‘Threads in a Clonmel Tapestry’

Margaret Rossiter
Who were the Goughs of Gough’s Avenue in Rathronan, and what is the Clonmel connection with the Gough Statue in the Phoenix Park?

Who were the Goughs of Gough’s Avenue in Rathronan, and what is the Clonmel connection with the Gough Statue in the Phoenix Park?

This is one of the links in the chain of a town’s history, the answer to which is available in Dr. Michael Ahern’s recently published book: “Threads in a Clonmel Tapestry.”

He is now the author of four books and several articles on Clonmel, and his most recent publication is a sequel to his first: “Figures in a Clonmel Landscape.” It is a collection of 23 essays and 78 illustrations about characters and events all associated with the town.

His publisher’s notes describe the characters as “noblemen, paupers, bishops, politicians, psychopaths, bankers, millionaires, eccentrics and murderers,” all of whom at some time, left their mark, for good or ill, on a town. They are the nuts and bolts of a very interesting, very entertaining, very readable local history.

Some of the characters would not be well-known, such as John Scott (1739-1798) 1st Lord of Clonmel. It would seem that he was an expert on opportunism, and wrote a series of maxims to promote self-advancement, a function not unknown in our recent Celtic Tiger period.

“Always wait before you answer,” he wrote, and “answer all unpleasant questions by asking another question.... be inflexible in pursuit of your own advantage .... make yourself pleasant by flattering all .... never suffer any man or anything to put you off your guard .... in political life take every possible advantage of men in power.”

In this rogue’s gallery of the thoroughly unlikeable, there is the well-known Judkin Fitzgerald (1755-1810) who, as High Sheriff of Tipperary was dubbed the “Flogger Fitzgerald” because of his appalling obsession with putting down any tendencies towards rebellion, or any perceived French connection, in the town in 1798. In this pursuit he caused innocent people to be tied to carts and flogged in the High Street, from the West Gate to the Main Guard. There were, however, decent citizens who later challenged his brutality in the Assizes Court in the town.

As counter-balance, there are the good and distinguished citizens: the Quaker Grubb family with their business acumen, their philanthrophy and their social awareness. With their fellow Friends, they contributed to the late 18th early 19th century growth and prosperity of the town. This period had been covered in Michael Ahern’s third book: “The Quakers of County Tipperary 1655-1924,” published in 2009.

And then there is the most admirable Margaret Anne Carroll (1835-1909) who as Mother Austin, and a member of the Mercy Order, was an author, a historian, a musician, and who spent 58 years, mostly in the southern States of America, in “the alleviation of human suffering, in caring for the sick .... and assuaging the griefs and lightening the sorrows of poor humanity.” She worked at a particularly difficult time, in the aftermath of the Civil War and the freeing of the black slaves, for whose rehabilitation and education she actively worked.

There is a plaque to her memory on a premises in O’Connell Street, but like similar memorial plaques in the town, its location makes it difficult to read. Margaret Carroll - Mother Austin - is the only female character in “Threads in a Clonmel Tapestry” (apart from the unfortunate Bridget Cleary). Her story would seem to underline the necessity for now assessing the enormous contribution made by the womens’ religious Orders to the town of Clonmel, over a period of two centuries. Dr. Maria Luddy, a Clonmel historian, has done considerable work in this area, at national level, but perhaps a more detailed study, at local level, is now called for, especially in these changing times.

Another area which has yet to be seriously studied in the context of local history is the involvement of citizens in World War I (or World War II for that matter). Now, a century afterwards, the time has come for a serious study, not only of the actual military involvement, but of the commercial and industrial influences on the town because of the event itself.

Michael Ahern is, from what I know, the first historian to open up this study potential in print, in his chapter under the title “The Trauma of the Trenches.” The Clonmel Historical and Archaeological Society has hosted two lectures in the past few years on the subject and it was touching to note the attendance of grandchildren and even great-grandchildren in search of information on long-dead relatives. In the context of research for his book, it was interesting to note the fruitful sources which the author located in the two Clonmel newspapers of the time - “The Clonmel Chronicle” and “The Nationalist” and in Neil Richardson’s poignantly titled book on World War I - “A Coward if I Return, A Hero if I Fall”

Although “Threads in a Clonmel Tapestry” is primarily sited in the 18th and 19th centuries, the threads have expanded into the first half of the last century. There is another war story, the Spanish Civil War which started in 1936, and in which several young men from the town fought “amongst the olive groves” on the Nationalist (Franco side).

In contrast, there is the story of other boys and young men involved in the then flourishing sport of boxing in Clonmel in the 1930s, many of whom trained under the legendary Garda Boy Murphy. Some, Johnny Healy, Jimmy Smith, Eddie Cantwell went on to national and international achievement.

The illustrations in this book, all appropriate to the text, are fascinating. There are as diverse as a photograph of the Dunboyne Arms, a drawing of John Sadlier (of the infamous Tipperary Joint Stock Bank), a sketch of Clonmel-born Father John O’Connor, the inspiration for Chesterton’s priest-detective - Father Brown, a photograph of the unveiling of a World War I memorial in Marlfield. And many, many more, some of which were located by the author in private collections and each of which contributes to our knowledge of the story of Clonmel.

‘Threads in a Clonmel Tapestry’, by Michael Ahern is now available in Clonmel bookshops.