It’s over a year since I had a most pleasant interview with Jim Flood of Fontstown, a man of 87 years of age with an extraordinary memory for the people and events of the past. Jim lives with his daughter Nuala and her family in the house where he was born and into which his parents first moved in 1913 as tenants of Kildare County Council. It was provided by the Council as part of a scheme of isolated cottages then being built for agricultural labourers in the County. Jim’s father was the first tenant of the house and it gave him an independence which he had not enjoyed when he previously lived in tied accommodation provided by farmers for whom he worked.
Jim went to school in Skerries during the War of Independence and walked four miles to school and back home again each day of the school year. School numbers at primary school level in those days were particularly high due to the large family sizes of the time and the two-roomed school house at Skerries catered for in excess of one hundred children. He recalls his first teacher, Miss Pender, whose father was a coachman in Kildangan Stud and who rode a horse each day from Kildangan to the Skerries School. Even as a very young school boy with a daily round journey of eight miles to walk Jim still found time to work on the local Dobbyn farm, initially doing small odd jobs around the place. He was 13 or 14 years of age when he left school for the last time and took up full time work with Dobbyns, working all hours of the day and night. He recalls the enjoyment of travelling to Athy by ass and cart to collect “messages” for the Dobbyns. This required stop offs at various shops including Brid Lawlers, Scully’s and O’Brien’s and occasionally a visit to the Railway Station to collect goods sent from Dublin. After two years or so Jim got a temporary job working in Blackwood Forest from T.J. Bodley, the local Welfare Officer of Leinster Street and spent some time there before moving on again.
He was soon to find work in his own area when he was taken on by Colonel Barry who lived in the Manor House in Fontstown. Colonel Barry lived in a fine three storey over basement house which was once the home of Canon Bagot, a powerful Church of Ireland Minister whose influence extended far beyond the rural district of Fontstown. The Manor House which is no longer standing was located just beyond Fontstown Church near to the entrance to Mervyn Stanley’s former home. Canon Bagot’s daughters later moved to Athy and lived in Shamrock Lodge on the Kildare Road. Colonel Barry with whom Jim Flood worked for five or six years was a veteran of the Boer War and his sister lived with him in the Manor House.
From the late 1930’s Jim worked for the Barrow Drainage Board on the stretch of the river from Jamestown Monasterevin to Athy. Within a few years he took up employment on the Lambe Brothers fruit farm in Fontstown where he worked in one capacity or another for almost forty years. Lambe’s started up in Fontstown in 1943 and the business was then managed by Alo Lawler, Dermot’s father, until it closed down in 1975. Thereafter the fruit farm was owned and operated by the former manager, and later still, and to this day, by his son Dermot.
One of Jim Flood’s greatest interests throughout his long life was ballroom dancing. He attended dances everywhere, as often as time and his resources allowed. He thought little of cycling to Dublin on the half day he got off each month while working with Colonel Barry, to attend dances in one of the many ballrooms in the city. The Machusla in Amiens Street, the National Ballroom and what he refers to as “The Bakers Place” were some of the favoured venues attended by Jim over the years. After each dance the journey by bicycle was retraced with the tired but happy young man reaching home as the dawn broke. He was invariably just in time to start his days work but as he says “once you had a craze for something you didn’t mind”. And it was a craze he continued after he got married. With his late wife Louie he attended dances in Crookstown, Castledermot, Athy and indeed anywhere the passion for dancing could be fulfilled. He recalls dancing in Dreamland Ballroom when it opened in 1961. Despite his age Jim retains the lightness of step of a dancer and still loves to get out on the dance floor for a quickstep or a foxtrot whenever the opportunity arises.
Jim has a great recall for the history of his native Fontstown and he remembers the Kilmead Fife and Drum Band which Ned Kelly, the tailor of Kilmead, was in charge of for so long. Folk memory has it that the band marched and played a welcome for Colonel Barry when he first arrived to live at Fontstown Manor at the early part of the century. The band practiced in the open air at “The Piers” which Jim explained were the gate piers to Youngstown House on the side road leading from Kilmead to Booleigh. They were known locally as “The Grand Piers” and the road leading down and beyond them was always referred to by the locals of old as “Piers Road”. Kilmead Fife and Drum Band broke up about sixty years ago when a similar band started up in nearby Mullaghmast.
Jim remembers the great political meetings in the Square in Athy where the likes of Eamon de Valera and Mary McSwiney, sister of the martyred Lord Mayor of Cork, Terence McSwiney addressed the crowds. These great gatherings were always preceded by the arrival of one of the local bands parading from the Railway Bridge on the Dublin Road. The interruptions and heckling generated by those opposed to the views of the platform party always provided an interesting aside to the evenings proceedings. Interestingly enough the Fianna Fail gatherings were always met with a phalanx, of what Jim refers to, as “the Minch’s crowd”, who were well-known Cumann na nGael supporters. The period of the Blue Shirt movement was an interesting time for a young onlooker such as Jim and many a story he has to recount of that time. The story of the movement in Athy and the outlining districts of South Kildare is another story for another day.
I leave the final word to Jim who recalls a time over 70 years ago:
“When I was going to school I remember them making the first road, steam rolling it here in the 1920’s. Then there was only one car on the road and when we were kids of a Thursday we would be listening to hear the approach of Captain Hone’s motor car. You would hear it when it was at the Seven Stars, with old Captain Hone driving down to Kilmead with money to pay his workers”.