A light shone out over the Bog of Allen at Christmas time in the year 1952 illuminating the hopes and dreams of a generation of young couples settling into new homes.
The source of the light was the architecturally striking Coill Dubh housing scheme built by Bord na Móna (the turf development board) to accommodate its workforce on the edge of the bog.
Coill Dubh was the largest of seven Bord na Móna schemes built in the 1950s throughout the midland counties and the only greenfield site among them – the others such as at Bracknagh and Rochfortbridge were adjacent to existing villages.
The majority of Irish towns and villages had evolved in a haphazard manner over generations but sixty years ago Coill Dubh marked the arrival of a rare phenomenon on the landscape – the creation in a planned way of a new town and, with it, the coming together of a new community.
The background to the creation of Coill Dubh was the need to provide a permanent home for some of the hundreds of workers who had flocked to the turf-camps of west Kildare during the years of the Emergency (1939-45) when the saving of peat on the bogs became a national crusade.
During the war many hundreds came from all parts of Ireland to work and live in the turf-camps at Timahoe, Allen and Killinthomas, among others.
Accommodation comprised billets – sometimes of the nissen hut variety – and living was communal with meals and recreation being taken in mess halls built, like the rest of the camp, as temporary structures.
The turf camps evolved their own folk lore and while the conditions were basic there was, by all accounts, a strong sense of camaraderie among the young men gathered there from many parts of country.
However Bord na Móna realised that a more stable foundation was needed if workers were to be retained to provide the labour needed for the ambitious post-war plans to develop the bogs as a source of fuel for the ESB peat-fired stations then being planned for the midlands.
It was with a vision for a new community and a new industry in the otherwise economically depressed midlands of Ireland that Bord na Mona under Todd Andrews – a politician with an entrepreunarial spirit commissioned an architect named Frank Gibney (1905-78) to design new housing schemes to accommodate workers and their families in place of the temporary camps.
Ireland in the mid 20th century was regarded as being insular in terms of artistic inspiration and had turned its back on overseas influences but Frank Gibney was a man apart in his profession.
He had travelled widely in the 1930 to absorb architectural influences from new housing projects in locations as adventurous as the Holy Land, the Chicago World Fair, Spain and Sweden.
Gibney absorbed all of what he had seen, and together with his own genius, worked to design and plan housing schemes which by their very form and layout would create a sense of community for their new residents.
His design for Coill Dubh featured 160 houses arranged as to embrace green spaces and create vistas with curving lines of houses so that every view of the estate was varied and different. Shops and other amenities were built as an integral part of the scheme and a site for a school provided.
No more than with the great ESB cooling tower rising over nearby Allen, Gibney’s new estate at Coill Dubh became a striking feature of the west Kildare environs in the early 1950s. A part of Ireland where the wet peat lands had seemed to offer little in terms of a future were now at the heart of an exciting enterprise to create a new industry and a new community.
As local historian John Larkin recalls the first nine households in the estate were occupied by families with names such as Carew, Smiddy, McCrystal, Sullivan, Grimes, Gallen, Larkin, Orr, Magarahan. These families alone had migrated from eight counties: Tipperary, West Cork, Down, Cork, Westmeath, Donegal, Galway, Dublin and Cavan, respectively.
Meeting the practical needs of a new community was an integral part of the Coill Dubh design and shop spaces had been provided in the terraces which were taken up by business people such as Aidan Ward (grocery), Tom & Anne Adamson (drapery), J.J. Blake (confectioner & newsagent, bikes, radios, etc) and Gormley’s (chemist).
Among the personalities to have lived in Coill Dubh were the musical Hopkins’ family; Barry Cluskey who played with the King’s showband and still lives in the estate; Arthur Voigt, a German airman who worked with Bord na Mona in the 1950s and later moved to Milltown; Peter Bracken, who was a brother of Brendan Bracken, a Minister in Churchill’s Government during the second world war; and Austin Groome, a progressive Kildare County Councillor and chair of the Eastern Health Board.
They are part of a story which began when lights shone out in the dark of a December night across the Bog of Allen as the first young families moved into their new Coill Dubh homes in the days before the Christmas of 1952.
Acknowledgement: thank you to John Larkin, Carmel Darcy, Aileen Saunders and all at the St Mochua History Society.
- Liam Kenny, Series no: 309.