Thursday, September 11, 2014

Dictionary of Irish Biography

The nine volume Dictionary of Irish Biography was published just before Christmas.  A collaborative project between Cambridge University Press and the Royal Irish Academy it has been many years in preparation and may well prove to be one of the most important publishing enterprises ever undertaken in this country.  The dictionary gives the background on Irish men and women who are identified as having made a significant contribution in Ireland or abroad, as well as those born overseas who had noteworthy careers in Ireland.

Up to now anyone interested in the biographical details of Irishmen and women had to rely on a number of different publications, the first of which was James Wills six volumes, ‘Lives of Illustrious and Distinguished Irishmen’ published in 1847.  Alfred Webb was the Author of ‘Compendium of Irish Biography’ published by Gills of Dublin in 1878 and half a century later John S. Crone was the author of ‘A Concise Dictionary of Irish Biography’.  A more up to date work was Henry Boylan’s ‘A Dictionary of Irish Biography’ first published in 1978 and now in its third edition.

In the intervening years other specialised biographical dictionaries relating to the Irish have been produced, including Richard Hayes’ ‘Biographical Dictionary of Irishmen in France’ and Louis McRedmond’s ‘Modern Irish Lives’, not forgetting the nine volumes produced to date in Irish of ‘Beathaisnéis’ under the editorship of Maíre Ní Mhurchú and Diarmuid Breathnach.

The newly published Dictionary of Irish Biography is truly the most comprehensive and authoritative biographical dictionary yet published in relation to Irish persons.  Containing 9,014 biographical articles covering a time span from the beginning of written records to the end of 2002 it does not include biographies of any persons living after that latter date. 

I spent the Christmas period going through the nine volumes with a view to noting those persons with Athy connections.   I ended with a list of 58 names, some of which had slight enough links with the town such as Patrick Delaney, Clergyman and writer born in 1685 who was educated in Athy.  He was a friend of Sheridan and Swift and his second wife was the artist Mary Graville who as Mrs. Delaney wrote her autobiography which remains a valuable source of information about the social history of her time.  Delaney himself became Dean of Down and as a writer produced several publications.  His bust is in the Long Room in Trinity College.

His namesake, Malachy Delaney, from Ballitore is also included in the Biographical Dictionary.  Delaney was a prosperous farmer who left Ireland and enlisted in the Austrian Army to escape punishment for some crime or other but who later returned to join the United Irishmen.  As leader of the Rebels in the Ballitore area he lead the ambush of the Tyrone Militia on the Narraghmore Road in 1798 and following the collapse of the Rebellion escaped capture by going into the Wicklow hills.  He later took part in Emmet’s Rebellion and served time in Kilmainham Jail before being released in or about 1805.  He died in March 1807 aged about 50 years. 

Lettice Digby, the only child of Lord Offaly and grandchild of Gerald, 11th Earl of Kildare, is also included in the dictionary and her relevance to Athy arises out of her possession of the manors of Woodstock and Athy.

Ownership of property in this or any other area did not concern Johnny Doran, uilleann piper and a member of the travelling community.  Johnny was a celebrated musician who often passed through and in all probability played his uilleann pipes in the town of Athy.  He was camped near Athy when his health broke down in the autumn of 1949 and had to be admitted to St. Vincent’s Hospital.  There he remained under the care of Sr. Dominic and her staff until he died on 19th January 1950 and it was in St. Vincent’s Hospital that the legendary Johnny Doran played the uilleann pipes for the last time.

One man whose links with South Kildare were previously unknown to me was George Downes, born 1790, died 1846.  Described in the dictionary as a travel writer and topographer, he was educated in Ballitore school after being befriended by the Shackletons.  He later entered Trinity College from where he graduated with an M.A. in 1823.  Downes wrote a number of books on his travels throughout Europe and later worked with George Petrie on the Ordnance Survey and assisted him in his published work on ‘The Round Towers of Ireland’.  As a poet he was noted in the ‘Poets of Ireland’ by D.J. O’Donoghue.  Downes, who was unmarried, died in Dublin in 1846 and is buried in the Quaker graveyard at Ballitore.

William Harvey Du Cros was another South Kildare man whose story is told in the Dictionary of Irish Biography.  Born in Moone during the Great Famine Du Cros was a sportsman who won honours in fencing, boxing and captained Bective Rangers Rugby Club to win an Irish championship.  As President of the Irish Cyclists Association he was approached in 1889 by associates of John Dunlop, the inventor of the pneumatic tyre, following which Du Cros established a company to produce the new tyres.  This eventually led to the founding of the Dunlop Rubber Company in England which was headed up by Du Cros.  He was in part responsible for the introduction of taxi cabs in London but failed due to the opposition of the Dublin jarveys to have similar cabs brought into the Irish capital.  He died in Dublin just a month after the ending of World War 1.

One entry in the new dictionary has solved a mystery which has puzzled me for some time.  William Grace, the first Catholic Mayor of New York, an office he held from 1880 to 1882 and again from 1884 to 1886, was noted in all previous accounts of his life as having been born in Cork.  Sometime ago I came across a reference in one of the Athy Urban District Council Minute Books of a letter from an American woman seeking information on Mayor Grace whom she claimed was born just outside Athy in County Laois.  My research tended to show that Grace was from Gracefield, yet the many references to his Cork background left me in some doubt.  The dictionary confirms that he was born in 1832 in Riverstown, Co. Cork, while his parents James and Ellen Grace from County Laois were on holidays.  William Grace died in New York in 1904 and the company he founded still operates in America as a leading player in the chemical industry.

I intend to return to the Dictionary of Irish Biography as time allows over the next few weeks to deal with more of the men and women from this area whose stories are included in this new publication. 

Monday, September 8, 2014

Photograph 1956 Athy CBS Under 14 Team / Athy's Traffic Plan

For the past two weeks, prompted by the illness of a close friend, I have been thinking more and more of times past and especially the halcyon times associated with Athy and my now long past teenage years.  Those carefree days lived out, in otherwise harsh times, bring back wonderful memories of youthful friendships, football and girls.  The order in which they appear is not indicative of our preferences, for at different stages of my youth, each played a more prominent part than the others.  Youthful memories are refocused by photographs of the time and in the nature of things, it is almost inevitable that football leaves plenty of photographic evidence for future enjoyment. 

The Christian Brothers were noted for promoting Gaelic games in their schools and here in Athy Gaelic football, rather than hurling, was the more favoured.  There was no question in the 1950s of either soccer or rugby being part of the school sporting activity.  Each Wednesday afternoon the boys of the Christian Brothers Secondary School took off what we enthusiastically referred to as a half day when in fact it was perhaps only an hour or so, to walk to Geraldine Park for a game of football.  Football was the sport enthusiastically taken up by most youngsters in those days and nowhere was that enthusiasm more pronounced than in a provincial Ireland devoid of sporting facilities other than playing fields of varying sizes and quality.

My first involvement in a Gaelic football team was with the Under 14 school team when I played at left full back for three years.  Recently I was given a copy photograph of the Athy Christian Brothers Under 14 team which I’m assured was taken in 1956.  That photo which is reproduced here shows from left to right at back:-
Francis Webb, Paul Cunningham, Michael Rowan, Frank Taaffe, Brian Finn, Mick O’Neill, J. Murphy, Mick Cardiff, Donal Barr and Moses Doyle.

In the front row are:-
Pat Timpson, Eddie Hearns, Johnny Miller, Edmund Loughman, Peter Archibald, Oliver Moran, Hugh McDonnell, Niall Fingleton and Johnny Hoare. 

Sadly Frank Webb, Mick Cardiff and Niall Fingleton have passed away.  Several of that team are still in the Athy area but I wonder to where life has brought the other youngsters of 50 years ago?

I see from last week’s newspaper that the long awaited Outer Relief Road, now renamed the Southern Distributor Route, has been advanced with the preparation of the Compulsory Purchase Order and the Environmental Impact Study.   There is nothing however to show that funding is available for the road and it would appear that construction work on the road may have to be attempted in three different phases.  In the meantime the spur road from the N9 continues to be built and will be completed shortly.  If the Southern Distributor Road had been incorporated into the N9 spur road at the planning and approval stages, we would be facing into the exciting prospect of having the local traffic problems solved during the course of this year.

Instead we are facing into more traffic studies, the latest of which appears to want to deal with the traffic situation by creating a number of strange new roadways and by imposing restrictions on current routes.

A new road is proposed to be built through the Peoples Park to facilitate access to houses at Park Crescent.  I wonder is it also to provide an entrance to land locked pieces of property purchased some years ago in anticipation of the building of the Inner Relief Road

The realignment of Church Road to link it directly with Dublin Road at the Railway Bridge is another element of the plan which would seem to be somewhat strange.

I am puzzled at what is proposed in the new Traffic Management Plan for Athy and feel that the Council are yet again failing to grasp the importance of concentrating all their resources on getting the Outer Relief Road in place.

Secondary Education in Local Schools Denied to Local Children / John Neavyn

Following my article last week on vocational education in Athy I was contacted by the parent of a young Athy student who recently finished his primary schooling in the town, but found himself unable to get a place in Árdscoil na Tríonóide.  That school with the new Community College make up the town’s post primary educational facilities and Árdscoil na Tríonóide came into being on the amalgamation of Scoil Eoin, the former Christian Brothers school and Scoil Mhuire which was operated by the Sisters of Mercy.

I attended the local primary school and secondary school in Athy at a time when they were operating as part of the extensive network of Christian Brothers Schools in Ireland.  In common with my classmates and many thousands who passed through the Christian Brothers School system I owe a huge debt of gratitude to my teachers who taught in the old schools in St. John’s Lane.

As someone living in Athy my parents in common with every other parents of school going children at that time assumed, and rightly so, that their children would be automatically accepted as pupils in the local secondary school.  It is an expectation which I gather can no longer be made given a recent decision of the Board of Management of Árdscoil na Tríonóide which has resulted in secondary school places for some Athy youngsters being the subject of a lottery. 

I find it quite extraordinary that youngsters graduating from the local primary schools cannot be guaranteed a place in the local secondary school.  If not successful in gaining entry to Árdscoil na Tríonóide their options are Athy Community College or a secondary school outside the town.

It was on 8th August 1861 that the first Christian Brothers arrived in Athy in response to a request from the Archbishop of Dublin, Ballitore-born Paul Cullen to set up a school in the town.  Brother Stanislaus O’Flanagan, Luke Hyland and lay brother Patrick Sheely arrived by train at the local railway station which had been opened just a few years previously.  The local townspeople had prepared Greenhills House in St. John’s Lane, the former residence of Judge Hellen, as the Christian Brothers Monastery and had built a two room school house nearby. 

Eleven days after the arrival of the Christian Brothers the school opened and 120 local boys presented themselves as pupils.  Before long the numbers on the roll had increased so much that a third teacher was required.  A former pupil of those early years was later to write:-  ‘Our school was divided into two sections, one being known as the Greeks and the other as the Romans.  The boys who raised the greatest number of merit marks were awarded the keeping of the school banner at the end of the week.’

Educating the young men of Athy was the mission undertaken by the Christian Brothers in 1861 and they applied themselves unselfishly to that task for almost 150 years.  In a tribute I wrote for my former teacher Brother Brett in 1993 I said, ‘For over 160 years the order founded by Edmund Rice has provided the bedrock upon which the future of young Irishmen has been secured.  Their work commenced in times of poverty and ultimately famine but throughout good times and bad the Christian Brothers gave of themselves and their resources to help Irishmen to achieve their full potential..... their work is not yet done but it is to other men and women unburdened by clerical vows that their responsibility must now pass.’  I am disappointed and saddened that local parents may now find themselves troubled by the failure of their children to gain a place in Árdscoil na Tríonóide, a school whose history is grounded on the pioneering work in Athy of the Christian Brothers and the Sisters of Mercy.

It is manifestly unfair.  Why should young citizens of this town not have the right to enter on his or her secondary school education in a secondary school of their choice in their own town?  A local school should give priority to young people from the town and parish of Athy and where there is difficulty in that regard due either to staff numbers or space restrictions, appropriate remedial action should be speedily taken to rectify the situation.  If this problem is not tackled immediately it’s quite likely that education will become, like our Health Services, an embarrassing disservice.

Shortly before Christmas John Neavyn passed away in his 93rd year.  John during his time in Athy was intrinsically linked with the Order of St. Dominic and his proud boast was that at 92 years of age he was the oldest mass server in Ireland.  A charming and courteous gentleman John came to Athy in 1951 to work in the offices of Minch Nortons from where he retired as office manager long before that once great family firm became part of the Greencore Group.  His involvement with the Dominican Friary went back many decades and included such diverse rolls as Mass server, choir master, as well as Church organist.   The Dominican Pennybank which was set up in the late 1970s on the suggestion of Donal Murphy was in its early years organized by Donal, the late Ivan Bergin and John Neavyn and John’s involvement with the Bank continued over several decades.  His Christian outlook found further expression in his membership of the local St. Vincent de Paul Society and he was President of the local Conference for many years.  As well as being organist in the local Dominican Church he fulfilled the same role in Moone Parish Church where he accompanied that fine singer Tony Prendergast of Grangecon, a brother of the late Charlie Prendergast of Prussellstown who was himself a singer of renown. 

He was predeceased by his wife Martha who died in 1982 and both are buried in St. Michael’s cemetery.  Ar dhéis Dé go raibh a anam.

Do you remember McHugh’s Foundry in Janeville Lane at the back of Offaly Street?  Now long gone, as are the men who worked there, I came across a photograph this week which will bring back memories for many of you.  It shows Tom McHugh, Robbie Lynch and Tommy McHugh posing outside the foundry sometime in the 1950s.

Technical Education in Athy

Athy is soon to have a new post primary school built at a cost of €8 million with a capacity to cater for upwards of 400 pupils.  It will replace the school building on the Carlow Road which was opened by the then Minister for Education Tomás O’Deirg on 3rd December 1940.  As a youngster growing up in Offaly Street in the 1950s I was familiar with the ‘Technical School’ as it was then called, before it was renamed St. Brigid’s Post Primary School in 1978. 

Technical or vocational education first became the subject of State involvement with the passing of the Technical Instruction Act of 1889.  At a time when Home Rule and the demands of the Irish Land League were hogging the headlines, the 1889 Act represented a move away from the laissez-faire theory of non-State involvement in the country’s economic development.  Ireland then and for many decades thereafter was an agricultural based economy and here in Athy the only industry of note was brick manufacture which provided badly needed employment for males and females, particularly during the summer months.  The Industrial Revolution which had marked England’s progress during the 19th century had by and large bypassed Irish provincial towns.  The intention of the 1889 Act was to provide technical education for young people in an attempt to grow an undeveloped Irish industrial base. 

The local Board of Guardians which had been established in the years immediately prior to the Great Famine to direct, inter alia, the affairs of the Athy Workhouse, were empowered under the 1889 Act to expend the produce of one penny rate in providing technical instruction in Athy.  The local guardians appear not to have exercised their powers in that regard and it was not until the passing of the Technical Instruction Act of 1889 that technical or vocational instruction first came to be provided in the South Kildare town.  That Act gave local County Councils and Urban District Councils the powers to establish technical committees and the newly established Athy Urban District Council moved to adopt the Act on 24th September 1900.  At the same time it was agreed to set up a Committee ‘comprised of six members of the Urban Council and six gentlemen in the town and neighbourhood to carry out the provisions of the Act.’ 

By the following November the 12 members of the Technical Instruction Committee had been appointed.  The Council’s appointees were M.J. Minch M.P., Chairman of the Urban Council and his fellow Councillors Thomas Hickey, Thomas Plewman, Daniel Carbery, Michael Malone and J.P. Whelan.  The ‘gentlemen’ brought onto the Committee were the local Parish Priest Canon Germaine, Rev. E. Waller, Church of Ireland Rector, Fr. William Duggan C.C., Stephen Telford of Barrowford, P.J. Murphy of Emily Square and W. Whelan of Duke Street.  Five years later the Urban Council sent four representatives to the County Kildare Joint Technical Committee.  Thomas Hickey and P.J. Murphy were Urban Councillors, while the other representatives were local Catholic clergymen, Fr. Joseph O’Keeffe P.P. and Fr. William Duggan C.C.

Initially the classes which were conducted under the aegis of the County Technical Committee rather than the local Committee were held in the Christian Brothers Schools in St. John’s Lane.  In early 1902 accommodation was rented in the C.Y.M.S. rooms at the corner of Stanhope Street and Stanhope Place for the sum of €25.00 per year.  The classes initially attracted about 25 students.  The local papers reported that ‘drawing classes were progressing satisfactorily and that the subjects being studied were designed with a view to their usefulness.’  A Mr. Michael Mor was mentioned as a lecturer in the as yet unnamed school.

In March 1904 the local curate, Fr. William Duggan, brought a resolution of the Athy Techical Committee to a meeting of the County Committee seeking a reduction in the fees charged for morning classes in Athy.  The six week courses consisted of three demonstrations/lectures followed by three practical classes for which the Athy Committee felt a fee of five shillings was more than sufficient.

In May 1906 the local Urban District Council noted that the local people were not taking advantage of the local Technical Instruction classes.  ‘At present we have a very competent instructress Miss O’Donnell in cooking and hygiene, but only one person attends the morning classes and only two persons the evening classes.  An attendance of 12 persons was recorded at the same time for the poultry classes conducted by Miss Stafford.’

Twelve months later a further report submitted to the Urban Council acknowledged that the technical classes ‘were not proving a success.’  The evening class attendance during the winter of 1906/1907 was only one.  This despite the fact that the absence of industry and the lack of employment opportunities in the Athy area in the first decade of the 1900s was amply demonstrated by a letter in November 1908 from Naas Military Barracks Commander which drew the local Council attention ‘to the Special Reserve (of the British Army) as a means of mitigating the distress amongst the unemployed of the district.’  Following the outbreak of war in August 1914 the Technical Instruction Committee gave use of his classrooms for the setting up of a war hospital supply depot where voluntary workers made splints, bed rests, bed trays and crutches for injured soldiers.

Taking its name from the Act under which it was established the Technical School continued to operate from the corner site in Stanhope Place until 1940.  The Vocational Education Act of 1930 replaced the 1898 Act and provided for the setting up of County Vocational Education Committees to provide education to Leaving Certificate standards through subjects directly related to work.  The first purpose-built Vocational School was provided in Newbridge in 1937 and three years later Tomás O’Derig, Minister for Education officially opened Athy’s new school.  The new Athy Vocational School had 40 pupils on its roll, with T.C. Walsh of Stanhope Street as Headmaster.  Tom O’Donnell who lived in McDonnell Drive was appointed Headmaster in 1950 and he was replaced in 1976 by John Doyle.  John retired as Headmaster in 1993 to be replaced by Richard Daly who is currently in charge of the school.

Over the past 70 years the number of pupils has increased substantially from the 1940 level of 40, necessitating extensions to the school building in 1962, 1981 and again in 1989.  Enrolment in 1989 reached an all time high of 435 pupils.  Today there are approximately 300 pupils attending classes which since 1966 include courses for the Intermediate (now Junior Certificate) examinations and Leaving Certificate courses since 1968.

The opening of a new Vocational School on the educational campus on the Monasterevin Road, to be known as Athy Community College, represents a missed opportunity for the amalgamation of all the post primary schools in Athy.  The former C.B.S. school and the Convent School have amalgamated and the inclusion of the V.E.C. School in that process would, I feel, have provided huge benefits for the future development of post primary education in Athy.  The opportunity however has been missed but hopefully the fact that both post primary schools will be in close proximity to each other keeps open the possibility of future beneficial cooperation between both schools.

It has taken 110 years to progress from the temporary accommodation in a C.Y.M.S. room in Stanhope Place to the modern purpose built school building which will be opened shortly.  The journey was one on which many teachers and perhaps thousands of pupils travelled for part of the time – some still with us, others not so, some not recalled or forgotten, while others are remembered.  All of them made a contribution to vocational or technical education in South Kildare and for this we must express our gratitude.