Friday, December 30, 1994

Jane Austen and Athy

Jane Austen, born at the Rectory in Steventon, Hampshire in 1775 never visited Athy on the River Barrow but her name is linked with the town through her youthful association with one Thomas Lefroy.

Lefroy with his younger brother, Ben, were boarders in a school operated by a Mr. Ashe in Athy in 1791. Thomas was to enter Trinity College the following year from where he graduated with a B.A. degree in 1795. That same year he spent the summer months in Hampshire, England and became friendly with Jane Austen, daughter of Rev. George Austen. It was during that time that Jane began work on the major novel later published as “Pride and Prejudice” but which she completed in 1797 under the title “First Impressions”.

Thomas Lefroy paid court to Jane Austen but the strength of their romantic attachment did not survive the difficulties likely to be encountered by a marriage between the wealthy Lefroy heir and the Rector’s daughter with no fortune. Lefroy returned to Ireland where he was called to the Bar in Easter term 1797 but did not commence practice as a lawyer until 1800. In the meantime he managed to improve his financial situation by marrying Jane, only daughter and heiress of Jeffrey Paul of Silver Spring, Co. Wexford in 1791 at Abergavenny, Wales.

“Pride and Prejudice” which was eventually published in 1831 was Jane Austen’s outstanding literary success. It is a story of foolish and disagreeable people seen through the eyes of Elizabeth Bennett who is in fact Jane herself. The character Fitzwilliam Darcy is reputably modelled on that of Thomas Lefroy with whom she fell in love during the summer of 1795. While the characters in the book do eventually marry, Jane Austen herself remained unmarried and she died in Winchester in 1817 at the early age of 42 years.

Lefroy meanwhile had embarked on a very lucrative practise at the Irish Bar, receiving the year before Jane Austen’s death the Silk Gown of King’s Counsel and two years later attained the office of King’s Sergeant. Refusing many offers of judicial appointment he was elected an M.P. for Trinity College in 1830.

In 1837 Lefroy commenced the building of a mansion at Carriglas, Co. Longford which still remains in the Lefroy family. In 1842 he accepted a judicial appointment and the most famous trial in which he was subsequently involved was that of John Mitchell, the Young Irelander held in Green Street Courthouse, Dublin in May 1848. Mitchell was sentenced to 14 years transportation.

In 1852 Thomas Lefroy, former pupil of Ashe’s school in Athy, was appointed Lord Chief Justice of Ireland. Already 76 years of age at the time of his appointment he continued to sit on the bench until he was 90 years old. In 1856 an attempt was made in the House of Commons to retire Lefroy and other elderly Judges whom it was alleged were “incompetent through age and infirmity from discharging their duties”.

Many more years were to elapse before Lefroy left the bench. He survived another attempt to have his appointment terminated when it was pointed out in the House of Commons that he had not missed a single court sitting in 25 years except in 1847 when he was struck down by low fever. Political change in England in 1866 prompted Lefroy’s resignation at the age of 90 years when he retired to Bray, Co. Wicklow, retaining at the same time his country seat at Carriglas, Co. Longford and his townhouse in Leeson Street, Dublin.

On the 4th of May, 1869 Thomas Lefroy died, 52 years after Jane Austen had passed away and 78 years after he had left the boarding school in Athy. His brother Ben Lefroy who also attended school in Athy married and settled in Cardenton House, Athy which remained in the Lefroy family until 1946.

When next you read Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice” remember Thomas Lefroy, who as a teenager walked the streets of our town long before he became Lord Chief Justice of Ireland, but just a few short years before he met Jane Austen and became the character Fitzwilliam Darcy in one of English literature’s greatest masterpieces.

Friday, December 23, 1994

Review of 1994 Articles

Writing a weekly column can be a tortuous experience, especially when you meet a disgruntled reader who, because you have gone into print, feels obliged to set you straight on some matter or other. It is then you must accept the inevitable, yet unproven claim that what you wrote was wrong. “You’re wrong, my grandmother told me that the Quaker Meeting House was at the end of our yard,” was one reader’s response to an article I wrote some years ago after a most detailed and careful examination of all the records relating to that 18th century building. Such research was quite worthless when faced with granny’s claim of 40 years ago. “Dúirt bean liom gur dúirt bean léi” is, in some quarters, apparently, a more acceptable basis for establishing historical claims than any canter through the public record repositories.

On the other hand, there is the response from the many, many readers who enjoy a look back and the writer’s attempt to bring the past into the present. For them, the effort is worthwhile and the appreciation expressed is more than adequate compensation for the writer.

During the past year, I have been continuously amazed at the co-operation of those approached by me for interviews. I can only recall one failure when a reluctance to speak “on the record” meant that a potentially generous nugget of local knowledge and lore had to remain untapped, destined never to find its way into the public domain. More is the pity but the kindness of the many people who gave of their time and knowledge so unstintingly and so generously fuelled the desire to continue the search to tell the people’s history of the locality.

For all of us, whether we went to school and perhaps even university for those lucky enough to get there, history seemed to centre around battles and the reign of kings and queens. This history of our place and the story of the people apparently never merited more than a brief or cursory reference in the annals. But it is the townspeople and the country folk living out their lives at work and at play to whom we must turn if we are to fell the pulse of the locality and re-create times past.

The Mary Carrs, Florrie Penders, Tosh Doyles and Ger Moriartys of this world are the stuff of life to which we can relate and through their experiences share in the past which would otherwise be beyond our ken. To those men and women whom some would call “the ordinary people” but whom I regard as “extraordinary people”, we are indebted for their contributions to the history of life of our locality.

Looking back over the 52 articles which have appeared since Christmas 1993, there are some which have given me more satisfaction than others. To chat to a legendary figure like Mrs. Hester May was a privilege, knowing her involvement in the War of Independence. During the year the events of that period provided articles on Tom Flood and Eamon Malone, two men whose involvement in the fight for Irish freedom should never be forgotten. Other Athy men who fought a different struggle during the First World War were again remembered in November when detailed research during the year gave an opportunity for a reassessment of Athy’s contribution to that conflict. I fear that as a community we have, up to now, never fully realised the impact World War I had on south Kildare in general, and Athy in particular. There is recently a growing understanding of the social and economic effects which a lost generation had on those who were left behind. We should never feel that the men of World War I are any less deserving of our thoughts and admiration than those men who served Ireland well during the period to 1923.

To unearth nuggets of history never before mined by other hands is a rare occurrence. The unfolding story of Athy Workhouse and its link with the Luggacurran evictions might not necessarily fall into that category but next week’s article on Jane Austen and her Athy connections is one which surely does.

To everyone who has co-operated in the telling of our town’s story may I say a big thank you. The story is not finished and in its future telling it will be of necessity to call upon many of you to help me put together the jigsaw of lore and fact which makes up the story of Athy and its people.

Happy Christmas to you all.

Friday, December 16, 1994

Housing Conditions in Athy - 1932

In May 1932 Dr. John Kilbride, local Medical Officer for Health carried out a survey into the housing conditions in Athy. In his subsequent report to the Urban Council he stated that there were 1292 townspeople living in 323 houses of not more than two rooms each. These houses were for the most part without the most basic sanitary accommodation, nearly all were in a poor state of repair and many were situated in "airless and sun-starved slums."

Dr. Kilbride, whose Uncle Denis Kilbride was one of the many thrown out of their homesteads during the Luggacurran Evictions, found that none of the earlier described two-roomed houses were vacant. "Directly one is vacated there are several applicants for it and it is straightaway re-occupied - and under those wretched conditions families are being starved and children reared."

As the towns Medical Officer for Health, Dr. Kilbride was obviously concerned about the consequential adverse affects of such housing conditions and he posed the rhetorical question "How, we must ask ourselves, can children be brought up properly under these conditions". In his view the bad housing was responsible for what he referred to as "the moral shortcomings and the physical ill health that is at present in the town."

There then followed an analysis of the sub-standard housing stock in the town. Starting with Barrack Street he mentioned one house of two rooms in which eleven persons including married couples lived. On Canal Side were four houses with no yard, one of which housed ten persons and another six persons. New Row had four houses in which families of ten, nine, eight and eight lived, each family huddled together in two small rooms. Rathstewart had two houses each with only one room and no yard.

Further on in his Report Dr. Kilbride in a general comment on the prevailing state of affairs in the town described Athy as "an agricultural community and conditions at present do not supply a demand for all available labour in the town. The present tendency is for the people to move from the country into the town - changing from the healthy open air existence to the unsanitary closed in urban conditions."

He considered the Council to be partially at fault for building houses "while leaving the existing hovels still open for occupation". He urged that in any future scheme that the Council consider building houses in "open avenues off the main roads where children can play without being in danger of motor traffic".

Ending his Report Dr. Kilbride gave a detailed breakdown of the sub-standard houses in the town mentioning placenames which have now passed into folk memory. The areas on the east side of the town included such names as Garden Lane, Kellys Lane and New Row while substandard houses were also to be found in Offaly Street, Leinster Street, Janeville Place, Meeting Lane, Mount Hawkins and Rathstewart.

On the west side of Athy the housing problems were apparently more acute and some of the addresses now long gone included New Gardens, Higginsons Lane, Turnpike and James's Place. Other areas identified and still mapped included Nelson Street, Shrewleen Lane, Plewman's Row, Blackparks, Canal Side, St. John's Lane, Convent View, Woodstock Street and Barrack Street.

The Urban Council anticipating Dr. Kilbride's Report had earlier initiated a Slum Clearance Programme and on completion of the St. Patrick's Avenue houses in 1930 had commenced the closure of the worst slums in the town. In 1933 the Urban Council completed work on 56 houses in Dooley's Terrace, 20 houses in Lower St. Joseph's Terrace and 17 houses in Upper St. Joseph's Terrace. Athy brick was used in the building of these houses as it was during the huge housing programme carried out between 1935 and 1937. Houses in Convent View, Plewman's Terrace, Geraldine Road, Minches Terrace and No.'s 15 -42 Upper St. Joseph's Terrace were to be the Council's final response to the 18th and 19th century unsanitary hovels demolished during the Slum Clearance Programme. No further houses were to be built by the Council until 1950 but under its extensive housing programme initiated in 1930 it had managed to rid Athy of the worst excesses noted in Dr. Kilbride's Report.

Friday, December 9, 1994

The First Council Houses in Athy

In the census of 1901 Athy returned a population of 3,599. The majority of the local people lived in the most primitive conditions. A Report prepared in 1900 indicated that little effort was made to keep the lanes of the town in a sanitary condition. It was common to see slop water and liquid filth lying in stagnant pools about all the laneways, in the crevices of the cobbles and in the depression of the surface channels. The Report continued
"The state of the backyards is also a danger to the health of the inhabitants, large accumulation of manure heaps and other refuse matter are in close proximity to the dwellings and are apparently only removed at long intervals. What tends to make these manure heaps a grave danger to the public health is the fact that the backyards where these accumulations exist are very small and confined, are undrained and in many instances pigs are kept in them. A considerable number of houses have also no backyard accommodation whatsoever."

On 15th February 1909 Athy U.D.C. adopted Part III of the Housing Act 1890 and immediately appointed a Housing Committee which held its first meeting on 26th February. The Committee divided into two groups to select suitable housing sites on both sides of the River Barrow.

A number of local sites were recommended and approved at a Council meeting on 22 March 1909. A subsequent failure to acquire the properties by agreement resulted in the holding of an Arbitration Inquiry in the Town Hall following the making of a compulsory acquisition Order by the Council. Advertisements were placed in the National Press offering prizes of 5 guineas for the best plans for houses suitable for labourers to cost £100, £150 and £200 each. The £100 house was to be one or two storey, the dearer houses to be two storied. James F. Reade C.E. won the prize with his design. On 29th July 1910 it was agreed by the Urban Council members to erect 11 of what was termed the "better class houses" in the Matthews Lane/Pound Field Site (now St. Michael's Terrace), with 4 of what they deemed "labourers houses" in Meeting Lane and 5 better class houses in Nicholas Keating's Field at Woodstock Street.

A year was to pass before the Council advertised and received tenders for its housing programme which in the meantime had been increased to 21 houses. The Matthew's Lane/Pound Field Site was to have 10 houses, with 5 in Meeting Lane and 6 in a new site in Woodstock Street - John Kelly's field. The Athy branch of the Town Tenants League was now pressing the Urban Council to proceed with more speed while the local St. Vincent de Paul Society through its President Mr. M.W. Roche was equally anxious for some measures to alleviate the overcrowded unsanitary conditions in the town. The housing contract was awarded to H.A. Hamilton of Thomas Street, Waterford but he withdrew in May 1912 following prolonged delay in commencing the work due to a disagreement between the Local Government Board and the Urban Council.

The problem centred around a Local Government directive that each house be provided with a privy and ashpit rather than a water closet as sought by the local Council. The Councils opposition centred around the systematic attention which dry closets needed
"and which is very unlikely to be given in such cottages and even where a tenant would have every desire to give such attention there is no way whereby he could ensure the continuous supply of dry earth or bog mull without which these closets would certainly become a dangerous public nuisance."

The Local Government Board won the day resulting in a revision of the house plans to provide back entrances. With Hamiltons withdrawal the Council again advertised for contractors on 26th June 1912. Three contractors were successful. D. & J. Carbery, Athy, obtained the Matthew's Lane/Pound Field contract for 10 houses at £2,544.7.11. Michael Sweeney was to build 6 houses at Woodstock Street for £1,264.2.10 while D. Toomey, Leinster Street, Athy, was to receive £704.10.0 for building 5 houses at Meeting Lane. The Contracts completed their work in March/April 1913.

An additional house was built on the Leinster Street side of what is now St. Michael's Terrace making in all 22 houses. In his report to the Council the Town Clerk indicated that there were 33 applicants for the newly built houses, a surprisingly low number having regard to the primitive housing conditions in the town.

In last weeks article I referred to Dillons Butchers shop in Leinster Street. It was located in Galbraiths premises and not Hylands as stated.

Friday, December 2, 1994

Mary Carr

She is generally to be found every Friday cycling the few miles from her home at Quarry Farm to the town of Athy. Nothing unusual in that except that the cyclist will be a youthful 87 years on the 11th of January next.

Mrs. Mary Carr born in Ardreigh in 1908 spent her young years near Ardreigh Mills where her father John Healy worked. That huge complex originally built by Alfred Haughton shortly after the Great Famine was in the ownership of the Hannon family at the turn of this century. Mary, an only child, was born in a small house on the left hand side of the main Athy/Carlow Road near the bottom of Ardreigh Hill. The house and the neighbouring houses are now long gone leaving no discernable trace.

Ardreigh Mills produced the once famous Lily White brand of flour, a name so well known that it was applied to the all white clad Kildare Senior Football Team during the period of it’s great rivalry with Kerry in the 1920’s. Some of the mill workers in the years before the First World War included Phil Horan and Larry Cullen, both of Foxhill, Tom Nolan, Jack Howard, Jack Kelly, Paddy Mitchell and Dan Kelly, all of Ardreigh and Tom O'Hara and Luke Kelly of Athy town. Many more men now forgotten worked in the Mills where Jack Dalton was in charge of the Mill engine. Jack who died aged 91 years some years ago was the last surviving member of the Ardreigh Mill staff.

When Mary's father John Healy was promoted to the position of miller the family took up residence in the Mill cottage directly opposite Ardreigh Mills. This cottage is now owned by Charlie and Bernie Mackey. Across from it and facing the tow path to Athy was the Travellers cottage, so called because it was home to the salesman who travelled throughout the adjoining counties selling the Mill’s Products. Holder of that position during Mary's young days was Eddie Webster, father of Kitty Webster and Pattie Webster who for many years operated a sweet shop at the corner of Butlers Row and Offaly Street.

Further up the Canal was the Lock House where another Webster family lived. They were not related to their namesakes in the Travellers cottage. "Websters Lock" was the name then given to Ardreigh Lock which in time was to be known to another generation as "Quinns Lock".

Mary went to school in Athy walking by the canal tow path each day. A subsequent move to the Gate Lodge attached to Ardreigh House where the Hannon family lived was of short duration. Mary's mother believed that the Gate Lodge was haunted, relying on her extraordinary experiences of delph and items of furniture moving in the night as evidence of a ghostly presence. A speedy return to the Millers Cottage resulted.

It was while living in the Millers Cottage that Mary's mother died in 1920. When Ardreigh Mills closed in 1926 John Healy and his daughter Mary departed for Milltown Mills, an oatmeal mill owned by the Hickey family. She left school when as she says "they began to teach Irish in the schools". This was in 1923 following the setting up of the Irish Free State and within a year Mary went to work as a housekeeper with John P. Dillon's family at Barrow Quay. As a young fellow I scoured the countryside for empty bottles to sell for coppers to John Dillon, always referred to as "Chopsie" Dillon. The nickname was common currency but no one seemed to know from where it came. Long after the good man had died I discovered that the original "Chopsie" Dillon was a butcher and a bachelor who lived with his three sisters in Leinster Street. He had a butchers stall in Leinster Street, where Galbraiths is located. "Chopsie" was no relation to John P. Dillon of Barrow Quay but when he died the nickname was passed on to his namesake who thereafter was known by no other name.

After nine years with the Dillon family of Barrow Quay Mary married Patrick Carr who worked as a farm labourer for Willie Hosie of Coursetown and later for Peter P. Doyle. Mary Carr was the mother of five young children when her husband died in June 1946, ten months after her own father John Healy had died. She returned to work as a housekeeper and remarkably at almost 87 years of age she still works occasionally for one of her original clients.

Mrs. Mary Carr despite the loss of her father and husband within the space of ten months 48 years ago has retained a cheerful happy outlook on life with a vitality and energy which belies her 87 years.

Friday, November 25, 1994

James Croppers Irish Journey of 1824

On a recent visit to Hay-on-Wye, the Welsh border town noted for its second-hand and antiquarian bookshops, I came across an unusual tome. It consisted of extracts from letters of the late James Cropper, transcribed by his daughter Anne and richly leather-bound in book form. The copper plate writing comprised letters written between 1824 and 1840 by Cropper, a Quaker who visited the various Quaker meetings throughout Ireland during an extended tour in 1824. The book inscribed by Cropper’s daughter Anne to his grandchildren, was prepared in November 1841.

Arriving in Howth from Holyhead on 30th October, 1824 Cropper spent a few days in Dublin before setting out for Limerick. Writing from Mountmellick on 3rd November, 1824 he noted that
“for a few miles out of Dublin we could see very little difference between this country and England. But the scene gradually changed and as we got further into the country we could not but remark the great number of houses in a state of ruin and many with only the walls standing. These were mostly of a superior class to those inhabited by the poor and showed in our opinion the declined state of the country. The habitation of the poor was mostly miserable and dirty … those cottagers had some of them potato gardens attached to their dwellings …

We then came to Kildare and were struck with two fine buildings, one an infirmary, the other we were told was a coffee house but we could no way imagine what they could do with such a coffee house in so miserable a place. I soon found it was for the entertainment of the gentry at race time. I went into the pot house and spoke with the landlord about the condition of the country. He said things were getting worse and worse, the people were willing to work but could get none to do. From there we went to Monasterevin, we saw a large building which from its appearance we hoped had been a factory but on enquiry we found it was a distillery”.

In another letter from Limerick three days later Cropper wrote :-

“At Naas we stopped at the chief inn where no less than four chaises were before us changing horses. At the door of the Inn there was a great flock of miserable beings. I talked with them and asked them why did they not work. They declared that they would be very glad to work if they could get anything to do and many of them I really believed but there were in the group some miserable objects, old people unable to work but had no other provision than begging. I changed a shilling mostly in half-pence but though I divided it as wide as I could giving each of them a half penny, many of them fell short. In Naas there were two handsome buildings - one a prison and the other the Courthouse, one to try and another to punish those poor miserable creatures - surely the people at the head of affairs need punishment much worse.

We proceeded from Naas and then again soon saw a large resplendent building and a few miles further another - and what are these for? Why, they were barracks to keep those poor miserable creatures quiet with Bayonets instead of bread. The next fine building we saw in the Curragh of Kildare - it was a stand for the races. This Curragh is fine land with a good deal of gorse and is pastured by sheep.”

Writing of Portarlington Cropper described it as :-

“A neat town, the largest we have seen since we left Dublin and here the people are employed chiefly in weaving. What is the reason of this vast change, this bright spot in the very heart of so much misery? This is one of the earliest settlements of Friends in Ireland. There are 40 or 50 families of them and it is they who carry on all the manufacturers.”

Here Cropper was referring to the Society of Friends, commonly called the Quakers.

Unfortunately he did not travel to Athy during his extended tour of Ireland but his description of conditions in Naas no doubt held true for the South Kildare town. It is difficult to imagine the extent of the poverty and misery which prevailed in some Irish towns of that time, indeed the majority of Irish towns. Portarlington was, if anything, an exception and showed by comparison the distressing conditions prevailing in the towns and villages of County Kildare in 1824.

Friday, November 11, 1994

World War 1 and Athy Dead

This November the men whose lives were brutally cut short on World War I battlefields are remembered as they have been for the last 76 years. The events of a generation now long passed could so easily be overlooked by the present were it not for the very real links we have with that War. Athy like many other towns and villages in Ireland paid a heavy price in the conflict which started on the 4th of August, 1914 and ended on the 11th of November 1918. During that period approximately 35,000 Irish men were killed, an average of 158 Irish men every week or 23 men every single day. Those men, all old enough to wear an Army uniform but too young to die, perished in the slaughter which was the Great War.

Britain declared war on Germany on the 4th of August, 1914 and the first troops of the British Expeditionary Force began landing at La Havre and Boulogne on Sunday, the 9th of August. On Thursday, the 1st of September William Corcoran, Army No. 4523, a Lance Corporal in the First Battalion Irish Guards was killed. He was a native of Athy and so far as I can find was the first of the many Athy men who were to die before Armistice Day in November 1918.

567 men from County Kildare died in the War. The greater number came from the South Kildare town of Athy and the surrounding district. Ireland’s War Memorials published in eight volumes lists the details of all Irish men killed in the War but included many non-Irish men who had enlisted in Irish Regiments and others who were included because they had names which were considered likely to indicate an Irish background. Recent research by Pat Casey of the Western Front Association confirms the Irish dead at approximately 35,000 and not the 49,000 or so included in the War Memorials.

The story of the War is one of unremitting death but even in the charged atmosphere of the time the month of April 1915 stands out as being particularly horrific. Gallipoli and Ypres, names familiar to every student of military history were the centres of fierce fighting that month which resulted in the death of 72 men from County Kildare. The names of the some of the Athy men who died that month reads like a litany of the living:- Joe Byrne and Anthony Byrne, William Wall, John Farrell, Christopher Hannon, Larry Kelly, James Dillon, Moses Doyle, Patrick Leonard, Christopher Power, Patrick Tierney, the list goes on and on. Upwards of 200 men from Athy and district died in the War and the dreaded War Office telegram which heralded death or if one was lucky an injury which offered temporary respite from the rigours of war left Athy Post Office with chilling regularity. To receive one such telegram announcing the death of a beloved son was a heartbreaking experience but what of the mothers who received two such telegrams or as in at least two known cases lost three sons in the war.

Athy man Eddie Stafford died on the 24th of September, 1914 just one month into the War. His brother Tommy was to join him in death on the 6th of September, 1916. Brothers Joe and Anthony Byrne of Chapel Lane were to die within two days of each other in April 1915. Joe who was a Sergeant in the Dublin Fusiliers was killed in action in France on the 26th of April and on the 28th of April his brother Anthony, a Private in the Leinster Regiment, was also killed.

The Kelly family of Meeting Lane lost three sons in the war. On the 23rd of May, 1915 John Kelly, a Private in the Leinster Regiment with the regimental number 3636 died of wounds in France. His brother Owen also in the Leinster Regiment with the regimental number 3626 was killed in action on the 1st of May, 1915. Clearly they had joined the regiment on the same day as evidenced by their regimental numbers. Their younger brother Denis later joined the same Regiment despite the pleas of his distraught mother who had already lost two sons. She followed him to the railway station on the day she heard of his intention to enlist and in vain searched the train for her son. As it pulled out of the station she stood on the platform in tears probably realising as only a mother can that she was to lose another son. Denis was to die on the 30th of September 1918.

Another local family to suffer the loss of three sons was the Curtis family of Kilcrow. Patrick Curtis, a Private in the Irish Guards was killed in action on the 5th of November, 1914. His brother John, an acting bombardier in the Field Artillery was killed on the 9th of January, 1917. Their brother Laurence a Private in the Irish Lancers died of wounds on the 4th of December, 1917.

The dead of the 1914-1918 War are to some just names on paper but to others they represent the generation which lost its youth as brave young men went to War in a cause which was to unite families in grief. For too long we pushed to one side their memory forgetting that bravery wears many uniforms. Their life sacrifices must always be a constant reminder to us of how our neighbours suffered, why are neighbours grieved and why their dead must always be remembered.

Friday, November 4, 1994

World War 1 and Athy

This November the men whose lives were brutally cut short on World War I battlefields are remembered as they have been for the last 76 years. The events of a generation now long passed could so easily be overlooked by the present were it not for the very real links we have with that War. Athy like many other towns and villages in Ireland paid a heavy price in the conflict which started on the 4th of August, 1914 and ended on the 11th of November 1918. During that period approximately 35,000 Irish men were killed, an average of 158 Irish men every week or 23 men every single day. Those men, all old enough to wear an Army uniform but too young to die, perished in the slaughter which was the Great War.

Britain declared war on Germany on the 4th of August, 1914 and the first troops of the British Expeditionary Force began landing at La Havre and Boulogne on Sunday, the 9th of August. On Thursday, the 1st of September William Corcoran, Army No. 4523, a Lance Corporal in the First Battalion Irish Guards was killed. He was a native of Athy and so far as I can find was the first of the many Athy men who were to die before Armistice Day in November 1918.

567 men from County Kildare died in the War. The greater number came from the South Kildare town of Athy and the surrounding district. Ireland’s War Memorials published in eight volumes lists the details of all Irish men killed in the War but included many non-Irish men who had enlisted in Irish Regiments and others who were included because they had names which were considered likely to indicate an Irish background. Recent research by Pat Casey of the Western Front Association confirms the Irish dead at approximately 35,000 and not the 49,000 or so included in the War Memorials.

The story of the War is one of unremitting death but even in the charged atmosphere of the time the month of April 1915 stands out as being particularly horrific. Gallipoli and Ypres, names familiar to every student of military history were the centres of fierce fighting that month which resulted in the death of 72 men from County Kildare. The names of the some of the Athy men who died that month reads like a litany of the living:- Joe Byrne and Anthony Byrne, William Wall, John Farrell, Christopher Hannon, Larry Kelly, James Dillon, Moses Doyle, Patrick Leonard, Christopher Power, Patrick Tierney, the list goes on and on. Upwards of 200 men from Athy and district died in the War and the dreaded War Office telegram which heralded death or if one was lucky an injury which offered temporary respite from the rigours of war left Athy Post Office with chilling regularity. To receive one such telegram announcing the death of a beloved son was a heartbreaking experience but what of the mothers who received two such telegrams or as in at least two known cases lost three sons in the war.

Athy man Eddie Stafford died on the 24th of September, 1914 just one month into the War. His brother Tommy was to join him in death on the 6th of September, 1916. Brothers Joe and Anthony Byrne of Chapel Lane were to die within two days of each other in April 1915. Joe who was a Sergeant in the Dublin Fusiliers was killed in action in France on the 26th of April and on the 28th of April his brother Anthony, a Private in the Leinster Regiment, was also killed.

The Kelly family of Meeting Lane lost three sons in the war. On the 23rd of May, 1915 John Kelly, a Private in the Leinster Regiment with the regimental number 3636 died of wounds in France. His brother Owen also in the Leinster Regiment with the regimental number 3626 was killed in action on the 1st of May, 1915. Clearly they had joined the regiment on the same day as evidenced by their regimental numbers. Their younger brother Denis later joined the same Regiment despite the pleas of his distraught mother who had already lost two sons. She followed him to the railway station on the day she heard of his intention to enlist and in vain searched the train for her son. As it pulled out of the station she stood on the platform in tears probably realising as only a mother can that she was to lose another son. Denis was to die on the 30th of September 1918.

Another local family to suffer the loss of three sons was the Curtis family of Kilcrow. Patrick Curtis, a Private in the Irish Guards was killed in action on the 5th of November, 1914. His brother John, an acting bombardier in the Field Artillery was killed on the 9th of January, 1917. Their brother Laurence a Private in the Irish Lancers died of wounds on the 4th of December, 1917.

The dead of the 1914-1918 War are to some just names on paper but to others they represent the generation which lost its youth as brave young men went to War in a cause which was to unite families in grief. For too long we pushed to one side their memory forgetting that bravery wears many uniforms. Their life sacrifices must always be a constant reminder to us of how our neighbours suffered, why are neighbours grieved and why their dead must always be remembered.

Friday, October 28, 1994

A Shaterred Dream - John Scully

Some months ago I read a book which disturbed me. It had first attracted my attention with a cover photograph which showed unoccupied and windowless tenement flats under the title “A Shattered Dream”.

The author is John Scully who, in the opening page, tells us that he was born in Athy on May 2nd, 1937. He lived with his parents, four sisters and one brother in a county council house consisting of a living room and two bedrooms. There was no running water, no toilet and no electricity.

Despite the apparent deprivation, his childhood was happy. His parents loved the town of Athy where they were born, lived out their lives and eventually died. John left the local Christian Brothers School in Athy at 14 years of age without any adequate education or a trade.

The first discordant note is struck when he declares that in his school the teachers were interested only in teaching the six pupils who were regarded as the cream of the class.

At 16 he got his first job as a farm labourer. His work was somewhat seasonal and offered no prospect for the future. Nevertheless, like his parents he loved his home town of Athy. In 1953, realising the hopelessness of his position, he emigrated to England, ambitious to realise his dream of sometime opening his own shop.

As he states in his book “I realised more and more that there was no future for me in Athy so I headed for the boat and sailed away to a new life in England. I know I was going against my parents’ wishes in doing so but I also knew that there was no other way of bettering myself.”

How often those same sentiments have been expressed by young men and women from Athy, forced by circumstances to leave the town they loved to earn a decent living.

John’s story continued with his life in England, his marriage to Barbara from Connemara in February 1970 and the Scully family’s eventual return to Ireland in 1972. At last he was about to realise his dream of owning his own shop. The location of that shop, in what he euphemistically describes as “a rough area of Dublin” was to unlease a chain of events which makes disturbing reading, as John recounted what happened from then until 1991.

Threatened, harassed and assaulted by local hooligans, John and his family failed to receive the protection and reassurance which one would expect of the local gardai.

Indeed the book recounts a litany of complaints alleging intimidation, wrongful arrest and false charges, which continued for the next 19 years as John Scully’s dream disintegrated. No less than 26 incidents involving the gardai are told with candour but the harrowing story is one which leaves its mark on the questioning reader.

John, who now lives with his family in Jobestown, Co. Dublin, has seen his dream shattered, hence the title of the book. In recounting his experience with authority he has penned a story which should be read by everyone, especially those people who are charged with guarding the peace. The Garda Siochana have a proud and honourable tradition of service. Nevertheless, in any large group of men and women, one must inevitably come across the few whose behaviour and abuse of authority reflects badly on the entire body.

The story of John Scully would appear to be a blot on the record of the Garda Siochana and one which, unfortunately, has remained largely unnoticed. The Athy man has written of matters which concern us all, particularly at this time when there are demands for increased policing powers.

No doubt the breakdown in discipline in society generally has fuelled this demand but regrettably, in the attempt to deal with crime, the very fine balance between individual freedom and police power has been tipped more and more against the individual.

The recent Criminal Justice Public Order Act is an example of legislation giving wide powers to the gardai which I fear are somewhat draconian and open to abuse.

John Scully’s book should be read without necessarily accepting the strength of every claim or allegation it makes. After all, this is only one side of the story but what it relates to deserves a wider readership and a realisation, by those in authority, that we all have hopes and aspirations which can be so easily destroyed by excessive or inconsiderate exercise of powers which are designed to protect the individual in society.

Friday, October 14, 1994

Tosh Doyle

Talking to "Tosh" Doyle is to open the floodgates of memory. Having lived all his life in Athy Tosh who is almost 80 years old can recall with uncanny accuracy the local events of the past and the people who shaped our town. He can name with accuracy the people who lived in Athy in the 1920's and later, recounting their lineage with a skill equal to that of any Genealogist.

Born on the 14th of November, 1914 in Meeting Lane, his father was a professional soldier in the 9th Lancers who had served in the Boer War. Just shortly before Tosh was born his father, then in the Army Reserve, was called up as the First World War erupted in the Summer of 1914. "Tosh" who was named Thomas says that he owes his familiar nomenclature to a next door neighbour Mrs. Kavanagh who first called the young boy the name by which he is so well known today. He had three sisters and one brother Jim whom the older generation in Athy will remember as Dan Neill’s right hand man.

The Doyles lived in a row of houses now demolished on the left side of Meeting Lane as one approaches from Emily Square. In the first house immediately after the entrance to the existing Tyre Centre lived the Myles Family. Next to them lived the Doyles, then the Kavanaghs with their next door neighbours Eatons house adjoining Dan Neills Builders Yard which is now the site of Pat Tierneys house. Across the road was the first Local Authority housing scheme built in Athy in 1913. The railings around the front gardens of these house were installed in the 1930's by local Blacksmiths, Ted and Jim Vernal.

"Tosh" attended the local Christian Brothers School where he especially remembers two lay teachers, both of whom were locals. John Hayden was a member of the local I.R.A. Brigade who went to America following the death of his young wife. The other local man was Jim Bradley, brother of John Bradley, who for many years was a Nationalist Reporter. The Superior was Brother Clifford, a Kerry man. Just two weeks short of his 14th Birthday Tosh finished school and went to work in Maxwells of Duke Street. As a general factotum he worked the manual Petrol Pump which stood on the footpath directly opposite the Garda Station then located next door to the Gem. He also mended bicycles and looked after the sale of carbide for the Carbide Lamps which were so popular in those days. Carbide Lamps have always intrigued me but until I talked to Tosh I did not know how they worked. Carbide which is somewhat chalk like in appearance was inserted into a chamber in the bottom of the Carbide Lamp and reacted with water which dripped onto it from another chamber above to give off a gas which when lit gave quite a good amount of illumination.

In 1934 Tosh left Maxwells and worked for a year or two with Fran Doran of Leinster Street. Fran, a big man who swam throughout Winter and Summer alike in the River Barrow was a Market trader. He attended all of the local fairs and markets including Tullamore, Templemore and Borris selling clothes to the farmers. As his assistant Tosh had charge of what he refers to as the "Swag" being the braces, Collar studs, Tie Pins and other small items which would be termed haberdashery in a shop context. Fran who was noted for his wit regaled the potential customers with a well practised spiel always alluding to the quality of the "bullet proof trousers" which he had on sale. Tosh recalls an occasion when quick thinking by Fran Doran regained the attention of a crowd diverted by another trader. Giving Tosh a blanket he explained what he was to do. Going to the end of the Street pulling the blanket around his shoulders and rolling up his trousers, Tosh slowly approached Frans stall while the proprietor called out to all and sundry:- "Here he comes, here he comes, Gandhi has arrived". No one could hope to compete against such roguish ingenuity.

It is when he describes a journey undertaken 62 years ago that one marvels at the memory and recall of Tosh. He was one of 12 men who made a slow journey sitting on planks placed on a covered trailer pulled by a tractor as it wended it’s way to Dublin in 1932. The occasion was the Eucharistic Congress and the driver was Jim Malone of Barrowhouse later of St. Patrick’s Avenue who brought his friends to Dublin and back to Athy on the same day. Parking the tractor and trailer in what Tosh recalls was open country at Inchicore the happy travellers continued on foot to the Phoenix Park.

When Tosh left the employment of market trader Fran Doran in 1936 he went to work with John Stafford who carried on a hackney service and bicycle shop in Emily Square. The premises is now occupied by Jim Lawler, Hackney Driver. In those pre-War days when ownership of cars were confined to the very rich, Athy had a very impressive array of hackney car owners. John Stafford had two cars on the road as had Dick Murphy of William Street. Paddy Murphy of Offaly Street and George Ellard of Leinster Street were hackney men as was Jack Loveday of Ballylinan who was never known to exceed 15 mph in his car. Another notable and unmistakable sign of Jack’s hackney car during the War years was the smoke billowing from his car exhaust as he drove on paraffin oil when petrol was scarce.

Not so adventurous was Archie Maxwell of Duke Street who in addition to his bicycle shop also had hackney cars on the road. Tommy Stynes of Leinster Street combined the role of undertaker and hackney car owner and had the biggest and most luxurious car on the road. Tosh who had started work at 14 years of age first drove a car in 1937 while working for John Stafford. He can still recall his first trip which was to drive Jim Lawler and four ladies to a dance in The Ritz Ballroom in Carlow one October evening.

In 1945 Tosh who was still living in Meeting Lane started his own business as a hackney man having bought his first car, a Ford V.8, from Tommy Stynes for £180. One of his most consistent customers was the “Yank” Brennan of Wolfhill, a well liked man who had returned after 40 years in America. One of Yank’s peculiarities was never to drink whiskey from a glass but always from a baby Power bottle. Years in America had taught him never to accept drink in a glass on the basis that “you never know what those guys would slip into your drink”. Another regular customer was Fintan Brennan, District Court Clerk and President of the Leinster Council GAA. Tosh drove him to football and hurling matches throughout the Province, invariably accompanied by Fintan’s trusted aides who manned the gates at big matches. These included Joe McNamara of Stanhope Street, Tom Langton of Leinster Street and Tim O’Sullivan, then an assistance in J.J. Collins’ Pharmacy in Duke Street.

Married in 1950 Tosh was soon to leave Meeting Lane where he was the last resident in a row of houses which had stood for over 100 years. He transferred to St. Patrick’s Avenue where he still happily lives amongst friends.

Recalling some of the residents of Meeting Lane in the 1920’s and 1930’s Tosh mentions Mrs. Smith’s lodging house where John Allen lived until quite recently. It is now bricked up. Next door Tom and Jim Fleming lived and their sister Nancy still lives there. In the houses since demolished to make way for the car park lived Ned Brennan, a local tailor and his wife. Martin (Mert) Hayden, harness maker and his brother Paddy (Sooty) Hayden, a delivery breadman for Dooley’s Bakery were their neighbours. Originally Martin Hayden lived in a house on the site of the present Pymah factory before moving down the street. Johnny Berney who kept a dairy in Janeville Lane also lived in Meeting Lane and it was from his home that the milk was sold. Other names and families now gone and forgotten are remembered by Tosh with affection as he recalls his years in Meeting Lane.

The relevance of oral history is re-affirmed when listening to the young 80 year old who lovingly recalls the past and the men and women whose tears and laughter gave life to our town, for Athy surely is Tosh Doyle’s own place.

Friday, October 7, 1994

Athy C.Y.M.S.

The earliest extant record of the Catholic Young Mens Society in Athy is a Minute Book dating from January 1879. However it is believed that the Society was established in Athy in 1862. In its formative years the members of the Society met every Sunday at 6.00p.m. in the Christian Brothers School, St. John's Lane. Lectures and debates were the principal Sunday evening activity and in time a Library was provided for the members. Minutes of the meeting of the 15th of January, 1879 noted that in the absence of entertainment on Sunday evenings a member was to be designated to read a chapter from Irish history to the other members. The Society's Committee in 1879 included Christopher Timmons, P. Murphy, Mick Nolan, Mick Doyle, William Kealy, Sean Cantwell and Mr. Butler. The local curate Rev. John Staples was President of the Society.

In January 1881 the Society members appointed a Committee to establish a Band and to set up a singing group. This followed the formation in the previous year of another local band, the Athy Fife and Drum Band, which catered for juvenile musicians. This Band broke up in disarray in July 1881 following a dispute amongst members which culminated in Court proceedings against Henry Greene for retaining certain musical instruments.

The C.Y.M.S. established a Brass Band whose members enthusiastically practised every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. However, the enthusiasm soon waned and in November 1884 we learn that the Brass Band had gone the way of the earlier Juvenile Fife and Drum Band. Happily no Court proceedings resulted.

In 1892 the Sisters of Mercy had a new school built alongside their Convent and gave up possession of an older school building at the corner of Stanhope Place. The C.Y.M.S. gained possession of this L-shaped building and they were to remain in occupation until 1960.

As the C.Y.M.S. took over their new premises The Mechanics Institute, a non-denominational society acquired a billiard table for its premises in the Town Hall. The C.Y.M.S. obviously believing that the attractions of a 19th century pool hall were unlikely to be countered by lectures and books decided to acquire a billiard table for its own premises. In time billiards and snooker proved very popular with the members necessitating the purchase of a second full size billiard table. When the Mechanics Institute eventually closed, it’s billiard table was sold to the C.Y.M.S. and is still in use today.

The setting up of a Technical School in Athy in 1900 in part of the C.Y.M.S. building fronting on to Stanhope Place curtailed the Society's activities. It retained one large room for the playing of billiards and a small room as a card room. Card playing was so popular that the room provided proved too small and uncomfortable and in time became known as "the Dog House".

In 1906 the Club was involved in setting up a Football and Hurling Club in Athy which operated for a few years under the name "Athy C.Y.M.S. Hurling and Football Club". The present G.A.A. grounds in Geraldine Park were first used by the Club for inter county and inter club games around that time. Indeed so successful was the Club in promoting Gaelic games that the Athy pitch was generally regarded as the best available in County Kildare.

In 1940 a new Technical School was built on the Carlow Road and the then Parish Priest Canon McDonnell indicated his intention to pass on the rooms vacated by the Technical School to the Sisters of Mercy. The members of the C.Y.M.S. protested as they expected that the premises would be re-allocated to their Society. Negotiations between the parties in which James McNally, Parish Clerk, played an important role resulted in a compromise whereby one of the vacated Technical School rooms was handed back to the C.Y.M.S.

The L-shaped premises at Stanhope Place continued to be occupied by the C.Y.M.S. until 1960 when they were demolished in preparation for the construction of the new St. Michael’s Church.

In return for giving up its home of almost 70 years the Society was allocated St. John's Hall, formerly the home of the Social Club players in St. John's Lane. Here the Society remained until 1984 when by agreement with the then Parish Priest and with the support of the Sisters of Mercy it relocated its activities in Mount St. Mary's where it remains to this day.

Friday, September 30, 1994

Brother John Murphy Athy CBS

Brother John Murphy, a member of the Congregation of the Christian Brothers and based in Athy since 1960 holds the distinction of being the longest serving Christian Brother in the town in the 133 year history of the Athy Community. On the 23rd of September he celebrated the 70th anniversary of his entry into the Christian Brothers. That day coincided with the townspeoples celebration of the 150th Anniversary of the death of Venerable Edmund Rice, founder of the Christian Brothers.

Brother Murphy was born in Rineen, near Milltown, Co. Clare from where he entered the Christian Brothers Juniorate in Baldoyle, Dublin at seventeen and a half years of age. Ten years later his younger brother Frank followed him into the Christian Brothers and he celebrated his Diamond Jubilee last April. Between the two Clare brothers there is a remarkable 130 years as members of the Christian Brothers in Ireland.

Brother John Murphy after completing his Junior Year in Baldoyle later attended the Teacher Training College. He took final vows in 1932 after spending a short stint as a Novice Brother in North Monastery, Cork. In 1933 he transferred to Gorey where the young Christian Brother took on the responsibilities of Superior of the Christian Brother Monastery and Principal of the Primary School. He was to spend 12 years there before transferring to Greystones where he remained until 1948 when he went to Drogheda as Principal of the Primary School. Four years later he arrived in Dolphins Barn, Dublin, again assuming the dual role of Superior and Principal before coming to Athy as Principal of the Primary School in 1960.

The 1960's witnessed many changes in Irish education. The Donagh O'Malley years, mythologised by many and eulogised by that fine journalist, the late John Healy, was part of the changing pattern of an Irish society then growing to maturity. The State, which up to then had relied on the Christian Brothers and other religious societies to make Secondary education available to all and sundry without charge now began to take on more of the responsibilities it had neglected in the past.

The changing education scene led to an expansion in Secondary School numbers. New schools were needed in Athy and the prospect of a new Secondary School was in 1971 to galvanise the local people into considering the future of second level education in the town. The possibility of amalgamating the three existing local Secondary Schools which was favoured by the Department of Education was the subject of local debate where passions ruled and the future was not accurately anticipated. As a result a Community School for Athy was rejected by the townspeople over twenty years ago.

It was to fall to men like Brother Murphy in the forefront of the education process for many years to continue to meet the educational needs of a young growing population. Before he retired as School Principal in 1974 Brother Murphy had overseen the transformation which gave us the first Parents School Council and a new Primary School in Athy to replace the first school building erected in 1861.

Now twenty years later he celebrates 70 years as a follower of Edmund Rice. Since his arrival in Athy in 1960 he has endeared himself to students and parents alike. After 34 years in Athy the unassuming, courteous man from Clare is the longest serving member of the Christian Brothers in the 133 years of the Institutes association with the town. His unique achievement of service to Athy will never be surpassed, now that we have learnt of the imminent departure of the Christian Brothers from Athy.

The cultural bedrock of education in Athy is firmly in place thanks to the work of the Christian Brothers and the Sisters of Mercy whose future involvement in local Schools is now very uncertain. Maybe the time has come for the townspeople to re-assess the future of our presently fragmented Secondary School system in Athy.

Friday, September 23, 1994

Christian Brothers in Athy

On the weekend of the 23rd of September the people of Athy will come together to pay tribute to the Christian Brothers who will soon be leaving the town after 133 years of service as educators to successive generations of boys from the area.

The first Christian Brothers arrived in Athy on the 8th of August, 1861. Brothers Stanislaus O'Flanagan and Brother Luke Holland with lay Brother Patrick Sheehy occupied Greenhills House which was to remain the Christian Brothers Monastery until 1992. A local Committee with shopkeeper Mark Bealin as Secretary had earlier collected funds to fund the construction of a single storey three roomed schoolhouse alongside the Monastery. It was first opened as a school on the 19th of August, 1861 when 120 boys enrolled.

The success of the Christian Brothers in providing educational opportunities for young boys in those days of non-compulsory school attendance saw enrolment numbers increasing over the following years. A third teaching brother was soon employed with the generous financial help of Patrick Maher of Kilrush. He guaranteed a sum sufficient to provide for the new Brothers’ maintenance for two years. Patrick Maher was also a generous benefactor to the Sisters of Mercy whom he had helped on the establishment of the local Convent in 1852. His contribution to the Brothers was particularly important having regard to the impoverished state of the people of Athy who through their Parish Priest Monsignor Quinn had undertaken to maintain the recently arrived Christian Brothers. Two collections were taken up each year in the Parish Church to meet this commitment but in 1867 the Parish Priest stopped the practice pleading inability to further maintain the Christian Brothers. A public meeting was subsequently held in the town as a result of which the Christian Brothers undertook with the co-operation of the local people to take up the collections themselves.

The single-storey school house was modified somewhat in 1873 to cater for the increasing pupil numbers but no additions were made to the original structure until almost 30 years later. In September 1894 the first lay teacher was employed in the school and in the terminology of the day he was referred to as "Professor" John McNamee who for his labours received a salary of £1 per week. Around the same time the Brothers Monastery was refurbished and part of the work included the removal of the clay floor in the community room and its replacement with timber floorboards. It is difficult for us to imagine nowadays that less than 100 years ago in the Christian Brothers Monastery, one of the principal buildings of the town, such primitive conditions were to be found.

It was not until 1898 that attendance at school was made compulsory for Irish children. However the Act provided an exemption from school attendance for children of not less than 11 years of age who obtained a Certificate from the local School Principal showing "such proficiency in reading, writing and elementary arithmetic as is now presented for fourth class." Three years later with the introduction of technical instruction into the school curriculum the Christian Brothers felt obliged to extend the school building by adding an extra floor to the original structure. It was then that the famous metal stairway was installed.

With the introduction of woodwork in 1931 an extra building had to be provided. Officially called the Sacred Heart Hall but known by pupils and townspeople as the Manual School it gave much needed additional space for pupils and teachers alike. As part of the fundraising activity at the time an annual bazaar was held on behalf of the Christian Brother’s school. The highlight of the October 1931 venture was an aeroplane hired for the day from Iona National Airways to give joyrides over the town of Athy. This must surely have been the first aeroplane seen by many of the locals of the town.

Friday, September 16, 1994

St. Michaels Catholic Church

St. Michael's Parish Church - to our separated brethren the Roman Catholic Church - to some the unreformed Church but to the majority the Parish Church is the focus of our attention this week. Since the early days of the village of Athy there has been an ecclesiastical presence in the area. The Trinitarians or Crouched Friars were the first to establish a monastic settlement in the 13th century in the area now known as St. John's and near to Woodstock Castle. They were to be followed in 1253 by the Dominicans or Friars Preachers who established a monastery on the east bank of the River Barrow in the area between the Barrow and the present Offaly Street.

In those pre-Reformation days the French speaking Anglo Normans who established the village shared a common religion with the native Irish. However it was some time before those same Irish regarded as "the wild Irish" were permitted to join in religious ceremonies with their Anglo-Norman masters. The Trinitarian and Dominican monasteries were at first not accessible to the Irish and so it was that a separate secular Church came to be built outside the town walls to cater for the Irish who were attracted to the new Urban settlement. The medieval Church located in St. Michael's Cemetery on the Dublin road was the first Parish Church in Athy.

It is not known when the Trinitarians who were occasionally in conflict with their near neighbours the Dominicans, left Athy. The suppression of the Dominican Monastery in Athy occurred on the 19th of August, 1539 and when a jury sat at Kilkea on the 27th of November, 1540 to determine the extent of the monastic property in Athy there was no mention of the Trinitarian monastery of St. Johns. It may be presumed that the Trinitarians had already left the area but equally puzzling is the fact that in the Royal Commissioners survey of suppressed religious houses there is no reference to St. Michael's Church. Perhaps the answer lies in the conversion of monastic properties to private use while the Parish Church was retained as such in the immediate aftermath of the Reformation. The only difference being that it was thereafter used for services of the Reformed Church which following the Act of Supremacy had King Henry VIII as it's head.

In the troubled times which followed the actions initiated by King Henry VIII, adherence to a religion other than the state religion was not tolerated. That position was to remain unchanged for many years.

The Dominicans returned to the area soon after the accession of King James to the English throne but were to leave again following the attempted banishment of all Popish clergy from Ireland before the 1st of May, 1698. John Fitzsimons who was the Parish Priest, and living in Athy had registered with Dublin Castle in December 1697 and was accordingly allowed to remain on in the town. Again in July 1704 he appeared before the General Session of the Peace for County Kildare to register and to enter into sureties to be of good behaviour. The records disclose that he was 54 years of age and had been ordained in 1673 by the Primate of Ireland, Oliver Plunkett. He remained as Parish Priest of Athy until his death in 1712.

There is no record of a local Church catering for Catholics at that time. Apparently Mass was said where and whenever it was possible and several years were to pass before laws outlawing Catholic practices were sufficiently relaxed to enable those who had not conformed to the state religion to worship openly and publicly. The return of the Dominicans to Athy after 1731 clearly indicated a relaxation of the Penal Laws in the area and it is around that time that a Parish Church was constructed for Catholic worship. The Church was built as was the custom of the day in a laneway where it was inconspicuous and unlikely to attract attention. The laneway chosen situated off High Street or the present Leinster Street became known as Chapel Lane.

This Church was to be torched and destroyed by fire on the night of 7th March 1800 allegedly in reprisal for the action of a local curate Fr. Patrick Kelly. In Affidavits sworn before the local Town Sovereign it was alleged that the action of Fr. Kelly in attacking a yeoman escorting prisoners about to be executed in Athy in May 1798 led to the destruction of his Church. No one however was charged with the offence and the claims made could not be verified. The Parish Priest Maurice Keegan, submitted a claim for compensation and in this he was supported by Thomas Rawson of Glassealy House as a result of which the sum of £300 was paid to him.

Pending the replacement of their Church the Catholic Parishioners of Athy heard Mass in a large malt house near the Grand Canal owned by P. Dooley. This building was also gutted by fire towards the end of March 1800. No other local buildings could be obtained for use as a temporary Church and it was a Catholic Army Officer stationed in the local barracks who had a canopy erected on the side of the Town Hall under which a temporary altar was positioned every Sunday. The congregation stood or knelt in the public square in a scene reminiscent of the early Christian Church when the Chancel consisting of a low wall with columns supporting an overhead beam afforded protection for the Mass altar.

The Parish Priest, Fr. Maurice Keegan, having obtained £300 compensation for the loss of the Parish Church immediately set about collecting additional funds to build a new Church. At the same time negotiations were opened up with the Duke of Leinster through his local agent to acquire a suitable site. On the 13th of February, 1803 William Robert, Duke of Leinster, signed the Lease of 3 roods and 28 perches of land opposite Rathstewart Bridge in favour of Michael Cahill of Athy, Thomas Fitzgerald of Geraldine and Thomas Dunn of Leinster Lodge in trust for the Roman Catholics of Athy. The Lease which commenced on the 1st of November, 1802 referred to the "new Roman Catholic Chapel" built on the site which prior to the commencement of building works formed part of low-lying grounds liable to flooding adjoining Moneen Commons. The laneway now called Stanhope Place fronting the Parish Priest's house was noted on the Lease map as Chapel Lane while the present Shanhope Street was then called Kildare Street.

Of the Trustees named in the Lease both Thomas Fitzgerald and Thomas Dunn were well known in connection with their involvement with events in Athy during the 1798 Rebellion. Fitzgerald, despite being a Captain of the Athy Loyal Cavalry Corps was suspected of rebel sympathies. As a result Captain Erskine and a troop of the 9th Dragoons with a company of the Cork militia were quartered in Fitzgerald's Geraldine residence for 30 days in April 1798. Fitzgerald himself was kept under house arrest before being imprisoned in Dublin for 91 days when he was eventually released without charge. He was to write to Dublin Castle in December 1802 complaining of the action of the military and was especially critical of Thomas Rawson of Glassealy House. It was Rawson who supported the Parish Priest's claim for compensation following the burning of the local Church.

Troops were also quartered on Thomas Dunn of Leinster Lodge and his brother Patrick of Dollardstown, both of whom were wealthy farmers and who because of their religious affiliations were suspected of being rebels.

In the Irish Magazine of March 1809 Michael Devoy of Kill wrote a short piece on the history of Athy in which he referred to the "new Chapel which is not by any means suitable to the large congregation nor on a plan fit for a country chapel." He then proceeded to outline the measurements of the building as 140 ft. long by 40 ft. broad and 25 ft. in height with a gallery constructed across the middle "by which means from the noise above the people below for about 60 ft. in length cannot hear the Priest's voice."

Rev. James Hall who made a tour through Ireland in 1812 wrote with reference to the practice of hearing confessions in Catholic Churches and mentioned having observed a man in St. Michael's Church, Athy, who for his penance walked on his bare knees across the rough floor of the Church drawing blood in the process. This he was told was quite a common penance imposed by the local clergy.

An important historical association with St. Michael's Church, Athy, was the first Parish Mission in Ireland which was held in the local Church in 1842. Another Mission held in St. Michael's on Sunday evening, the 23rd of October, 1887 was to result in tragedy. One of the Missionaries Fr. Cotter asked that the windows of the Church be opened and as he commenced his sermon the sound of breaking glass was heard followed by a scream. Immediately there was panic and a dash for the doors. Many people jumped from the side gallery under the mistaken belief that the gallery was about to collapse. When order was restored a number of people had suffered injuries and a 60 year old woman, Mary Anthony, later died on her injuries.

The Church building was to remain in service until 1960 when it was demolished and the site cleared for the present Church which was dedicated on the 19th of April, 1964. Having regard to Athy's past history in brickmaking it is fitting that the Church was constructed in brick even if it came from Kingscourt, Co. Cavan and Courtown, Co. Wexford. One of the most striking features of the building which was built by Creedons of Dublin was the use of Portland stone.

St. Michael's was the fourth Parish Church built in the town in almost 600 years. The first Church - the Medieval St. Michael's known locally as "The Crickeen" still stands as a proud reminder of Athy’s past while the relatively new St. Michael's Church occupies a site first dedicated to Church use almost two hundred years ago.

Friday, September 2, 1994

Griffith - Wesley - Kebble in Athy

A few weeks ago I wrote of how seldom Athy had been noticed by travellers to Ireland during the 18th and 19th centuries. Understandably those early travellers had confined themselves to Dublin, Cork and other large centres of population, while Killarney and Connemara were also strongly favoured. Those who passed through Athy and recorded their journeys were usually men of religion who in their evangelising tours through Ireland obviously saw much worthy of their attention in the South Kildare town.

One of the earliest such travellers/evangelists was the English born Quaker John Griffith who visited Ireland for the first time in 1749. He attended Quaker meetings throughout the country during his three month visit including in his itinerary Rathangan, Carlow, Castledermot, Ballytore and Athy. Of Athy he wrote "the meeting was very small and true religion very low". While he does not say so it can reasonably be assumed that the meeting took place in a meeting room which the local Quakers rented from one of their members Thomas Weston. In 1732 Weston had agreed to "set Friends a large meeting room and a stable for £3.00 a year and keep them in repair".

Griffith's comments about the small meeting in Athy confirms our knowledge of the first Quaker community of the town which had established a meeting as early as 1671. Unlike their counterparts in Timahoe who erected a meeting house in 1704 and the Ballytore Quakers who did so four years later the Athy Quakers did not feel it necessary to provide a purpose built meeting house until 1780.

Griffith made a second visit to Ireland in March 1760 and in company with his good friend Abraham Shackleton of Ballytore he again attended Quaker meetings throughout the country until he returned to England on the 20th of May. He wrote in his journal on the 20th of March, 1760:- "I had a good serviceable meeting in Athy and the next day another at Rathangan".

Before the 18th century ended another famous visitor was to pass through Athy. This time it was John Wesley who on Saturday, the 25th of April, 1789 made the journey from Maryborough (Portlaoise) to Carlow via Athy. He did not preach in Athy having risen at 7.30a.m. for prayers before taking the Chaise at 7.45a.m. to arrive in Carlow at 1.30p.m. His journal merely recorded the fact that he passed through our town but regrettably we cannot lay claim to the great John Wesley having preached in Athy.

The next visitor of note was John Kebble, English Poet and Divine, who with his wife were the guests of Rev. Frederick Trench and Lady Helena Trench at Kilmoroney House, Athy, in August 1841. Kebble who had published the "Christian Year" in 1827 is generally acknowledged as the primary author of the Oxford Movement of which Newman was the leader. Appointed Professor of Poetry in Oxford in 1831 Kebble preached a sermon in the University Chapel, Oxford on the 14th of July, 1833 in which he asserted the Church of England's claim to a heavenly origin and opposed the abolition of ten Irish Bishoprics. It was this sermon later published as "National Apostasy" which inspired others in Oxford to seek to revive High Church principles in the Church of England which up to then was regarded as stagnant.

Associated with Kebble and Newman in the Oxford movement was Arthur Perceval, brother of Helena Trench of Kilmorony House. It's interesting to note that Rev. Frederick Trench who was Rector in Athy apparently supported the Oxford movement and for a time sought to observe the Saints Days and Holy Days by holding services in the local Church in Athy. Kebble and his wife stayed a number of days in Kilmorony and one of Kebble's biographers notes that "they seem to have well employed their time for a few days in seeing much that was interesting".

Athy may not have received much attention from early travellers to this country but it can claim that the Quaker John Griffith, the Methodist John Wesley and the Anglican John Kebble crossed paths in the unlikely setting of the South Kildare town.

Friday, August 26, 1994

Athy 75

Most of us are familiar with the Gordon Bennett Race of 1903 and its association with Athy but few amongst us know little or anything about the town's later involvement in motor sport. The Athy 75 was an annual motor cycle road race organised by Athy Motor Cycle and Car Club during the years 1925 to 1930. The inaugural race took place on Saturday, the 16th of May, 1925 over a 9 mile course with the starting point at Taylors just beyond Russellstown Cross on the main Dublin Road. The course ran via the Moat of Ardscull to Fonstown Cross and from there to Booleigh Cross with a left hand turn towards Athy. Another left hand turn at Tullygorey Cross brought the riders back to Russellstown Cross and the Dublin Road. The competitors set off individually at intervals with the high powered machines last. Practise on the course took place at 6.00 o'clock in the morning with the Race starting at 3.00p.m.

The winner of the inaugural race was D. McCrea on a 349 cc OK Bradshaw motor bike which he successfully manoeuvred around the seventy five mile course without mishap despite the heavy rain fall that day. In sixth place in that race was Henry Tyrrell-Smith, the Dublin motor cyclist who was to win the 350 cc T.T. Race in the Isle of Man in 1930.

McCrea also won the second Athy 75 which took place on Saturday 29th May 1926. Participating that day for the first time was a youthful Stanley Woods who set the fastest lap record at 66.14 mph on his Norton motor bike. When the following years race took place on Saturday, the 21st of May, 1927 the organisers had to cater for a much larger entry due to its growing popularity. The winner on that occasion was E. Dawson riding a 172 cc machine at an average speed of 46 mph. Despite the absence of rain the riders had difficulty in moving through the course due to strong winds which reduced the average lap speed. Ernie Nott riding a Rudge Norton motor cycle had the fastest lap speed of 60.39 mph. He was an English driver who was to achieve considerable fame during the 1930's.

When the fourth race set off on the 12th of May, 1928 there were 44 riders in the line up, the largest entry ever. The rain which on some previous years had created dangerous driving conditions was mercifully absent but the heat wave which engulfed the Irish country-side for three weeks prior to the race left parts of the course in a very dusty condition. This caused it's own problems for the motor cyclists who managed to complete the race without mishap. The race was won by H. Adair riding a 348 cc Rex Acme at an average speed of 54 mph.

Local riders who participated in the Athy 75 Races included William Hosie, and the three Taylor brothers - Bill, Charlie and Arthur. They were sons of C.W. Taylor who was Chairman of The Athy Motor Cycle and Car Club. Another local rider was Hugh Coogan of Mullaghamast who rode a 2 stroke Scotch Squirrel.

Saturday, the 18th of May, 1929 saw 48 riders lined up at the starting point opposite Taylors. Weather conditions were good but again the dusty roads caused problems for most riders but not for Stanley Woods who was then Ireland's greatest motor cyclist. He won the race on his 490 cc Norton averaging a record breaking 69.25 mph over the seventy five mile course. He also set a new lap record of 70.60 mph and both speed records were to remain as the highest achieved on the Athy course. The Race was marred by the death of a young Naas man, Henry Francis Sargent who was employed in Jacksons bicycle shop in Leinster Street, Athy. Under the name "Sonny Boy" he entered the Race riding a low powered motor cycle but on the second lap of the course he crashed at the Moat of Ardscull and was killed.

The last Athy 75 took place on the 24th of May, 1930 when 34 riders participated. The race was completed despite another unfortunate accident which marred the event, the winner being J.J. Byrne of Dublin who rode his 346 cc AJS at an average speed of 65.5 mph. On the third lap of the race twenty-three year old Peter Mooney of Manor Street, Dublin, collided with the roadside bank at Fonstown Cross and was killed. A second rider R.W. Kennan who was following Mooney also crashed and was injured. Again the dusty road conditions were blamed leading the Athy Club members under the Chairman C.W. Taylor to consider the future of The Athy 75. The Committee reluctantly decided that because of the fatalities suffered they would no longer organise the race. So ended Athy 75, one of the earliest motor cycle road races in Ireland.

Friday, August 19, 1994

Convent Life

Have you ever wondered about the daily routine in Irish Convents? Today life in the average Convent is more relaxed and less restrictive than it ever was, as evidenced by the routine which once applied in our own Convent of Mercy.

At a time when most Convents were independent houses with their own novitiates, young women were subjected to rigorous scrutiny before being accepted as potential postulants. For the first six months each postulant was easily recognised by the distinctive white bonnet which she wore. The next twelve months was spent as a spiritual year with the postulant wearing a black habit and a white veil. After that 18 months was spent in preparation for first profession after which first vows were taken. The last 3 years were spent in preparation for final profession when perpetual vows were taken.

In the daily life of the Convent the times of prayer, work and recreation were strictly regulated. Each day commenced at 5.25a.m. when the Convent Bell sounded. At 5.55a.m. Matin and Lauds took place in the chapel for 15 minutes, following which everyone spent 40 minutes in private meditation. Mass was attended at 7.00a.m. and breakfast was taken at 8.00a.m. after which there were house charges with each nun and postulant performing various house duties. Silence was maintained throughout the day except during periods of recreation. A card in the front hall indicated whether a period of 'silence' or 'recreation' applied at any particular time.

Teaching nuns went to school at 9.00a.m. and at 12 noon midday prayers were said with lunch at 12.30p.m. The main meal of the day was at 3.30p.m. followed by forty-five minutes of recreation usually consisting of needle work or walking in the garden. Nuns walked in groups and quickly acquired the skill of walking backwards as three or four nuns faced their companions to facilitate conversation while they perambulated around the Convent garden. This was followed by 30 minutes of spiritual reading in the Chapel and another 20 minutes spent at Vespers. Supper was at 7 o'clock followed by another hour of recreation and 30 minutes of night prayers at 9.00p.m. Lights out at 10.00p.m. was followed by the period referred to as 'the great silence'.

Every month a Chapter of Faults was held before the entire community in the Convent Chapel. Each Nun had to confess her transgressions to the assembled community, a duty which postulants had to perform every morning.

Even within the confines of the Convent walls a very strict divide once existed. Early entrants to an Irish Convent were as much dependant upon the availability of a dowry as were their sisters who sought matrimony in the rural Ireland of an earlier age. The dowry became part of the Convent's finances and ensured for the postulant on taking her perpetual vows the rank of a choir nun. As the name denotes a choir nun was one who participated in all the religious ceremonies within the convent freed of the necessity to engage in menial domestic duties. Those for whom the religious vocation was no less strong but who were without the benefit of a dowry, life in the Convent was that of a lay-nun whose duties included serving the choir nuns and providing for their daily needs. The distinction between a choir nun and a lay nun was initially determined by the availability or absence of a dowry but later by educational differences. It may seem to us nowadays somewhat incongruous that such a distinction operated within the convent structure but we should remember that the Church itself merely mirrored life in society itself. I can recall the special pew reserved for one local family in the Catholic Church in Kells, Co. Meath in the mid-1960's where they were assured comfort and solitude free from contact with their more humble neighbours. Who can forget that even in our time and town there existed a gallery in our local Church where entry was confined to those who made a donation of silver at the Church door. An example of clerical entrepreneurship or pandering to a class conscious society? I don't know but these examples like the choir nun and lay nun of another era were but reflections of life in Ireland of it's day.

The number of sisters in the Convent has fallen dramatically in recent years with few new entrants to the ranks of those who devote their life to God. The age structure of those who remain clearly indicates that in a very short time, unless there is an unprecedented reversal of current trends, the Sisters of Mercy Convent may have to close.

If and when this happens it will be a very sad day for our town and will leave a void which I'm afraid lay people could not adequately fill. Whatever lies ahead we must never forget those truly great women who served our community so selflessly for so long and who over the years brought so much good into the lives of so many.

Friday, August 12, 1994


In the past religious and class differences tended to keep apart Protestant and Roman Catholics socially and in the workplace and this segregation was fostered by a mutual suspicion which was self-perpetuating. Attitudes changed and a decision by Sam Shaw, Proprietor of Shaws Department Store in Athy over 50 years ago helped to break the mould.

I remember when growing up in Athy in the 1950's the female assistants working in Shaws who were the last in a long line of girls and young men who had come to the town from addresses all over Ireland to be apprenticed to the drapery trade. The girls, all of whom were of Protestant stock, lived over the premises where they had their quarters, quite separate from the men who had rooms at the back of the yard. A housekeeper was employed to provide meals and keep an eye on any inhouse activity which might not meet with the Proprietor’s approval.

In the mid-thirties Shaws was home to upwards of 20 young women, all of whom paid £25 per year for the privilege of undergoing a three year apprenticeship at the counter. It was only when they qualified that they become eligible for a wage which amounted to £6 per month. The hours were long with a 9.00 o'clock start, half an hour for lunch, finishing at 6.00 p.m. on weekdays and 9.00p.m. on Saturday. Indeed the Saturday closing time often stretched to 10.00p.m. if there were customers still lingering on the premises. Staff had a half day off on a Thursday which was the town’s early closing day.

The girls in the early 1940's included many who were to marry and settle down in Athy. Lucy Dobson was to marry Bob Bryan, while Ethel Donaldson married John Meredith. Florrie Bass who came from Wexford married local farmer Bill Hendy, while Mary Gunnell married John Hendy. Others who worked and lived in Shaws during the war years included Frances Dobson, Etta Eacrett, May Sinnott and Amelia Boyhan. Jenny Hegarty whose home town was Athy was one of the few locals working in Shaws who lived out. The girls generally spent their leisure hours playing badminton or participating in activities of the Girls Friendly Society in the Parochial Hall on the Carlow Road.

Everyone living in was required to keep to a strict 10.00p.m. curfew and woe betide anyone who without good reason sought to stay out any longer. For all that, life was very pleasant for the girls and the men who lived in around that time including George Bryan, Victor Leigh, Jim Boyd and Jim Leggett. Indeed one of the great stories of the time concerned Jim Leggett's unusual use of the pulley system within the shop which sent monies and invoices along a series of wires to the cash office from each sales counter. The money was put into a circular box which screwed into a holder and was then propelled overhead to the cashier who took out the money and returned the box with any change via the same route. Jim, obviously determined to liven up proceedings in the shop one morning sent his box whizzing overhead to the female cashier who duly reached up to unscrew the box and emptied out it’s contents - a dead mouse. It is safe to assume that the Proprietor, Sam Shaw, was not on the premises that morning.

Sam who lived in the Mill House opposite Hannon's Mill in Duke Street before moving to Cardenton was regarded kindly by his staff. Dissatisfaction however was always registered by him if a potential customer was allowed to leave the premises without purchasing. This to Sam Shaw was inexcusable calling forth a myriad of questions as to what had been shown or not shown to the customer.

At one time Catholics were not employed in Shaws. Unfortunately it is not always remembered that this practice ceased as early as the 1940's. I believe that the first Catholic to work there was Doris Ruddy, a daughter of the local Garda Sergeant who left Athy in 1945 to be replaced by my own father. Her brother also worked in the Mens Department of Shaws at that time.

The advertising slogan says "Shaws - Almost Nationwide" but to Athy people Shaws is a local institution which helped in no small way to break down the barriers between Protestant and Roman Catholic. For this we have to thank Sam Shaw who started a process of community integration over 50 years ago of which we are the beneficiaries today.

Friday, August 5, 1994

Athy in 1863

Located in the Barrow valley and in an area of South Kildare which in the past has not often featured in the itinerary of visitors to Ireland, Athy has seldom been mentioned in the many travel books written about Ireland over the last 200 years. Early visitors to Ireland tended to confine themselves to the grand sights of Killarney and Athy’s location off the main routes to the south meant that little or no mention was made of the market town on the river Barrow.

But once in a while one less jaundiced and more discerning than most cast a cold eye over life in our town and recorded it for posterity. One such observer was Thomas Lacy of Wexford who published in 1863 his impressions of his journey around Ireland in the years immediately following the Great Famine. Between 1853 and 1864 he travelled through the Irish countryside visiting towns on the way, all the time recording his impressions and views of those areas.

Lacy was no ordinary traveller for he had previously published a small work entitled `Home Sketches on both sides of the Channel’ and his 1863 publication `Sights and Scenes in our Fatherland’ was in his own words an attempt “to describe some of the most celebrated portions of my native country”.

He arrived in Athy in the autumn of 1855 by railway from Carlow. Athy he declared was a handsome regular town and for it’s size a very prosperous and flourishing one. The spacious area called `Market Square’ was, he observed, surrounded with good houses and handsome shops.
“The Courthouse, a neat moderate size structure, stands in the centre of Market Square to which on each side of the building leads a capacious street. Here also are several good houses and amongst them The National Bank, The Loan Fund and the Dispensary. There was also a branch of the Tipperary Joint Stock Banking Company in the town which on it’s failure was replaced by a branch of the Hibernian Banking Company”.

Continuing with a description of Whites Castle and the bridge over the river Barrow Lacy informed his readers that
“on an open space opposite the Castle and between the Market Square and the river a new corn exchange is being built. It is about 70 ft. in length and 30 in breadth. The base course, quoins and ornamental parts being of cut granite and the material in general a description of limestone. The principal market is held on Saturday and is well supplied and very well attended”.

The arrangements in the market he found particularly satisfactory describing how
“a weighing machine has been established where corn, potatoes and other articles are weighed at one half penny per sack and sworn weighing masters are in attendance by whom printed tickets of the weights are given to those who may require them”.

Continuing he wrote
“about five miles from the town extensive peat works were at this time carried on by Rees Reece Esq. in which large numbers of men, women and children were employed. In these works oil, soap, candles and various commodities were produced by the scientific and ingenious process brought to bear upon the turf which in large quantity and superior quality is raised in this part of the country”.

Commenting on employment in the area he noted that the wages for harvest labourers in the neighbourhood ranged from two shillings to two shillings and six pence without food and from one shilling and six pence to one shilling and eight pence with food.

In his detailed survey of the town’s buildings he mentions the town jail built in 1830 on the opposite side of the Carlow road to St. Michael’s Church. The jail cost £3,000.00 to build, of which £2,000.00 and the site was donated by the Duke of Leinster. One entered the jail he said “through a massive arch flanked on both sides with bold rusticated masonry”. Opposite St. Michael’s Cemetery with it’s medieval house of worship he found a plot of ground with a site marked out and the foundations laid for “the erection of a new Scotch Church”. His visit to the Model School, opened in 1850, disclosed that
“the walls were furnished and appropriately decorated with all the newest and best maps of various sizes and with wondrous illustrations of animals, beasts, birds and fish.”

Lacy’s positive image of Athy in 1855 can be contrasted with the views expressed by J.N. Brewer in his book “The Beauties of Ireland” published in 1826. Brewer described Athy as a town of some importance in the past “but now decayed”, a situation he lamented given the advantages Athy enjoyed “more particularly the great canal navigation and the fertile land of the Barrow valley”.

It is interesting to read of Athy almost 150 years ago and to see how little the town has changed in a structural sense. Apart from the town jail which closed down five years after Lacy’s visit few of the other buildings have changed. I wonder how a visitor in one hundred and fifty years from now will view Athy.

Friday, July 29, 1994

Stephen Bolger - Canal Boatmen

I spent an enjoyable few hours last week talking and listening to Stephen Bolger, an octogenarian heading into his 89th year. He has been a patient in St. Vincent's Hospital for a number of years but his memory retains a sharpness in relation to events of previous decades which prompts admiration and a slight little regret that I had not previously interviewed this grand old man.

Born on the 31st of August, 1905 Stephen may well lay claim to have been one of the few Athy people caught up in the Easter Rebellion in Dublin in 1916. He was then a young boy working on Jack Rooney's canal boat. Jack lived in Woodstock Street where Danny Kane's shop is now located. Stephen was one of three people on Rooney's boat that fateful week. Rooney, the skipper, steered the boat while another local man and Stephen took turns in leading the two horses which traced together, pulled the boat on the journey from Athy to Dublin. Passing through Vicarstown, Monasterevin, Rathangan, Robertstown, Hazelhatch and Clondalkin the boat was scheduled to berth at James's Street Harbour near the centre of the city.

The opening of hostilities on Easter Monday coincided with the arrival of Jack Rooney's boat in Inchicore and so it was that eleven year old Stephen Bolger found himself trapped in Dublin when the guns of rebellion blazed across the city sky. His memories are of the wild rumours which abounded with talk of killings in the city centre to rival the worst excesses of the 1798 rebellion. He did on occasions hear gunfire but he and his workmates were not allowed to move on from Inchicore and so Jack Rooney's boat and its cargo and crew spent almost a week there.

Stephen and his colleagues had to depend on the hospitality of some local Inchicore people during their enforced stay as they had rations only for the three days which they would normally expect to take for the return trip to Athy.

His memories of life and work on the Grand Canal is tinged with sadness as he recalled those Athy men who over the years died tragically while working on the waterways. Jack Rowan, brother of Mick Rowan presently living in Woodstock Street and son of Paddy Rowan, a noted Grand Canal boatman in his day, died at St. Mullins after falling into the twelfth lock. Jimmy Carey of Shrewleen Lane drowned at Levitstown on a trip from Carlow to Athy. Indeed the Grand Canal's boatmen were always somewhat wary of the rough waters of the Barrow navigation which they tended to avoid as much as possible as they did the Shannon navigation for the same reason. Their fears in this regard can be understood from the fact that the relatively smooth waters of the canal required only one horse to pull a canal boat while the Barrow navigation between Athy and Carlow might require four horses to pull a boat, especially when the river was in flood.
Corn and malt were some of the principal exports to Dublin from South Kildare while bricks from the local brick factory were also another common cargo of the day. On the return trip from Dublin barrels of Guinness were sure to be on board.

The horses used were what Stephen describes as "good heavy horses", Irish draught mares being particularly favoured. Each horse had a nose bag from which it could feed while walking on the canal tow path. It was extremely hard on the horses pulling boats, sometimes laden with 46 tonnes of cargo. Because of this each horse was fitted with a special collar which was "bridged", that is with a stitched hollow to keep it off the animals breast.

Stephen Bolger recalls many horses pulled into the Barrow by the sheer weight of the cargo combined with the force of the waters when the river was in flood. The Horse Bridge in Athy saw several horses pulled over the parapet as they made their way across the bridge to join the Grand Canal. Another danger point was the weir below the present Railway Bridge. The building of the Bridge in 1917 altered the position of the weir but prior to then many a horse was dragged over the weir by the sheer force of the rushing waters.

Stephen Bolger is a delightful man to listen to as he reminisces about life on the canal boats almost 80 years ago. The clarity with which he recalls the events of yesteryear is a testimony to a life of hard work and to times when "honest sweat and toil" was a badge of honour amongst working folk on the Grand Canal.

Friday, July 22, 1994

The Presbyterian Church

I recently received a very pleasant letter from a lady in Buckinghamshire, England, in which she related her links with Athy where she spent her summer holidays as a young girl. With a number of copy photographs of Athy scenes she also enclosed a copy of the report printed in 1856 by Athy printer M. Carey of Barrow Quay giving an account of monies received for the building of Athy's Presbyterian Church. The total donations came to £1,076.18.3 with £150 donated by the Belfast Church and Manse Fund. An interesting reference was to the sum of £70 collected by the Rev. Mr. Hall while in Scotland. The Minister in question was John Hall appointed to the newly established Presbyterian Ministry in Athy in September 1852.

The earliest reference to Presbyterianism in Athy referred to a grant to Rev. Dr. Thralkield for ministering in the town in April 1717 out of a special fund established seven years earlier by some wealthy Dubliners. The Ministry continued until 1798 when Rev. Nicholas Ashe was forced to leave the town because of his alleged personal links with those involved in the 1798 Rebellion. What happened to his congregation we cannot say but we do know that the Presbyterian Church was not again to have a presence in Athy until 1851.

It was the Duke of Leinster's anxiety to people his rich south Kildare farmlands with Scottish farm stewards which led to the resurgence of Presbyterianism in the area. Advertising in Scottish newspapers he offered farms and farmhouses to such Scottish families as would settle in Ireland. Throughout the early months of 1851 the last group of settlers to come to the area arrived in Athy which in previous centuries had witnessed similar arrivals from across the Irish Sea. By June of the same year several Scottish families had settled in the area including the Andersons, Campbells, Duncans, Duthies, Dicks, Frazers, Hosies, Roudens, Macks, Walls, Pennycooks, Simpsons and Weirs. All came from Pertshire and Eastern Scotland and brought with them the Presbyterian religion of their forefathers.

The earlier mentioned John Hall was appointed Minister and when the need arose in 1855 to build a Church he travelled to Scotland to seek donations. The Church was built by Mr. Gough, Contractor, under the supervision of David Taylor, Architect. The foundation stone was laid on Friday the 21st of September, 1855 by James Gibson Q.C., a Presbyterian Church Elder who was also Chairman of County Laois then called Queens County. On the same day John Chapperton, Robert Anderson, Benjemin Thompson and James Alexander were appointed as the Church Elders.

Of the sum of £1,076.18.3 collected £600 was paid to the Contractor for building the Church. An interesting reference shows the sum of £60 paid to Mr. Patrick Callaghan for 60 yew trees in the church yard. Some of these are still standing in the area reserved for Presbyterian burials in St. Michael's Cemetery.

Extra seating was provided in the Church in 1866 to accommodate the average Sunday attendance of upwards of 200 persons and within six years Athy had the second largest Presbyterian congregation in Southern Ireland. That same year the Manse which had previously been a herdsman cottage occupied by Benjamin Norman was re-built at a cost of £400. Rev. John Clarke was appointed Minister in 1874 and he was responsible for building a Lecture Hall in 1889 at the rere of the Church which cost £320. Rev. Clarke died in 1899 and his portrait presented by his widow to the local Church now stands in the Lecture Hall.

In 1946 extensive refurbishment of the interior of the Presbyterian Church was carried out by local Contractors Frank and Jim Brady. The Gallery at the back of the Church was removed and because of wartime shortage of timber the bench ends were cast in cement as was the pulpit. These surely represent a unique feature in an Irish Church today.

The Presbyterian congregation today is very much reduced with the descendants of some of the Scottish farming settlers of almost 150 years ago still providing the nucleus of its membership.