Friday, November 13, 2020

EYE ON THE PAST NO. 1454

THE week started with the ‘Virtually Shackleton’ event on Saturday streamed from the Town Hall, Athy with a 10.30am start and continued until late that same evening. The early 18th century building has hosted many important events over the centuries, including court trials presided over by the hanging Judge, John Toler who was later ennobled with the title Earl of Norbury. As a young barrister Theobald Wolfe Tone, the founder of modern Irish Republicanism, appeared in court in Athy on many occasions following his call to the Irish bar in the summer of 1789. The former Market House which now houses the Shackleton Museum is believed to have been designed by Richard Cassels who also designed Leinster House, Carton House and the Rotunda Hospital. It provided the backdrop to public meetings addressed by many important Irish historical figures over the years including Arthur Griffith and Eamon De Valera. It is a building which has seen a multiplicity of changing uses as well as building alterations and enlargements since it was built in the first half of the 18th century.

In the 1730s it was Athy’s principal public building located in the very centre of the town serving as a Courthouse on the first floor and a market house on the ground floor. In the following century it continued to be used as a market house, but the courtrooms had given way to rooms used by the local Freemasons and Athy’s Mechanic’s Institute. In more recent years the Freemasons room continued in use, while the Mechanic’s Institute’s room became the headquarters of Macra na Feirme. Parts of the building also saw life as a ballroom, a theatre and a library and for decades part of the ground floor provided living accommodation for the caretaker’s family and also housed the local fire station.

The Town Hall, a prominent building in the centre of Athy, has never received such extensive international publicity as it did while the ‘Virtually Shackleton’ event was streamed last Saturday. During the previous 19 years of the annual Shackleton Autumn School Athy had welcomed visitors from many countries throughout the world. This year’s event saw individuals from over 30 foreign countries participating and since then more than 20,000 persons have accessed the event on Facebook.

This was a Polar event which confirmed the international reach of the Shackleton story. Little did I realise when starting the museum in 1983 that, what was intended as a local museum to awaken interest in Athy’s history, would blossom and develop to host one of the world’s best annual Polar events. I am reminded of the note the late Pat Mulhall posted to me on Penny Post Day in January 1984 which is here illustrated.

Pat was one of the early supporters of the museum when it first opened its doors to admit Sunday afternoon visitors to a room in the former convent school at Stanhope Place. It has been a long journey since then, helped by many people, locals and senior county council officials alike who recognised its value in terms of the reawakening of Athy’s cultural and historical heritage.

This year’s ‘Virtually Shackleton’ was organised by two men, Kevin Kenny of Naas and Seamus Taaffe of Athy, whose initiative and energy were vital elements in providing such a successful international event. They were ably assisted on the day by Bethany Webb McConville and Margaret Walsh of the Shackleton Museum, with Amanda Webb of Spiderworking.com as the live streaming provider and Síne Kenny of Sinekconsulting.com.

In the month of November the people of Athy commemorate men from the town and district who died in World War I, taking the opportunity at the same time to commemorate all those who died in wars. This year because of Covid 19 restrictions the public gathering at St. Michael’s Cemetery will not take place. However, Clem Roche, Eddie Lawler and I, suitably distanced, will hold a short private ceremony of commemoration on Sunday 15 November to remember Athy’s war dead.

If the week started well I had expected, as had many others, that it would end with good news of the American Presidential election outcome. I must confess that I had become somewhat obsessed by the lead into the election, hoping against hope that the incumbent would not succeed in ruling from the White House for another four years. As I write the election outcome is still in the balance, even if there is a strong belief that Joe Biden will be declared the eventual winner. It’s alarming to witness the ongoing degeneration of American politics and American politicians to a level not reached even in the heyday of Tamanny Hall. What is surprising to me is the high level of support Donald Trump seems to have received from Irish emigrants in America as evidenced by the emails I have received from relations and friends on the far side of the ocean. What prompts their support is difficult to understand. The level of support the irreligious Trump has received from the Catholic church in America, which support was led by Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York strengthens the belief that right-wing Catholicism is part of the American dream. However, by the time you read this the election result will be announced, even if the result is disputed and likely to end up in the Supreme Court!

FRANK TAAFFE

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