Tuesday, July 28, 2020

The early years of Athy's Museum

Thirty-seven years have passed since Athy Museum Society was founded following a public meeting in the local Courthouse. The building which accommodated that meeting and several subsequent meetings has had a chequered career since the day in 1857 when it was opened as Athy’s corn exchange. Looking back at the story of Athy’s Museum Society and the many changes in venues used as the museum room I note that it happily mirrors the awakening amongst the people of Athy of a deeper knowledge and understanding of the town’s past. The once hidden gems and forgotten persons of past Athy generations are now being recognised and with that recognition comes an understanding of many past achievements and an appreciation of the contribution made by so many to the development of our town. Even the Museum Society itself has shown remarkable growth and has made quite extraordinary progress over the 37 years of its existence. The Sunday afternoon opening of a room in the otherwise vacant St. Mary’s Secondary School to display local historical artefacts was followed by a transfer to a side room in the Town Hall. This was facilitated by the then County Manager Gerry Ward who followed with interest the founding of the society and encouraged its development. Incidentally, the room allocated to the Museum Society was the former Town Hall Caretaker’s accommodation in the 18th century building, and when the society moved in was also home to the local fire brigade. The first opportunity to upgrade the museum came with the departure of the local fire brigade to a new fire station at Woodstock. A comprehensive historical review of Athy’s history submitted to Bord Failte resulted in the designation of Athy as a heritage town. As a result, substantial funding was made available by Bord Failte to redevelop and fit out the entire ground floor of the Town Hall as a Heritage Centre. The expansion of the once simple museum room required the employment of staff and the Centre was generously grant aided by Kildare County Council in recognition of its importance in promoting learning, creativity and inspiration through engagement with the past. Athy’s Museum Society, a voluntary organisation, then gave way to a company limited by guarantee, Athy Heritage Company Limited. It’s directors were and still are community volunteers, but today the Heritage Centre about to embark on the next stage of it’s development has been renamed The Shackleton Museum. It will continue to be responsible for presenting the story of Athy and its people, but the Shackleton theme will form a large part of the proposed redevelopment of the Town Hall and the Museum. The museum which has now re-opened following the Covid-19 closedown, is staffed by long time staff members Margaret Walsh and Sinead Cullen, assisted by local volunteers and a C.E. worker. The volunteers include Clem Roche, who provides a first-class genealogical research service for anyone with south Kildare connections, while Mark Guernon provides a walking tour of Athy for visitors. Bethany Webb McConville is another who volunteers in the museum and her Masters Degree in Library and Information Studies is of particular benefit to the museum where she has charge of the museum’s website. Another volunteer was genial ex-army man Jack Davis who retired recently after many years greeting visitors to the museum. Jack was a wonderful ambassador for the museum and for his native town and did much during his several years with us to enhance the museum experience for overseas visitors. Kathleen Murphy is currently working in the museum on a C.E. scheme and with the manager Margaret Walsh and the Care of Collection Officer Sinead Cullen, forms a formidable team which keeps the working of the museum up to the standards required by an accredited museum. I mentioned earlier the museum’s website and if you visit it’s site you can go on a virtual tour of the museum. The innovative 3D virtual tour is the work of Oliver Murray of www.contemporaryphotography.ie who gave his expert services free of charge to the museum. The 3D virtual tour gives an amazing view into the extensive range of museum exhibits and being available worldwide is a huge advancement on the facilities the Museum offered in the early years of its existence. Many persons have facilitated the development of the museum over the years. Many others have encouraged the work of the museum, while there are many who worked sometimes in the public eye but more often without public recognition over many years to give Athy not only a first class museum, but also an annual international polar event which is recognised as one of the world’s foremost events of its kind.

Tuesday, July 21, 2020

Car owners in Athy 1911/'12

The Gordan Bennett race of July 1903 made Ireland, for a short time at least, the epicentre of the motoring world. The race took place seven years after the speed limit on public roads was increased to 12 miles per hour from the earlier limit of 4mph which originally applied to steam driven locomotives. The Gordan Bennett race was run over a figure of eight course centred around Athy and the huge national and international interest in the race brought many visitors to south Kildare. The race won by the Belgian Mercedes driver Camille Jenatzy in the German colours was regarded as a highly successful event which went from strength to strength until abandoned in 1906 in favour of the Grand Prix. One young onlooker in Athy during the 1903 race was William Ringwood McCulloch from Sawyerswood whose livelong interest in motor cars was formed as he watched the dare devil drivers from Germany, France, England and America drive at an average speed of 45 – 49mph over three laps of the Gordan Bennett course. His interest in cars was sustained throughout his adult life and it was William Ringwood McCulloch who rescued and restored the 1902 Arrol Johnson car which is on display in Athy’s Heritage Centre. 1903 was also the year the Motor Car Act increased the speed limit to 20mph with provision for a 10mph limit if any local authority wished to apply it. Motors cars were expensive and invariably owned by the well to do. The Irish Motor Directory for 1911/’12 gave a list of car owners and bicycle owners for County Kildare. There were a total of 316 cars registered in the county, with 173 bicycles or what we would now describe as motor bikes. Those early motor bikes were spindly motorised bicycles with large, yet generally unreliable engines. Rev. P.T.S. Large of Carnalway, Kilcullen, registered the first motor car in county Kildare and so secured the unique registration no. IO 1. Dan Carbery of Athy was the owner of car IO 3. He was the founder of the building contractor firm D&J Carbery & Co. Ltd. Also registered as the owner of the motorbike IO36 was Daniel Carbery, whom I assume was a son of the car owner of the same name. Reginald Alvey of Rockhouse, Fontstown and George Ash of Narraghmore were also bike owners registered IO 53 and IO 71 respectively. Who was F.R. White of Athy, another bike owner whose machine was allocated the registration no. IO 105? Hugh Hurley, with an address in Duke Street, registered a motor bike IO 83. It has often been claimed over the years that Hugh Hurley was the first car owner in Athy. It would appear that Dan Carbery held that honour. Another bike owner was Francis Jackson of Leinster Street who was the owner of IO 91. Many of the registered owners for both cars and motor bikes in the county of Kildare would appear to have been members of the military based in the Curragh, several of whom gave their UK addresses. S.M. Telford of the Abbey, Athy, registered his car IO 135, while his near neighbour John A. Butler of Emily Square was the owner of car IO189. Coursetown resident Henry J. Hosie was the owner of motor bike registration no. IO 210, while car registration no. IO 280 was registered in the name of James Duthie, the Foundry, Athy. This was obviously Duthie of the firm Duthie Large which emerged some time later. Not to be outclassed by his brother, W.B. Jackson registered his ownership of motorbike IO 303, while another Jackson, this time William, again of Leinster Street, registered motor bike IO 351 in his name. A name which would feature in Athy’s commercial life for many decades was that of J.S. Maxwell whose car IO 357 appeared on the list with the address 50 Duke Street. Another person, once very prominent in this area, was T.A. Lumley who from his home in Holmcroft registered his car IO 394. Matthew J. Minch of Rockfield acquired his car not too long after Lumley and was allocated the registration no. IO 458. The last Athy person to register a car for inclusion in the 1911/’12 listing was James Duthie, owner of IO 495. With an address at Leinster Street, was he I wonder the same James Duthie who registered the car IO 280 from an address at the Foundry? The number of cars registered in neighbouring county Kilkenny came to 57, with 35 bicycles, while the vehicle numbers for county Kildare were about six times higher. The number of British officers in the Curragh involved in acquiring cars and/or bikes in the early years of motor travel would appear to explain the huge disparity. Recent years has brought car ownership within the reach of most people and in the process has changed the landscape and the way we live. Those early pioneers of car ownership in Athy could hardly anticipate the way in which modern motor traffic has impacted on all our lives in the early decades of the 21st century.

Tuesday, July 14, 2020

Fr. Mathews Temperance Campaign Medals and Ballylinan Carnival prize medal

In a recent Eye on the Past I made reference to Fr. Mathew’s Temperance Campaign and his visits to Athy in 1840 and 1842. The earlier visit had been noted in the diary of local man, Michael Cleary, while the second visit was mentioned in the book ‘Footsteps of Fr. Mathew’. Since then I have rediscovered a reference to Fr. Mathew’s temperance meeting in Athy which I had previously mislaid. That reference was in the Annals of the local Sisters of Mercy whose annalist referred to the temperance meeting held before a large crowd of local people in the ‘commons of Clonmullin’. Following the publication of the article in which I referenced Fr. Mathew’s visits to Athy I received a phone call from Denis Smyth who is one of the many local persons who makes valuable contributions to my ongoing search for the hidden gems and forgotten people of Athy’s past. Denis had three temperance medals which were handed down through the Smyth family and which he has since kindly donated to the local Heritage Centre. One of those medals had been presented to his grandfather, Patrick Smyth, by Fr. Mathew at one of the temperance meetings in Athy. Patrick Smyth, who was born in 1832, was a young boy on the occasion of Fr. Mathew’s second Athy visit and he would go on to survive the Great Famine which ravaged Irish towns and the Irish countryside between 1845 and 1849. The identity of those presented with the other two medals is not known but it may be presumed that the recipients were other members of the Smyth family. The burnished pewter medals manufactured in their thousands in a Birmingham factory cost 3½ pence each and were intended to be sold at one shilling each at every temperance meeting. We are told that Fr. Mathew gave the medals away ‘with a prodigal hand’. Apparently silver medals were also manufactured but were reserved for what were described as ‘distinguished persons who joined the temperance society and priests.’ A happy coincidence saw Vincent Carmody of Listowel, author and local historian, phone me around the same time as the Fr. Mathew medals were brought to my attention. Vincent had been given a silver medal inscribed ‘Ballylinan carnival 1939’ by Cila Browne of Listowel who was unaware of its provenance but wished to present it to Athy’s Heritage Centre. The Ballylinan carnivals have been the subject of previous Eyes on the Past and I have carnival programmes for 1937 and 1939. I have not seen the carnival programme for 1935, the first year the carnival was held. I would like to hear from anyone who might have a copy of that carnival programme or indeed any Ballylinan carnival, if held after 1939. Returning to the medal it was presented either for a boxing tournament or a football match between Leix and Offaly, both events which were listed as part of the 1939 carnival programme. The boxing tournament was the only competitive event for which the programme named the competitors. These included A. Shelly, T. Hynes, M. Keenan, T. Murphy, J. Conroy, J. Keane, B. Hinds and J. Keenan, all of Portlaoise Boxing Club. T. Smith, C. Lewis, G. Mulligan and M. McKeever represented Phoenix Boxing Club. Locals involved included M. Day, W. Hovington, E. Nolan and P. Vaughan of Ballylinan Boxing Club. I wonder if J. Hegarty representing Catholic Boy Scouts or J. O’Neill, C.B.S. Boxing Club were local boxers from this area? I would be surprised if the 1939 carnival boxing tournament did not have a number of young boxers from Athy as Sydney Minch had started a boxing club in the town in the 1930s. Athy’s temperance meetings remind me that excessive alcohol drinking in pre famine days was facilitated by the many illegal drinking houses, otherwise called ‘shebeens’ which were a common feature of those times. ‘Shebeen’ is a term which has today been appropriated by top class restaurants and liquor stores, especially in countries other than Ireland. Athy, the home of the Irish malting industry, witnessed the opening of its own ‘Auld Shebeen’ on Thursday 9th July. Intrigued by the extensive building works which commenced in the pre Covid 19 shutdown days I ventured into the ‘Auld Sheibeen’ in William Street before it opened. The public house once owned by generations of the Purcell family has been transformed and extended with style and panache. Great credit is due to Dan Curtis and his wife Edwina for creating a very noteworthy addition to Athy’s hospitality sector.

Tuesday, July 7, 2020

George Wyndham and the Fitzgerald Connection

The extraordinary connections in Irish history were brought home to me as I read the ‘Life and Letters of George Wyndham’ who served as Chief Secretary of Ireland for five years from 1900. Wyndham, described in the Oxford ‘Companion to Irish History’ as ‘a colourful liberal Tory’ and ‘an ambitious reformer’ was responsible for the Land Act of 1903. That Act, generally called Wyndham’s Land Act was the fifth piece of legislation passed by the English House of Commons in 33 years in an attempt to resolve the vexed question of land ownership in 19th century Ireland. The Act of 1870 passed by Gladstone’s government was an attempt to give legal status to the ‘Ulster custom’ by providing compensation for evicted tenants other than those owing rent and compensation for improvements by tenants relinquishing their tenancies. Gladstone’s second Land Act eleven years later was more successful in accepting Irish tenants demands for fair rents, fixity of tenure and freedom of sale while at the same time establishing the Irish Land Commission. In 1885 the Purchase of Land Act increased the loans available through the Land Commission for land purchases. Six years later another Purchase of Land Act established the Congested District Boards and land bonds were introduced as an alternative form of payment for landlords selling lands to their tenants. It was George Wyndham’s Land Act of 1903 which more than any other piece of English legislation broke the Irish landlord’s hold on power which had existed for centuries. The Act was the product of a compromise between Irish landlords and their tenants even though it was opposed by the founder of the Land League, Michael Davitt and to a lesser extent by John Dillon, leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party. Wilfred Scawen Blunt, an Englishman, acting as an intermediary between John Dillon and his cousin George Wyndham helped bring about the 1903 Land Act. Wyndham’s father was a first cousin of Blunt who supported the Plan of Campaign for which he, Blunt, was imprisoned in 1887. Wilfred Scawen Blunt, the one time lover of Lady Gregory, supported the evicted tenants of Luggacurran and was on the platform with William O’Brien, prior to the laying of the ‘foundation stone’ of the first huts built in Campaign Square Luggacurran for the evicted tenants. The passing of Wyndham’s Land Act of 1903 led within ten years to almost 75% of former Irish tenant farmers owning their own land. The shift in power from the absentee landlords to the former tenant farmers was promoted by George Wyndham, an Englishman whose mother was a granddaughter of Lord Edward Fitzgerald and his young wife Pamela. Wyndham’s father Percy first met Madeline Campbell, a granddaughter of Lord Edward at Palmerstown House, Naas where his sister Lady Mayo resided. The young couple married soon afterwards. But George Wyndham was not the only English establishment figure connected by marriage to a member of Lord Edward Fitzgerald’s family. Lord Edward’s eldest daughter Pamela married Sir Guy Campbell, whose father had played a prominent part in suppressing the United Irishmen rising and defeating the French. Colonel Colm Campbell was the Officer commanding at Athy during the early part of the 1798 Rebellion. He was the man who raided the home of Thomas Fitzgerald of Geraldine, Athy and claimed to have found ‘suspicious papers’ showing Fitzgerald’s involvement with the United Irishmen. Campbell’s troops lived at free quarters in Fitzgerald’s house for some time thereafter and the calvary corps which Fitzgerald captained were publicly disarmed in the Market Square, Athy in April 1798. Fitzgerald, who was a Catholic member of the extended Duke of Leinster’s family, was imprisoned for some time as a result of Campbell’s suspicions and unfounded claims. How strange to find that Lord Edward Fitzgerald’s eldest daughter should marry the son of the man responsible for the pacification of south Kildare during the ’98 rebellion and the imprisonment and execution of so many of Lord Edward’s followers. Equally surprising is to find the great grandson of the United Irishman leader Lord Edward Fitzgerald presiding over English administration in Ireland at the start of the 20th century. George Wyndham, the so called ‘liberal tory’, the son of a granddaughter of Lord Edward, , was very aware of his great grandfather’s place in the annals of Irish history. Writing to his mother on 29th April 1902 he noted, ‘some days ago I was given a beautiful green enamel and rose diamond pin of Lord Edwards. Yesterday an unknown - letter enclosed and please keep it - sent me a beautiful seal that belonged to him.’ The family link between the British diplomatic servant and the Irish rebel of a previous generation was obviously cherished by the Irish Chief Secretary based in Dublin Castle.