Friday, April 26, 2019

Sarah Allen

One of the great pleasures of visiting other countries is the occasional opportunity of meeting people from or in some way connected with Athy.  It is almost 30 years since I was first invited to the annual dinner of the Kildare Men’s Association in Manchester.  There I met many born in the shortgrass county who for a variety of reasons left Ireland to make a life in the industrial cities of Britain.  One such person was Sarah Allen, formerly Sarah Bolger, born in what she described to me as ‘an old house’ off Meeting Lane, Athy in 1932.  Her father was Stephen Bolger who worked as a canal boatman towards the latter part of his working life and who was married to Nora Lawler of Ardreigh.  Nora’s father, John Lawler, was one of the many local men who fought and died in the First World War.  He was a reservist in the Royal Dublin Fusiliers having served in South Africa during the Boer War.  He is one of six World War I soldiers who died during that war and are buried in St. Michael’s cemetery, Athy.


Sarah Allen, who has lived in Manchester for many years, has fond memories of youthful days spent in Athy.  She recalls picking mushrooms with her mother in Hendy’s field at Ardreigh and being carried in her mother’s arms to see her father while he was working on the sewerage scheme under construction for the houses at Rathstewart.  Sadly her mother died when Sarah was five years old, after which she went to live with her grandmother Lizzie Lawler in Ardreigh. 


Sarah, whom I met earlier in the summer when she returned to Athy for her step brother’s birthday celebration, spoke to me of Athy’s past and her abiding memories of bygone years.  Her memories and those of older generations of Athy folk, whether or not now living in Athy, are the stuff of local history.  Their recounted lives and the attendant folk stories allow us to view from a distance the life and lore of past generations which hugely differ from that of the present.


Sarah spent one season working in the local pea factory in Rathstewart before leaving at 15 years of age for London.  She was met by her aunt at Euston Station and after a short while got work as a chamber maid in the Royal Hotel, Russel Square.  There she remained for two years, earning 22 shilling per week all found.  Even then Sarah’s sense of responsibility and duty saw her sending home £1 per week to her father who was then out of work.  It was a pattern repeated by so many Irish men and women working and living in England during that post war period.  Lack of employment opportunities in Ireland separated families, while the Irish emigrants of London, Manchester and other industrial centres of Great Britain forged an uneasy and sometimes unwelcoming relationship with the war-torn communities on the British mainland. 


Sarah endowed with a social conscience and marked with an admirable sense of responsibility paid a prominent role amongst the Irish community in Manchester for many years.  The Kildare Men’s Association and the Irish Centre in Manchester were but two of the many organisations with which Sarah was associated with over the years.  Now at 85 years of age Sarah has retired from voluntary community work and has time to think back on her life which started in Garden Lane, off Meeting Lane, Athy, extended over some years in Ardreigh before her life experiences were strengthened in the cosmopolitan cities of London and Manchester.


Sarah has proved herself as one of Athy’s finest, bringing as she did to her voluntary work in Manchester the cheerfulness, kindness and wisdom of a girl who first saw the light of day in the town of Athy in the south of Co. Kildare.


Last week marked the 50th anniversary of the death of trade unionist and social activist Christy Supple and his anniversary mass in St. Michael’s Parish Church was attended by his sons Joe and Tommy.  I have written previously of Christy and his involvement in the agricultural labourers strike of the early 1920s.  Christy encouraged by William O’Brien of the Dublin based Transport Union, set out early in 1918 to unionise the workers of south Kildare.  The agricultural workers strike of 1922/’23 was an acrimonious affair and attacks on property resulted in Free State troops having to be billeted in the Town Hall, Athy for 8 months from March 1923.  Christy was himself arrested in January of that year and held in Carlow prison for several months.  In 1925 he was elected as a member of Athy Urban District Council, but like so many other men and women had to emigrate to England in later years where he died in November 1967, aged 69 years.


Christy Supple’s story is one of courage and commitment to the workers cause but his role in the defence of the agricultural labourers strike of south Kildare is a story which has yet to be written and remembered in his native town.

Moira Finnegan

Athy was the place to be on Monday of last week.  The Taoiseach was in town to open Martin Heydon’s constituency office in Leinster Street and later met some local people in the Clanard Court Hotel.  On the same day President Michael D. Higgins was on a private visit to Athy, while the assistant Garda Commissioner Fintan Fanning was carrying out his annual inspection at the local Garda Station.


The Taoiseach’s visit was undoubtedly a boost for the local Fine Gael party members and it must be acknowledged was also a very welcome visit to Athy by the country’s most important political figure.  In addressing those assembled in the local hotel the Taoiseach acknowledged the urgent need for progressing the outer relief road for which planning permission issued recently.  In recounting his own personal experiences of driving through Athy in the past the Taoiseach reassured his listeners, if such reassurance was needed, that the forty year old saga of Athy’s relief road will soon be at an end.  The cost of building the road will not, according to the Taoiseach, be an issue and everything now depends on how quickly Kildare County Council and the National Road Authority push ahead with the project. 


During the course of his address the Taoiseach paid a special tribute to Moira Finnegan, a staunch Fine Gael member for many years, whom I am told held at one time or another every officer position in the local branch of the party.  Due to her sterling work and those of her colleagues, the party flag was kept afloat in this part of the Kildare constituency during many years of Fianna Fail dominance in government.


Moira, who is a native of Mullinalaghta, Co. Longford came to Athy in 1972 to teach in the local Vocational school.  Tom O’Donnell was the headmaster in those days and he must have been particularly impressed by the young girl who, as a former CIE official working in Galway, transferred to Dublin so that she could graduate with a university degree.  Moira, like myself, attended university at night-time, both of us graduating from UCD, Moira with a B.A., yours truly with a Commerce Degree.  Daytime university attendance for our generation was very much limited to the well off and the professional classes so Moira’s attendance at evening classes after a days work was a clear indication of the drive and initiative which was regularly featured in her later role as a branch officer of the Fine Gael party.  Moira, who retired from her teacher’s position in Athy Community College ten years ago after 35 years as an Irish, English and Economics teacher, has now retired to live in her native County Longford. 


I was intrigued to find that her native place, Mullinalaghta is in the Lough Gowna Valley just up the road from my late father’s homeplace of Legga.  Both Mullinalaghta and Legga are not too far from Ballinalee and Granard, two places forever identified with the Irish War of Independence.  Not only with that War but also the subsequent Civil War and it is no coincidence that two of the men who figured largely on the Treaty side of that conflict are forever associated with County Longford.  Michael Collins’ fiancée Kitty Kirwan was a native of Granard, while the blacksmith of Ballinalee Seán Mac Eoin was, as the name indicates, a native of the Longford village of Ballinalee.  Both men, as advocates of the Treaty of 1922, were part of the movement which in time gave us Cumann na nGaedheal and the Fine Gael party.  The current Taoiseach’s kind remarks concerning Moira’s long involvement with the Fine Gael party were received with applause and her many friends in Athy wish her well on her retirement back in her native County Longford.


On the day before Athy played host to so many august visitors the members of St. Michael’s branch of O.N.E. played a significant part in the Remembrance Sunday ceremony held in St. Michael’s cemetery.  There, a colour party consisting of O.N.E. members, paraded prior to a wreath laying ceremony at the memorial to Athy men who died in war.  The prayer service which took place before, during and at the end of the annual Remembrance Sunday ceremony, was conducted by Rev. Olive Donohoe, the local Church of Ireland rector.  Thanks must go to the O.N.E. members, Rev. Olive and all those in attendance for keeping alive the town of Athy’s remembrance of the young men from this area who died during the 1914/’18 war.  It is particularly important that Athy folk do not forget that ‘lost generation’ because it was the town’s leaders and church leaders of the day who actively encouraged the largely unemployed young men of Athy and district to enlist during the course of that war.

Sunday also witnessed the Lions Cycle Rally with cyclists young and old setting off at 10 a.m. from Geraldine Park.  They followed a 24km route through Ballyroe, stopping at Kilkea Castle for refreshments before continuing the journey back to Athy’s GAA Club.  Well done to everyone involved.         

Ernest Shackleton meets G.B. Shaw and Harry Lauder

Part of the joy in researching and writing local history is making connections between people and places.  The re-imagining and re-assessment of historical figures is an important part of this process.  The Royal Irish Academy has been prominent in publishing new studies of major historical figures such as Eamon de Valera and its most recent publication, authored by Fintan O’Toole, ‘Judging Shaw’.  This an interesting book which the author regards as a re-introduction to George Bernard Shaw.  He states that Shaw, as a contemporary figure, has much more in common with musicians such as Bob Dylan and David Bowie than with the great Victorians, William Gladstone or Anthony Trollope.  He observes that Bob Dylan in 2016 became the first artist since Bernard Shaw to achieve the unique distinction of receiving both an Oscar and a Nobel prize.  Neither Athy nor Kildare can make any claims to associations with Shaw.  Carlow town has that honour with the generous bequests made by the Shaw family over the last century, the shining light of which is that great cultural treasure, the Visual Centre for Contemporary Arts Centre and the George Bernard Shaw Theatre built in the grounds of St. Patrick’s College in Carlow.


I was however intrigued to come across a reference to a meeting between George Bernard Shaw and the Kilkea-born explorer, Ernest Shackleton.  After Shackleton’s death in 1922 his brother-in-law, Charles Sarolea published in the Journal, ‘The Contemporary Review’ an article titled ‘Sir Ernest Shackleton a Study in personality’.  Sarolea was a Professor of French in Edinburgh University and was also married to Julia Dorman, Shackleton’s sister-in-law.  Sarolea describes a lunch date shared with Bernard Shaw and Shackleton where he observed two men who had much in common.  Both had a quick and ready wit and though in their temperament and outlook in life they were different both were Irishmen who had established their reputations after leaving these shores.  The lunch was marked by a continuous flow of stories and quips between the men which Sarolea described as a ‘continuous firework of story and anecdotes.’


Another great figure of that time was Sir Harry Lauder, the famous music hall singer and comedian.  His was a name and a voice that would resonate with my late father’s generation and he enjoyed an extraordinary long career from the end of the Victorian age right into the 1930's. 


It is not clear when Harry Lauder first ran into Ernest Shackleton, but certainly by 1909 when Shackleton had returned from the Antarctic they appeared to be moving in the same social circles.  At a dinner hosted by a wealthy friend of Shackleton's, Lauder performed a series of songs.  It was a lavish affair whereby the table was transformed into a picture of the Antarctic, with artificial snow and real ice, where a large model of Shackleton’s ship ‘Nimrod’ was placed at the edge of an ice barrier thickly populated by penguins with menu cards specially created by the artist, George Marston.


Lauder would go on to celebrate this friendship by releasing a song called ‘The Bounding Bounder’ or 'On the Bounding Sea' in late 1910 which was a comic tale of a joint expedition to the Antarctic involving Harry Lauder and Ernest Shackleton as regaled by Lauder.  The recording was released on an Edison wax cylinder and such was the success that it was later released on a 78 record and was still available for sale as late as 1921.  It appears that Lauder and Shackleton’s paths frequently crossed and an article in the Cork Examiner of 17th December 1912 reported that both men were embarking upon the Lusitania sailing from Cobh to the United States.  Shackleton was heading to America on private business with the intention of delivering lectures about his Nimrod expedition, while Lauder had just completed a series of engagements in London and was to begin a tour of the United States for nine weeks, of mostly major cities such as New York and Chicago.


When the Great War broke out in 1914 it would find Shackleton in the Antarctic again on the ship ‘Endurance’, while Lauder was touring Australia.  The war brought great sadness on Lauder’s family, with the loss of his only child, his son John, killed in action while serving with the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders on the Somme in 1916.  Lauder spent much of the war years in organising concerts and fundraising appeals, particularly for the charity he established, the Harry Lauder Million Pound Fund for injured Scottish soldiers and sailors for which he received a knighthood in 1919.  The death of his son also inspired the writing of the song called ‘The End of the Road’. 


Shackleton would find an early death on his expedition to the Antarctic in January ’22, while Lauder would live until February 1950 only fully retiring after World War II during which he made a number of broadcasts with the BBC.

Parish Priests of St. Michael's Parish

The light reflected in the window of the parochial house in Stanhope Place which I noticed earlier in the week had all the significance of a beacon of revival.  Sadly the parochial house, once one of the focal points for the parish of St. Michael’s, had been unoccupied in recent years while the Parish Priest who also had responsibility for Narraghmore and Moone parishes, resided in the rural tranquillity of Crookstown.  Our new Parish Priest has now occupied the early 19th century stone fronted parochial house and by this very act has reaffirmed the importance of the Parish Priest living amongst the people he serves.  This is not to say that the parishioners of Narraghmore and Moone. deserve any less consideration but in terms of population numbers the parish of St. Michael’s must be seen as the first amongst equals in this part of the diocese. 


The parish of St. Michael’s was established I am told in 1670 and the only extant records relating to the priests in the parish record Fr. John Fitzsimons who was ordained a priest in 1673 at 23 years of age.  He had the distinction of being ordained by the then Archbishop of Dublin Oliver Plunkett and was appointed Parish Priest of St. Michael’s 24 years later.  It is interesting to note that his designation as Parish Priest referred to St. Michael’s, St. John’s, Churchtown, Kilberry and Nicholastown.  He was shown in government records as residing in Athy in 1704.


The next recorded Parish Priest was Fr. Daniel Fitzpatrick who was in charge of the parish in 1744 while living over the border in Queens County [now County Laois].  Fr. James Neill or  Nele, was Parish Priest of St. Michael’s from 1771 until his death on 28th October 1789.  Fr. Maurice Keegan was a curate in Athy for 7 years from 1780 and transferred to nearby Castledermot as Parish Priest where he remained until 1789.  He returned that year to St. Michael’s as the Parish Priest and served in that capacity until 26th October 1825.  It was during his stewardship of the parish that the Parish Church, then located in Chapel Lane, was torched and burned to the ground.  It happened on the night of 7th March, 1800 and was one of a number of Catholic churches in this area and throughout Ireland which were similarly burned out following the 1798 Rebellion.  Fr. Fitzpatrick lodged a claim for compensation with the Dublin Castle authorities and those proceeds and presumably further local funding financed the building of St. Michael’s Church, familiar to older residents of the parish which was demolished in 1960.


Following Fr. Fitzpatrick’s death in 1825 I have counted 18 Parish Priests who succeeded him, including the recently appointed Fr. Liam Rigney.  Amongst them was Fr. Andrew Quinn who was Parish Priest from 1853-1879.  A native of Eadestown, Naas, his brothers were Bishop James Quinn of Brisbane and Bishop Matthew Quinn of Bathurst.  Two other Parish Priests who in my young days were remembered in Athy were Canon James Germaine who presided over the parish for 13 years up to 1905.  Canon Mackey was another well remembered holder of the office from 1909-1928.  Both died in office and both are buried in St. Michael’s Cemetery.


Canon Patrick McDonnell, after whom McDonnell Drive was named, was Parish Priest from 1928-1956.  He was the old-style leader of his parish who to a youngster like me attending confessions in the early 1950s was a cross, contrary individual who was unable to deal kindly with the awkward silences of a dumb struck youngster.  My tale of woe has been told in a previous Eye, however now that I am approaching Canon McDonnell’s age I can understand and forgive him.


Amongst the Parish Priests of the past we have had a number of priests with interesting backgrounds.  Canon Owen Sweeney, who was a dynamic Parish Priest for 5 years from 1980, was the former president of Clonliffe College.  Fr. Gerard Tanham, Parish Priest from 2010, was director of the Dublin Institute of Adult Education for 10 years from 1981.  Both left their mark on the parish of St. Michael’s and are remembered with great fondness. 


In any lookback at the Parish Priests of our parish it would be remiss of me not to mention Fr. Philip Dennehy who first came to Athy as a curate in 1963.  He served for 10 years before returning as a Parish Priest in 1985, retiring 21 years later.  Now aged 86 years he remains in the parish as Parish Priest Emeritus, a much-loved pastor who has devoted the majority of his ordained life to the parishioners of the Parish of St. Michael’s.


The parish has gone through difficult times since the departure of Monsignor John Wilson in 2009 and the widening of the pastoral responsibility of the Parish Priest for the outlying parishes has increased the difficulties facing the present incumbent.  His decision to occupy the Parochial House in Stanhope Place goes a long way to reassuring his parishioners that the regeneration of St. Michael’s parish as a relevant and important part of community life in the area can be expected. 

Tim Harward / Eddie Wall

The English and the Irish nations have had an uneasy relationship for centuries but mercifully the appalling ‘No Blacks, No Irish, No Dogs’ boarding house notices of a few decades past are no more.  However, the partnership which could and should mark the relationship between neighbouring islands is held back by politicians and historical baggage foisted on us as a result of the Boundary Commission of 1924. 


My thoughts on the otherwise amicable relationship between the people of Great Britain and ourselves were prompted by my visit last week for a funeral in West Sussex.  I have been a frequent visitor across the Irish Sea and I have always been impressed by the pleasant and courteous manner in which the English and Welsh people meet and greet the Irish.  Everywhere one goes on the British mainland there is evidence of Irish connections.  I was attending a funeral service in St. Andrew’s Church, Bishopstone, a small church dating from Saxon times with 12th century Norman additions.  The Church of England service was an engaging reminder of the ever-slight differences in the services in our own St. Michael’s Church.  The Minister in charge was a Sligo man, now retired from his own parish and acting as priest in charge of the church where miniature sized Stations of the Cross and candlesticks spoke of a High Church following, or as the Rev. Minister later put it to me ‘High Churchish’.


I was there to honour the memory of my daughter’s father-in-law who passed away recently.  Tim Harward, born in Madras, India where his father was an army Colonel was educated in England and attended Trinity College Dublin in the 1950s.  His was an interesting life which saw him work for a time as a theatre critic for the Times, and after service with the 2nd Gurka Rifles in Malaya he worked for several years as an archaeologist in Nepal.  I was particularly interested to find that his first book was published in 1964 by Liam Miller’s Dolmen Press and his most recent book on pillar stones in west Nepal was published in Central Malaya 48 years later. 


Tim Harward’s connection with Ireland reflected in reverse the links which many Irish men and women have with Great Britain.  There are very few Irish families who do not have a family member working or living in retirement on the British mainland.  Once such was my friend Eddie Wall who was born in Ardreigh and like me went to school in the local Christian Brothers.  Shortly after the funeral service in Bishopstone I received a text from Eddie’s daughter, Helen Hives, telling me that her father had died some days previously.  Eddie left school at an early age to work in Andersons and Conroys pubs.  He subsequently emigrated to England where he married Evelyn Barrett from Belmullet, county Mayo and it was in Luton that they reared their family. 


Eddie had a great love for his native place which he never lost, despite the many years he spent in England.  He was delighted to attend the 40th school reunion organised in September 2002 where he renewed acquaintances with men whose faces and ages had changed enormously since last seen as young boys in the Christian Brothers.  Eddie kept in touch with me for a number of years after that and I was very saddened to hear of his passing.


The connections between Eddie’s country of birth and the land where his remains will now lie are so many and so varied it is impossible to untangle the two.  Even on my short trip last week I met and talked to several strangers, all elderly, many still conversing with the soft lilt of an Irish brogue which they brought with them so many years ago from Ireland.  You cannot travel anywhere in England or Wales without meeting an Irish exile who has made his or her home there.  The Irish exile has proved to be a trustworthy, hardworking and genial person, becoming in time an integral part of the local community overseas.


Tim Harward and Eddie Wall came from entirely different backgrounds but somehow their lives enshrined, for me at least, an understanding of those transferable qualities which allow the English and the Irish to live in harmony.  How I wish those qualities could be utilised to solve the difficulties which still mark relationships on the island of Ireland and which have their origin in the shambolic political settlement of almost 100 years ago.


[I wrote the above lines on Thursday morning and later that afternoon I received a telephone call to say that Tim Harward’s wife Paula, who had spoken so eloquently at his funeral service a few days previously, had tragically died following a road traffic accident earlier in the day.]


Thursday, March 15, 2018

Danny Kane and Mary Fleming

Danny Kane and Mary Fleming came from a similar rural background in South Kildare.  Danny was from Oldgrange, while Mary was from the nearby townland of Fontstown.  In age they were a generation apart but both passed away within weeks of each other.  Mary was an extremely devout person whose commitment to her church never waivered, while Danny’s work ethic was an essential part of his approach to life. 

Mary left Ireland as a young girl in 1937 at the height of the economic war.  She would spend the next 67 years of her life in England where she qualified as a nurse and midwife.  Even in retirement she continued working as a health visitor in Northampton, near to the home place of the great English poet John Clare.  She was however never lost to Ireland or to the extended Fleming family and she returned to Athy 12 years ago.  Here in Athy she renewed her commitment to the local parish in the same way as she had committed herself as a volunteer in her UK parish over many years.

Danny Kane, who was one of the most agreeable persons one could meet, left school like so many of his peers at an early age.  His lack of formal education did not in any way impinge on his ability to relate to people and he enjoyed an excellent relationship with everyone as he passed through life.  While working on local farms at an early age he developed an extraordinary work ethic which he maintained all his life.

In or about 1971 Danny purchased a small grocery shop at 32 Woodstock Street.  I am told that the enterprising young man from Oldgrange found that the mortgage repayments exceeded his income and so with friends Syl Bell and Eddie Ryan he purchased a chip van.  Travelling to various functions in the area selling chips proved profitable and prompted Danny to open a chipper in part of the existing grocery shop in Woodstock Street.  In time Danny gave over the entire premises to the fish and chip business and it flourished while Danny was the proprietor before selling it on in 1998. 

Legion are the stories I have heard of Danny’s thoughtfulness and generosity during his time as the shop proprietor in Woodstock Street.  It was the same spirit and thoughtfulness which saw him working later in his life as a volunteer driver for the Cancer Society.  After retiring from the business he had built up over 26 years Danny worked for a time as a driver for his brother-in-law Fergal Blanchfield.  This was followed by a spell as a driver with local hardware firm Griffin Hawe Ltd. and later as a taxi driver for Vals Cabs and Ernest O’Rourke-Glynn.

Sadly in more recent years Danny was troubled by a heart complaint brought on unquestionably by a life of hard work and long hours.  He was scheduled to have heart surgery for some time past but health cutbacks caused the operation to be postponed several times.  When at last the call came it was via a text message while Danny was attending 12 mass at St. Michael’s Parish Church.  He was admitted to St. James’s Hospital the following morning but tragically following a 14 hour operation died shortly after being transferred to the intensive care unit.

Danny is survived by his wife Fidelma who on their marriage in 1972 brought together two families, Kanes and Blanchfields, who are long associated with this part of the county of Kildare.  Fidelma and their 8 adult children have lost a wonderful caring husband and father and a man for whom the local community came out in their hundreds to honour on the occasion of his funeral. 

The contrasting lifestyles of both Danny Kane and Mary Fleming, both from rural backgrounds, were founded on commitment, one to the church, the other to the family.  Mary, who remained single throughout her whole life, found contentment and purpose in the Catholic Church and in her later years on returning to Ireland found great happiness with the extended family members, young and old, with whom she spent her final days.  Danny found great happiness in his family life and the life stories of Danny and Mary while different in so many ways show that their passages through life were marked by dedicated commitment to life’s true values.  Our sympathies go to the families and friends of Mary Fleming and Danny Kane. 

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Lions Book Shop, a measure of Athy's cultural strength

Books have always interested me.  I am the antithesis of the person who when asked if he wanted a book as a birthday present replied ‘no thanks, I have one already’.  As a long-forgotten philosopher once claimed ‘a good book is the best of friends, the same today and forever.’


I have always measured a town’s cultural strength by the number of bookshops it harbours within its boundaries.  You might think therefore that Athy would not figure large on the cultural graph, but in reality, the town is hugely supportive of a variety of cultural activities.  As for a dedicated bookshop the absence of one is in part compensated by the efforts of The Gem and Winkles to supply a limited stock of newly published works.  The Lions Book Shop opened some years ago in a premises owned by Shaws has proved a popular venue for book lovers.  It is a decidedly welcome asset for the people of Athy and district.


The members of Athy Lions Club which was established in 1971 have been involved in many projects over the years, helping organisations and individuals alike.  Two of the many projects undertaken by the club members were the Sheltered Housing Scheme in the grounds of St. Vincent’s Hospital and the provision of an ambulance for the local Knights of Malta.


Many other worthwhile projects have been completed by the Lions Club but perhaps the opening of the book shop in Duke Street has given the organisation its most prominent and noticeable presence within the Athy community.  In the first few months of its opening the book shop’s opening hours were limited to Saturday only, with Lions members sharing duties as a provincial town’s second hand bookseller for a few hours each week.  Keeping the shop open even for those limited number of hours every Saturday was a difficult task.  The Lions Club was extremely fortunate then to welcome Alice Rowan who volunteered her services to keep the shop open five days a week.  Alice, who had some time previously retired and returned from abroad, has continued in her voluntary role on behalf of the Lions Club for the past six years.  Her huge contribution to the Lions Club work amongst the people of Athy was marked last year with the award to her of honorary life membership of Lions Club International.  That recognition for Alice was the first time in the history of Athy Lions Club that an honorary membership was awarded.  Without the generosity of Shaws Department stores in allowing the Lions Club to use their vacant premises as a book store the project would not have hoped to succeed. 


The book shop receives gifts of books and CDs and by selling them at very reasonable prices undoubtedly helps to encourage many people, who might not otherwise be able to do so, to keep good company by reading the best authors on a variety of subjects.  Books can hold a fascination for many people, and if truth be told, no one could possibly disagreed with Decartes opinion that ‘the reading of a good book is like a conversation with the finest person.’ 


I have been buying and reading books for a long time but my interest in Irish history and English social history has prevented me from devoting any time to reading fiction other than the works of local writer, John MacKenna.  Looking through my books there are two books which because of my interest in local history have proved of particular importance to me over the years.  The first is Byrnes ‘Dictionary of Irish Local History’ published by Mercier Press in 2004.  In the Irish context it is surely the most authoritative reference book for local historians.  It was written by a Joseph Byrne, of whom I have no knowledge, but I would love to meet the man who wrote what is a superb dictionary of local history terms.


The other book which I bought in London some years ago was Charles Arnold – Baker’s ‘The Companion to British History’.  This is a large tome running to 1,386 pages with thousands of facts and opinion pieces on everything relating to British history.  It was written during his spare time over a period of 30 years by Baker who was a Barrister and not a professional historian.


These are two books which I have to say will not in my lifetime leave my bookshelves for the Lions book shop.  However, if any of my readers have books or CDs which they would like to donate for charity Alice in the book shop in Duke Street will be delighted to receive them.



Monday, October 30, 2017

A Shaws shop assistant's story

I was privileged to interview a number of former employees of Shaws over the last two years while working on a history of that firm.  One of those interviewed was a lady who started to work in Shaws of Athy as World War II entered its final phase.  Her story was typical of anyone employed away from their home town or village in those war-torn years.  The memory of those difficult times is now fading, but accounts such as that of the County Tipperary lass brings home to later generations what life was like in Ireland of the 1940s.  Seventy-two years have passed since my interviewee spoke of her journey home on Christmas Eve 1945 but let her take up her story.


‘I left my home in Co. Tipperary in 1944 to take up my apprenticeship with Shaws in Athy.  Being the war years there were no trains, no petrol for cars, so I set off on my high nelly bike for the neighbouring town from where I continued my journey by bus to Naas with my bicycle safely on top.  I reached Naas at 3 p.m. with a ten shilling note in my pocket.  By this time I was hungry but could not afford to spend money on food, as my ten shillings had to last a long long time.  I would need money for a stamp to write home each week, and a penny for church on Sunday mornings and another penny for the Methodist Church on Sunday evenings, which as a staff member of Shaws I had to attend.  I had to wait in Naas ‘til 6 p.m. in order to continue my journey to Athy on the Dublin bus.  Alas, when the bus did arrive, it was full up.  A man who had seen me waiting there for so long, came and told me that a hackney was coming to Naas from Athy to collect some people and he would ask the owner if he had room for me.  The man was Tommy Stynes who kindly brought me to Athy, and I didn’t have to give him any money.


My first Christmas 1945 I worked ‘til 10 p.m. as some customers seemed to get joy from coming in five minutes before closing time.  Between chatting and browsing, they wouldn’t leave til near 10 p.m., never giving a thought as to how far the staff would have to cycle home.  As I worked in the cash desk, I would be almost the last to leave, so it would be 11 p.m. before I could start my journey home.  As it was the war years street lights and directions on sign posts were not allowed, in case of a German invasion.  The roads were not tarred, except the main roads from Dublin to Cork and Dublin to Limerick.  I knew I had to cycle through Maryborough (as it was known then), Mountrath, Borris in Ossory, Roscrea, Dunkevin and then home.  In Mountrath, I turned right, instead of left and went on to Ballyfin, where I met a man “full of Christmas cheer.”  He told me to go back to Mountrath and turn right after the church.  On reaching Roscrea I was so tired I lay on the frosty grass for a while, and then walked ‘til the numbness left my legs.  I arrived home on Christmas morning at 7.30 a.m., spent Christmas Day at home and then cycled back to Athy on Saint Stephen’s Day.  Oh was I tired?  Some of the staff cycled to Gorey, some to Inistioge, and others to different destinations, just to be home for Christmas.  We had no other option.  For three years this was the way we had to go if we were to see “Home Sweet Home”.


It is understandably difficult for anyone accustomed to modern motorways and motorised travel to imagine how important a bicycle was in the life of Irish folk during the war and indeed for many years after it ended.  I remember my father cycling to Tullow, Co. Carlow where he was temporarily filling in for a local sergeant who was indisposed.  Those were the days when the bicycle was the only mode of transport for most people as car ownership was the preserve of the rich and the professional classes.


Last week when writing of past Shackleton Autumn Schools I overlooked the contribution of Liam O’Flynn, Ireland’s foremost piper who performed at two Autumn Schools.  Another omission was the absence of any reference to the Autumn School journal, ‘Nimrod’ which has been produced every year and this year reaches its eleventh edition. 

Monday, October 23, 2017

Shackleton Autumn Schools of past years

On Friday next, the 17th Shackleton Autumn School will be officially opened.  The very first Autumn School was launched with enthusiasm, some little knowledge and lots of ambition but with little realisation of what would be achieved over the following years.  The School has grown to become a truly international event regarded by Polar experts and enthusiasts as the worlds foremost annual Polar gathering.  A relatively small Irish provincial town previously largely known outside the island of Ireland is now known far and wide as a centre for its annual Polar get together.


Looking back over the years and reviewing the visitors books in the Heritage Centre I have identified visitors to the Autumn School from Australia, Japan, New Zealand, Chile, America as well as France, Germany, Netherlands, Spain, Norway and all regions of Great Britain.  The Autumn School had received as guests,  Ambassadors from Japan, Norway and Australia and this year we had hoped for the American Ambassador to Ireland to open the School but unfortunately the ambassadorial appointment is still awaited. 


For me one of the highlights of past years was the attendance of President Michael D. Higgins to open the 2012 Shackleton Autumn School.  This was a great honour for Athy and the local Heritage Centre and confirmed, if such was needed, that the Shackleton Autumn School had become an important national cultural event.  There has been a great variety of national figures who have come to Athy over the last weekend of October since the first school was opened.  One of the early school’s was opened by Brian Keenan, the Northern Ireland writer who was a hostage for several years in the Lebanon with Terry Waite and John McCarthy.  His visit aroused enormous interest and his address in the library of the Town Hall did not disappoint.  David Norris, Joycean scholar was a colourful and highly entertaining guest of honour on the opening night a few years ago.  Another guest on opening night was Fintan O’Toole, Irish Times journalist and writer who gave a thoughtful and incisive exposition of Ireland’s social and political development on the fringe of the European Community.  One of my favourites was Kevin Myers whose address to the audience was followed up by a question and answer session which gave rise to a contribution from the floor making an uncomplimentary mark regarding Kevin’s writing ability.  I must say how disappointed I am that such a wonderful writer as Kevin Myers is deprived of a readership because of the reaction to the very last article he wrote for the Sunday Times.


The Shackleton Autumn School is not just a series of lectures for every programme includes either a musical or a dramatic presentation which always proves an attractive addition to the weekend’s events.  One of the early Autumn Schools featured Aidan Dooley’s dramatic presentation of the Tom Crean story and he returned the following year with the Ernest Shackleton one man show.  Since then Aidan Dooley has presented his shows in London, New York, Dublin and many other venues and we are delighted to welcome him back this year for a further presentation of his Tom Crean show.  It takes place in the Church of Ireland community hall on Sunday starting at 8.30pm.  Tickets costing €10 can be purchased in the local Heritage Centre or at the Church of Ireland Hall on the night.


John MacKenna, author, whose latest book of poetry is now on sale has been a wonderful friend of the Autumn School having acted in several of his own dramatic presentations over the years.  Perhaps his best known contribution was to the “Shackleton Endurance” a musical journey through the story of the Endurance expedition of 1914 - 1917.  John scripted that wonderful story while Brian Hughes composed the music.  Both John and Brian with others put on a wonderful performance in the Visual Arts Centre, Carlow which at the time was the only venue in this area which could cater for the numbers attending.  Brian Hughes whose latest album “This Day Twenty Years” celebrating 20 years of music making was launched last week, also performed during previous Autumn Schools.  One such performance was in Frank O’Brien’s Pub recognised as the School’s Clubroom during the Autumn School weekend, when Brian on the tin whistle teamed up with the late Michael Delaney of Kilkea and Dun Chaoin, Co Kerry whose rendition of local ballads, some written by Michael himself, proved a great hit with visitors and locals alike.  Brian performed on another Shackleton weekend as did the Clancy group of Irish musicians which included Toss Quinn, Martin Cooney, Seamus Byrne and Conor O’Carroll.  Mention must also be made of Jacinta O’Donnell who charmed the overseas visitors when she performed at an Autumn School dinner in the Clanard Court Hotel a few years ago.


The official opening of the 17th Ernest Shackleton Autumn School takes place in Athy’s Heritage Centre at 7.30pm on Friday, 27th of October.  Come along and join the visitors from overseas and from elsewhere in Ireland in celebration of one of the premier events hosted each year in Athy.

Monday, October 2, 2017

17th Annual Shackleton Autumn School 2017

October brings with it a greyness in our morning skies and also unremitting rain.  It is also the month that sees the return of the Shackleton Autumn School to the town of Athy.  This year marks the 17th year of the school which has been a great success since its inception in 2001. 


This year the school will feature lecturers from Ireland, Britain, Norway, Canada, Australia and the US.  The diverse range of events planned by the Autumn School Committee will appeal to many different interests.  The Norwegian Ambassador to Ireland, Ambassador Else Berit Eikeland, will be talking about the importance of polar history to the establishment of the Norwegian National Identity.  Ambassador Eikeland took up office in September 2016 after a career in the Norwegian Foreign Service, laterally as the Polar Ambassador for the Arctic and Antarctica where she represented Norway’s interests in these regions.  Her fellow Norwegian, Anne Melgård, a Curator at the National Library of Norway, will be talking about Norway’s great polar hero, Roald Amundsen, the first man to lead an expedition to the South Pole in December 1911. 


Irish interest will not be neglected as the Galwegian, Enda O’Cioneen, now residing in Kildare, will talk about his exploits on the high seas over the last thirty years.  Many of us will remember when Enda first came to prominence in the early 1980s when he attempted to cross the Atlantic singlehandedly in a 16ft. dinghy, albeit unsuccessfully when he capsized 300 miles short of the west coast of Ireland, but undaunted he completed the trip a few years later as a world first.


A particular feature of this year will be the involvement of the Byrd Polar and Climate Research Centre from Ohio University, Columbus, United States.  This is the premier Polar institution in the United States and its involvement is a notable first for the Athy-Heritage Centre Museum.  As I write this article a crate of artefacts is winging its way from America to Ireland to form the nucleus of an exhibition about the great American polar explorer Admiral Richard E. Byrd.  Byrd’s exploits in the Antarctica in the late 1920s and early 1930s were pioneering in their scale and their ambition.  They effectively paved the way for the scientific research stations and bases which now are located all over the Antarctic continent.  An exhibition dedicated to Byrd’s exploits with the title ‘Ushering in the Age of Mechanical Exploration: Richard E. Byrd’s First and Second Expeditions to Antarctica’ will be opened on the night of 27th October by Miss Laura Kissel, the Polar Curator for the Byrd Polar and Climate Research Centre  Archival Program. 


There is a welcome return to the Shackleton Autumn School for another Galway man, the actor Aidan Dooley.  I can well remember a stormy night in Athy in October 2002 when I sat transfixed by the extraordinary performance of Aidan in his one man show Tom Crean Antarctic Explorer.  To use that old theatrical cliché, ‘he held the audience in the palm of his hand’.  Little did I know that many years later when he came to write a book about his experiences in performing as Tom Crean he was extremely concerned that the polar experts in the audience would not be convinced by his performance!


Since that date he has criss-crossed the world performing the show to huge acclaim.  The performance, which will begin at 8.30 p.m. on the night of Sunday 29th October in the Athy Church of Ireland Community Centre, is bound to be a sell-out event and whether you have an interest in polar history or not you cannot but be enthralled by the drama of the life story of the Kerryman, Tom Crean.


There are a variety of lectures and events which should have some appeal to all of us and I would encourage the people of the town to attend as many events as they possibly can.  As well as the lecturers themselves, there is a wonderful array of nationalities who come and stay in the town for the four days of the Shackleton School and there is a universally positive response to the town and its people from these visitors, which sees many of the same visitors return year after year after year.  The Shackleton Autumn School has been pivotal in establishing Athy as the centre of the commemoration and celebration of the life of the Kildare-born explorer, Sir Ernest Shackleton and it has been a catalyst in the plans for the re-development of the Museum which will gather pace once the Athy Library moves to its new site in the Dominican Church.  There is no doubt that the success of the Shackleton Autumn School will be a source of pride for the people of Athy for many years yet to come.  The Shackleton Autumn School runs over the weekend of 27th-30th October and details of all events can be found on the school’s website,