Betty May returned to Athy in July for a few weeks holidays. It was her second trip home to the place of her birth since she emigrated to America in 1949. Betty’s parents, Michael and Julia May, lived in St. Martin’s Terrace and it was with D. & J. Carberys, Building Contractors of St. John’s Lane that Michael worked as a carpenter. He died a short time before Betty made her first return trip in 1969 and her mother, who was then ailing, was to pass away in 1972.
After 49 years in America the sights and sounds of Athy were surprisingly familiar to the woman who as a young girl attended the local Convent school before graduating to Molly Bradley’s shop in Duke Street. “The shops are the same” she declared. “Only the names over the doors have changed.” Names once familiar and now no more tripped off her tongue with speed and accuracy belying the years spent so far overseas. O’Rourke-Glynn, Bradley, Cross, Whelan, Willis, Mansfield, Glespen, Hepburn, Nolan, Farrell, Collins, Townsend, Deegan and Youell conjured up images of another
generation when Betty was a young woman.
The 1940’s was the heyday of the social club in St. John’s Lane and Betty remembered her then young colleagues in the Lawn Tennis, Table Tennis and Drama sections of the Club. Jo and Florrie Lawler, Teresa Corcoran, Freddie Moore, Vera Cross, May and Dympna Ward, Agnes Doyle, Kay O’Brien, May Fenelon and Kitty McLoughlin were just some of the many names she recalled.
She had heard in America of a photograph exhibited in the local Museum room of the Townhall showing the cast of the social club players in Lennox Robinson’s play, “The Far Off Hills.” Betty played the part of “Ducky” in that play which was put on in the Townhall in April 1947. Others in the cast included the father and son combination Dave and Tommy Walsh, Liam Ryan, Tadgh Brennan, Ken Reynolds, Cahill Kennedy, May Fenelon, Jo Lawler, Agnes Doyle and Kitty McLoughlin. The closure of the Museum room to facilitate the building of the Heritage Centre made it difficult to locate the photograph and unfortunately it was not found before Betty had left for America.
She was one of ten children, most of whom took the emigration trail to America. First to go was her eldest brother Jim, who in 1946 went out to his Uncle Bill Bradley in New York where he took up employment as a baker. Jim was a popular member of the Musical Society in Athy and is remembered for his portrayal of Carmen Marinda on the Townhall stage. The “Brazilian Bombshell”, as Marinda was popularly known, was readily recognised as the performer who went through her song and dance routine with outsized bananas on her head, garnished with other fruits. Jim remained in New York where he died almost five years ago.
His Uncle Bill Bradley was one of four brothers who left Athy in the 1920’s for America. Their brother Patsy Bradley owned a public house in Leinster Street, but was to end his days as a baker in the County Home. The Bradleys in turn had been brought out to America by their mother’s brother, Tom King and three of the Bradley brothers, Tom, Jim and Jack lived in St. Louis. Bill Bradley was Vice President of a store in New York City, while his brother Tom was the owner of the Shamrock Bar and Restaurant in St. Louis. Jack’s wife and children later returned to Athy where they lived with her sister Betty Mulhall who had a shop in Woodstock Street.
A year after the eldest May son emigrated to America the second son Sean also took the boat at Cobh for the New World. Sean had been a member of the local C.Y.M. Society and a shoemaker who worked with his cousin Tom May at No. 1 Woodstock Street. He married Irene MacNamara of Stanhope Street and both lived in St. Louis where Sean died earlier this year.
In 1948 it was Bettys turn to give up her job in Molly Bradley’s shop and head westward. As a young girl of 22 years she joined her brothers and uncles in St. Louis, knowing that she might never again see her family in Ireland. The employment situation in this country just three years after the end of the Second World War was quite hopeless. There was little new industrial development and virtually no worthwhile employment prospects for the younger generation. It is no wonder then that Betty and thousands more like her were part of the great exodus which started in the provincial towns of Ireland in the 1940’s and ended in the industrial towns of England or the seemingly more exotic cities of America. Betty was never again to see her father who died a year before she returned to Ireland in 1969.
Other members of the May family also emigrated to America, including Betty’s sisters Maureen, Joan and Judy, all of whom were to return to Ireland where they married and settled down. Her brother Christy who had worked as a carpenter with his father left for America in 1952 where he remained until he died three years ago. Of the remaining members of the May family, her brother Patrick is in Tomard, Ann is in Kingsgrove and Derry, the youngest of the family and the one I best remember is running the famous Chez Hans Restaurant in Cashel with her husband.
Betty, now a cheerful grandmother, married Don Muckerman and has two children and six grandchildren. Her husband Don served as a navigator on no less than 35 missions over Germany during World War II and luckily survived, despite being shot down. A near neighbour of hers in St. Louis is Kay Walsh, formerly of Athy, whose mother was Molly Walsh of Barrack Street. It was lovely to meet Betty May on this trip, one I hope of many more she will have the opportunity and energy to make in the years to come.