Thursday, September 7, 2000

John Kelly and Retiring Teachers Ann Smith, Frank McNulty and Sean Cunnane

You realise the years are mounting up when you find yourself attending the wedding of a son of friends whose own wedding you attended so many years ago. Such were my thoughts as I met up with old friends and former neighbours in St. Michael’s Parish Church last week to celebrate the wedding of Suzanne Fennin and Leo Kelly. The occasion has a particular resonance for me as I listened to Fr. Dennehy addressing the young groom. He bears the same name as his late uncle who was a friend of mine as we were growing up in Offaly Street. Leopold Kelly and his younger brother Teddy were part of the group from the street who every day met and played together. Willie Moore and Tom Webster were also part of the group as were Andrew and Basil White before their father, the late Tom White and his entire family, moved to Athgarvan in the early 1950’s. Being somewhat older than the rest of us Leopold Kelly was our leader, but irrespective of age differences his athleticism and the sheer qualities of his personality marked him apart from the rest of us.

As I heard the once so familiar name called from the altar of St. Michael’s Church I couldn’t but feel somewhat saddened as images and names of friends whose company I once enjoyed flashed across my mind. For Leopold Kelly died in 1967, just a short time after he was ordained for the priesthood. The group of young people of over 40 years ago with whom I shared so many experiences has been decimated with the deaths of Michael Moore, Andrew White, Basil White, Seamus Taaffe and Leopold Kelly. Nothing brings home the fragility of life and life’s experiences than the reflective moment which like an intruder imposes itself on the busy schedule of everyday life. St. Michael’s Church on the joyful occasion of the wedding of that young couple was one such moment for me last week.

Later that day I met John Kelly, eldest scion of the Kelly family, now 72 years of age and living in retirement in Enniscorthy. He left Athy in 1946 and his memories of the town at that time are of “desolation, depression and dimly lit streets”. The only form of entertainment was the local cinema in Offaly Street or as John explained it “a frolic with a member of the opposite sex against the wall of the Malt House in Stanhope Street”. John assured me that it was a much favoured location for such activity on account of the warmth provided by the malting activity on the far side of the wall. No doubt the heat generation was not confined to the malting process!

John, whose fresh face appearance belies his age, recalled his school pals of nearly 60 years ago. Jackie McCauley, Tommy Walsh and Maurice Kerrigan are now dead, Kerrigan having met his maker after an unfortunate accident on a viaduct in Wales. John McDonnell, Frank Flood and Benny Anderson are still to the good, and tales of evenings spent in Barringtons Pub on the Carlow Road re-awaken memories of old times which are very reminiscent of student activities of the present age. Young people of whatever age undoubtedly know how to enjoy themselves free from the rigorous scrutiny of parents or guardians.

Teachers in the old Christian Brothers School in St. John’s Lane were also remembered by John, some, but not all, with fondness. The lay teachers Bill Ryan and Paddy Spillane earned particular mention as did Brother Nelson whose interest in anything but the class subject in progress gave his pupils ample opportunity for daily diversion.

In the same week as the teachers of sixty years ago were remembered, three of that much underrated and sometimes maligned profession were retiring. Ann Smith, Vice-Principal of Churchtown National School, I knew since we both shared a caravan during the summer of 1957 or was it 1958 touring the countryside selling tickets for Athy Gaelic Football Clubs Fund-raising Draw. Ann and her good friend Eileen Kehoe were part of the team put together by Eileen’s father, John W. Kehoe, to travel the length and breadth of Ireland selling one shilling tickets for what was then the magnificent prize of a caravan and a Hillman car. Five months of the year was spent touring with that unique prize, the caravan, providing the nightly accommodation for the team of ticket sellers. Every village, hamlet and town in a line south of Dublin and Westport was visited as the car and caravan criss-crossed the country with Bridie Gallagher’s latest recording broadcast over a loud-speaker to give advance notice of our arrival. “The Boys from the County Armagh” is a song indelibly imprinted on my mind, even after the lapse of over forty years since the once-oft played single was last heard by me. Ann was a member of the ticket selling team for a few weeks in the first year of the Draw, while I was to see every nook and corner of Ireland over the four years of my involvement.

Coincidentally, Frank McNulty, the other School Principal who also retired this week, over thirty five years ago shared a common experience with me which threw us together for a few weeks. We both underwent appendicitis operations in Naas around the same time and Frank, who was then living in No. 7 Offaly Street and myself living two doors down, spent a lot of our recuperative time together. Frank goes down in the annals of our local history as the first lay person appointed to the principalship of the local Christian Brothers School.

The third School Principal to hand over the baton during the week is my neighbour and former colleague on the local Council, Mayo born Sean Cunnane. Sean was a friend of my late brother Seamus who died in a road traffic accident in 1965. I first met Sean around that time but got to know him better in recent years when we were both members of Athy Urban District Council. No doubt the extra time on his hands will allow him to devote more time to his role as a Town Councillor.

The job of a school teacher can at times seem a thankless one. It is certainly more stressful and frustrating, ever since the right of the teacher to chastise an unruly or disruptive pupil was removed. A good teacher is never forgotten as evidenced by John Kelly’s recall of some well loved teachers of sixty years ago. I know that Ann Smith, Frank McNulty and Sean Cunnane will have many happy memories of working lives devoted to the education of successive generations of young local people. We wish them well in their retirement.

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