He was born on the 27th of January, 1908. A railway man’s child he was to spend his entire working life on the Irish railways. Now long retired and living in Castledermot Jack MacKenna looks back on a life full of incidents and memories that flood the mind’s eye.
His father Tom MacKenna who was a foreman on the Great Southern and Western Railway, was stationed at Ballybrophy when Jack was born. Within months the family moved to Carlow but tragedy struck when Jack’s mother died when he was about eight months old. Tom MacKenna and his four young children moved to Athy where Tom was to remain for the rest of his long life. With the extension of the railway to the Wolfhill collieries in 1918 a railway man’s cottage was built at the Carlow road crossing gates and it was here that the MacKenna family lived for many years.
While attending the Christian Brothers School in Athy Jack joined Fianna Eireann, the youth group within the Irish Republican Movement. Other members at that time included Peter Toomey of Meeting Lane, Andy and Mick Lawler of Leinster Street, George and Larry Heffernan and Denis Candy. Tom Maher of Stanhope Street was the drill master and the young boys used a field in the area of the present St. Joseph’s Terrace for drilling. Paddy Gibbons of Barrack Street was in overall charge.
During the War of Independence Jack succeeded in spiriting away the gun of a Black and Tan who was pushed through the window of Jacksons shop in Leinster Street. This gun was later handed over to the local volunteers resulting in the award of an IRA medal in later years to Jack MacKenna, surely one of the youngest such recipients.
Jack recalls the part played by the Lambe brothers of William Street and the O’Rourke brothers of Canal Side in the War of Independence. He regards Frank Lambe as an outstanding Local leader. Frank and his brother Peter were later to emigrate to America. Leo Davis and John Hayden were two other men who played a prominent part in the War of Independence and both were imprisoned in Mountjoy for their involvement.
When he was seventeen years of age Jack entered the services of the Great Southern and Western Railway and worked in Carlow, Roscrea and Thurles before returning to Athy Railway Station in or about 1935. By then his brother Tom had joined the Gardai while his sister Kathleen had married Cavan man Andy Smith who had come to Athy to work in Mrs. O’Meara’s pub in Leinster Street. Andy, a great GAA stalwart, was to acquire his own premises located opposite the Leinster Arms Hotel where he carried on a successful business for many years.
Jack married Tuam born school teacher Una Bray and moved to Castledermot where she taught in the local national school. By now he was foreman at Athy railway station as was his father Tom before him. As local secretary of the Railway Union it was inevitable that Jack would become involved with the Labour Party then under the leadership of County Kildare Dail Deputy Bill Norton. Jack stood for election as a Labour candidate to Kildare County Council and Athy Urban District Council and served many years as both a County Councillor and an Urban Councillor. Difficulties with local Labour party activists resulted in Jack standing as an independent candidate in subsequent elections. In all he served three terms as a County Councillor.
As a foreman on the railway Jack worked with many interesting characters over the years but few matched in his esteem the legendary Joe Murphy, a railway signal man who lived in Offaly Street. Joe, a staunch GAA man and Fianna Fail supporter, was one of the great characters of the 40’s and 50’s in Athy whose presence enlivened many gatherings.
Jack recalls with a chuckle an occasion when a young Albert Reynolds, newly promoted as District Superintendent Clerk in Longford, arrived at Athy station one Monday morning shortly before 6 o’clock. None of the local railway staff had yet arrived. Joe Murphy who arrived late did not take too kindly to the young official’s rebuke and responded with a stinging reply before walking to the signal man’s box without a care in the world. The fact that Joe was a personal friend of Frank Lemass, then General Manager of C.I.E., no doubt afforded him protection from over zealous railway officials.
Jack’s wife died soon after he retired from the railway and he subsequently married Debbie McEvoy. His eldest son Jarleth is a Doctor in America, his daughter Dolores School Principal in Dublin while his son John is the well known writer and dramatist whose latest book of short stories will be published in April. Jack MacKenna retains a lively interest in Irish history and brings to his remembrance of days past an uncanny recall of names and events of which are unknown to the present generation.