In a most eloquent eulogy spoken after he had received the remains of Martin Joe Rigney into the Parish Church of St. Michael’s, our Parish Priest, Fr. Philip Dennehy, referred to Martin Joe as a man woven into the fabric of the lives of the local people. As the funeral undertaker for Athy Martin Joe had dealt with thousands of funerals in a quiet and efficient manner, ensuring that the bereaved could mourn and grieve without the added burden that such occasions thrust upon families.
It was his father Joseph Rigney who started the undertaking business in 1919 at a time when the only other undertaker in the town was John Maher of Leinster Street. John’s mother is believed to have been the first undertaker in the town, having commenced business in or around 1872. Martin Joe began working with his father when he left the local Christian Brothers School in 1941 at 14 years of age. By then the undertaking business first started by Mrs. Maher from premises on the corner of Kirwan’s Lane had moved to 23 Leinster Street. It was to there that her son John, having married into Quigleys bar and shop had transferred the undertaking business. In 1941 that undertaking business was then being operated by John’s son, “Bapty” Maher.
In the early days the local undertaker made up coffins or had them made locally. For a long time this work was carried out in Blanchfields sawmills of Leinster Street. Other local carpenters involved from time to time were Tom Breen of Offaly St. and old Jim Fleming of Chapel Lane. Martin Joe Rigney who served his time to coffin making, continued to make coffins at his Blackparks premises up to some years ago. However, the manufacture of coffins in Dublin factories made it impractical and unnecessary to continue at local level with this part of the traditional undertaking business.
It is believed that the first funeral undertaken by Joseph Rigney in 1919 was that of a Mrs. Leonard of Blackparks. Martin Joe recalled with certainty that his first funeral in 1941 was that of old Dan Chambers whose remains were brought to Churchtown Cemetery. Martin Joe drove the hearse pulled by horses along the country road which in war time was completely devoid of vehicular traffic. He recalled for me some years ago that the first motorised hearse brought to Athy by the Rigney family was in 1936 but how during World War II, petrol rationing caused a revival of the use of the horse hearse. The horse pulled hearses were to remain a feature of funerals in Athy until 1950.
The horse hearse was an awesome sight as the horses strode out ahead of the mourners, each of the horses bearing funeral plumes. Black plumes were used for an adult deceased, while white plumes were reserved for young people and single ladies. Martin Joe recounted for me many stories about a popular local curate Fr. Ryan who could not understand how a lady from Shrewleen with four children but no husband could still merit white plumes on the funeral horses as her funeral wound its way through the town to St. Michael’s Cemetery. Fr. Ryan spent much energy and no little of his money in encouraging unmarried mothers to enter into the married state. The lack of money proffered by many as an excuse for staying single was invariably overcome by Fr. Ryan’s generosity, always accompanied by the plea, “You won’t forget me when you get work”. One local wag finding himself propelled somewhat quicker than he wished into marrying the mother of his child replied, “I won’t forget you Father, and I won’t forgive you either”.
Up to about 1950 funerals started at the house of the deceased and invariably went directly to the local cemetery. If you could pay 30 shillings to the priest then the coffin was allowed to be brought to the Church where it was placed inside the Church door. If you had enough money to pay for a sung Mass the coffin was allowed to rest before the altar. The majority of funerals went from the house directly to the cemetery accompanied by neighbours and friends with the local Sacristan James McNally in attendance to say the De Profundis at every cross roads on the way. This is believed to be the origin of today’s traditional stoppage at the town centre cross roads for funerals on the route to St. Michael’s Cemetery.
Funerals are for the Irish people an important part of local community interaction as evidenced by the large numbers which accompany remains to our local graveyard. The largest funeral ever in Athy was in 1986 following the tragic death of Marian Byrne, Martina Leonard, Declan Roche and Martin Flynn in a road traffic accident on the Monasterevin road. This was a particularly sad occasion reviving memories of another tragic accident at Gallowshill on St. Patrick’s Day in 1970 when Matt McHugh, his wife and child, together with Stan Mullery and his girlfriend were killed. No funeral was perhaps more poignant than that of the married couple from Woodstock Street who died within a day of each other in January 1946. Margaret Cassidy died on 11th January, 1946 aged 45 years and her husband William who was a local postman died the following day, aged 47 years. Both were brought for burial on the same day to St. Michael’s Cemetery. Another double funeral recalled by Martin Joe was that of National Bank Manager Patrick Foley who died on 15th February, 1945, the same day as his mother-in-law Eleanor Fitzgerald who had lived with him and his family in the Emily Square Bank premises.
One of the most difficult tasks to fall to a local undertaker is the removal of bodies taken from the local river or canal. The stretch of River Barrow from Vicarstown to Carlow has claimed many lives over the years, the last of which occurred only two weeks ago. Ambulance personnel are not used for such occasions and the duty falls on the local undertaker to convey the remains to Naas for post mortem.
The name “Martin Joe” identifies for everyone the man who was our local undertaker for almost 59 years. It is perhaps strange to relate that he intensely disliked the double appellation, preferring to be known as Martin or Joe, but never as “Martin Joe”. To locals, Martin was known as “red” Martin to distinguish him from his first cousin of the same name who was known locally as “black” Martin. The third generation of the Rigney family, Martin’s son Joe now carries on the undertaking business which his grand-father Joseph who died in 1952 started in Blackparks, one year after the ending of World War I.
On Wednesday, 9th February the Urban Development Group which has canvassed opposition to the Inner Relief Road will hold a meeting in the Town Hall at 8.00pm. The recent debate concerning the Dublin/Waterford road link has brought into sharp focus the merit of the Outer Relief Road Plans for Athy. Everyone is welcome to attend.