As a young fellow I remember the almost jesuistical response of my father to a book written by an American lady in which she portrayed life in rural Ireland and particularly Athy in the 1950's. The writer parodied unnamed individuals who were readily recognisable by the local people. The shock and horror felt by many in the tight knit community of Athy did not stop those wanting to read the book from doing so. My father apparently borrowed the book but I recall that he put it on the top of the kitchen dresser out of reach of prying hands, for what reason I cannot now fathom. It was after all a harmless, yet funny account, of the Irish and their endearing qualities.
All this is by way of introduction to May Lalor, a wonderfully vivacious raconteur whom I had the pleasure of meeting some weeks ago. Mother of Councillor Reggie Lalor her late husband was the owner of what old timers still refer to as Reid Lalor's Bar and Grocery in Leinster Street. Michael Lalor whom she married in 1932 had purchased the premises from his sister whose late husband was Christy Reid, hence the name Reid Lalor.
When the Lalors operated the business the grocery occupied what is now the lounge bar of Ryans while the pub was next door adjoining Garter Lane and Mulhalls premises. Jack Hearns of Geraldine worked in the bar while Miss Norman of Whites Castle took charge of the grocery shop. Jack originally worked with Michael Lalor's brother who had betting offices in Naas and Athy. The local office was in Garter Lane at the rear of Michael Lalor's pub. When it closed down Jack went to work as a barman for Michael Lalor and eventually retired from the same job at the end of his working life. Miss Norman, whom I always remembered as a very old lady, worked in the grocery shop and lived in nearby Whites Castle. Her mother and her brother Jim, a bookmakers clerk in O'Meara's Betting Office in Emily Square lived with her in the Castle but by the 1950’s she lived there alone.
Mrs. Lalor recalled the names of the shopkeepers who were her neighbours for many years. Proles Menshop was next door in a premises which was previously owned by Cootes. The Cootes, a Scottish couple with no family ran the shop in the early 1930's when it was a menswear shop which also stocked cigarettes and tobacco. Miss Norman worked in Cootes for a while. Murphy's Commercial House was next door to Proles with Michael Anthony Auctioneer next to Mrs. Carolan's corner shop. Corcorans Auctioneers previously carried on business in the premises later occupied by Michael Anthony.
Across the road in what is now the former Irish Permanent Building Society Building was the L. & N. Stores which was previously McLoughlin's public house. Next door and around the corner in Emily Square was O'Meara's public house and beyond it Georgie O'Meara's Betting Office. Past the arch in what is now Hickeys was the butcher shop of Pip Murphy who lived next door with his sisters Gypsy, Nan and Zilla. Another of the Murphy sisters had married a Mr. Stirling who had a pub in Barrow Quay at the turn of the century.
May Lalor remembers the dances in the Town Hall during the 1920's which she describes as "the best dances in the County, people came from everywhere to Athy". The Nurses Dance, the Golf Club Dance and the Rugby Club Dance, all annual events, were all-night affairs, ending with the dawn.
I'll end with the description written by the American lady not so many years ago of the "double shop, pub to the left, grocery to the right" easily recognisable as Lalors of the 1950's.
"Inside was the hushed atmosphere that prevails in all the shops, a charge attentiveness which occurs because shopping is the breath of life, the only social activity of many of the country people. The smallest transaction has dignity and formality, the slightest word is weighted".
Times have changed. The dignity and formality of another age is almost unrecognisable in the hurly burly of modern life but the memories of those gentle days are still treasured by May Lalor.