Friday, March 3, 2017

Famine Orphan Emigration Scheme (Part 1)


Some years ago I visited the Hyde Park Barracks Museum in Sydney and viewed the Australian monument to the Irish Famine.  It was commissioned in 1999 by the Historic Houses Trust of New South Wales on behalf of the Great Irish Famine Commemoration Committee.  The sculpture consists of a bronze table piercing the sandstone wall of the museum with the names of the orphan girls sent out from Irish Workhouses to Australia sandblasted onto glass panels.  It includes a shelf with a few potatoes, a shovel, some books and personal belongings with three bronze stools showing evidence of womens clothing and needlework.



The orphans commemorated in this monument were the more than 4,000 girls from Irish Workhouses who in the aftermath of the Great Famine were selected by government officials to be sent to Australia between October 1848 and August 1850.  The Orphan Emigration Scheme was devised by Earl Grey, the British Secretary of State, as a means of alleviating overcrowding in Ireland’s workhouses and in an attempt to lessen the imbalance of the sexes in Australia.



Criticism of the Orphan Emigration Scheme was led amongst others by the Anglican Bishop Goold of Melbourne and much of that criticism was based on fears that an influx of orphan females, the majority of whom were Catholics, would ‘Romanise the Australian colonies’.  The Orphan Immigration depot in Adelaide was described as a ‘government brothel’ and claims were made and reported that the orphans were not the ‘kind of people suited to Australia’s needs.’  In the face of increasing mounting criticism the Scheme was abandoned at the end of 1850, but not before more than 4,000 young orphan girls had landed at Adelaide, Melbourne and Sydney.  Amongst their numbers were two groups of girls from Athy’s Workhouse.  The first group of 18 girls travelled in the ship ‘Lady Peel’, arriving in Sydney on 3rd July 1849.  The second and last group of girls comprising 16 former inmates of Athy’s Workhouse arrived in Sydney on the ship ‘Maria’ on 1st August 1850.  The details of those who arrived in 1849 are:-











NAME
AGE
ADDRESS
PARENTS

RELIGION
Carroll, Ann
17
Athy
Martin and Biddy
Father in America
R.C.
Clare, Ann
17
Athy
Patrick and Ann
Mother living in Athy
R.C.
Connor, Lucy
19
Athy
James and Eliza
Both dead
R.C.
Croak, Bridget
19
Stradbally
John and Ann
Mother living in Hyde, Kildare
R.C.
Dobson, Margaret
17
Athy
Joseph and Julia
Both dead
R.C.
Egan, Bridget
18
Athy
John and Jane
Mother living in Athy
R.C.
Fitzpatrick, Eliza
19
Monasterevin
Stephen and Elizabeth
Both dead
R.C.
Flemming, Catherine
18
Athy
Barney and Catherine
Mother living in Athy
R.C.
Flemming, Rose
19
Ballyadams
Patrick and Mary
Mother lives in Ballyadams
R.C.
Green, Mary
18
Athy
John and Catherine
Both dead
R.C.
Hayes, Mary
18
Athy
John and Mary
Both dead
R.C.
Hayes, Elizabeth
18
Athy
John and Mary
Both dead
R.C.
Ivory, Bridget
17
Athy
James and Margaret
Both dead
R.C.
Moore, Bridget
18
Athy
James and Mary
Father in America
Mother living in Athy
R.C.
Murray, Ellen
18
Athy
Hugh and Jane
Mother living in Athy
C. of E.
Neill, Margaret
18
Athy
Michael and Catherine
Both dead
R.C.
Sinclair, Ann
17
Àthy
Patrick and Mary
Living in Athy
R.C.
Sullivan, Ellen
18
Athy
John and Ellen
Mother living in Athy
R.C.







......................... TO BE CONTINUED ...............................

Christy Dunne - Musician


Music has always been an important part of the social life of Athy people.  Examining records going back as far as the 19th century one comes across many references to fife and drum bands, pipe bands and brass bands associated with different parts of the town and sometimes associated with local associations such as the C.Y.M.S.  That musical tradition found expression in the 1940s and later in the orchestras and show bands fronted by Athy men and women.  After the Stardust and the Sorrento dance bands of the 1940s and 1950s there followed a bewildering array of groups and musical combinations, not all of whom I have been able to document. 



My near neighbour Christy Dunne was for many years a stalwart on the music scene.  He was just 15 years of age when he joined Alex Kelly and his Aces as bass guitarist.  He would remain active in music making for upwards of 50 years, combining a busy music career with a full time job in the local Asbestos factory, later renamed Tegral.  He retired from Tegral at 60 years of age, following 41 years of service.  If this was not enough Christy was also a volunteer fireman who served for 31 years in that capacity.  Coincidentally his father Christy also worked in the Asbestos factory and served for many years in the local fire brigade. 



Recounting his music playing career Christy recalls nine years spent with Alex and his Aces where his fellow musicians included Alex’s brother Tom Kelly on keyboard and Brian O’Neill on drums.  Alex’s Aces played relief band for the annual military ball which was one of the major local social events held in Dreamland Ballroom during the 1960s. 



Christy married Kathleen Foley in September 1968 and that same year with other local musicians formed the Adelaide Showband.  The line up included John Kelly, John Lawler, John Scully, Christy Leigh, Robert Eston, Denis Chanders and Pat Keeffe.  With the decline of the show band scene Christy formed a beat group with David Craig and John Kelly.  Under the name ‘The Reeds of Innocence’ the trio played the provincial club scene including what I am told was a local club venue in St. John’s Hall.  The country music scene next attracted Christy’s attention and with John Joe Brennan and their respective wives formed the group ‘Big Country’.  It proved to be a very successful music combination during the seven years of its existence and they were joined towards the latter part of that period by Denis Chanders.



The final musical combination with which Christy was involved was the Spotlights.  This three piece combination originally featured Christy, his wife Kathleen and Denis Chanders, later to be augmented with the addition of Eamon Walsh and for a time were joined by Pat Kelly and Andy Murphy.  The Spotlights played on a regular basis in Jurys Hotel Dublin and held a weekly residency for almost five years in Lumville House, The Curragh.  Towards the end the Spotlights consisted of Christy and Kathleen Dunne and Eamon Walsh who continued to enjoy huge success, not only locally but particularly with Dublin bookings.  The band was on the road six nights a week, only keeping Tuesday as the one day free of engagements.  After almost 50 years playing music Christy retired about three years ago and the Spotlights disbanded.



It is strange to recall the dance venues which were once available to the people of Athy, starting with St. John’s Hall and the Townhall ballroom, both of which were replaced by Dreamland ballroom.  Now the former Dreamland ballroom is a sports venue and bands deprived of dancing venues are few in number.  We can look back with nostalgia at the time when Alex and his Aces, the Adelaides and laterally the Spotlights played their part in continuing Athy’s extensive music tradition.


Preserving Local Authority Records


With the abolition of Athy’s Town Council looming on the horizon my thoughts have turned to the treasure trove of minute books, documents, maps and files which the local authority has accumulated over the years.  What I wonder is planned for those priceless records which document the infrastructural development of the town over many decades.  Preserving those records is an imperative and I hope that both Council officials and public representatives have agreed on a plan of action to archive the Council records of Athy Town Council once the Council is abolished. 



I had the privilege some years ago of examining in detail the minute books of Athy Urban District Council and its predecessors, Athy Town Commissioners and Athy Borough Council back as far as 1781.  Later on I had to visit the Public Records Office in Belfast to study the earliest extant minute books of the Borough Council covering the years 1738 to 1783.  That particular Minute Book was deposited in the Belfast Public Records Office with the Fitzgerald family papers some years ago.  The whereabouts of the minute books prior to 1738 are unknown and in all probability have been lost forever.  Those missing records should prompt local authority officials and representatives to value the records still held by the Council and to ensure their preservation and secure protection for the purpose of future historical research.



Looking through details extracted by me from the minute books of the Borough Council I find a reference to the town clock in 1780 which I had previously overlooked.  William Drill was paid a handsome fee of £6 for looking after the clock, the location of which was not indicated.  That same year is recorded the orders of the Court Leet presided over by the Town Sovereign, Rev. Anthony Weldon ‘that no huckster or forestaller is to buy any commodity or goods coming into the market of Athy until such commodity or goods be brought into the public market place under the penalty of five shillings to be levied and raised by sale of the offenders goods and paid to the informer.’  Obviously the selling of goods outside the town’s market place and the consequent loss of customs and tolls was not to the Borough Council’s liking.



Another interesting reference in the Sovereign’s court records for 1786 was a direction that ‘the meat shambles be removed, they being a great nuisance.’  The shambles was located in the alleyway which ran between Andersons pub and the adjoining premises.  I noted that the Court held five years previously was called the ‘Leet Court’ but that term was not used for the 1786 Court. 



An entry in the Borough records of 1792 referred to the water running from the house of William Cahill, Kildare Street, starch manufacturer ‘having a foul smell so as to be prejudicial to the health of the inhabitants’.  Incidentally Kildare Street in 1792 is today’s Stanhope Street. 



In a recent article I mentioned clock and watchmaker Thomas Plewman.  The borough records for 1800 detail a payment of £3 to Thomas Plewman, being one year’s salary for attending to the town clock.  A similar sum was payable to John Andrews for taking care of the town’s fire engine.  On 3rd September 1808 the Town Sovereign and the Burgesses of Athy passed a bye law requiring every boat loaded with turf passing the weir to pay a toll of ten shillings to be applied by the Sovereign in the purchase of fuel for the relief of the poor of Athy.  The Sovereign in question was Thomas J. Rawson, originally from Glasshealy, who played a major part in putting down rebellious activity around Athy and South Kildare during the 1798 Rebellion. 



I was reminded of McHugh’s Foundry which was once located in Meeting Lane when reading the following entry in the Sovereign’s Court record book of the 27th May, 1820.  ‘We present that a forge for working iron which has been erected by Edward Moore in a house in Meeting Lane is a nuisance and not only exposed the said house but also adjoining houses, all of which are covered with timber and straw to constant danger of being consumed by fire and therefore that business of said forge should be forthwith discontinued.’  So much for early 19th century town planning!



The written record is always an important resource for historical researchers, whether it relates to local authorities or clubs, sporting or otherwise.  I have twice in recent years been tasked with writing the history of two Athy institutions but in each case found to my horror that the records once so carefully compiled over many decades had in one case been destroyed and the other lost and never found.  I sincerely hope that the records relating to Athy Town Council and its predecessors will not suffer the same fate.




Remembering the Dead of World War 1


The knock on the front door was unusual.  After all, the half door was always open and the neighbours never knocked.  As she went to the door the woman of the house caught a glimpse of the uniformed telegraph boy standing outside.  Her heart sank for she knew that he brought bad news just as he had to some of her neighbours since the start of the war.  Those same neighbours were now gathering at her door, even as the telegraph boy passed over the telegram.  As she feared the telegram from the war office read: ‘Deeply regret to inform you that your husband died of wounds on June 28th.  Lord Kitchener expresses his sympathy.

 

The scene is an imaginary one, but in reality it was a scene re-enacted more than 100 times in the laneways and courtyards of Athy during the years of the 1914-18 war.  The dreaded telegram was delivered to so many local houses during the 52 months of the war that neighbours readily recognised the scene even as it evolved.  Sometimes the telegraph boy retraced his steps to the same house, not just twice but sadly in at least one case, three times.  The Kelly brothers of Chapel Lane were to die fighting another nation’s war.  Encouraged by local Church and civic leaders brothers Denis, John and Owen Kelly enlisted in the British Expeditionary Force to fight overseas where they died. 



In many instances local men starved of employment and weary of the unsanitary and claustrophobic conditions in which they lived gave their names to the local recruiting sergeant in Leinster Street.  They would after all be home by Christmas, or so they were told.  The excitement of travel to foreign lands, pride in wearing a smart uniform and of course, the army pay, no doubt played a part in prompting the large scale enlistment of men from Athy and district.  Perhaps even the promise of Home Rule played its part in encouraging many to join the ranks. 



Later, as those who survived the war returned to their home town, their late comrades, the majority of whom had no known burial places, would be forgotten and overlooked by the general public and also by local church and civic leaders.  Those who had encouraged recruitment now kept silent in the face of Sinn Fein’s rise in popularity.  The pre war politics of the Irish Parliamentary Party had been overtaken by the political dominance of Sinn Fein.  The local men who fought in France and Flanders and further afield were no longer war heroes.  Their return to Athy was not marked by parades led by local bands as was their departure from the local railway station a few short years before.



The returning ex-soldiers would of necessity keep a low profile, apart from honouring their dead comrades once a year on Remembrance Sunday.  But even that limited homage to the dead was not deemed appropriate to continue far beyond the election of the first Fianna Fáil government in 1932.  The families of ex British soldiers of the 1914-18 war may have grieved privately and commemorated loved ones within family circles.  Nowhere however was there any public recognition for those local men who responded to the call to arms and in so many cases answered with their young lives. 



I have in the past expressed the view that we can remember our neighbours of long ago without in any way feeling that we are doing a disservice to what we ourselves believe.  Whether you are a republican, a socialist or simply a political party member, commemorating the war dead of your town is not only a tribute to the young men of a past generation but also a mark of your respect for your town’s history.



Sunday the 10th of November is Remembrance Sunday, the one day in the year when the dead of World War I are commemorated.  Here in Athy six soldiers who died in their home town and are buried in St. Michael’s Old Cemetery will be the focus of a Remembrance Sunday ecumenical commemoration service to take place at 3.00 p.m.  The service, which will remember all the local men who died in World War 1, is not intended as a celebration of war but as a commemoration for a lost generation and an acknowledgement of the years of neglect of those men who died during the war as well as those who survived. 



Local men’s participation in the 1914-18 war is a part of our local and national history and in remembering those men we are recognising their contribution to their communities and the losses sustained by their families.  An open invitation is extended to everyone to join in the commemoration service at St. Michael’s Old Cemetery at 3.00 p.m. on Sunday next, 10th November.



No doubt many of you were puzzled to read of Mrs. Anna Duthie of 30 Duke Street.  I’m afraid Homer nodded yet again as of course Duthie’s jewellery shop has always been at 30 Leinster Street.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

John McCormack Principal Ardscoil na Tríonóide


John McCormack was appointed principal of Ardscoil na Tríonóide in 2013.  His appointment was one of huge importance in terms of the history of education in the town as John, or Johnny as he is generally known, is a past pupil of Athy Christian Brothers School which following an amalgamation with Scoil Mhuire has evolved as one of the largest educational campuses in South Kildare.



Born in Kilkenny in 1962 Johnny came to live in Athy nine years later and joined the 2nd class in the St. John’s Lane School where Brother Murphy, the last in a long line of Christian Brother principals, was head teacher.  Later on ascending the iron stairs to the secondary school classrooms he came under the tutelage of Bill Ryan, Mick Hannon and Brother Tobin.  He finished his secondary education in 1981 and having graduated with a B.Com. from U.C.D. returned as a teacher to his old alma mater four years later.



Just a year before John returned to Athy the old Christian Brothers secondary school closed and reopened in new premises at Rathstewart.  The move came 167 years after the Christian Brothers came to Athy on the invitation of the Archbishop of Dublin to provide schooling facilities for the young boys of St. Michael’s parish.  A year earlier the Sisters of Mercy had opened their convent school here in Athy.  The move to a new site in Rathstewart saw the Christian Brothers secondary school operating side by side with the Convent of Mercy secondary school, Scoil Mhuire.  While there were some shared facilities the boys and girls schools operated under different school Boards of Management, separate principalships and under their own names, Scoil Eoin and Scoil Mhuire.  Lay principals would later replace the previous principals who like their predecessors going back to the schools foundations had always been members of religious orders. 



John McCormack was appointed vice principal of Scoil Eoin in 2002 following the retirement of Mick Hannon.  Five years later Scoil Eoin and Scoil Mhuire amalgamated to become a co-educational school under the name Ardscoil na Tríonóide.  The religious trusteeships under which Scoil Eoin and Scoil Mhuire had previously operated were replaced by a trusteeship under the name, Catholic Education Irish School Trust (C.E.I.S.T.).  In 2012 John McCormack was appointed principal.  He was the first past pupil of Athy C.B.S. School to assume that position. 



Today Ardscoil na Tríonóide is a far bigger secondary school than that which my school pals and myself attended in the 1950s.  Secondary education in those days was a facility which the vast majority of my primary schoolmates could not avail of.  While the Christian Brothers sought a very small fee where they felt it could be paid and no fee if thought otherwise, family circumstances often dictated that the young boys had to leave school at 14 years of age and sometimes earlier.  So it was that four small classrooms at the top of the iron stairs in the St. Johns Lane School provided sufficient accommodation for Athy’s Secondary School pupils up to more recent years.  The school staff in the 1950s consisted of four teachers, two Christian Brothers, Brett and Keogh and two lay teachers, Bill Ryan and Michael O’Riordan.



It was not until Donagh O’Malley’s move to make secondary education more freely available that the secondary school scene started to change dramatically.  Today Ardscoil na Tríonóide caters for upwards of 840 pupils with enrolment two years in advance.  A maximum of 150 pupils can be catered for in each class year, a number which is even larger than the total secondary school population of the Christian Brothers School in my time.  Another huge change is that approximately 95% of those who enrol in the first year of secondary school go on to sit their Leaving Certificate.  In my time the dropout rate after 6th class primary and 1st year secondary was very high and just a few years before I sat my Leaving Certificate the Leaving Cert. class in the local Christian Brothers School consisted of just one pupil.



Today Ardscoil na Tríonóide has 53 teachers, with backup secretarial staff.  The range of sports provided include basketball, rugby, soccer, equestrian and Gaelic games, with sports hall facilities not dreamed of in my St. John’s Lane school days. 



The Catholic ethos of Ardscoil na Tríonóide reflects those of the community it serves but it is a passive inclusion in a school which is non denominational and respectful of the religious beliefs of others.  Johnny McCormack, as a past pupil of the earlier Christian Brothers School, fosters and encourages his pupils to continue on to University.  The fact that up to 90% of the school’s pupils continue on to third level education is a tribute to the quality of education provided in Ardscoil na Tríonóide and the educational philosophy pursued by Johnny McCormack and his team.  The gateway to success in life is a good education and Ardscoil na Tríonóide combines the best traditions of my old secondary school and that of Scoil Mhuire to provide a first class educational environment for its pupils.



Last week I mentioned the sad death of journalist and last editor of the Sunday Press, Michael Keane.  As I finish this article I have before me a copy of ‘The Greenhills Magazine’ published at Christmas 1964 by the pupils of the C.B.S. Athy.  Its editor was Michael Keane who in his editorial expressed the hope that the magazine ‘will make you a little bit more proud of your school’.  We were indeed proud of our school and proud of Michael’s achievement in Irish journalism and we can be justifiably proud of the wonderful educational facilities available in Ardscoil na Tríonóide provided under the guidance of Johnny McCormack who like the late Michael Keane is a past pupil of the C.B.S. here in Athy. 

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Edward Keegan Irish Volunteer and Robert Gourley World War 1 soldier


The First World War and the Easter Rising of 1916 cast shadows which despite the passing of several generations have tended to obscure our understanding and appreciation of what enlisted soldiers and volunteers alike had to endure during and after those conflicts.  Sometimes the men on the opposing sides were from the same family and many are the stories which have come down to us in the intervening years of a brother fighting in a British uniform on a battlefield in Flanders while a sibling as an Irish volunteer fought against Irish troops in the Irish capital.



Mary McMahon of Butler’s Lane had a similar story for me when I met her last week.  It was her paternal and maternal grandfathers who were on opposing sides 100 years ago.  Her mother’s father Edward Keegan was an Irish Volunteer who fought in the South Dublin Union, while her father’s father, Robert Gourley, enlisted in the British Army and was sent to France on 18th July 1915.



Edward Keegan was an actor who performed in Synge’s ‘On Baile’s Strand’ on the Abbey Theatre’s opening night on 28th December 1904.  He was also player – member of the original Irish National Theatre Society.  A member of the Gaelic League he was instrumental in the founding of St. Laurence O’Toole GAA club in October 1901 and was a founding member of St. Laurence O’Toole pipe band. 



An active member of the Irish Volunteers he was a member of “C” Company 4th Battalion Dublin Brigade.  He fought in the South Dublin Union under Eamonn Ceannt and was engaged in repelling an attack by British troops when he was seriously injured on the evening of Easter Monday 24th April.  Shot through the lung he was removed to hospital where he was treated under the care of Dr. W. Cremin.  Detained in the Union hospital for four months he was later transferred to Beaumont Convalescent Home.   By the time Keegan was discharged from hospital on 25th August his employer had dismissed him.  Prior to his engagement in the South Dublin Union he had been employed in the Advertising Department of the Irish Times and the then Unionist paper regarded his involvement in the Rising as disloyal to the crown.



Edward Keegan had a continuous history of ill health thereafter which curtailed his job opportunities until he was appointed in a temporary capacity in 1922 as a stock taker in the Department of Local Government.  He was still employed in that temporary position 16 years later but after further deterioration in his health which resulted in extended sick leave his pay from the Department was stopped.  Edward Keegan died on 20th September 1938 from bronchitis which was directly related to the lung wound he had incurred 22 years earlier.  He was just 55 years old.



On the 25th anniversary of the Easter Rising the Abbey Theatre authorities erected a plaque to commemorate the Abbey actors, playwrights and staff who had participated in the Rising.  Regretfully Edward Keegan’s name was not included on that plaque, but the omission has now been corrected.



At the same time Robert Gourley, a native of Derry, had enlisted to fight in France.  He survived the war and with his second wife and family lived over 51 Lower Sackville Street, now O’Connell Street, Dublin.  He died ten years after Edward Keegan, aged 65 years.  His son Alexander married Molly Keegan, daughter of the 1916 veteran, bringing together two families which history had put on opposing sides during the 1914/18 war.



Recently several generations of the Keegan and Gourley families of several generations came together in Wynn’s Hotel Dublin to celebrate the life of Edward Keegan as part of the 1916 commemorations.  It was in Wynn’s Hotel on 11th November 1913 that Eoin MacNeill and a small group first met to plan the rally held in Dublin’s Rotunda 12 days later at which the Irish Volunteer movement was formally founded. 



The short life of Edward Keegan was celebrated by his descendants and the descendants of Robert Gourley and in honouring the 1916 Volunteer both families were acknowledging that loyalties of the past are in the Ireland of the 21st century no longer divisive in a mature and all embracing nation.  The Irish men and women of Easter 1916 and their British Army counterparts, whether soldiers in Flanders or Dublin, deserve to be remembered with honour.  The Irish Times, which dismissed Edward Keegan for disloyalty in 1917, recently purchased his 1916 medal at a New York auction and that medal will soon go on public display in the Irish Times building.  Attitudes have changed in the Irish Times and indeed they reflect the changing attitudes in today’s Irish society.



The death last week of Athy born Michael Keane, the last editor of the Sunday Press, at a relatively young age, is a tragic loss to Irish journalism.  Michael who attended the local Christian Brothers School was part of that brilliant group of students who graduated in the late 1960s and early 1970s.  He was editor of the Sunday Press when the Press newspapers closed and was remembered by his colleagues as a brilliant journalist.


Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Athy magazines and newspapers of hte 19th century and todays Athy Lions Club bookshop


It was Francis Bacon who claimed that ‘reading maketh a full man’.  At the same time he advised us ‘read not to contradict and confute; nor to believe and take for granted; nor to find talk and discourse; but to weigh and consider.’ 



Readers living in Athy in the early part of the 19th century were reasonably well served in terms of reading material.  In the 1830s Thomas French had a printing office in Market Square, Emily Square, and it was French who embarked on an ambitious scheme of publishing a literary magazine ‘The Athy Literary Magazine’ which first appeared on Tuesday 14th November 1837.  It was a small 8 page magazine costing one penny which appeared in the local shops every Tuesday.  The last known edition of the magazine was that which came out on 17th April 1838.  The magazine was a mixture of local news coupled with extracts from Dickens Pickwick Papers and poetic contributions from local contributors.  The Royal Irish Academy have copies of the first 18 issues of ‘The Athy Literary Magazine’ while a full set is I believe to be found in a university in Chicago.



During the period of the Great Famine, Athy had a book shop which was located in Duke Street.  The 1846 edition of Slaters Directory gave the name John Lahee, described as a book seller so perhaps his was not a book shop as such but a retail business which included book sales. 



Three years later Athy readers for a short period were to have two local newspapers, each published and printed in the South Kildare town.  The Kildare and Wicklow Chronicle started by Frederick Kearney, who had previously worked on the Anglo Celt, first appeared on the streets on Saturday 17th February 1849.  The Leinster Express which was published in Maryborough (Portlaoise) and had enjoyed wide circulation in Athy, having advance notice of the new newspaper, brought out its own Athy based newspaper which they called ‘The Irish Eastern Counties Herald.’  It appeared on Tuesday 13th February 1849.  The editorials in the rival newspapers set the tone for an acrimonious if short lived struggle.  Within three weeks the ‘Kildare and Wicklow Chronicle’ ceased publication and in its next edition the ‘Irish Eastern Counties Herald’ claimed ‘the principal object for which the journal was established having been affected, many of our friends very reasonably concluded that upon the demise of the so called Kildare and Wicklow Chronicle its publication would cease.  ‘The Irish Eastern Counties Herald’ ceased publication with its 5th edition on 6th March 1849.



In January 1852 Samuel Talbot, a member of the Talbot family of Maryborough who were proprietors of the Leinster Express and the short lived ‘Irish Eastern Counties Herald’, published another Athy based magazine, ‘The Press’.  Intended as a monthly magazine consisting of 26 pages it sought to advance ‘science, literature and the industrial arts’.  Unfortunately the first issue of ‘The Press’ was the only one to appear in the local shops.



As a reader and an avid book collector I have spent many spare hours in book shops.  In my young days there was no book shop in Athy but in recent years ‘The Gem’ and ‘Winkles’ have taken on the role of book selling.  The social and cultural life of any provincial town is hugely enriched by the presence of a book shop and I am delighted to see that the Lions Club Book Shop on Duke Street is doing so well.  This was started as a fundraising venture by the Lions Club approximately 5 years ago.  The Club had traditionally organised a second hand book sale every year, extending over 2 or 3 days.  It’s success prompted the setting up of a book shop staffed initially by members of Athy Lions Club.  Because of work commitments the shop in its first year was opened on Saturdays only.  I remember as I manned the book shop one day being approached by a woman offering to help in the shop.  I did not know Alice Rowan at that stage.  From Pairc Bhride she emigrated to England in 1966 and returned to Athy on retirement in 2007. 



Alice has now been running the Lions Book Shop on a voluntary basis for the last 4 years and the original Saturday opening has now been extended to a 5 day opening.  In recognition of her contribution to the running of the book shop the Lions Club some time ago conferred honorary Lions membership on Alice.  This is the first occasion such an honour has been awarded. 



The famous American book dealer Rosenbbach often claimed that ‘book collecting is the most exhilarating sport of all.’  It is certainly an entertaining and pleasurable hobby and within the confines of the Athy Lions Book Shop are to be found books catering for a wide diversity of tastes.  Thanks to Alice Rowan and to the Shaw Group which gave the Lions Club use of a vacant premises in Duke Street where we now have a second hand book shop of which we can be justifiably proud.


Tuesday, May 31, 2016

James Joseph O'Byrne, Irish patriot


Last week the Irish Times carried an article on the closure of Ardscoil Eanna in Crumlin, Dublin.  Founded in 1939 by James Joseph O’Byrne, a former teacher in the Christian Brothers School in Athy, it was opened four years after the closure of Padraig Pearse’s St. Enda’s School.  Indeed in an interview I had with Denis Langton in 2001 J.J. O’Byrne, as he was known in Athy, was described as a friend of the 1916 leader who was sent down the country to organise the Gaelic League.  



J.J. O’Byrne’s was the son of an evicted tenant farmer from Valleymount, Co. Wicklow, who as a young man attended St. James’s School in Dublin before graduating with an arts degree from University College Dublin.  He subsequently taught in St. Augustine’s School Waterford before taking up a teaching post in Athy’s secondary school in 1916.  He was an active member of the Gaelic League in Athy as well as being a leading member of the local Sinn Fein Club.  The first reference I found to J.J. O’Byrne in the local papers of the time was in the Nationalist and Leinster Times of 11th May 1918 when it reported on his speech at a Sinn Fein meeting regarding difficulties experienced by local traders due to the shortage of silver coins.  Apparently the war time shortage was so severe that the authorities had great difficulty in paying outdoor relief and old age pensions.  A few weeks later J.J. O’Byrne was again a prominent speaker at a Sinn Fein meeting held in Emily Square to protest against the arrest of the Sinn Fein leaders.  He addressed another Sinn Fein meeting in Stradbally towards the end of June 1918 where a fellow speaker was Dr. Higgins, father of Kevin Higgins, both of whom would in later years be killed. 



On Thursday 15th August 1918 J.J. O’Byrne read a statement in Emily Square as part of a nationwide event organised by the Sinn Fein movement.  The statement, which issued after Sinn Fein’s success in the Cavan by-election, under the name of Michael O’Flanagan, Vice President and acting President of Sinn Fein, claimed that both sets of belligerent at the Versailles Peace Conference would have to support self determination for Ireland ‘which has at last emerged into the full sunlight of national consciousness and no power on earth can drive us back.’  The statement I believe was to have been read by P.P. Doyle of Woodstock Street but for whatever reason J.J. O’Byrne had to step in and ensure that the Sinn Fein plans for the day were fulfilled.  Inevitably he was arrested the following day and while kept in custody was not tried for almost two weeks.  The Athy Board of Guardians at its next meeting passed a vote of protest at O’Bryne’s arrest which all the members with the exception of the Chairman T.J. Whelan supported.  Athy Urban District Council also condemned the British government ‘for arresting and imprisoning Irish men without charge’. 



J.J. O’Byrne was one of seven men court martialled in Maryborough (Portlaoise) at the end of August 1918.  The name on the charge sheet read ‘James John O’Byrne’ and the prisoner was reported to have failed to answer when asked if he was J.J. O’Byrne of Duke Street, Athy.  After arguing that he was not handed the charge sheet O’Byrne refused to give his name or to recognise the Court.  Sergeant Heffernan of the R.I.C. Athy gave evidence that on Thursday 15th August at Emily Square he saw a group of approximately 200 men whom O’Byrne addressed.  The Sergeant had a copy of O’Byrne’s statement, the reading of which he claimed lasted for approximately 15 minutes.  He described the statement as the Sinn Fein manifesto.  O’Byrne, he declared, was known as J.J. O’Byrne which was the name on the card in the house in Duke Street where he lived.  Sergeant Heffernan knew O’Byrne for the previous two years to which O’Byrne replied, ‘my names is James Joseph, not James John.’  Convicted as charged O’Byrne was further remanded in custody and two weeks later was sentenced to twelve months imprisonment.



J.J. O’Byrne was married with four young children when he was imprisoned.  He had married Esther Bates from East Wall, Dublin in 1910 having met her at a Gaelic League meeting.  They would eventually have a family of 12 children, one of whom, their daughter Maureen, married Sean Moore of Rheban.  The O’Byrne family lived for many years on a farm in Barrowhouse at a time when J.J. was teaching in Westland Row Christian Brothers School.  The family left Athy in March 1937 and two years later J.J. opened Ardscoil Eanna in Crumlin.  The school was founded on the principles of Pearse’s St. Enda’s School and one of the first teachers employed was Pearse’s sister Margaret.



J.J. O’Byrne died in January 1966 just four months after the death of his wife Esther.  He was one of the many forgotten patriots whose involvement in the Gaelic League and Sinn Fein during the troubled years of the War of Independence made those of us who came after them proud of our town’s past.