Yet another long established business in Athy has closed down. The door was shut for the last time last week on the betting shop business first opened by the late Ned Ward fifty years ago. It was in 1947 that Ned extended this business empire when he opened the small betting shop at No. 2 Woodstock what is now Harry Bachelor’s house. Ned who was a native of Portarlington had first arrived in Athy within a year or two of his marrying Elizabeth Murphy of St. Michael’s Terrace. Her father was a renowned stone mason as indeed had been other members of the Murphy family for generations past. Indeed I can recall Elizabeth’s brother Joe Murphy also of St. Michael’s Terrace building the fine cut stone entrance at St. Dominic’s Church in 1957. This was possibly one of the last pieces of stone work he undertook in the Athy area.
Before coming to Athy Ned Ward operated three butcher shops in Portarlington, Castlecomer and in the Cornmarket, Dublin. These were sold off in time and when Ned and Elizabeth came to Athy with their newly born child May, Ned opened up a butcher shop in Athy in what is now Fred’s Fashions.
The Civil War had just ended and the local men who had served in France and Flanders and survived the Great War had returned to live in Athy. For most of these men life in the town meant unemployment as in common with the rest of provincial Ireland Athy struggled to come to terms with the political and economic freedom of the newly established Irish Free State. The local brickyards with one exception had closed down and the long established firm of Hannons Millers of Ardreigh and in Athy had also ceased business. It was not a good time to open up a butchers shop in Athy.
Ned Ward’s business however was to prosper and he was in time to open up another butcher shop in Stanhope Street next to the corner shop which is now occupied by Lehanes. The growing family which by now included Dympna and Sam lived in No. 35 Duke Street.
Apart from his involvement in business Ned actively concerned himself with the social life of Athy. Possessed of a very fine tenor voice he sang in the local Dominican choir and on the stage with Agnes Glespen of Duke Street who was a well known contralto. Agnes was a daughter of Patrick Whelan a draper of Leinster Street who in her early days was a member of the Dublin Grand Opera Society and later still of the D’Oyly Carte Company in London. She married John Glespen who had a coach building business at 19 Duke Street and one of their sons was the late Brother Seamus Norbert Glespen who published in 1957 the first full length biography of the 1798 patriot Thomas Russell.
One of the Ned Ward’s life long interests was the local soccer club which was first started during the period of the Barrow drainage scheme in the mid 1920’s. The club did not prosper then and was to shut down soon after the men employed on the scheme had left Athy. It was not until 1948 that another attempt was made to revive the club and one of those involved in that attempt was Ned Ward. He
remained a constant supporter of the local club for the rest of this life earning for himself the title of “grandfather of soccer in Athy”.
In 1947 Ned opened his first betting shop at No. 2 Woodstock Street. By now the Ward family included Dominic who died tragically in the early 1960’s while an officer in British army, Stella and Noelle both of whom live in Dublin and Brendan now living in England. The Ward businesses included a greengrocer shop in Duke Street but in time the butcher shops were closed and the betting shop was re-located to No. 36 Duke Street. Mrs. Elizabeth Ward died in 1957 and thereafter Ned wound down his business interests.
My memory of Ned Ward in the late 1950’s is of his card playing skills which were always to be seen on the night of the big 25 tournament which ran each year in a number of venues in the town but centred in St. John’s Hall. It was organised by the local church fundraising committee in which my father was involved and the 25 tournament was his particular responsibility each year. There was always a card table sequestered for the serious poker players of which Ned was one and throughout the night large amounts of money passed to and fro across the table with a practised regularity. Ned like his companions was a superb poker player and a frequent card player in the local CYMS club where he continued to be a member until his death in 1971.
The Ward family suffered the tragic loss of their second eldest child Tommy in February 1938. Tommy who was born in 1927 crept out of bed early that fateful evening to play cowboys and indians with his friends. His father Ned met him in St. John’s Lane and sent him back home little realising that Tommy would scamper past 35 Duke Street to have one last encounter with his young friends at the canal lock. He was drowned that evening in the canal lock having fallen in when crossing the canal gates. Tommy was to have made his confirmation that following May.
Ned’s daughter Dympna who married Brendan O’Flaherty continued to live in 36 Duke Street. Brendan was from Dublin and came to Athy when he took up employment in Bord Na Mona. He was a playing member of the local soccer club for many years and in later life was an officer and a member of the club’s committee. The eldest Ward daughter May married Bobby Bachelor brother of Harry of Woodstock Street and the late Michael who was a jockey of note. May, Dympna and Stella possessed fine singing voices and May and Dympna especially were involved in the local musical societies in the 1940’s and later. Indeed in the photographs I have seen of musical stage presentations on the town hall in the 1940’s the Ward sisters have been ever present. Theirs was a musical tradition stretching back to their father which continues today with the daughter of their brother Brendan who is a concert pianist in London.
With the closure of the betting shop in Duke Street the business concern started by Ned Ward over 70 years ago have now passed into memory. The man from Portarlington left his mark on his adopted town not least in the wonderful musical legacy in which we all shared down the years. The Ward family name continues to conjure up for each of us memories of times past long after the legendary Ned Ward had passed away.