Aggie Qualter – Athenry Then and Now

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If we could take a trip back in time and visit Athenry in 1850, how would we compare it with the town of today? How was the town community then structured? What kind of living standards were enjoyed by the people? Were there unemployment or housing problems?

You would be absolutely appalled at the sight. For a town that ranked second in Ireland in the 13th century, Athenry had reached an all-time low. The streets were narrow and unpaved. The wretched houses, many of them without windows, were built below the level of the streets. The people were condemned to a grinding poverty and deprivation, but let it be plainly understood that these conditions were enforced upon our people by a system of British Law from which they had neither power or hope of extricating themselves. If poverty was a shame or sin, then everyone was guilty.

The records reveal that Athenry was no worse than any other village of its size in Ireland, and very much better than most villages in the West. Everyone was poor – that is everyone except the people who lived in the numerous Big Houses that surrounded the town. If I find it hard to describe the misery of our people, I also fail to find words to describe the splendour, grandeur and life-styles of the people known as the “Gentry”. Their houses were palatial residences, built in the best architectural designs – each surrounded by a retinue of servants. They lived in the lap of luxury and had everything and anything that money could buy.

The principal Gentry of the locality were: The Lamberts of Castle Lambert and Castle Ellen, Persses of Bellville and Moyode, Halls of Knockbrack, Lopdells of Raheen, Blakes of Rockfield – to mention but a few.

With the exception of four Streets, Chapel St., (now Old Church St.) North Gate St., Cross St. and Bridge St., all the others were known as Lanes. River Lane was absent as the river was not diverted until 1860 or earlier. The old thatch Church called the Mass House was at the back of Hanberry ‘s Hotel or nearer the Swan Gate.

Chapel Lane circa 1800 – Photo Gary Ryan Facebook

In 1850 the Dominicans were flourishing at Esker, and education was well provided for. there was a College, an Agricultural College, and also four private fee-paying Schools for young gentlemen. The National and Parochial Schools had an attendance of 800 pupils made up of the poorer classes. One hundred were provided with food. Apart from the Landed Gentry, the professional classes were represented by two teachers, a Barrister (John Lopdell), a Surgeon (M.J. Edgar) and a Land Agent (J. Barrett). I found strange names Hesty, Hickman, GUIIHBII, Geese and Bradish. Very old family names were Broderick, Newell, Shaughnessy, Coleman, Hynes, Qualter, Higgins, Kilkelly, Cannon, Barrett, Cumiiffe, Quinn and Keamey.

Old Church Street consisted of 49 houses. Two of the householders were Thomas Heavey and Patrick Greally.

At Cross Street I found Michael McNamara, Great Grandfather of Christy O’Grady (Senior) and Grandfather of the late Arm Maria Mack (Mrs. O’Grady). There also was Thomas Hynes – Great Grandfather of Una Hynes.

In Knockaunglas (Cnocán Glas ,the small green hill) in 1851 there were three cottiers’ houses occupied by T. Kinnein, T. Whelan and P. Greally. They had 14, 9 and 5 and a half acres, respectively. Traces of some of the ruins are on the town side of the old Pump House.

Caheroyan (Hynes Quarters). John O’Connor then lived in Caheroyan House with 216 acres. There is an O’Connor grave at the back of the Catholic Church. There were also 12 free houses – all held by squatters.

Bridge Street in 1851 consisted of six houses and two ruins. No. 1 Joseph Barrett. Here are the roots of the present Barrett Family, which leaves them at least six generation Athenry. Joseph Barrett was Great Grandfather of Christy Barrett, Caheroyan. No. 2 P. Connolly, No. 3 Mick Kane, N4 J. Murray, no. 5 Ruins, No. 6 Patrick Cannon. Here are my own paternal roots. Patrick Cannon was my Great Grand Father. He died in the late 1850s and my Grandfather, Michael Cannon and family continued to live there. No. 7 Ruins, but formerly lived in for generations by the Moggin Family. The last Moggin, Johnny (an old man) died in the late l840s. The Bridge was then called “Moggins’ Bridge” – an old rustic bridge that spanned an overflow stream of the main river – which then ran through

River Lane and around the Tower to the Pound.

Burke’s Lane had seven small houses. (Down by the circle of Coppinger’ s)

McDonalds Lane. Eight houses and one ruin. At No. 8 the famous Larkins Forge. A great meeting place for the young men of the time.

Madden’s forge started by Tom Madden in the early 1870s. He moved down the road from Baunmore, where the Madden roots and farm were for generations before and still are. The Bridge Forge is still very successfully run by Eamon Madden – a grandson of Tom Madden.

Barrack Lane had five families and two ruins. Three lived at River-Green – Kearns, Culkeen and Higgins and two at the back of Joe Keating’s Garage, Burke and Kelly. The Land League Forge was built on the ruins in l880 – now John Lawless’s work shop. The five neat thatched cottages on the other side were built in the l870s. A great shoe-maker (Dan Kenny) lived nearest the Old Barrack. He made Riding Boots and Sports Shoes for the Gentry.

Court Lane. One house owned by John Coen in 1850.

In the early l860s Free Emigration Ship “The Rag a Dee” sailed from Galway. Athenry, they said, was nearly cleared out – more than two hundred people left the town and surrounding town-lands. The Ship was nick-named the “Ragetty-Dee”. The name tells its own story. It was a voyage into the unknown, but they believed they were heading for a Utopian Land and expected to find gold on the roads there. When they arrived, there was no one to meet or settle them. The late Michael Shaughnessy in relating the story, as he heard it said “They were the pity of all creation, huddled together, hungry and miserable, not knowing where to tum and without a penny in their pockets”. When they were hired they were sent in all directions to work with all sorts of people and the separation nearly killed them. They did not take kindly to America, but in time they worked their way back to Boston where they settled and prospered.

The Irish were then on the same level as the negroes – a sad but true statement.

It was a revelation to hear the Michael Shaughnessy relate stories of the 1870s and 80s: The finest of men and women were raised here in those years. Men of the finest physiques – tall, lean and athletic; the women tall and stately with flawless complexions, and flowing tresses. Their food consisted of Indian com bread and stirabout. Rabbits were so plentiful that you could almost catch them rushing for the burrows; the country abounded with hares; the river was alive with the finest of trout and eel. American bacon at 1 and a 1/2 d a lb. No Hotel of today could tum out a meal like the stuffed rabbits laced with bacon. The food and fuel were there for the asking but no money. If you had 10 half-pennies to jingle, you considered yourself rich. One wonders if the diet of the Athenry hard years was better body-building food than all the vitamins of today.

Photo – Gary Ryan Facebook

The Railway Line was laid as far as Athenry in 1851. About l870 it became a junction – improving in importance as the lines extended, till finally about 1875 the town was listed as an important Railway-junction. This gave great status to Athenry. Soon a central Post Office was established here, followed by a big R.I.C. Station. The future looked bright, but alas, the greatest tragedy in the town’s history was about to strike.

On the 1st of March 1875 a baker named Walsh was sent home by his employer in Tuam suffering from the deadliest form of smallpox. The disease had reached a climax. The local curate was called to administer the last rites. Some days later he became gravely ill and died, and so the terrible cycle of death began.

The towns sanitary conditions were no better than in 1850, and was a breeding ground for disease. On the 17th of March the Death Knell sounded – eight outbreaks of Small Pox followed by six deaths. Inoculation proved useless. The plague spread like wild-fire and scarcely a house in the town was free. May day saw the death roll over a hundred.

Athenry was isolated and treated like a leper-colony. Dr. Leonard appealed for a cottage hospital. One was assigned near Loughrea, but was burned down by the people. One woman lost her husband and three children within days. Panic gripped the town – no grave diggers, no coffins. The mother herself had to bury her last child in the outer abbey.

In order to save the Community from total extinction Dr. Leonard converted the west wing of his own home (Town House) to a Small Pox hospital. Not large enough for all the patients, sheds were erected at the back. Beds and blankets were sent by the work house. After more than four months he halted the plague. Hundreds who survived were disfigured. The western wing of the Town House was never re-opened, but remained shuttered to the end. This was the saddest chapter in Athenry’s history.

Dr. Leonard’s total dedication to a poor and oppressed people, his heroism and self-sacrifice, and above all his Christian and spiritual force ranks him as one of the greatest of his time. He died in 1893. The Leonard grave is at the back of the Catholic Church.

If the people of the town were sunk in the mire of poverty the tenant-farmers of the parish were even worse. Imagine their plight when out of 4 and ¾ million people 4 million people lived on the land. The 20 million acres of Irish land were owned by 19,000 people, and 700 men between them owned half the land of Ireland. Evictions were the order of the day, and in fact they doubled in this parish in 1878. To make matters worse England flooded the market with artificial manure, and Athenry lost the valuable sea-weed market.

In 1879 a Star of Hope was rising for Athenry and Ireland. Michael Davitt, the greatest man of the century entered the picture and came to the rescue of the Irish people. The Land League was born.

Men of the town and parish threw themselves heart and soul into the movement. After the assassination of Blake and Burke near Loughrea many of the young men of the Parish were cast into Galway Jail. They included Fenian Broderick and his brother Peter. The movement spread throughout the land like a gorse fire and could not be halted. Athenry was alive with Peelers. An American Journalist (Mr. George) was arrested here, because he was seen in the Abbey with the Curate, Father Mc Philpin, a supporter of the League. England did not want the outside world to know of conditions here. All his writings were confiscated by the R.I.C. This most formidable movement of the last century, the movement which broke the back of the system which crippled our people, can be closely identified with conditions which prevailed in Athenry town and parish.

Why? In 1879 when the Land League was launched the registered Land possessions of the big Landlords surrounding the town were as follows:

Captain William Lambert, Castle Lambert 4,686 acres

Walter Peter Lambert, Castle Ellen 3,829 acres

Burton Persse of Moyode and Belville 9,500 acres

Major Lopdell, Raheen House 1,365 acres

Blakes of Rockfield 986 acres

Major Hall, Knockbrack another big land owned (I failed to find acreage)

I also found that Robert French, Monivea had 10,121 acres.

Robert French of Monivea Castle was described as a good and progressive Landlord – not tainted by evictions.

At this time the Persses, Frenches and Lamberts were three of the most powerful families in Ireland and I venture to state that they can be numbered amongst the seven hundred who owned half the land of Ireland in 1878.

Gladstone, knowing he could not beat the ‘Land League’ won enough support to rush the Gladstone Land Act through the ‘Commons’. It was one great step forward and ended the evictions. Other Acts gave greater rights ‘till finally the Wyndam Act transferred complete ownership of Lands to the people of Ireland.

Athenry started to move uphill early in the l880s. There were reasons for this.

1. In 1881 the population was reduced to 813 – a fall of 674 people since 1851.

2. Those who left were faithfully sending home the dollars, which meant much to the economy.

3. The traders were able to give credit to the farmers, as the Gladstone Act gave them co-ownership of their little holdings and “The Three F.S.”  The up-surge was on, and steadily improving.

In the early 1890s Abbey Row was built. It was formerly an old Barracks. Matt Mc Donaghs, Bridge St. was also built around this time. This is now a combination of Kinneens and Linnanes. Before that the McDonaghs had a thriving business where the Ulster Bank stands. At one time Napton Persse lived there. It was then called “The Castle”. All carts and creels of turf passing had to throw sods into their yard as part of the town’s customs or “tolls”.

On the opposite side of the Square Blackall and Mc Donaghs built a big business house. It was like a modem Supermarket – a walk-through from T. Coppingers door to Fitzimons in North Gate St. Cash-balls were flying in all directions. It was opened in 1886. The Building Trade was booming.

A new Athenry was taking shape. The houses in the town, though still under thatch, were improved and renovated. The Cottages at New Fort, Kingsland and Boyhill went up at the turn of the century. Cross Street houses were complete in 1902 – hammerstone facing on those is a monument to the craftsmanship of the Howley Brothers – father and uncle of Christy Howley.

Caheroyan Cottages were built about 1910 and the ones nearest the arch much earlier. Presentation Convent and National Schools were up about this time.

New houses at Bridge Street in 1911. Brownes was then the Court Hotel. The Athenry as we know it today, without the surrounding estates, was recognisable in 1910. Wages at this time exceeded those at Ballinasloe by 2/6 a week, – a lot of money in those days.

In 1907 the Lambert Castle Ellen Estate came up for division. At a meeting at Athenry, Patrick Hynes, the Fenian veteran and local builder, started an agitation, and vehemently asserted that the town tenancies be included. This he said was possible. He quoted extracts from the Wyndam Act. The Town Tenant’s League came into operation and proceeded to pursue a policy of militancy. The townsmen went wall knocking and cattle-driving. Stephen Jordan was arrested at Castle Ellen in May. The town tenants marched in strength through the Lambert lands led by a Band, defying the Peelers. When the Estate was divided every town tenant, and that was nearly everyone, got a parcel of land, which proved very valuable in later years.

The Town Hall was built by Dick Murphy in 1907. The I.R.B. and volunteers had it free. Volunteers carried out an intensive training course there under Liam Mellows. A rifle-range was set up in the yard. Leaders were John Cleary, Stephen Jordan, Frank Hynes, Jim Barrett, Sean Broderick and Commanding Officer Larry Lardner. Mellows was a familiar figure in the Town and cycled 10-15 miles each day building up the organisation.

He stayed at Brodericks. In order to avoid harassment by the Peelers he stayed at Frank Hynes’s from 1915, as he had easy and secret access to the back yard through Leonard’s Avenue.

Easter Week l916; Athenry was the centre of insurgent communication, since it was the Headquarters of Mellows. The position was unclear after McNeill countermanded. Larry Lardner with 500 men took the Agricultural College. He was joined by Mellows and his companies from Kinvara, Kilcolgan, Killeeneen and Craughwell. Gort was told to stand until joined by other companies from the South. They were unaware that only Dublin and Wexford were making an effective stand. Mellows with his men, about 700, marched through Rockmore and turning right across field track reached Moyode Castle – the stronghold of the Persse family who were then in England. They were joined by companies from Castlegar, Tuam and Dunmore. Members of Cumman-na-mBan joined the volunteers at Moyode to perform the duties of cooking, washing, and all household chores. The Rebels remained in Moyode till Friday, when Fr. Tom Fahy came, and reported that the Rising had reached a downward path.

Dublin was in flames, the leaders arrested. He strongly advised them to disbanded.

About 150 retreated to Limepark. Hundreds were interned in concentration camps. Twelve were positively identified by a man at Moyode and condemned to Wormwood Scrubs Prison. Known as the twelve Apostles they were: Thomas Barrett and Charlie White of Caheroyan, Grady Brothers Church St, Martin Hansberry, Rahard, Peter Murray, Derrydonnell, Michael Higgins, Castlelambert; Patch and Thomas Kennedy, Sliab Rua, Jack Hanniffy, Tallyhoe; Murty Fahy, Sliab Rua and Michael Donohue. All were in prison until the General Amnesty in 1917 when England desperately needed to take the heat out of the Irish question.

From Limepark Mellows and Frank Hynes (Athenry) headed for the Aughty Mts. Hunted by Peelers (a price on the head of Mellows) they lost their way. They met a man named Maloney searching for a colt, who brought them to the safest hide-out in Ireland, a bothy amongst the heather. They were given dry clothes, plenty of blankets, dry straw and food. They remained in the bothy for almost five months. Father Crowe (near Ennis) arranged the escape of Mellows. He got them to his home from Balloughtra Bothan, where Mellows was disguised as a nun and accompanied by Miss Barry from Gort, also a nun disguised. He was taken to Rochestown House Priory outside Cork city. He finally escaped on the “Harry Herbert” captained by Capt. Murray, and landed in America in December. Mellows took the anti-treaty side in the Civil War, defended the Four Courts with O’Connor, was arrested and shot as a reprisal on the 8th December, 1922. A fine bronze bust of Mellows is erected on the grounds of the Boy’s National School to remind the future generations of the part this great man played in the struggle for Irish Independence. The big ACOT College is named “Mellows College”.

Extract from a letter to his mother written before his execution: “I had hoped, some day, I might rest in some quiet spot, but if it is to be the prison clay it is all the sweeter, for many of our best lie there”. Athenry’s long association with Mellows gives the town a special place in modem Irish History. Athenry was split in two politically during the Civil War and still is. So many decent people stand on either side of the political divide. I say ‘good luck to them all’. The town had two T.D.’s in the 30s – Seán Broderick, F.G. and Stephen Jordan F.F. They always remained the best of friends and neighbours.

I can vividly recall what life was like in Athenry seventy odd years ago. From a social economic and educational view-point the entire structure of society has changed dramatically. Those born into the modem and affluent life can never understand the hardships endured by our people the past.

In those far off days the town was almost completely under thatch, the half-door being the common feature of almost every house. Trunk roads were unheard of. Streets were rough and pot-holed, and dimly lit. The better off shopkeepers had outside paraffin lamp in protective glass cases. The turn-wheel pump outside the old barracks, the Spa well at Leonard’s Lawn and Abbey Row provided the town water supply – no piped water, no sewer system. Drawing water from pump and well was a constant and arduous job.

The turn-wheel pump and horse trough outside the old barracks

Work was scarce, the little of it available was slavery, long hours, meagre wages, no houses – one room one family was the common pattern of life. The families raised in these rooms and tenements were a credit to Athenry and Ireland at home and abroad. Some domestic servants worked hard at 2/6 a week. Padraig Kenny the stone-breaker hammered away at Maddens Bridge from morning till night at seven shillings a week. He lived at River Lane. The heel of colonialism pressed heavily; the badge of oppression was visible in town and country. Emigration was the sole release for the youth.

Turf, the black gold of today, was plentiful. Hawkers were constantly on the streets at 1/9 an ass-box. Ass-and-carts were anchored to every post and rail in the town.

As children we were as free as air to play and romp on the streets and fields – no traffic, only a few bikes. Our usual pastime on Sundays was sitting on the cross watching the “Gentry” arrive for Service in the Protestant Church. They came in carriages, horse-back, and rubber-tyred traps – their liveried footmen helping them alight, – the ladies in their beautiful clothes, feathered hats and veiled faces. All the trimmings and trappings of “Up Stairs, down Stairs” came to life at Athenry Square on Sundays. A smaller Presbyterian Church was at Minister Burkett’s lawn, River Dale House, and there one had a similar display of grandeur, but by lesser numbers.

Many of the old names have disappeared. The ones which come to mind – Matt Daly’s opposite the old Barrack; Johnny Kelly’s now the Square Inn, Mahons now Torpeys. Pat McDonagh’s Business complete stretched from Court Lane to the Church Wall linking Bridge St. and the Square. The business names which have survived and prospered are Hessions, Corbetts, Higgins, Ruanes, Glynns, Sweeneys and O’Neills.

In those far-off years times were hard, money was scarce, but there were many compensations for the lack of today’s luxuries such as the dances at the cross-roads and ball-alley, in winter the kitchen and the country barns dances. As grown-ups we headed off on “shanks-mare” to enjoy the best of music, and all for nothing.

A great spirit prevailed amongst the people – a feeling of “togetherness’, caring and sharing. No one was lonely or isolated, each person was the concern of all. Happiness, the most important ingredient of life, was there in abundance, – something which the affluence and prosperity of today has failed to provide. The best things in life are free and I say with truth that those were the “Good Old Days”.

Through the decades Athenry and the “ups and downs”, the economic war years of the 30s, the war years of the 40s with its after-effects running into the 50s, the golden years of the 60s and 70s.

Today it ranks as one of the best in the West – a smiling progressive, prosperous expanding town with all modem amenities. The business people enjoy a great degree of wealth. Education at National and Secondary level is well provided for. Two big centres, Presentation College and Vocational School and also an Agricultural Training School.

The town has many sources of employment – ACOT Research College, Cattle Mart (one of the best in Ireland), Creamery Co-Op and the Engineering Byrne-Mech Factor. C.I.E. also absorb many workers.

Community Council has achieved a marvellous degree of success for the parish:

1. Community Hall purchased, enlarged and installed with central heating.

2. A parcel of land of 5.5 acres (to be developed later) at the end of Bridge St.

3. Outdoor Sports complex at Raheen consisting of four pitches and two Tarmacadam Tennis Courts. It also includes a heated Club House, Function Room, Dressing-Rooms and Showers. Raheen costing £120,000 is the biggest project ever undertaken in Athenry, and will be officially opened in August.

All the above mentioned are owned by the parish community. This is a great tribute to the co-operation and support of the people. Everyone must admit, that in order to serve the needs of a rapidly expanding population, the Raheen project is the way forward. The Community Council deserve and expect further financial support to pay off the remaining debt.

Today throughout the parish the fruits of Davitt’s dream “The Land for the People” is evident on all sides. One sees the well-kept fertile fields decked with herds of pure-bred cattle and sheep, and everywhere picturesque, well laid out rural dwellings. Athenry in the heart of the best lime-stone land, and surrounded by such a prosperous rural community can never fail to thrive.

The soil is the gold of Ireland. The workers on the land will always hold the “Life-Line of the Nation”.

From the book – “Athenry, History from 1780, Folklore and Recollections” by Aggie Qualter, March 1989

Click on the Author’s name, below, to find more articles from Aggie Qualter’s book

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About this record

Written by Aggie Qualter

Published here 03 May 2022 and originally published March 1989

Page 0027 of the Athenry History archive.

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