Friday, January 27, 1995

Stephen O'Brien

Athy is noted for its extraordinary large number of public houses. At one time most of the local publicans were grocers and spirit merchants. They combined the dual roles with the front portion of their shops meeting the housewives grocery needs while in the back portion almost always dark and secluded, pints and spirits were served to the menfolk. "Monsie" Purcells and Clancys were two of the most recent grocery and spirit merchants to give up the uneven struggle of combining two so diametrically opposed businesses in a world where specialisation is the norm.

To Frank O'Brien goes the distinction of being the last of the old style grocer and spirit merchants in Athy. As you enter through the outer door you come upon a scene similar to that which greeted past generations of Athy people. The names on the boxes lining the shelves may be different but you feel almost imperceptibly the homeliness of an almost lost heritage which has been retained here, albeit perhaps temporarily, for the present generation to savour. The small grocery counter has witnessed many transactions in its time but the one constant is the O'Brien who serves you from behind that same counter.

The O'Brien name was first put over the door in 1874 when Frank's grandfather Stephen O'Brien, a Kilkenny man, bought the business from James Leahy. Leahy was a member of Athy Town Commissioners who was elected an M.P. for County Kildare in 1880. His nomination for that election did not initially find favour with Charles Stewart Parnell who confided in his right hand man Andrew J. Kettle that Leahy was "too fat and would fall asleep in the House of Commons". Parnell's misgivings were somehow allayed and Leahy went on to win the nomination and the subsequent election and to represent Athy and South Kildare for many years.

Stephen O'Brien was a Home Ruler who quickly became involved in local affairs and it is no surprise to find that he was a member of the Election Committee appointed to support Leahy's candidature in the 1880 Parliamentary Elections. He was also a member of the welcoming Committee which greeted Charles Stewart Parnell when he attended a meeting at Athy on the 27th of March, 1880, only two days after his arrival home from an American tour.

Like a number of other Home Rulers and Land League supporters in the town Stephen O'Brien was to find himself out of favour with the authorities when with a number of other local publicans he was prosecuted for refusing to serve in his pub R.I.C. men and others who supported the Government cause. This form of boycotting was an important plank of the Land League Campaign as it gathered momentum in South Kildare in the 1880's under the leadership of local Land League Secretary John Cantwell.

In 1894 Stephen O'Brien was noted as a member of Athy C.Y.M.S. while in 1898 he was appointed by the Commissioners of National Education as one of five members of the local school attendance committee. The other members were M.J. Minch, M.P.; Stephen Telford, Town Commissioner; Thomas Whelan, Town Commissioner and John A. Duncan J.P. In 1907 he was appointed Vice-President of the local football and hurling club. The G.A.A. Club was incidentally a sub-section of Athy C.Y.M.S., a clear indication of the power and influence of the Catholic Young Mens Society at that time. In the same year he was carrying on a mineral water manufacturing business in Emily Square. This business lasted up to the end of the First World War and his grandson, the present licensee Frank O'Brien, is the proud possessor of a vintage bottle of O'Brien's mineral water. Stephen O'Brien's active involvement in the local community also saw him appointed to a Committee set up in the town in 1914 to deal with cases of distress arising as a consequence of World War I. Stephen died in 1919 at the age of 76 years.

Frank O'Brien today carries on the business purchased by his Grandfather in 1874. The three storey, three bay building which houses the bar and grocery has an excellent Ionic shop front with heavy engaged columns. It is a landmark in the centre of our town, well known to visitors and townspeople alike, where the O'Brien family have lived and worked for 121 years.

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