Bringing pride and honour to city of which she was a freeman

 

Margaret Phelan, former president of the Kilkenny Archaeological Society, freeman of the city of Kilkenny, and the driving force behind the restoration of Kilkenny's Rothe House, died on February 24th, aged 97.

Margaret Mary (Daisy) Duggan was born on December 22nd 1902 in William St, Kilkenny. Her father was Richard Duggan, a prosperous Kilkenny merchant and proprietor of the Monster House, then the city's largest department store. She was the eldest daughter of her father's second marriage. Her mother was Henrietta Fitzgibbon of Castlerea, Co Roscommon.

She was educated at the Loreto Convent, Kilkenny, and Our Lady's Bower, Athlone, before moving on to University College Cork.

Her first university dance, in December 1920, was interrupted by the news that the Black and Tans had set fire to Cork. At UCC she was a student contemporary of Sean O Faolain and a friend of his future wife, Eileen. She was conferred with a BA and B.Comm in 1923. At the time of her death she was the university's oldest graduate.

She met her husband, William Phelan, on an archaeological outing to the Rock of Cashel. He was Kilkenny County Surgeon and they married in 1925.

In 1945 the pair was part of a small group of people, including Adrian Bligh, Hubert Butler, Mary Kenealy and Katherine Lanigan, who gathered to revive the Kilkenny Archaeological Society.

The old Kilkenny Archaeological Society, founded in 1849, had grown and expanded into the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland and had moved its headquarters from Kilkenny to Dublin in 1890. Dublin's gain was Kilkenny's loss.

The absence of an active, local society led to the neglect and demolition of several important buildings, notably the Shee House on High St, which was gutted to make way for a chain store. Margaret Phelan was one of the first people who saw the need to protect the architectural and historical inheritance of Kilkenny and the new society began the task of raising public awareness of the city's heritage.

In 1962, largely at her instigation, the Kilkenny Archaeological Society purchased Rothe House, a Tudor merchant's house in the heart of the city. The building was dilapidated and the debt was substantial.

Margaret Phelan organised coffee mornings, raffles and sales of work to raise money. She lectured and fund-raised throughout Ireland, Britain and the US. Her kindly, gracious and unassuming nature won many friends and opened many doors. Rothe House opened to the public in 1966 and the restoration was completed in 1995. The resultant complex is the finest suite of renaissance urban buildings in Ireland.

The restoration of Rothe House gave Kilkenny a new pride in its past. Other restorations followed - at Kyteler's Inn, the Shee Alms House and Kilkenny Castle - and, within 20 years Kilkenny's tourism industry was transformed.

In the 1960s Kilkenny attracted the occasional visiting angler but by the 1980s it had become a significant stop on the heritage trail. Hotels, restaurants and tourism services blossomed.

Margaret Phelan's role in the enhancement of the city was recognised in 1987 when she was conferred with the freedom of Kilkenny. It was a popular decision and the corporation was widely applauded for the wisdom of its choice. Margaret Phelan was delighted. It was the greatest honour a Kilkenny person could receive.

She was interested in all aspects of Kilkenny's history and contributed something to virtually every issue of the Old Kilkenny Review from its inception in 1948 to the current volume.

From the moment of her birth the muse of history smiled upon her. The family's William St home had belonged to Robert Cane, a former mayor of Kilkenny, and she was born in the very room in which Thomas Carlyle had stayed during his visit to the city in 1849.

She was particularly interested in tombstones and memorials. She recorded all of the city's graveyard inscriptions and she possessed an unrivalled knowledge of the genealogical links between the old civic families.

The medieval and renaissance tombs were a favourite study which, in conjunction with the late Helen Roe, she brought to national attention. She wrote several pioneering papers on the subject and, in her 96th year, published an important study of the 16th and 17th century O'Kerin school of monumental sculpture.

Whether dealing with the past or the present, her abiding interest was people.

The value and frailty of human life was brought home to her at an early age. Her half-brother Tommy, wounded and having lost an eye, was sent home from the front in 1915 and the two formed a close bond during his period of recovery. A year later, in November 1916, he was killed in action at Grandcourt, near Arras.

Throughout her life Margaret Phelan had no time for partisanship or isms of any sort. Her interest lay in people, in the wonder of the individual, and in the variety of human experience.

She was a masterly correspondent. She often remarked that "writing a letter might do some good, while all that was lost was a stamp". During her final year, when her correspondence was not as extensive as formerly, she wrote 1,200 letters.

She had a lively interest in sports and games. As a student she played hockey for Munster, she was an able golfer and an adept player of bridge. She was lady captain of Kilkenny Golf Club in 1931 and its first lady president in 1993-1994.

She would have been touched by the civic ritual at her funeral. Sergeants-at-arms carried the civic sword and mace in state while the mayor and corporation, in their robes and chains of office, walked bareheaded in the rain. It was not just that it symbolised a city in mourning. Her historical sensibility would immediately have made the link with the civic ceremonies afforded Wentworth and Rinuccini (also in the rain). It is in such a pantheon that Margaret Phelan belongs.

Arguably Kilkenny's greatest daughter, she was very proud of her city and brought great honour upon it. It was only fitting that the city was equally proud of her.

Margaret Phelan is survived by her daughters Ellen, Peggy, Breda and Hendy, by her son Bill, and by her sister Nin. Her husband William, her sister Eva, her brothers Jack and Paddy, and her half-brothers Peter, Tommy and Dick, predeceased her.

Margaret Phelan: born 1902; died February, 2000