I was overwhelmed by the response to the book launch last Thursday. There was such a large attendance, I was afraid the library authorities might ban similar events from using their facilities again. Thanks to everybody who attended on the night. It was for me a memorable occasion made even more memorable by the people who came out in support. It all goes to prove that there is enormous interest in local history. This interest is growing all the time and in the case of Athy, no doubt indicates a growing sense of civic pride in the town which has taken a number of knocks over the years.
It was while looking through the book that I realised how many of the good people I had interviewed in the early years of Eye on the Past have passed away. Paddy Keenan, a delightful man, Brother Brett, a generous teacher and Sean MacFheorais, gaelic poet and brother of Joe Bermingham were some of the people who appeared in the early articles. Hester May, that wonderful old lady who had packed into her early life associations with the men and women who across the stage of Irish, Rebellion and Politics was another. Stephen Bolger and Tosh Doyle were two local men who lived into old age and shared with me their experiences of life in Athy of years gone by. So too did Mary Carr of Quarry Farm who lived for a while in the gate lodge of the house where I am now writing this piece. Jack MacKenna, father of John who launched the book last week was the subject of an Eye on the Past when he recounted for me many of the forgotten stories of Republican activity in South Kildare during the War of Independence. Jack Kelly, musician and Jack Murphy a worker from the halycon days of Duthie Larges spoke to me of the lives of the Athy people they grew up with and knew so many years ago. Michael Moore, shop keeper and bee enthusiast, provided me with another insight into the towns past with his detailed knowledge of the early years of the South Kildare Beekeepers Association. Finally there was Julia Mahon whom I did not interview but wrote about after she passed away. Julia was the touchstone for many local Athy people and embodying as she did so much of what it is that makes Athy not only a place in which we all live out our lives but also the place which embraces and nurtures our hopes and our ambitions. Athy is our place and as John MacKenna said in his eloquent and much appreciated launch address, “all lives are of consequence - and poverty and anonymity, a rural way of life or indeed a quietness does not amount to a lack of consequence”.
The first article in the new book was on the Sisters of Mercy and I was delighted to meet during the night of the launch several members of the local Sisters of Mercy Community. I suppose the word “community” is still appropriate despite the emergence from the Convent life of the Sisters of Mercy who now live within the community they served for so long. Sister Paul was not able to be at the launch and sent me a letter beforehand with her good wishes as did Sr. Dominic of St. Vincent’s. It’s quite extraordinary the affection with which the Sisters of Mercy are held by the local people but indeed it is quite understandable why it should be so. Lives devoted to the service of a local people over generations creates its own reservoir of gratitude and the people of Athy have never, and will never, forget the debt owed to the Sisters of Mercy.
For the second time, Noreen Ryan and Georgina O’Neill attended the book launch. On the first occasion, the doors of the Town Hall stoutly resisted their attempts to enter but neither Noreen or Georgina were to know that the launch first scheduled for last September had been postponed. It was good to see both of them back again in company with so many others of their generation whose love for and knowledge of the town and its people is founded on long lives spent in the South Kildare town on the Marches of Kildare.
Derek Tynan, son of the former owner of the Leinster Arms Hotel and now one of the leading Architects in this country was a surprise attender. His mother is living in Beechgrove and in the past kindly sent me on some details of a local involvement in the design of the badge for the Garda Siochana. The sharing of information is an essential element of piecing together the towns story and a recent example of that was the kind lady who brought to my attention the forgotten story of “The Knights of the Plough”. If you knew anything about this organisation founded by a local man nearly sixty years ago, I would welcome hearing from you. And incidentally, it was not J. J. Bergin the founder of the Ploughing Association who set up the Knights of the Plough.
During the Book Launch, an unexpected surprise was the presentation made by Tommy Keegan. I have to say that Tommy’s kind gesture was a remarkable display of friendship and generosity and one which I much appreciated. The Master of Ceremony for the night was a man who has taken over the mantle of the late M.G. Nolan and with whom I have shared many experiences over the last forty years. Frank English was himself the subject of an Eye on the Past in December 1993 when his colleagues on the local Urban Council celebrated his 26 years on that Council. Since then, he has clocked up another seven years making his tenure one which threatens to surpass the record of Thomas Plewman who was a Town Commissioner and later an Urban Councillor between 1866 and 1920. Only another 21 years to go Frank!. Frank’s kind words on the night were much appreciated and I particularly liked the story of the Athy man returning to Australia who asked for the Nationalist to be sent to them so they could read “Taaffe’s Article”.
Fiona and Liam Rainsford of Data Print deserve special thanks for their courteous help in bringing out the book. They have done a good job and I am particularly pleased that a local printer has been involved in producing this book of local reminiscences. Shaw’s sponsored the wine reception and as one of the oldest businesses in Athy, it was appropriate, yet generous of them to be associated with the venture in this way.
So many people helped in so many ways over the years that inevitably I could not hope to name all of them in this short piece. Suffice to say that I thank everyone who has contributed in any way to the Eye on the Past articles and to the subsequent book, Eye on Athy’s Past. I will leave the last word to John MacKenna, the local writer whose talents have earned him an audience beyond the confines of the County and whose eloquent speech at the Book Launch was as ever generous and kind.
“The lives recovered and recounted in the book are the lives of ordinary people. Sometimes that phrase is thrown around as though the ordinary couldn’t possibly be of significance. But as this book proves --- everyone has a story to tell. Everyone has a sorrow to bear or a joy to celebrate”.
I hope that together we can continue to give voice to the lives of the local people for many years to come.