A Book Launch is always a treasured memory and for a man evokes perhaps some of the emotion felt by a woman following a birth. I jest of course, but arguably the comparision can sometimes be made more justifiably in some cases than in others.
Last week I was in the happy position of watching Volume 2 of Eye on Athy’s Past slipping down the launch pad helped along by the gracious words of Athy born Senator Brendan Ryan. I was particularly pleased that Brendan, who also wrote a Foreword to the book, did the honours on the night as I owe more than perhaps I acknowledge to his late Father Liam. A teacher of generous qualities, Liam Ryan shared his knowledge and above all his enthusiasm with his young charges in the Christian Brothers Secondary School in Athy where he taught for over forty years. Liam O’Riain was the name which would undoubtedly have been included on the School Syllabus if same was printed in those days but to his pupils he was known simply as Bill Ryan. There was no nickname applied in his case unlike the other teachers whose behind the back but never face to face, nomeclatures, gave a hint of their standing of or lack of it in the eyes of their students.
Bill Ryan was an enthusiast in every thing that he did and in the allegiances he bestowed. Faint hearted allegiances or half hearted efforts were foreign to the Tipperary County man who spent his adult life in Athy. By the time I joined the Secondary School, Bill Ryan was already part of the folklore of scholars and teachers who had passed through the gates of St. John’s. He was still a relatively young man (certainly from the chronological time span which I now occupy) but for so long had been part of school and town life that he was accorded a venerability and a status seldom if ever, reserved for persons today.
I remember the five years spent in the Secondary School in Athy for a variety of reasons, most better than some and Bill Ryan was, and remains, a substantial part of the good things remembered from those days. He thought us gawky youngsters with the enthusiasm of a man who delighted in his role as a teacher and a mentor. For him, the learn by rota system held no attraction but instead he brought his own personal experiences to bear on the subject, whether, it was English, History or Latin. I can still visualize him standing at the top of the class, his right hand in his pocket with his glasses focused on his young audience watching, monitoring and constantly noticing the reaction of his listeners. His voice carried across the room almost always to the accompaniment of the clicking sound of coins which he constantly turned over in the pocket of his trousers. He spoke of every day things of the Reports in that morning’s papers, which for a man of his political allegiances was always the Irish Press. For Bill Ryan was a follower of De Valera and his political convictions were assured and steadfast. Nevertheless, he never allowed himself to politicise in a party political sense, his remarks to his students and the overriding theme of all his asides was the importance of our national and political independence and the realisation that what we had achieved owed much to the sacrifices of previous generations.
Bill Ryan figures large in the school boy memories of several generations of Athy men who negotiated each morning and afternoon the iron staircase which lead to the academy of excellence which was Athy Christian Brothers School. I owe an enormous debt to the teachers who taught me over the years but particularly so to the late Bill Ryan whose son Brendan did the honours in launching my book during the week. I was delighted to see among those attending the book launch, Brendan’s mother Mrs. Noreen Ryan who apart from a few years spent in Spain during the years of the Spanish Civil War has lived her life in her native town of Athy.
A short time ago, I had made arrangements to interview Kevin Fingleton of Grangemellon with particular reference to the ballad he composed during the Kilkea Farmers strike of the 1940’s. Unfortunately Kevin died before the planned interview took place. I first met Kevin when he was a senior member of the Local Nights of Malta and I was a member of the Malta Cadets. It was only in recent times that I became aware of his authorship of the Ballad which I first heard from Michael Delaney formerly of Kilkea and now of Dunquinn in County Kerry. I learned at Kevin’s funeral that his first rendition of the ballad in public was on the back of a lorry used as a platform in conjunction with what was presumably a strikers meeting in Emily Square. With Kevin’s passing, I missed the opportunity to record an important aspect of local history but hopefully someone, somewhere, will be able to recover the voices of almost sixty years ago and the events in which those forgotten men and women were involved.
It would be remiss of me not to take this opportunity to thank those people who in so many ways helped to give Volume 2 of Athy’s Eye on Past such a good send off during the week. Fiona and Liam Rainsford were particularly helpful in preparing for printing the manuscript which had been typed and retyped for me by my secretary Eithne Wall. My thanks to them and to Brian Rowan and his Transport Company who sponsored the Wine Reception at the Book Launch.
A special thanks to you the readers of this column who have persevered through 478 weekly columns, some of which have now been reprinted in book form. My gratitude to every person who has allowed me to reproduce and print the interviews with which I tried to record the lives and events of times past in this part of our little country.