Thursday, October 12, 2000

General Elections - Athy Candidates of the Past

A recent visit to York Minster Library to seek out background information on William Burgh, a one-time Member of Parliament for Athy prompted me to look this week at Parliamentary election results going back to 1918. I first became electorally aware [so to speak] when in 1957 local teacher Paddy Dooley was elected as a Fianna Fail TD for County Kildare. The election itself is not otherwise remembered by me but what I do recall is our teacher, Brother Brett who was Superior of the Christian Brothers, congratulating my class colleague Enda Dooley on his father’s election on the previous day. Paddy Dooley had previously stood as a Fianna Fail candidate in the 1954 General Election when he polled a very respectable 4791 votes in a three seat constituency contest. He stood successfully for re-election in 1961 before losing out in the general election of 1965. At that election Paddy Dooley was joined by another local man, Charles Chambers, who represented Fine Gael as he had done in the 1961 General Election.

The first local man elected to the Dail was Sydney Minch, a member of the Minch family of malting fame. His father, Matthew J. Minch, had represented Athy as an MP in the British House of Commons from 1892. To give him his full name, Captain Sydney Basil Minch represented the Cumann na Gaedhael party [now Fine Gael] and as such was first elected to the Dail in 1932. The Kildare constituency was then a three seater and his fellow T.D.’s for the constituency were Tom Harris, Fianna Fail and William Norton, Labour. Minch was re-elected in 1933 and for the last time in 1937. Those last two general election saw local teacher Brigid Darby of Leinster Street stand for the Fianna Fail party. In 1932 when the Fianna Fail party was for the first time elected to government, Darby poled 2636 votes and four years later increased her tally to 4021 votes. By then the constituency was joined with Carlow and was a four-seater and Brigid Darby’s colleagues, Tom Harris and Francis Humphries shared the seats with Bill Norton of Labour and Sydney Minch of Fine Gael. For old-timers in the town Sydney Minch was remembered for the part he played in having the soldiers’ houses built at The Bleach, and for a long time these houses were known as Sydney’s Parade.

Brigid Darby did not stand again and missed out the 1938 General Election when Sydney Minch lost his Dail seat. Another ten years were to pass before an Athy-based candidate again stood for the Dail. 1948 saw M.G. Nolan, draper of Duke Street and Michael Cunningham, a publican of Upper William Street stand for Fianna Fail and Fine Gael respectively, with Nolan polling 2452 first preference votes and Cunningham polling 548 votes. Nolan again put his name before the electorate at the 1951 General Election and increased his vote to 3987. He did not contest any further Dail Elections and in 1954 gave way to Paddy Dooley who was elected at his second attempt in 1957.

The 1969 General Election saw Joe Birmingham of the Labour Party putting his name before the Dail Electorate for the first time. Joe got 2711 votes, but not enough to get one of the three Dail seats on offer. A bye-election the following year following the death of Gerard Sweetman in a road traffic accident gave Joe an opportunity to copper-fasten the Labour vote in a contest which was won by Paddy Malone of Fine Gael. Eamon Kane of Castledermot contested that bye-election for Fianna Fail and topped the poll with 10,754 first preference votes. However, the distribution of Birmingham’s 5,923 votes was sufficient to give victory to Paddy Malone of Fine Gael.

In 1973 no less than three Athy men stood in the General Election, each of them representing the main political parties. Paddy Dooley in what was to be his national politics swan song stood for Fianna Fail, with Jim McEvoy of Leinster Street for Fine Gael and Joe Birmingham for Labour. Joe was elected for the first time after his two previous unsuccessful attempts. He retained his Dail seat in 1977, 1981 and twice in 1982 before stepping down prior to the 1987 election. Local Fontstown man, Martin Miley, was Fianna Fail candidate in 1977 and again in 1981 but was unable to increase his vote in that latter election.

Lenore O’Rourke-Glynn of Shamrock Drive, Athy, a nurse in St. Vincent’s Hospital stood in the first of the 1982 elections while in the November election of the same year Michael McManus as a non-party candidate polled rather poorly. Five years later the election of 1987 saw the emergence of the Progressive Democrats and their local candidate was Frank Masterson who shared the Ballot Paper and a similar lack of success with local Sinn Fein Councillor, Paddy Wright.

The first Athy-based candidates to stand for the Dail so far as I have been able to trace was J.J. Bergin who represented Farmers in the General Election of 1922. Kildare/Wicklow was then a five-seater and the election was contested by no less than ten candidates including Art O’Connor who represented south Kildare in the first Dail and who with Erskine Childers represented the Kildare/Wicklow constituency in the second Dail. J.J. Bergin, a local Engineer from Maybrook, Athy, later stood with another local man, George Henderson, both as Independent Farmer candidates in the June 1927 Election. Both Bergin and Henderson who were members of Kildare County Council were unsuccessful in that General Election.

All of the mainstream political parties have been represented by Athy-based Dail Deputies since the 1922 Election. Fine Gael held an Athy-based Dail seat between 1932 and 1938, a total of six years, while Fianna Fail were represented locally for eight years between 1957 and 1965. The Labour Party has had a greater measure of success, having no less than two locally based T.D.’s in Joe Bermingham from 1973 to 1987 and Jack Wall from 1997 to date. In the years since the 1922 Election Kildare has been at different times a three-seat, a four-seat and a five-seat constituency. The changes reflect the annexing of the County, with parts of Wicklow later still with Carlow and in recent years the sundering of the County into North and South divisions. South Kildare is now a three-seater constituency and sends to the Dail the same number of T.D.’s as did the entire county of Kildare up to 1957.

As I am writing this piece I received through the Nationalist Newspaper a letter from a lady in England who is a grand-niece of Brigid Darby. Brigid who was very active in the Athy community for decades from the 1920’s was a formidable lady with powerful political connections who worked assiduously for the local people of Athy. She was one of the first women to stand for elective office in Athy and successfully contested both Urban and County Council elections during the 1930’s.

The visit of the Taoiseach Bertie Aherne to Athy last week was but one of the very few occasions the town has paid host to the head of the Irish Government. John Bruton visited Athy in recent years on the occasion of the official opening of the County Show and on the same day was granted a civic reception by the local Urban District Council. So far as I can ascertain these are the only two occasions on which a serving Taoiseach visited the town. I know that Eamon de Valera addressed an election rally in Athy in 1932 but this was while he was leader of the opposition. If any of my readers can recall any other occasion when the town welcomed the head of the Irish Government I would be delighted to put the record straight.

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