"There will be a meeting in the lower classroom after school which you should all attend." Brother Brett, Headmaster of the Christian Brothers School in Athy, taciturn as ever, addressed his remarks to the eager young pupils of second year. The year was 1956. Later that day the noisy gathering of schoolboys was addressed by a third year student, Michael O'Neill, who had obtained Brother Brett's permission to hold the meeting. Michael was from Kerry and had arrived in Athy about one and a half years previously when his father had taken up work as a farm steward with Shaws of Cardenton. His rich mellifluous Kerry accent soon earned Michael the nickname "Aru". As he stood before his schoolmates that day he spoke firstly in Irish and then in English.
Michael, a native Irish speaker, wanted to start an Athy branch of an Irish youth organisation which up to then had only one other branch in Ireland. "Cara" or Friends of the Irish Language sought to bring the Irish language and culture to the forefront and Michael was anxious to enrol his school mates as club members.
As far as I can recall Pat Flinter, a classmate of mine, was one of Michael's acolytes that afternoon and so must share with him the honour of founding the organisation which was later to become Aontas Ogra. Last Tuesday I attended the 40th birthday celebration of Aontas Ogra at the Youth Centre in Athy with a number of schoolpals who had also attended that initial meeting at the Christian Brothers School so many years ago. We had a lot of reminiscing to do, remembering those who had shared experiences with us in the early years of Cara and later Aontas Ogra.
Our early attempts at promoting the speaking of Irish was less than successful. The margins of Irish culture were in time pushed out to encompass dancing, not necessarily confined to the Walls of Limerick or the High Cauled Cap. Truth to tell we did start out with Irish dancing classes which of course necessitated the readily obtained co-operation of our female colleagues from St. Mary's Convent School. Margo Clandillon, Sheila Kehoe, Betty Clancy, Catherine Millar, Josie Murphy and Olga Rowan were just some of the names which immediately come to mind when I recall Sunday afternoon spent in St. John's Hall or the Town Hall struggling through the intricities of Irish dancing.
I am especially reminded of one Sunday afternoon in the Town Hall when our less than well co-ordinated limbs were concentrated on learning the quick-step. We were really keen on extending the frontiers of Irish culture, even it meant stepping over the accepted demarcation line between the Gael and Gall. Whatever the quality of our dancing our interpersonal skills were being nicely honed, from the intermingling with the girls from St.Mary's.
Eddie Hearns, Pat Timpson, Mick Robinson, George Robinson, Anthony Prendergast and many others have occasion to remember with some pleasure those innocent days. Indeed I can even recall that a well-known public representative now living not a hundred miles from Church Road had his first romantic attachment during one such session organised by Cara. Discretion must even now prevail despite the lapse of almost 40 years, lest Teresa Delaney should feel offended by being linked with her paramour of old. There you are Frank, I never mentioned your name.
A Club outing to the Rock of Donamaise on a hot Sunday afternoon is remembered as boys and girls, each with a bicycle walked in formation down the hill into Stradbally whistling the theme tune from the Bridge on the River Kwai. What an odd lot we must have appeared to the locals as the Athy contingent strode through the village with an unwordly confidence and unabashed joy born of innocence.
Several trips to the only other Cara group then in Dublin with club premises in the basement of Molesworth Street was also a welcome diversion from studies and the narrow confines of provincial life of the late 1950's. A bus brought us there and back on the Sunday outings where we met like minded young Dublin folk who shared an enthusiasm for dancing and life generally.
Another highlight in those young days was a trip to the Scalp, a part of outer Dublin never before known to us but where we stored up enough memories to last a lifetime.
Everything comes to an end and for those who attended the initial meeting in 1956 this meant that by June 1960 at the latest they had passed out of the school system. With most of those involved leaving Athy to take up employment in Dublin and elsewhere Cara was to continue with new members but with one person who throughout the years has been the lynchpin in the organisation. Billy Browne was in the Christian Brothers School when Michael O'Neill called his now famous meeting. Today he is still involved in the Club, carrying on a proud tradition first begun forty years ago. Honoured in the past by the Town Council and by the Lions Club International for his contribution to the youth affairs in Athy, Billy epitomises the commitment, dedication and support which everyone in our community should give to worthwhile youth initiatives such as Aontas Ogra.