Tuesday, April 28, 2015


Last week our President, Michael D. Higgins with the Heads of State of twenty one other countries attended various Gallipoli centenary commemorations in Turkey.  As part of his visit, he attended a commemoration at the Cape Helles Monument followed by a visit to the cemetery of V beach where so many Irish casualties of the Gallipoli landings are buried. 

It is difficult to understand why so many Irishmen perished on the Gallipoli beaches in a forlorn attempt to knock Turkey out of the first world war.  For the men of the short grass county who had enlisted in the first battalion of the Dublin Fusiliers, their baptism of fire would be at dawn on the 25th April 1915. The men of the First Battalion, the Royal Dublin Fusiliers waited in the hold of the Steam Collier River Clyde  in the company of their fellow Irishmen of the Royal Munster Fusiliers.  As dawn broke, the men disembarked from the River Clyde into a series of smaller boats carrying one hundred and twenty five men each. An earlier bombardment of the Turkish positions by the ships of the Royal Navy gave the Turkish defenders  fore-warning of the proposed landings. 

Captain Moloney of the Dublin Fusiliers wrote

`The boats came in, they were met by a perfect tornado of fire, many men were killed and wounded in the boats, and wounded men were knocked over into the water and drowned, but they kept on, and the survivors jumped into the water in some cases up to their necks, and got ashore; but the slaughter was terrific. It was a terrible affair, and a few minutes of such fire decimated the battalion'. 

Laurence Kelly, a 23 year old from Chapel Hill, Athy was killed that morning. He was followed in death five days later by Athy men John Farrell and Christopher Hanlon killed defending the precarious beachhead from a ferocious counter-attack by the Turks.
John Farrell, who was 31, was a son of Thomas and Mary Farrell of Janeville Lane and he lies buried in V cemetery. Close by are his comrades Kelly and Hanlon, amongst whose graves our President walked, in homage last week.

That day's slaughter was a harbinger of the death and destruction which would be visited upon the Irish troops over the following months on this rocky and sandy peninsula of Turkey. 

On that same day, the Carlow poet and soldier John P. O’Donnell was serving with the Australian forces on the peninsula.  One of his more evocative poems was composed at Gallipoli in July 1915 titled 'Australian Graves'. 

“The Ghastly Moon goes creeping
 Across old  Sari Bahir,
The sobbing winds go whispering
 Its mortal news afar.
The stars looked down upon the land,
The white mist covers all
Those gallant hearts who shed their blood,
And heard their countries call.”
Over the suceeding months a number of Athy men would die including Frank Fanning from Chapel Lane, killed on the 12th July 1915. His grave is in the Twelve Three Copse cemetery.  William Moran would die on the 9th August 1915 and his body was never found but his name is recorded on the Helles memorial in Turkey with another Athy man, Daniel Delaney who died on the 12th July 1915. 

A new influx of Irish troops would arrive in the peninsula in August 1915 with the Suvla Bay landings at which many more Dublin Fusiliers would die. Two of those were the Duggan brothers, George and Jack, killed on the 16th August 1915.  Their surviving brother George, a Civil Servant in Dublin Castle would publish a book of poetry entitled “The Watchers on Gallipoli' inspired by and dedicated to the memory of his two brothers. 

“March away, my brothers; softly march away;
           The waves are hissing round us, the East is turning grey.
The coast, the cliffs are silent.  Gone are we all but they
Watch ever in the stillness that falls o'er Suvla  Bay.

A year later another Athy man wearing an Irish Volunteer uniform figured prominently in Dublin’s Easter Rebellion. Unlike many of his fellow townsmen who fought overseas Mark Wilson survived. On Tuesday next the 5th May at 7.30 pm in the Athy Heritage Centre-Museum Seamus Cullen, historian and author, will give a talk on ‘Easter Week in County Kildare’. Admission is free for what promises to be an interesting and thought provoking talk.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Orphan Emigration Scheme and Athy Workhouse

Mary and Elizabeth Hayes, twins aged 18 years old, were two of the 18 young girls who walked from the workhouse on the outskirts of Athy to the local Railway Station on an April morning 166 years ago.  Just two years previously as Ireland and its people were experiencing the worst excesses of the famine the Great Southern and Western Railway opened a branch line to Athy.  The journey time from the South Kildare town to the capital city took approximately 1½ hours where previously the same trip by canal passenger boat took almost 10 hours.

For the Hayes sisters whose parents John and Mary were dead, the train journey to Dublin was the first of many new experiences they would have over the following three or four months.  They were just two of the 55,000 or so young inmates of Irish workhouses whose total inmate population in 1847 came to approximately 120,000 persons.  The cost of keeping so many in the workhouse system fell on the local landowners of each Poor Law Union area.  Inevitably as the Great Famine came to an end those same landowners considered how best to empty the workhouses of the families and especially the young orphans whom it was believed would continue indefinitely to be dependent on public relief.

At the same time the New South Wales legislators were pressing the British authorities to reintroduce State sponsored emigration schemes to encourage emigration to the Australian colonies.  Earl Grey who was secretary to the colonies is generally credited with initiating the Orphan Emigration Scheme for Irish workhouses.  Under the scheme which was adopted by the Irish Board of Guardians young girls who were inmates of the workhouse system were selected to be sent to Australia.  The intention was to reduce the financial burden on the landowning classes in Ireland while at the same time addressing the gender imbalance of the new Australian colonies.

Here in Athy the Board of Guardians held meetings such as that held in Narraghmore and reported in the local papers where the ratepayers were encouraged to adopt the Orphan Emigration Scheme.  Their approval was required as the Board of Guardians had to provide the emigrant orphans with clothing etc and pay for their transport to Plymouth from where they would embark on their final journey to New South Wales.

The Athy Board of Guardians adopted the Orphan Emigration Scheme and the first contingent of orphans comprising 18 girls ranging in age from 17 o 19 years left the Athy workhouse in April 1849.  Each girl was provided with a wooden trunk and in it clothing, needle and thread, a Douay Bible, a Certificate of good character and a Certificate of good health.

The young girls walked to the railway station while their trunks were brought by horse and cart.  For young girls so poor as to be admitted to the workhouse I can assume that the train journey to Dublin was for all of them the first and only time they travelled on the Irish railway system.  They then travelled by steamer to Plymouth, a journey which took 36 hours and which because it was an open deck vessel was regarded as the worst part of the long journey to Australia.  On arrival at the Baltic wharf in Plymouth they eventually transferred to the sailing ship Lady Peel which reached Sydney after a journey of almost 3 months on 3rd July 1849.  I was in Plymouth a few days ago and stood on the wharf from where the Athy Workhouse orphans embarked so many years ago.  Not too far away and also in Plymouth was the wharf from where many Irish convicts were also shipped to Australia.  These included those whom John Butler, Justice of the Peace for Athy, who when writing on 2nd April, 1848 of the 100 prisoners held in Athy jail referred to the 16 prisoners under sentence of transportation.

The young  girls on the Lady Peel were accommodated in Sydney’s old convict barracks known as Hyde Park Barracks where a few years ago the Historic Houses Trust of New South Wales unveiled a memorial to the Irish orphan girls.  From there the girls were indentured to local families for up to three years of service.  In time they became free agents and started new lives in the colony where there was already a strong Irish presence.  

Over the two years of the Orphan Emigration Scheme 4,114 orphans between the ages of 14 and 20 years were sent from Ireland to Australia.  The last ship to arrive was the Maria which docked in Sydney Harbour on 1st August 1850 and amongst its passengers were a further 17 orphan girls from Athy Workhouse.

In June 1849 as the first ships were en route to New South Wales a total of 1,528 inmates were living in the Athy Workhouse and the two auxiliary workhouses in Barrack Street and Canalside.  At the same time 1,102 local persons were in receipt of outdoor relief.  The numbers affected locally by the famine are staggering and it is equally hard to accept that 1,205 persons died in the workhouse during the famine, while the town of Athy lost approximately 1,000 persons during the same period.

We will remember those unfortunate men, women and children of Athy and district and the young orphan girls who were sent to Australia when we gather in St. Mary’s Cemetery on the Famine National Commemoration Day in May.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Athy's Regeneration Plan

Glassealy resident, Thomas Rawson, wrote in 1807 of Athy where he was a member of the Borough Council:-

‘The extensive town of Athy, on the navigable River Barrow at its junction with the Grand Canal holds out much invitation to English capital and English industry ..... yet with all these advantages, in the midst of a populas charming country with water carriage to all the world, Athy is neglected, is in poverty and has not any one manufacture carried on.’

Thirty one years later an unidentified local whose letter was printed in the March edition of the Athy Literary magazine had this to say of Athy:-

‘There is not a town so completely neglected ..... during the late and inclement season when sickness and starvation visited alike the able bodies and aged poor there were no humane individuals to step forward to adopt some mould of relief by instituting public works or other useful things which would even partially mitigate their sufferings.’

Towards the end of his letter the writer who was obviously a resident of the town invited his readers ‘to visit through our work days and ramble through our deserted streets and see the able bodied labourers at our corners, hoards of beggars at our doors, disease and famine in the hovels of the poor.’ 

The Great Famine was just seven years away when that letter was written but the reference to ‘famine’ and ‘hovels of the poor’ were borne out when post famine statistics showed 1205 deaths in the local workhouse and the loss of approximately 1000 persons from the town during the period 1845-1848.

But Athy recovered and quickly, if one is to believe the claims made by Alexander Duncan in 1853, a local draper and Town Commissioner, that Athy had progressed in the previous 20 years.  It was a progress which saw the extension of the Great Southern and Western Railway to Athy and onwards to Carlow in 1846.  This, coupled with the removal of the turnpikes gates on the main roads leading into the town, allowed fairs and markets and the business of the town generally to develop unrestricted.  The introduction of gas lighting in the principal shops in Athy in 1857 gave a further boost to the town’s business sector.  In time Athy would come to be recognised as the finest market town in the province of Leinster. 

The recession which followed the collapse of the recent Celtic Tiger years has brought enormous changes for the worst to most Irish provincial town centres.  Here in Athy vacant business premises are an unwelcome sight on our main streets.  The fall off in retail business in the town of Athy which in my youth boasted a vibrant retailing life has been the cause of concern for some time past.  A few months ago a number of local business people got together to consider how best to arrest the town’s decline and to plan for the economic, physical and social regeneration of Athy.  Partners in that project which was initiated by a number of individual members of Athy Lions Club include Athy Enterprise Centre, Kildare County Council, Athy Chamber of Commerce and several local business persons.  Operating under the name ‘Athy Enterprise Network’ the group has commissioned Shannon International Development Consultants to prepare an integrated economic revival programme for the regeneration of Athy with emphasis on local community and business participation.

The consultants would like to hear from anyone with thoughts, ideas or views on the malaise affecting business in Athy and suggestions as to how to achieve the economic, physical and social regeneration of the town.  Send your observations in writing to Helen Dowling, Athy Enterprise Centre, Woodstock, Athy to reach her not later than Friday of this week, 17th April. 

This is an ideal opportunity for anyone interested in the future of Athy to make a contribution to what is hoped will be an effective plan for the revitalisation of our historic town.  Remember there is no-one in a better position to identify the issues affecting life and business in Athy than someone living in the town.  Do make your views known by contacting Helen Dowling in the local Enterprise Centre and remember to do so on or before Friday 17th April.  Her email address is hdowling@kildarecoco.ie.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

First World War audio recordings

I was intrigued to read in the Irish Times last week of a collection of audio recordings made in German prisoner of war camps during the First World War.  Amongst them were a number of recordings of Irish soldiers singing songs or reciting poems and stories.  One such contributor was Private James McAssey from Leighlinbridge, Co. Carlow.  He was a pre war regular soldier with the 2nd Battalion, Royal Dublin Fusiliers and was captured in Belgium in December 1914 and imprisoned in Giessen, 70 km north of Frankfurt. Also in the same camp was Private Kelly from Athy, of the Royal Irish Regiment whose Christmas postcard from the camp survives in the collection of the Athy Museum Society.

Soldiers of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers captured earlier in the war included  three Athy men from McAssey's battalion -  Michael Bowden, Martin Maher and Michael Byrne -  all imprisoned at Limburg, close to Frankfurt. The soldiers in both Giessen and Limburg were ministered to by Fr James Crotty, a Dominican who was the Prior of the Dominican Community in Athy for two years from 1900.

It is very moving to listen to the song of a man long dead but with a distinct Carlow accent singing the plaintive lament ‘No-one to welcome me home’.  It was a popular tune amongst Irish emigrants to America and Canada in the late 19th century but it is very much forgotten now.  Perhaps further researches in the German archives may unearth a hitherto unknown recording by a soldier from Athy.  But if not what is the earliest recording of a Kildare native that survives? 

To date the earliest recording of a Kildare native that I can identify is that of the polar explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton.  Shackleton made two recordings following his return from his British Antarctic expedition of 1907-1909.  The first recording was made in New Zealand on 23rd June 1909 and released as a 78' record (a format which will be well remembered by older readers) by HMV.  The recording does Shackleton little justice as it is a recitation by him of the main achievements of his expedition under the title ‘A description of the dash for the South Pole.’  Shackleton was famed for his oratorical and lecturing skills, but there is scant evidence of that in the recording. The stilted nature of his delivery is probably a combination of his lack of familiarity with the technology and (to the modern ear) the crude quality of the recording.

On his return to the United Kingdom he made a further recording in London on 30th March 1910 entitled ‘My South Polar Expedition’ on an Edison Blue Amberol cylinder. Amberol Records was a company established by Thomas Edison which manufactured the cylinders in the United States from 1912 to 1929. The cylinders could hold a recording lasting 4 minutes and 45 seconds. The content of this recording varied slightly from the recording made in New Zealand but interestingly you can just about hear at the very end Shackleton asking the Engineer whether the recording went okay.

If there is an earlier recording of a Kildare native available anywhere one possible source might be the audio archive of the National Folklore collection held in University College Dublin.  This collection houses in excess of 1,000 wax cylinders  recording old folk narratives, music and song from the earliest days of recording.  The earliest recordings in the collection date from the 1890s and are of the first national Feis Ceol competitions which were held in Belfast and Dublin.  The majority of the recordings in the collection are the result of the tireless work by the full-time collectors of the Irish Folklore Commission in the period 1935-1971.

I am hopeful that further delving in the archive will uncover some early recordings from Kildare but time will tell.  The digitization of these archives is an important piece of work and perhaps does not get the recognition it deserves but a visit to the website www.bealbeo.ie will allow you to listen to a sample of the recordings which have been digitised to date.

As to James McAssey from Leighlinbridge little is known about his life after the recording was made. His comrades in arms from Athy would not survive captivity. The last of them to die was John Byrne, who had been a gardener employed by local vet John Holland, who would pass away on the 27th September 1918 less than two months before war's end.