Thursday, December 4, 2003

Emmet's Rebellion

Rebellion is one of the keystones of Irish history.  Nowhere was this more obvious than in the commemoration of the bicentenary of the 1798 rebellion.  Communities in towns and villages throughout the eastern part of Ireland where the 1798 rebellion had been concentrated, walked, talked, wrote and published the places, people and events of their areas during those troublesome times.

Just a few years after the 1798 rebellion had been put down and following the passing of the Act of Union another rebellion was in the planning.  This time it was largely the work of one man assisted by veterans of the 1798 campaign.  Robert Emmet had been expelled from Trinity College Dublin in a purge of radical students prior to the 1798 rebellion and spent two years in France in an unsuccessful attempt to obtain military aid for another rebellion in Ireland.  He returned to Dublin in October 1802 and with the help of 1798 veterans Thomas Russell of Co. Down, Myles Byrne of Co. Wicklow, Michael Quigley of Co. Kildare and Nicholas Gray of Co. Wexford began preparing for another tilt at the might of the British empire.

Emmet planned to seize important buildings in Dublin city following which men from the adjoining counties were expected to march into the city to reinforce the rebels’ control of the capital.  One of the key players in that plan was Nicholas Gray who despite being one of the more senior Wexford rebels of the 1798 campaign, had escaped execution.  Gray was secretary of the Rebel Council of Wexford and acted as aide-de-camp to Bagnal Harvey at the battle of Ross on 5th June 1798.  Bagnal Harvey who was a popular Protestant landlord and a barrister had been a member of the United Irishmen in Dublin before the organisation was proscribed.  He was not a military man but despite this and his apparent reluctance to get involved in the rebellion he was put in control of the Wexford rebels.  Jonah Barrington, a relation of the Barringtons of Athy writing of the 1798 rebellion and the Battle of Ross noted “Harvey and his aide-de-camp, Mr. Gray, a Protestant attorney, remained upon a neighbouring hill inactive during ten hours successive fighting.”  Harvey was executed after the rebellion was put down.  Nicholas Gray was arrested but was freed on being discharged at the assizes in Wexford in November 1799.  Gray was 25 years of age and because of his involvement with the Wexford rebels he was removed from the roll of Attorneys and thereafter could no longer practice his profession.  He had married Eleanor Hughes of Ballytrent, Co. Wexford in 1795.  She was a sister of Henry or Harry Hughes who, like Gray, sided with the Wexford rebels in 1798 and was later arrested and released the following year with his brother-in-law.

Gray came to live in the Athy area after his release in 1799.  Various written references to “Nicholas Gray of Rockfield” have been noted.  He lived there with his wife and his two children, Nicholas and Sophia.  Gray’s involvement in rebellious activity did not end in 1798 for in 1803 we find Robert Emmet appointing Nicholas Gray of Rockfield, Athy as General in charge of the Co. Kildare rebels who were to march to Dublin to assist Emmet and his men.  On 24th July 1803 Gray and his gardener, William Murphy, set out for Dublin.  Having reached Johnstown, news was received of disturbances in Dublin where about 50 men, including Lord Kilwarden, Lord Chief Justice had been killed in Thomas Street.  Gray immediately returned to Athy, reaching Rockfield on the Sunday evening.  His brother-in-law and fellow rebel Henry Hughes who had stayed in Gray’s house on the night of the 23rd had left for Wexford that morning.  Murphy was dispatched to bring Hughes back.  Overtaking him at Tullow, both the men returned to Rockfield.  Gray and Hughes then left for Dublin.

In the meantime Robert Johnston, an Athy resident who had been in Dublin during the disturbances of Saturday, 23rd July, returned next day to the town.  Acting on what authority it is not now known, Johnston attempted to put all gun powder in the town under requisition for sale to the “loyal men that want it”.  Johnston, writing to Dublin Castle on the 26th noted, “The rebellion in Dublin was well known by the shopkeepers (papists) before I came home and an officer of yeomanry had applied to get powder from the shops and was told they had not any.  I feared they had it secured for improper purposes”.  

Within days an anonymous letter was sent to Dublin Castle advising a watch was to be kept on Gray and Hughes.  Both men were arrested in early October, as was William Murphy who was Gray’s gardener and Michael Cummins, his man servant.  The four men were lodged in Athy Gaol which was then located in the basement of White’s Castle where the accommodation on the admission of Thomas Rawson, the leading loyalist in the town made “the removal of Messrs. Gray and Hughes a matter of justice”.  The  prisoners were separated under direct orders from Dublin Castle and later transferred to Dublin.  Neither Murphy or Cummins who made statements were able or willing to implicate either Nicholas Gray or Henry Hughes.  Both men were still incarcerated in Athy Gaol on 1st April 1804 when Thomas Rawson sought warrants directed to the jailer in Athy to ensure their continued detention.  The application was refused and Murphy and Cummins were discharged within days.

Gray and Hughes had been sent in the meantime to Kilmainham Gaol and Gray was eventually transferred on health grounds to lodgings under custody at 3 Buckridge’s Court off Ship Street in Dublin.  From there he wrote a memorial on 4th March 1805 petitioning for better living conditions and he appears to have been freed sometime thereafter.  Hughes appears to have been released before Gray and on gaining his freedom he sold his property at Ballytrent in Wexford and emigrated to America.  Following his own release Gray returned to the Athy area and was residing, according to a deed which was signed in 1808, at Woodbine which is in the same area as Rockfield.  Gray and his family emigrated to America sometime prior to October 1809 and eventually settled near Natchez, Mississippi.  There he died in or about 1819.

The events of 1803 are of interest to us here in Athy because of Gray’s involvement and on Tuesday, 25th November Seamus Cullen will give a talk in the Town Hall commencing at 8.00pm on the topic “Robert Emmet’s Rebellion with particular reference to Athy”.  Admission is free and anybody interested in Irish history should make an effort to come along and hear what promises to be an interesting talk illustrated by slides.

Thursday, November 27, 2003

World War I

Last month I was one of a group of Irish men and women who travelled to Belgium to visit Brussels and the European Parliament and while doing so availed of the opportunity to visit a number of towns and sites associated with the brutal war which we commonly refer to as The Great War.  For the second time in recent years I visited the Belgium town of Ypres where the monumental Menin Gate stands, with the names of 54,000 soldiers inscribed on its walls.  Those unfortunate men whose names appear on the Menin Gate were just some of those killed during the 1914 -‘18 War, but what marks them apart from their colleagues is that no trace was ever found of their remains.  Can you imagine the enormity of the conflict which could cause 54,000 men to disappear without trace.  Add to that figure another 75,000 men whose names are inscribed on the Thiepval monument in Northern France.  These were the men killed during the battle of the Somme whose bodies were never traced. 

Everywhere one travels in Britain, whether in the Highlands of Scotland, the Welsh hills or the English dales, towns and villages have commemorated, generally in stone, their losses in two world wars.  Monuments to the fallen are a common feature of the British townscape, a measure of each communities debt to a generation which never had the opportunity to live to old age.

I was talking to some friends recently about the changes which were brought about in Irish attitudes over the period of World War I.  When war was declared in August 1914, John Redmond called upon the Volunteers to enlist and they did so, with an unprecedented response which saw upwards of 35,000 Irish men enlisting over the following four years.  While the war was still raging Irish national feeling was stirred by the events of Easter week 1916, particularly the execution of the leaders of the Rebellion in Dublin. Where previously young men, who had enlisted to fight for the British Army, were greeted as heroes, after the events of 1916 they were made to feel strangers in their own country.  Soldiers returning home on leave from the trenches faced an uncertain welcome from the people of their home town or village.  It was no longer deemed appropriate to walk about wearing army fatigues.  Peoples attitudes to the war and to the British Army had changed and nowhere was this more evident than in the hostility faced by Irish men who had survived German bombs and bullets while serving in France or Flanders.

After the war which ended on 11th November 1918, returning soldiers might have expected to be received as heroes by those who had stayed at home.  They carried with them the horrific memories of friends and colleagues killed or mangled in battle, and in many cases they themselves bore witness to the crippling effect that war had on limbs which were once sturdy and supple.  Instead of a heroes welcome they were at best ignored or at worst treated as traitors to the Irish cause.  Much harsher was the fate of those killed during the war whose names quickly disappeared from the memory and the lips of their one time neighbours and friends.  The 567 men from the county of Kildare who died in World War I were not commemorated, as were their comrades in arms who bore Scottish, Welsh or English names.  An Irishman fighting in a British uniform may have been acceptable at the start of the war, but not four years later as Nationalist Ireland exerted its influence on the Irish people.

Athy, the Anglo Norman town on the River Barrow, the settlers town where religious diversity was part and parcel of daily life, the garrison town where men were prepared to wear a foreigners uniform and fight his war, would turn its back on the 105 young men from the town who perished in World War I.  It would fail to honour their memory as it did that of the other 83 men from the neighbouring countryside who also died.  Indeed, little or nothing was known of our townsmen who got on trains at the local railway station at the start of journeys which were to end in foreign graves.  The graves of Athy men who died in World War I are to be found as far apart as Turkey, France, Flanders, England and Germany.  For many not even a grave would mark the end of their journey.  Instead their names are inscribed on monuments at Thiepval and the Menin Gate, Ypres, confirmation that their very bones are lost forever amongst the bloodied soil of the French and Belgian countryside.

Joseph Byrne who was killed on 26th April 1915 is listed on the Menin Gate.  So too is Peter Carbery of Ballyroe who died 13 days later.  Commemorated on the Tynecot Memorial is John Deegan of Ballyadams who was killed on 16th August 1917.  His sister was Margaret Haslam who lived in a house at the corner of St. John’s Lane and Duke Street.  Another name on the Menin Gate Memorial is that of James Dillon who was killed on 26th April 1915, just a day after Moses Doyle whose body, like so many of his colleagues, was never found.  The Thiepval Memorial has many familiar Athy names including that of Martin Hyland, killed on 16th September 1916, and John Mulhall who was 20 years old when he died on 23rd October 1916.

Every year at this time I write of World War I and the local men who died and I remind my readers of that forgotten part of the towns history which was dusted off over 12 years ago when the first Remembrance Day Commemoration was held in St. Michael’s old cemetery.  For in that cemetery lies the remains of 6 soldiers, Athy men who donned British uniforms at a time when an Irish independent State was still an unfulfilled dream.  Because they did so, it was for so long felt inappropriate to commemorate them or the 182 other local men who died in the Great War.

Times have now changed.  Our President, Mary McAleese, inaugurated the Irish Memorial to the World War I dead at Messines in Belgium a few years ago.  Elsewhere our political leaders have acknowledged that the dead of World War I have an equal right to be commemorated with those who died in the Irish War of Independence or the Civil War.

I have often thought that Athy should erect a memorial to the war dead of our town, bringing together the names of those who fought and died in World Wars I and II with those who suffered a similar fate in Irish wars, whether 1798, the War of Independence or the Irish Civil War.  I wonder if our Town Council would consider this a suitable project to bring together once and for all the different strands of our local history.

In the meantime let me remind you that on Sunday, 9th November at 3.00 p.m. a short simple commemorative ceremony will take place in St. Michael’s Old Cemetery to honour the memory of those from our town and district who died in war, especially those lost in the first World War.  Why not come along to St. Michael’s on November 9th and say a prayer for the men from this area who over 85 years lost their lives in a futile attempt to bring peace to our world.

Thursday, November 20, 2003

Seamus Breathnach - and the Riddle of the Caswell Mutiny

I first met Carlow’s Seamus Breathnach in 1974 when both of us, as mature students, savoured the culinary delights of the Honourable Society of Kings Inn in Dublin.  We were law students of the Kings Inn, struggling, or certainly I was, with the antiquated language of the Common Law and Statute Law before tumbling to a belated awareness of the intricacies of the legal system which regulates all of our daily lives.  Seamus was even then a colourful character, even if not quite of the multicoloured hues which even mellowing age has failed to diminish.

In the 1960’s Seamus Breathnach served in the Garda Siochana.  In the ‘70’s he worked as a journalist and graduated from University College Cork.  That same year he wrote his first book, “The History of the Irish Police” which was published by Anvil Press.  I remember when that book first appeared.  If memory serves me right it was a best seller until Conor Brady, later Editor of the Irish Times, produced his own hard cover edition of the “Guardians of the Peace”.  As the son of a local Garda sergeant I took a particular interest in both books and have to say that Breathnachs was far and away the better exposition of the unarmed police force which has served our country so well.

But we have heard nothing from Mr. Breathnach for almost 30 years.  Rumour has it that he went off to practice law.  He was also seen lecturing to journalists and potential criminologists in the College of Commerce in Rathmines.  Now almost in retirement he has had a seizure of philosophy and letters and has produced two books in the last year, one a research thesis and the other a research account of a mutiny.  Leaving philosophy aside for another day let us look at his foray into letters.

His new book called “The Riddle of the Caswell Mutiny” is a well researched account of a mutiny which took place in 1875.  What’s peculiar - and pleasantly surprising - about its format is the fact that while it deals with the subject matter as a history and a work of non fiction, it is written like a novel.  It qualifies as a report as much as it is a story. 

The story of the Caswell Mutiny is very much about two young men, Christos Bombos (a Greek) and James Carrick (a Scot) and how they related to each other and to the crew and captain of the Caswell.  On New Years Day 1876 these two young men and fourteen others of mixed Greek and British origin shipped out of Buenos Aires aboard the Caswell.  They were bound for Queenstown (Cobh), en route to Bristol.  Within four days of their voyage a mutiny erupted resulting in the murder of four men, including the ship’s captain.

Even before the ship had left Buenos Aires some of the British seamen objected to sailing with Greeks.  There had been other mutinies involving Greeks in other parts of the world at this time but the Captain, himself hewn out of the oak of olde England, was having none of it.  He had the British sailors, including one Irishmen, whipped and put them in irons for several days.  In this way the ships captain kept a tight rein on his men and when the ship set sail it was with a suitably chastened crew, or so the Captain thought.

If anyone was going to mutiny it was most likely to be the British sailors whom the Captain had mistreated.  A lone Irish sailor and a German compatriot had the good sense to go over the side as soon as they had a chance to do so.  But that’s where the riddle of the mutiny comes in.  It was the Greek under their leader, big George Peno, who attacked the Captain and his officers, lashed them together and threw them overboard.  Some weeks later the British sailors who originally complained about sailing with Greeks now mounted a counter mutiny and took an adze to the Greek’s killing two of them.  Sometime thereafter the Caswell, piloted by James Carrick, arrived back in Queenstown to a heroes welcome.  One of the Greek sailors was tried in Cork and executed on the same day as the 63 year old rebel Thomas Crowe. 

In following up the trials and the executions Breathnach makes great use of the contemporary accounts and allows us to relive a period when a double execution was not an uncommon occurrence.  Of the 16 persons who set out from Buenos Aires on the Caswell two jumped ship, four were murdered in the mutiny, two were killed in the counter mutiny, one was hanged in 1876 and another in 1879 and six returned to England.

On 8th February 1899 the Caswell sailed from Newcastle, New South Wales with a cargo of steel, a crew of ten and two apprentices. She was posted missing on 30th August 1899.  Nothing more was ever heard of her or her crew.  “The Riddle of the Caswell Mutiny” is a good read and can be highly recommended as an ideal Christmas present.

For many Carlovians, Seamus Breathnach may not be a name which gains instant recognition, for in truth, the locals know the big framed man as “Jimmy Fran Walsh”.  I have enjoyed his company for close of thirty years, and never a dull moment has marred our association, even if exasperation has sometimes raised its rasping head, particularly when Seamus gallops away on one of his discursive forays into the life and hard times experienced at the hands of the Irish Christian Brothers.  For you see, we are both products of the Christian Brothers education system, but the legacy it left us is as different as that which marks the economies of our respective towns, Carlow and Athy.

Last Wednesday night in the comfortable surrounds of the Eire Oiges Clubhouse friends of both Seamus Breathnach and “Jimmy Fran” came together to celebrate the launch of his latest literary work.  The book launch was adorned by the presence of another proud Carlovian, Padraig O’Snodaigh, who like Seamus has a sense of history combined with a pioneering Gaelic spirit which makes for fearsome brave individuals unafraid to tilt at institutional windmills which disfigure the landscape of Irish life.  On the night I was an interloper from across the Kildare border, sharing with Carlovians a literary and a convivial occasion in surroundings which must be the envy of every other football club in Ireland.  It was my first visit to the Eire Oige complex which is a wonderfully fine example of what a strong vibrant community can achieve.

Much like Seamus Breathnach really, or is that Willie Fran Walsh, Author, Barrister and Criminologist, the product of St. Killian’s Crescent and proud to be a Carlovian. 

Thursday, November 13, 2003

Deaths Mary O'Shaughnessy / Townsend - Maria Dunne

Mary O’Shaughnessy, formerly Mary Townsend and Maria Dunne passed away last week.  Both were well advanced in years and in an almost subliminal way formed part of my memory bank of Athy of the 1950’s.  I knew both of them, not personally, but as members of a decreasing group of men and women, now all elderly, who were once part and parcel of the daily life of Athy with which I was familiar as a youngster.

Maria Dunne was born in New York but as a year old child returned to Ireland with her parents in 1913.  A quiet woman she was married to Christy Dunne, known affectionately to all and sundry as “Bluebeard” Dunne, one of the better known locals in Athy in the 1950’s.  Employed in the Asbestos factory, Christy was an active member of C.Y.M. Society for many years and was one of the great card players who graced the tables in the C.Y.M.S., particularly for the Sunday morning game of poker.  One of my abiding memories was “Bluebeard’s” ability to spot a “bluff” where others could not do so and invariably his cry of “see ya” would soon thereafter result in the pot being pulled from the centre of the table to rest in front of the man from the Coneyboro.  When Christy died at 52 years of age in 1966 while still a member of Athy’s Fire Brigade, Maria continued to live in the family home at Coneyboro.  She died in Naas Hospital last week at 91 years of age, one of the last of the original tenants who moved into the houses in the Coneyboro when they were built a few years after the end of World War II.  She is survived by her children Christy, May, Tim and Breda.

Mary O’Shaughnessy who died last week, like Maria Dunne after a long and fulfilling life, spent almost 60 years in Athy.  Mary was a farmer’s daughter from Co. Kilkenny who married Martin Townsend of Carlow before moving via Milford, Carlow and the Fighting Cocks to Athy in January 1944.  The war was still raging in Europe and Athy, like so many other Irish towns, was in the grip of an economic recession.  Many of the local public houses had closed their doors and would remain closed for years on end.  One of the pubs so affected was P.J. Carey’s at 44 Duke Street which was closed for several years after its owner went to England to get work and before it was sold to one time farmer Martin Townsend of Carlow and his business partner Tom Nolan who earlier worked in Dempsey’s of Carlow.

The Carey establishment had previously been part of Glynn’s pub, hardware and grocery shop which had extended over what are now two premises on either side of the archway which led to stables at the rear.  When the Townsend family arrived in 1944 the pub and grocery business was confined to one side of the archway.  The young married couple had seven children, Mary, Kathleen, Chris, Jim, John, Ann and Martin.  The business partnership with Tom Nolan ended when Tom set up on his own account a few doors further up in Duke Street.  Martin Townsend had been involved in motor cycle racing and as such had competed in many competitions but not, so far as I can find, in the famous Athy 75 races which were held annually between 1925 and 1930.  His children are today the proud holders of many trophies and medals which their father won in competitions organised by Athy Cycle and Car Club and by the Athy Scramble Club.  Martin Townsend died a young man at 43 yeas of age on 7th May 1947.

I did not know Martin Townsend, but Townsend’s public house at 44 Duke Street was an important part of the fabric of Athy in the 1950’s and 1960’s.  By then his widow had re-married and Mary was the wife of Danny O’Shaughnessy and had three more children, Rita, Pat and Carmel.  Mary continued to run the family pub until 1964 when it was taken over by her eldest son Jim.  In the late 1960’s Townsend’s pub changed hands after almost 25 years and strangely enough it was sold to another Carlow man by the name of Haughney.  To the long list of names of proprietors of 44 Duke Street such as Glynn, Carey, Townsend and Haughney have been added in more recent times the names of Gaffney, Henshaw and O’Donoghue. 

Mary O’Shaughnessy was a fluent Irish speaker and on her passing she was survived by eleven children, 33 grandchildren and 37 great grandchildren.  The passing of both Mrs. O’Shaughnessy and Mrs. Dunne brought back memories of a time not so long ago, when life was simpler and gentler in so many ways. 

Fr. Philip Dennehy officiated at the funeral Mass for Mary O’Shaughnessy and as I listened to his thoughtful well chosen words I wondered whether as parishioners of St. Michael’s we appreciate what a remarkable understated preacher we have in our Parish Priest.  I have yet to hear him give a sermon which was other than well constructed in terms of thought and expression and never less than eloquent, especially when he speaks at a funeral Mass for one of his parishioners.  In short he is a wonderful thought provoking preacher.

Speaking of eloquence it would be remiss of me not to bring to your attention the wonderful array of lecturers scheduled to speak over the coming weekend at the Shackleton Autumn School in the Town Hall.  Frank Nugent, whose forthcoming book on Irish Arctic Exploration is due for release, will be joined by Michael Smith who has written a biography of Tom Crean and also the story of Captain Oates.  Myles Dungan has written a number of books on Irish men in World War I, but in his next book due out before Christmas he will tell the story of the theft of the Irish Crown Jewels and the involvement of Kilkea born Frank Shackleton.  Two English authors, Sara Wheeler and Ann Savours will also be in Athy for the weekend to give talks on Antarctic explorers and exploration.  Film shows and plays by John MacKenna and Aidan Dooley are also on offer over that weekend and of particular interest to school children will be a special performance of Aidan Dooley’s one man show on Tom Crean to be given in the Hall Mór, Scoil Mhicil Naofa on Saturday, 25th October at 3.00pm.

There is much on offer over the October Bank Holiday weekend in the Town Hall and the Heritage Centre and between lectures, plays and films there are more than enough attractions for all tastes.  Give your support, if at all possible, for the Third Ernest Shackleton Autumn School which promises to be an exciting and entertaining event.