Tuesday, August 25, 2020

The old laneways, alleyways and courtyards of Athy

It all started with a query concerning Carrs Court, a small courtyard of houses at the back of Leinster Street with an entrance off Mount Hawkins. Who was Carr was the question which prompted me to consider the number of laneways, alleyways and courtyards in Athy named after landlords of previous generations? Athy, long a garrison town but soon to lose whatever economic advantage accrued from having a cavalry barracks in the town, was in the early decades of the 19th century a typical poor Irish provincial town. Unemployment and poverty went hand in hand and a countryside reeling from the devastation of the Great Famine held few opportunities for its people. The medical officer of the Athy dispensary, Dr. Edward Ferris, reported to the Town Commissioners in September 1873 that ‘the dwellings of the labouring population of this town and still more the yards attached to them are for the most part in a very bad state.’ Another 40 years were to pass before the first local authority houses were built in Athy. Prior to that housing for what was always referred to as the poorer classes was provided by private individuals. Houses of the most basic type were built to rent to local families. Those same houses were the subject of a report submitted to the local Town Council in 1932 by Dr. J.L. Kilbride in which he claimed that 1,292 persons were living in 323 houses containing ‘no more than two rooms and devoid of any sanitary accommodation whatsoever.’ In Barrack Street he found 11 people including married couples living in a two roomed house. On Canal Side there were four houses with no yard and in one lived ten people and another house had six occupants. This state of affairs, he claimed, was a strong indictment against the landlords even though he acknowledged the rents charged were as small as 10 pence a week, but generally ranged from one shilling to one shilling and six pence a week. The local Urban District Council which succeeded the Town Commissioners and the much earlier Borough Council were the first local authority for the town of Athy to provide local authority homes. The first housing scheme was completed in 1913 and comprised eleven houses in Mathews Lane, later renamed St. Michael’s Terrace, five houses in Meeting Lane and six houses in St. Martin’s Terrace. Although the houses were built following the Council’s adoption of the Housing of Working Classes Act of 1890 the Town Clerk reported that while there were 33 applicants for the 22 new houses ‘the houses are occupied principally by artisans. None of the tenants belong to the working class.’ No doubt the rents changed, ranging from 2/6 to 5/= per week were too expensive for the largely unemployed families whose men folk would enlist in large numbers during the first world war. The Urban Council would continue with its house building programme and gradually removed from the town landscape the privately rented houses which for so long accommodated many local families in unfit and unsanitary conditions. The local Slum Clearance Programmes of the 1930s saw the demolition of these small unfit houses built in the previous century by private landlords. With their removal was lost also the local names of laneways, alleyways and courtyards first noted on maps of Athy prepared by Clarges Greene in 1825 and later by the Ordnance Survey Office of Ireland. Carrs Court, Kellys Lane, Butlers Row, Baxters Lane, Higginsons Lane, Connollys Lane, James Place, Meirs Lane, Coopers Lane and Plewmans Row were all reminders of the landlords of another era about whom we now know nothing. They were probably men or women of wealth and importance in Athy of their time, but now in 2020 their names and the houses they built have disappeared. Some Athy local authority housing schemes bear the name of locals honoured for their involvement in public affairs. Michael Dooley’s Terrace, opened in 1934, was named in honour of a former member of the Town Council and the one time Chairman of the local Sinn Fein Club. Carbery Park was named to honour Tom Carbery, a town and county Councillor who died in May 1974, while Plewman’s Terrace honours Thomas Plewman, a former Chairman of the Town Council. Malone Place remembers Eamon Malone, local Old I.R.A. leader during the War of Independence, while Minches Terrace was so called in tribute to the local firm ‘so long connected with the public and industrial life of the town.’ Contrary to some peoples belief Pairc Bhride was not named after Bridget Darby, Cumann na mBan member and Gaelic League Secretary as well as town and county Councillor but like St. Patrick’s Terrace and St. Patrick’s Avenue, was named after the Irish saint. Bridget Darby it must be said was deserving of the honour and perhaps she will be suitably honoured in the future.

Tuesday, August 18, 2020

Dominicans in Athy

The ceremony of thanksgiving held in the Church of the Priory of St. Dominic’s on Sunday, 22nd November 2015 was the last Mass celebrated by a Dominican priest in the town of Athy. The first Mass by the newly arrived Dominicans in the medieval village of Athy took place just thirty-three years after the Dominicans came to Ireland. Those first Dominicans were Normans and spoke Norman French. We know little or nothing about the early years of the Dominicans in Athy except that their first church and all subsequent Dominican churches in the town were dedicated to St. Peter, Martyr of Verona, one of the earliest saints of the Dominican order. The Dominican Provincial, Fr. Gregory Carroll, issued a statement on 27th October 2015 announcing the Order’s long association with Athy was about to close. He continued:- ‘The Irish Dominicans are saddened that declining numbers have forced them to recognise that they cannot remain in all the centres in which they have been serving. The purpose of the reorganisation now under way in the Irish Province is to concentrate in fewer locations so as to make the work of the Dominicans more effective in the core ministries of preaching, primary pastoral care and youth formation, while providing for the formation of those joining the Order, and at the same time respecting traditional postulates’. He expressed gratitude that the church which represented a significant development in church architecture in Ireland and was opened on St. Patrick’s Day 1965, would be available as a public amenity for the people of Athy. Speaking at the final Mass the former prior of Athy, Fr. John Harris, explained that the Dominican friars had made the decision to close the Athy priory with ‘heavy hearts, and we can’t blame Henry VIII or Cromwell this time’. His reference was to the suppression of the Dominican Priory in Athy in 1539 and the subsequent withdrawal of the prior, Fr. Robert Woulff and his small community of Friars from the town. Oliver Cromwell invaded in Ireland in August 1649 and gaining his first military victory against the Catholic Confederates in Drogheda had the entire garrison slaughtered, amongst their numbers being six priests, one of whom was Fr. Richard Ovington, sub prior of Athy. Other members of the Athy Dominican community were subsequently imprisoned including Fr. Redmond Moore, prior in 1661/’62 and Fr. Joseph Carroll, prior of Athy in 1664. When the Dominicans left Athy almost five years ago they left us with a beautiful building which has since been adapted for use as our town library. Within the former church the Dominicans also left a church organ which had been installed in the 1980s. It was intended that it would remain in the building, but Kildare County Council had the organ removed and I understand it has been donated to another church. The bell tower attached to the previous small T shaped Dominican church was built in 1898 and it remains part of the building landscape of the new town library. The small church was erected in 1850 and the bell tower housed the bell presented to the Athy Dominicans 48 years later. The inscription on the bell records that it was presented by ‘the Rosary Confraternity and other kind friends’. It was cast by M. Byrne of the Fountain Head Bell Foundry, James Street, Dublin and brought to Athy by canal boat. The Dominican bell on the west side of the River Barrow has an older church bell companion on the opposite side of the river. This latter bell can be seen high up on the front of the Town Hall. It came from the Anglican church which was once located at the rear of the Town Hall. When the new church at the top of Offaly Street was consecrated in September 1841 the old church was demolished and the church bell which bears the date 1682 was removed and was later placed on what was then the Courthouse in July 1860. Perhaps the most important legacy of the Athy Dominicans is the Lay Dominicans who meet on a regular basis for prayer and study in groups which are called Chapters. The Dominican laity were involved with the local priests in saying the divine office in the Dominican church from about 1992. This coincided with the opening of a novitiate in the Athy priory but unfortunately the Athy novitiate did not last for very long. One of the few visible reminders of the Dominican Order’s long association with Athy is the plaque which was unveiled by Sean Cunnane, Chairman of Athy U.D.C. on Sunday, 7th October 2007. It is located on the small wall at the entrance to the present town library and reads:- ‘This plaque is dedicated by a grateful townspeople to the memory of the friars of the Order of Friar Preachers who since 1257 have faithfully served the people of this town and district’.

Tuesday, August 11, 2020

Mike Robinson's account of leaving Athy in 1960

Mike Robinson, born in this parish 77 years ago and now a long-time resident in Australia, sent me an email on 7th June which read:- ‘Today is the 60th anniversary of my daring escape from Athy in June 1960.’ What followed was an account of that ‘escape’ which brought him to England and then a year later to Australia by way of an assisted passage scheme. With Mike’s permission I have edited his account and hand over this week’s Eye to a former classmate. ‘Back in those days I was working in the offices of Smiths of Cavan, a car/tractor dealership next door to the IVI in Leinster Street. When I finished work on Saturday June 5th I had a blazing row with my mother ….. in my anger I jumped on my NSU auto-cycle and headed for Kilrush, County Clare ….. John Purtill, who used to be the garage manager at Smiths of Cavan in Athy, returned to his native Clare and opened a garage in Kilrush ….. in my blind faith and ignorance I was sure he would give me a job ….. the trip to Kilrush turned out to be an overnight one. The top speed of the NSU was about 25 miles an hour, and after an hour or so riding at top speed the tiny engine overheated and had to be rested for half an hour. By nightfall I was still in Tipperary and less than half way to my destination. Around 11pm I pulled over and slept in a ditch while a gentle summer rain pitter-pattered down on me ….. around midday on Sunday I reached Kilrush. I asked around for John Purtill and was told he had gone away for the weekend ….. I turned the bike around and headed back towards Athy. Sunday night was again spent sleeping in a ditch in the middle of nowhere ….. I decided early on Monday morning to pack my bags, meagre as they were, and leave Ireland. England it would have to be, but I didn't know anyone there except my uncle John, and I had no idea where he lived in England ….. I went to my grandmother's house to get uncle John's address in England ….. she didn't have his address ….. however, she had an address for an Irish woman she used to work with in years past ….. the address she gave me was in Surrey ….. I went home and quietly packed a few belongings into an old cardboard suitcase that belonged to my sister. Then I zipped down to the post office on my bike and cashed in my savings stamps, which amounted to about £12, giving me £18 to finance my new start in life. I hitched a lift to Dublin from where I caught a bus out to Dun Laoghaire to board the overnight cattle boat to Holyhead. The boat was packed with Irish labourers returning from short summer holidays in Ireland. Many of them were drinking heavily ….. at Holyhead the boat passengers disgorged into a waiting train that soon departed for London. It was a restless night for me surrounded by drunks. At Euston Station early on Tuesday morning I found scenes that were totally foreign to me. The scale of activity at the train station dwarfed anything I'd ever seen in my life and I knew I might never again live in a place where I knew everyone either by sight or by name. [Mike safely reached the address given by his grandmother and there met her old friend and her husband who lived in the basement of a large house. Both were in service with responsibility of keeping the house boilers stoked with coal.] ‘For the next three months I slept on a sofa in the basement of that magnificent house ….. despite living in a sooty-black basement with my grandmother’s friend, her husband and an incontinent hen named Polly, things were looking up. There was a London Transport bus depot in Reigate so I applied for a job there as a bus conductor. What I didn’t know was that the minimum age for London Transport bus conductors was 19. I was only 17 years and one month old at the time ….. at this remove I can't recall how or why I persuaded myself that I could get someone I hardly knew back in Ireland, a person of utmost respectability and public piety, to provide me with a falsified birth certificate. But that's what I did ….. I wrote a short letter to the sacristan in Athy telling her the predicament I was in and asking her if she could get me a birth certificate stating I was born in 1941. The certificate arrived almost by return post and I became a London Transport bus conductor before the end of June 1960, probably the youngest bus conductor in the history of London Transport.’ Mike emigrated to Australia the following year where he had a successful career. That same June 1960 some of Mike’s former classmates sat their Leaving Certificate exams in the C.B.S. school in St. John’s Lane. Many of them were destined to follow in Mike’s trail and take the emigrant boat.

Tuesday, August 4, 2020

The 150th Anniversary Celebration of Irish Christian Brothers in Athy

On 24th February 1994 seven local men and women met in Athy to discuss ways of marking the 150th anniversary of the death of Edmund Ignatius Rice, founder of the Irish Christian Brothers. At a subsequent public meeting held in the Town Hall a committee was formed to make arrangements to celebrate the event and to record and commemorate the Christian Brothers’ presence in Athy as the intended departure of the Brothers from the town had in the meantime been announced. The committee, chaired by Frank McNulty, principal of St. Patrick’s School, Monica Langton as treasurer and this writer as secretary, arranged a series of events which took place on Friday 23rd September 1994 and the following day. A memorial plaque commemorating the Christian Brothers was unveiled on the Friday evening in the car park which the Urban District Council re-named Edmund Rice Square. This was followed by a reception and a musical recital in the nearby St. Patrick’s School. The following day the Christian Brothers attending for the weekend were given a civic reception by the Urban District Council. This was followed by another reception and a musical recital in Scoil Eoin. The ceremonies concluded that Saturday with Mass in the Parish Church celebrated by Bishop Eamon Walsh followed by dinner in the GAA clubhouse. A small booklet outlining the history of the Christian Brothers in Athy following their arrival in the town on 8th August 1861 was published. In a copy of that booklet members of the organising committee signed their names during a dinner which was held in the Castle Inn on 21st January 1995. It was the final get together of the committee members and was organised to coincide with the departure of Brother John Murphy from Athy and the planned departure of Brother Joe Quinn two weeks later. They were the last two Christian Brothers of the many members of Edmund Rice’s foundation who had come and gone from the Christian Brothers monastery in Athy over the previous 134 years. That final dinner was remembered by me on a note which I inserted in the earlier mentioned booklet, which booklet each of the committee members at the dinner signed. Amongst the signatures were those of Maureen Dowling and her husband Patrick. I wrote: ‘the dinner party held in the Castle Inn Athy on 21st January 1995 broke up at midnight. Maureen Dowling, on reaching home, suffered a stroke from which she died on Monday 23rd January at 12.40pm. Brother J. Murphy left Athy on Monday at 12.50pm for Dublin, travelling with Brother J. Quinn in the community car. Maureen Dowling was buried on Wednesday 25th January in St. Michael’s cemetery.’ Later that month I wrote the following in the Athy newsletter which the late Noreen Kelleher edited and printed on a monthly basis: ‘Death comes to all of us. In old age it is often greeted as a welcoming release while for the young it is an intruder stalking prey never destined to grow to maturity. Its ravages are to be seen everywhere but its immediacy is not always appreciated even in a community where we share in the grief and sorrow of others. Last Saturday evening a small group of men and women who had worked throughout the summer to commemorate the Christian Brothers in Athy met to give a final send-off to Brother J.D. Murphy and Brother J.F. Quinn. Brother Murphy was to leave Athy for St. Patrick’s, Baldoyle two days later, while Brother Quinn will leave for Naas Christian Brothers within weeks. There were twelve of us and two Christian Brothers gathered at the private meal. Formalities were shunned as we sat around the table swopping stories and sharing our appreciation of the good work of the Christian Brothers in our town over many years. With us was Maureen Dowling and her husband Pat, both of whom had thrown themselves enthusiastically and with dedication into the Committee’s work over the long summer months of last year. Maureen spoke thoughtfully and eloquently of the Christian Brothers in Athy and was in good form throughout the night. Within an hour of leaving that gathering she suffered a fatal illness and died on Monday last, as Brother Murphy was on his way to his last posting in Dublin. The shock of Maureen’s passing stunned all who knew her, especially those people with whom she had shared her last social evening on this earth. Reflecting on her death I could not but feel the tragedy of a loss the immediacy of which was heightened by our mutual association just a short time before. Nothing brings home more effectively the transitory nature of life’s pleasures than the passing of a friend and colleague whose time has been cut short.’ I was reminded of the events of 25 years ago on reading an account of the commemoration held in Athy in 1944 for Edmund Rice’s centenary. The opportunity will be taken in a future Eye to write of that celebration.