Thursday, September 26, 1996


Centuries of history were swept away in a few short hours when the remains of Whitechurch forming part of the mearin ditch between the townlands of Turnerstown and Foxhill were bulldozed some weeks ago. The small oblong building was visible only in the remains of walls which has stood on the site for century's past. In the Ballad "Oonah More the legend of Inch Castle", Oonah retreated to the Whitechurch having been slighted by Ulick O'Kelly the son of the Lord of Inch Castle. The Ballad composed in 1856 and which was the subject of Eye on the Past Number 150 relates how

"For Oonah, life lost happiness, and day by day she stray'd,
To the holy walls of White Church, where the saintly maidens pray'd,
In silent anguish pining, she asked that Heaven above
Forgetting Ulick's baseness, might assoil his guilty love".

White Church approximately half a mile south of Inch Castle adjoins the Athy/Ballytore road which skirts around the Church and the burial ground which once surrounded it. The last resting place of the dead had long been obliterated presumably through the efforts of a farmer of another day reluctant to allow the enriched soil to remain uncultivated. Now the ruins of the old church are gone.

The name White Church is quite a common one to be found as a place name in both Ireland and England. White in the context of White Church is very likely to mean a stone church in the same way as White's Castle was so called because it was built of stone. There is a townland of White Church near to Naas which in the 15th Century formed part of the Manor of White Church belonging to the Viscounts of Gormanstown. A priory of Carmelites was once located there. Counties Cork, Dublin, Kilkenny, Tipperary, Waterford and Wexford all have townlands called White Church but what we had near Athy up to recently was the ruins of a small building known as White Church. How and when the Church came to be built between the townlands of Foxhill and Turnerstown is open to conjecture. The small stone building was obviously of great antiquity as the Ballad of Oonah More refers to the "holy Walls of White Church" an apparent acknowledgement that the building was even then in ruins. As the events related in the Ballad occurred in 1439, it can be assumed that the Church was built long before then.

In an article published in the Kildare Archaeological Society Journal in 1906, there appeared a plan of White Church which showed an oblong building measuring twenty-four and a half feet long by fourteen feet wide with an entrance in the South wall. The walls themselves were two foot four inches thick. The simple building without any apparent division as between Nave and Chancel and oblong in shape is typical of early Irish Churches. An examination of the masonry in the walls of the church could help to determine the period in which it was built but we cannot now do this. From the evidence of the 1906 plan, White Church could possibly have been a 9th or 10th Century building.

It is sad to think that anyone could be so heedless of the history of the building as to destroy it without any thought for the consequences. It requires a quantum leap of generous proportions to forgive the mindless act which has deprived us of the White Church. But maybe its loss will encourage others to realise the importance of the ancient building Heritage of South Kildare. If it results in the saving of Inch Castle to which the White Church was linked in the legend of Oona More, the sacrifice no matter how unintentional might be rendered acceptable. Look around us in South Kildare and see the wealth of the built heritage amongst which we live. Woodstock Castle, White's Castle, St. Michael's Medieval Church, Rheban Castle, the list could go on and on.

An Taisce, the National Trust does what it can to raise peoples awareness of the value of the Heritage of the past. It is currently campaigning to save Woodstock Castle. This ancient keep is owned by Athy Urban District Council whose priorities determined by severe financial constraints do not include the protection or preservation of the Castle. It is quite possible that Woodstock Castle the first building in the future Town of Athy will be lost to future generations if we don't act quickly to counteract the failure of the Council.

A towns history can be measured in stone and our respect for that history can be gauged by how we treat the time soaked stones of another era. We have failed in so far as the White Church is concerned because one amongst us threw caution and respect to the wind and unleashed the hungry jaws of a J.C.B. against the "holy walls of White Church".

We must never forget the lesson which this has taught us. Never again should we impetuously or negligently tear down the helpless stones of history, for if we do, we will destroy ourselves.

Thursday, September 19, 1996

Garda John McEvgoy, Paddy Joe Hughes, Gerry Stynes

On the 28th of September 1939 two young men with suitcases in hand arrived at the Railway Station in Athy to catch the 9.04 a.m. train to Dublin. That same week petrol rationing had been introduced by the Irish Government just three weeks after Germany had invaded Poland, thereby precipitating the Second World War. The train services had been curtailed due to the need to conserve coal stocks but the young men waiting on the platform gave little thought to the events unfolding in Europe. With their friend Gerry Stynes who was to join the train at Kildangan they were travelling to Dublin's Kings Bridge and from there to the Garda Depot in the Phoenix Park. They were the latest recruits for the Garda Siochana and all were former pupils of Athy Christian Brothers School.

Fifty seven years later they will retrace the journey they made as young men when on Saturday 28th September they catch the 11.30 a.m. train from Heuston Station to Athy. This time they will be accompanied by their wives and a lifetime of memories. Theirs will be a nostalgic journey, revisiting the town they once knew so well and renewing acquaintances with neighbours and friends of long ago.

Johnny McEvoy, Paddy Joe Hughes and Gerry Stynes are now long retired from the Garda Siochana and all three live in Dublin. Johnny, was born in 1915 in Woodstock Street and his father John and his brother Mick, now in St. Joseph's Terrace were both Postmen. Prior to joining the Gardai he had worked as a Despatch Clerk with the local asbestos factory and was one of the stars of the G.A.A. football team for many years, winning a Championship medal with Athy in 1937. Indeed Johnny holds the distinction of also having won a Dublin Championship medal in 1948 when playing with the Garda team. An Inter-County player, Johnny played for Co. Kildare for five years but of all his trophies the most prized are a minor Street League medal won with Barrack Street in 1930 and a Midland Schools Championship medal won when playing for Athy Christian Brothers School.

Johnny's football prowess was rivalled by that of Gerry Stynes, a native of Kildangan who played with Athy Christian Brothers School. Gerry played in the 1931 Leinster College Junior Championships when Athy achieved notable victories over Knockbeg, Ballyfin, O'Connell's School and Westland Row before losing to St. Mel's College, Longford in the Croke Park final. Playing for Westland Row in opposition to Gerry was the legendary Jackie Carey who later captained Manchester United to an English F.A. Cup victory as well as captaining Ireland at International level. After leaving school Gerry worked as a Barman for Michael Lalor who carried on a grocery and bar business in what is now Ryans but was then known as Reid Lalors in Leinster Street. His brother was the late Tommy Stynes who had a Hackney and Undertaking business at Leinster Street in what is now O'Sullivan's video shop.

Paddy Joe Hughes was born on the 28th of March 1917, the eldest son of Michael Hughes of Whitebog and Mary Darcy formerly of Woodstock Street. A pupil of the local Christian Brothers School, he sat his Leaving Certificate exam in 1935 when Brother Peter O'Farrell was Superior. While awaiting a call for the Gardai he took up employment in the local asbestos factory where Johnny McEvoy was already working as a Despatch Clerk. P.J. played gaelic football with Athy C.B.S. and Castlemitchell and recalls "big Joe Bermingham" as a team mate. While serving in Stores Street Garda Station he won Junior League and Junior Championship medals in 1940 and 1941 with the Dublin Club Ard Craobh. A team mate of his on that team was the great Tommy Banks, later a Dublin County and Leinster Inter-Provincial Gaelic football player.

The three young men from Athy accompanied by 300 other recruits completed their training in the Phoenix Park after six weeks and were sent to Stations in the Dublin Metropolitan Area. Johnny and Gerry were transferred after a few years to the Detective Branch in Dublin Castle. Paddy Joe spent some years in Sun Drive Garda Station and in the Superintendent's Office in Green Street before transferring to the Assistant Commissioner's Office in Dublin Castle.

On Saturday 28th of September commencing at 12.30 p.m. Athy Town Council is hosting a Reception in the Council Chambers at Rathstewart for the three local men who together left Athy so many years ago to join the Gardai. It was be a unique occasion for Johnny, Paddy Joe and Gerry and I am sure they are looking forward to meeting old friends and many of their relatives on the 57th anniversary of their departure from Athy. The Reception is open to everyone and it is hoped that as many as possible will turn out to meet them on Saturday.

Thursday, September 12, 1996

Kevin Meany, Sr. Xavier, Kitty McLoughlin

I have often found over the years that the summer holidays are almost always a time of sudden unexpected deaths. So many times I have returned from a holiday to find that someone known to me has passed away unexpectedly, and almost always to find the funeral has taken place. This summer has been no different in that regard. Within the last few weeks three local people with whom I have had contact over the years have died and in each case while I was away from Athy.

Kevin Meany of St. Patrick's Avenue I had known since I was a young fellow eagerly perusing the shelves of the local library in search of the latest unread detective novel. In those days my voracious appetite for reading was easily satisfied and a weekly novel coupled with my daily diet of comics was the extent of my young aspirations for literary appreciation. The local library of the 1950's was a small affair compared to the information emporium it is today. It too was based in the Town Hall but in a small room which I must say to my young eyes seemed then more than adequate to meet the town's thirst for knowledge. After all it took me ages to decide what book to borrow from the packed shelves which were to be found at the top of the darkened stairs which led from the street directly opposite Mrs. Meehan's chemist shop. The staircase may not indeed have been dark at all but since the local Freemasons Lodge met in a room at the top of the same stairs you can appreciate how a young fellow fed on stories of the secret and "demonic" activities of the brotherhood might well feel that the stairs too was a dark and sinister place.

But not so the library room. On arrival you were greeted by Kevin Meany, the friendly and knowledgable man who delighted in talking and sharing his love and knowledge of books and bookmen. Maybe it was Kevin's interest in local history which was passed on to me. Certainly I can recall that it was Kevin who first brought to my attention the book, written in 1847 on the 1798 Rebellion by local man Patrick O'Kelly. Kevin's interest in Athy extended far beyond local history and it was he who restarted the Gaelic League in the late 1940's.

When I left Athy and "emigrated" to Naas to work for Kildare County Council I often met Kevin on his frequent visits to St. Mary's, the one time tubercular hospital but by then the headquarters of the Council. He was always an engaging conversationalist and my deep regret is that Kevin was one of many that I had not interviewed before he passed away.

Someone I had talked to was Sr. Xavier Cosgrave who died a few short weeks after I had written about her in Eye on the Past. As one of the "Galway nuns" she had been a frequent caller on my mother, who was also from the West of Ireland, and had expended much energy in attempting to teach my brother Tony how to play the piano. Neither I think benefited from the experience.

I remember the last time we met when St. Xavier, in good spirits, talked to me of her years in Athy. Indeed feeling that she may have unburdened herself of too much personal detail she spent a restless night before phoning me the following morning to urge caution. She need not have worried and was more than happy with the article when it appeared. Sr. Xavier died shortly after one of her former pupils, Kitty McLaughlin had herself passed away. Kitty had been a long time officer of Athy Urban District Council and former member of Athy Social Club and had helped me in many ways in preparing previous articles. She had been in the first ever class taken by St. Xavier in the Convent of Mercy in 1935 and had recalled for me her classmates of that time. Little did she know that she was to die shortly before her teacher, unexpectedly and much missed by her many friends in Athy.

Kevin, Kitty and Sr. Xavier all died in recent weeks when the summer heat was energising the land and reinvigorating spent limbs recovering from the cold and rain of last winter. Their passing saddened me.

May they rest in peace.

Thursday, September 5, 1996

'Shadows from the Pale' - John Minahan's Book

"This Book is dedicated to the people of Athy, County Kildare, both living and dead". The book in question is "Shadows from the Pale" subtitled "Portrait of an Irish Town", a book of photographs of Athy and it's people compiled by John Minahan and published this month by Secker and Warborg of London. The cover footnote claims that for the past 35 years John Minahan has been photographing his home town of Athy and it's people. "It is an ordinary Irish country town which is gradually feeling the incursion of industry, comparative wealth and modernity." Whatever the accuracy of this latter claim, there is no doubting the importance of Minahan's photographs and the wonderfully intimate insight they give us into our town and it's people.

The children of Plewman's Terrace figure prominently in many fine studies executed in 1973, or is it 1963 as one of the photographs would lead us to believe. The timing however is immaterial as one observes in the faces of the children that timeless sense of innocence which might prove all too difficult to recapture today.
The Christian Brothers schoolyard in St. John's photographed in 1965 stands alongside a beautifully evocative snap of the roadside pump leading on to St. Joseph's Terrace. Both scenes are now changed, never more to be recaptured. The same applies to Julia Mahon pictured lifting her bicycle off the footpath at Leinster Street in 1970. Looking at Minahan's fine photograph of Julia who passed away over 3 years ago, it is easy to see why she was one of the best loved characters of our town.

The older generation are well represented in the monochrome studies which have made John Minahan one of the finest photographic artists today. Memories were triggered when I saw Sarah Power's image captured for all time and that of Jack Dalton of Foxhill, a former engine man in Hannon's Mill whose photograph was taken in 1967.

I have often seen Minahan's 1972 study of Mary Byrne holding a photograph of herself as a young girl. It has previously featured in a poster for one of the photographic exhibitions held by John Minahan in Dublin some years ago. Another photograph shows Mary in the County Home four years later and there follows a number of photographs taken in the 1960's in what is now St. Vincent's Hospital. We are not felt to be intruding as we look at photographs of the elderly patients lying in their beds, rather does Minahan's superb camera work create an intimacy between the onlooker and those photographed which is re-assuring. It dispels any discomfort which might otherwise be felt and raises Minahan's work to the level of an art form in which he has few peers.

Peter Boland's photograph in Bertie Doyle's pub in 1963 is on the front cover of the book as well as on the inside pages and the clientele of that famous drinking establishment feature in many of the photographs. Mrs. Maggie Allen of Meeting Lane is to be seen in three photographs evoking memories of times seemingly long gone, but in reality only a few short years ago. It is not only the local people such as "Rexie" Rowan portrayed here who have passed on. A different way of life captured in the picture of John Hickey and Damien Moloney collection refuse in Duke Street in an open lorry in 1969 seems more than a generation ago.
Coffin making in the early 1960's with Martin Rigney speak of a time before mass production put an end to the exercise of that local skill. Cuddy Chanders, so sensationally overlooked by the Kildare selectors for the goal keeping role when County Kildare last played in an All Ireland final 61 years ago, is shown in 1974 checking the runners and riders in the local betting office. Brendan O'Flaherty and Gerry O'Sullivan, two stalwards of the local soccer club are photographed together and further on there are two fine studies of Gerry who, like Brendan, has since passed away. Everywhere in the book are to be seen faces long gone from our streets. Here is local history captured for all time, motionless, yet able to prompt and stir memories. Joe O'Neill, musician extrodinaire, playing side by side with Michael Dunne, a schoolmate of mine who died long before his time. Munsie Purcell in his bar in William Street in 1970. Bapty Maher, publican and undertaker, captured in both roles, the latter at the funeral of another great Athy man Paddy Prendergast, one of Ireland's greatest horse trainers.

From every page there appears faces and places that were once familiar and in some cases still are. "Wexford" Foley, Christy Rochford and Pat Rochford are shown as young men, while the smiling cavalier of a local grave digger, my friend Paddy, provides a happy study of a man with his spade at the ready. This is a lovely book. No doubt it will be bought by those who appreciate good photography, but nowhere else in Ireland should it find a more appreciative readership than here in Athy.

No where else will we have an opportunity to look again at the Dominican Lane as it was in 1973 with "E. Johnston - dressmaker", over the doorway of the first small house on the left. The good dressmaker herself, Eileen Johnston, is featured, by then an elderly woman and her neighbour Miss. Burley is captured in the Dominican Church, bent over peering at the Dominican publications. Paddy Hubbock, another face from the past looks directly and with a whimsical smile at Minahan's camera, while two young nuns walk self consciously across the Barrow Bridge, mindful of the photographer's all seeing lens. It was thirty three years ago that Sister Teresa and Sister Dympna caught Minahan's eye as they passed Mulhall's Public House.

Eugene McCabe, Monaghan playwright, has written the introduction to John Minahan's Book of Photographs of Athy. Before he did he visited Athy "to walk and talk and read." Coming across local place names which spoke of Gaelic and Anglo Norman origins, he did not dare to say which "conjures up the most poetry". Clonmullion, Shanrath, Ballybough, Tonlegee, Woodstock, Chanterlands, all offered images giving a sense of the Anglo Norman town.

Like John Minahan's photographs, the images are a timeless and moving reminder of a town's past and the photographer who spent his youth in Athy has done us proud.

Sunday, September 1, 1996

Joe Bermingham

Joe Bermingham, the politician, has been buried with statesman-like pomp and ceremony. A Castlemitchell man born in May 1919, Joe was not a statesman, and had no aspirations to be one. He was a man of the people, a term now in popular currency, but one not always accurately applied as it has been in Joe’s case. Conscious of his being at the heart of events in Castlemitchell stretching back over many years, I had often urged Joe to write his memoirs. I don’t think in the end that he did, and so his death deprives us of the opportunity to gain an invaluable insight into the social history of his area and of his time. Joe was a priceless repository of knowledge concerning the events and people of Castlemitchell, and he was uniquely placed to accurately record and interpret the happenings of many decades past.

It was Joe Bermingham who, on his return from the O’Brien Institute in Marino, Dublin in 1936, arranged with Jim Connor the meeting which led to the formation of Castlemitchell Gaelic Football Club. Joe had played football in Dublin, while Jim Connor who attended the Christian Brothers School in Athy, won two county minor championship medals with Athy in 1937 and 1938. The most popular field sport in Castlemitchell at that time was cricket, with teams representing local farmers, Anderson’s and Young’s. Indeed cricket was possibly the most popular sport in South Kildare during the 1930’s, as cricket teams were also to be found in Kilcrow, Ardreigh, Taylor’s of the Moate and Lefroy’s in Cardenton.

That first meeting of Castlemitchell Gaelic Football Club was held on the side of the road under the beech tree near Comerford’s gate. In attendance with Joe and Jim were Jack Corcoran, Bill Phair, a Wexford man who sold timber blocks around the Castlemitchell area, James Byrne, John Fennin, Mickie Myles and Paddy Myles. The first club chairman was Joe Bermingham, with Jim Connor as club secretary. Fintan Brennan, District Court Clerk in Athy and a member of Athy Gaelic Football Club and Kildare County Board, invited the new club to join a street league competition in the town. The Castlemitchell Club was to play in Athy’s street league competition for three years up to 1938, and the interest developed in Gaelic football in the area led to the speedy demise of cricket-playing in the area.

Following the street league the Castlemitchell club was invited, again by Fintan Brennan, to affiliate with the Kildare County Board G.A.A. Castlemitchell G.F.C. played its first competitive game, as a registered club, at junior level. Joe Bermingham played at full-back in those early years in front of Jim Connor who was the goal keeper. The teams colours were initially all white, but following affiliation to the county board, the club was obliged to change to green and white, to avoid a clash with the Clane Club which played in the lilywhite strip.

Joe’s mother had a shop in the old RIC barracks in Castlemitchell, supporting herself and her three sons, Pa, John and Joe. Pa, who later worked in the IVI, died many years ago, while John, better known by his Irish name Sean Mac Fheorais, subsequently qualified as a school teacher. Joe who sold insurance and worked as a rate collector before entering politics, was justifiably proud of his brother Sean’s literary success. Sean, who died in 1984, had published two books of Irish poetry “Gearrcoigh Na hOíche” and “Léargas - Dánta Fada”, both of which were well received.

The young men of Castlemitchell gathered each evening outside Mrs. Bermingham’s shop, sitting on the row of large stones, in the area known as Barracks Cross. It was there in or about 1948, that Joe Bermingham, Jim Connors and others decided that Castlemitchell needed a Community Hall. Joe with Jim Fennin and Jim Connor were the first trustees of the hall which was built by voluntary labour in the early 1950’s.

Castlemitchell Hall is still a focal point for community activity in the area. Joe Bermingham’s record of achievement in Castlemitchell is impressive, and his legacy, shared with others, of a Community Hall and a Gaelic Football Club, is a fitting reminder of the contributions he made to one of the most vibrant rural communities in South Kildare.