it fell to the Earl of Devonshire who lived nearby in Chatsworth House to provide food. It was brought to dropping zones on the village boundary, ensuring that no person entered the village itself. It says much for the honour of the villagers of Eyam that having agreed to isolate themselves there were only two persons known to have left the village during the period of the plague. When I visited Eyam the first port of call was the parish church of St. Lawrence which dates from 1350 with many additions since then. I was intrigued to find in the grounds of the church a magnificent 8th century Celtic cross which one time may have been a wayside preaching cross. A little to the left of the Celtic cross was the tomb of Catherine, wife of Rev. Mompresson, who died of the plague on 15th August 1666. Hers is the only known plague grave in the parish churchyard as plague victims were buried by family and neighbours in gardens and nearby fields. Most of those graves were unmarked and are now unknown. The tragic events of 1665/’66 are remembered in present day Eyam where the community celebrates the heroic stance of a previous generation on the last Sunday in August which is designated Plague Sunday. The late John Clifford, Eyam’s local historian, whose wife Francine I had the pleasure of meeting, first wrote his account of Eyam’s plague in 1989. He recounted the tragic loss of local families, highlighting the seven members of the Hancock family who died. The once scattered headstones which marked the Hancock graves have been gathered together and are now in the care of the National Trust. The community isolation of the Eyam villagers was intended, not to protect the local people, but to prevent the plague escaping to outlying areas. The villagers sacrificed themselves for the sake of others. Today we are asked to self-isolate to protect ourselves, our families and our communities. What we are required to do is little compared to the extraordinary self-sacrifice of the Eyam villagers.

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

John Alcock of Athy and North Island New Zealand

He left Athy 71 years ago determined to make a better life for himself. Now at 90 years of age John Alcock last week returned to the town of his birth travelling from his home in the North Island of New Zealand. Before he started on the long journey his near neighbour Aiden Tierney, formerly of Belview, Athy, suggested that he call on Frank Taaffe, as ‘he will no doubt be interested in talking to you’. John, accompanied by his daughter Margaret, were spending eight days in Athy and fortunately I had the pleasure of meeting both of them before the virus crisis put me into self-imposed isolation. John Alcock, at 90 years of age, presents with the physique of a man decades younger and given his journey from the far side of the world, is clearly an adventurous individual. He is the last surviving member of the sons and daughters born to George and Mary Alcock of No. 1 Dooley’s Terrace. George was a military policeman attached to the Free State Army who like his Alcock brothers and cousins was better known locally by his nickname. George was known as ‘Highlander’, how or why I have been unable to find out. Other extended Alcock family members had nicknames which equally defied explanation, ‘Lang’, ‘Boar’ and ‘Cack’ were just some of the colourful nicknames which were once part of the local’s vocabulary. John had eight brothers and sisters, but two of his sisters, Brid and Margaret, died young. His father died in February 1947, aged 48 years of age, by which time John had been working for four years in the moulding department of the local Asbestos factory. He left school at 13 years of age and when I met him last week he remembered with fondness his teachers, Brother Ryan, Brother Heffernan and Brother Keane, as well as a lay teacher who like most adults of that time was remembered only by his nickname, which in his case was ‘Lattie’. Amongst those with whom John worked in the moulding department over 70 years ago were ‘Whack’ Connell, Johnny Corcoran, Francis Cahill, ‘Sloth’ Kavanagh, Shelly Kelly and Ger Robinson. Two years after his father’s death John took the emigrant boat to England, a journey which all of his siblings were to repeat at different times. John worked as a bricklayer in London and in 1955, responding to a New Zealand government newspaper advertisement he took up employment in that country. He feels he was lucky to have been accepted, because during his interview in New Zealand House, London he got the distinct impression that the New Zealand authorities were not too keen on accepting Irish men or women. He has lived in New Zealand since then, apart from some time spent working in Australia. His brother George and sister Sheila also emigrated to New Zealand, while his sister Mollie, who served in the Royal Air Force, died last year aged 95 years having spent many years in India, Suez Canal and Canada. John married Betty Maureen Gallichan and they had a family of four girls and one son. Sadly his wife Betty died last year and today John lives in Kawerau in the Bay of Plenty on the North Island. I was interested to learn of any changes in Athy as seen by John but his youthful memories of over 70 years or more prompted the reply ‘my Athy is spoiled’. His memories of Athy were not so much the buildings or the streetscape but rather his neighbours in Dooley’s Terrace, the orchards which different generations of young boys raided, and youthful rabbiting exploits on the fields in the edge of the town. The changes, he noted with deep regret, were those resulting from the deaths of friends and neighbours he once knew. His journey back to Athy was a pilgrimage of remembrance, tracing his youthful steps through the town he left 71 years ago. It was a great surprise and an honour for me to meet John Alcock, one of the many hundreds of young Athy men and women who over the years left the town of their birth to better themselves. An earlier generation which included Frank and Thomas Alcock left Athy to join comrades in the battlefields of World War I. Frank and Thomas, both privates in the Royal Dublin Fusiliers, died in that war, while their nephew John after a long and happy life in New Zealand returned to Athy to relive cherished memories of the past. I was saddened to learn of the death of my near neighbour Frank Brennan of Coneyboro. Frank, a retired postman, was a courteous and well-liked individual when I had the pleasure of exchanging greetings and chat on many occasions as he took his daily walk around Ardreigh. Sympathy is extended to his wife Kathleen, his sons and his daughter.

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

1641 depositions relating to Athy

The Rising of 1641 started in Ulster on 22nd October. It was prompted by concerns regarding freedom of religion for Catholics and property rights stemming from the growing anti-Catholic drive of the English parliament. The Rising saw attacks by Catholics on Protestants and reprisals by Protestants on Catholics resulting in widespread sectarian massacres. The native Irish people of Islandmagee of County Antrim were massacred following the mass murder of Ulster plantation settlers before the insurgences turned south and captured Dundalk on 31st October. In early December the old English Catholic gentry of the Pale fearing a backlash against all Catholics joined their co-religionists in rebellion which quickly spread throughout Ireland. Accounts of the 1641 Rising which drew on depositions collected from Protestant survivors of the war fed into the theory that the Rising was a premeditated plot engineered by Catholic interests to exterminate the non-Catholic population. The 1641 depositions were taken by Commissioners appointed by the Lord Justices of Ireland in December 1641 to record the testimony of those ‘robbed and despoiled’ during the Rising and a later commission recorded the number of persons ‘murdered by the rebels’. The accounts collected by the Commissioners prompted the passing of the Adventurers Act by the English parliament in February 1642 which sought to finance the cost of supressing the 1641 Rising by subscriptions paid by English adventurers in return for land taken from the rebels. This was followed by the Cromwellian Land Settlement Act of 1652 which was passed to meet the cost of Cromwell’s campaign in Ireland by authorising the confiscation of Irish lands for distribution amongst adventurers and soldiers. Three commissioners came to Athy in April 1642 to take depositions from victims of the 1641 Rising. Due to a combination of unsuitable conditions and the high proportion of deponents who had not prepared a written statement of their losses beforehand, the commissioners recordkeeping was less than impressive. One of the first persons to be examined in Athy was Hugh Conway who gave an account of the killing of John Taylor about one mile from Athy in what he described as a field close to a windmill. Margaret Rawson of Inch gave an account of three score rebels breaking into her house and taking household goods, cattle and corn. Mary Cox of Athy had a similar story, her losses amounting to £250 resulting from the theft of corn, three horses and various household goods. Richard Hyatt, a merchant of Athy, had his house broken up by about 60 rebels, including one man unnamed who was later hanged. James Pearse, a cooper from Athy, claimed that he had to flee for safety with many of his protestant neighbours to the castle of Athy which was then in the possession of John Murphy, ‘a zealous and honest protestant’. He recounted how before Easter 1642 the rebels flocked to the town of Athy and how he and his protestants neighbours set on fire their own houses located near the castle. The castle was besieged several times by the soldiers of Colonel Fitzgerald of Ballyshannon who had earlier taken possession of Sir Robert Meredith’s house in Cloney. It was perhaps the earlier mentioned John Murphy who gave evidence before the Commissioners on 21st May 1642, describing himself as a merchant and ‘an Irish protestant all my life’. He swore the following to be rebels, John Harris (butcher of Athy), Gerald Fitzgerald of Brownstown, Thomas Jacob, Carlow, George Walker’s son of Athy, Edward Nugent of Kilkea, Roger Kelly of Athy ‘who was lately executed’, Edward Moore (broguemaker) of Athy and Nicholas Mulhall (merchant) of Athy. Ann Tope, widow of the late Gerald Tope of Athy, swore that she was deprived of several properties including lands attached to the Abbey of Athy on which there were approximately 40 years lease still to run. Like so many others examined by the commissioners she was unable to say who had caused her losses. Other Athy residents recorded as making Dispositions included William Beck (butcher), Robert Pickles (servant), Edward Hickman (merchant) and John Wade (spurrier). The latter alleged that three different companies of rebels robbed and murdered the people of the town of Athy. He mentioned the killing of Richard Barter and Thomas the thatcher, whose body was mutilated after he was hanged, but reserved his deepest anger for Patrick Doran of Athy who with his daughter Ann Doran stole Wade’s chest of linen, some pewter and a salted hog and brought them to Doran’s own house. The 1641 Depositions taken from largely Protestant eyewitnesses to events following the outbreak of rebellion in Ulster in 1641 gave in many cases detailed accounts of tragic happenings throughout Ireland. Some of the Depositions however were fanciful and were used by Sir John Temple whose ‘History of the Irish rebellion’ gave lurid and exaggerated accounts of massacres by both Catholic rebels and Protestant settlers. His book encouraged mutual distrust amongst Irish people of different religions which took many many years to disappear.

Tuesday, March 10, 2020

Fr. Philip Pollock and Athy's Dominican Church

Athy’s Architectural Heritage got a tremendous boost when St. Dominic’s Church was opened on 17th March 1965. The National Press in the following days mentioned the revolutionary style of Ireland’s newest church describing the church located on the west bank of the River Barrow in Athy as ‘unique in Ireland’. The Irish Times of 18th March claimed ‘yesterday Athy took its place amongst the most up to date towns of the world when its ultra-modern Dominican church was blessed and opened.’ The unusual features of the church were complimented by the artwork of George Campbell who executed the Stations of the Cross and the stained-glass windows and the crucifix executed by Kildare artist, Bríd Ní Rinn. The man responsible for the new church was the prior of St. Dominic’s, Fr. Philip Pollock. The only son of Belfast parents he was born on 14th March 1914 and educated in St. Malachys Belfast and the Dominican College, Newbridge. He entered the Dominicans in Tallaght in 1931 and spent some time in Angelica University, Rome before his ordination in 1938. He initially served as a Dominican priest in Cork and later in Dundalk before volunteering to become a chaplain during World War II. As a chaplain to the R.A.F. he served in England, North Africa, Sicily and Italy and his war experiences were later recounted in his best-selling book, ‘Wings on the Cross’. After the war Fr. Pollock returned to Dundalk and was later transferred to Limerick where he served as prior for a time. It was there that he first met the Limerick architect, John Thompson when both men were involved in the design and construction of a chapel dedicated to St. Martin de Porres. It was an association which would be renewed when Fr. Pollock came to Athy and set about planning a new church to replace the small traditional building which served as the Dominican Church for 150 years or so. The new Dominican Church in Athy was a monument to Fr. Pollock’s indefatigable spirt and organisational ability. He travelled abroad to view modern churches and in conjunction with the architect John Thompson chose an architectural style which was new for Ireland. He worked tirelessly to collect funds for the new church and made many fundraising trips to America. Fr. Pollock was a noted preacher and like his fellow Dominicans he preached parish missions, church novenas and retreats, travelling throughout Ireland and sometimes to Great Britain to preach the gospel. On 19th June 1972 Fr. Pollock was elected prior for the third time in 11 years. His sister, Mother Ephram of the Dominican Order was at the same time Mother Prioress of the Dominican convent in Wicklow. In July 1975 Fr. Pollock transferred to the Waterford Dominican priory and was replaced by Fr. Leo Clandillon who returned from Australia to take up the position. Three months later Fr. Pollock came back to Athy to receive a presentation from the people of the town. The organising committee under the chairmanship of Bill Fenlon, presented him with a new car, a Ford Escort, fully insured for a year. He was also presented a silver tankard on behalf of the ladies of St. Dominic’s Altar Society. The next day at lunch in the priory Fr. Leo Clandillon presented him with a cheque on behalf of the Dominican community. On Monday 2nd January 1978 Fr. Pollock attended a wedding at St. Dominic’s Church, Athy. He did not attend the reception afterwards as he felt unwell and instead travelled to Bangor to stay with his sister. Eleven days later Fr. Pollock died suddenly in his sister’s house. The great preacher was now silent. His remains were brought to Waterford for burial, stopping off at Athy on Sunday 15th January. His coffin was placed in front of the high altar in St. Dominics and a short prayer service was conducted by the prior, Fr. Leo Clandillon. The church was full to capacity and as the remains were carried from the church to the hearse for the onward journey to Waterford the congregation sang ‘Nearer my God to thee’. The next day Fr. Pollock was buried in the Dominican plot in St. Otteran’s cemetery, Waterford. He died two months short of his 64th birthday. Fr. Pollock was a man of many talents who during his short life used those talents to the full. His legacy to the town of Athy, where he served for 14 years, is the much-admired church building now used as a community library which will always be his monument

Tuesday, March 3, 2020

The case of Kate Connor of Athy

The Evening Herald of 2nd May 1919 under the front-page headline ‘A Child’s Religion’ and the subtitle ‘A Mother’s Dying Wish’ reported on an appeal by Kate Connor of Athy against an earlier judgment of the Master of the Rolls. Kate of Higgins Lane (locally we have always referred to it as Higginson’s Lane) applied to be appointed guardian of her 8-year-old granddaughter Josephine Connor whose mother Mary died in Dublin in July 1918. Mary had been brought up as a catholic and was of that religion when she went to live with Arthur and Margaret Strong, stationers of 32 Charlotte Street, Dublin with her 2-month-old child in 1910. In November 1912 Mary Connor was received into the Church of Ireland and thereafter attended Church of Ireland services and brought up her child in that religion. However, before Mary died, she was received back into the Catholic church and it was claimed by the priest who attended at her death bed that she expressed a wish for her child to be reared as a catholic. Mr. and Mrs. Strong insisted that the child who was still living with them should be reared by them and brought up as a member of the Church of Ireland. The grandmother living in Athy applied to the Court for the right to take the child into her care and to rear her as a catholic. The Master of the Rolls ruled against the grandmother in a judgment of February 1919 holding that in all the circumstances the child ‘would not be made more happy or profitable by the proposed change’. The Court of Appeal heard Mrs. Connor’s appeal in May 1919. Evidence was given that the grandmother was a charwoman and certified to be a respectful person while Fr. O’Rourke of St. Michael’s parish Athy testified she was a fit and proper person to be appointed guardian of the child. The Master of the Rolls had held that ‘the proposed move from the comparatively genteel and comfortable surroundings of a stationer’s shop in Dublin to the very humble house of a charwoman would not be for the advantage of the child either physically or morally.’ Further the Master in giving judgment said ‘I cannot give any consideration at all to the very laudable desire of the applicant to bring the child up in her own religion. She has no rights in this respect at all and I have to deal with the case as if one religion was as good as another.’ The Lord Chief Justice wondered if the mother’s conversion resulted from proselytising. His judicial colleague, the Lord Chancellor, who expressed little confidence in people who were proselytisers pointed out that the young mother was eight years with the Strongs ‘and her family never interfered, if any proselytising was going on.’ Counsel for the grandmother claimed that the wishes of the deceased mother should be paramount. Against that the Court were of the view that not a word of evidence had been brought against the good character of Mr. and Mrs. Strong who had acted ‘charitably and in the best spirit’. Evidence was given that the young mother, Mary Connor, was occasionally supported by her brother John who was described as a demobbed soldier. On the third day of the appeal hearing the Court, consisting of the Lord Chancellor, Lord Justice Ronan and Lord Justice O’Connor, reserved its decision. The Court of Appeal, with Lord Justice O’Connor dissenting by a majority decision, affirmed the judgment of the Master of the Rolls and dismissed the grandmother’s appeal. The young girl, Josephine, was therefore allowed to remain in the care of Mr. and Mrs. Strong. Whatever happened to the young girl Josephine Connor? Higgins Lane or Higginson’s Lane has long disappeared from Athy’s streetscape but the legal case of 101 years ago provides an interesting insight into the religious divisions which marked Irish society in the days before the emergence of the Irish Free State. Sarah Bradshaw’s partner has contacted me in an attempt to find an Athy girl (name unknown) who with her sister attended the VEC school in Crumlin Road, Dublin in or about 1977. She would have been about 17 years old at the time. The Athy girl’s mother had died some time previously and three daughters, including the two girls who attended Crumlin Road school, were sent to the Islandbridge home operated by the Sisters of Mercy. I understand Sarah Bradshaw came to Athy quite recently to search for her school friend of 40 years ago but understandably did not succeed in meeting her. Could you help her make contact?