Monday, September 4, 2000

Theatres of Kilcullen and Longford and Jimmy Bennett

Last weekend I made my stage debut - well not quite, but near enough, if one ignores a brief and not to be remembered involvement with the County Council players in Naas and Prosperous over 35 years ago. This time however I did not have to contend with half remembered lines and the uncoordinated movements of would-be thespians frightened out of their wits end by the newness of the stage experience. Saturday morning saw me in the unexpectedly grand surroundings of Kilcullen Town Hall where the new theatre hosted a seminar on the Forgotten Soldiers of Kildare organised by the County Kildare Federation of Local History Societies. I have to say I was, and still am, envious of the splendid theatrical facilities available in Kilcullen. They surpass anything we have in Athy, even though we have a strong theatrical tradition going back many years which should justify us having our own purpose built theatre. I am told that the Kilcullen community benefited from the weekly draw which ran for many years under the aegis of the Kilcullen Development Association. The upshot of the Association’s financial husbandry is that many groups in Kilcullen benefited from their largesse when the funds accumulated over many years came to be distributed.

Without question the Town Hall in Kilcullen is a credit to everyone involved in their community and must surely act as an incentive to other groups seeking similar type facilities. If Kilcullen on Saturday morning created the first stirrings of envy in my ageing bones, my visit to Longford town on the following day whipped up an absolute frenzy of jealously on my part. And how it must have showed on my otherwise normally placid countenance as I took in the first class facilities enjoyed by members of the Longford Slashers Football Club. Situated just a short distance out of the town the new club boasts, in addition to the usual bar facilities, a restaurant with a plethora of meeting rooms and would you believe, a 200 seater theatre. All are part of the one complex with a theatre I believe under the management of a local theatrical group which shares common facilities with the GAA Club. If the Kilcullen Theatre is excellent, the Longford Slashers Theatre is superb. I have not seen, even in Dublin, a small theatre to match it in terms of seating, stage, lighting and audio facilities. It far surpasses the facilities of the famous Taibhreach Theatre in Galway which by comparison seems poky and outdated.

My Sunday in Longford was spent attending the Annual General Meeting of the Federation of Local History Societies of Ireland which was officially opened by the American Ambassador to Ireland, His Excellency Michael J. Sullivan. He is a former Governor of Wyoming in the Rocky Mountains West, a State which is about three times the size of Ireland, with about one tenth of it’s population. He arrived wearing a cowboy hat as was appropriate for a former Governor of what is called The Cowboy State. A lawyer by profession, Michael Sullivan is a descendent of Irish emigrants who left for America in the 1850’s. On his mother’s side his relations came from County Longford, although one of the females married a Birney from Myshall, County Carlow and both settled on a farm in Kansas which they call Myshall Farm. On his father’s side the Irish links are with the Sullivans of the Bere Peninsula.

In my many years both as a public representative and as a lawyer I have listened to many addresses but I have never experienced a more pleasant presentation than the twenty minute talk given by Ambassador Sullivan from the stage of Longford Slashers last Sunday. It was a remarkable tour de force in which he dealt with his Irish past in an easy, pleasant and interesting way holding his audience enthralled as they listened to his every word.

Immediately following my arrival in Longford early on Sunday morning I was approached by a man who held out his hand and said “You must be Sergeant Taaffe’s son”. He turned out to be Jimmy Bennett, now eighty years of age, who spent two years in Athy around 1953/54. He was a barber working with Gussy Mulhall in Leinster Street at a time when the barbers’ business was a flourishing one and needed three men, Gussy, his son Jimmy and New Ross man Jimmy Bennett to meet the daily demands for hair cutting and shaving. Jimmy Bennett stayed in digs with Mr. and Mrs. Tom Moore at No. 7 Offaly Street for a few months after he first arrived in Athy before moving to live with the Dargans in Ardreigh. He talked to me of local people he knew and remembered from 46 years ago. Kerrigan, the Bank Manager, came to him each morning for a shave and others he recalled were Charlie Chambers Snr., Fr. McLoughlin, the senior Catholic Curate and Tosh Doyle whose hackney car was employed to bring Jimmy and his friends to football and hurling matches. His local pub was Floods of Leinster Street - “Is it still there?” he asked, not knowing that the pub had changed hands several times since Tom Flood passed away. He recalled Brophy’s shop which was located in Offaly Street where the first Credit Union office was opened.

A member of the CYMS which was located at the corner of Stanhope Street and Stanhope Place, Jimmy remembered names of some of its members at that time. Tom Moore, Ned Cranny, Christy Dunne and “Sooty” Hayden, all long time members of Athy’s oldest society which like themselves is now no more. He made particular mention of Joe Carty, the Belmullet born Garda who like himself arrived in Athy in or about 1953. He asked to be remembered to all the Athy people he knew so many years ago, recalling that Athy was for him a happy place, full of wonderful memories.

Later on Sunday evening before leaving the luxurious surroundings of the local theatre I enquired as to the root of the name “Slasher”. I was informed that “Slasher” means a man of valour and its prominence is traced back to Myles “Slasher” O’Reilly, a Cavan man who fought bravely at the Bridge of Finea with the army of Owen Roe O’Neill. The footballers who play for the Longford Slashers may or may not be renowned for their bravery, but their club premises located to the front of Fay Memorial Park is a wonderful tribute, as is the Kilcullen Town Hall, to the foresight and hard work of many people over many years.

If we could only engender a little bit of that foresight into our own community dealings here in Athy maybe we could have a theatre which would ensure the survival of the town’s proud theatrical tradition.

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