Tuesday, September 29, 2020

Schools in Athy

On a recent visit to Ardscoil na Tríonóide I was reminded of my old school in St. John’s Lane and how secondary schooling in Ireland has changed in the intervening years. In my secondary school days the entire complement of pupils occupied three classrooms and the teachers comprised two Christian Brothers and two lay teachers. Nowadays the co-ed school caters for 865 pupils, with approximately 60 teachers. Donagh O’Malley’s announcement in September 1966 that the country would have free post primary education from 1967/’68 onwards was perhaps the most significant advancement in relation to Irish education since the founding of the National Educational System in 1831. Other than references to private schools in Athy in the 17th and 18th centuries and to the Charter School in Castledermot little is known of education in south Kildare prior to 1831. Under the provisions of an Act of Parliament of 1537 Church of Ireland clergymen were required to take an oath to teach or cause to be taught English schools within their parishes. There is no record of any Athy rector providing a school in Athy prior to the formation of the Kildare Place Society 1811. In 1817 a school with 22 pupils managed by Rev. Charles Bristow, resident curate of Athy, was opened in part of the Courthouse (now the Town Hall). Pupil numbers attending increased to 66 in 1820 and to 127 three years later. Colonel Fitzgerald of Geraldine House is recorded as having provided at a date unknown in the early years of the 19th century a lime and stone schoolhouse for the children of Athy in the area of the present Catholic Church. This was apparently the first building dedicated to the schooling of Catholic boys and girls where the first teachers were Patrick O’Rourke and Anne Doogan. That Catholic school, known as the Poor School, was supported by local subscriptions and superintended by the local Parish Priest, while the Rev. Bristow’s school, known as the Parish School, was supported by the Kildare Place Society. The primary education system established in 1831 was intended to provide education for children of different religions in the same schools with religious instruction limited to reading of the Bible without comment. This was prompted by Catholic clergy’s dissatisfaction with the Kildare Place Society, which Society when established, was intended to provide elementary education for the poor ‘divested of sectarian distinction’. However, the Catholic clergy claimed the Society was not fit for purpose due to proselytisation claims. Those claims were accepted by the Irish Education Enquiries of 1824/’27 which were conducted by five Commissioners, four of which were Protestants. As a result the Commissioners proposed merging existing schools into an inter denominational state school system to give a national education system under the management of a National Education Board. The national education system of 1831 enjoyed the support of a majority of the Catholic bishops and indeed the Catholic Archbishop of Dublin was one of the seven members of the National Education Board. However, that support was not long lasting and before too long the national education system fell out of favour with the Catholic clergy. In their desire to control the education of young Catholics the Catholic clergy shared the Church of Ireland’s opposition to the non-denominational system of education. This led to the denominational school system we have today. Within three years of the founding of the new national education system Athy had three schools. The former Poor School, now known as the National Day School, had 168 boys and 76 girls attending. The Parochial Day School, previously known as the Parish School, had 84 boys and 60 girls as pupils. An evening school operated by G. Bingham was also recorded in the Commissioners of Education Returns for 1834. The following year the National Day School had separated into a girls school and a boys school. To the school building provided years earlier by Col. Fitzgerald was now added another school building provided by Mrs. Doorley who had a malting business in the town. At the height of the Great Famine records show that what was called the Protestant School, where A. Jackson and M. Shugar taught, was located in Emily Square. It had moved from the Courthouse to the house at the corner of Emily Square and Meeting House Lane, owned in recent years by Jack Deegan. The National School in Stanhope Place had as teachers W. O’Connell and C. Lawler, while Emily Square was the location of a classical and boarding school operated by John Flynn. This was one of the many private schools which had been operating in Athy from as far back as the 1670s. The schools in Athy have grown through various stages over the years to arrive at the impressive primary and secondary educational facilities now located at Rathstewart and the Monasterevin Road. We should never forget the dark days of 200 years ago when the majority of the town’s children did not have the means or the opportunity to attend school. That opportunity would come with the opening of the Model School, the Christian Brothers schools and the Sisters of Mercy schools, all of which were established in the years immediately following the Great Famine.

Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Athy Markets

I never fully appreciated the large number of markets in Athy of old and the range of goods for sale at those markets. That all changed when I came across the market byelaws passed by Athy Urban Council in July 1907. Twelve market places were mentioned in the byelaws. The enclosed market on the ground floor of the Town Hall was for the sale of butter and eggs. The markets for corn, fish, vegetables, fruit, cabbage plants in carts, cooperage, ponies and kerries were located in the market square. The market for hay, straw, coals and wool were to be found in the hay market, while the fowl market was at the west and south side of the courthouse. The markets for turnips and mangolds were at the northern end of the courthouse, while the market for potatoes was in the aptly named potato market. The calf market was at the east side of the courthouse. The market for secondhand clothes, potato baskets, earthenware and all miscellaneous articles was held between the Barrow Bridge and south end of chains on Barrow Quay. The turf market was located opposite the chains on Barrow Quay. The buttermilk market in Woodstock Street. The pig market in Woodstock Street and William Street as far as the Canal Bridge and Nelson Street. The market for gates, ladders, etc. at the northern side of Leinster Street above the public pump. I am unable to identify the precise location of the hay market and potato market. The cattle market was held on the first Wednesday of the month, with the pig market on the preceding day. The various markets were to be opened at times specified in the byelaws. Fowl market not earlier than 7am. The butter, calf and egg markets at 9am. Hay and turnip markets at 10am. Corn and potato market at 11am. Fruit, vegetables and fish at 8am. Fat pig market not earlier than 7am, while the small pig market started at 10am. Secondhand clothes, earthenware, etc., turf, horses, creels, carts, donkeys, jennets could be sold not earlier than 10am. No one was allowed to bring a cart into the pig market before 10am, except while loading or unloading. The Council forbade persons in charge of any wagon, cart or other vehicle, whether with a horse or otherwise, at any time while the markets were held, to keep them in the market places or any street leading to the markets so as to cause an obstruction. Market traders were also required not to place goods on the ground so as to inconvenience the public, while a similar restriction was imposed on local shopkeepers with premises adjoining the various marketplaces. A unique byelaw was that which prohibited persons from smoking or spitting in the butter market for which a penalty of five pounds was payable in the event of a breach. An appendix to the byelaws set out the tolls payable on all goods and produce exposed for sale in the various markets. Sack of corn 1 penny. Sack of potatoes 1 penny. Basket or box of fish 2 pence. Churn of buttermilk 1 penny. Cart of cabbage, plants or fruit 3 pence. Cart of fish 6 pence. Every calf, pony, donkey, Kerry or other animal 2 pence. [A Kerry was a breed of small black dairy cattle peculiar to Ireland]. Basket of fowl 1 penny. Cart of fowl 3 pence. Creel of bonhams 3 pence. Every fat pig 1 penny. Basket or box of eggs 1 penny. Cart of secondhand clothes 1 shilling. Cart of churns, etc. 6 pence. Every gate, wheel, barrow, ladder, cart 1 penny. Every lump of butter not exceeding 7 lbs. 1 half penny. Every lump of butter not exceeding 14lbs. 1 penny. Every lump of butter not exceeding 28lbs. 2 pence. Every lump of butter over 28 lbs. 3 pence. These tolls were payable to the Urban Council and I suppose they were the 1907 equivalent of parking fees which the County Council impose on today’s traders and customers alike. Butter was apparently weighed free of charge, but other produce sold by weight at the markets had to pay the following tolls at the town ouncel. Every sack of corn 1 penny. Every sack of potatoes 1 penny. Every pack of wool 1 shilling. Every load of turnips, mangolds, potatoes 3 pence. Every load of coal 6 pence. Every load of hay or straw one farthing per cwt. Every load of metal, iron or timber 6 pence. Every load of stones or gravel 1 penny. Every pig 1 penny. Every sheep 1 penny. Every beast 2 pence. Athy in 1907 was regarded as one of the leading market towns in Ireland with links to Dublin via the canal, the railway and with a road system then more than adequate to meet the needs of the time. The Urban Council by utilising its byelaw powers played a significant role in regulating the commercial life of the market town 113 years ago.

Tuesday, September 15, 2020

J.J. Bergin

A name which regularly appears whenever I research events of the past 100 years is that of John James Bergin, known by all as J.J. Bergin. Today he is remembered as the founder of the National Ploughing Association. I remember J.J. Bergin for his involvement in athletics in the mid 1950s and his attempt to develop another Ronnie Delaney from amongst the youngsters who attended for training on the green at Pairc Bhride. An even earlier memory of J.J. Bergin is of a film show in the Social Club in St. John’s Hall featuring the 1953 World Ploughing Championships held in Canada which J.J. Bergin attended and where he was elected Vice President of the World Association. Long before the 1950s J.J. Bergin was a famous figure not only in Athy but nationally as well. The first local reference I have found to him was in a newspaper report of January 1917 which mentioned him acting as Master of Ceremonies at the annual Ancient Order of Hibernians Dance held in the Town Hall. J.J., whom I understand was an engineer, was then manager of Wolfhill Colliery and it was he who met with the Chief Secretary of Ireland, H.K. Duke when he travelled to Athy in January 1917 to discuss the proposed construction of a railway line between Athy and the colliery in Wolfhill. By all accounts J.J. Bergin was a busy man as later in 1917 he was reported as having designed the scenery for the Athy Hibernian Players who staged the play ‘The O’Carolans’ in the Town Hall. He was also reported in the local press as the organiser of Irish dancing classes in Athy as well as the founder of a Pipers Band in the town in or around 1914. The founding of the Sinn Fein Club in Athy prior to June 1917 saw many of the local A.O.H. members joining the Republican Club. Amongst those who joined was J.J. Bergin who was one of the speakers at a dinner held in the Leinster Arms Hotel arranged by the local Sinn Club to mark the visit to Athy of the singer and 1916 activist, Gerald Crofts, following his release from Lewes Jail. J.J. issued a statement five days before the arrival of Crofts in Athy in July 1917, asserting that he was a Sinn Feiner for the previous three years and declaring that ‘Sinn Fein are now the only hope for nationalism’. However, he was careful to explain that he had nothing to do with ‘a policy of open rebellion’. The Pipers Band which J.J. formed practised in the Ancient Order of Hibernian rooms in Duke Street. However, relationships between the A.O.H. and the Sinn Fein Club deteriorated and the A.O.H. took exception to the Pipers Band participating in a Sinn Fein Rally in the summer of 1917. The band members had to give an undertaking not to take part in any further Sinn Fein events before they were allowed to continue using the A.O.H. rooms. The undertaking was breached in December 1917 following which J.J. Bergin, his piping friends and their instruments were removed from the A.O.H. rooms. This undoubtedly caused J.J. to lose out in his attempt to become the local A.O.H. president that same month. The anti conscription campaign of April 1918 saw J.J. speaking from a platform in Emily Square with the local P.P., Canon Mackey, the Council chairman Martin Doyle and Denis Kilbride, M.P. He was also one of the marshals, the others being Michael Dooley, Martin Doyle and William Mahon who controlled the Anti Conscription parade led by the Athy Pipers Band which was described as the ‘most remarkable demonstration witnessed in Athy in living memory’. An interesting local press report mentions the Council’s concerns that J.J. Bergin was using town water in a flax dam he had built at Bennettsbridge. Flax was grown in this area in 1917 which year saw the appointment of a Mr. L. Kelly to supervise the growing of flax locally. There is no record of what action, if any, the Town Council took in relation to the Bennettsbridge flax dam. Athy Farmers Union sought to counter the development of the Transport Union amongst local farm labourers. J.J. Bergin stood as a Farmers Union candidate in the General Election in June 1922. He came sixth of the ten candidates with the first five elected. He again stood for the Dail in the 1927 election this time as an independent farmer candidate but failed to gain a seat. One of the more interesting discoveries I made in relation to J.J. Bergin was his involvement in the publication of a bi monthly paper called ‘The Farmers Guide’. I have an original copy of Issue No. 4 dated 15th January 1924, printed by M.C. Carey of Maryborough and Athy and published by the owner and editor J.J. Bergin, Athy. I have yet been unable to research this publication in the National Library but clearly it is evidence of the remarkable energy and initiative of the man from Maybrook who during the first half of the last century figured so prominently in local and national affairs.

Tuesday, September 8, 2020

Athy in the 1860s

The Leinster Express reported in September 1861 that Athy had 44 public houses. The town population that year was 4,113 housed in 745 houses which gave a ratio of a public house for every 17 private homes. Little wonder that the Temperance campaigner, Fr. Matthew, visited Athy in 1840 and again in 1842. A total Abstinence Society was formed in the town in May 1861 and was reported as progressing favourably some months later. Earlier that same year the newspaper reported that due to the bad weather a large number of unemployed men gathered at the local workhouse during the course of a meeting of the Board of Guardians. They petitioned the Board members for some measure of relief for themselves and their families. The Guardians agreed to employ 30 men with dependent families to work on the workhouse farm and pay 1/= per day per man. The employment offered was of benefit for within a few weeks the local press reported:- ‘In Athy large bodies of labourers were saved from starvation or the poorhouse by work at a low rate of wage provided for them.’ Local employment in the 1860s was largely confined to seasonal work on neighbouring farms. The local workhouse employed a master tailor and a master shoemaker to train inmates, especially young boys. Many of those trained would in time leave the Workhouse. The number involved is not known but Athy’s Town Commissioners were moved in November 1861 to direct the Town Inspector to remove cobblers who were working on the streets. Three years later the Commissioners refused an application from a local cobbler anxious to resume work in some public part of the town. Apparently he had worked in the doorway of the Courthouse for upwards of 20 years before the 1861 Order was implemented. In January 1862 the Town Commissioners felt it necessary to convene a public meeting in the Courthouse to consider adopting measures to relieve distress amongst the ‘labouring classes’ and the families who suffered from recent flooding of the Barrow at Rathstewart. It was agreed to make a collection in the town and on the following Saturday, 17 women from Rathstewart were given three shillings and six pence, while over 80 labourers were employed breaking stones and cleaning the streets at a daily cost of £8. It was claimed that local distress was a perennial issue, only that year it was aggravated by the unusually wet weather. But amidst the hunger and the poverty there were occasional glimpses of people enjoying life if sometimes it prompted critical letters in the local press. On 30th July 1859 an anonymous letter of complaint to the Leinster Express read:- ‘Nuisance of a most dangerous character carried on every Sabbath day on the road from Kilberry to Dunrally Bridge, that of throwing large metal balls. A number of men and boys regularly spent the whole of the Lords Day at that disgraceful and dangerous amusement, almost in sight of a police station.’ More local excitement was generated when in the summer of 1861 two local men held a race on the main street of the town of Athy. Michael Melay, a gunsmith and William Cullen, also a gunsmith, were summonsed under the Town Improvement Act arising out of a race between them in Duke Street. Cullen, riding his own invention, a hand driven machine which he called ‘The Patent Ziranza’ raced against Mealy who was riding a Velocipede. This early example of a cycle race did not find favour with the Town Commissioners who prosecuted both men. The case against them was dismissed. 1860 saw the opening of the Provincial Agricultural Implement Depository in Leinster Street by William O’Neill who four years later would open an iron foundry on the premises. It would later become O’Neill Telford and subsequently Duthie Larges. This was also the year the first steam powered boat passed down the Canal, watched by a large crowd of onlookers at Athy. The death of the local rector Rev. Frederick S. Trench following an accident at Preston’s Gate was perhaps the most noteworthy item of the year. The press reported on 28th December 1861 that ‘a beautiful stone pulpit was erected in the Athy Church as testimonial to memory of the late Rev. F.S. Trench’ and that the Duke of Leinster had built a handsome enclosure wall and improved the Church grounds. Four years earlier the press claimed that the Duke had built ‘a mansion for the Roman Catholic clergy’. The year concluded with the holding of the Kildare Queens County and Carlow Horticultural Association Show in the People’s Park after a lapse of seven-eight years. In the following year the Horticultural Show was held in Athy’s Corn Exchange which is now the Courthouse.

Tuesday, September 1, 2020

An Tostal Athy 1953

It was reported in the local press as one of the biggest parades and pageants seen in Athy in living memory. The occasion was the inaugural An Tostal Festival which was held throughout Ireland between 5th and 26th April 1953. The festival was an idea borrowed from the 1951 Festival of Britain and was planned to attract overseas visitors to Ireland during the off-peak tourism season. The festival organised in most Irish towns throughout the country opened with parades and as one could expect the principal parade on that Easter Sunday, 5th April, took place in Dublin. Here in Athy the An Tostal organising committee was chaired by Fr. Patrick Crowe C.C. who had been transferred to St. Michael’s Parish two years previously. In nearby Castledermot Fr. S. O’Sullivan C.C. chaired the local committee with the Church of Ireland Rector, Rev. W. Moncrieff Cox as the vice chairman. Tadgh Hayden, principal in the local Vocational School, was the committee secretary and thanks to him the An Tostal Festival in Castledermot in 1953 was marked with the production of a handsomely printed souvenir brochure and programme. The Castledermot booklet set out the festival programme comprising concerts, a billiard tournament, a historical tour, a children’s fancy dress parade, football matches and a grand parade to open proceedings on the first Sunday. The only record I have of Athy’s celebration of An Tostal is the press report which under the heading ‘From the reaping hook to the tractor’ gave an account of the first week’s events. The Sunday afternoon parade attracted close on 2,000 spectators, with over 150 vehicles extending for a mile taking part. Music was provided by no less than three local bands, St. Joseph’s Boys Band, St. Michael’s Fife and Drum Band and St. Dominic’s Band. The parade comprised four sections, the first consisting of local clubs and organisations preceded by a colour party. Next came the agricultural section, showcasing a pageant depicting the evolution of harvesting machinery in south Kildare from 1853 when the scythe and the reaping hook were used up to the time of the combine harvester. Representing the two final sections were the industries of south Kildare and nearby counties and approximately 25 local businesses. The parade which assembled at the Showgrounds travelled through the town, turning around at Pairc Bhride before returning to Emily Square. Organisers of the parade were the local Young Farmers Club and the Athy Show Society in collaboration with the town’s An Tostal committee. The press report named J.J. Bergin as the chief steward, with Thomas McDonnell, Michael Rowan and Ivan Bergin as section stewards, helped by members of St. Joseph’s Welfare Club, the Knights of Malta and Athy F.C.A. I’ve had for several years a number of photographs which I was unable to identify until I read the press report of the An Tostal Parade. I am now satisfied that those photographs are of the ‘biggest parade and pageant’ held in Athy that Sunday in April 67 years ago. The days events concluded with a clay pigeon shooting competition in the Show Grounds, organised by Athy Gun Club. Fr. Padraig Crowe was responsible for organising a choral and instrumental concert involving pupils of the local Christian Brothers school and the Convent of Mercy later that same week. On the Tuesday night an An Tostal Ball was held in St. John’s Hall, while on the second Sunday a River Gala was organised by St. Joseph’s Welfare Club. During the week the Social Club Players put on the play ‘The Barretts of Wimpole Street’ in the Social Club in St. John’s Lane. The Social Club Players had put on the play in the Town Hall a month previously and in the cast were what the Nationalist and Leinster Times described as ‘veteran players’ Liam Ryan, Tadgh Brennan, Tommy Walsh, Ken Reynolds, Tom Fox, Florrie Lawler Nellie Fox and May Fenelon. The press report of the Town Hall performance also made reference to Mary Harrington, described ‘as a pretty brunette teenager ….. who infused a light heartedness and gaiety of spirit that could scarcely be excelled by an experienced professional actress.’ Sadly, Mary was to die with her friend Breda Kennedy in a road traffic accident on the Dublin road a few years later.