Friday, August 27, 1993

John Wesley and the Methodists

I was in London last week and while there I visited the Museum of Methodism and John Wesley's house in City Road, It may have seemed a strange pilgrimage for me to make but in a sense I was renewing a link with Athy's Past.

After all had not John Wesley in one of his many trips to Ireland passed through Athy on his way to Roseanna near Ashford, County Wicklow home of Mrs. Sarah Tighe. It was while in Roseanna that Romney had painted Wesley's portrait on the 5th January, 1789. Mrs. Tighe's daughter, Elizabeth who undoubtedly met Wesley while he was there was to marry Reverend Thomas Kelly of Ballintubbert in 1794. Kelly will be remembered as the founder of the Kellyites that small religious group which existed outside the established Church up to 1855.

As for John Wesley's house and the Museum of Methodism both can be highly recommended as somewhere to visit while in London. The Museum itself is located in the basement of the Wesley Chapel which is regarded as the Mother Church of World Methodism. The neat Chapel building enriched with Victorian stained glass and monuments to Methodist worthies, clerical and lay, is a peaceful and inspiring place even for a non-Methodist. The Museum tells the story of Methodism with material and exhibits showing the various stages of the development of that movement.

It is perhaps John Wesley's house itself in the grounds of the Methodist Chapel which evoked most memories of his time spent in Ireland. Here one could see his furniture and personal effects together with a number of his manuscript letters. His travelling robe, three cornered had and shoes were on display with the chair he used when presiding over the first Methodist Conference in 1744.

John Wesley had overseen the appointment of the first Methodist Minister in Athy before he died in 1791. John Miller was that Minister and in the early years the religious worship of the Methodist was closely associated with that of the Church of England. Methodists attended morning service in the Parish Church in Emily Square every Sunday and attended their own preaching service in the evening.

Itinerant preachers were to pay particular attention to Athy during the early part of the 19th Century in the absence of a full-time locally based Minister. Adam Averall, Gideon Ouseley and Charles Graham were frequent visitors to the town where they reported "Multitudes of Catholics as well as others attended our Ministry in the streets and markets".

The first Methodist Chapel in Athy was established in the former Quaker Meeting House in Meeting Lane sometime between 1820 and 1837. The building continued to be used for this purpose until 1874. On the 12th June that year the new Methodist Church was opened in Woodstock Street. Largely responsible for the building was Alexander Duncan of Tonlegee House in whose memory a memorial tablet was placed in the Church following his death in September 1887.

Incidently when the Church was first opened it was referred to as the Wesylian Church and the congregation is today referred to as Wesylian Methodist. However the correctness of this term it does show that the local church group was and always remained followers of John Wesley.

Following Wesley's death in 1791, there were several secessions, and break away groups including the Methodist New Connexion, the Primitive Methodists and Protestant Methodists sprang up. A number of unions were attempted, first in 1857 and finally in 1932 resulting in the coming together of most of the separate Methodist groups.

Methodism in Athy has suffered a sharp decline in numbers in recent years. The Church in Woodstock Street is still in use for Sunday Service and quite recently hosted a local Ecumenical Service. The legacy of John Wesley lives on in Athy even though it took 204 years to return his visit.
Frank Taaffe.
I returned from holidays at the weekend to be told that 'Mickey' Moore was dead and buried. Known to everybody in business as Michael to Offaly Street Resident's he was always 'Mickey'. Small of stature but ever pleasant he and my brother Seamus were of the same age.

Being some years younger than the rest of the lads in the street, they are only allowed occasionally to join with the big fellows such a Teddy Kelly, Willy Moore, Andrew White, Tom Webster and myself. At least we thought we were the big lads in those heady days of the 1950's.

Whatever Mickey lacked in stature he compensated for with a innate charm which made him friends with everyone he met. It was a quality he used to good effect even when he was a young lad in short trousers in Offaly Street for despite ourselves the so called big lads would inevitably end up with the two young ones tagging along.

But he was good fun. Always was and never known to involve himself in rancour. I can recall I as a young fellow playing with Mickey in what for us was the strange territory of St. John's when Mickey pushing a go cart fell and somehow my boot (which we all wore and hated in those pre-dockmartin days) hit Mickey in the face. He ended up with a cut lip and even in adulthood he retained the mark of that accident of long ago.

As I remember those days it saddens me to think of yet another member of the Offaly Street 'gang' gone to join Seamus, Andrew, Leopold, Mylie and Danny. Time is a cruel reaper. May he rest in peace.

Friday, August 20, 1993


As a young schoolboy attending the local Christian Brothers School in St. John’s Lane I passed every day what was the last working forge in Athy. Ted Vernal was the blacksmith who in the 1950’s carried on a family tradition which was to end with him.

The forge, located behind the houses which faced the courtyard opposite Herterich’s shop, was itself opposite a row of two storied houses on the laneway leading to the school. Shaws store now extends back into the ground once occupied by these houses while Vernals forge and the laneway have disappeared to become part of the public car park.

Every town and village once had it’s forge and indeed several of them where the blacksmith carried on his craft of shoeing horses. In addition to being a farrier he was also a blacksmith who worked in iron. No doubt we have all seen at some time or another the nineteenth century print showing the village blacksmith performing his other role as village dentist and extracting teeth with a pliers.

The Vernal forge, which I remember so well, had a raised hearth built of bricks with a canopy over it in the north wall to the left of the main door. The big bellows, which created the draught needed to keep the fire going, was pumped by means of a long handle extending outwards from the hearth. A water trough with cold water was positioned nearby for use in cooling tools and sometimes the iron being worked on. Coal was burnt in the fire and the heat generated made the forge an extremely hot and uncomfortable place in which to work.

In the centre of the floor stood the anvil each part of which had a specific purpose. The flat upper part or face of the anvil was most in use and was made of hardened steel. Between the anvil face and the conical shaped projection called the bick was a narrow strip of softer mild steel which was used when cutting metal with a cold chisel. The bick of the anvil was itself used to shape metal and in particular horse shoes.

At the opposite end to the bick and towards the end of the anvil table were two holes. One rounded and called a punch hole was where hot metal was placed when holes such as nail holes in horse shoes were being punched. The square hole, called a tool hole, was used as a receptacle for various tools used in finishing off metal work. The anvil sat on a block of timber and was the blacksmith’s work bench.

Around the forge, hanging on hooks set into the wall, were the tools of trade of the farrier cum blacksmith. He had for instance a variety of hammers of different sizes and shapes, all designed for a specific purpose. Tongs for holding the hot metal being worked were also of different sizes and shapes and they, like the hammers, hung from hooks on the walls.

The blacksmith always wore a leather apron as he worked in the dark dusty confines of the forge, heating, hammering and shaping metal to his requirements. During the early years of this century, before the combustion engine ousted horse power, the blacksmith’s principal function was to make horse shoes and shoe horses. The farmer and indeed the townsman who kept a horse or two for his carriage brought their horses to the local forge for shoeing. The old shoes were removed from the horse with large pincers and the horse’s hooves were cleaned and pared using a paring knife and a rasp. The replacement shoes were put up to the hoof and altered as required. The constant heating of the shoe in the forge fire and the shaping of the shoe on the anvil showed the blacksmith at his skilful best. The rhythmical ring of the anvil as the blacksmith hit the anvil plate and the horse shoe with each alternate stroke of his hammer were the signature tune of the one of the oldest crafts known to man.

The sound of the anvil is no more. The forge in St. John’s Lane has disappeared and those of us who remember it must sometimes wonder why progress must always result in the demise of the old traditional crafts.

Friday, August 13, 1993

Bread Making

Long before the potato became the stable diet of the Irish country folk milled grain was used to make bread which is still so characteristic of the Irish country kitchen. Wheat, oats and barley were ground in the saddle querns of a long lost age and the resulting crushed grain was used to make porridge or bread.

Oaten bread was at one time the most common type of bread. Wheaten bread was regarded somewhat of a luxury while barley bread was regarded as suitable only for monks and clerics who wished to mortify themselves.

The grinding of corn was by law carried out at the mill of the manor Lord. In the manors of Woodstock and Rheban the fees for grinding the corn were paid to the Fitzgerald family. It is interesting to observe in leases of land in Athy, even up to the eighteenth century a stipulation that corn was to be ground at the manorial mill with payment of the appropriate fee.

In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries mills were located at both sides of the Barrow Bridge. The present Castle Inn occupies the site of one such mill while on the opposite bank a mill existed up to the 1960’s. Hannon’s mill, as it was called, was operational up to 1924, closing two or three years before the Barrow Drainage Scheme commenced. At the same time Hannon’s mill, located at Ardreigh, closed. It too was demolished some time in the 1940’s and little or no trace of the vast Ardreigh buildings remain today. A photograph of the mills as they were in 1910 is on display in the Museum Room in the Town Hall.

The Irish favoured the baking of bread using either a griddle or a pot oven. The griddle was a circular flat iron hung over the open fire or alternatively placed on an iron trivet over the burning sods of turf. The pot oven was a cast iron pot with a flat bottom and a tight fitting lid and like the griddle it was hung over the fire or rested on a trivet.

Built-in baking ovens which were popular in Britain after the seventeenth century were not to be found in many Irish houses. In the larger urban areas and cities the half cylindrical shaped masonry projection with a sloped roof typical of baking ovens was to be found in private houses where the family favoured the use of the baking oven rather than the open fire. In the urban areas also there developed a cottage bakery industry where the locals could buy fresh bread daily.

In Pigots Directory of 1824 the following bakers are listed as working in Athy:- Mary Bryan, Michael Byrne, Catherine Fogarty, Catherine Purcell and James Sourke. Their numbers had increased substantially by 1881 when Slaters Directory listed the town bakers as Gregory Bradley, Emily Square; James Bradley, William Street; Bridget Brewster, Leinster Street; James Conlan, Barrack Street; Margaret Fogarty, Leinster Street; Joseph Nugent, Duke Street; John Roberts, Leinster Street; James Tierney, William Street; Joseph Whelan, Duke Street and Miles Whelan of Duke Street and Offaly Street.

In addition to the bakeries Athy would have had a number of baking ovens where the local women could bring their bread and cake mix for baking. Such an oven, until recently, was to be seen in an outhouse attached to Websters sweet shop in Offaly Street. The availability of such an oven was a tremendous help for the poor people of the town whose circumstances and primitive living conditions did not permit the baking of bread in their own homes.

Today there is only one bakery operating in Athy. The townspeoples’ needs are largely met by bread deliveries brought into the town from Dublin and further afield every morning. The days of the master bakers are no more. Mechanisation and computer controlled systems have lead to bread production methods which do not require the skills and crafts of the bakers of old. Bread is now made in plants employing only one or two machinists where up to six thousand pans an hour can be produced without the intervention of human hand.

This advancement has been sadly achieved at the expense of workers and craftsmen and our local economy is all the poorer as a result.

Friday, August 6, 1993

Sean Maher

Amongst my books I treasure a small red covered volume published by the Talbot Press in 1972. Titled "The Road to God Knows Where" it records the story of Sean Maher, traveller, balladeer, busker and above all gentleman.

Born on the 15th of January, 1932 in the County Home, Tullamore, Sean who learnt to read and write with considerable skill and talent in an industrial school in Cork, was the son of a travelling family. The winter months were spent by the Maher family in various County Homes throughout Ireland where the sometimes harsh regimes of the 1930's and 1940's were endured because they offered respite from the cold and rain. The male and female members of the family were always kept apart while in the County Homes and Sean's father could not see his wife at any time during their sojourns in what was referred to as "the Spike". The summer months were spent out in the open air "tenting" under the stars and travelling from town to town dealing in delph, rosary beads, needles and anything saleable. Supplies were obtained from the "Monster House" in Kilkenny, where travellers traditionally bought their stock of goods for re-sale while on the road.

An early move into a house in Co. Kildare proved unsuccessful. The family found themselves alienated from their neighbours who believed they had little in common with the travellers who kept in their front garden their cart, rigging poles, wattles and cover, all essentials for camping out in the summer. Within a short while the young family were again on the road and Sean remembers with sadness his mother's tears as she left the first house she had ever lived in.

Sean made his First Communion in Thurles where he was prepared for the great day by the Ursuline nuns. The part played by the religious orders of nuns in Ireland in helping travellers to live out their lives with dignity can never be underestimated. They have always offered kindness and a helping hand when it was required by a group treated as an underclass by the settled community. Sean's memories of the Ursuline nuns in Thurles reinforced his belief in the essential goodness of the settled community and was later to enable him to cross the divide which separated the two communities.

In 1943 he ran away and spent a couple of months on the road living by begging, selling and what he refers to in travellers language as "chanting" (singing). As a streetwise 11 year old he survived on his own for a few months until found by the Gardai sleeping on Tramore beach. Undernourished and suffering from pneumonia he spent two weeks in hospital before being admitted to St. Joseph's School in Cork where he was to stay until he was 16 years of age. It was while there that Sean learned to read and write and as he admitted “school was a God send”. He enjoyed every day of his schooling years. However, his travelling instincts could not be suppressed for as he says himself "to the tober (road) born - to the tober I must return."

He did return to the nomadic way of life some time after leaving St. Joseph's School but not before he had stayed for a short while with his family in their new Council house in Athy. The call of the road was too strong as Sean eventually left Athy to roam the Irish countryside. As he travelled from town to town Sean developed his musical skills and learned to play the tin whistle, the mouth organ and the accordion. Sporting a long beard and calling himself "Rambling John" he became a familiar sight at all the important football matches and fairs in provincial Ireland.

About 20 years ago John decided to settle in Dublin for the winter months and more recently he is to be occasionally seen busking in Grafton Street. As one of the last of the travelling buskers Sean attracts large crowds wherever he plays. With his distinctive appearance he is one of the most easily recognised buskers whose memories are beautifully captured in the skilfully crafted autobiography "The Road to God Knows Where".

I first met Sean in 1984 when outside St. Michael's Cemetery in Athy I saw his van bearing on it’s side in bold letters "The Man From God Knows Where." He was in the cemetery searching for the graves of his mother and father who had settled and died in Athy amongst neighbours who welcomed them into the community. When he signed a copy of his book for me it was with words which Sean could apply with equal measure to many he had met during his life "With many thanks and especially fond memories of your father Sergeant Taaffe".

Sean Maher ended his book with the following words "Life is like this, we all waddle through life, the short span it is. In reality each and every one of us are on the road and one day please God we shall all meet at the final mollying (camping) ground, then the road shall end and for some it will be a very happy molly. There too we will, by the Grace of God, meet the Saviour who travelled and mollied in his humble earthly life. With such thoughts life has meaning and with meaning I can journey with the rest of humanity on the road that leads to God knows where."