Kildare historian Seamus Cullen
And still they gaze and still the wonder grew,” is an oft quoted line written by Oliver Goldsmith in his poem “The Deserted Village” when portraying the awe in which locals regareded the village school master, such was the wealth of knowledge head in his head.
It was a sentiment shared by many on an autumn night during Heritage Week when north-Kildare historian Seamus Cullen delivered a masterclass in how to make history exciting to an enthusiastic audience in the village of Staplestown – just down the road from Donadea forest.
It’s not every night of the week that you will find upwards of eighty locals, young and old, crowding into a parish hall in deepest north Kildare.
And if there is that kind of a turnout it generally means a protest about windmills, dumps or pylons.
However there was nothing but positive energy in the air when more than four score gathered within the walls of the perfectly adapted 19th century schoolhouse at Staplestown for one of the most anticipated events on the brimming Heritage Week programme 2017.
The atmosphere was akin to that of a gala film first-night for, in its own way, the occasion was a première – the first time that the story of Staplestown was gathered into one place and presented to its population, young and old. Seamus Cullen was not on his own and his ace research colleagues – Mary Weld and Aileen Saunders (the trio belong to the Lyreen Research Group) - added to the presentation with their well-pitched commentaries on facets of the Staplestown story.
Staplestown may be just a jot on the map, but it contains all the attributes of an Irish “street”village – its church, school buildings (old and new), post office and small grocery, and cemetery, all flanking a straight stretch of road serving cosy cottages.
However no two Irish villages are the same. A distinguishing feature of Staplestown to the passer-by is the silver-painted statue of Christ the King standing on its own on the school wall facing the church.
In a short few yards Staplestown presents a challenge to even to the most enthusiastic scholars of church history.
The statue of the regal Christ stands on the boundary wall of St Mary’s (Naomh Mhuire) nation school which in turn is across the road from the church dedicated to St Beningus -- all in turn in the parish of Cooleragh and Staplestown which itself was parcelled out from the parish of Clane and Rathcoffey in the early 1960s. Confused?
Well it wouldn’t be Irish if it was simple.
Closer inspection of Staplestown’s school wall reveals the rings in the wall where Mass-goers tied their mounts; and, opposite, a green letter-box where a dubious patriot with a file had shaved off the royal cipher which adorned many post-boxes installed in British times.
But Staplestown is more than the cluster around its chapel and school.
It draws its community from the mosaic of town lands in the terrain marked by Donadea Forest to its east and the Bog of Allen to its south and west.
On the night people travelled to the hall along the winding lanes and cul de sacs so beloved of the cycling correspondent of this paper - Mr Conor McHugh - who almost weekly champions the county’s rural roads which, he maintains, are as much a part of Kildare’s identity as the Lilywhite football jersey or the parade ring at Punchestown.
Staplestown’s topography epitomises the complexity of the Kildare landscape - some of the best fattening farm land in the country is on one side of the road and yet, on the other, some of the softest ground in Ireland where the peatland extends across the countryside like a brown blanket.
It’s a juxtaposition common to other parts of the county.
Take the road from the Bundle of Sticks roundabout west of Naas towards the crossroads of Allen.
Follow the road across the Liffey at Victoria Bridge where another patriot with a chisel has rasped the regal name off the plaque (wonder if it’s the same handyman as did the job on the Staplestown letter-box?) and, for a mile on the Caragh side, sleek thoroughbreds and fat bullocks graze contentedly in the calcium-rich grass.
And yet a mile further on, after the swing of direction at Blacktrench, the road becomes a rampart through peatland prairies with ridges of milled peat leading the gaze deep into the Bog of Allen.
But back to Staplestown and its night of heritage. Seamus Cullen, a gifted and generous historian, was “on fire” as over a period of ninety minutes he spoke with a minimum of notes, electrifying the room with his enthusiasm for this distinctive patch of north Kildare.
It was one of those rare occasions when the footnotes of the past flowed beyond the circle of the usual history enthusiasts and surged out to a wider audience.
Staplestown might seem removed from the din of the wider world yet its story was connected with some of the great themes of the Irish nation.
Seamus Cullen focussed his attention on the village cemetery where research has linked many of the family names inscribed on headstones with headline events in Ireland’s story.
The name Doorley from Ballynafagh is an echo of the Capt. Doorley of 1798 rebellion fame memorialised at Lullymore.
The names of Hugh Cosgrove of Corduff, Joseph Cusack – Blackwood, Joseph Murray - Derrymahon, and Patrick Phelan of the same townland, represent councillors who brought the zeal of Sinn Féin to the chambers of Kildare County Council in the early years of Independence.
There is no better comment on the complexity of the Irish story than to note the name in the same cemetery of Daniel Houlihan who was the Royal Irish Constabulary sergeant in Robertstown during the war of independence.
On different sides of the political fence in war they share the same quiet Kildare sod in death.
Another strand in the diverse story of north-west Kildare is that of the Quakers and the headstone of Michael Smyth is a pointer to a family name which originated with Quaker settlement in the locality – a Quaker presence which also provided the antecedents of an –albeit notorious - President of the United States, one Richard Millhouse Nixon.
The foregoing summation of Staplestown’s night with the stars of local history is but a skimming of the surface – like skimming a stone on the placid waters of nearby Ballynafagh reservoir.
However for those who were there, the torrent of information drawn from the deepest wells of local knowledge will sustain many a conversation as the autumn nights lengthen.