Thursday, April 4, 2002

St. John's Lane / Mrs. Peg English

There has been a huge response to the recent Eye on the Past dealing with the forthcoming class re-union for those with whom I spent many happy school days up to 1960. Sadly at least two former classmates mentioned in that article have passed away, while the whereabouts of a few more have yet to be traced. I am looking forward to hearing from anyone who can help to track down those former pupils of the Christian Brothers School in St. John’s Lane, no matter how far they have moved away from the banks of the River Barrow.

Mention of St. John’s Lane recalls for me the many many times I passed up and down that same lane for upwards of 12 years while attending the Primary School and afterwards the Secondary School in the 1950’s and the ‘60’s. It’s many years since I walked up or down what remains of St. John’s Lane since the car park was laid out and the public space thereby created was named Edmund Rice Square. The Town Council’s decision to charge an hourly rate to use the car park which rate payers’ monies provided in the first instance prompted many, including myself, to move up St. John’s Lane to find an alternative parking space.

It’s over 40 years, since as a pedestrian, I used that same stretch of laneway, passing what was once the Christian Brother’s Monastery on the way to the gated entrance of the school yard. As a teenager, living in an era when there was respect for the institutions of Church and State I always blessed myself when passing a Church and that included the Christian Brother’s Monastery in St. John’s Lane. Would you believe that after the lapse of almost 40 years while recently walking past what was once the doorway to the Christian Brother’s Monastery, but now a private house, my right hand instinctively began to make the sign of the cross. I chuckled and ruefully acknowledged that a habit developed in youth is difficult to lay aside and marveled how it was triggered by walking past a building which was familiar to me so many years ago.

St. John’s Lane now starts and ends, depending on your direction, at the corner of where St. John’s Cemetery joins Edmund Rice Square. At one time the lane turned at that point and bounded by buildings on both sides headed in a straight line to meet Duke Street at a point directly opposite Herterich’s Pork Butchers. As one walked down the lane on leaving the Christian Brothers School, Carbery’s Carpentry and Joinery Works was immediately on the right, with St. John’s Cemetery on the left. At the turn, Carbery’s private house was on the left, with an entrance to their building yard directly in front as one faced the River Barrow. Turning right and heading towards Duke Street the first building on the left belonged to the Defence Forces and housed the local L.D.F. Centre. Immediately adjoining that was Vernal’s forge and beyond the forge the side of Mrs. Haslam’s house which faced out onto the small square fronting Duke Street. [Has anyone ever seen a photograph of that same square? I have searched for years for a reproduction of a scene which was once so familiar to thousands of young school goers, but as yet without any success]. On the right hand side of St. John’s Lane as you turned the corner and headed towards Duke Street was a high wall shielding a yard at the rear of Shaws and beyond it one small house occupied by the English family immediately before Shaws shop, which if I’m correct, extended to just two shop windows on that side of the lane.

Mrs. Peg English lived in that small house with her children, Frank, Ann and Tommy. The latter was named after his father who was known to everybody in Athy as Tommy “Buggy” rather than Tommy English as he was born. Tommy “Buggy” was reared by the Buggy family and the name stuck, particularly during Tommy’s time as a fine Gaelic footballer with the local club in the early 1940’s. He was a member of the Athy senior team which won the Kildare County Senior Championships in 1942. Like many others from Athy he emigrated to England in the late 1940’s to work on the building construction sites. His wife Peg and his young family continued to live in St. John’s Lane and theirs was the only house on that part of St. John’s Lane during the 1950’s.

The history of emigration from the town of Athy in the 1940’s is the story of men like Paddy “Gussler” Croake of St. John’s Lane, John “Parnell” Rochford, Johnny Day, Denis “Bunny” Chanders, his brother William “Skinner” Chanders and many others who found work overseas where none was to be had in their hometown. Some returned to Athy in later years, but many others like Peter Twomey of Barrack Yard who died in Luton in his 90th year spent the remainder of their lives amongst the sometimes inhospitable atmosphere of English towns. The Irish in those days were favoured for the hard rough building work which was shunned by men born on the English mainland, even if the boarding houses of Bradford and Leeds like many other English towns oftentimes bore evidence of the discrimination which allowed “No Irish need apply” signs to proliferate. But that’s a story for another day.

Peg English, the one time resident of St. John’s Lane died last week and her passing revived for me memories of the time when I passed her door four times a day going to and coming from school. I got to know Peg English after she moved to St. Patrick’s Avenue, because of my friendship with her eldest son Frank. She and her sister Kitty O’Mara, who died some years ago, were members of an old Athy family and in sharp contrast to the oft repeated claim that Athy is a settlers town of West Brits, Peg English was an Irish Republican and a staunch and unflinching supporter of the political party born out of the anti-Treaty side following the Civil War. She was a lady of indomitable spirit who loved a cigarette, even though she knew it was bad for a constitution already weakened by the debilitating effects of asthma. As a fellow sufferer, but a non-smoker, I often gently chided her about her smoking habit, but in truth it provided a comfort and a form of relaxation which her age and spirit entitled her to have. I was reminded of my own father, a non-smoker throughout his working life, who on retiring liked nothing more than to drag on a cigarette with an awkwardness which clearly demonstrated previous decades of abstinence.

The funeral Mass for Peg English was celebrated by a family friend, Fr. John Paul Sheridan who nine years ago left the Athy parish after a curacy of three years to return to the Ferns dioceses. With Peggy English’s death passed the last link with that part of St. John’s Lane which was so familiar to me during the 1950’s. Carbery’s, Vernal’s and the Christian Brothers Monastery and School have long departed and the small house which was home to the English family now forms part of Shaw’s Department Store. Edmund Rice Square today has no visible evidence of that period in our lives and memories alone hold the fading reflections of youthful school trips down St. John’s Lane.

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