Thursday, August 30, 2007
The lady who called to me during the week had a grandmother whose only brother she claimed was the first Catholic town clerk of Athy. His name was Patrick Hickey. The years he held the position were not known, but perhaps uniquely he subsequently became a Christian Brother.
Patrick Hickey, she said, was later viceprovincial of the Christian Brothers order in Australia and died in Bath, England, where he is buried. By strange coincidence, I had been visiting Bath just two days previously so on a number of fronts my interest was aroused by the enquiry.
The first local authority for the town of Athy was that established under Henry VIII’s charter of 1515 and revamped as Athy Borough Council by virtue of King James’s charter 98 years later. Controlled by successive earls of Kildare and later on their elevation to the dukedom of Leinster by the premier duke in Ireland, Athy Borough Council was what was known as “a rotten borough”. It was so termed because the franchise was vested in 12 burgesses nominated by the head of the Leinster family and seldom, if ever, did any of these burgess office holders reside in the town over which they exercised completed control. The borough council was abolished with many other Irish “rotten boroughs” in 1840.
The first elected Athy local authority was comprised of 21 locals sworn in as town commissioners in July 1847. I never fail to be surprised when reading through the list of the first town commissioners to find the names of the parish priest and the Church of Ireland rector amongst the commission members, as well as no less than three local doctors. The first town clerk appointed was Henry Sheill and the commissioners retained an office in his house at Leinster Street for several years until the Duke of Leinster made available what was the old Record Court as offices for the town commissioners. This he did in 1865 and the room given to the council was located on the south-east wing of the town hall at ground floor level. The commissioners swapped rooms with the Mechanics Institute 22 years later and so ended up in the small room in the south west side of the town hall directly opposite the caretaker’s apartment, where the council offices remained until new offices were provided at Rathstewart.
Reading through the extracts I took from the council minute books, I was pleasantly surprised to find how strong were the elected members when dealing with perceived inefficiencies on the part of council officials. Henry Sheill resigned after 23 years service, as did John Roberts, the town inspector of nuisances, when the commissioners resolved “that in future should the public pumps not be kept in proper order the month’s salary of the town clerk and the inspector of nuisances be stopped”. Following Sheills’s departure, the town clerkship became vacant on three occasions over the following nine years, ending with the appointment of Patrick Hickey as town clerk on the 5 May 1879 at a salary of £20 a year. Given the information I received last week, this is undoubtedly the man described to me as the first Catholic appointed as town clerk of Athy. Given the text of the following resolution passed by Athy town commissioners in April 1865, it is quite likely that all the previous holders of the offices were non- Catholics. After all, were they likely to be otherwise if the elected members were moved to send this motion to the House of Commons in London:
“We, the town commissioners of the ancient and loyal town of Athy, feeling in common with our fellow countrymen the insulting and degrading tendencies of the obnoxious oaths and declarations which are still required to be taken by Catholics and Protestants in order to qualify them for the acceptance of municipal office, most earnestly pray that your Honourable house will take into consideration that such oaths had their origin in a period of gross bigotry and persecution. In an age of enlightenment like the present and now more than 30 years after Catholic Emancipation, your petitioners earnestly entreat that these obnoxious oaths may be erased from the statute books”.
Patrick Hickey, whom I believe lived in Emily Square, resigned as town clerk in 1882 presumably to enter the Christian Brothers. His subsequent career is not known to me but hopefully some more research will help to complete the story of the man who, it is claimed, was the first catholic to occupy the town clerkship of Athy town.
A number of intriguing entries in the council minute books make interesting reading and gives some flavour of life and conditions in Athy of 150 years ago. In August 1856, two commissioners, Mark Cross and Henry Hannon, were asked to wait on the magistrates “relative to the scandal of public prostitution” in the town. The problems caused by the ladies of the night was still exercising the minds of the town commissioners two years later when they caused to have public notices posted throughout the town with the following warning:
“Caution to persons keeping any place of public resort within the town for the sale of refreshments of any kind who knowingly supplies any common prostitute or resorting therein to assemble and continue in his premises after this notice will be prosecuted according to law”.
Nine months later, Thomas Roberts was appointed assistant to John Roberts for the purpose of prosecuting public prostitutes and street beggars at a salary of four shillings per week with a bounty of two shillings and six pence for each prostitute convicted. I am afraid the unfortunate Mr Roberts was unable to collect many half crowns after the local magistrates stated “that in prosecuting a prostitute, a man should also charge them with an offence to him rather than to summons her alone as it requires his evidence with that of Mr Roberts to ensure a conviction”.
In August 1868, Pat Walker, who had previously worked for the town commissioners as a road sweeper (officially called a “scavenger”), was appointed to a position, the title which was not given but which merited him being provided with a coat and a hat. He was “to remove off the streets, and when necessary bring them before the magistrates, all vagrants, beggars and prostitutes, to ring the bell whenever required, to keep order in the market and to assist the bailiff in hindering forestalling in the purchase of fowl”, all of which he undertook to do for the wage of six shillings a week.
Business obviously was not sufficient to keep him in his new position as within 12 months he was back to his old job as “town scavenger” earning four shillings a week. However, this job merited in addition to the coat and hat already supplied to him a new pair of trousers and a waist coat all courtesy of the Town Commissioners.
From town clerks to Christian Brothers, scavengers, vagrants and prostitutes, it’s amazing what can turn up amongst the dusty records of Irish municipal government.
Thursday, August 23, 2007
The late Lena Boylan of Celbridge, a wonderful local historian who was always ready and willing to share her extensive knowledge of Irish history, passed on to me some years before she died copies of some letters received by the Duke of Leinster during the Rebellion period. One such letter which I re-read with interest this week was written by Thomas Rawson on 13 June 1799, apparently in response to the duke’s demand that he step down as a burgess of Athy Borough Council. In the opening lines of the letter, Rawson, who up to the previous year lived in Glassealy House but moved to Cardenton after his home was burned by Irish rebels, referred to the duke’s call on him to resign.
There had been many complaints about Rawson’s behaviour during the ’98 Rebellion and the duke’s cousin, Thomas Fitzgerald of Geraldine House was particularly scathing in his criticism of Rawson, whom he once famously described as ‘a man of the lowest order, the offal of a dung hill’. Fitzgerald had particular reason to dislike Rawson. The cavalry troop of which Fitzgerald was captain was disbanded for alleged dis-loyalty, while Rawson headed up the newly-formed Loyalist Infantry Corps, which was less than gentle in its treatment of locals suspected of having arms or pikes. Rawson was also involved in public floggings, of which William Farrell of Carlow gave the following account.
‘The triangles were set up in the public streets of Athy ... there was no ceremony in choosing victims, the first to hand done well enough ... they were stripped naked, tied to the triangle and their flesh cut without mercy.’
The earlier mentioned Thomas Fitzgerald, writing in December 1802, pinpointed Rawson as the ring leader of the floggings in Athy, claiming that the Glassealy man
‘had every person tortured and stripped as his cannibal will directed. He would seat himself in a chair in the centre of a ring formed around the triangle, the miserable victims kneeling under the triangles until they would be spotted over with the blood of the others.’
It is no wonder then that the Duke of Leinster whose own son, Lord Edward Fitzgerald, was one of the ’98 leaders felt obliged to request Rawson to resign as a member of Athy Borough Council. The grounds for the request seemed to relate to Rawson’s involvement in erecting structures on the bridge of Athy without the permission of the duke, who was landlord of the town. However, the expected resignation did not materialise. Instead, Rawson defended himself with a spirited explanation of his actions which any neutral would find more than reasonable given the circumstances of the time. In doing so, Rawson gave an interesting account of some of the measures taken by the local loyalists in preparing to defend themselves against the Irish rebels. He wrote :
'This history of any and every barrier in the town of Athy is simply this and the truth can be proved by thousands. When Campbell commanded this garrison, he caused barriers of hogs heads, sods and earth to be made on the different approaches and on the centre of the bridge - he was ordered to evacuate the town and it was left for a long time to the sole protection of the yeomanry - weak and threatened as the town then was, a large body of rebels having the next night approached within 100 perches of it, I considered it absolutely necessary to put up temporary gates and a pailing at an expense of upwards of 50 pounds out of my own pocket - the town was protected. In November last, Captain Nicholson and a company of the Cork City Militia were sent here, he saw the sod work going to decay, he applied to General Dundas and by the general’s special directions (the inhabitants at large having subscribed a larger sum) strong walls of lime and stone were added to my gates - two large piers and a strong wall and platform were erected on the centre of the bridge under the direction of Captain Nicholson. In the beginning of May last, General Dundas inspected the Athy Infantry. New-made pikes had been recently found in the back house of a rebel captain of the town, several new schemes of insurrection were discovered for which many have since been convicted by court martial - the large house in the Market Square was occupied by a noted rebel from the County of Carlow and it appearing to the general that the barrier on the bridge could be commanded from the house, he was pleased to approve of the building of a second wall to cover the men ... I had temporary walls ran up, merely doubling the former barrier, and recollecting that for four months last summer we had lain on the flag-way on the bridge in the open air with stones for our pillows - I covered the walls with a temporary skid of boards which are not even nailed on.’
Rawson’s account of the bridge fortifications gave an interesting insight into the measures taken by the loyalists during the rebellion and suggest, as I have previously claimed, that the town of Athy consisted of the English town on the east banks of the Barrow and the Irish town on the opposite side.
The bridge fortifications referred to by Rawson could only provide protection from attack by Irish rebels who lived in and around the Irish town and particularly in the area known to many of the older generation as ‘Beggars End’.
Apart from the floggings on the streets of Athy, 1798 witnessed the public execution in June of seven young local men who had been imprisoned for a while in the lock-up in White’s Castle. Six of these young men were from Narraghmore, the seventh a Curragh man.
Another hitherto forgotten local massacre was referred to by Colonel Campbell, who commanded the 9th Dragoon stationed in the Military Barracks in Athy. In a letter he wrote on 2 June 1798, advising of troop movements against a body of rebels in Cloney Bog, Campbell reported:
‘The troops moved in three columns, the right by the east of the bog, the centre by the Monasterevin Road and the left by Ballintub-bert ... the left column passed the lawn at Bert and meeting with enemy on the way drew it and being closely pursued about 100 of them were killed’.
These accounts of what happened in and around Athy, all contemporary with the events they described, are good and sufficient reason for our present generation to commemorate the men of ’98 with a suitable monument in our town. There must be no further shilly-shallying about the matter. The monument created by Brid ni Rinn should be erected in a prominent position in the centre of Athy without any further delay.
If, as expected, the ’98 Monument is erected in Emily Square in front of the town hall, it will provide a fitting companion for the memorial erected last year to our townsmen who died fighting in France, Flanders, Gallipoli and other distance places during the 1914-18 War.
Thursday, August 16, 2007
The booklet was printed by An t'Oglach, the official periodical of the Volunteers. It was only a few weeks on sale in some Dublin shops when a bookseller was imprisoned for three months for offering what the authorities regarded as seditious material for sale. The remaining copies of the booklet were seized and destroyed, which is why only a few rare copies of 'In Maryboro and Mountjoy' have survived to this day.
A second edition appeared in America sometime afterwards, this time under the title 'The Escape from Mountjoy' with the subtitle 'And Other Prison Experiences of an Irish Volunteer' and the author given as 'The Rector of an Irish College'. The Rector in question was Fr Patrick J Doyle and the college was Knockbeg College Carlow. The American edition, which I have before me, claims to be a first edition but in fact it followed the earlier Dublin edition. Reprinted by The Friends of Irish Freedom Inc. with an address at 280 Broadway, New York, the booklet dealt with the prison experiences of Laois man Padraic Fleming.
Fr Doyle in his statement made to the Bureau of Military History in 1952 explained how he first met Fleming. Knockbeg College was a safe haven for volunteers on the run and following a prison breakout from Mountjoy in March 1919 Fr. Doyle was advised to expect an important visitor. This is how he recalled the visitors arrival.
'About midday on that day I saw a car driving rapidly down the college avenue. I went down to the hall door to meet it and saw a lady stepping from the car. Before this I had not the pleasure of knowing this distinguished lady. While she was introducing herself to me as Mrs. Gavan Duffy I observed another lady in the back of the car attired in a luxurious fur coat, with fashionable toque and struggling desperately with a complication of rugs. Finally the rugs were cast aside and a tall gaunt figure stepped from the car, the upper part of which was wrapped in the fur coat and the rest in male attire and then I was introduced to the man who became one of my greatest friends, Padraic Fleming'.
Fleming was a native of the Swan, that part of Laois, which, during the War of Independence, came under the jurisdiction of the Kilkenny IRA Brigade. His brother Eamon who had been a pupil of Thomas McDonagh, one of the signatories of the 1916 Proclamation, was a captain in the Dublin Volunteers. It was Eamon Fleming who came down to Laois on Good Friday 1916 with a dispatch from Padraig Pearse asking the local volunteers to be ready for the Rising and to destroy the railway tracks at Colt so that British troops could not travel from the south to Dublin.
It is claimed that the first shots of the Easter Rebellion were in fact fired at Colt during that particular operation. Padraic Fleming was the commander of the 3rd Battalion of the Kilkenny Brigade which was centred on Castlecomer and included The Swan. Following the Easter Rebellion Fleming was questioned by the RIC and before long he was arrested at Kinsale in County Cork and court martialled. Charged with possession of seditious literature and attempting to procure arms he was convicted and sent to Maryboro Jail Prison for five years.
In September 1917 Irish Republican prisoners initiated a policy of agitating for treatment as political prisoners. Following Thomas Ashe's death on 25 September the prisoners' demands were largely met except in the case of Padraic Fleming and two other prisoners serving sentences of penal servitude in Maryboro Prison. Fleming thereafter refused to submit to the prison authorities and his subsequent degrading treatment was the subject of Fr. Doyle's booklet. After spending some time on hunger strike Fleming was released under the ‘Cat and Mouse’ Act on 20 November 1917. He continued his involvement with the Volunteers until he was re-arrested in May 1918, with many other leading Republicans during 'The German Plot' scare.
Imprisoned again in Maryboro Prison, the impasse between himself and the authorities continued, resulting in the Laois man being put into iron manacles and a body belt by which his manacled wrists and upper arms were tightly strapped to his body.
He again went on hunger strike and while he was hospitalised the prison authorities constructed a special cell to confine Fleming who was regarded as a most troublesome prisoner, and who although restrained still required two wardens to constantly monitor him 24 hours a day. Between periods in hospital, the punishment cell and the specially built cell Padraic Fleming spent 7 months in Maryboro Prison on this his second term of imprisonment, having spent 9 months there during his previous incarceration.
On 1 January 1919 Padraic Fleming was transferred to Mountjoy Jail where shortly afterwards he was elected Commandant of the Irish political prisoners. A campaign of non co-operation was again initiated under Fleming's leadership, while at the same time plans were put in place for a mass breakout from Mountjoy Jail. The escape took place on 29 March 1919 when twenty Irish Volunteers including Padraic Fleming and Piaras Beaslai escaped over the prison walls using a rope ladder. Soon thereafter Fleming arrived in Knockbeg College where he remained for several weeks, slowly regaining his health, thanks to Fr Doyle and his brother, Dr L Doyle of Carlow who took care of his medical needs.
Towards the end of the summer 1919 Michael Collins arranged for Padraic Fleming to join Eamon de Valera in America where he would spend almost the next two years organising branches of the American Association for the Recognition of the Irish Republic. He travelled to America via Wales where he spent some time with his sister who was married and living in Loyd George's country.
He was not long back in Ireland when the Treaty and the anti-Treaty split took place. He took the anti-Treaty side and was twice imprisoned in Kilkenny Jail, on each occasion managing to escape only to be recaptured and imprisoned in Kilmainham. He was eventually released under the General Amnesty of 1925. Interestingly his brother Eamon took the Treaty side.
In civilian life, Padraic Fleming worked as a director of the Irish Hospital Sweepstakes before setting up Flemings Fireclays at the Swan with his brothers. He married Marguerite Farrelly and was survived by his widow and four children, John Mitchell, Thomas Davis, Mary and Catherine when he died on 5 December 1952. His burial in the family plot at Clough was attended by President Sean T O’Ceallaigh and many leaders of Church and State. The graveside oration was given by Thomas O'Deirg, the Minister for Lands.
Fr Patrick Doyle who wrote of Padraic Fleming's prison exploits did so not only for their propaganda value, but also for their historical value. ' wrote Fr Doyle in 1952. ‘I went to Dublin and had a talk with Michael Collins about the matter. He said the story must be told and sI insisted that it was a national duty to put it on record, but Padraic pleaded his absolute incapacity to commit the story to writing'o the collaboration with Padraic Fleming began.’
Fr Doyle’s booklet is an important piece of historical work, detailing as it does the prison experiences of a man who Judge James Comerford of New York described in his own account of his Kilkenny IRA days published in 1978 as 'a man who left behind him in the annals of the IRA a record of personal courage, by his defiance of British Rule, that belongs to the classic struggle of people in all countries who have fought for their freedom.'
It was Fr Patrick Doyle, the parish priest whom once I regarded as austere and authoritarian, who recorded for posterity the prison exploits of Padraic Fleming. The austerity of old age successfully concealed the courage of the younger priest who did what he could to help the cause of Irish Freedom during the difficult years which ended with the Treaty.
Thursday, August 9, 2007
What I now know of Fr Doyle creates for me an entirely different view of the man who in old age appeared so unapproachable. The future parish priest of the county town of Naas was in his younger days an active republican who befriended and knew many of the great Irish leaders of the day. In his contribution to the Bureau of Military History which he titled, An Anthology of Fugitive Memories, Fr Doyle, whose brother was a doctor practising in Carlow, recounted his memories of Michael Collins, Gearoid O’Sullivan, Kevin O’Higgins and Padraic Fleming, all of whom he counted among his friends.
When Rebellion broke out in Dublin in Easter 1916 Fr Doyle was Rector of Knockbeg College in Carlow. Gearoid O’Sullivan, a county Cork man who graduated with an MA from UCD in 1915, fought in the GPO the following year. He was interned in Frongoch and following his release was engaged by Fr Doyle to give Irish classes in the Carlow College. While there he continued his involvement with the Volunteers. Before long O’Sullivan was appointed OC of the 1st Battalion Carlow Kildare Brigade which was centred in Carlow town, but included also Bagenalstown and Leighlin-bridge. This, according to Fr Doyle, ‘entailed an enormous amount of work in enlisting and training volunteers in the area where there had been very little volunteer activity up to that time.’ The active co-operation of the college director Fr Doyle made it possible for O’Sullivan to be so involved in the local Volunteer movement. When O’Sullivan was subsequently tried for making a seditious speech in his hometown of Skibbereen Fr Doyle travelled south to give a character reference for him. It was to no avail however as O’Sullivan was found guilty and sent to prison. On his subsequent release he resumed his teaching job in Knockbeg College, all the time retaining an active involvement with the Volunteers until he was summoned to Dublin by Michael Collins to become the Adjutant General of the Volunteers. On creation of the National Army Gearoid O’Sullivan was appointed Adjutant General of the Irish Forces. At the same time Michael Collins wanted to appoint Fr Doyle as chaplain to the Army but the Kildare and Leighlin Bishop Dr Foley refused the request. It would appear that Dr Foley, a Redmondite, did not take kindly to the politics of Collins and his colleagues.
Two other men who were befriended by Fr Doyle while he was rector of Knockbeg College were Padraic Fleming of The Swan and Kevin O’Higgins of Stradbally. Both men would take opposite sides in the Civil War, but in 1919 they were on the run and each found refuge in Knockbeg College. Kevin O’Higgins had been a student at Knockbeg following his earlier removal from Maynooth College for breaking a no-smoking rule. As a newly elected TD for Laois he was involved in organising the National Loan initiated by Michael Collins as Minister for Finance. He travelled extensively on this promotion work, all the time attempting to evade the RIC and military who were on the lookout for him.
Knockbeg College became ‘a safe house’ for O’Higgins, with the active cooperation of Fr Patrick Doyle. It was while staying in the College that O’Higgins met his future wife Brigid Cole. At their wedding, attended by De Valera and many other of the leaders of the day at which Rory O’Connor was best man, Fr. Doyle gave the toast ‘The men of 1916 dead and living’ which he ended with the words, ‘to the long life and happiness of the beloved living and to the full culmination of their dearest wish, the liberty, the untrammelled liberty of Ireland.’
Kevin O’Higgins and Fr Doyle remained friends until the last, a friendship which was brought to a close when the young Stradbally man was assassinated on 10th July 1927. As Minister for Home Affairs Kevin O’Higgins had sanctioned the execution of his best man Rory O’Connor following the shooting dead of Sean Hales, a member of the Dail. He was the second member of the O’Higgins family of Stradbally to be assassinated.
During the Civil War his elderly father, a medical doctor practising in the Laois village, had been shot dead in his home in front of his wife by murderers who were never identified. Fr Doyle was summoned from Naas to attended the mortally wounded Kevin O’Higgins, but before he reached Dublin O’Higgins had died. The next morning the former College Rector celebrated requiem mass in the O’Higgins family home at Cross Avenue, Blackrock.
It was through Gearoid O’Sullivan that Fr Doyle became acquainted with Michael Collins. He met Collins on several occasions in Dublin and also in Naas. By now Fr Doyle had transferred to Naas where he would become part of the intelligent network working for Collins. One of the most important men in that network was Sergeant Jeremiah Maher, an RIG man who was secretary to the Naasbased RIG County Inspector. Maher passed extremely valuable intelligence to Michael Collins and occasionally Fr Doyle was the intermediary passing documents between Sergeant Maher and Michael Collins.
Fr Doyle played a small yet significant part in preventing an expected promulgation issuing from the Vatican condemning the Irish Liberation Movement. The British Foreign Office had apparently convinced the Vatican of the necessity of issuing the condemnation, but the unexpected arrival in Rome of Archbishop Mannix, the former President of Maynooth College when Fr Doyle was visiting the eternal city brought the two clerical Republicans together. Patrick Doyle was a student for the priesthood in Maynooth when Dr Mannix was the college president and so both knew each other quite well. Fr Doyle with George Gavin Duffy, the Dail representative in Rome, met Dr Mannix and at their urgings the Archbishop in a private audience with the Pope outlined to the Pontiff the true state of affairs in Ireland as a result of which the expected Vatican condemnation was withheld.
Fr Doyle took the Treaty side following the Treaty debate in Dail Eireann and invited Michael Collins, Kevin O’Higgins and others to speak at a public meeting in Naas on Easter Sunday 1921. Following the meeting a public banquet was held in the Town Hall where Fr Doyle and Collins were seated alongside each other. Collins and the Naas cleric last met when Collins was on a tour of army posts and following his inspection of Naas Military Barracks the Irish Army chief of staff called on Fr Doyle at his house in the Sallins Road.
Soon thereafter Michael Collins was killed and when his body was brought by boat to the North Wall. Fr Doyle was requested by the army authorities to be present to receive the remains. He was to have participated in the requiem mass in the Pro Cathedral as Deacon but the church authorities, for whatever reason, vetoed the army’s request for Fr Doyle’s involvement.
One of the other great friendships forged by Fr Patrick J Doyle during the War of Independence was with Padraic Fleming of The Swan.
Next week I will deal with the Laois man who escaped from Mountjoy and the part played by Fr Doyle, later parish priest of Naas, in publicising Fleming’s prison experiences.
Thursday, August 2, 2007
Carmel Fallon was born two months before Pearse and Connolly marched up O’Connell Street and seized the General Post office. Kilcreest, Loughrea in County Galway was her birthplace but I see that the Parliamentary Gazetteer of Ireland gives the place name as Kilchrist, a parish about three miles south west of Loughrea.
She entered the Athy Convent in August 1935. It was a great period for vocations, both for the priesthood and the many religious orders, branches of which were once to be found in almost every town in Ireland. Economically it was a difficult time for the Irish people. The economic war which resulted from De Valera’s withholding of the annuities claimed by Great Britain under the terms of the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921 would have another few years to run.
The number of young women who entered the Athy Convent of Mercy, especially from the western counties, has always intrigued me. County Galway, particularly, was for decades a ready source of postulants for the Sisters of Mercy, why I have never been able to answer. 19-year-old Carmel Fallon travelled to Athy in August 1935 to the south Kildare town which was still in the grip of an unemployment crisis following its unsuccessful bid for Ireland’s first sugar factory.
Just a few weeks before she arrived Fr Michael Browne, a Dominican friar and a future cardinal of the church, gave the annual retreat to the Athy Sisters of Mercy. His brother, Maurice, had been a curate in Athy for a few years previously but transferred to Bray around this time.
The young Galway girl was one of several girls who joined the Athy convent around the same time. Indeed their numbers were such that it was found necessary to enlarge the novitiate in the local convent. Sr Mary Carmel took her triennial vows on 16 February 1938 and three years later pronounced her final vows. With her on that latter day was another young nun who will be remembered by many of my readers, Sr Michael Hickey.
Sr Carmel attended Carysfort College in Dublin to train as a primary school teacher and on completion of her training returned to the convent primary school. She spent her teaching years in the old St Michael’s School and in later years with the junior infant boys. Apart from classroom teaching Sr Carmel was also involved in tutoring pupils in both violin playing and singing and prepared many students for school concerts.
Fundraising for the new primary school which opened on 23 October 1958 was another activity in which Sr Carmel and many of the other local nuns were involved. Sales of work, school concerts, jumble sales and concerts in the Town Hall were organised and overseen by Sr Carmel and her colleagues in a prolonged effort to accumulate the local contribution of £18,666 which the Department of Education required to be paid for the new school, which was estimated would cost £112,000 to build. Does anyone remember the show Bits and Piecesput on in the town hall in May 1957 by the Oblate Boys Club of Inchicore under its director Tim O’Leary? It was a great success and the same Tim O’Leary who was a brother of Sisters Joseph and Bernard would be involved in several other fundraising activities for the new school.
Many of the sisters, including Sr Carmel, were involved in preparing the primary school pupils for a production of their operetta The Boy Mozart, again a school fundraising venture which was put on in the town hall in May 1956. An entry in the convent annals notes with disappointment “the support by the people was not commensurate with the labour”.
Sr Carmel, with Sr Michael Hickey, was instrumental in securing a remedial class for young pupils attending St Michaels primary school who needed additional help. Initially volunteers were engaged to help out but persistent lobbying of the Department of Education eventually resulted in sanction for a remedial class in the local school. It is of interest to note that Athy Lions Club donated a prefab for the remedial class. Sr Carmel was also responsible for enlisting for the first time the services of a psychologist for St Michael’s School. Twelve years before retiring from teaching in 1980, Sr Carmel, with Sisters Dolores and Alphonsus, set up a club for young girls. She continued to work with the girls club, even while undergoing a diploma course in community care in Maynooth College. It was however for the setting up and helping to develop the Irish Wheelchair Association (IWA) in Athy and nationally that Sr Carmel is now best known.
The IWA as a national organisation was formed some 40 years ago at a time when services for people with limited mobility was practically non-existent. With the intention of better integrating people with disabilities into their local community Sr Carmel, together with Sisters Alphonsus and Dolores, encouraged the members of the girls club to visit the disabled in their own homes. Social evenings, home visits and day outings for the disabled, all promoted by Sr Carmel and her helpers, eventually led to the formation of an IWA branch in Athy in 1969. The local branch grew as socials were held in Mount St Mary’s, annual Christmas dinners were arranged and summer holidays were spent in boarding schools belonging to the Sisters of Mercy. None of this work could have been achieved without the help of the day volunteers, both male and female, who from the very start devoted their time and energies to helping Sr Carmel in her twin aims of providing much needed services for the disabled, while at the same time integrating them more fully into the local community.
The Athy IWA was eventually able to provide full day activity service for the disabled within the south Kildare catchment area when Teach Emmanuel was opened on a site in the grounds of St Vincent’s Hospital. This facility represented a part-nership between the Health Board and Athy IWA and confirmed Sr Carmel’s admirable record of achievement since arriving in Athy over 70 years ago.
In 1992 Sr Carmel was appointed President of the IWA national organisation. It now caters for a membership of over 20,000 and her appointment as national president was a timely and well-earned acknowledgement of her pioneering role in the development of services for the disabled in county Kildare. Sr Carmel retired from that position in 2002 but still retains an interest in the work of the Wheelchair Association at local level. She is often to be seen at Teach Emmanuel which is a permanent monument to the energetic and innovative work of the diminutive nun from county Galway.
In the past I have had occasion to mention the community related work of different member of the Sisters of Mercy here in Athy. Sr Carmel, Sr Consilio, Sr Dominic, Sr Joseph are but some of the Mercy Sisters who have done trojan work amongst the people of the area as part of the Mercy mission to the people of Athy.
The legacy of the Mercy Sisters will live on, long after the religious order founded by Mother Catherine McAuley has ceased to exist