Thursday, May 26, 2011

Dissolving Boundaries / Scoil Mhichil Naofa and Cairncastle

On Thursday evening 4th class students from Scoil Mhichil Naofa brought their parents and some Athy locals through their involvement to date in a unique cross border experiment which goes under the title of ‘Dissolving Boundaries’.  This is a North South initiative funded by the two governments on this island whereby selected schools in the Republic make and maintain links with schools in the North using the most updated communication technology, including video conferencing and online discussion with the assistance of computer resources and facilities provided by Dell and Eircom.  The young girls from Scoil Mhichil Naofa are linked with the school in Cairncastle, Co. Antrim and since earlier this year the two schools have developed mutual understanding using computer links and personal contacts between school children.

I was invited to last night’s presentation to give a talk to the Athy children and their parents with regard to the historical connections between Athy and the wee village of Cairncastle in County Antrim.  It seemed a daunting task when first mentioned to me for I did not even recognise the name of the village which I must have driven through two summers ago while on a brief holiday along the Antrim coastline.

The first link, as one might expect, was found in the high Presbyterian presence in Cairncastle.  The parish of that name has a population of approximately 2,000, while the village itself probably consists of 100 or so.  Most of them practiced the Presbyterian faith and there has been a Presbyterian ministry in that area since 1646, just 33 years after the first Presbyterian Minister was recorded in Ireland.  Athy had its first Presbyterian Minister in 1717 when a number of rich merchants in Dublin provided funding for a Dr. Thralkield to minister in the South Kildare town.  Following the 1798 Rebellion there was no record of Presbyterianism in Athy until the arrival of Scottish tenant farmers who came to this area from 1851 onwards on the invitation of the Duke of Leinster.  Four years later their kirk or church was built on the Dublin Road and continues to be used as a place of worship to this day.

Perhaps the most intriguing connection I found was in the person of Edward Bruce, brother of the Scottish King, who landed with his troops at Larne in 1315.  Larne is just 4 miles from Cairncastle and the Scottish Army in its attempt to wrest control of Ireland from the English marched southwards as far as Athy.  It was at the Moate of Ardscull on 26th January 1316 that Bruce’s Army and the English Royalists fought a famous battle in which many on both sides were killed.  The Scottish dead were buried in Athy’s Dominican Friary, while their English opponents were laid to rest in St. Michael’s.  So a very real connection between the tiny village of Cairncastle and the town of Athy has existed for almost 700 years. 

As you might expect there is a Masonic Lodge in Cairncastle, but in an amazing coincidence that Lodge shares the same name with its counterpart in Athy.  St. John’s Masonic Lodge Carincastle was established in 1807, while St. John’s Lodge Athy came into being 33 years later.  Intriguingly the Cairncastle Lodge offers the information that it meets ‘on a Friday on or before the full moon’. 

Athy for over 20 years has hosted the Bluegrass Festival and Cairncastle, as part of its Ulster Scots Festival, holds a Bluegrass evening.  Maybe the cultural exchanges between the two areas could be extended to have our local musicians ‘Woodbine’ invited to play at this year’s festival in the County Antrim village.

A name very familiar to Athy folk provided another slightly tenuous link, even if I could not find any direct connection between the two.  Cairncastle boasts a curious old building known as Shaws Mansion built in the early 17th century on the seashore commanding a view of the Bays of Cushendale and Glenarm.  Here, of course, Athy was for many decades the headquarters of Shaws ‘Almost Nationwide’ and Shaws first department store is still to be found on our main street.

When next the school children of Cairncastle and Athy meet face to face they will have even more reasons to acknowledge their common links and shared experiences.  Well done to the 4th classes of Scoil Mhichil Naofa on a project which is both innovative and hopefully beneficial to the local communities on both sides of the border.

On my way home from addressing the children and parents in the Halla Mór I saw Gerry Kelly and the members of the Tidy Towns Committee working late into the evening on improving the appearance of our town.  The members of the Tidy Towns Committee are to be congratulated on their wonderful community spirit. 

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Athy Arts Centre / Margaret Brady / Garret Fitzgerald

Last Saturday night a large crowd gathered in the Community Arts Centre in Woodstock Street for a dual celebration.  One year on, the Arts Centre celebrated its first anniversary and the occasion coincided with the launch of Brian Hughes’ collection of Irish airs played on whistles, uilleann pipes and various stringed instruments.  It was a joyful celebratory occasion as volunteers involved in the running of the Arts Centre came together to reflect on the years happenings. 

Even before the Centre opened its doors a considerable amount of work and effort was required to get Athy’s first dedicated Arts Centre up and running.  That work started in earnest over six years ago when an approach was made to the Town Council with a proposal to develop the dispensary building and the adjoining Council yard located in Meeting Lane as a community arts centre.  Several meetings were held, resulting in the preparation of plans by an architect for the re-development of what was once part of Athy’s Quaker Meeting House.  However it was not to be as the Council, unexpectedly and to the immense disappointment of those involved, decided to proceed with a Youth Cafe Project which had surfaced months after the Community Arts Project had been first mooted. 

The promoters of the Community Arts Centre Project re-directed their attention to a private developer who expressed an interest in providing an arts space as part of a larger commercial/housing development for Athy.  Several months passed in negotiating with the developer and overseeing plans for the Centre which it was hoped would form a central part of the development.

It was at this stage that a discussion many years previously between Trevor Shaw and one of the promoters of the Arts Centre Project was renewed.  These renewed discussions centred around the possibility of the Town Council acquiring the Methodist Church for use as a Community Arts Centre.  Many inconclusive meetings were held over a period of almost two years and it was the dogged persistence of the original promoters of the Arts Centre Project which kept the idea alive.  After a considerable length of time all of the parties involved in the negotiations, the Town Council, the Methodist Community and the Arts Centre promoters were able to agree terms for the use of the Methodist Church as a Community Arts Centre by and for the people of Athy.

The celebration of the first year’s operation of the Arts Centre gave the Centre’s organisers an opportunity to acknowledge the cultural iconic status of one of Athy’s greatest sons.  Brian Hughes is a brilliant Irish traditional musician and the Arts Centre was honoured to host the launch of his latest CD, ‘The Clear Air’ on the same evening as the Arts Centre’s first year celebration.

The Athy Arts Centre provides an important element of the town’s cultural infrastructure, complementing the Heritage Centre, the Library, the Film Club and the numerous clubs and associations, all of whom provide cultural outlets for the people of Athy.  Cultural icons such as Brian Hughes, Jack L and John MacKenna are important to building an awareness of the importance of arts in our lives.  Likewise the Arts Centre is playing a pivotal role in promoting the arts in Athy.

Last week Margaret Brady died after a short illness.  Margaret was married to Kevin and I recall with pleasure the many times I met her.  She was usually in the company of her good friend Mary Kelly and Margaret always greeted me with a smile, a quip and a laugh.  She was a very cheerful person whom it was always a delight to meet.  My sympathy goes to her husband Kevin, her son and daughter.

As I write this news of the death of Garret FitzGerald is announced on the radio.  He lectured me in U.C.D. in the early 1960s when I was a night student studying for a B. Comm.  His quick fire delivery was not conducive to proper note taking, but nevertheless his lectures always proved interesting, if not always properly understood.  Some years later, when he was Minister for Foreign Affairs, Garret FitzGerald made me very proud to be Irish when he met the British Foreign Minister in Dublin.  I can’t remember the exact circumstances but recall I was in the Ormond Hotel Dublin that evening when the meeting of the two men prompted me to reflect that for the first time we the Irish were being treated as equals by those who were once our overlords.  The sense of pride in my Irishness was never in doubt but that night I knew that it was justified and that Ireland was being accorded the respect and dignity to which it was entitled as an independent country.  Garret FitzGerald will always be remembered by me for that night and for his involvement in the process which put us on the path to a peaceful resolution of the still unresolved issue of Northern Ireland.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Photos St. Patrick's Avenue group / Athy Trade Tokens

This week as I celebrated a birthday shared with my school friend Billy Browne I received from Diarmuid MacCarthy, formerly of St. Patrick’s Avenue and now of Dublin, a photograph of young boys and girls taken in that avenue in the early to mid 1950s.  Many of the young faces I recognise, but not all.  The photograph was obviously taken on a bright sunny summers day and looking at the young Pat Timpson I think it could date from the summer of 1953 or 1954.  Cast your memory back 55 years or more and see how many of the youngsters you can recognise.  I would like to hear from you if you can put names on the happy faces.

My thanks are due to the two readers who contacted me about a trade token which was recently advertised for sale on eBay.  It was an Athy token, once used in place of coins and issued by an Athy businessman in the 17th century.  Tokens were small coins made of copper, tin or lead, generally bearing the name of a merchant and usually, but not always, the date of issue and the place of issue.  They were commonly issued in the 17th century by traders and merchants who affected by the shortage of small denomination coins resorted to issuing trade tokens in various denominations.

Trade tokens have been identified for 17th century merchants in Athy, Castledermot, Maynooth, Kildare, Monasterevin and Naas.  The Athy tokens identified to date were issued by William Addis, James Swanton and James Walsh.  The token which I acquired was issued by Addis and shows on the obverse his name ‘William Addis’ and the denomination D1 and on the reverse ‘of Athy 1659’, with a swan in the centre of the round token.  I have not seen a Swanton token but I believe it bore his name and on the reverse the words ‘Excise Offices in Athy’, the year of issue is not known.

Walsh issued his one penny denomination token 7 years after Addis.  It had a double headed eagle displayed on the obverse, which in all probability was his shop sign.  Such signs were a common form of identifying shops in the 17th century. 

William Addis was a witness to the Will of Thomas Rushworth, a Quaker merchant of Athy, which was made on 26th August 1675.  It was quite likely that Addis was himself a Quaker and obviously a merchant whose shop sign of a swan was probably hung over the door of his shop in Athy’s High Street 350 years ago.

Nowadays the main streets of the town are beginning to display the ugly side of 21st century technology, with TV dishes appearing on the front of buildings.  It is a development which is very unwelcome and one wonders if the local Town Council can do anything to stop the spread of this ugliness. 

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Hay on Wye / Sean MacFheorais

I was in the Welsh town of Hay-on-Wye last weekend and attended Mass in the local parish church.  The fifty or so attending the only Sunday Mass in the Welsh border town almost filled the small church to capacity.  I have been visiting Hay for almost 30 years as a result of Richard Booth’s entrepreneurial spirit which saw him developing the market town as the world’s first book town.  With a population of less than 2,000 Hay has no less than 27 second hand book shops, one of which is perhaps the largest to be found in Britain. 

The elderly Parish Priest of Hay is Fr. Tim Maloney whose name prompted the belief that he was Irish.  However, he told me he was born in India, although the Irish connection was made when he told me that his mother spent her last years in Wexford where she died.

Hay, like Athy, owes its existence to the Normans and both towns were established as key border fortifications.  Hay is located on the Welsh/English border, while Athy is located on what was the border lands which separated the Normans from the Irish. 

What struck me about the Mass in Hay was the very vocal participation of the congregation.  Hymns were sung with fervour and responses were clear and uplifting.  It was an active participation which I have come to associate with Anglican services but which perhaps owes more to the English or Welsh character than anything else.  I could not but help comparing my Sunday morning experience in Hay with Mass in Athy or indeed Mass anywhere in Ireland.  Is it a lack of confidence which limits the Irish person’s participation in communal hymn singing?  How I wish we could import some of the panache and vigour of the small Hay congregation to Athy.

The Anglican Church in Hay is high Church and the present Anglican incumbent continues the High Church tradition which goes back many decades in the Welsh border town.  Relations between the Anglican Church and the other local churches are apparently good but were not always so. As late as 1742 a Methodist preacher was stoned to death by a mob of angry locals in Hay.  There were also serious outbreaks of anti-Catholic feeling reported in Hay in 1850 when effigies of Pope Pius IX and Cardinal Wiseman were burnt in the centre of the town following the Pope’s announcement of the reorganisation of the Catholic Church in Britain.

In 1968 when the local Catholics of Hay acquired their present place of worship there was again an outcry fuelled by many outsiders including Rev. Ian Paisley.  The building acquired had previously served a local Calvinistic Methodist group known as the ‘Jumpers’, a name given to them on account of their energetic involvement in services and communal hymn singing.  Its proposed use as a Catholic Church proved a bridge too far for those opposed to the Catholic Ministry.  Nowadays all this is forgotten and the small Catholic community in Hay provides an interesting contrast in a Welsh countryside which is renowned for the multiplicity of its dissenting churches.  If you are interested in books do visit Hay-on-Wye.

Two weeks ago I got an email all the way from Queensland Australia with a request for the words of the poem ‘An Tincéir Sas O’Neill’ which my correspondent, a native of Cobh, had sung in school in the 1960s to the tune of ‘Spancil Hill’.  He thought it was composed by Athy man Sean MacFheorais and so it was.  The poem simply called ‘An Tincéir’ was included in MacFheorais’s first book of Irish poetry ‘Gearrcaigh na hOiche’ published in 1954.  I was pleased to have a copy of the book and was able to send the words of ‘An Tincéir’ to my Queensland correspondent.

I never met Sean MacFheorais but was looking forward to doing so when he was scheduled to give the first public reading of his then newly written poem on Athy in the Vocational School on 17th March 1984.  Tragically at just 69 years of age he died a few weeks before his planned visit.  I wrote of Sean MacFheorais in Eye No. 76 bemoaning his loss and how we tend to overlook the local men or women who make a meaningful contribution to Irish life and culture.  Sean MacFheorais was one such man and his poetry reaches out far beyond the shores of his native Ireland as evidenced by the request I received recently from Queensland, Australia.