Below is a piece on the history of Newbridge that I read out on Culture Night (21 September 2012) with Cill Dara Writers’ Circle. We held our event in the lovely St. Patrick’s church in Newbridge, where we also launched our second CD anthology ‘A Way with Words II’. More details can be found on our facebook page.
Here in Newbridge, Culture night coincides with the tail end of the town’s 200 hundred year celebrations. As such history meets culture this evening and I want to reflect on the intersection of these two.
Newbridge is a young town but a brief overview of its history reveals that it has an entrepreneurial spirit and the ability to reinvent itself. If someone asked me what defines the Irish spirit it would have to be our ability to adapt and reinvent the self.
According to James Durney in his book: ‘A bridge, A town, A people,’ he states that prior to the development of the barracks, the town that we now know as Newbridge, was a rural area with a small collection of houses around Moorefield and Ballymoney. Mary Connolly notes in her book: ‘From Connell to Droichead Nua’ that the population of Newbridge grew rapidly during the 1850s whereby the town’s population grew from 934 people in 1851 to 2,875 in 1861. Now maths are not my forte but that is close to a threefold increase in population within the space of ten years during a time within Ireland’s history where mass emigration was on the rise.
So what precipitated this growth, this birth of a town? According to the Kildare e-history website, a purchase of 39 acres of land in the month of September 1812 between the Deputy Barrack Master and the three major landowners of Newbridge: Eyre Powell, the Hon. Ponsonby Moore and the Hannon family. This purchase was made according to a tender in November 1812: ‘for erecting a Cavalry Barrack at the new Bridge, in the county of Kildare.’
The above is a collection of historical facts and quotes but within those dates and numbers are countless stories. Personal and communal stories. There is the story of elation amongst the three landowners who had the vision to see that a barracks in their locality would ensure that all would benefit.
There is the story of the local farmers and market traders who supplied goods and services to the barracks and watched their livelihoods prosper. There is the story of tremendous activity within a short space of time. Men and women moving in to make a better life for them and their families, houses being built, shops, schools and churches sprouting, including the one we are in tonight.
There are the stories in the development of the railway, the movement of men, animals and military training and there is the story of the Curragh wrens. A brief account of their lives is depicted by Charles Dickens in November1864 in his ‘All the Year Round’series when he visited Newbridge and the Curragh in 1863. As ever Dickens weaves together both the story and the facts through his narrative.
Perhaps one of the greatest stories of Newbridge’s history is the First World War. I am a newcomer to the town and my research has been brief but I was struck by the thought of the numerous Irish men who went to war to fight on behalf of King and country. What was it like for them to fight on behalf of their imperial rulers? Did they feel the fervour of patriotism like their English counterparts? How did their families feel? I believe this is where the literary imagination can attempt to fill in the gaps that history can not. And of those men who survived and returned home, what was it like for them?
The political landscape had, as W.B. Yeats states in ‘Easter,1916:’ “All changed, changed utterly:” The Ireland they had left was no longer using the home rule political lobbying route. The rising put paid to that and when the soldiers returned the rebellion against the British was openly declared and in 1921 they succeeded in their aims.
This is where Newbridge’s history turns again. Throughout the civil war the republican prisoners were interned in both Newbridge Barracks and the Curragh Camp. According to James Durney in an article on Commandant Denis Barry, it was estimated that 11,316 prisoners were held in both camps. His article, which is up on the e-history website, focuses on the prolonged interment of Denis Barry who died from hunger strike. Again there is a story in that.
There are stories of deprivation and hunger when the British forces left causing a “collapse in trade” where Durney notes that over 1000 people lost their livelihood during that time. The economic depression was long and hard with a sharp decline in population and widespread misery.
I said earlier that the Newbridge story is one of reinvention and with the set up of Irish Ropes Ltd and Newbridge Cutlery in the 1930s. the town began to revive and prosper once again. With this brought a new flurry of activity with a rising population and further development in the town’s infrastructure.
Newbridge developed an independent self reliant spirit because it had to. It has in essence survived and adapted to the five economic crisises that Cormac O’Grada, an economist historian with UCD, outlines in his speech to the Central Bank last year which he describes as the economic war of 1923 – 1932, The emergency, The Lost Decade of the 1950s, The 1980s and the current crisis.
Which brings me to the Newbridge of today and what the future holds for the next two hundred years. It is clear that the town benefited from the Celtic Tiger boom with the development of the White Water shopping centre, major supermarkets and another sharp rise in its population with its attendant new housing estates. Yet despite the current economic crisis being classified as the worst since Ireland gained its independence according to Cormac O’Grada, I believe Newbridge will continue to adapt and reinvent itself.
Which brings me back to stories; my story, and why I chose to move here earlier this year. Like the British army back in 1812 I chose Newbridge for its proximity to Dublin because I work there. But there was another more compelling reason; its thriving artistic community and welcoming attitude towards outsiders. I moved here because of the friendships I developed within Cill Dara Writers’ Circle, the thriving arts scene and the warm welcome I have encountered here again and again.