Friday, September 15, 1995

St. Brigid's Pipe Band Athy

A mystery, which despite my best efforts until now remained unresolved, was unravelled following a recent telephone call. It relayed the message that an English visitor wanted to present a photograph to the local Museum Society. The generous donor called on me, but he was not English. Jim Moran, now 88 years of age, but with the memory and agility of a 50 year old, lives in Luton, England, far from Athy where he was born and grew up.

The photograph he brought to me was one which I had previously seen and indeed a copy of which had been on display in the Museum Room some years ago. It showed the members of a pipe band with two young girls in Celtic costumes which I had previously believed was an early photograph of Kilberry Pipe Band. That identification was made on the basis that the musicians included Willie Hutchinson, who had played for some years with the Kilberry Band. However, the welcome visitor of a few weeks ago was to provide the evidence which would finally identify not only the band, but also its entire membership.

The photograph was of St. Brigid’s Pipe Band, Athy, taken in 1919 in the field at the rear of the Malt House in Rathstewart, to mark the band’s success at a feis in Maryborough, now Portlaoise. Jim Moran was a member of that band and with Willie Hutchinson, they are today the only survivors of the men and women captured on film that day.

St. Brigid’s Pipe Band was formed in Athy some time before World War I. It was in existence before the Churchtown Pipe Band and long before the Kilberry Pipe Band which I gather was only formed with the break up of the local L.S.F. Band following World War II. However, Kilberry can lay claim to an earlier musical heritage with a Fife and Drum Band which was based in the Coke in the 1880’s.

In its early years, St. Brigid’s Pipe Band had its band room in the premises of the Ancient Order of Hibernians, then located in Duke Street. When the Garda Siochana Barracks was opened in the same premises the bandroom had to be vacated, and St. Brigid’s Pipe Band moved out to the “Foxhole”, a small thatched-house at Killart, then owned by band member John Tierney of Belview. When this thatched house was mysteriously burnt down, the band practised for a time in Salisbury House, owned by Pat Tierney a brother of John’s. The band members also had use of a field at the rear of the Malt House in Rathstewart, now Bachelor’s factory, where the 1919 photograph was taken.

Jim Moran joined the band in 1917 and took pipe lessons from the Pipe Major William Spittal of Kilcrow. Other young fellows who joined the band around the same time included Willie Hutchinson of Bert, Bill Carbery of Athy, a brother of the legendary Tom Carbery, and John McEvoy of Duke Street. Bill Carbery later emigrated to America and on his return to Ireland was tragically killed during building works at Poulaphoca.

Other members of the band included George Bailey of Oldcourt who later emigrated to Canada, John Dobbyn of Cloney Castle who joined the Gardai and his brother Dan who emigrated to London where he was a caretaker in Richmond Park. Ber Kane of Kilberry worked as a ganger for many years with Kildare County Council and Peter Sexton, also of Kilberry, later went to work in Carlow. John Tierney of Belview played the big drums, while the organiser of the band was John Bailey, publican of Stanhope Street. John had spent many years in America and had returned to Athy and to the public house which is now owned by Michael Noonan. John Spittal of Kilcrow was Pipe Major and leader of the band and he also emigrated to America. Another member was John Farrell of Tomard who later joined the Irish Army.

Jim Moran was the youngest member of St. Brigid’s Pipe Band and recalls with remarkable clarity the various feiseanna in which the band participated during the summer piping season. Hannon’s Mills were then operating at Ardreigh and Duke Street, and the company’s lorry was always made available to transport the band members around the midlands. John Davis of Blackparks was the driver of the solid wheeled truck which delivered flour on weekdays and on Sundays transported St. Brigid’s Pipe Band to the various Feis venues. The photograph of the band in 1919 includes two young girls, one of whom has been identified as the late Nora Dooley. The second young girl Jim remembers as Baby Daughn, whose father had a bicycle shop in Duke Street. The band was active up to 1924 or thereabouts, and went out of existence when many of its members emigrated. The loss of the Pipe Major John Spittal who emigrated to America was a particularly telling blow for the young band and his departure hastened the end of the Athy pipers.

Today only Willie Hutchinson and Jim Moran, now both well advanced in years, are the sole survivors of that group of men who 76 years ago were photographed standing proudly with bagpipes in hand in the field at the rear of Rathstewart Malt House.

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