One of the many enduring traditions of our town, is the yearly visit home by our emigrants. Throughout the summer months they are to be seen renewing old acquaintances and keeping in touch with what are for them, the sights and sounds of their youth.
One man who has made the annual pilgrimage since 1952 is Jim Connor, formerly of Castlemitchell, whom I had the enormous pleasure of meeting during the week. For Jim, Athy and especially Castlemitchell is still home, despite having spent 43 years in London, where he now resides with his wife, the former Mary Lawler of Athy.
His father was a member of the Dublin Metropolitan Police who joined the Irish Guards Regiment in 1905. Wounded in World War I, he was invalided out of the army in 1917 and returned to Castlemitchell. There he reared his family which included Jack and Eileen, both of whom died in recent years, Jim and his sisters, Mary Dempsey, still in Castlemitchell, and Kathleen Fay who now lives in America.
Jim attended Churchtown National School, and remembers many a trip down “Kangs” Lane, where Jack “Kang” Kearney and his wife Kate lived in a small mud cabin. Both cabin and lane have now disappeared, but the outline of the lane which ran from the site of the new National School exiting out beyond the Bleeding Horse, is still visible in parts. Jack joined the revived Churchtown Pipe Band after he started piping lessons with Jerry Byrne of Castlemitchell in 1932. Others who joined at that time included Joe Fennelly, Willie Pender and George Byrne, and many a night they spent sitting in the shadow of the paraffin oil lamp in Byrne’s house, learning the pipe scales, before progressing to their first tune, “The Minstrel Boy”. The band room was a shed at the back of Byrnes house, which doubled as a dance hall on Saturday nights. Known as the “Besonk”, it was there that the locals danced to “Byrnes Dance Band”, with John Byrne on piano accordion, Jerry on the banjo and his brother Christy on violin. The only non-Byrne family member of the quartet was the drummer Mick Sourke. Irish set dances were the rage and Marcella Donnelly, a dance teacher from the Newbridge/Kildare area, travelled over to Castlemitchell to teach the steps.
When the summer of 1934 arrived the pipers were sufficiently skilled to take to the road, and joined by Willie and Lar Hutchinson, former members of Kilberry Pipe Band, and Ned Hyland and John Luttrell, formerly of the New Inn Pipe Band, the Churchtown Pipe Band was re-activated. The band’s future was assured when it got a booking from the National Radio Station 2RN. The musicians travelled to Dublin in hackney cars, and performed so impressively that further radio bookings resulted. Churchtown Pipe Band was to broadcast on Radio 2RN, on average three times a year, between 1935 and 1941.
Jim got his secondary schooling in the Christian Brothers School Athy, where he remembers Master Walsh and Master Spillane, two lay teachers who taught with the legendary Liam Ryan. Brother Dolan was the Principal, and also on the teaching staff was Brother O’Farrell, who did so much to revive the skill of hurling in the Athy area.
In 1937 Jim started work in McHugh’s Pharmacy, Duke Street where he was employed for three or four years developing photographs. This job ended during the early part of the Second World War due to the shortage of photographic material. A spell on the building sites followed, with Jim taking up employment with Murray and McCartan, a county Meath firm which was responsible for building the County Council houses at Castlemitchell.
In 1942 he got a job in the local Asbestos factory where the redoubtable Mr. Cornish was works manager. Jim acknowledges with a wry smile that Cornish, a Welsh man, was a tough, no- nonsense man whose influence on the early development of the Asbestos factory was vital for its future success.
In 1948 Jim became an insurance agent with the Irish Assurance Company, covering the Ballylinan, Barrowhouse, Luggacurran and Castlemitchell areas. His local colleagues in the Assurance Company were Tom Moore, who had responsibility for the Rheban area, and Mick Doyle, who covered the area south of Athy. It was hard, demanding work at a time when jobs were scarce. Money was needed to put food on the table and little could be put aside for insurance policies. In 1952 Jim decided to go to England. By then, Churchtown Pipe Band had long ceased to operate, when its members joined the L.S.F. Band in Athy, which was formed by Garda Sergeant Hayes.
When Jim took the mail boat at Dun Laoghaire he was 32 years of age and embarking on a new phase of his life centred in London, where there were few opportunities to play the bagpipes. He enlisted in Brixton School of Building and later the Wandsworth School of Building before taking up employment with Tenson’s, for whom he worked for 15 years. A six-year stint with McAlpine’s followed, before he ended his working career with Higgs & Hill. Rising through the ranks from building worker to foreman he retired nine years ago as an area supervisor.
Jim has never forgotten his home place, and spends his annual summer holidays in Athy and Castlemitchell. There are so many more emigrants like Jim and Mary Connor who maintain strong links with Athy but there are also many living abroad who do not feel able, for whatever reason, to return to their “old haunts”.