Thursday, November 25, 1999

Notable Kildare Persons of the Millennium

I was recently invited to join a small group of local historians from the County of Kildare in a Millennium venture initiated by Seamus Cullen of Donadea. It’s purpose was to identify the notable Kildare persons of the last 1000 years, a task which in truth will be extremely difficult to accomplish. If you have been in any of the Dublin book shops recently you could not have failed to notice the plethora of books recently produced dealing with the 20th century in photographs and news reports. The nostalgia factor has been well built into these books clearly designed to strike a cord of recognition in the minds of the readers who want to re-visit scenes of times which had slipped from memory. In a way I suppose the availability of these books serve to open up to the scrutiny of a wider public than is usual, times past which a column like this seeks to do each week. Even if the general readers’ attention span goes no further than the last 100 years that in itself may serve to kindle an interest in a life and a society which has passed on. What better compliment to pay to the books produced for the Millennium than to acknowledge their usefulness in possibly encouraging a reader or two to delve further into the past of their own area or country.

Having been invited to join those brave local historians from North Kildare and the County’s mid-regions I am prompted to turn my mind to the notable personalities of County Kildare over the past 1000 years. The problem with such a quest is one of definition. Does one consider only persons of Kildare birth or should those who spent parts of their lives in the County be included? For myself I feel one should be flexible in setting out the parameters of definition in relation to what constitutes a Kildare person. For instance one man who spent a very short period in the County would in my opinion be regarded for all the wrong reasons as a notable Kildare personage of the past. I refer to Thomas Reynolds, informer and traitor to the United Irishmen of 1798, who during a short sojourn in Kilkea Castle managed to deprive the Republican movement of many of it’s leaders. He was not born in the County. He lived here for less than 1 ½ years, yet the effect of his unscrupulous work was so far reaching as to justify his inclusion in any list of notable persons of the County.

The average person asked to name the most notable Kildare persons of the last 1000 years might be hard pressed to come up with more than three names. Lord Edward Fitzgerald would undoubtedly be on most peoples short list and as he was a former Member of Parliament for Athy we locals must take great satisfaction in his association with our town. St. Laurence O’Toole, another South Kildare man born at Mullaghacreelan, Castledermot would also immediately come to mind, as would Cardinal Cullen, the first Cardinal of the Irish Catholic Church.

The three I have named all have connections and links with South Kildare so perhaps I should confine myself to searching out only those men or women with similar links. Mary Leadbetter, Quaker and author would be included if only for the fact that her writings have survived and kept her name before the public 170 years following her death.

Less well known would be Peter Corcoran, born in Athy who won what was effectively the world heavy-weight boxing championship in 1771 at a time when the competition was confined to Ireland and Great Britain. Corcoran is believed to have fled Ireland after killing a man and his subsequent boxing career in London was dogged with controversy. He is reputed to have “thrown” a fight for betting purposes, thereby losing support and face before the boxing public. Nevertheless he has to be included in any list of County Kildare notables of the last 1000 years.

Another sporting hero from Athy and one whom I have yet to include in an Eye on the Past must be Paddy “Darkie” Prendergast. Regarded as Ireland’s greatest horse trainer in the 1950’s, “Darkie” achieved success in Ireland and in England which marked him apart as a master of his craft. His achievements including the winning of English and Irish Derby’s and St. Legers must justify his addition to the list of notable County Kildare personages.

My own personal favourite for inclusion must be Reverend Thomas Kelly who although a Ballintubbert, Co. Laois man served as a Minister in Athy and elsewhere for many years prior to his death in 1855. He was a noted composer of Church hymns and only recently and after a long search have I succeeded in acquiring a copy of his “Hymns on Various Passages of Scripture”. Some of his hymns are still included in Church hymnals today and for this and for his founding of the Kellyites puts him in the frame for inclusion.

Another local man who like Thomas Kelly is remembered in the Heritage Centre in Athy must also be included in the select band of notable people of the last Millennium. He is of course Ernest Shackleton, Antarctic Explorer, born in Kilkea. Two other local men whose achievements were so different yet worthy of comment were John Vincent Holland and Juan Greene. Holland won the Victoria Cross for Courage during the First World War and for that joined the most exclusive world-wide band of men and women. Juan Greene spent his early adult years as did Holland in Argentina and like him returned to Ireland. Holland returned to enlist in World War I while Greene, in a different era, returned to take up farming on the family estate in Kilkea. One of the most important leaders of Irish farming he founded the Beet Growers Association and was first President of the National Farmers Association. His place in the history of Irish farming is assured.

Another man, is there no woman?, for inclusion in the list of South Kildare notables surely must be Patrick O’Kelly of Coolroe. Leader of the United Irishmen in South Kildare in 1798 he later wrote of his experiences as well as producing a number of other historical tomes. What then of the men of freedom of later generations like Eamon Malone who although born in Cork spent much of his early life in and around Athy. Commandant of the Carlow/Kildare brigade during the War of Independence he was lodged in Mountjoy Jail, went on hunger strike and later died a relatively young man. Unlike Patrick O’Kelly he did not have the opportunity to write of his experiences but nevertheless his inclusion in the list of South Kildare notables is justified.

But where I hear you ask are the female representatives of a people who endured much in the 1000 years which commenced 14 years before Brian Boru went into battle with the Danes at Clontarf? Maybe the answer lies in the oft repeated and somewhat cliched saying :- “Our wives and sweethearts, are, all of them the best in the world”. The poor mothers of 1847 who saw their children die of starvation left no record of their sufferings. To them must go the enduring remembrance of a time and a place when poverty and hunger stalked the Irish countryside. That they suffered so much is a testament to the harshness of our history’s past and the reason why the unknown women of “Black ‘47” must forever be counted amongst the Kildare people of note.

To travel back in time is to visit the heroes and heroines which time has not forgotten. The imprint of ink upon paper preserves a past for future generations but many are the good and noteworthy who have passed on unnoticed. They are soon forgotten, their good deeds lost forever, never to be retraced. History can only touch on the fringes of society at any time and the search for notable Kildare people is less a review of distinction and honour than the cut and paste of a written past.

Nevertheless, who would you include in the list of notable Kildare people of the Millennium?

Thursday, November 18, 1999

Rheban Castle

One of the more interesting ruins in this locality is to be found in Rheban on the West Bank of the River Barrow. Rheban Castle was originally built at a fording point on the Barrow, as was Woodstock Castle, some three miles to it’s South. The Castle in Rheban appears to have been built in a number of different stages. The first stone structure on the site was a building consisting of a pair of barrell vaults placed side by side with a battered base. It probably rose to at least two stories about ground floor level. The substantial nature of the batter would suggest it was a large building. Battered walls served a dual purpose, both to protect the wall base from being breached and to widen the base of the wall so as to distribute the weight of the upper stories. The original entrance to the first castle was probably in the northern end of the Western wall.

The first addition to the original castle was a three story building at the South end. It was in essence a fortified house with a design typical of the mid-16th century. It has an unprotected window opening at ground level, and on the upper stories a series of large sized windows with hood mouldings were present. An engraving of Rheban in 1796 suggested the South wall of this fortified house incorporated the South wall of the original building.

The window opening at ground level in the South wall must have been too exposed because not long after the fortified house was built a small unroofed court was added on it’s South side. This was equipped with some defensive features, most notably an angle loop in the court’s South East corner and at least one further loop centrally placed in it’s South wall. At around the same time a pair of crudely constructed rooms were added to the North East corner of the original structure, possibly to protect an entrance at that point.

A series of references to the castle appear at the end of the 13th century. In 1297 a haggard at the castle is referred to, as is a slaying near the castle in the same year. However, the nature of the surviving structures at Rheban do not indicate any building earlier than the 15th century. It is possible that the 13th century references to the site refer to the nearby motte and bailey rather than the later stone built castle.

A reference to Rheban in 1297 stated that “Roger Cardegan and his fellows robbed Robert Cardigan of three sheep which they ate in the Castle of Ryban.” This might indicate that whatever structure was on the Rheban site at the time was not continuously occupied by the St. Michael Family. The St. Michael Family were credited with the construction of Rheban as well as Woodstock Castle in Athy. In those early days it was not uncommon for castle owners to spend time away from a particular area and it is quite possible that Rheban was a lesser site within the Estates held by the St. Michael Family and as such may not have been continuously occupied by them.

Apart from an isolated reference in 1327 when Rheban Castle was captured by Lysagh O’More the castle is absent from records until the 16th century. In 1537 it was described as being laid waste as were many other castles in the South Kildare area. A further reference in 1538 stated that provisions were being made for the reoccupation of Rheban Castle. The St. Michael Family appear to have had possession during this period but later lost the castle and failed to regain it. Indeed, Rheban Castle repeatedly changed hands in the succeeding years. It was deliberately destroyed by fire in 1642 following the withdrawal of Catholic Confederate troops to Woodstock Castle where the Confederate leaders planned to concentrate their troops ready to withstand an attack from the Royalists. Rheban Castle has since been a ruin for over 350 years.

Jonah Barrington in “Personal Sketches of His Own Time” relates a story concerning Elizabeth Fitzgerald of Moret Castle. She was a widow of substantial means who refused matrimonial offers from many quarters. Her suitors determined that one of them should succeed agreed to draw lots to decide which of them would carry off Elizabeth. Eleven or twelve of her suitors met at Rheban Castle where it was agreed that whosoever should be the lucky winner was to receive the help of the others in abducting the rich widow. Elizabeth Fitzgerald, hearing of their scheme from a young servant in Rheban Castle made her own plans to deal with the plotters. The night of the planned abduction was preceded by a feast in Rheban Castle to where Elizabeth’s own troops marched in the dead of night to catch the would-be abductors off guard. In the battle which followed Rheban Castle was over-run and one of the O’Mores who had drawn the long straw and the right to pursue Elizabeth Fitzgerald was left for dead in the adjoining farmyard. With him died many of the Rheban Castle garrison who were buried where they lay. Elizabeth Fitzgerald lived to an old age while Rheban, according to Barrington, “became one of the most civilised parts of the whole province.”

Music being one of the great traditions of the area which once formed part of “Fassnagh Rheban” it is only right I draw attention to the recently released works of two local musicians. Jack Lukeman’s latest CD, “Metropolis Blue” is a must for everybody who appreciates the young man’s distinctive interpretative style of singing. The second work I want to bring to your attention has been released by Gael Linn and is a compilation album spanning thirty years of Irish traditional music. Termed “The Golden Age of Traditional Irish Music and Song” it features such musical masters as Donal Lunny, Paddy Glacken, Sharon Shannon, De Danann and Sean O’Riada with Ceoltoir Cualann. Amongst this august body is to be found Athy’s own Brian Hughes whose fine traditional whistle playing can be heard to good effect. The inclusion of his work is a worthy acknowledgement of Brian Hughe’s accomplishments as one of the younger generation playing Irish traditional music today.

Thursday, November 11, 1999

Inner Relief Road

Last week The Nationalist and Leinster Times under an eye-catching headline on page one “Time to Bite the Bullet” trumpeted the case for the Inner Relief Road for Athy. The author of the piece was not named but the claims made in the article (or was it an editorial ?) were familiar to everyone who has heard the official line on the Council’s long debated road plans. Publication came three days in advance of the public representatives’ crucial meeting thereby allowing the views expressed to go unchallenged before a decision on this important issue was made. Despite this I am moved to set the record straight even if events will have moved on before this appears in print.

The unnamed author called upon the Fianna Fail councillors who had canvassed on the basis of their opposition to the Inner Relief Road, to accept that the Inner Relief Road “is the best and indeed the only solution to the traffic problems in Athy”. Those same councillors were urged to admit to themselves and to the voters that “things have changed in relation to the road since June”. A similar point was made earlier in the article with the claim that “circumstances have changed since the election”.

I was, and am still, puzzled by the changes claimed to have taken place since the local elections in June of this year. What were those changes? What happened in the last 5 months to justify the seismic shift in political thinking which The Nationalist urged the Fianna Fail councillors to undertake? What changed circumstances have occurred which would encourage local politicians to do a political somersault in relation to the views canvassed by them such a short time ago ?

I must admit to being somewhat concerned by the claims in the article lest the ageing process has affected my cognitive powers to the extent that I fail to see changes in my own town since the local election. I read the article/editorial several times to see if I could somehow identify those elements which could be recognised as changed circumstances. Was it the “impressive presentation by Shaffrey, Architect earlier this month” ? Hardly, since Mr Shaffrey’s report was first unveiled last January and has been the subject of a number of presentations in the interim period. Surely then, this was not the catalyst for the change adverted to in The Nationalist article.

Was it perhaps, “the result of traffic surveys revealing that the majority of traffic running through the town is internally generated”? Obviously not since only one traffic study was carried out on a Friday and Saturday during September 1996 over 3 years ago. We must look elsewhere to identify the changes noted by The Nationalist since the local election.

Maybe the answer lies in the “confirmation of funding for the Inner Relief Road by Kildare County Council,
and The National Road Authority”. What confirmation was referred to here ? Is it the same confirmation offered by the Deputy County Manager over 2 years ago to the then Urban Council and subsequently repeated by him to a meeting of Athy Chamber of Commerce. Interestingly, the Deputy County Manager never produced any letter or document which supported his claim of finance being available for the road. He was asked on several occasions to do so but to no avail. Could this then be the basis for The Nationalist and Leinster Times glad handling of the Inner Relief Road issue. ?

I have read and re-read the article in vain for any grounds which could plausibly support the writer’s contention that “things have changed in relation to the road since last June”. I have failed to unearth anything other than the references to the Shaffrey report, the traffic study, and the confirmation of funding, all of which have been available, or touted as available, long before the June election.

The Nationalist and Leinster Times has made what may be a decisive intervention 3 days before the local council meets to decide the future of the town. What I ask myself lies behind this unwelcome and disingenuous intervention on an issue of such importance to the people of Athy. No one questions the newspaper’s right to do so but to fan the flames of controversy by extolling the virtues of an Inner Relief Road on reasoning which is incredulous, renders a disservice to its Athy readers.

On several occasions in the past I have written on the road plans for Athy and the Editor of The Nationalist has always printed my copy despite claims from some quarters that I was somehow or other not entitled to air my personal views in the newspaper. The claim was and is of course nonsensical especially as I have always sought to ensure that the grounds of my opposition to the Inner Relief Road were stated with clarity and precision. I have avoided making claims which could not be substantiated unlike the article/editorial in last week’s Nationalist and Leinster Times. The newspaper with which I have been associated as a contributor for over 7 years has made a serious, and I fear, damaging incursion, into the affairs of Athy by failing to give adequately critical consideration to the claims touted by the proponents of the Inner Relief Road. I am reminded of a previous occasion The Nationalist committed journalistic hari kiri when the then Editor condemned the critics of Adolf Hitler before claiming that “most of the howling about the treatment of German Jews is dishonest propaganda”.

A different Editor and a different time of course but somehow I cannot but feel that on this occasion the fine people of Athy have been treated with less than adequate thought and consideration by a newspaper which has signally failed to be responsible in its comments on a major local issue.

Thursday, November 4, 1999

Inner Relief Road

At one time towns such as Athy were destination centres rather than places for passing through on the journey to somewhere else. Roads led to the centre of the town where commercial and market activities were the life blood of urban life. Nowadays with the advances in travel provincial inland towns receive traffic which passes through from one end to the other on journeys elsewhere, bringing with them no commercial advantage whatsoever to towns passed through.

The need to protect towns from the worst excesses of passing traffic led to the creation of town planning criteria which included the construction of bypasses. This is a relatively new concept and one which for a long number of years was beyond the financial ability of successive Irish Governments to implement. The concept of diverting through traffic away from where people shopped and did their daily business is a meritorious one, but in the years before Ireland joined the EEC funding was not available for such projects.

County Councils charged with responsibility for improving roads within their areas recognising the financial constraints under which they operated once adopted the strategy now dismissively labelled “the straight line concept” of road construction. The easiest and cheapest way of connecting two points on a map was a straight line and so it was how in 1975 Kildare County Council first put forward the idea of an inner relief road for Athy. The road was to run parallel to the existing main street in a straight line from the Dublin Road to the Kilkenny Road. It was the cheapest option in terms of building costs when the environmental and social cost elements were ignored.

The improvement in the country’s finances in the meantime and the gradual realisation that road planning must not always take precedence over social and urban planning has led local authorities throughout Ireland to embrace the best town planning practices. Thus we find Kildare County Council in it’s current development plan stating :-

“The Council proposes in cooperation with the National Roads Authority and the Department of the Environment during the period of the plan to continue to design and construct major road systems which will in effect bypass all major towns.”

This road design intention has been clearly signalled in the County Development Plan, presumably because those responsible recognise that the destruction of our towns cannot be countenanced by implementing the cheap but destructive “straight line concept” road building ideas of twenty five years ago. We in Athy are still labouring away with a 1975 road plan which would put a traffic route through the heart of our town. On Saturday 27th November at 9.30am in the Urban District Council Chambers the nine public representatives elected at the recent local elections will commence a Planning Meeting which will end later that day with the adoption of either an inner relief road or a bypass road for the town of Athy. The meeting comes in the same week as the Government’s announcement to make available £40 billion for improving Irish towns in terms of roads and services. There has never been a better time for Athy to advance it’s plans for a bypass, thereby ensuring the development potential of the county’s best placed urban settlement.

Much toing and froing has been noticed in recent weeks with some of the newly elected Councillors being chauffeured around the town in a Mercedes while being briefed on the “benefits” which they are led to believe will flow from the building of an inner relief road. No such benefits, economic or otherwise, will flow from the building of a road which would be so destructive of the best elements of our town. Indeed, one major industrialist who has looked at Athy in terms of his company’s future plans succinctly put the issue in perspective when he said :- “Any Irish town which would countenance such an out-dated road scheme cannot hold out any hope of attracting overseas development.”

The Shaffrey Report which is a series of speculative drawings, has been touted as a plan for the future development of Athy. Not even Mr. Shaffrey who was hired by Kildare County Council to make the inner relief road concept as palatable as possible for the local people, does not make any such claim. He confirms in his report that his “proposals are indicative only.” They do not constitute development plans for the town and are merely conjectural drawings.

How then can one recently elected Urban Councillor who canvassed prior to the elections on the basis of the right of the local people to a plebiscite now magisterially announce in last weeks paper that :- “having looked at the plans I am now voting for the inner relief road.” What “plans” has he examined? - dare I say Mr. Shaffrey’s report. Does the public representative in question realise that the drawings for multiplex cinemas, civic centres, multi-story car parks, etc. are not based on any proposal or plan for their future development? The Shaffrey report might as well have been prepared by the local musical society which like Mr. Shaffrey has neither the finances or the mandate to implement any elements of the report. Behind the fancy design work included in Mr. Shaffrey’s report is a County Council anxious to build a traffic route through the centre of the town. The report is a smoke screen, designed to deflect attention from the reality of the County Council’s plans. It has apparently proved irresistible to a number of people who like our young public representative misguidingly believes Mr. Shaffrey’s thoughts and drawings to be a plan of action, sanctioned and ready to be financed by Kildare County Council. Nothing could be further from the truth. It’s a series of drawings designed to impress the impressionable and win support for the inner relief road project which in itself is contrary to the Council’s own development plan. Remember what is in the County Council Development Plan re the construction of road systems to bypass all major towns! Too many half truths have been spoken about Mr. Shaffrey’s plan. It does not predict, indicate, or otherwise suggest that development on any large scale will follow the building of the inner relief road. Neither does it suggest that the future development of Athy relies on such a road.

It is time for everyone concerned with the future of Athy, whether public representative or otherwise, to know the key question facing us on 27th November :-


That’s the question to be answered and it must be answered honestly by those public representatives elected to serve our interests.

During the recent local elections the inner relief road was the important issue on which many of the election hopefuls canvassed support for one side or the other. The results of that election were a revelation. Supporters of the inner relief road lost heavily, while those candidates who opposed the routing of traffic through the centre of Athy received an unprecedented high vote from the electors of Athy. The message was and still remains quite clear. The people of Athy unquestionably showed where they stood on the inner relief road issue and their trust must be reciprocated and honoured when it comes to the vote on 27th November.

Integrity and honesty is no less an attribute in politics than in any other walk of life. Sometimes the finger can be pointed at a national politician who fails to honour some minor pre-election promise or other. However I know of no politician, national or local, who has reneged on an issue as fundamental to the electorate as the inner relief road is to the people of Athy and still retain the respect and support of the electorate. “My word is my bond” is the proud boast of every man and woman who seeks to retain the respect of their colleagues in business or politics. Let’s hope that integrity and honesty wins out when the public representatives meet on Saturday, 27th November at 9.30am to decide the future of Athy.