Thursday, May 9, 1996

Commercial House Athy

I was in the audience for the last night of Fiddler on the Roof, the latest offering from Athy Musical and Dramatic Society and thoroughly enjoyed myself. It was a very good production, highlighted by the excellent performances of Martin Hennessy and Paula Dempsey. Based in a Russian village the action centred around the difficulties of a couple when brought face to face with the rejection of traditional values and customs by their children.

I was reminded again today of the relevance of tradition in our everyday life as I passed Emily Square and witnessed the changing scene which greeted me. Bryan Brothers, well known to all and sundry is now no more and already the builders are hard at work on the building which was once known as Commercial House. Leslie Bryan was the last of the Bryan family to carry on business as a draper in the shop which has witnessed many changes over the years. Leslie's father Robert, or as he was known Bob and his uncle George Bryan bought the Commercial House in 1952. Athy was then a thriving market town with monthly cattle and horse fairs which brought the country folk and the town folk together and inspired the commercial life of the town to heights which has not since reached.

In latter years Bryan Brothers was famous for the overhead pulley system which transferred money from the counter staff to the cashier who oversaw all financial transactions in the store. It too has gone, even before the builders had arrived to create new facades and new interiors from the familiar counters and shelves of a provincial towns draper shop. A new business will open up on the site before long and the relentless march of commercial life will continue without pause, unmindful of the history of the building which has stood on this site for many generations.

George and Bob Bryan purchased the building from John J. Glendenning in 1952. A Killarney based commercial traveller, Glendenning bought the business then known as Commercial House at Public Auction in the Town Hall, Athy, on the 10th of February 1946. No doubt inspired by the commercial activity which was then the hallmark of Athy, Glendenning had outbid many others to secure the imposing property which had been offered for sale by Mrs. Eleanor Murphy, widow, and her son William, both of whom lived at Prospect House. Prospect House on the Carlow Road had been built in 1830 as the residence for the Governor of the local jail and is today occupied by the O'Carroll family. Glendenning's relatively short time in Athy might seem to indicate a less than successful venture into local business and indeed it is believed that when he sold the property he did so for considerably less than he had paid at Auction six years previously.

Mrs. Eleanor Murphy's husband Joseph had acquired the business in 1926 following the death of his father Michael Murphy. Joseph himself died on the 12th of March 1928 and the business then passed to his widow Eleanor and his son William who was born in 1922. The Murphys at that stage resided at Sunnyside, Athy and Michael Murphy who had bought the premises in 1905 was I believe the person who gave it the name "Commercial House". In speaking to older people in Athy, reference is always made to Murphy's Commercial House. I have never heard of any reference to John J. Glendenning who carried on business there for six years immediately following the World War II. Undoubtedly however there are many who remember him and some of you will surely tell me about the Co. Kerry man who later sold the draper business to George and Bob Bryan. The 1910 edition of Porter's Post Office Guide describes Michael Murphy of Commercial House, The Square, as a "General Draper, Clothier, Outfitter and Boot Factor". Quite unusually he did not take an advertisement in the same Guide which was copiously illustrated with local business advertisements.

As you can imagine there has been a business house or shop on the site for generations past. For 32 years between 1873 and 1905 the premises were owned by members of the Bailey or Bayley family. William Bayley had acquired the premises in 1890 from Samuel Bailey who in turn had purchased it in 1873 from Francis Keegan, a fishmonger from Baggot Street, Dublin. Whether the Baileys or Bayleys were ever in occupation I cannot say for Slaters Directory of 1881 does not list anyone of that name carrying on business in Athy.

Francis Keegan, the Baggot Street fishmonger, who sold the premises to Samuel Bailey in 1873 had acquired it through his father Peter Keegan, also a fishmonger, of Fitzwilliam market, Dublin who had himself bought it in 1843. The property at that time consisted of two shops which were in later years amalgamated to form the existing extensive premises. In all probability one of the premises was used in connection with the Keegan fishmongering business between 1843 and 1873.

Before the Keegans John O'Neill was the owner, having acquired the premises in 1836 from John Owen or Owens, a tallow chandler. O'Neill was himself a chandler and between himself and Owens carried on that business from the premises for 20 years. Chandlers made candles which were so important for home and workshop in the days before gas and electricity. Owens, described as a tallow chandler, was therefore identifiable as a person who used tallow from local slaughterhouses in making his candles. In Piggot's Directory for 1824 John Owens was listed as a soap boiler as was another local man George Youall. This was a particularly unpleasant trade or craft to carry on in the centre of the town but in the context of the early 19th century it was not unusual.

The traditions of past livelihoods such as soap boiler and candle maker are now long lost to us and all that remains are names once associated with a building which itself is soon to be transformed beyond recognition.

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