At six foot, three inches high and weighing twenty stone, he was clearly a man of considerable stature. Indeed, one of the Irish national newspapers stated such when headlining a story concerning his unsuccessful legal case arising out of the sale of Kilkea Castle in 1958. John Farrell was an entrepreneur at a time when Irish society was breaking free of the cocoon of latter day commercial feudalism, which was the hallmark of English and Irish relations up to the 1920’s.
In the early 1920’s, John Farrell went to train as a pig jobber with Nurney’s of Annaghknock. Before long, he had embarked on his first business venture, one of many over the succeeding years. A pony and cart was the usual mode of transport in those days, and trips as far afield as Athlone were not uncommon for John Farrell when selling pigs.
In 1924 John, now married, went to Ballylinan where he opened a butcher’s shop. The purchase of a Citroen car led to the start of a hackney business, but before long the butchering business came to an end, as the mining industry in the locality wound down.
John purchased a truck in 1926. A Federal truck, the first of its kind in Ballylinan, it plied its trade between Hannon’s Mills and the Barrow Drainage Scheme in the early years. The creamery in Aughaboura later provided more work for John Farrell’s truck before he embarked on the steady, and presumably more lucrative, business of delivering Guinness from Dublin to Athy.
Business opportunities presented themselves in many ways, and in 1928 it was the purchase of a wooden canteen hut from Thompson’s of Gracefield for £25, which opened the door to the world of show business, for John Farrell. The hut, erected where Whelan’s garage is now located in Ballylinan, was the venue for Sunday night dances and weekday variety shows. He subsequently sold the hut in 1934 to a local committee. In 1936, was held the first of the hugely popular carnivals in Ballylinan, and John Farrell’s lorry, suitably decorated, was an important part of the marketing and advertising campaign for the event. Live music was provided, as the truck went around the country, ferrying a galaxy of musicians including Jimmy Bachelor as vocalist, Joe Kelly of The Pike and the Hughes’ brothers of Rosebran on violins, “Thrush” Kelly on bones, Casey Dempsey on banjo and Pat Eston on mouth-organ.
Another of John Farrell’s business ventures was the growing of chicory on his land at Whitebog during World War II. J.J. Bergin of Maybrook had established a plant for cleaning and cutting the chicory, which was then sold on to Dublin merchants for the manufacture of coffee. Local farmers were encouraged to get involved in chicory farming, but the intensive labour involved in harvesting the purple root crop which resembled a large carrot, coupled with diminishing financial returns, soon led to the abandonment of chicory growing in the area.
The 1940’s was the heyday of fairs in Athy and in the Square fronting onto Blanchfields, “Golly” Germaines and Nolan’s at the top of Leinster Street, the cattle fair was officially sited, although it spilled over onto Leinster Street. The story of John Farrell’s cow being led by his son Freddie to the Leinster Street fair is still remembered by some of the old residents. Apparently young Fred was pulling the reluctant cow by a rope slung around its neck, and passing Dan Lynam’s harness-makers shop in Duke Street, the cow showed a remarkable reluctance to go any further. Despite Fred’s best efforts the cow retraced its steps pulling Fred along and when it encountered Ned Ward pushing a hand cart with meat destined for his shop in Stanhope Street, the cow in attempting to jump over the cart, scattering its contents around Duke Street. The youthful Fred, mortified by what had happened, thought it best to allow the cow its head, and home it returned without further mishap.
The spirit of entrepreneurship did not desert John Farrell, when one day drawing lump lime in his truck for John Behan of Ballylinan, his journey ended in Arklow. Finding himself on the quays as the fishing boats came in after a days fishing, he could not resist the urge to bid at the subsequent fish auction and ended up with a truck load of herrings. A quick wash of the truck removed all traces of the earlier lime cargo, and loading up he returned to Athy early the following morning. Setting up a stall in Emily Square, he sold his load of herrings before evening, providing for himself an unexpected financial bonanza, and for the locals, possibly the first fresh sea fish they ever had on their dinner table.
For every successful venture there was almost inevitably one where the financial rewards were less than adequate. Such was the case when John Farrell, in preparing for a trip to collect coal from Donnellys yard in John Rogerson’s Quay in Dublin, decided to bring up a load of berried holly from Athy for the Dublin Christmas market. An earlier than usual start to the day was required, when, with the help of Joe Kelly and Paddy Farrell, the holly was cut and loaded into the truck. A couple of balls of malt was called for to slake the thirst of the workers, before John set off for Dublin in high expectation of another financial killing. It was not however to be, as John ended up with the sum of 17/6 for his effort, barely enough to cover the cost of the drinks.
In 1958 John Farrell attended the auction of Kilkea Castle, then on the market with 200 acres and fishing rights on the River Greise. The property was knocked down for £58,000 and John, who believed he had made the final bid, subsequently went to law in an unsuccessful attempt to secure the property. John, who retired in 1961, died the following year. He was survived by his wife Mary Josephine, his son Freddie and daughter Mona. His story is a fascinating one, of a man with drive and initiative, not afraid of taking risks and always prepared to face the future with a confidence born of a strong belief in his own abilities.