I’ve been haunting St. Mary’s churchyard in Rathvilly on and off for the past few weeks. It’s surrounded almost entirely by houses, with the road to Tullow completing the circle, so it’s hard not to be seen. I’m sure people were wondering about the strange man returning every few days on his bicycle to crouch among the gravestones and scribble on pieces of paper. But on all my visits I only spoke to two people. One was a genial peer who came in his capacity as a parishioner to repair a capstone on a low wall. We discussed the strangeness of a ‘warped’ flat gravestone that has been sagging for nearly two centuries. The other was the friendly and helpful caretaker who also found the memorials interesting.
As you may have guessed, my haunting of the churchyard was for the purpose of transcribing the gravestone inscriptions. It was the conclusion of a small project I started exactly twenty years ago! In the summer of 1999, when I lived in Dublin, I was house-sitting for friends in my native Baltinglass. The weather was good and I felt like cycling. I decided to start transcribing the stones in Rathvilly Church of Ireland graveyard. I also toyed with following up with the Catholic graveyard in the heart of the village till I took a good look at its size and thought the better of it.
My work in 1999 progressed well. I put my notes away, thinking they should be typed up and published at some time. I mislaid them and periodically came across them, only to forget where they were, over and over. At one stage I suggested to the editors of the West Wicklow Historical Society Journal that I would submit the memorial transcriptions as an article. This year one of them reminded me of this. As I thought they would be the shortest route to a completed article and as I had recently rediscovered them, I promised the article. Incidentally, before you ask, Rathvilly is indeed in Co. Carlow, but it’s just over the border and the WWHS covers West Wicklow and environs. Besides, several Baltinglass parishioners are buried in Rathvilly.
It was only when I started typing up my notes that I realised that I hadn’t covered all the graves I had intended to. In any case, I knew there were many question marks that would have to be addressed. So back I cycled to the churchyard in the summer of 2019 and plodded about trying to make sense of my twenty-year-old findings. Many of the inscriptions were tricky and some downright impossible, so the project dragged on. I was back and forth to Rathvilly on relatively sunny days, eating my snacks on the Green like a cycling tourist, and latterly in the comfort of the newly opened Wild Flower Café. I have to admit that it was no real hardship. Transcribing gravestone inscriptions is fun for me and if I had the time I’d do it more often. But my clients’ reports are more pressing.
I remember once when I was in my early teens being in the cemetery in Baltinglass with my Dad. He walked on a bit but I was among the very old graves, standing on a flat stone, crouched down, intent on deciphering the wording. There was a yew tree to my left and I became aware of some activity near it. I rotated my downturned face to the left and there were two women crouching low to get a good look under the tree at what I might be doing. Once spotted, they straightened up quickly and went on their way. They were women well known for patrolling the town in search of trivial intelligence. I’m sure I gave an edge to their findings on that day. They certainly made me laugh!
So, today I celebrate the submission of my article on the Rathvilly church and churchyard memorials to the editors of the WWHSJ. The estimated publication date is in October. I must say thank you to Ger Clarke, caretaker of St. Mary’s, and Hazel Burgess, churchwarden, for their assistance in completing the project. And I hope that it gives more longevity to the memory of those buried at St. Mary’s.
On a cold February night in the Glen of Imaal, Co. Wicklow, in 1799 it would have seemed unimaginable luxurious to those trying to stay warm that people in the future would swim in heated man-made pools. Rebels on the run hardly thought about such things. Telling ghost stories or tales about strange spirits might have whiled away the hours, but would they ever have thought that such stories could be told in the future through pictures moving on a wall?
Unless you’re from West Wicklow or have some family connection with the event, you’re unlikely to have heard of the siege at Derrynamuck. It followed the 1798 Rebellion in Ireland and involved the capture of a group of rebels, with only their leader, Michael Dwyer, escaping. On the other hand, if you’re not too young you may be familiar with the film Cocoon, released in 1985. It was about elderly people in a retirement home gaining youthful energy by swimming in a pool owned by aliens. It was a big hit at the time, and led to a sequel.
On the surface there is nothing to connect Derrynamuck and Cocoon. Separated by circumstance, character, the Atlantic Ocean and almost two centuries, they have no visible common factor. However, genealogy has a way of drawing unrelated things together.
It’s a small world, as they say. Mathematicians and social psychologists have long theorised about the connectedness of the human population and their idea has been popularised by the term ‘six degrees of separation’. The hypothesis is that any two individuals on the planet are connected in some way by no more than five intervening people. Well, a person concerned with Derrynamuck was connected to a person who acted in Cocoon through three intervening people. Therefore, there are just four degrees of separation between Derrynamuck and Cocoon.
The connection was not through Michael Dwyer or any of the rebels who were with him. Instead, the person concerned was Dominick Edward Blake. He was a young man in the 1790s and certainly not a rebel. Blake was a Church of Ireland (Anglican) clergyman, though he may not have been ordained at the time of Derrynamuck. Then in his late 20s, he had yet to secure an appointment to a parish within the C. of I. It was not until 1804 that he became the minister in Kiltegan, Co. Wicklow, a position he was to hold for nineteen years. Dominick Blake was born in Co. Roscommon. Exactly why he was in West Wicklow in February 1799 is unclear, but he may have been a friend of William Hoare Hume of Humewood, his contemporary at Trinity College Dublin. In fact, Blake, Hume and the rebel leader Dwyer all were born in or about 1772.
The 1798 Rebellion was an uprising against British rule, led by members of the United Irishmen and prompted by support from the French. The United Irishmen were mainly led by Protestant radicals and in Ulster the rebellion primarily involved Presbyterians. In the general area of Wicklow the rebellion primarily involved Catholics and events led to sectarian distrust and violence. Landlords, such as the Humes, expected their tenants of whatever religious persuasion to support them in fighting the rebels.
It was a trying time for all and the ties of loyalty often were tested. On occasion Dwyer himself was accused by fellow rebels of being too fond of Protestant neighbours. On the other hand, an anonymous letter to Dublin Castle called for William Hume of Humewood to be ‘properly cautioned from screening the disaffected of his own neighbourhood’. This William Hume was the father of William Hoare Hume. In October 1798 he was killed by a rebel named John Moore on the road from Ballinabarney Gap to Rathdangan.
Dominick Blake’s role in the story of the siege of Derrynamuck, four months later, came about by chance. A local man named William Steel got wind of the fact that Dwyer and his party were staying in Derrynamuck on the night of 15 February 1799. Steel was in Humewood at the time, as was Blake ‘who luckily happened to be on horse back’. Steel gave him the information and he galloped off to the garrison at Hacketstown to convey it to the commanding officer of the Glengarry Fencibles, a regiment apparently made up mainly of Catholics from the Scottish highlands who spoke little or no English.
As Charles Dickson’s The Life of Michael Dwyer states, the twelve rebels staying in three houses in Derrynamuck were surrounded by the Scottish regiment in the early hours of 16 February. In the exchange that followed a private soldier was shot dead, a corporal was fatally wounded and three of the rebels were killed. Dwyer escaped and the remaining eight rebels were captured. On 23 February they were tried in Baltinglass and sentenced to death. Three who were deserters from army and militia regiments were shot. Four others were hanged. The other man saved his life by informing about a murder which he may well have committed himself.
Four months after the siege Dominick Blake married Ann Margaret Hume, whose father had been killed the previous autumn. The marriage took place on 25 June 1799 and by then Blake was an ordained minister. His first recorded appointment was two years later, as curate in Kilcock. In 1804 he became Rector of Kilranelagh and Kiltegan. The present church in the village of Kiltegan, St. Peter’s, was built in 1806. The adjacent Glebe House (since enlarged and now no longer a church property) was built about a decade later. However, the Glebe House may not have been completed during Rev. Dominick Blake’s lifetime, as his address when he died was Barraderry. It may be that he rented Barraderry House, just outside Kiltegan, from the Pendred family. On the other hand, he may have had a residence on the part of Barraderry townland owned by the Humes.
Dominick Blake and Ann Hume had two sons born in Kiltegan, the younger being William Hume Blake (1809-1870). He added to the Hume-ness of his line by marrying his cousin Catherine Hume in 1832. In the same year his extended family, including his mother, emigrated to Upper Canada. He and various relatives were prominent enough in their new country to merit entries in the Dictionary of Canadian Biography. William Hume Blake and Catherine Hume were the parents of Sophia Blake who married Verschoyle Cronyn. Their son Hume Blake Cronyn (1864-1933) was a lawyer and politician. His son, also named Hume Blake Cronyn, became an actor.
Hume Cronyn may not have been the biggest name in Hollywood but his was a very recognisable face among character actors from the 1940s to the first decade of the twenty-first century. His first film was Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt (1943). He received an Oscar nomination for his supporting role in the 1944 film The Seventh Cross. It was the first film in which he appeared with his wife, Jessica Tandy. Cocoon was one of the last in which they worked together (as one of the elderly couples swimming in the aliens’ pool), but it was released four years before Jessica Tandy’s career reached its zenith with Driving Miss Daisy.
Hume Cronyn’s other films included Cleopatra (1963), The Parallax View (1974), The World According to Garp (1982) and Marvin’s Room (1996). He won three Emmys and a Tony for performances on television and stage, as well as a Tony in 1994 for Lifetime Achievement, jointly with Jessica Tandy.
Following Dominick Blake’s death on 2 October 1823 in his 51st year his parishioners in Kiltegan erected a plaque in St. Peter’s church expressing ‘their deep sense of his worth’ and ‘their grief for his loss’. A decade later his widow Ann emigrated to Canada, where she died in the 1860s.
After Derrynamuck Michael Dwyer spent nearly five years evading capture in the Wicklow Mountains before surrendering in the belief that he and his companions would be pardoned and sent to the USA. The man he chose to surrender to was Dominick Blake’s brother-in-law, William Hoare Hume. That instead the rebels were sent as convicts to Australia was never blamed on Hume. Hume died in 1815 in his early 40s. Dwyer died in New South Wales in 1825, almost two years after Blake, aged 53.
In August 1948, during the 150th anniversary of the 1798 Rebellion, what became known as the Dwyer – McAllister Cottage in Derrynamuck was handed over to the state in the person of President Seán T. O’Kelly. The ceremony was attended by William Hoare Hume’s great-granddaughter, Catherine Marie Madeleine ‘Mimi’ Weygand. Mme. Weygand died in 1991, ending the Hume family’s association with Humewood, Kiltegan and West Wicklow.
[I wish to thank Canon Jones and Kiltegan Parish for allowing me to use the image of the Blake plaque; also, I wish to thank Ms. Tandy Cronyn (daughter of Hume Cronyn), Darryl Reilly (New York City arts blogger) and Alan Hanbidge (Kiltegan Parish) for their assistance.]
A week ago I attended a marathon of an event. It lasted from 10.30am to sometime about 9pm, long after I had left. It was absorbing. It was full of surprises, good and bad. It was a glimpse into the past, and it said a lot about the present Irish economy. For anyone from my locality who attended it, there was no doubt a tinge of sadness as well as great fascination.
This event was the sale of the contents of Fortgranite, a gentleman’s residence just a few miles outside of Baltinglass. For over two hundred years it had been the home of the Dennis family, but recently it was sold and now we were picking over the family’s heirlooms, their more personal possessions and the things they had forgotten in the less visited corners of the ancient house.
As well as wanting to purchase a pair of Victorian bookcases and some genealogical books, I had the mad notion of ‘saving’ one of the many portraits for Baltinglass. The house was crammed full of the images of the Dennis family’s ancestors. Most of them were from the Swift family. Apparently they had come to Fortgranite from Swiftsheath, Co. Kilkenny.
In the male line the Dennises originally were Swifts. Meade Swift, a first cousin of the famous Jonathan Swift and a second cousin of the poet John Dryden, was the father of Thomas Swift who married Frances Dennis. Frances’s brother Lord Tracton died without issue in 1782. He left his estates in Co. Kerry to his nephew Rev. Meade Swift on condition that he adopt the surname of Dennis. In 1780 Rev. Meade Swift had married Delia Sophia Saunders of Saunders Grove. Through this marriage the family’s connection with the Baltinglass area had come about. It was their son Thomas Stratford Dennis who was the first owner of Fortgranite. It would appear that the property came with his marriage in 1810 to his first cousin Katherine Martha Maria Saunders. The last resident owner of Fortgranite was their great-great-grandson Piers Dennis, who died in January 2016.
The Swift portraits were not the ones I was concerned about. I got it into my head that the Stratford family portraits should remain in Baltinglass, where they had history and context. In my mind’s eye I could see them on the walls of Baltinglass Courthouse, a building almost contemporary with Fortgranite. Unable to interest anyone with money in being philanthropic, I innocently decided that I might manage to ‘save’ one of the portraits. Who could possibly wish to go beyond the guide price to purchase portraits of complete strangers by unknown artists? Well now I know that the answer to that is many people. The Stratford portrait I was least interested in was that of Lady Maria Stratford, about whose very existence I was previously unaware. The guide price was €4,000 to €6,000 but Lady Maria was fought over by a number of people before someone bidding over the phone got possession for €18,000. It must be said that the catalogue indicated that this painting was attributed to James Latham.
So, why did the Stratfords interest me, and why where their portraits in Fortgranite? Robert and Mary Stratford had a residence in Baltinglass in the 1660s. Their son Edward, though he lived in Belan, Co. Kildare, purchased the town of Baltinglass and many of the townlands in its vicinity from the Carroll family in 1707. His son John Stratford did much to encourage the development of Baltinglass. He married Martha daughter of Rev. Benjamin Neale (apparently Rector variously of Hacketstown, Kiltegan and Baltinglass) and through the marriage acquired further local property, including Mountneill, Co. Carlow, a few miles south of Baltinglass.
John and Martha became Baron and Baroness Baltinglass in 1763, Viscount and Viscountess Aldborough in 1776 and finally Earl and Countess of Aldborough in 1777. Their eldest son, Edward, was the more famous 2nd Earl. It was he who build Aldborough House in Dublin and founded the industrial town (now village) of Stratford-on-Slaney, a few miles north of Baltinglass.
The Dennis family were descended from John and Martha through their daughter, Martha Saunders. The last of the Stratfords was the 6th Earl. When his residence, Stratford Lodge (where Baltinglass Golf Club is now located), went up in flames in 1858 four Dennis brothers were among those who attempted to save its contents. Whether the portraits were there at the time is unclear but they came into the possession of the Dennis family either then or on the death of the last earl’s mother. In any case they adorned the walls of Fortgranite for over 130 years.
As for the portraits, they included one of the original Edward Stratford, one of his son John (1st Earl), two of John’s wife Martha and one of their son Edward (2nd Earl). To me, these historical characters were part of the story of Baltinglass and their images bring to life an aspect of our heritage. I determined to at least bid for the ‘cheapest’ of them, the nicer of the two of Martha Neale. The guide price was €1,500-€2,000 and I was sure it would sell for less. I never got to take part. The bidding started at €1,500 and the portrait sold for €5,000.
Martha Neale may not be a well-known historical character internationally but she possibly was the earliest woman associated with Baltinglass of whom there is a surviving image. Genealogically she made her mark on the world. As the mother of at least fifteen (family legend says nineteen) children she produced thousands of descendants. Among those living today are the Princesses Beatrice and Eugenie of York, the explorer Sir Ranulph Fiennes and the acting brothers Ralph and Joseph Fiennes.
During the auction various military jackets went for huge prices. Much attention was given to a letter dated 1901 from Winston Churchill replying to Capt. (later Col.) Meade J.C. Dennis, who took exception to his comment on the conduct of the Boer War. With the interest shown in military memorabilia it might have been expected that the letter would fetch a hefty sum, but this was not the case.
One portrait that went past me unnoticed, because it was surrounded in the auction by several Swifts, was that of ‘Miss A. Plunkett, niece of the first Lord Aldborough, Countess of Antrim’. This was Anne Plunkett, a granddaughter of the Edward Stratford who purchased Baltinglass in 1707. She was also the great-great-great-great-grandmother of Winston Churchill. I doubt Churchill was aware that the man he was replying to in 1901 was his fifth cousin twice removed.
It wasn’t necessary for me to find space in my house to accommodate Martha Neale, and she left Baltinglass after all. However, I learned that she and the other Stratfords of whom I was concerned went to ‘good homes’ in Ireland. This is reassuring to know. The Dennises were the last descendants of the Stratfords living locally, some three and a half centuries after Robert and Mary Stratford first came to Baltinglass. ‘The end of an era’ is a dreadfully hackneyed phrase. But in this instance the auction was just that, and I was there to witness the end.
The recent intense and prolonged heatwave experienced by Ireland reminded me of a short newspaper article I came across a few years ago. I included it in my contribution to the Journal of the West Wicklow Historical Society, No. 6 (2011), ‘Miscellaneous Biographical Notices Relating to Baltinglass, 1748-1904’.
The article recounted the tragic death of a little boy during a hot spell in August 1882. It appeared in the Saturday 12 August edition of the Kildare Observer, under the heading ‘Death from Sunstroke’:
During the past week a child of Mr. Felix Bowes, of Baltinglass, died from the effects of the intense heat. The deceased was a fine little boy of five years of age, and was playing with a number of other children, when he complained of having a pain in his head, and, after a short illness, succumbed. It appears his head was uncovered, and it would be desirable children should not be allowed to expose themselves to the heat of the sun this weather.
The little boy was John Bowes. He was indeed five years old, as he was born in Baltinglass on 7 January 1877. On his birth record he parents were named as Phelim Bowes, a tailor, and Margaret Bowes, formerly Parker. The names Phelim and Felix were used interchangeably, due to Felix being used as a pseudo-translation of Phelim.
The exact date of John’s death is in doubt. Theoretically, the newspaper was published on Saturday 12 August but it may have appeared a few days before or after that date, as local newspapers often did until recent years. John’s death record gives his official date of death as 13 August, but it was not registered until 13 October, so the date is most likely inaccurate. The record stated that the uncertified cause of death was ‘Sunstroke two days’.
A little bit of digging showed that Felix Bowes married Margaret Parker in 1870 June in the Leeds area of Yorkshire. They were not identified in the 1871 Census in England and the first reference found to them in the Baltinglass area was John’s birth record in 1877. Presumably Felix was a Bowes of Killabeg, Co. Wicklow (between Shillelagh and Tullow), as Catherine Bowes of Killabeg was informant on John’s birth record. John’s mother, Margaret, converted to Catholicism in Baltinglass on 17 October 1878. She was baptised conditionally and the record stated that she ‘was married before Baptism in Protestant Church’. The record gave her parents as Edward Parker and Sarah Watson.
Felix and Margaret Bowes had three younger children – Charles (1879), Felix (1881) and George (1882). Felix died at birth. Then, the following year, John died of sunstroke. George died just over four months after John, aged seven months. The cause of his death was hydrocephalus, more commonly called ‘water on the brain’. The final tragedy came sixteen months later, when Margaret herself died on 21 April 1884 at the stated age of 36. The certified cause of death was ‘Decline’, which she had suffered for ‘years’, possibly from the birth of her last child.
The loss of four members of his family in the space of three years did not entirely defeat Felix Bowes. Four months after his wife’s death he married again. This was not unusual and, indeed, with at least one living child it was necessary that he find a wife who would share the burden. He married Mary Roche of Baltinglass in August 1884. Initially they lived in Car’s Rock, just outside the town, where their son, another John, was born in 1885. Their other children born in Car’s Rock were Michael (1886), Catherine (1888) and Walter (1890), while Felix (1892) and Edward (1894) were born in Baltinglass. Edward died at five weeks old. Felix Bowes, the father of the little boy John, died a widower in April 1916 in Baltinglass Workhouse, at the stated aged of 78.
What’s the oldest gravestone in St. Joseph’s graveyard in Baltinglass? I really don’t know. But I do know that it’s not the one with the earliest date on it. Am I confusing you? Well, there is a gravestone that includes ‘Michael Brophy who gave his life in Ireland’s cause at Baltinglass in 1798 aged 55 years’. The headstone and that inscription were put in place in the oldest part of the cemetery in about 1920 by Michael’s great-grandson, William Henry Brophy of Bisbee, Arizona, USA.
Michael Brophy was a prosperous farmer who lived in Rathmoon House (now Burke’s) but he was originally from north Kilkenny. He had twelve sons and one daughter. In the 1790s he was known to be involved in the United Irishmen. Family tradition suggested that he was at the Battle of Vinegar Hill in June 1798, after which he was captured and executed. Over a century later E.P. O’Kelly wrote that Brophy was hanged from a beam at the entrance to Tan Lane (on one side of Mill Street).
Michael’s son George, who was born in Kilkenny, attended Carlow College before training for the priesthood in Paris and Madrid. He returned to Paris and was ordained in 1798, the year of his father’s death. George spent decades in France before moving to the USA in 1843. He died in Davenport, Iowa, in 1880, reportedly at the age of 105. Rev. George Brophy moved in exalted circles and in his time met Napoleon Bonaparte and six American presidents, including Abraham Lincoln.
Another of Michael’s sons, William, was intended for the church but he decided it was not for him and emigrated to Canada where he practised law. His grandson Truman William Brophy, born in Illinois in 1848, became a dentist and then a medical doctor. In the late nineteenth century, based in Chicago, he pioneered surgical procedures to repair the cleft lip and palate. Truman Brophy travelled internationally performing operations and lecturing, and he published two books on the subject. His work alleviated the suffering of countless people born with the condition.
Another of Michael’s sons was James Brophy, who succeeded him in Rathmoon. In 1815 James married Catherine (‘Kitty’) Cullen of Prospect, Narraghmore, Co. Kildare. Kitty’s younger brother, Paul Cullen, became Ireland’s first cardinal in 1866. James and Kitty’s eldest son, Michael Brophy, succeeded to the Rathmoon property. He had married Matilda Lalor, from the Goresbridge area of Kilkenny. Michael and Matilda’s son William Henry (‘Billy’) Brophy was baptised in Baltinglass on 18 October 1863. He went to America when he was aged 17, arriving in New York with his cousin Hugh on 11 April 1881.
Billy Brophy gravitated to the mining settlement of Bisbee, Arizona, where his older brothers had already begun to work. A mercantile, mining and banking career ultimately made him a millionaire. When the USA entered the First World War in 1917, Brophy became a ‘Dollar-a-Year’ man. He was one of a number of high powered businessmen who gave their expertise for a token salary of $1 plus expenses. He was based in Paris for the duration.
It was shortly afterwards that he had the gravestone erected in Baltinglass to his grandparents, James and Kitty, and to his great-grandfather Michael Brophy, the 1798 rebel. In the early 1920s he moved to Los Angeles. In November 1922, while on a fishing trip in the Gulf of California, Billy Brophy was swept overboard in a storm and drowned. He was aged 59. Mass was celebrated for him in Baltinglass a few months later. In 1928 in his honour his widow, Ellen Amelia, founded Brophy College Preparatory, a Jesuit boys’ school, in Phoenix, Arizona. The stained glass windows of its Brophy Chapel were designed and executed by artists from Dublin’s An Túr Gloine.
2013 (when this post was first aired on Facebook) was the 150th anniversary of the birth in Baltinglass of William Henry Brophy, who erected the gravestone with the earliest date in the oldest part of St. Joseph’s graveyard. But it’s not the oldest gravestone.
Old bridges have a strange way of blending into the landscape. Often we don’t notice them at all. Some of the smaller ones are camouflaged by greenery or hidden by road resurfacing. Larger ones are so familiar that they seem to have been there forever. With so much concern about flooding this year our bridges have come back into focus. Eldon Bridge and Baltinglass Bridge have been in the public eye more in 2010 than at any time since 1965. That was the year when another of our old bridges was swept away by the waters of the Slaney.
It may surprise people that there are well over twenty bridges in our parish, not counting those over the old railway line. Most of them are nameless and secretly cross small streams. ‘Our parish’ may seem a vague term. In this instance we are talking about the Catholic parish. It has set geographical boundaries, incorporating Ballynure, Baltinglass, Rathbran and Rathtoole civil parishes in Co. Wicklow and parts of Graney and Kineagh civil parishes in Co. Kildare.
In the Kildare end of our parish are two bridges of note. Miller’s Bridge, on the road between The Pike and Bigstone, crosses a stream that flows off Carrigeen hill. The stream joins forces with others before reaching the bridge at Graney. This familiar humpback on the road from Baltinglass to Castledermot was the scene of the infamous Graney Ambush on 24 October 1922, a brutal episode in the Civil War. This stream flows into the Lerr at Castledermot and enters the Barrow north of Carlow Town.
In the west of our parish, straddling the boundary between Wicklow and Kildare, is Ballycore Bridge, now most noticeable as a narrowing of the R747, which links Baltinglass to the new M9. The stream it crosses flows on through Timolin to join the Greese and make its way into the Barrow just south of Maganey. Close to Ballycore, but on a less trodden path is Rathtoole Bridge. It links the R747 with the ‘Bed Road’. Despite its name, this narrow single-arch bridge is slightly outside Rathtoole townland. The north side of it is in Baronstown Lower and the south side is in Lackareagh and Moneymore.
Apart from the Slaney crossings there are two other named bridges in our parish. Kyle (officially spelt ‘Kill’) is a two-arch bridge over a stream fed from Kilranelagh and Baltinglass hills. Further on its course this stream once powered the mill in Tuckmill. It still flows unnoticed under the N81 to join the Slaney just north of Tuckmill Cross. Further south, a network of streams from the Talbotstown area drain into a small river that enters the Slaney at Kilmurry. The small river separates Baltinglass from Rathvilly parish and Wicklow from Carlow. Spanning it with a single arch is Mountneill Bridge, a venerable humpback with great character.
The bridging of the Slaney goes back to the 1600s. Tradition has it that there was a ford in Baltinglass north of where the present bridge stands. The Cistercian monks who built the original mill on the west bank of the river had to have some crossing point from the Abbey on the east side. Sometime in the latter half of the seventeenth century Sir Maurice Eustace built a bridge in the town. It may have been immediately adjacent to the ford. A map from 1745 shows it about where Gillespie’s SuperValu now faces St. Kevin’s. Before the present SuperValu was built in the late twentieth century the line of the street leading down the slope to this bridge was discernible. The popular name for Jimmy Donohoe’s pub, ‘the Hollow’, most likely originated from this sloping street.
In the late eighteenth century the then owner of the town, Edward Stratford, 2nd Earl of Aldborough, built a new stone bridge south of the original one. Its western approach was aligned with Cuckoo Lane (Belan Street), which led to his residence at Belan, Co. Kildare. The bridge crossed the river at a slight angle so that its eastern approach was not exactly aligned with the existing north side of Main Street. Presumably this was to centre it on the widened street. Edward’s three-arch bridge had triangular cutwaters and dressed granite voussoirs and it was under construction in 1788. At the time it must have been impressively wide. Built for horse drawn vehicles almost a quarter of a millennium ago, this bridge still stands at the heart of the town, tested daily by twenty-first century articulated lorries.
Despite its antiquity, Baltinglass Bridge is not the oldest existing Slaney bridge in our parish. That honour goes to Manger Bridge, which is estimated to date from some decades earlier and may be the oldest bridge on the river’s entire course. In its heyday this narrow five-arch crossing was on the road from Baltinglass through Dunlavin to Dublin. Lord Aldborough’s new town of Stratford-upon-Slaney was built on this road in the 1780s. The realignment of the Dublin road to the east of the river in the early nineteenth century diminished Manger’s importance. It may well have saved it too, as road expansion inevitably would have seen a wider bridge replace it.
Tuckmill Bridge is another eighteenth century construction. The late Tommy Doyle of the Lough maintained a tradition that one of his ancestors was drowned at a fording place in Tuckmill in the 1770s. Subsequently the present bridge was built. Tommy stated that the Dempsey family came to work on it and then settled in Tuckmill.
An old fording place that has long been defunct is Maiden’s Ford, between Cloghcastle and the end of the Green Lane in Newtownsaunders. According to the Ordnance Survey Name Books, compiled in the 1830s, it got its name from ‘a young woman having been drowned at it about a hundred years ago’. Michael Coogan of the Redwells appears to have been the source of this information. Further downstream, between Holdenstown Lower and Slaney Park, was Lady’s Ford. It connected a now abandoned road through Holdenstown with the Redwells. Apparently again quoting Coogan, the Name Books state that it was named after ‘a Lady being drowned at it in crossing the River about 50 years ago’.
In the 1940s the place-names expert Liam Price dismissed the explanations of Maiden’s Ford and Lady’s Ford as unconvincingly similar. Perhaps Price was too quick to reject the traditions. In the mid-eighteenth century Slaney Park was the home of Sir Warren Crosbie who called it Crosbie Park. His wife was Dorothy Howard from Northumberland. Their grandson, the balloonist Richard Crosbie, Ireland’s first aviator, is believed to have been born at Crosbie Park. Lady Crosbie drowned in the Slaney on 29 October 1748. Pue’s Occurrences of 1-5 November 1748 reported:
Last Week the Lady of Sir Warren Crosbie was unfortunately drowned, as she was crossing the River Slany near Enniscorthy in her Coach, occasioned by a great Flood that was in the River. Sir Warren Crosbie and some other Gentlemen who were in the Coach, happily saved their Lives by swimming to Shore; two of the Coach Horses were also drowned.
The coincidence is too great to ignore. It is easier to dismiss the newspaper’s mention of Enniscorthy as inaccurate than to dismiss the potential connection with Lady’s Ford.
The old road leading through Holdenstown ran parallel to the present one, which came into existence before 1838 and possibly much earlier. At some stage, perhaps in the 1820s, Aldborough Bridge was built, linking this road to the Redwells. The three-arch humpback still serves this quiet road.
The Building Bridge also was erected sometime before 1838, linking the village of Stratford to the new Baltinglass to Dublin road. This may well have been to provide better access to the cotton printing factory that was then just a few hundred yards from the bridge. On the night of 17 November 1965, during the greatest flood in living memory, the Building Bridge gave way, causing concern for the other old bridges downstream. Indeed a small portion of Tuckmill Bridge also went in that flood but it was repaired. Afterwards the Building Bridge was replaced by a temporary wooden structure before the present concrete bridge was put in place some twenty years ago. It is a functional structure but not as pleasing to the eye as the older bridges.
Perhaps the most noticeable crossing of the Slaney within our parish is Eldon Bridge, tucked into a sharp bend on the N81. Before its construction the way from Baltinglass to Dublin ran from Chapel Hill to Tuckmill along what we now call the Sruhaun Road. On the other side of the river the way from Baltinglass to Grangecon and Dunlavin ran from Mill Street to Raheen. In about 1829 a new stretch of road was run from the western side across the new Eldon Bridge to join the existing Dublin road at the foot of the hill. John Scott, the first Earl of Eldon, was Lord Chancellor until 1827 and the bridge appears to have been named for him. It spans three arches, but slightly at a remove on the eastern side is an additional dry arch for use in floods. Until just a couple of years ago there was a marked dip on the western approach to Eldon Bridge. This allowed river water to cross the road at times of high flooding. Controversially the dip was smoothed over when the road to the dump in Rampere was widened. Many people familiar with the Slaney’s habits fear that this change might weaken the bridge’s structure if another major flood were to happen.
We may pay little attention to our bridges as a rule, but they are part of the fabric of our parish and we would miss them if they were to vanish from the landscape. Baltinglass Bridge is barely wide enough for the vehicular and pedestrian traffic it is taxed with now. The provision of a free-standing walkway beside it could relieve the congestion and make it safer for those on foot. Ultimately though, this old familiar bridge will only be preserved for posterity by a bridge that has yet to be built. The Baltinglass Town Development Plan has identified the route for a relief road south of the town. Unfortunately, it is left to private enterprise to develop such a road so we may be waiting quite some time for our first bridge of the new millennium.
[first published in The Review 2010 – A year in the life of Baltinglass, Bigstone, Grangecon and Stratford]
One of the most recognisable structures in Baltinglass is the tower in St. Joseph’s Graveyard on Chapel Hill. Standing almost alone beside the central pathway, it evokes thoughts of times gone by. There is a haunting picturesque quality about it. Familiar as it is, many people have only a vague idea of how it came to be there. Is it the last remnant of the old church? Has it something to do with Catholic Emancipation? Is it part of an old castle?
Today, as you look up the central pathway, the tower is in the middle of the graveyard. Until 1938, when the graveyard was extended up the hill, the tower formed part of its upper boundary wall. Further back again, before the area to the left of the central pathway was added to the cemetery in 1903, the tower occupied the north-east corner of the much smaller cemetery. The lowest part to the right of the central pathway was not part of the grounds before that time either; small houses once stood there. Before 1903 you would have entered the graveyard through the gateway in what was the south-west corner. The gate still stands, but like a forgotten old favourite, above its rows of crooked granite steps. When that gate was in its heyday it was the entrance to the chapel yard. Directly inside it was the chapel and on the somewhat higher ground to the north was the small cemetery area. Standing in the corner above the graves and at some distance from the chapel was the tower. Beside the boundary wall, a narrow flight of steps ran up from the chapel towards the tower. The steps are still to be seen.
Before the end of the 1820s the tower was less conspicuous, partly because it was not as tall then but also because the chapel obscured its view. Chapel Hill got its name from this chapel. When it was built, possibly in the late eighteenth century, the term ‘church’ officially related to a Church of Ireland place of worship. All other denominations had chapels or meetinghouses. Throughout most of the eighteenth century the Penal Laws were in force in Ireland. They were aimed at bolstering the position of the Protestant ruling class and they restricted the religious practices of Roman Catholic and Protestant Non-Conformist denominations. One of these laws forbade priests from officiating in a chapel with a steeple or bell. Luke Gardiner’s second Catholic Relief Act, passed in 1782, removed many restrictions on priests and Catholic worship but retained the prohibition regarding a steeple or bell.
Throughout the period of the Penal Laws their enforcement depended very much on the attitude of those in power locally. By the late eighteenth century most of the laws had been dismantled and those that remained could be flouted in many cases. It is probably in these circumstances that our bell tower was first constructed. It was built several yards away from the chapel so that, technically, no law was being broken. Chapel Hill was an established place-name by 1802 but the chapel may not have been very old by then, as it was called ‘the new chapel’ in a deed of 1799. The tower may well have been built at the same time as the chapel.
When Catholic Emancipation was enacted in 1829 it removed all remaining restrictions on Catholic worship. Rev. Henry Young, a charismatic missionary priest, is said to have been responsible for raising funds locally for a new bell, made in Dublin that year. It is said that at the same time the tower was raised to its present height, with the castellated finish. The Parish Priest responsible for this was Rev. John Shea, who had been in Baltinglass for over twenty years.
At some stage, not necessarily in 1829, a rectangular plaque was placed on the tower. At its centre is a cross. Above that is an inscription in Greek which apparently translates as ‘Glory to God in the highest’. Below the cross is the very strange ‘Shea Mont Castle’ and below that ‘Anno Domini 1829’. What exactly was meant by the words ‘Shea Mont Castle’ is uncertain but the inscription is clearly in English and is not an abbreviation of a longer text. Presumably it relates to Father Shea’s building up of the tower, but it has given rise to the mistaken belief that the tower is that of a castle called ‘Shea Mont’.
In the 1850s, when the present St. Joseph’s church was ready for divine worship, the decaying chapel on Chapel Hill was abandoned. The clock tower of the new church was not completed until the 1890s. Up to that point the bell in the tower in the graveyard continued to be rung to summon parishioners to Mass. The 1829 bell was then transferred to the church in Stratford, where it remained in use until the 1930s.
[First published in The Review 2009: a year in the life of Baltinglass, Bigstone, Grangecon and Stratford]
I'm a genealogist by profession, with credentials from AGI. I also dabble in local history and the history of Irish golfers, and I'm always writing something!