Reporter David Medcalf and historian Michael Fitzgerald dared to speak of 1798, of hotels long gone, seafarers and local authority housing as they sat on some of the town’s 150 public benches
Every town should have a Michael Fitzgerald – no better man to make sense of his locality with his knowledge, his experience and his love of his own place…
Local councillors in the Arklow district recently reviewed a report informing them that the town has at least 150 benches upon which members of the public may park their backsides. Is 150 a big number of benches in an urban centre with a population of more than 13,000, not to mention weary tourists looking to rest their legs? Do these 150 benches offer pleasing views to those who choose to stop a while and admire the scenery while gathering their breath?
Your reporter contacted Wicklow County Council Cathaoirleach Tommy Annesley to see if he could recommend a guide with whom to explore such questions. Tommy considered the matter for at least ten seconds and then nominated Michael Fitzgerald, local historian and former lifeboatman. So it was arranged for Michael to meet me when I disembarked from the train, primed for a few hours of bench spotting.
The nimble 60 year old stepped forward on Platform One and introduced himself with a reminder that the railway originally opened in 1863. The tone was set for a leisurely meander through Arklow’s past and present, alternately walking and sitting, but always talking.
Within a few metres of setting out from the station, Michael reminded his guest that an outbreak of cholera hit the town in 1866.
The person believed to have imported the fatal disease probably did not come in a train as he was a sailor. Next date into the notebook was 1934, the year that the pottery opened – a great job-spinner up to the factory’s closure around 1998. The pottery, located down by the harbour, was not actually in sight when Michael recited this information.
But many of the workers employed in the business must have resided in the housing estates lining our route. The redbrick terraces of Rory O’Connor Place are classic local authority accommodation and still very much in demand, They must have seemed the very last word in up-to-date architecture to the folk who first resided in them. Damp thatched structures which allowed a family one, or maybe two, cramped rooms only were replaced by these council houses.
“My grandfather wired them,” revealed the local historian looking across at the estates, which helped modernise life in Arklow. Grandfather came from Dublin to set up the Fitzgerald family electrical business. Electricity was a new service in the 1930s when he was contracted by Wicklow County Council to hook homes up to the ESB.
Not everyone was keen to be lit up. Tenants in Liam Mellowes Avenue, for instance, had the choice of opting out of the service or of paying an extra shilling in weekly rent to switch on the power. We discussed grand-dad’s legacy while seated on a south-facing bench close to the Navvy Bridge beside the Yellow (pronounce Yallah) Lane. The navvies were the workmen who built the bridge over the railway line and yallah is the colour of the local stream after passing through a band of yellow marl.
Liam Mellowes, Irish republican executed in 1922, is spelt here as his name appears on the street signs but the second ‘e’ on the surname may be a mistake – surely he was Mellows? The estate which bears his name was formally opened in March of 1936 by future president Sean T O’Kelly, then minister for local government.After the ceremony, the minister was invited to a function in the town centre at Hoyne’s Hotel, since demolished.
On with us up the Yellow Lane, past the bench at Carysfort School to the Bow of the Boat roundabout, which has been decorated by the credit union with a beehive. The notion of any boat being beached this far from the water is a nonsense, of course, but Arklowites (should that be Arklovians maybe, or Arklowers?) love playing games with their names. The Boat of the Boat is a tip of the hat to the Viking past, inspired by some feature – now well disguised – that somehow resembled the front end of a long-boat.
Further mischief is on show in Emoclew Road, which we now followed, a reminder that Emoclew Farm used to be here until housing developments took over. Legendary local character Jim Tallon was the last person to farm the land and the name Emoclew – welcome spelled backwards – somehow seemed to be the perfect fit for his quirkiness.
We were en route along this play-on-the-word road past the boxing club which produced such legends of the sport as James Moore and Paul Fitzgerald. Michael revealed that bantamweight Paul is a relation, now living in Philadelphia, his gloves long hung up since his appearance at the Los Angeles Olympics. Our immediate destination was St Gabriel’s cemetery where surely there would be a bench from which we could admire the landscape across to Croghan.
The graveyard features a large cross erected by the staff of the pottery to mark the holy year of 1950. Michael has plenty of reasons to find this place on the edge of town special for many close personal and family reasons. But, with a visitor in tow, he concentrated on the plots of wider interest, such as those of the Tyrrells – a name represented in both Catholic and Protestant sections.
And over there was the stone marking the final resting place of Reverend James Dunphy. He died in 1914, but not before he had played a major part in bringing the Kynoch’s munitions factory to town. A large part of the Kynoch’s plant was famously destroyed in an explosion in 1917 and 19 of the 27 workers who died in the blast are memorialised in St Gabriel’s. Most of the bodies were too badly mutilated to be identified, the exception being Charles Ellis.
We almost missed the cemetery’s public bench, an improvised timber construction on a corner at the junction of two pathways. On a summer’s evening this would surely be a pleasant spot to stop and ponder the glories of life and the mysteries of death. But it was an overcast March morning, so we did not linger, instead heading out on to the Coolgreany Road with its ghosts of 1798.
Apparently the insurgents of the United Irishmen marched along this very route with their pikes in search of freedom for Ireland. Michael indicated the site at the roadside of what was not so long ago a thatched cottage – perhaps standing when the pikemen passed? – now derelict, littered with old tyres and discarded cans.
He led the way past Glenart College in all its up-to-date educational glory and through the Sheephouse townland. Somewhere around here during World War Two a German bomber jettisoned some of its cargo, resulting in broken windows but no serious casualties.
Past St John’s national school was the massive statement of Church of Ireland presence in Arklow which is St Saviour’s church. This was the base from which the Reverends Hallows and Harrison sortied forth with their fiery evangelical message. Their brand of Christianity was not of the peace and love variety, instead prompting religious riots in the 1890s.
The main drag in Arklow has recently been fitted out with new public seating on a grand scale. So, we sat in the shadow of the Father Murphy statue, its pedestal still bearing the scars of an IRA engineering bomb blast dating back to 1920. Michael looked to reminders of the days when this part of the town was thick with hotels – not only Hoyne’s but also the Railway and the Marine. The last named is the sturdiest survivor, though the building is now the Arklow base of the Apache Pizza chain, rather than providing shelter to commercial travellers and tourists.
So, we sat in St Mary’s Park, with its fountain and its old gravestones, where the bandstand is very much used in summer for performances by the Arklow Silver Band. So, we sat on the bench in Main Street which has been prettified with the planting of a Portuguese laurel, no less. Then we took a right along Butler’s Lane to the Abbey graveyard where we counted seven benches in this most relaxing of walled garden settings.
Overgrown for many years, the place where August Kain was buried in 1732, it has been beautifully transformed into a public park with a splendid rose garden. We were now approaching the heart of the matter, walking along Lower Main Street in the footsteps of King James as he fled from the Battle of the Boyne.
This brought us to the harbour area, for so long the economic driver of Arklow’s fortunes, and sometime misfortunes. There is a fine choice of benches here too, on the quayside, in the memorial garden, beside the old capstan and so on. But it is a modest bench outside the harbour office which makes the strongest appeal to our guide: “This is where I spent my youth, listening to tales of New York and beyond from the old sailors.”
Every town should have Michael Fitzgerald to show strangers around. He traces his interest in local history down in large part to the influence of his teacher Noel Ó Clerigh at the Tech who always encouraged him to ask questions – so that now more than four decades later he knows many of the answers.