Growing up in Athy in the 1950's the height of every young man's ambition was to be an altar boy. This was not necessarily an indication of religious fervour, merely I suspect a desire to be involved in the adult world from which young people were then so totally excluded. Being an altar boy was almost akin to taking to the stage and like the actor proclaiming his words to a hushed audience the altar boy intoned the responses to the Latin Mass with a solemnity and gravity beyond his years.
The attraction of being an altar boy is even now difficult to ascertain. Maybe it lay in the unquestioning desire to emulate an older brother who had himself perhaps followed in the steps of a near neighbour. The Mass servers surplice was handed down from brother to brother and well I can remember the relatively dishevelled lace ends of my surplice which repeated washing and delicate darning could never hope to conceal was a hand-me-down.
Morning masses in those days were timed to try the body if not the spirit and my memories are of being awakened at 6.30 a.m. by my father to get up on cold dark winters mornings to serve 7.00 a.m. Mass. The only constants at that ungodly hour were the celebrant and the local Christian Brothers who each morning walked alone and some distance apart from each other from their Monastery in St. John's to the local Parish Church. A Mass server could not always guarantee to arise and arrive in time and to this day I recall the terror felt when I arrived at the Sacristy one morning soon after I joined the Altar Servers to find that I was the only server present. In those days one had to contend with responsibilities which seemed awesome for a young lad so a hasty retreat was beaten leaving the Priest to face the congregation on his own.
One man whose face appears to me out of the distance of almost 40 years is James McNally, Sacristan extraordaire. For how long he was in the Parish Church I cannot say but he always seemed an important part of the Church in Athy and I can still visualise him guiding the Priests through the Easter ceremonies with the assurance and confidence of a man well versed in the intricities of Church ceremonies.
James was a widower and he lived in Convent View with the Mullerys. As Fr. McLoughlin, the Senior Curate who was later to become Parish Priest of Celbridge once said "James McNally could say Mass". It was a tribute well deserved and one which acknowledged his value to the local Church which he served with dignity and respect for many years. When he died he was buried in Old St. Michael's Cemetery and today it is sad to realise that this servant of the Church and of the people of Athy lies in an unmarked grave.
I am sure there are many others who like me remember James McNally and his contribution to the Church. It is rather surprising that he should be forgotten but perhaps he was not forgotten, merely overlooked in the myriad of problems and troubles that assail all of us throughout our lifetime. Now that we are reminded of James McNally maybe we can ensure that his grave is suitably marked as a tribute to a man who served a Church and a community so well for so long.