“We’ll be excommunicated”. I spoke in jest to my fellow Christian and former neighbour Ricky Kelly as we both exited from St. Michael’s Church at the top of Offaly Street. “Weren’t we terrible eejits to live for so long under the half baked notion that attending a Protestant neighbours funeral would lead to eternal damnation.” There was nothing further to say. We walked on in silence, not giving voice to the collective shame which once marked Irish country lives separated by religious differences of an obscure and doubtful origin. The occasion was the Sunday afternoon funeral of Jenny Hegarty who died at 84 years of age after spending the last 69 years of her life in Athy.
“Miss Hegarty” is how she was known to the hundreds, nay, the thousands of customers she served while in charge of the wool and haberdashery department in Shaws of Duke Street. My mother who herself came to Athy in 1945 did all her shopping in Shaws and Miss Hegarty was a name I came to recognise when as a young lad I was dispatched to return some item or other to Shaws store. For you see my mother was of the old style of shopper who prodded, tested and tried every individual article on sale before parting with her hard earned money.
The wool and haberdashery department was perhaps the most visited department of Shaws store during the 1940’s and 1950’s and for a very good reason. Almost every Irish housewife knitted, sewed and darned. Pullovers, stockings and gloves were the mainstay of the hand knitter whose requirements were always attended to by Miss Hegarty. Do you remember the winter nights spent in winding balls of wool from the hanks in which they were sold in the shops. I hated that boring job of holding the hanks of wool between my outstretched arms while my mother patiently and with a dexterity born of years of experience, calmly wound the balls of wool. That same wool would soon find a shape and a purpose between the knitting needles which were taken out each night after tea plates and cups had been washed and put away. Miss Hegarty was the acknowledged wool expert who helped and advised the vast array of females for whom knitting was a pastime or in many cases, as with my own mother, a necessary form of self help sofar as the family finances were concerned. Jenny was her name, a fact of which I was not aware until her Death Notice appeared in the newspaper. Indeed I am sure many of those same people she had served so well over the years were also unaware of her first name for to all and sundry she was simply “Miss Hegarty”.
She came to Athy in 1932 soon after she left school to take up a position with Sam Shaw in Duke Street. A native of Portarlington she had one brother, Harry Hegarty, who many of my readers will remember as a rural postman serving the Wolfhill area. Harry died 22 years ago and at the time lived, as did Jenny, at 3 Duke Street which is now the offices of the Irish Permanent Building Society. When Jenny first came to Athy she lived in with the other lady assistants in the living quarters attached to Shaws store. Some of the other girls who in their younger days worked in Shaws with Jenny included Etta Eacrett, Anna Breakey, Frances Dobson, Ann Cole, Florrie Bass, Muriel Lazenbey and Miss Leggett. Jenny spent 51 years in the wool and haberdashery department of Shaws and throughout much of that time she was the staff member who trained every new assistant who joined the Duke Street store. It was to Jenny’s counter that the new arrivals were invariably directed on their first day for it was her experience and kind manner which provided the perfect qualifications for passing on to each newcomer the Shaw ethos of sales and service.
Jenny retired almost 18 years ago, all the time living with her brother’s family at No. 3 Duke Street and moving with them in 1993 to Burtown. To everyone who knew her, whether as Miss Hegarty or Jenny, she was the consummate lady, always courteous, always helpful and in her own way an institution in the town where she had lived since 1932. The Sunday afternoon funeral in St. Michael’s was attended by persons representative of the different religious creeds in the town. It was fitting that it was so, for after all Miss Hegarty was known to so many and was liked by everyone she came in contact with during her many years in Athy. May she rest in peace.
Recalling the part played by Shaws in bringing so many young girls to Athy over the decades it strikes me that here is a fruitful field of study for some urban sociologist. Just imagine what the Shaws employment practice meant to the local Protestant Churches in terms of renewal. Many of the girls who joined the firm later married locally at a time when the Ne Temere Decree was still a prohibitive presence in Irish life. However that’s a matter for research for another day, and perhaps by someone other than the present writer.
I got several phone calls following last weeks article with particular reference to Gilbert Carey. Many thanks to all who contacted me. I now have more than sufficient information to pass on to my enquirer from Manchester. However, I need your assistance in relation to another matter. Kevin Kerwin has written to me from Florida with regard to possible family connections in the South Kildare area. His great grand-father Daniel Kirwan, a blacksmith whose own father was James Kirwan of Duke Street, emigrated to America in 1843. Any information helpful to Mr. Kerwin’s enquiry can be passed on through me.