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From the banks of the Liffey to Staten Island … a Celbridge link

Liam Kenny

It’s not often that a school secretary gets a phone call from America from a caller wanting to buy a history book. But such calls have not  been unusual in the office of Scoil Mochua, Celbridge, following the publication by the school of a splendid colour book A History of Celbridge.
The book’s launch packed the school hall with an audience who lapped up the commentary given by author and retired teacher Tony Doohan on how he went about researching the story of Celbridge and environs.  There are few better qualified than the Donegal native – years of leading classes of eager pupils on walks and cycle tours of Celbridge equipped him to find the answers to the multitude of questions which only a class of eight-years olds could generate.  Turning such experience in the field into the serious study of sources and records concerning Celbridge in times past formed the basis for his first history of the town published by Celbridge Community Council in 1984. This publication was a pioneer in its day, showing that history could be published in a manner that would attract and hold the interest of a wide readership.  Text written with a light touch, and a profusion of photographs and drawings, made for a winning combination and indeed Tony Doohan’s first book was an inspiration for history groups in other parts of Kildare when they began to think of how to present history in their own publications. 
But back to the Celbridge and New York connection. In his new book Tony Doohan reflects (among many other nuggets on Celbridge) on a land-owning family whose name has vanished entirely from the locality: the Dongans. In the turbulent sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in Ireland, big estates changed hands at a dizzying pace with estates being confiscated and then being reclaimed by owners as the fortunes of strife ebbed and flowed. The lands at Castletown, Celbridge were no exception to this shuffling about of ownerships and in 1641 a John Dongan inherited the estate and according to A History of Celbridge ‘built the first large dwelling house there’.  The Dongan’s supported King Charles 1st as he tried to hold out against Cromwell. However Cromwell prevailed and the Dongan’s paid for their loyalty to the King when their house at Castletown was burned by Cromwellian planters.
However their fortunes took a better turn with the restoration of the monarchy in England and the crowning of Charles II. The new king appointed Thomas Dongan to be Governor of the new found English colony at New York on the north-east coast of the North American continent. He was granted 24,000 acres on Staten Island where he built a house and a 24,000 acre estate which, recalling his  Celbridge origins, he named “The manor of Castletown.’  Tony Doohan writes that the name still exists in the Staten Island borough of New York with placenames such as ‘Castleton Hill’ and ‘Castleton Corners’ keeping the Celbridge connection alive.
 An even more tangible reminder of the Celbridge man is to be found in the city of Poughkeepsie, a town in New York state, where there is a statue of Dongan and an inscription which credits him with proclaiming a charter of citizen’s rights for New York city which guaranteed political and legal rights for all. Tony Doohan suggests that it was Dongan’s Charter of Liberties and Privileges published in New York in 1683 which was later adapted as the basis for the Constitution of the United States published ninety years later and which is hailed as one of the great constitutions of the free world. The circle on the Celbridge connection with New York’s influential governor was closed in 1995 when the then US Ambassador, Mrs. Jean Kennedy-Smith, unveiled a plaque in Tea Lane cemetery, burial place of the Celbridge Dongans.
There is much more in the new history of Celbridge – a book is rich with colour photographs and maps of the town, old and modern. The growth and modern pattern of Celbridge is dramatically illustrated in a striking aerial photo spread across two pages and taken as recently as July 2011.  The views of the built up area of Celbridge to the west of the Castletown estate and of the extensive green belt around  Donaghcomper to the east of the estate gave a dramatic overview of how the town has evolved in recent decades. The price of the book (twelve euro) is worth it for this picture alone. Enquiries to Scoil Mochua, Celbridge but be patient as there may be callers on the line from New York! Series no: 251.
Postscript: Interesting heritage initiative taking place in Clane on Saturday, 22 October. An afternoon seminar on valuing the village’s historic and natural heritage will feature speakers such as Éanna  Ní Lamhna, environmentalist and broadcaster, and Pat Given, of the Clane Local History Group. The seminar runs from 2pm to 6pm in the Westgrove Hotel.

In his Leinster Leader series 'Looking back,' of 18 October 2011 Liam Kenny writes of a Celbridge connection to New York. Our thanks to Liam

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