Jack Kelly would have been 77 years old next month, 7 years past the allotted three score and ten if the grim reaper had not called him home last week. He was one of the few surviving members of the now defunct Churchtown Pipe Band. Churchtown and Castlemitchell were areas noted for music at the turn of the century as indeed were many rural areas in Ireland in the days before the advent of radio and television. Every town had its marching band and Athy boasted two in the Barrack Street Fife and Drum Band and the Leinster Street Band. The Churchtown Pipe Band started some time in the 1920's.
Some of the original members of the Band included the three Byrne brothers, John, Christy and Jerry and the brothers Paddy and Johnny Wright who were born in the shadow of Curraclone Church. Ned Hyland of Portlaoise cycled over to Churchtown for band practices where he joined his colleagues Johnny Luttrell from Athy, George Moore from Rheban, Paddy Moloney, Joe Fennelly and Willie Hutchinson. Willie, now over 90 years of age and living in Kilberry is the last surviving member of the original Churchtown band. With the death of Jack Kelly the only member of the Churchtown Pipe Band of later days still with us is Jim Connor who lives in England.
The Band room was conveniently located opposite The Bleeding Horse, once a favoured hostelry for those travelling on the Athy/Portlaoise Road. With the emergence of Athy's L.D.F. Band in the 1940's the Churchtown Pipe Band went into decline. It fell to Jerry Byrne of Kilcrow and Johnny Wright to keep the tradition of pipe playing alive in the Churchtown area. Jerry was an expert at tuning the pipes and skilled in the art of teaching others to play that most difficult of traditional instruments. Johnny Wright took charge of band bookings and entered the band in the various competitions in which it proved so successful over the years.
Jack Kelly, who in his young days learned to play the accordion was taught to play the fiddle by Jerry Byrne and later mastered the tin whistle before joining the Churchtown Pipe Band where he learned to play the bagpipes. He was to continue with the Band until its eventual demise in the 1950's. Music was an important part of his leisure activities and his musical talents were passed on to his son Jimmy and his grandson Sean who at 13 years of age recently won the County Kildare Scor final for fiddle playing.
Jack was justifiably proud of Sean's success, displaying the same sense of pride with which he recounted stories of his native place and of his time in the now defunct I.V.I. Foundry. He spent 31 years there as a metal moulder and proudly showed me the watch which he received after 25 years service. The work ethic was firmly entrenched in the character of men such as Jack Kelly who was born in the last year of the Great War. When he left school he worked in P.P. Doyle's brick yard and even 50 years later he could still recall with ease the skills and practices of the long lost brick making tradition. Sourers, middlers, wheelers, upstitchers, moulders and off-bearers are no longer part of the industrial language of the day but to Jack Kelly they represented brickyard men with whom he shared work experiences so many years ago.
Jack played with no less than four local bands, all of which are now long gone. Kilberry Fife and Drum Band and Kilberry Pipe Band were two in which he featured in his young days. He also joined for a very short period the Barrack Street Fife and Drum Band before becoming a member of the Churchtown Pipe Band. He recounts a story how as a young 17 or 18 year old playing with the Barrack Street Band and marching into Athy behind the Churchtown Pipe Band he threw his fife and beret into Flinters Field and left the Parade, recognising that his allegiance was with the Churchtown Band which he was later to join.
Jack was proud of his family, his work, his music and of his own place all of which helped him make a good journey through life.