Thursday, February 25, 1999

Athy Land League

The Athy Land League had Dr. Patrick O’Neill as Vice President, Timothy Byrne as Treasurer and John Cantwell as Secretary. It had its own flag made of green silky material which was held aloft at the head of each Land League march and which stood over each Land League platform in Athy. A portrait of Parnell was on one side with the inscription “United we stand. Divided we fall” on the reverse. The flag was last known to have been in the possession of Peter P. Doyle of Woodstock Street, Athy in or about 1948.

On 8th January 1881 The Kildare Observer reported a Land League meeting in the Market Square Athy during which Michael Boyton burnt a copy of the Leinster Lease. However, within a few weeks local public support for the Land League was seriously undermined by a clerical instigated tenants’ agreement to accept a 20% rent reduction offered by the Duke of Leinster. The Land League was not mentioned at the meeting chaired by Rev. Dr. Kavanagh which accepted the new rents and Dr. Patrick O’Neill, the League’s Vice President, resigned because “the acceptance of the Duke’s offer had broken the backbone of the local Land League”.

During the period of the Tenants’ Defence Association and the Land League one finds no evidence in the Minutes of Athy Town Commissioners of support for the tenant farmers. The Commissioners silence probably owed much to the servile attitude adopted by successive Commissioners over many years to the town’s landlord - the Duke of Leinster. The first indication of a change from the subservience of their predecessors was the passing of a resolution on 6 June 1881, requesting the extension of the provisions of the Land Bill to Leaseholders as well as yearly tenants. The innocuous enough request was to be followed on 2 January, 1882 by support for Charles Stewart Parnell in a resolution which called on the Government to release Parnell “and the other prisoners confined under the Coercion Act”. Further evidence of the more independent and nationalistic line adopted by Athy Town Commissioners was given on Sunday, 5th July 1885 with the presentation to Michael Davitt of an address by the Commissioners Chairman Michael Doyle, on the occasion of Davitt’s visit to Athy. This address is now housed in the Davitt Museum at Straide, Co. Mayo which I had occasion to visit same some years ago as Chairman of Athy U.D.C. in the Company of Councillor Frank English.

While Land League activity throughout the country went on a pace throughout the 1880’s, Athy, which in 1872 had given Ireland the first of the new wave Tenants’ Defence Association, was little concerned with the nation’s struggle. All was to change with the advent of land problems in the little village of Luggacurran in 1886.

The Luggacurran evictions had their origin in the refusal of Lord Landsdowne to grant his Laois tenants rent reduction similar to those he had given tenants on his Kerry estates in 1886. As a result of his refusal almost 70% of the tenants adopted the Plan of Campaign which brought them into sharp conflict with Landsdowne’s local agent, Mr. Townsend Trench. The leaders of the campaign were Fr. John Maher C.C. Luggacurran, Denis Kilbride and John W. Dunne, two local tenants of Lord Landsdowne who had large tracts of land sublet to local tenant farmers. Dunne held almost 1,200 acres while Kilbride had over 850 acres.

In November 1886 the Luggacurran tenants decided to withhold Lord Landsdownes rents. The half year rents due that month were collected in Kavanaghs Hotel, Athy by Fr. Maher, John W. Dunne, Denis Kilbride and Patrick Kelly. Kavanaghs is now the Leinster Arms Hotel Evictions soon followed, the first tenant chosen was Denis Kilbride who was evicted on 23 March, 1887. The evictions were to continue throughout the following year and into 1889. A number of those evicted came to live in Athy including John W. Dunne, the Carberys, the Crannys and the Rigneys. Over the three year period 1887 to 1889 nearly seventy families were evicted from their homes. Some of these families were allowed to return to the Luggacurran area following a settlement of the dispute in 1903.

James Dempsey who lived at No. 3 Emily Row, Athy and was the last weighmaster of the town scales, located at the rear of the Town Hall recalled in 1948 a land League Meeting held in Luggacurran on 24th July 1887 at which the legendary William O’Brien spoke.

“Every cart, brake and vehicle capable of carrying people left Athy for Luggacurran that day, he says. ‘The Procession, headed by Athy Fife and Drum Band, extended from Ballylinan to Athy.’ When they reached Luggacurran thousands of people from several counties were assembled there. He recalled how the crowd opened its ranks to let the Athy band march past.”

William O’Brien had arrived at Athy Railway Station at 10.30 a.m. on the morning of the meeting where he was met by the Athy Fife and Drum Band. He had breakfast at the home of Mr. Kilbride Solicitor at Athy Lodge before proceeding to the meeting place in Luggacurran. As the evictions continued throughout 1888 and 1889 collections were taken up throughout the country to finance the League’s opposition to Lord Landsdowne. Once again a local branch of the Land League was formed in Athy and the ladies of the town also formed themselves into a womens branch of the Land League. Local ladies prominent in the League included Mrs. Ann Doyle, Woodstock Street, Ms. Kinneen, Stanhope Street, Mrs. Maher and Mrs. Anthony. Extra police were drafted into the Athy area and the Town Hall was used to billet these men. A regular early morning and late evening scene around Athy was the police marching with rifles to and from the scene of the agrarian troubles in Luggacurran. Boycotted by the evicted tenants and local sympathisers Lord Landsdowne’s agent was forced to call upon the services of the Land Corporation, the organised arm of Irish Landlordism, to cultivate the Luggacurran lands. Those men who were mostly of Ulster stock continued to work on the Luggacurran estate up to 1903. From 1890 onwards new tenants arrived to take the place of those evicted. This, understandably, created much bitterness amongst the former tenants, the legacy of which is never far from the surface, even to this day.

Athy Tenants Defence Association

The Passing of the Land Act in 1870 was the first success of the Irish tenant farmers in their long struggle against Irish landlordism. This Gladstonian enactment gave the tenant farmers the right to be compensated in the event of eviction and for improvements carried out during their tenancy. However it did not secure for these hard pressed people the security of tenure which they had so long sought. Moreover the much heralded Land Act enabled Landlords to contract out of its provisions, thereby leaving their tenants without even the limited benefits of Gladstones measure.

The Athy and County Kildare landlord The Duke of Leinster was amongst the first of the Irish landlords to attempt to defeat his tenants’ rights under the 1870 Act. The Leinster Lease, as it became known, a model of legal ingenuity was presented by the Duke’s agents to his various tenants. Prepared with the Duke’s interest in mind, it totally and cruelly side-stepped the 1870 Act which the tenant farmers had so recently welcomed. Local opposition to the terms of the Leinster Lease saw the foundation of the Tenants’ Defence Association in Athy. This was the first such association formed in Ireland after the decline following the passing of the 1870 Land Act of Isaac Butt’s Tenant League of 1868.

The Athy Tenants’ Association held its first meeting on Tuesday, 19 November 1872 with Captain Morgan of Rahinderry in the chair. Local man Thomas P. Kynsey J.P. acted as Secretary to the meeting which passed the following resolutions.

“Moved by MR. THOMAS ROBERTSON, Narraghmore -
Seconded by MR. THOS. P. KYNSEY, J.P. Athy -

I - That, a Tenants’ Defence Association be established, consisting of a Chairman, Secretary, Treasurer, and Committee of Twelve Members. The Subscription of each Member to be FIVE SHILLINGS, per annum.’

Seconded by MR. ROBERT ANDERSON, Castlemitchell -

II - `That, the objects of the Association be to unite the Tenants against any encroachment on their rights, and to promote by every legal and Constitutional means, the social interests and Independence of the Tenant Class.’

Moved by MR. WILLIAM DAVIDSON, Esker -
Seconded by P. CAHILL, ESQ., L.L.D. -
III - `That, as an attempt has been made on the LEINSTER ESTATES to deprive the Tenants of all the advantages conferred on them by the `LAND ACT’, the attempt in question should receive the instant and most determined opposition from the Association.”

In the years immediately following the foundation of the Tenants’ Defence Association in Athy, the Duke of Leinster succeeded in overcoming local opposition to the terms of the Leinster Lease. Some of the Association’s leaders were themselves to accept the terms of the lease, undoubtedly under the threat of eviction. One such signatory was James Leahy, Chairman of Athy Town Commissioners, who admitted signing the Leinster Lease for his farm at Ardscull. In 1878 the Duke submitted the lease to Athy Board of Guardians in respect of some land held by them as tenants of the Leinster Estate. At a special Board meeting on 1 January 1879, the Guardians declined to execute the Lease indicating “that this Board, as the representatives of the people decline to give their signatories to a document directly opposed to the provisions of the Land Act of 1870.”

The 1880 Parliamentary Elections brought Charles Stewart Parnell to Athy for perhaps the first time. Andrew Kettle in his memoirs “Material for Victory” wrote of the nomination convention held in the Town Hall, Athy which he attended with Parnell.

“We went to Kildare on a midday train, and had a rare scene with Alderman Harris in the carriage going down. The Alderman was one of the candidates for Kildare, and he begged and prayed Mr. Parnell to get him adopted with a fanatical fervour I shall never forget. When we got to Athy, which was the nomination place, we found that Father Farrelly and young Kavanagh had a candidate ready in the person of Mr. James Leahy who represented it for years afterwards. Mr. Parnell turned to me and said: `This fat man will be no use. He will fall asleep in the House. I must propose you.’ I never meant to go to Parliament if I could help it, and said: `He will do very well. You may want me somewhere else.` He was not half satisfied, and he cross-examined Mr. Leahy as to how he would be able to attend and sit up at night, but the candidate said `Yes’ to everything. So, as his friends were insistent, he had to take him. Father Nolan of Kildare Town was holding a Harris Meldon meeting at the Market House when he came out, but Mike Boyton moved somebody else to another chair and started a Leahy meeting on the same platform, so after a little Father Nolan said he would not play second fiddle to anyone, so he bid us good-bye and left.”

This was the same James Leahy who had served as Chairman of Athy Town Commissioners and who was to represent South Kildare in the House of Commons until 1895.

Opposition to the Leinster Lease was maintained at a low key throughout 1879 and 1880 but evictions in September 1880 of tenants of the Verschoyle Estate prompted the formation of a local branch of the Land League. Public agitation in Athy took on a new and more fervent pitch under the guidance of local land league organiser Michael Boyton. On Sunday, 10 October 1880, the first Land League meeting was held in Athy. Addressed by Michael Boyton, the assembled crowd was told that he had come to Athy “commissioned by Charles Stewart Parnell to establish the Athy branch of the Land League.”


Thursday, February 18, 1999

Athy and Urban Renewal

An announcement made by Mr. Bobby Molloy, Minister of State at the Department of the Environment and Local Government is one which will impact greatly on the development of the town of Athy over the next few years. Athy, together with Kildare, has been designated for urban renewal. The scheme as proposed will provide generous tax incentives to refurbish and build anew in particular areas of the town. From the 1st of march 1999 the scheme will be open to developments of residential properties. The commercial and industrial elements of the scheme have yet to be finalised. At present it unclear as to which areas within the town will benefit from the designation but what is apparent is that the town as we know it will undergo significant change as we head into the new millennium.
As we stand on the threshold of large scale re-development of our town it is important that we carefully consider the impact that this development will have not only the urban fabric but upon the lives of those who live and work in Athy. It has been a common refrain down through the years in the street and in the Council chambers that Athy is the forgotten town of Kildare. Athy is a town which does not seem to have benefitted from the affluence generated by the ‘Celtic Tiger’ economy. Now it seems that all this is about to change. The series of tax incentives which are now available for building and construction in town should be a incentive to attract investment into the town. Without doubt Athy has been a forgotten centre in Kildare for many years. Under the aegis of the urban renewals schemes we have been presented with the opportunity to develop our town on an unprecedented level then heretofore. Therefore we must be careful to ensure that the town retains the character and personality of which we are so justly proud. Every development that is carried out should be sympathetic to not only the needs of the people of the town but also to the character of the streetscape which has developed over many centuries. Although much of the town’s buildings appear to be of nineteenth century date many of their fascades hide earlier structures.
All development should respect the character of these buildings, which currently flank the town’s streets.
Too often in the past urban areas which have benefited from such urban renewal schemes have rushed head long into re-development projects giving little or no consideration to the pre-existing buildings in the streets which have defined their towns for many centuries. The quays of Dublin are testament to the destruction that can be wrought on historic properties in a short space of time.
We must of course welcome the opportunity to rejuvenate the town but never at the cost of its unique character. At this stage it is too early to ascertain what the nature and form of development shall be but we shall await the proposals for Athy’s re-development with interest.
While it’s welcome to watch the reclamation of many sites from dereliction around the town it is still sad to reflect that probably the earliest building in the town remains neglected, unwanted, and uncared for. I have written many times in the past on Woodstock Castle, sometimes of its history and many times of its neglect. Having visited it quite recently I was appalled at its continuing vandalism and neglect. It is a terrible indictment of a local authority when a building of such national importance is left to decay in such a public fashion. At a time when towns and cities across Ireland are formulating their plans and activities for the coming millennium, would it not be most appropriate that Woodstock Castle, which has stood for eight centuries, be restored to its former glory.
It’s restoration would be an appropriate gesture to mark the dawn of a new century and reaffirm our commitment to preserving important elements of the towns history.
There are those who believe that conservation and the protection of our heritage are objects incompatible with development and progress. This is misleading. Many years ago the Town Hall faced demolition, a fate from which it was saved, thanks to the vigorous efforts of many different people and groups such as an Taisce. Today the Town Hall is home to the local Library and the heritage centre and also it’s a frequent venue for exhibitions and lectures. Its vitality is a great tribute to those who fought for its preservation and to the enlightenment of the County Council officials who oversaw its restoration. Over the next few months Athy Museum Society in Conjunction with South Kildare An Taisce will be holding a series of lectures in the Town Hall. Tonight at 8.00pm Mary Deevy, a consultant archaeologist will give a talk entitled ‘Dress and Jewellery in Medieval Ireland’.

Thursday, February 11, 1999

Gravestone inscriptions - St. Michaels (2)

Some weeks ago I wrote of the gravestones and grave slabs which fill the cemetery of Old St. Michael’s on the Dublin Road. I was struck as I walked around the cemetery by the paucity of pre-1800 memorials. The reason for this is of course easily understandable. Memorials in stone today as in the past are expensive. In the years gone by few of the town’s inhabitants could have afforded the cost of erecting memorials in stone to their dead. The earliest reference I have found to a headstone in any of the local cemeteries was that of William Watson who was buried in St. John’s in November 1635. Unfortunately the headstone which was noted in the Kildare Archaeological Society Journal at the turn of the century has since disappeared and the earliest dated inscription surviving today in St. John’s is from 1721. The oldest dated memorial in St. Michael’s Cemetery would appear to be that of Mary Pearson who died at the age of 71 on 24th January, 1717. Her grave is one of only a handful of marked graves from the 18th century.

Wealth or the lack of it was not always the only deterrent when it came to the marking of the burial places of the dead. The Quaker Community which had a following in Athy from 1765 onwards did not mark the burial places of their deceased members. The writer Mary Leadbetter, the Quaker Diarist, a resident of the village of Ballytore recorded an incident where this Quaker practice was misunderstood. Abel Strettel died in the village in 1784 and his relatives erected a gravestone to his memory. A visiting Quaker who was a zealous adherent to the traditional practice took great offence and had the gravestone buried. This action greatly offended the grandson of the dead man. Mary Leadbetter described how he scaled the walls of the cemetery in Ballytore “armed with guns and attended by men with digging implements uncovered the stone and replaced it in it’s original position.” One wonders if any other local burials since then were attended by so much controversy.

Perhaps the saddest aspect of any old cemetery is the frequency of headstones to the young. Sometimes a visitors’ melancholy can be leavened by the unconscious humour of some of the inscriptions. I was drawn to an early 19th century headstone to the memory of a young man of 20 whose inscription recalled that he was a youth “of exemplary virtues and transcendent genius”. One wonders as to the nature of his genius! Another headstone recording a young death was that of the quaintly named Agnes Minnis Frame. Agnes was the young headmistress of a Model School in Ballymoney, Co. Antrim. She died at her father’s residence at the Model School, Athy on 15th January, 1892 at the age of 28. The Model School was also the place of death of 20 year old Maggie Harvey, the eldest daughter of Mary Harvey, the headmistress of the Model School, Athy in June 1886.

St. Michael’s Cemetery is replete not only with the names of the dead but also placenames in our town which have now passed from memory. I stopped awhile at the headstone of James Kenna, an Octogenarian and resident of Preston’s Gate, Athy who died on 28th May, 1839. Preston’s Gate, the last surviving remains of Athy’s mediaeval town walls, was demolished in 1860. It was located where Offaly Street narrows before entering into Emily Row at the Credit Union Offices. The medieval gate was removed by the Town Commissioners after the Rev. Frederick Trench’s carriage crashed into it resulting in the Rectors death. Rev. Trench himself lies in St. Michael’s Cemetery.

On the majority of the headstones there are few clues to the lives lived by those departed but here and there the occasional headstone give us some additional insight. In a quiet corner of the graveyard lies Mary Ann Manders who died on 28th September, 1911. Her simple epitaph reads “the faithful servant of the Sherlock family”. Not far from Mary Ann Manders lies Rev. John Kennelly, a Dominican Friar who died on Christmas Day 1842 at the age of 78 years. His was a colourful life. As his headstone records he took the habit of his Order at Louvain in Flanders, Belgium at a time when the Catholic Church sent it’s young men abroad to be trained for the Priesthood. As the Penal Laws of the late 18th century relaxed he returned to Ireland where in 1787 he was elected Provincial of the Order. His character and example must have been profound as his tombstone solemnly records how five of his relatives followed him into the Orders including his brother and four of his nephews.

As I journeyed through the forgotten past of Athy my eye alighted upon the simple headstone of Concrad Peterson. I’m sure many of the townspeople recall Peterson, a civil engineer who worked for many years as Manager in Bord na Mona, Kilberry. A native of Riga the capital of Latvia he died in Athy on 16th January, 1981 at the advanced age of 93. A long life brought him from the Port of Riga on the Baltic Sea to a medieval cemetery in the town of Athy .

Emigration is something familiar to most Irish families and several headstones in St. Michael’s Cemetery reflect the strong family ties which can never be sundered, no matter how many miles separate family members. John O’Neill of Chicago had a headstone erected to the memory of his mother Ann O’Neill who died on 29th January, 1892 aged 76 years. James Hyland who also emigrated to America similarly honoured the memory of his father James who died on 17th June, 1937 aged 82 years and his mother Ellen. The Slater family were remembered by Edward Slater of Brooklyn, New York. His parents John and Elizabeth died in 1884 and 1868, while his sister Catherine passed away some years earlier.

Two clergymen who gave long service to the people of Athy are buried in St. Michael’s. Archdeacon McDonnell, P.P. of Athy for 28 years died on 1 March, 1950 aged 84 years. A year later a new housing scheme built on Hollands lands at Geraldine was named in his honour, McDonnell Drive. Not too afar away is the grave of Rev. Henry Francis McDonald, Curate of St. Michael’s from 1848 to 1860 and Rector following Rev. Trench’s death in 1860 until he himself died on 9 May, 1891. His must be the longest ever record of service in the Church in Athy.

The mediaeval Church of St. Michael’s stands sentinel like over the crowded graves in the cemetery. As I passed by it’s crumbling walls I wondered for how long more it will remain standing. The ruined Church is in need of urgent restoration work to protect and preserve what remains of this 13th century structure.

Thursday, February 4, 1999

Inner Relief Road and Patrick Shaffrey

Patrick Shaffrey is an eminent man in the architectural world and one who has written well and with some eloquence on the Irish town. Writing some years ago on the subject he advised that “a town’s distinctive appearance, charm and quality should be retained despite the demands of modern development”. In this sentence he was clearly recognising and acknowledging that modern development should not destroy the character and quality of our towns.

He was even more direct in his criticism of the then prevailing attitude among road planners and town planners alike when he posed the question
“are towns to be planned for the motor car or for people?” He answered his own question when he wrote in his well received book “The Irish Town” “streets become highways. The very size and weight of the huge lorries rumbling through our streets cause structural problems as well as pollution from fumes, noise and vibration. In theory the only traffic that should be allowed into a residential street is that which may have business there”. Continuing his arguments against the demands of vehicular traffic he claimed that “it is not possible to meet the demands of modern traffic and retain any semblance of character and quality in our towns. Large transport lorries present a threat to the quality of life in towns. The increase in traffic and the tremendous problems caused by them may be a blessing in disguise. It should force local authorities to tackle traffic problems in a more comprehensive way. By far the most satisfactory way to resolve the problem is to provide a by pass”.

I have quoted Patrick Shaffrey at some length because his views on the vexed question facing the people of Athy in relation to the relief road issue are particularly relevant. Even more so when it is realised that the man who wrote some years ago “in the smaller towns the need for a by pass is equally pressing not so much from the economic but from the environmental point of view” is the same man now retained by Kildare County Council to make the inner relief road plans more palatable for the locals of Athy.

Patrick might not wish his brief from the County Council to be stated in those stark simplistic terms and would perhaps prefer to have it noted as the challenge of incorporating the inner relief road into the structures of the town while protecting the character of Athy. What was once referred to as the inner relief road is no longer termed as such. The most recent references to the traffic highway which if built would run parallel to Leinster Street and Duke Street terms this development as “a new street”. Certainly matters have moved on from the original 1975 proposal which would have had an inner relief road running through the centre of Athy with six foot high walls on either side. Now the great selling point for the inner relief road as perceived by the County Council officials who are pushing the project is the opportunity such a roadway will create for the opening of new businesses in the town. That was until last week however, when Patrick Shaffrey reported back to the County Council and the Urban Council on his perceptions of how the new roadway could be “knitted in” to the existing town fabric.

One of the most extraordinary bombshells which was dropped in the Council chamber by Patrick Shaffrey went off unnoticed by the protagonist of the new street theory. In presenting his ideas on the opportunities for development on the new street Shaffrey pointed out that the intention is to maintain the existing Leinster Street and Duke Street as the main shopping area. Businesses on the new street will not be allowed to compromise existing businesses in the town. This necessitates limiting development on the new street which I am told will be one kilometre long (if not longer) to what the officials termed “secondary retail development”. I asked what this meant and the only explanation given was that “shoe repair business” was what was in mind. Our last remaining shoemaker/shoe repairer had better look to his last if the town Council succeeds in its plan to turn the town into the shoe repair centre of Europe!

Emily Square from where a modern single span bridge would stretch across the river Barrow bringing traffic alongside the elegant St. Dominic’s Church would lose its car parking capacity under Mr. Shaffrey’s proposals. The Square would be pedestrianised and the road through the back Square linking the Barrow bridge and Offaly Street would be closed. In addition the proposed roadway/street will create particular difficulties for pedestrians coming to St. Dominic’s Church from Convent Lane with the severance of the Church from its natural approach route.

Of particular interest to cinema goers is the suggestion of Mr. Shaffrey that a new cinema be constructed on a site to the right of proposed roadway/street as one exists from St. Dominic’s Church car park. Of course a considerable portion of the car park will be lost to the new roadway adding further parking difficulties to those posed by the loss of the Emily Square parking. The new cinema would be sited on an East/West axis stretching across properties presently owned by two local business firms. How Griffin Hawes and Perrys Supermarket are to overcome the loss of their car parks and yards to facilitate the possible construction of the new cinema is something that even I did not have the temerity to ask Mr. Shaffrey.

Another highlight of the night’s proceedings was the suggestion that the inner relief road would travel by way of another new bridge over the Grand Canal straight across through Tegral’s premises exiting on the Kilkenny Road through the existing factory entrance. This plan was devised to get over the apparently insurmountable difficulties posed by having the inner relief road going up by the canal side and coming out the at the canal bridge. You may recall that Acer
McCarthy the traffic experts engaged by Kildare County Council a year and a half ago confirmed that such an approach would require the demolition of the canal side houses and a number of properties on William Street to give lorries sufficient room to turn at the canal bridge. The alternative now is to knock down part of Tegral’s factory and re-locate it elsewhere.

As I listened to Mr. Shaffrey and his team exposing for us the opportunities which could be created if the inner relief road or street as he now calls it went ahead I felt somewhat bemused and not a little concerned for the Athy Five who continue to support the inner relief road. How could they bring themselves to push the new road/street theory which now apparently hangs so perilously on an ill defined type of development described by the officials as “secondary retail”. Cobblers I hear you say!