Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Medieval Warfare in and around Athy

Some years ago I came across a pamphlet published in 1641 by Mr. Hierome, described as ‘Minister of God’s word at Athigh in Ireland’ with the title ‘Treason in Ireland’ and subtitled ‘For the blowing up of the Kings English forces with a hundred barrels of gun powder with the names of the chief agents.’  Not content with this alarming claim the reverend gentleman added two further subtitles which bearing in mind the pamphlet was intended for distribution in England was clearly designed to provoke a reaction against the Catholic rebels.  ‘With a relation of the cruelties of the Irish rebels used against the English protestants there, killing them, ravishing the women, cutting them to pieces, hanging them by the hairs of their head, scalding them, cutting off their heads and firing their towns and houses.’  The title page was completed with a further subtitle ‘With two battles fought betwixt the Protestants and the rebels, the rebels having the worst in both.  With a plot discovered at Athigh’.

The five pages of text accompanied by a pictorial depiction of Athy on Page 6 claimed that a captured rebel by name William Rafter confessed that Irish rebels numbering 500 and including ‘popish priests, friars and Jesuits’  intended to take Athy and the castle.  With its capture English troops were expected to march from Dublin to relieve the town and the road to Athy was undermined with gun powder ready to be exploded as the troops passed.  However, having discovered the rebels plans the English troops surprised the awaiting rebels and ‘slew three or four hundred of the rebels and the rest fled into the woods.’

The rebels, according to Hierome’s account, regrouped and marched on Athy but ‘God prevented their intention by one master Carot Topey, an English colonel appointed by the Lord’s Justices over 500 foote and 100 horse who with his regiment fell upon them and slew 300 of the rebels and put the rest to flight.  The regiment of rebels are about 2,000 strong.  Colonel Topey lost in this skirmish 55 men, that is 50 foote and 5 horse.’

The following year Athy was again the centre of military activity when the English army under the Earl of Ormonde marched out of Dublin to attack the Irish rebels in and around South Kildare.  The resultant campaign was the subject of another pamphlet which claimed to explain ‘How God had fought his own cause miraculously, manifesting his mighty power by delivering the protestants, miserably distressed under a cruel and inhumane adversary.’  On 5th April 1642 the English troops having camped overnight near the rebel held castle of Ballyshannon marched towards Athy.  On their way they burned houses and killed a few straggling rebels and on reaching Athy found ‘the greater part of the town all burned by the protestants the day before to prevent the rebels, who in great multitudes had entered in and were about to fire the castle – church and other places, wherein the protestants to the number of 300 besides children were preserved.’

The army marched to Ballyadams where having been entertained liberally they then drove 200 head of cattle and 1000 sheep to Athy where the inhabitants were in great distress for want of meat and drink.  On 12th April 1642 the Irish rebels were repairing the bridge at Maganey which had earlier been destroyed to prevent them attacking the English settlers.  Up to 700 men were involved in this work and the intention was apparently to march over the bridge when repaired and intercept the English troops on their way from Maryborough to Athy.  The rebels however were attacked by 30 dragoners and 30 horse and prevented from finishing the bridge repair work.  On 14th April all the English troops previously dispersed throughout South Kildare and the Queens County marched into Athy where the soldiers were quartered and the horse troops assigned to several locations in and around the town. 

The second pamphlet printed by G. Miller for W. Bladen in 1642 included the following account of hangings in Athy.  ‘On 15th April one Brocke, an English papist, of whom the corrupt part of the protestant clergy thereabouts made use of in former times for vexing of the honest clergymen and their hearers, with divers other rebels were hanged.  The number of rebels hanged during the time of our army being there is conceived to be about 70’.  That same day the army left Athy and on the march back to Dublin they encountered rebels at Kilrush and in the ensuing battle about 1000 Irish rebels were killed and 15 rebel colours were captured.

The centuries old pamphlets record events which for the most part have slipped out of our historical narrative.  Their recovery adds much to our knowledge of the unfolding story of post medieval Athy.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Eamon Kane's Diseart Diarmada

It was Thomas Hardy who wrote: ‘It is better to know a little bit of the world remarkably well than to know a great part remarkably little.’  I was prompted to remember these words on reading Eamon Kane’s recently published book, ‘Diseart Diarmada - Castledermot’. Eamon displays a passion for his own place in his historical account right through the early medieval period to the post medieval period of the village once known as Tristledermot, later Diseart Diarmada and today Castledermot. 

The history of this ancient village, far more important in its day than the neighbouring village of Athy, can be readily understood when we view the ancient ruins which are today to be found in Castledermot.  That Castledermot was a settlement of importance can be gauged by the remains of the Franciscan Monastery and the remaining remnants of the town walls known as Carlow Gate.  St. John’s Tower, the only remains of the priory of the Crouched Friars of 1210, stands proud to remind us of the importance of Castledermot as an ecclesiastical centre which extended even further back than the 13th century.  The Romanesque doorway now fronting St. James’s Church is the only remains of the Church of St. Diarmuid founded in the 6th century.  The 10th century granite crosses of Castledermot get particular attention in Eamon’s book, as does the neighbouring High Cross of Moone.  Indeed Eamon’s detailed description and explanation of the motif and iconography of these wonderful examples of early medieval ecclesiastical sculpture is more than sufficient reason to buy the book.

Eamon, whom I described at the launch of the book as a true Irishman, a proud Gaelgoir and a man of impeachable Republican principles, was not afraid to voice his views when dealing with the Castledermot charter school, the first of its kind in Ireland.  The school opened in 1734 with the intention ‘that the children of the Popish and other poor natives of the kingdom may be instructed in the English tongue and in the principles of true religion and loyalty.’  It closed in 1831 which prompted Eamon to describe its closure as ‘another failed attempt at the conquest of Ireland.’ 

This is the fourth publication in 100 years dealing with the village of Castledermot and it is the most comprehensive account to date, the worth of which will be appreciated by anyone interested in local history.

The recent announcement of the intended retirement of Jack Wall as one of our local T.D.’s no doubt gave cause for much discussion as to his likely successor.  A member of the Oireachtas since 1992 when following a lengthy period as chairman of Kildare County G.A.A. Board he was nominated to the Senate.  He was subsequently elected to the Dáil in 1997, having been elected as an Athy Urban District Councillor three years previously.  Currently he is chairman of the Labour Parliamentary Party.  It was Joan Bruton, current leader of the Labour Party who referring to politics as ‘a tough and rough business’ acknowledged that Jack Wall was ‘one of politics true gentlemen who sought always to represent the true interests of the people of South Kildare.’ 

Jack and myself during my short political career were on opposite sides of the party political divide and we did not always agree on how the best interests of Athy should be advanced.   However, I can readily agree with Joan Bruton’s assessment of the Castledermot man who crossed Athy to set up home in Castlemitchell after spending a time following his marriage to Ann in the house in which I now live.  I wish Jack well in his retirement and mindful that his cherished wife Ann is no longer with him express the hope that old age will come to him in the company of his many friends.

Finally this week I want to end with the mystery of a World War I medal found some years ago in a drain in Guinness’s brewery in Dublin.  The medal had been awarded to Athy born Thomas Lawler who was killed in action in Flanders on 12th November 1915.  He had enlisted in Carlow, joining the Royal Engineers, but a note which I made some years ago, long before the medal was brought to my attention, indicates that at the time he enlisted in Carlow he was living in Dublin.  His war medal was recently presented to the local Heritage Centre and the presenter, himself a Dublin man, believed that a number of Thomas Lawler’s brothers had also enlisted to fight in World War I.  Can anyone help me identify Thomas Lawler’s family and where they lived?

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Athy postmen

The postman is to be seen every day, ever present in the daily life of Irish communities.  Summer or winter he walks, cycles or drives on his daily round of postal deliveries.  He features in literature and film and occasionally in a peripheral role in stage drama but the real life individual whom we meet day in day out carries on a traditional role which dates back long before the issue of the penny black stamp. 

I remember our postman in Offaly Street in the 1950s.  Willie Webb was a tall gangly friendly man who carried his post bag on his shoulder and in his hands the next batch of envelopes neatly arranged and waiting delivery.  The same Willie knew every householder on his rounds and when Christmas came around he enjoyed the many glasses of liquid refreshment which were offered to him to celebrate the festivities.  There is a well know photograph of Willie delivering a letter in Meeting Lane, which photograph was taken some time in the 1960s by John Minihan.  Another postman I well remember is Tom Langton, a big jovial man who was also a prominent member of the local Fire Brigade.  More recently Mick McEvoy is remembered as a local postman, a role also occupied by his father.  A wonderful photograph of Mick, the postman, is on the front cover of Robert Redmond’s book on Athy.

During the week I learned of the retirement of Tommy Costello after a lifetime of service in the town where he was born.  Tommy is the latest local postman to reach retirement age.  Other postmen who have retired in recent years include Jimmy Byrne and Paul Byrne.  Within a short while the retirees will be joined by John Lawler and Martin O’Keeffe.

Athy Post Office has recently taken over sub offices in Baltinglass, Castledermot and Moone, resulting in an increase in the number of postmen serving the extended Athy postal area.  There are approximately 27 postmen at present, although in the early decades of the 1900s more staff were employed in the local Post Office.

In those days, in addition to postmen, there were telegraph messengers, boy messengers and auxiliary postmen for the town and the rural area, as well as sorting clerks and telegraphists.  The Athy town postmen in 1913 included Michael Bowden, Thomas Connolly, William Dunphy, Patrick Dowling, Joseph Deering, Denis Fox, William Keyes (Jnr.), William Keyes (Snr.), Johnny McEvoy, Edwin Lake, Michael Joseph Langton, Edward Langton, John Thornton and William McWilliam.  The postman’s wages in 1914 were 27 shillings per week.  A good conduct stripe which once earned a postman an extra allowance of 2 shillings per week had been abolished by that time.  Postman Denis Fox, for instance, received in 1913 a wage of 22 shillings per week with a stripe allowance of 3 shillings for three good conduct stripes and an allowance of one shilling per week for cleaning his bicycle.

The 1914/’18 war saw several Post Office staff members joining the British Army, including John Paul Scott, who was a sorting clerk.  Postmen Johnny McEvoy, John Thornton, Michael Bowden, Thomas Connolly and former telegraph boy, Moses Doyle, also enlisted, as did Patrick Kielthy who was employed as a cleaner in the Post Office.  Michael Bowden, Thomas Connolly and Moses Doyle died during that war. 

Sometime ago I was given a montage of photographs taken in or around 1940/’41 by a former Athy based postman, Dick Hanley.  Dick, who was a skilful photographer, later worked as a professional photographer in Killarney.  The montage shows Post Office staff from Athy and Ballylinan Post Offices of 75 or so years ago.  Of the 33 men and women in the picture only 15 have been identified so far.  If you can put names on those men and women of yesteryear I would be delighted to hear from you.