A few Sundays ago I attended in the company of 50 or 60 others at the graveside in St. Michael’s Cemetery of James McNally who died over 30 years ago. The occasion was the blessing of the recently erected headstone over the grave of the man who was Sacristan in St. Michael’s Church for almost 61 years. Born in Athy in 1877, James McNally was appointed Sacristan 20 years later. In 1953 James was awarded the Papal medal ‘Bene Mereti’ for his services to the Church. I was a Mass server during the last years of James McNally’s tenure as Parish Sacristan and I can still recall the tall gentleman who organised the ceremonies during the great liturgical festivals of the Church’s year. James McNally saw to it that we turned up on time properly attired and he carefully monitored the wine and alter cruets thereby ensuring that none of us were tempted to break the pledges which we had taken at Confirmation time.
I did not then know James McNally’s background, understandably enough, given that he was a man in his eighth decade while I was a teenager little concerned with anything outside my own circle of friends. In later years I learnt that James had married four years before the outbreak of World War I. His bride was Mary McCann from Bree in Enniscorthy and they had two children, James born in 1911 and Margaret born the following year. While still a young man, James McNally suffered two tragic losses, the first being the death of his only son James, who passed away on the 13th November 1917. Young James was admitted to the Fever hospital in Athy a short time before he and his classmates were scheduled to make their First Communion. First Communion day arrived and his father called to him early that morning with a present of a small prayer book, the gift of Sister Margaret Mary his teacher in St. Joseph’s Boys School. Young James received his First Communion while still lying in his hospital bed after which his father hurried back to the parish church where the First Communion ceremonies for the rest of the class were to be held. While he was attending to his work as Sacristan that day his only son died.
Two years later, James NcNally suffered another tragedy with the death of his wife Mary in childbirth. She was just 27 years of age. James McNally never re-married. With his daughter Margaret, he lived in Convent Lane for some years before moving in the early 1930’s to Number 5 Convent View, where he lived with his sister Mary and her husband Michael Mullery. When James McNally retired as Sacristan in 1958 he continued to live in number 5 Convent View. His daughter Margaret in the meantime had been married and moved out of Athy.
I drew attention some years ago to the absence of a gravestone to commemorate this gentle giant of a man who had served the priests and people of Athy for 61 years. Father Tommy Tuohy, formerly of Offaly Street, mentioned my article to James’s grandson, Thomas Murphy of Kill and it was Thomas who, with the help and co-operation of his brothers and sisters, had a beautiful headstone recently erected to mark James McNally’s last resting place. On a recent Sunday afternoon Father Tommy blessed the grave and spoke of his days as a Mass server in St. Michael’s and of his memories of James McNally nearly 50 years ago. Amongst those in attendance were Mrs McHugh, formerly Mullery of St. Michael’s Terrace and Mrs. Gibbons now in her 91st year, a distant relation of the man we had gathered to remember. Andy and Phoebe Murphy, who now live in number 5 Convent View, were also there, as was another representative of an old Athy family, Paddy Doyle.
James McNally’s daughter Margaret married Philip Murphy and they had 14 children one of whom died in infancy and another Patrick died some years ago in Dublin. Of the remaining 12 children, 10 travelled to Athy with their own children to honour the memory of their grandfather James McNally. Indeed, Maureen Murphy, now married in Ohio, U.S.A., and Sister Rita of the Sisters of Charity also of Ohio, both travelled from America for the occasion. Another sister Josie also living in America was unable to be there with her brothers Steven, John, Dan, Anthony, Thomas, Kevin and Aidan and her sisters, including Pearl Murphy, who lives in Dublin.
Two of their step brothers, Philip and Rory Murphy were also there, sons of their father’s first marriage, Margaret McNally having been his second wife. Rory, who is a former chairman of Wexford County Council, was in splendid form that afternoon delving into the hidden nooks of family connections, extending outwards to include the Gibbons family of Athy and Wexford who were related to Cardinal Gibbons of Baltimore.
That same afternoon, Mrs Tim McCarthy of St. Patrick’s Avenue was buried in St. Michael’s Cemetery. Regretfully I missed her funeral but met up with her sons Frank, Dermot and Malachy in The Leinster Arms Hotel. Malachy is now retired after a 33 year service in the Garda Síochana and is now the proprietor of a taxi company in Bantry. He speaks with a mellifluous Cork accent and recounted how his father Tim and my father, who was the local Garda Sergeant agreed to leave out of his application form for the Gardai any reference to his having suffered from rheumatoid fever as a young lad. Notice of his condition would have been sufficient to stymie his chances of becoming a garda and so the little conspiracy was hatched to protect his future prospects in the Gardai. Clearly the little deceit of our fathers did not create any problems, as the one time patient completed his normal services as a garda without difficulty.
Tim McCarthy was from Clonakilty, Co. Cork and first met his future wife, who was from Armagh while both were working in County Louth. She later came to Athy as a child nurse for the Osborne family and the couple married and lived most of their married life in St. Patrick’s Avenue. Tim was a member of the Defence Forces during World War II and a life-long supporter of Fine Gael. His good neighbour Johnny McMahon, a Mayo-born Garda was a silent supporter of Fianna Fáil and both men exchanged each evening their daily newspapers - Johnny taking McCarthy’s ‘Irish Independent’ in place of his own ‘Irish Press’. Political allegiances in those days would not permit either to be seen buying a paper which supported the political party opposed to their own. Both Tim McCarthy and his wife are now dead as is Johnny and Molly McMahon and the passing of the older generations and that of James McNally leaves us all with memories of times which can ever again be relived.
Some months ago I was approached about the feasibility of setting up an oral history project in South Kildare to include Athy, which would capture on tape, and perhaps on video also, the stories and experiences of those generations who have lived and worked in times which are now long passed. These experiences are irreplaceable and, as more and more of the older generation die off, the urgency of recording for future generations their life and experiences, becomes more and more important. I would be interested in hearing from anyone willing to become involved in an oral history project which might be set up in the coming months.