Rathkeale through the years 

Its business life and outstanding personalities 

Rathkeale is described as a borough town situated on a piece of very fertile rock. There were formerly 10 Burgesses to whom belonged many Burgess gardens, yards, orchards for which the Burgess paid the Earl 60 shillings per year in rent. In 1587, the Undertakers began to take over the Desmond estates. Sir Henry Billingsley, an alderman of London, was granted 11,800 acres in and around Rathkeale for the sum of £147 10s.After the battle of the Yellow Ford in 1598 and the flight of most of the Undertakers to England to find the Irish uniting their forces at Rathkeale and the return of a Desmond- The Sugar Earl. In the Carew papers reference to make to the Castle of Ballyallinan about two miles from Rathkeale where the sugar Earl was the guest of Rory Mc Sheehy. When the Spanish help for the Sugar Earl arrived at Smerwick Harbour, Co Kerry. Elizabeth’s forces commanded by Lord Deputy Grey, assembled at Rathkeale. 

A Freeman 

In this army was a Captain Raleigh who was made a Freeman of the town. Later he became ‘Sir Walter Raleigh. When the war was over Sir Henry Billingsley returned and disposed of his interest in his estates in 1609 to Sir John Dowdall. The Titus Oates Plot 1678 had its repercussions on Rathkeale. In some documents in connection with this plot reference is made to conversations carried out at the house of John Hickes, an inn keeper in Rathkeale. This inn was known as ‘George Inn’ at church street and is now occupied by Mr Patrick Lynch, father of the famous Irish tenor Christy Lynch. The inn was the stopping place for the Bianconi Cars before the end of the railways. 

The Croppies 

In the crop of ground on the Deel banks and fronting the Deel hall, stands in the centre, a lone tree which marks the grave of the Croppies. There is some great confusion of thought as to who these Croppies were and the manner in which they met their death. Some hold that is was in consequence of the murder of a Captain Going, a short distance from Rathkeale on the road to Cappagh. The place where he met his death is still called ‘Going’s cross-others hold that it was at a place called Inchorourke on the Askeaton road and that they were brought through the town guarded by a detachment of infantry and cavalry under the command of Captain George Lake who lived at that time where major Langford now lives. Be that as it may their bodies were consigned to the grave in the plot already mentioned and covered with quick lime. Rathkeale has honoured the memory of these men who at that time challenged the British Empire , by the erection of a beautiful memorial headstone in the cemetery attached to the Roman Catholic church. 

Young Ireland Movement 

When the Young Ireland Movement was started under the guidance of Thomas Davis and others and the power of the great Liberator began to wane, Rathkeale embraced the teaching of the Young Irelanders. This action invoked the wrath of the O’Connell who it is said lettered some disparaging remarks about the town. 

Rural Industries 

In the olden days Rathkeale had many flourishing rural industries, chief of which was the well known Castlematrix Flour mills owned by a Mr John Browne, who introduced steam power to the mills. IT afterwards passed onto the Enright family and then onto the family of John Johnson, who was the last owner. The flax milling industry was also carried on and the old building is now owned by Mr Michael Madigan of the Imperial Hotel. A candle factory and chandlery was conducted in Pepper’s Lane by a Mr David Shanahan. Two nail factories were established there, one in Well Lane, owned by the Moran family, the other in Pound Street, owned by a Mr Isaac Daly. I later years a mineral water factory was in Well Lane run by the Hennessy Family. Two factories for the making of firkins prior to the advent of the Co-Operative Creameries owned by a James Kelly and a James Healy. 

The Chinaman 

One of the oldest and best known houses in Rathkeale is Fitzgibbons (present owner Mr Edwin Johnson) and known all over Munster as the ‘Chinaman’As a full sized statue of the chink is placed on a pedestal over the main entrance. The house has an unbroken business connection with Rathkeale for over 130 years. 

Music and Learning 

Music and learning were much appreciated in Rathkeale. The Christian brothers had a school there and the Mc Carthy brothers had a secondary school in the New Road at the place where the Convent of Mercy now stands. On the musical side, the nuns of the convent of Mercy taught opera and there was an operatic society. The late Bill Mulcahy was a leading operatic tenor in Dublin and in London at the time. Later of course there is Christy Lynch to add still further fame to the town of his birth.  

The past and present 

It is interesting to note the many changes that have taken place in the business life of the town. Where DJ Madden TD now lives was the drapery business of Mr Tom Downes: Chawkes drapers, where P&J Ryan carries on his business now. Norman’s is also a very old business house, now owned by Mr T Mc Knight.Con Dore, Draper once lived where the central pharmacy is now. Frewens and Moloney, where Mrs Joseph Cosgrave is. Dunworth is now occupied by Mr James Hickey. Pat Kennedy, the Farmers’ Drapery shop stood where now stands the premises of the peoples bakery at the corner of Main street and Thomas street. Moylans drapers and Eagle hotel, now occupied by the palatial Central Stores. Matt Mc Namara, a famous spirit house, is now owned by Mr J Cahill, draper. Mc Donnells and the Chinaman, enjoys an unbroken link. Rathkeale could boast of fine first-class hotels. The Pigott Arms, The Eagle, The Abbey, The Hibernian and the Imperial. Of those, the Imperial still survives. The extension of the railway line from Ballingrane to Tralee and the advent of the bus and motor car whilst of course being of immense benefit to the public, hit Rathkeale very hard and also other inter-county towns. 

Commercial Travelling 

There was no longer any necessity for the commercial traveller to stay overnight when his business was finished. The tourist [s of no use to Rathkeale or places like it. The hotel trade in county towns is at an end. 

The ‘Peoples Bakery’ was founded by a Michael Fitzgibbon, and is now owned by Mr Joseph Binchy. Russells Limerick, has a depot at the place where now stands Mc Donnells store. 

The undertaking business, the oldest in the town has been in the Madigan family for over 150 years down to the present time.  

The O’ Shaughnessy’s enjoyed a country wide reputation for the quality of their suit lengths. From all over Limerick and Kerry, customers came to this well- known business house and one was not considered well- dressed unless his suit was purchased at O’ Shaughnessy’s. The fifth generation of this well-known family is still carrying on the business.  

In the boot making trade the outstanding craftsman of the period was Johnny Madigan who lived where Johnny Madigan is now. 

The Irish racing calendar of September 1828 gives the entries and winners of the 4 days racing held over the Commons course. The Sweepstakes were of the value of £3 each with from £30 to £40 added.  

Rathkeale Personalities 

Rathkeale was the birthplace of many famous jockeys, the most notable being Jimmy Hogan, reputed to be the second best jockey in England. Jack Burns of the Reens Pike and the Ward Brothers.  

In the medical profession the names of the late Dr Boucher Hayes and Dr Magner will always be remembered with pride and in the teaching profession the names of the late Mr Richard Hayes, father of Richard F Hayes, film censor, Pat Mc Donnell and Pat Neville, will always be remembered. In later years another young Rathkeale boy, the late Sean Finn, who gave his young life for Ireland at Woodcliffe, Ballyhahill in 1921, will always live in the memory of his fellow countrymen. 

Two other Rathkeale men who were famous in their time but also now forgotten in their native town, were Surgeon Lieutenant James Tierney, who was a physician at the Court of one of the George’s, King of England. The other was John Taylor staymaker and the author of the ‘Cruiskeen Lawn’ 

Thomas street, Rathkeale, built in 1812, is named after the Revd Father Thomas Hogan, who was the parish priest of Rathkeale. The Protestant church was was built in about 1831 from black marble quarried from the river bank close by. The Roman Catholic church was dedicated on the 18/8/1873. The renowned Father Tom Burke delivered the sermon.  

Another organisation that has held an unbroken association with Rathkeale is the GAA formed in 1887. The name and fame of the old Abraham hurling team will always be spoken of wherever a Rathkeale man is around. It was called after Walter Abraham, one time MP for county limerick. There are still a few survivors of that team, viz. William Sheahan, Jim Kelly, Pat Flaherty, Michael Madigan. 

The Year 2000 

This article does not purport to be a detailed history of Rathkeale. I have endeavoured in the space at my disposal to touch on the changes that have taken place there and so create an interest perhaps in the heart of some Rathkeale boy who will from now on take account of those changes and record them for future generations. The year 2000 is not very far away. Someone then perhaps will tell the story of the changes that have taken place during the preceding century of so. Someone will record the doings of the GAA, of the Brennans, The Fitzgeralds, Roche’s etc. The growth of the Dramatic Movement: Jackie Hennessy, Moss Fennell, Dick Woodruffe etc. The ‘Limerick Weekly Echo’ will be there in the year 2000 to record these doings. The writer of this article will be gone beyond the Great Divide. Perhaps someone in Rathkeale will remember him.  

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