Friday, May 20, 1994

Manchester Irish (2)

Enjoying Sunday lunch in the Irish Heritage Centre in Manchester with members of the Kildare Association, I was very conscious of the importance of their links with their home County. The Kildare Arms cast in bronze in the Co-Operative Foundry in Athy and presented to the Kildare Association some months ago, has taken its place with the other County Association emblems which line the walls of the Centre.

Last week I mentioned the effervescent and delightful Sarah Allen, whose father Stephen Bolger and brothers Stephen and John live in Athy. Sarah arrived in Manchester from Athy in 1951 but returns "home", as she and indeed all Irish emigrants still refer to their home towns, every year. She is a volunteer with Irish Community Care based at 289 Cheetam Hill Road, Manchester, a charitable organisation which provides support, advice and comfort to Irish in need especially families and the elderly Irish. The Association has a full-time co-ordinator Sr. Elizabeth, and is funded in part by the Irish Government. Sarah tells harrowing and sad stories of Irish men who left Ireland before and after the War years now living alone and forgotten in dingy, squalid conditions in Manchester. As part of her voluntary work she makes weekly house visits on the aged and lonely Irish and occasionally is involved in making burial arrangements for those poor individuals who left their Irish homes in youth and with high hopes but who ended their lives penniless and alone.

On Sunday afternoon Sarah brought me under the "Fenian Arches" which were the site of the Fenian Ambush in 1867 which led to the public hangings of Allen, Larkin and O'Brien. Later on we visited the Martyrs Memorial in Moston Cemetery, now sadly defaced with paint thrown over the carvings on the celtic cross and the sculptured stone figures at the corners of the memorial damaged.

Not too far away from the most famous Irish Memorial in Manchester I saw the grave of an Athy woman, Eileen Berry, formerly Fennell who once lived in the Tan Yard at the back of Herteriches. Her father Jim was well known in Athy in the 1930's and with his wife Polly and his family he lived in a river house boat which he retrieved from the Barrow and placed on stilts in the Tan Yard. Jim worked occasionally on the canal boats and Eileen his only daughter went to England in the late 1930's to take up nursing. Jim and his wife and his two sons Seamus and Fintan were later to join her in Manchester. Eileen married Paddy Berry of Skerries, Athy, but was to die tragically at the age of 26 years and found a resting place in Moston Cemetery near to the Memorial to Allen, Larkin and O'Brien.

There are many other Athy men and women in Manchester some now in their golden years, all part of the great diaspora of the 1930's, 1940's and 1950's. No visit to Manchester would be complete without calling on another Athy man whose popularity in the Irish and English pub scenes is legendry. Indeed Billy Cunningham is so well known that with his group called "The new Athoys" he has issued a number of musical tapes. Every Saturday and Sunday he is to be found in "The Wheat Sheaf" on Oldham Road where the Landlord is a Tuam woman of indeterminate age who has spent almost a lifetime in Manchester. Billy, whose brother Paul and sister Anne live in Athy, left the town in September 1954 after a spell in the Asbestos and I.V.I. factories and two years in the Irish Army. He even spent a couple of weeks on the canal boats where his strength and youthful energy was amply rewarded in loading boats at 13/6 a time. Billy who recently suffered a bout of serious illness is one of the most popular pub acts in Manchester.

The Kildare Irish in Manchester are a close knit community who have never forgotten their home towns or the experiences of their youth. In three days in the Lancashire city of Manchester I
learned more of life in Athy before and after the second World War than I had ever previously known. Meeting Kildare and other Irish people outside their own country is a sharing and bonding experience which leaves me aware of the loss we in Ireland have suffered through emigration.

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