Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Gerry Murphy formerly of Grangemellon

He is 80 years of age, yet his memories of Athy of his youth are as fresh as the day break.  Born in 1933 Gerry Murphy, formerly of Grangemellon, now lives in retirement in County Tipperary. Schooling in the Christian Brothers at St. John’s Lane with Tommy Tuohy, George Taaffe and many others, was a relatively short lived affair which ended when he commenced an apprenticeship in Reid Lalors of Leinster Street.  The grocery cum pub was in fact owned and managed by Michael Lalor who had succeeded the previous owner, Mr. Reid.  However, for the older generations the premises was always known as Reid Lalors.  Gerry, as was customary in those days, ‘lived in’ and received wages of ten shillings per week.  A keen Gaelic footballer he played for Levitstown and later for Athy, securing a place on the town’s senior team in 1955.  It was his love of Gaelic football and the incompatible social hours of the job which finally lead him to leave Athy in the mid 1950s.  Finding that he couldn’t get off work to play for the local club he gave up the job and two days later took the emigrant boat to England. 

Working in a number of pubs followed by a spell in Fords of Dagenham eventually led Gerry to join British Rail as a district relief clerk.  This required him working around a large region of the English mainland as and when required, travelling by motor bike for what he remembers was a well paid job which enjoyed generous travelling allowances.

After 12 months with British Rail Gerry joined the Royal Air Force for a five year spell, the first two and a half years of which he spent in Germany.  He was stationed in Bruggan, the biggest bomb command in Europe and while there he took to long distance running.  Youthful success of Gaelic football obviously stood well to him as he was chosen for the R.A.F. cross country team competing in several international events.  In 1961 he achieved triple success as 500 meters R.A.F. champion, 3000 meters steeple chase winner as well as succeeding in the 1500 meters race.  Injuries put paid to his athletic career and in August 1962 Gerry married Catherine from Wexford.  They had met in the National Ballroom Dublin while Gerry was home on leave.  The final 2½ years of his R.A.F. service as a policeman was spent in Halton near Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire.

Demobbed in 1963 at the end of his R.A.F. service Gerry and his bride went to London where for 1½ years he operated a betting shop in Southwick.  Another change of career soon however beckoned and for the next ten years Gerry was a member of the London fire brigade.  Finally in 1972 he returned to Ireland to open a pub in Golden, Co. Tipperary where he continued as landlord until he sold the pub in 1997.  During his Tipperary days Gerry trained greyhounds and while no famous greyhounds were ever based in his kennels, his dogs won a number of coursing cups in Newcastlewest and over the County Tipperary open course in New Inn. 

Gerry’s parents were Jack Murphy of Grangemellon and Kathleen Murphy of Dublin.  His two sisters Pauline and Pattie are married and living in Dublin, while his brothers George and Jack live in Athy and North Kildare.

Gerry’s father Jack was a volunteer in the old I.R.A. and if memory serves me right he tended for many years the memorial erected to the memory of Sylvester Sheppard, an I.R.A. man shot by Free State troopers at Grangemellon on 5th July 1922.  That same day 25 Irregulars (I.R.A. men who refused to accept the Treaty) were captured by Free State troops.  His grandfather on his mother’s side was George Murray, a Sergeant Major in the First World War who was an Army champion runner and also an Irish international athlete. 

Gerry and his wife Catherine enjoy retirement in Kilshellan, Clonmel.  Despite being away from his home town for over 65 years Gerry still retains an interest in Athy, the place where he spent his youthful years pulling pints, filling orders and playing Gaelic football.

A recent enquiry from an interested reader asked where ‘Lynams Row, Athy’ was located.  I can’t recall coming across that place name so if you can help let me hear from you.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Extracts from Athy U.D.C. Minute Book 1913

As 2013 nears its end let’s look back one hundred  years at what was happening in Athy as recorded in the minute books of Athy Urban District Council.  The building of the first local authority houses in Athy was progressing satisfactorily.  Eleven houses were under construction on the Matthew’s Lane site (later St. Michael’s Terrace), four houses in Meeting Lane and five houses on Keating’s field at Woodstock Street (later St. Martin’s Terrace). 

At it’s February meeting the Council agreed to build an extra house at what the minutes noted was ‘the Pound field’.  This was in fact part of the Matthew’s Lane development.  At the same meeting it was agreed to plant twenty five trees in Woodstock Street.

In June 1913 Mr. Reade, civil engineer, prepared plans for the enlargement of the Town Hall.  The following month Lord Frederick Fitzgerald agreed to install a new floor in the Town Hall provided Councillor Michael Malone who had sought this improvement ‘gave a ball at the opening of the hall’.  Malone, a publican from Woodstock Street who was known as ‘Crutch’ Malone, deferred in favour of Dr. Jeremiah O’Neill as his Lordship, according to Malone, could scarcely be expected ‘to understand the storm of resentment which would be evinced by other members of the Council’ if he accepted the offer. 

The waterworks caretaker was reprimanded for cutting off the town’s water supply in order to give a supply of water to Mr. Michael Knowles’ cattle.  The Modubeagh Piped Water Scheme had been operational for the previous six years, replacing a number of wells in the town of Athy which had been shown to be contaminated. 

By letter dated 30th June 1913 John O’Rourke of 5 Offaly Street applied for water supply to his house.  Forty years later I would enjoy that tap water supply as a youngster growing up and living in the same house.

1913 was the year Athy Urban District Council appointed an inspector under the Shops Act.  His function was to ensure compliance with the requirements of the Shop Act insofar as it related to the working conditions of shop assistants.

An extension to St. Michael’s Cemetery was made possible by the purchase from John Holland of 2 ¼ acres of land at a price of £80 per acre.  The burial committee of the Council were in favour of having the entrance to the new cemetery, ‘through the present entrance into Old St. Michaels and through the old ruins, a new gateway to be erected and the entrance improved, the old ruins if possible not to be interfered with.’  Daniel Toomey of Leinster Street was appointed contractor to the cemetery extension scheme and work was scheduled to commence in the spring of 1914.

The Members of Athy Urban District Council with possibly the first indication of political partisanship passed a resolution in February congratulating John Redmond M.P. on the passing of the Home Rule Bill. 

Another appointment made in 1913 by the local Council saw Miss Hall, the Relieving Officer, take up the position as the Council’s rent collector.  I wonder was she the same Miss Hall from St. Patrick’s Avenue who in the 1950s collected rates or was it water rent?  Her job in 1913 was to collect rents from the newly appointed Council tenants, ranging from five shillings per week for the houses in St. Michael’s Terrace to four shillings for the St. Martin’s Terrace houses and three shillings per week from the tenants of the Meeting Lane houses.  Interestingly the Town Clerk reported to the Council members in the first month of 1914 that of the 22 houses comprising the Council’s first housing scheme ‘all were occupied by artisans, none of the tenants belong to the labouring classes.’

It was the same ‘labouring class’ who in 1914 and the following years answered the call for volunteers to fight in World War One.  They would be paraded with enthusiasm and pride to the local railway station prior to embarking for the killing fields of France and Flanders. 

1913 came to a close without any hint of what lay ahead for thousands of young Irish men, and in the minute book of Athy Urban District Council for 1913 there was no reference whatsoever to the Dublin Lockout.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Books owned by Mary Leadbetter and Elizabeth Leadbetter

The small book fits into the palm of my hand.  It is a tiny volume, printed in Dublin in 1770 with the unwieldy title, ‘Logic made familiar and easy to young Gentlemen and Ladies.’  The front flyleaf shows the signature of a previous owner who was also possibly the book’s first owner.  Mary Shackleton’s signature is neat and legible and was clearly written by the Ballitore author before she married William Leadbeater on 6th January 1791. 

A relative on her father’s side of the family of the Polar explorer Ernest Shackleton, Mary had a wide circle of literary friends including Maria Edgeworth, Edmund Burke and George Crabbe and was also included in the circle of friends of the famous painter, Sir Joshua Reynolds.  During her lifetime she wrote many books and booklets, but it is as a diarist she is remembered today.  Her niece, Elizabeth Shackleton, collected and edited the diaries Mary had kept during the years 1766 to 1823.  In recording the life of Ballitore village and the village folk Mary Leadbeater provided her niece with material which with adept editing gave an interesting social history of the South Kildare village.

The Leadbeater papers were published in 1862, long after Mary’s death and re-published some years ago by the Stephen Scroop Press and more recently by Athy Heritage Centre in conjunction with Kildare County Library.  More commonly called ‘The Ballitore Papers’ two chapters in the first volume of the original two volume publication deal with Mary Leadbeaters description of events in Ballitore during the 1798 Rebellion.  Hers is one of the few non military accounts of the United Irishmen’s Rising and for that reason is an important source reference for historians.

Writing of 1798 I recently expressed surprise to some Northern Ireland historians at finding a plaque on the Belfast Masonic Hall to Henry Joy McCracken, a radical free mason who was hanged outside the Market House at the corner of Cornmarket and High Street, Belfast on 17th July 1798.  ‘Nothing unusual on the Masons commemorating a 1798 rebel’ I was told as it was the Presbyterian radicalism of men like McCracken, William Dreenan and William Orr which gave rise to the United Irishmen and to the rising in Antrim and Down.  Unionists in those counties are apparently proud of their ancestors participation in the Rebellion of 1798, even if to Unionists elsewhere this is often incomprehensible.

As a leading member of the Society of Friends, and as a writer spanning the 18th and 19th centuries Mary Leadbeater has secured for herself a significant place in the literary history of this county.  Her work has begun to attract the attentions of scholars and I’m reminded that another South Kildare writer, John MacKenna, based one of his plays, ‘The Woman at the Window’ on Mary Leadbeater.

The little book bearing her pre marriage signature, although only recently acquired, is a treasured item in my library.  It joins another work which I was surprised to find also had a Quaker prominence.

It’s an 1807 edition of the works of Robert Burns which bears the signature of Elizabeth Leadbeater and the date 1st and 5th month 1809.  Elizabeth was the daughter of Mary Leadbeater and lived in Ballitore.  Mother and daughter obviously had different literary tastes as I could hardly visualise the Quaker author of the ‘Tales for Cottagers’ and ‘Cottage Biography’ reading the sometimes racy poetry of the Scottish bard, Robbie Burns.

A Rathangan I.C.A. member recently contacted me seeking information on Mirabelle Elizabeth Duncan who was at one time President of the Rathangan Guild.  The one time resident of Rathangan moved to Athy where she died on 14th March, 1974.  Her husband Captain John Duncan died on 29th December that same year.  Mirabelle was 77 years old and her husband 83 years old.  The County Kildare I.C.A. is, I believe, preparing a history of the various I.C.A. guilds throughout the county and information is sought on Mrs. Duncan.  If any of my readers know anything of Mirabelle Duncan I would like to hear from you.

Happy Christmas and a prosperous New Year to the readers of Eye on the Past.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Dublin Tenement Life

I have just finished reading a book which had an unexpected but telling effect on what I had thought were my previously well informed views on poverty.  I have written in the past of the Slum Clearance Programmes of the 1930s and how the young men from Athy broken down by unemployment and unhealthy living conditions enlisted in their hundreds in 1914 to escape the daily grind of poverty.  It is only when I read the recently published book on Dublin Tenements by Terry Fagan, whose mother was the last corporation tenant to leave the tenements of Foley Street that I began to understand the real meaning of poverty.

‘Dublin Tenements’ published by the Dublin inner city folklore project consists of former tenement tenants recounting their memories of life in the tenements of our principal city.  Reading the accounts of life in the Dublin tenements we are reminded that the housing enquiry established by the Local Government Board which reported in 1914 concluded that over 75% of tenement families lived in single room accommodation.  The same report indicated that three out of every ten individuals in Dublin lived in tenements.

The measured statements of official reports don’t however give us an insight into the real meaning of poverty.  It was only when I read the accounts in ‘Dublin Tenements’ that I began to understand the extent and nature of poverty as it affected families on this island in years past. 
‘We had a large family and there was no electricity or gas in the room.  The rooms were so small that you could only fit one bed in them.  My sister slept in the bed with my mother and my father.  My brothers and me had to sleep on the floor.  We had a blanket to cover us and on top of that we had old coats to keep us warm.  I also remember that we had to put down a coat on the floor at the bottom of the hall door in the night time to stop the breeze coming under.’

Those were the words of Billy Kearns born in 1925 who lived in Corporation Buildings.  Maggie Hanlon who was born in 1924 in Elliott Place later moved with her parents to Railway Street and it was there that she lived when she got married.  She reared six children in one room and recalled:-  ‘We had two beds.  The six children slept in one bed three girls up the top and the three boys down the bottom and myself and my husband in the other bed .....The children slept with a sheet over them and on top of that were old coats to keep them warm because the room was freezing cold.’

Overcrowding and poor living conditions created the ideal conditions for the spread of T.B.  Bridie Kelly, born 1929, remembered how ‘tuberculosis was everywhere ..... if a child died at home the child would be waked on a table in the room.  There would be a collection made to buy a little coffin.  The child would be put into the little coffin and kept in the room for two days and two nights.  They never went to the Church because they were not allowed to, whether they were baptised or not.’

Tenement families had little money and barely enough food to survive.  Accounts of children with pinched faces and pale appearances facing into school without breakfast is a common feature of stories included in the book.  George Reilly, born in 1920 in Sean McDermott Street recalled how ‘the poor looked after the poor with the help of the nuns.  You shared your food with your neighbour ..... the slaughter houses in Moore Street used to sometimes give out the cows head and sheep’s head to the poor who came begging ..... I always remember the soup off the sheep’s head was lovely when it was boiled for hours in the pot.’

The poverty of the tenement era is not to be found today, even if in the present recessionary times there are families under severe financial strain.  I was reminded of the differences between the present and the recent past on reading a piece by my brother George in a recently published book of reminiscences by pupils and teachers of Dromard in north County Longford.  George was appointed principal of Moyne National School in 1961.  Each of the small classrooms in that school was heated by an open fire which were lit by the principal each morning.  George recalled ‘there were no firelighters in those days.  My fire lighter was Benny Duffy who lived down the road.  Benny was despatched home with a bucket containing a few dry sods of turf.  He arrived back with a few fiery sods in the same bucket.  When the first fire was up and running the other fires were lit.’  He also went on to recall how ‘the blackboard in my room was over the fireplace – a square of floor lino painted black.’

Conditions in that country school just 50 years ago were primitive compared to what we know of schools today.  However, it was the brutally primitive conditions once found in the Dublin tenements which brought home to me the reality of poverty in the days preceding the Great Lockout.