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Notes on Ashtown (Baile an Ásaigh), County Dublin

Ashtown Castle reveals itself. Illustration: Derry Dillon.

What’s in a Name?

 

In the late 12th century, the lands of Ashtown were granted to the Hospital of St John the Baptist by Hugh Tyrrell, first Baron of Castleknock. A veteran crusader, Tyrrell had arrived in Ireland with Strongbow’s Norman army in 1170.[3]

Local historian Jim Lacey proposes that Ashtown (aka Ashtoun) was named for a stand of ash trees in the middle of the Great Scaldwood Forest that once stretched from present-day Parkgate Street as far as The Moor of Meath by Dunboyne, and from the Liffey to the Great North Road, including Phoenix Park. For more in the forest see Notes on Coolmine. The forest was mostly oak but the ash trees would have been especially desirable.

‘Next to oak, ash trees were the most valued,’ says Jim. ‘Remember that we did not have all the species we have today. Ash was light and could be easily worked into the most needed tools were used for hunting, be it trapping ash for the rivers and on land, or for spears – a very necessary weapon for self-defence and for throwing after boars and deer.’

The Saxon word for ash is ‘aesc,’ which was also used for ‘spear’. The Norwegian word for ash was likewise ‘ask’ and Vikings were sometimes referred to as the Aescling meaning ‘Men of Ash’. Jim suggests ‘Ashtoun’ may have been a settlement that derived its name from ‘aesc’ and ‘tun,’ being a place warriors went to cut their spears.

It has also been suggested that the name Ashtown derives from a family called Aston. However, no person or family named Aston or Ashtown has been found in the records. Ashtown Station is located on the western edge of the townland of Pelletstown (Baile Pheiléid), which was seemingly named for the Pilate, or Pellett, family.[4] Many other townland names in the Barony of Castleknock do derive from these early English settlers, including Blanchard and Luttrell.

 

The Hidden Castle

 

Ashtown Lodge was the official residence of the British Under-Secretary for Ireland from 1782 until 1922. After a brief stint as home to the US ambassador, it became the Papal Nuncio’s Irish residence in 1929. However, dry rot infested the timbers so badly that it was decided to demolish the building.

As the walls were being pulled away in the 1980s, there was great surprise to discover a much older building hidden inside – a medieval castle, or tower house, around which the lodge had been built. The earlier castle is thought to have been built after 1429.  The Prior of St John (outside Newgate) held 100-120 acres at ‘Asheton’ in 1408.

Declared a National Monument, the castle was fully restored and has since provided a striking backdrop for Phoenix Park concerts by artists such as U2, Coldplay, the Red Hot Chilli Peppers and Robbie Williams.

 

The Candle Company

 

The frequent usage of the place name Rathborne in the streets north of Ashtown is a nod to Rathborne’s, the oldest candle manufacturer in the world. The Rathborne family arrived in Dublin in 1488 after, I think, the gradual silting of the River Dee at Chester forced the closure of their original English base.

Initially operating from beside Christ Church Cathedral, their fortunes rose after the Candlelight Law of 1616 decreed that every fifth home should display a light for passers-by.  By the 18th century, Rathborne’s were making candles from beeswax and paraffin wax at a depot in the mill beside the Royal Canal bridge at Ashtown, while the family itself lived at nearby Dunsinea Manor [here], Scribblestown, now part of Teagasc.

 

Extract from Valuation Office Books for James Fox of Halfway House, located between Dublin and Clonee, 1844.

The Halfway House

 

The Halfway House near this railway station is so called because it stands halfway between Dublin and Clonee, County Meath.

Established in the early 19th century by a family called Fox, the pub was popular with all the farmers and cattle dealers making their way south to the city’s cattle market.[1]

The pub enjoyed a 24-hour licence, allowing it to serve at any time of the day.

In 1906, it was purchased by Peter Kelly, a well-known racehorse owner from Galway. His horse Faithful Tag won the prestigious Stamford Handicap Chase in Manchester in 1930.[2]

 

Illustration: Derry Dillon

The Governor of Sri Lanka

 

Ashtown Lodge was the birthplace in 1817 of Sir William Gregory, best known as the husband of Augusta, Lady Gregory, the playwright and folklorist who co-founded the Abbey Theatre during the Gaelic Literary Revival. As a young man, Sir William lost much of his family fortune on a horse race.

He had more success as Britain’s Governor of Ceylon (Sri Lanka) from 1872-77 when he developed the lucrative tea industry, controversially importing thousands of bonded Tamil labourers from India to work on the plantations. With the money raised, he revitalised the road, railway and canal network on the island, and established a large number of hospitals, schools and water reservoirs. Gregory’s Road in Colombo, the Sri Lankan capital, is named for him. See Sir William Gregory here.

 

Handball Show Down

 

Handball has apparently been played in Ireland since the Tailteann Games of the pre-Christian era. However, the first recorded handball match between Dublin City and Dublin County did not take place until 1886 when the two teams met at Mr Fox’s court beside The Halfway House at Ashtown.

The match, which Dublin County won by 7 games to 6, was organised by world champion handballer John Lawlor, of Pennsylvania. A cab driver by profession, Mr Lawlor was president of both the Workers’ Union of Ireland and the Irish Amateur Handball Association from 1924 until his death in 1929.

 

Royal Flowers

 

On 23 July 1903, the Royal train from Maynooth arrived in Ashtown Station with King Edward VII, the Queen Consort Alexandra, and their daughter Princess Victoria. On the platform, the three daughters of William Purcell O’Neill, the Dublin-born engineer-in-chief of the Midland Great Western Railway, presented bouquets – carnations, orchids, stephanotis and lilies – and a basket of red, white and blue flowers.[5] A delighted queen then invited the girls to travel onwards with them in the Royal saloon carriage.

 

The Lord Lieutenant’s Close Call

 

Martin Savage Park, south-east Ashtown, is named for a 22-year-old from Sligo who worked in a grocery store owned by Mr Kirke at the North Strand in Dublin. He was killed following an attempted assassination of Sir John French, Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, in 1919.[6]

The IRA’s Dublin Brigade planned to shoot Sir John as he made his way by car from Ashtown train station to his official residence, the Viceregal Lodge, in Phoenix Park. However, the attackers became confused about which car the Lord Lieutenant was in, allowing him to escape. Martin Savage, a member of the brigade, was fatally shot in the ensuing gun battle. A memorial was erected to him at Ashtown roundabout in 1948.

Footage from the scene of the attack is available via British Pathé here and shows how close it was to Peter Kelly’s pub, aka the Halfway House.

 

The First US Ambassador To Ireland

 

From 1927 until 1929, Ashtown Lodge was home to Frederick Augustine Sterling, the first US Ambassador to the Irish Free State. Born in St Louis, Missouri, Sterling managed a cattle ranch in his youth before working as a woollen manufacturer. An experienced career diplomat, he helped negotiate Ireland’s entry into the League of Nations. In 1928, he played a key role in the signing of the Kellogg-Briand Pact, or Pact of Paris, a noble but unsuccessful effort to prevent a second global war. Mr Sterling’s obituary can be found here.

  

Clock of the Easter Rising

 

When the clock of Liberty Hall, Dublin, struck noon on Easter Monday of 1916, the Irish Citizen Army marched out to join the Irish Volunteers in what became known as the Easter Rebellion. When Liberty Hall lay in ruins at the end of the week, the clock was taken as a memento by British officer Major Gallagher. In 1954, it was subsequently acquired by Giles Kelly of the Halfway House, Ashtown, who presented it to the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union, who duly hung it in their new headquarters.[7]

 

With thanks to Jim Lacey.

 

End-Notes

 

[1] According to their website, The Halfway House has been around since at least 1847. A reference here suggests it was around from at least 1831, while an 1839 article states that James Fox, of Pelletstown, had 10 people ‘tippling’ in his house which may be the same pub. Prior to the motor car, travellers enroute to city markets made this establishment an obligatory stopover.

[2] Faithful Tag was a blood relative of Tag End, winner of the Nunthorpe Stakes in England a record three times, in 1928, 1929 and 1930.

See obituary to Peter Kelly here.

[3] Ashtown was known as Astonstown, or Grange de Aston, in 1306 and was still known as Astonstown in 1604. See here

[4] Pelletstown was known as Pyelletiston back in 1547. https://www.logainm.ie/en/17270

[5] Miss Naomi presented carnations, the royal favourite.  Miss Ruth presented the Princess Victoria with a lovely spray of orchids and stephanotis and lilies. The youngest daughter, Miss Irene, presented a basket of red, white and blue flowers.

[6] On Friday, 19 December, 1919, a group of IRA members cycled from the North Circular Road to Ashtown Cross with the intent of assassinating then Lord Lieutenant of Ireland Sir John French. Among the group were veterans Dan Breen, Seamus Robinson, Seán Treacy and Seán Hogan.

[7] The Gallagher family had reportedly offered to sell the clock to the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union (I.T. and G.W.U.) who had their headquarters at Liberty Hall, for £100 but the union would not offer more than £5. Mr. Kelly purchased it at a Belfast auction in 1954 and had it repaired before handing it over to the Union. The I.T. and G.W.U. had it on the wall in time to strike noon on 24 April 1955, the 39th anniversary of the rising.