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An "honour and a pleasure" to launch Carloviana 2021

When reading through the latest edition of Carloviana, I was struck by a few themes that weave like threads through both the articles and Carlow’s historic timeline, linking human to human and human to environment through both space and time.

As an example, my interest was drawn to Helen Doyle’s account of the development of Carlow District Lunatic Asylum, which first opened its doors in 1832, only to recall that it was an all too aggressive plan to convert Carlow Castle into an asylum in 1814 that led, through the use of dynamite, to the collapse of 2 towers and 3 adjoining walls and left us with the structure that we have today.

This same structure, a landmark building of Carlow town, was damaged in Storm Ciara in February of this year. I had the pleasure of visiting Carlow Castle in an official capacity in August. I was privileged to receive a tour facilitated by the OPW and the National Monuments Service and heard first hand of the work underway to secure the tower for the future, including the unforeseen issues which have complicated the design for the repair.

As if Ciara had not wreaked enough havoc, in March Covid-19 brought heretofore inconceivable challenges on all fronts and the efforts to protect human life and health put many economic, social and cultural activities on hold.

I can empathise with John Kelly’s initial concerns that this year’s Carloviana may not have materialised but having seen and read it, I join John in commending the collaboration behind the high quality of the articles, the editorial value and the printing standards of this publication. I commend him on an excellent job as editor.

As I leafed through, I immediately noticed with interest the breadth of expertise and experience of the contributors. But it is important to thank Carlow Historical and Archaeological Society for your encouragement of younger historians: And to Roisin Brennan, winner of this year’s school’s history prize, I say thank you for your informative piece on James Warren Doyle (JKL), Bishop of Kildare and Loughlin; and for reminding me, in particular, of the roles he played in the non-violent resistance to the tithe, his support of Daniel O’Connell and the fact that Carlow Cathedral was one of the first to be built in Ireland following Catholic Emancipation.

I have no doubt that those of you who gave your time to researching, writing, editing and proof reading the 200 pages of this years journal chose your words and terms carefully so as best to communicate your message. And yet, as I read Helen’s piece on the Irish Asylum System I was struck by how words and terms change meaning and cultural acceptability over time.

Certainly, I have used the term ‘Madhouse’ to affectionately describe living with 4 children from 6 years to 17. But no such affectionate or nostalgic notions attach to the description of the overcrowded conditions and paternalist attitudes of the Irish Asylum System, especially as Carlow Asylum initially covered a catchment of Kildare, Kilkenny and Wexford. Yet the Asylum system was viewed as preferable to an alternative of no intervention by both patients and their families; as an early social welfare provision.

The Irish Asylum system is one I am glad to see condemned to the annals of history but we must keep the spotlight on how we, as a society, address mental ill health, resource mental wellbeing and destigmatise the conversations we must all have. This may include reviewing our use of language and challenging our own potential for paternalist attitudes.

I had been aware of the writings and drawings of William Makepeace Thackeray before reading Mary Stratton Ryan’s piece on his visit to Carlow in 1842. I did not previously know of this visit to Carlow at a time when Oak Park, Deer Park and the Potato Market were exactly as described, there was a large colony of white clad Quakers and many people were ‘lying in bed “for the hunger” … many of them had torn up unripe potatoes to exist”’.

One of the other things I did not know about Thackeray, was that he met and fell in love with an Irish woman in Paris, Isabella Shawe. I enjoy a good love story. We are told that true love did not run a straight path and Isabella’s widowed mother did not consent to the wedding. But love will find a way and the two were married and enjoyed initial happiness.

I read, with sadness, that following the birth of their third daughter, Isabella experienced depression from which she did not recover and while we are told that Thackeray searched ‘high and low’ for a cure for Isabella, she was placed into the care of a private asylum outside of Paris. Another of those thematic threads I mentioned earlier.

And again, when Isabella died in 1894, we are told that her grave was marked by an Irish Celtic Cross. Indulge me as I wonder if it was a cross similar in style to the early medieval, seventh century cross of Rath Melsigi, the subject of the piece by Dermot Mulligan. Dermot who welcomed me so warmly last August to Carlow County Museum, a county museum I believe to be one of the best in the country.

Dermot’s piece on the restoration and rededication of Rath Melsigi cross reminded me that as a Local Representative I championed and forged many firm friendships through twinning arrangements. I was very interested to read of the threads that link County Carlow with Echternach in Luxembourg and I congratulate all involved in the Friendship Agreement between both councils signed in 2019. Well done also to the Carloviana team, who keep the story of St Willibrord, the original connection between Carlow and Luxembourg, alive and relevant.

As I read Carloviana 2021, I was acutely aware that Carlow is currently the only county without a Heritage Officer. The Heritage Officer function is extremely broad and is carried out in the context of individual local authority preferences and priorities. I have received assurance from Carlow CEO, xxxx. And I welcome this progress.

I anticipate that the Heritage Officer, once appointed, will play an important role in developing Local Heritage Plans, in Heritage Appraisal, in promoting awareness, best practice, knowledge and pride in local heritage. Perhaps most importantly, I anticipate that they will support the integration and inclusion of heritage policy across all sectors, preparing and implementing actions of Carlow’s Heritage and Biodiversity Plans.

Following this thread in perhaps an unpredicted direction, my imagination was piqued by a short reference to local folklore in Myles Kavanagh’s piece ‘Killinane Connections’. We are told of a rath in Killinane which according to a record from 1938, was never tilled or sowed ‘because the people believed the fairies would harm them. Only bushes and trees grow there’.

Those of you who know me will know of my firmly held view that the rapid decline in biodiversity is one of THE biggest challenges of our time and a responsibility that I, as Minister of State for Heritage, take extremely seriously. I cannot help but think that there was deep wisdom, even logic, cleverly camouflaged as superstition in much of our folklore. We must and slowly are, once again, returning areas of nature to the realm of the natural, possibly even the fairies!

Given that another of our key challenges, as legislators and citizen’s, is climate change, it was gratifying to read of John Tyndall’s role in pioneering Climate Science in the reflective article by Dr Norman McMillan on the biography of Tyndall by Roland Jackson.

In launching Carloviana 2021, a historical and archaeological journal, I would like to reference another recently launched publication, which will, I am sure, shape the future cultural and natural heritage of Carlow, that is Project Carlow 2040: A Vision for Regeneration in Carlow Town. I was really heartened by the emphasis placed on reconnecting local history back into the Town Centre as a way of deepening Carlow’s sense of place.

At a time when there is much to be concerned about, I am hopeful that recent developments, coupled with the tangible commitment to local heritage as finds expression in Carloviana, point to a new and positive phase in the appreciation of Carlow’s rich historical heritage.

I note that it is Carloviana’s 75th Anniversary in 2021 and that you hope to host a national conference in conjunction with the Federation of Local History Societies and publish a history of the Society. From the commitment and capability that I see on the pages before me I have no doubt that you will succeed and these will be great highlights for everyone to look forward to next year.

It is as much an honour to launch Carloviana 2021 as it was my pleasure to delve into it and enjoy the learning it provided.


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