by ehistoryadmin on December 18, 2015


By road, rail and canal through west Kildare

Liam Kenny 

The publishing phenomenon that is John W. Freeman has struck again. The Donadea historian has brought out his fourth book and, perhaps his best, to date. As with his previous publications the new volume might best be described as an eclectic mosaic of history, folklore, tradition and nostalgia. The title of Mr Freeman’s book “People, Places and Church Steeples” gives a sense of the diversity of subject matter to be found within its covers. The scope of the content is largely within an area south of a line from Enfield to Edenderry. Within that framework it seems as if the author has explored every bog lane – and there are many – within his home territories of Donadea, Rathcoffey, Staplestown and Timahoe. Prosperous gets honourable mention, as does Carbury, while there are occasional forays as far as Naas and Caragh.

Much of the material in the book is new and gleaned from the author’s conversations with people living in the areas mentioned and matching their reminiscences with his own stockpile of knowledge of the town lands of north-west Kildare. This too is the case for many of the photographs in the book which come from family albums – little snaps which although intended for family viewing become insights into the way of life of generations past. Some of the illustrations have appeared before but are seen in a different context in the volume.

Modes of transport in bygone ages feature extensively in the text with colourful recollections of bus, rail and canal systems in the area. An early chapter in the book recalls the Green Leyland buses which were a familiar sight on the Dublin to Edenderry run in the 1950s/60s. John Freeman recalls evenings coming home from the Christmas market in Dublin and boarding the bus at Store Street. He had been up since five that morning helping sell turkeys (reared by the family in Donadea) at the Smithfield sales pitch. Boarding the bus he was greeted by the conductor who was known to regulars as “Walleye” for whatever reason.

One can imagine a young John Freeman scraping the frost from the bus window and watching the passing landmarks as the bus made its way out of the city hitting countryside as soon as it left Chapelizod. Further stops on the route such as Lucan, Leixlip and Celbridge were country villages at the time, not the motorway-ringed suburbs that they have become in modern times. If it is place names you seek John Freeman more than delivers. He delves into his childhood memories to recite the stops on the way from the Co Dublin boundary to the soft recesses of the Bog of Allen: Lucan, Cooldrinagh T-Junction, Young’s Garage, Ballyoulster, Celbridge, Barberstown Cross, Clane Village, Firmount Cross, Prosperous Cross, Dag Welds, over the long demolished Blackwood Bridge, on to the “new” Bord na Mona town of Coill Dubh, then turning back to Allenwood under the shadow of the great cooling tower, and resuming the main road via Windmill cross, Derrinturn, Carbury and, finally for its weary passengers, pulling in to destination Edenderry.

The east Offaly town whose catchment stretches into three counties – Offaly, Kildare and Westmeath – was something of a transport hub in its day because it was also the terminus for the branch line from the Midland Great Western Railway company’s main line at Enfield. The junction of the main line and the branch west of Edenderry gives the author the sub-title for his book which proclaims the “1877 Nesbitt Junction.” The branch line to Edenderry was largely paid for by Miss Downey Nesbitt of Tubberdaly House who was a cattle rancher of the time. She – and other big farmers such as the Wilson-Wrights of Coolcarrigan – wanted to get her cattle to the Smithfield markets and her prize animals to the Royal Dublin Society show. The old practice of herding the cattle along the road took time and a toll on the animals whereas trains of cattle wagons offered a faster and somewhat more humane mode of livestock transport. Miss Nesbitt contributed ten thousand pounds in 1877 to expedite the building of the line – her munificence was rewarded with the junction at Enfield being named “Nesbitt Junction” – probably the only rail junction in the world named after a woman.

Waterborne transport also gets a mention, the author’s circulation area being bounded by the Royal and Grand canals. But how many Kildare folk know that the county once boasted a lake with three islands within its boundaries? Kildare is not known for its lakes so the question is a puzzle until one reads that Ballynafagh lake, an artificial lake cut in the bog west of Prosperous, once boasted three islands emerging out of its peaty depths. And anybody who doubts that Kildare once had its own “Lake isles of Innisfree” is trumped by John Freeman’s researches which have yielded names for the three islets and a photograph from 1932 showing them standing proud of the water albeit the whole lake landscape was artificial in construct.

The author forays a little out of his own area to another canal-side village – Sallins – and recalls the three-storey canal hotel which stood on the Clane side of the canal bridge. Although long abandoned as a hotel it became something of a social centre for the locality in the mid-20th century and that in the 1940s Christy Bolger and the Ritz melody makers entertained locals over many a winter night.

John Freeman roams large in the subject matter for his book featuring turf cutting, old machinery, bikes – pedal and motor, ponies and traps, horses and carts, churches – in use and derelict, and, most importantly in the countryside, who-was-related-to-whom. For a glimpse into the life and times of that part of county Kildare scented by the aroma of bog heather, John Freeman’s fourth self-published book leaves no sod unturned. Book reviewed: People, Places, Church Steeples and the 1877 Nesbitt Junction by John Freeman, Derry Donadea. Leinster Leader 30 September 2014, Looking Back, Series no: 401

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