by ehistoryadmin on August 6, 2016

Streets and war

Liam Kenny

It is not so long since an Irish politician offered up a time-warping quote along the lines of “If hindsight were foresight I would be a millionaire. “ Apart from it embodying a time-shifting logic that would defy Einstein’s theories of time and space the wording does raise a question about how we how think of the past. Inevitably our view of history is shaped by the fact that we know what happened next. So, for example, Irish people who spotted a few lines in their newspapers on the morning of 30 June 1914 that Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and his wife had been assassinated in Sarajevo two days before could not have foreseen that this remote event would precipitate a global war which was to devour millions of lives and lay waste vast territories of the European continent. We know that to be the case now because we have had over a century to look back and fit the Sarajevo incident into a “what happened-next” narrative.

There is a similar sense of being “ahead of history” when looking over the Irish newspapers of spring 1916. We know of course that the defining episode of that season was the Easter Rising of 1916 which triggered the birth of an Irish Republic. However in February 1916 there was little or no hint of any trouble brewing. Figures such as Pearse, Connolly and Clarke were not household names while the General Post Office in Dublin was a place where nothing more dramatic happened than gumming a stamp.  Two months later it would become the flaming birth-cauldron of a new state.

It is the same sense of the everyday when reading the local papers of spring 1916. True, there was a martial air about the papers with columns of news from the world war, letters from the front, and, poignantly, ever extending casualty lists. However the columns were just as occupied with the day to day  matters which concerned the local people. The prices of produce in the town markets, the arrangements for housing and public health, and the doings and decisions of the local councils, all claimed the public’s attention as much as any great political or international stories.

A good example of how practical business continued was to be found in a press report from the Naas No.1 Rural District Council meeting held in February 1916 where the state of the streets of Newbridge and the condition of the road from Naas to Blackchurch were the big concerns of the day. The County Surveyor, Mr John Rorke, reported to the council on the options and the costs of various projects on his “to do” list.  He told the council that the majority of the road contractors employed by the council had attended well to their duties over the preceding quarter.  However he was worried about the state of the streets in the towns of the county: “In some of the towns better cleaning should be done. In Newbridge especially, contractors appear to have been quite unable to cope with the requirements brought about by the enormous amount of traffic which is now upon the roads in that district.”

He suggested that the system could be improved by transferring the task from contractors to direct labour under the supervision of an efficient overseer. However he needed the guidance of the councillors to advise him as to whether there would be sufficient labourers available in the district embracing Newbridge.  During the presentation of his report the Chairman, Mr J.S. O’Grady, asked him “how often the contractors for roads in the vicinity of the towns were supposed to sweep them?” Mr Rorke replied: “They are supposed to sweep them as often as there is a quarter of an inch of mud on them.”  The Chairman drew laughter in the chamber when he retorted that the contractors “must have very long measures” such was the mud accumulated on the streets.

Rorke acknowledged that there were complaints about the state of the footpaths in the town. He said that there was need for an increased length of concrete footpaths especially on the roads approaching the churches and the railway station (note the priorities). On the question of concrete the Kildare County Surveyor was something of a prophet among his engineering contemporaries and sometime later delivered a paper to the Institute of Engineers on the merits of concrete paving and footpaths at a time when roughly thrown gravel was the best to be found under wheel and heel.

Another relatively new surface treatment was on his mind for a section of arterial road. He recommended that the road from Naas to the county boundary at Blackchurch should be “painted with tar” to prevent attrition and wear and tear on such a heavily trafficked road. Returning to the Newbridge area he expressed concern about “the Stand house road” which was in a poor state as a result of the volume of military traffic on the perimeter of the Curragh. He said that the military authorities had not given any commitment to fund the necessary repairs and he needed the councillors’ direction as to spending £650 on fixing the road or leaving it in its poor condition until the end of the war. This was a question which needed a gift for crystal ball gazing – Mr Rorke could not have known in February 1916 whether the war would end in two months or, as it did, in two years.

The foregoing is just a sample of the local business which occupied the press in the early months of 1916 and provides a realistic context for the appreciation of the impact of the more dramatic politics played out following the outbreak of the Easter Rising.

For more on how the local authorities negotiated the troubled times in and around 1916 look out for a talk being presented by Maynooth native and scholar Tom Nelson who has published a highly readable book on Kildare County Council’s first two decades entitled “Through peace and war: Kildare in the years of revolution.” His talk takes place in the prestigious accommodation of Carton House, Maynooth, on Monday, 15 February, at 7p.m., and admission is free.

Leinster Leader 9 February 2016, Looking Back, Series no: 471.


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