Is it my imagination, or is there really a huge influx of overseas visitors in Athy at the present time? I have never before seen so many visitors/tourists in the town and wonder whether the combination of good weather and the breaking out of peace in Northern Ireland has led many to venture across the sea. Whatever the cause, it is a welcome development, and one which we should do everything in our power to encourage.
During the week I had a visit from four interesting persons from Blackpool in England. They are more correctly termed visitors, given their past links with Athy, as distinct from tourists who arrive in our town without any previous attachment to draw them here. Mike Hickey and his wife were on their way to Kenmare, Co. Kerry with his first cousin Eileen Bradshaw and her husband. It was his first time in Athy and he was looking for Higginson’s Lane where his grandparents John and Catherine Hickey lived many years ago.
Higginson’s Lane once ran between Woodstock Street and The Pavements which is now incorporated into Nelson Street, and remains today as a cul-de-sac approached only from Woodstock Street. The Nelson Street end has been closed off and there is only one house in the lane, erected some years ago for Norman and Patricia Glynn.
When John and Catherine Hickey lived in Higginson’s Lane with their young family it was home to a number of families and indeed the entire area was heavily populated with houses in Nelson Street, The Pavements, Shrewleen Lane and New Gardens. The houses which occupied those streets and laneways are now all gone, demolished during the slum clearance programme of the 1930’s and later. A row of recently-built two storey houses now occupies one side of Shrewleen Lane with the KARE building on the opposite side of the street. Mr. and Mrs. Hickey had six children, Patrick the eldest son born in 1896, Andrew, Michael, Joseph, William and Mary Ann. Mrs. Hickey died in 1915 of tuberculosis in what her grandson refers to as “the Workhouse”. “St. Vincent’s Hospital”, as it is now known, was called the Workhouse in those days, a throwback to the famine years of seventy years previously. However, it is more likely that his grandmother, who was Catherine Walsh before she married, died in the fever hospital, which was located immediately beyond the Workhouse.
When Britain declared War on Germany on 4th August, 1914 the regular soldiers were dispatched to France. Those in the Reserve Forces were also called up, and a drive for new recruits, spearheaded by Kitchener, swept throughout Ireland and England. Young Athy men caught up in the euphoria of the time and undoubtedly eager to see foreign lands enlisted in their hundreds. After all the pay was good and hadn’t everyone said the War would be over before Christmas. It was not to be, but before the two hundred and twenty nine-week long conflict ended on the 11th of November 1918, three of Patrick Hickey’s sons had joined up.
Patrick, the eldest son, was the first to enlist and he was joined by his younger brothers Andrew and Joseph. Another brother, Michael, mysteriously and without explanation, disappeared without trace, on his way to London. He was never seen or heard of again. Joseph, a Corporal in the Royal Dublin Fusiliers, was killed in action in France on the 21st of April 1917. Only two of Patrick Hickey’s sons returned from the War and on demobilisation, Patrick and Andrew joined their youngest brother William in Blackpool. Before long their sister Mary Ann and their father Patrick emigrated from Athy, and the Hickey family settled down in the Lancashire seaside resort.
Andrew Hickey later left for America where he worked for the Ford motor company in Detroit. At the height of the Depression the obviously adventurous young man decided to try his luck in Russia. A few weeks spent there was sufficient to disabuse him of whatever notion of advancement he had hoped for in the Soviet Republic, and with some difficulty he returned to America. There he resumed his work with Ford’s of Detroit, the largest car company in the world. When he eventually retired, he spent the rest of his life travelling the world. He died in 1984, aged 85 years, having travelled extensively and could boast at never having owned a motor car, although he had spent most of his working life in an automobile factory.
Patrick Hickey Jnr. visited Athy in 1965 when he was 69 years of age and almost fifty years after he had left Higginson’s Lane to enlist in the Royal Dublin Fusiliers. He spent a few days in the town and not a little money buying “rounds” for some of the locals, in what I understand, was an unsuccessful attempt to meet anyone who remembered his family in Higginson’s Lane. He returned to Blackpool a very disappointed man, but his son Mike has now come to Athy seeking to make contact with his family’s past.
On this trip he was accompanied by his cousin Eileen Bradshaw, daughter of Mary Ann Hickey, who had joined her brothers in Blackpool at the end of the Great War. Mary Ann, who died in 1991, married a South African, James Cromblehome, and was never again to see the town of her birth. Mary Ann’s father, John Hickey, who also emigrated to Blackpool died there in 1937.
The story of John and Catherine Hickey and their family is a familiar one of death and emigration. From a deprived background, their children obviously worked hard to make their way in life and by all accounts succeeded well in doing so. Mike Hickey, grandson of the unfortunate woman who died of TB in the Workhouse in 1915, is now a senior executive with the HP Food Company. His continuing search for his roots is one which all of us at some time or other contemplate for our own family past. After all the search for roots is the passion of this rootless age. We may not always act out our inquisitive impulses, but perhaps if we did, we too would learn of the hardships and sorrows endured with dignity by those who have gone before us.
To understand our past, is to appreciate the sacrifices others made at times when it was not always easy to do so. To ignore our roots is to miss out on important elements of our life story, and perhaps even, to overlook the lessons of history and the value of family ties extending over generations. For Mike Hickey and Eileen Bradshaw, I hope there will be a successful conclusion to the search for their hidden past.