Last week, work colleagues of Teddy Kelly gathered in the offices of Athy’s second oldest industry to celebrate the 40th Anniversary of his joining the firm. Forty years ago it was Asbestos Cement Limited and the biggest employer in Athy, today, Tegral Building Products has a smaller but still very substantial workforce. I was slightly taken aback to learn that my friend Teddy had 40 years work experience under his belt until I realised with some astonishment that I myself had achieved the same milestone the previous week.
Teddy and I were pals from the time we were in short trousers. We both lived in Offaly Street at the time when vehicular traffic was minimal and presented no danger to young fellows who used the road as a playground. I can remember playing football with Teddy and others up and down Offaly Street without posing any difficulty for anyone, pedestrian or otherwise. Our watchful eyes were on the approach of the local Gardai in the form of either of our fathers or the St. Patrick’s Avenue contingent of Gardai on their way home for dinner. Football was not our only activity on the local Street. Pellet guns figure prominently in my memory of those days, especially on one occasion when I stood at Tuohy’s door facing Leopold Kelly who from Tom McHugh’s front door on the far side of the street took aim and fired a pellet gun at me. My left ear, for it was there I was hit, confirmed that indeed, the pellet gun was loaded and my earlier confident claim “I betcha its not loaded” seemed then so far off the mark, unlike Leopold’s assured aim.
Leopold Kelly later to be ordained a priest and to die tragically so young, was the leader of the Offaly Street gang and here I use the word “gang” not in any criminal sense but to describe a group of innocent fun loving ragamuffins whose lives revolved around each other. Teddy Kelly, Willie Moore, Tom Webster, Basil White and myself were the core group of the gang which in its more generous moods allowed the youngsters, Mickey Moore and Seamus Taaffe to tag along with us. I don’t think either of them were involved in the battle of Offaly Street when we defended our home base against an incursion from a group (from where I cannot now recall) who attacked us with well aimed stones. I still vividly recall that afternoon when with every conceivable size of stone, we pelted our assailants and they responded, both groups facing each other from opposite end of Offaly Street. There was a similar battle on the Crib Road (Church Road) near Dr. Kilbride’s, (now Dr. O’Neill’s) where the stones flew back and forth and Basil White ended up with a split head. The large lime trees which were then growing at either side of the Crib Road afforded cover for the combatents but proved inadequate for the luckless Basil White.
When I look back on those occasions, I wonder how we ever escaped with life and limb intact or indeed how we even managed to escape the critical notice of parents and adults generally. If the same thing happened today in Offaly Street or Church Road, the riot squad would be called and all the protagonists would end up in Court on assault charges and public order offences. Luckily enough, neither Teddy’s career or my own were blighted by our exuberant and combatitive attitude to life in our younger days.
Youthful energies in so far as Teddy Kelly and myself were concerned did not limit us to potential breaches of the common law in relation to assaults but also saw us stretching our credibility as law abiding citizens with our penchant for robbing local orchards. The glorious harvest of fruit always arrived just in time to banish the back to school blues which descended on us youngsters when after almost three months of summer freedom found ourselves corralled for another term of school lessons.
Sylvester’s Orchard at the end of Butler’s Row was our favourite target. The lush green undergrowth which marked years of neglect provided the perfect backdrop for the aging apple and pear trees which each year provided a fruitful bounty for eager young lads with time and opportunity on their hands. The orchard is now gone having given way to a scheme of Council houses but in the 1950’s was a haven enclosed by high walls. Those same walls provided no match for the agile and nimble team of fruit pickers who worked furtively and with tremendous speed. Not for us the leisurely paced motions of the legitimate fruit pickers in Lambe’s fruit farms. We had self imposed deadlines to meet which required pockets and turned up pullovers to be filled before speedily making our, hopefully unencumbered way, over the high wall at the back of the orchard. If our luck was in, and more often than not it was, the few minutes spent in frantic orchard raiding activity would give us a few hours measured enjoyment of healthy apple crunching. That’s how Teddy Kelly, now forty years in gainful employment spent his young days with his friends from Offaly Street.
He will remember the one occasion Mrs. Sylvester caught the youthful apple thieves in action and the mad scramble which ensued for the one well tracked exit over the high wall. Then it was everyone for himself, and the mad scramble for the wall and the freedom beyond, banished all thoughts of comradeship and togetherness which vanished with the twinkle of an eye or more appropriately with the swish of Mrs. Sylvester’s ash plant. In any event, the only hostage taken that day was the youngest member of the gang, my late brother Seamus who was grabbed by Mrs. Sylvester and duly paraded down Butler’s Row towards number 5 Offaly Street and my mother. Teddy and the rest of the gang by now had travelled as far away as possible from the scene of the crime hoping against hope that the young convict would not tell names. He didn’t have to. The make up of the Offaly Street gang was as well known as “Coy” Moore himself. All was well however, the cowering would be apple stealer was presented to his surprised mother (“surprised that he was caught, not that he was robbing an orchard”) and the traditional punishment was expected. In one of those almost surreal moments reminiscent of a lottery win, it so happened that a visitor from Mayo had arrived that day for a holiday with the result that the lucky young lad escaped all punishment.
Teddy and I were never caught although we came close to it one afternoon when in an unusual excursion well outside our normal territory, we found ourselves in Cyprian Holland’s orchard on the Dublin Road thinning the lush apples on the obviously overburdened fruit trees. We were tossing the results of our labours over the hedge to Tom Webster and Willie Moore who were standing outside on the Dublin Road. Suddenly we heard a roar, the disembodied voice coming from the same roadway “I know you Taaffe and Kelly, come out here immediately”. It was Garda Dunne, not the easiest man to encounter in such circumstances but we did not wait around for a formal introduction. We escaped through the hedge on the opposite side and high tailed it out of there in a panic. Fair dues to the same Garda Dunne, he did not appear to have mentioned our proclivity for apple stealing to our parents as the incident was never again mentioned.
I could go on recounting memories of times shared with Teddy Kelly and my friends in Offaly Street and maybe I will some other day. For the moment, let me wish the not so young former orchard robber and my good friend, Teddy Kelly many more happy years.