Thursday, November 28, 1996

Magan's Memories of Levitstown from 'An Irish Boyhood'

Just a few miles from Athy on the road to Carlow stands the remains of Levitstown Mill. The tall crenellated building is of another age and of a time when the men from Levitstown worked long and exhausting hours at the Mill. It has been silent for many years standing sentinel like as it keeps it's lonely vigil over the Canal and the surrounding countryside.

Last week I came across William Magan's book of reminiscences entitled "An Irish Boyhood" in which the 88 year old Author born in Athlone, Co. Westmeath and educated in England recounts his early years in Ireland. Now living in Tonbridge in Kent, Magan as a young boy lived for some years from 1919 in the Mill House, Levitstown when his Father took up employment at Levitstown Mills on the invitation of Charlie Norton of Minch Norton and Co. He describes Levitstown as

"An altogether fascinating place, the Mill House was not very large but was big enough with a bit of a squeeze to accommodate the Family, a Father and Mother and five children, three indoor servants, a cook, kitchen maid and house maid and a governess for the younger children and there was a spare room for guests. There was a Dining room, a Drawing room, a Study and a School room for the younger children. In the back of the house were the kitchen premises - kitchen, pantry, larder, dairy and maids bedrooms. There was only one bathroom in the house and two lavatories, one of them outside.

........water for the house and the Mill was pumped out of the Canal by a Mechanical Ram. Water for drinking was brought daily in galvanised buckets from a well in a nearby field. We had a rose garden, flower garden and vegetable garden. All the outside work was done by one man, Paddy Whittaker. He did the gardening, looked after the animals, milked the cows, fetched the water from the well field and washed my Fathers car.

Norton & Co. decided to diversify at Levitstown at the time that we went there. Half the Mill continued to be used as a Malting -the other half was to be used to Manufacture Cattle Cake. The chief source of power for the manufacturing process was water. My father installed a water turbine near the Canal Lock, the source of its power being the difference in level between the Canal and the river which gave a strong flow of water to revolve the turbine blades at high speed. The principle purpose of the turbine was to run an electric generator. We therefore had something which in those days in country districts in Ireland albeit in a somewhat crude form, was an unusual luxury - electricity. .....

There being no radio or television and living a long way from places of entertainment such as Cinema's, we made our own amusements. Our doctor, Dr. John Kilbride who lived on the outskirts of the town of Athy, four miles to the north of us was a Pianist and he would sometimes come in the evenings and play duets with my Mother on her violin and there would be songs around the piano.

There were many splendid local characters. The Dooley Family lived in the Lock House and were traditionally the Lock Keepers. One of them Tom Dooley became the Foreman at the Mill. He was typical of the skilful, dextrous and ingenious people who were often to be found in Ireland. He himself largely installed all the new machinery in the Mill and when he decided to marry, he built a new house and did the whole of the construction with his own hands. He was tragically killed by a fall from his bicycle.

His relative Ned Dooley was a most attractive man. When I was not at home, he was my Father's boatman for fishing. He also worked in the Mill. He knew that I knew that he surreptitiously smoked a short pipe at work when no-one was looking and I never gave him away. Smoking was strictly forbidden and rightly so as the whole of the inside of the Mill, all the floors and partitions and the props and pillars holding up the floors were timber and as dry as matchwood. The building was indeed and most
unfortunately for such a beautiful old building burnt down but after our time at Levitstown.

....I cannot omit another local character, Biddy Nolan. The driveway to Levitstown House was I suppose a couple a hundred yards long. It was approached by a drawbridge over the Canal. In effect we lived on an Island. Across the drawbridge 50 yards or so onwards and at right angles to it ran the Athy/Carlow road and straight on across it the road to Kilkea. That area was known as "The Cross" - short for crossroads. There were some cottages there and in one of them lived Biddy Nolan who was our washer woman. She came up to the house I think a couple of times a week to do the washing and ironing. She was a most loveable person and as children, we adored her.

... Being a Protestant Family, we followed the conventions common at that time. We went to Matins on Sunday mornings either at the Church in Athy of which my Father was for a time a Church Warden or at the little Church at the gates of Kilkea Castle to which in fine weather, the Fitzgerald Lords and Ladies walked down the Castle Avenue".

The Author ends his fine book of reminiscence with the hope that the account of his boyhood is enough to suggest what life was like for a child of an old Irish Ascendency Family growing up in Ireland in the years immediately following World War I.

This is a book which will be of interest to people in Athy and especially those living in the shadow of Levitstown Mill.

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