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.