The Athy unit of the Knights of Malta were founded fifty years ago by Eamon McCauley with the help and assistance of members of the Kilkenny City unit. Eamon was employed by D. & J. Carbery Building Contractors at St. John’s Lane and his father had operated a public house at the corner of Barrow Quay in what is now Ann’s Florist. Mr. McCauley Snr. sold the business known as the Barrow Bar to Bobby Flood in 1948 and moved to The Shamrock Bar, Parliament Street, Kilkenny but I believe that Eamon who was then working in Athy continued to live in the town. His brother Jack was a member of the Knights of Malta in Kilkenny and he first encouraged Eamon to set up a unit of the organisation in Athy. Eamon paid a number of visits to Kilkenny City to acquaint himself with the work of the Knights of Malta and it was during these visits that he met his future wife Maura Brophy, whom I believe was a member of the Knights of Malta in the Marble City.
I am told that the foundation date of the Athy unit was 13th August, 1950 but there is no doubt whatsoever as to the man whose energy and initiative brought the ancient organisation of the Knights of Malta to the town. Eamon McCauley was to remain as head of the Athy unit of the Knights of Malta until his untimely death in 1980. By then he had reached the rank of Captain and was employed as a clerk of works with the Office of Public Works.
The early meetings of the Knights of Malta were held in the CYMS building at the corner of Stanhope Street and Stanhope Place. Some of the earliest members of the Knights of Malta included Paddy Timpson of St. Patrick’s Avenue, Anthony Dunne, a barber who worked with O’Rourke Glynn’s in Duke Street and Joe Moloney who worked in the local asbestos factory. These men who devoted so much of their leisure hours to the Knights of Malta are now all dead. Mick Ryan of William Street and Kevin Fingleton of Grangemellon were also early members and happily they are still with us. Two other men also involved were Pat Dunleavy of Foxhill and Paddy Cowman of Pairc Bhride.
As the organisation expanded, meetings were held in the Social Club’s rooms in St. John’s Lane and when the Cadet unit was founded in 1956 the Christian Brothers school building was also used. I remember as a young teenager enrolling for first aid classes with many of my classmates almost 45 years ago. Pat Flinter of The Bleach, Anthony Pender of St. Patrick’s Avenue, Mick Robinson of McDonnell Drive, Pat Timpson of St. Patrick’s Avenue, Frank (Harry) English of St. John’s Lane and Mick O’Neill of Cardenton were just a few of the names I can recall. We learned as best we could how to deal with the different emergencies we were likely to encounter as full fledged members of the Knights of Malta. The units medical officer was, and still is, Dr. Joe O’Neill and it was he who examined all of us youngsters on our medical knowledge. I can still recall the day the oral examination took place in the ground floor classroom of the old Christian Brothers school. We all waited in one of the classrooms and were called in one by one to be examined by the good doctor. God fearing young lads as we were, and apprehensive at the test we were about to undergo, we readily agreed to Pat Flinter’s suggestion to kneel down and say a prayer to ensure our success. I couldn’t imagine a gang of teenagers doing that today but, it seemed the most natural thing in the world to do and highlights the change in attitudes and beliefs in the intervening 45 years. Yes Pat, it was you who lead us in prayer that day, a fact which impressed itself on my mind, never to be forgotten. Indeed Pat Flinter was the natural leader of the group, a fact reinforced when he was subsequently appointed team leader of the Cadet First Aid team of 1957.
Dr. O’Neill, kindly, as ever, passed all of us and later on we were formally inducted as Cadet members of the Knights of Malta. Each Cadet was kitted out in bulls wool trousers, a shirt and a beret, the latter two items bearing the insignia of the Knights of Malta. A kit bag was also provided, containing bandages, cotton wool, dettol, smelling salts, and this with the legendary water bottle was all we needed to rescue the world from any calamity. The one thing I can remember about the Cadet’s uniform is that the trousers supplied were never quite long enough to cover youthful legs which were still growing. So it was that many of us had our trousers legs ending six inches from the ground long before it became fashionable to wear pedal pushers. Despite this sartorial handicap the Cadets, numbering 20 or more, assembled in the yard of the Christian Brothers school in St. John’s Lane every Sunday where we practised our drill under the watchful eye of Cadet Master Anthony Dunne.
Duty for the Knights of Malta Cadet consisted of attendance at inter county football matches in Geraldine Park or if one was extremely lucky the local Grove Cinema. The latter duty, not normally entrusted to the Cadets, allowed you to watch the latest cinemagraphic offering free of charge. However, until the lights went out, you were required to stand at the back of the cinema poised to jump to the assistance of anyone foolish enough to pass out during your tour of duty.
Geraldine Park in the late 1950’s was the scene of many inter-county matches, all of which required the attendance of the Knights of Malta. As a Cadet I remember sitting on the sideline with a senior member of the unit, nervously wondering what I could possibly do if any of the players got injured. My limited medical knowledge was never put to the test, as fortunately, I was only ever required to run onto the pitch, with hands clasping the medicine bag and the water bottle at my side, invariably reaching the injured player as he got up off the ground.
I mentioned in a recent Eye on the Past the Knights of Malta Cadet team’s success in the provincial First Aid Competition in 1957 or 1958. Pat Flinter was team captain and Anthony Pender, Pat Timpson, Frank English and myself were on the team which won the Leinster title in Navan. I can still remember the euphoria of that day and the disappointment when we failed to win the All-Ireland title in Limerick which we contested as Leinster Champions. One other school friend who was a Cadet in those days was Mick Robinson and I gather that Mick who went to Australia many years ago brought with him his Knights of Malta membership scroll. Mick, I can’t find my membership scroll nor indeed the medal won in 1958 which was one of only two medals I won in my entire life. If you must ask, the first medal was won when I was no more than 8 or 9 years of age and it was as a member of a ‘tug of war team’!
The Knights of Malta is still going strong after 50 years and now operates out of its own premises formerly owned by Minch Nortons at the end of Nelson Street. The unit now has George Robinson and Pat O’Rourke as Lieutenants, while George’s son and namesake is Unit Sergeant and Officer commanding the Athy unit. Other members today include Sergeant Catherine Foley and Volunteers Nicola Phillips, Chris Moran, Francis Moran, Nigel Kelly, Michéal Brennan, Michael Schofield, Bernadette Prendergast, Sharon Foley and Charlene Molloy. This weekend sees the 50th anniversary celebration of the Knights of Malta which will be held in Teach Emanuel. Thoughts will be of the men now gone, especially Eamon McCauley who devoted so much time and energy in the 1950’s in bringing to the town of Athy the Order of Malta which was originally established in 1085 as a community of Monks to look after the Hospital of St. John’s in Jerusalem. By a strange coincidence Athy had its medieval origins in the 12th century and had a hospital of St. John’s operated by Monks of the local monastery which is still recalled in the place name St. John’s Lane.