Human memory can play tricks with the past. I had always believed that No. 42 Leinster Street was a grocery shop and public house at the time it belonged to Andy Smith. I was wrong, for the premises which was next door to the Co-op Stores did not hold a liquor licence. It was a grocery shop with a store given over to dry feed stuffs for supply to local farmers.
Andy Smith was from Drumboe near Cootehill and came to Athy to work as a barman with Louis O’Mara’s mother in her pub in Leinster Street. He had previously served time in Belfast and in Ferbane, county Offaly in which latter village he featured on the local football team. His arrival in Athy was in the 1920’s and pre-dated his marriage in 1930 to Kathleen McKenna, daughter of Tom McKenna, a railway worker who lived at the Railway company house on the Carlow road before he moved to 28 St. Patrick’s Avenue.
After marrying Andy and Kathleen Smith lived with Tom McKenna in St. Patrick’s Avenue before renting a house in Offaly Street in 1937 from Myles Whelan. That was the same house that my parents moved to in the early 1950’s when it was vacated by Tom White and his family. The youngest member of the Smith family, Dolores, was born in 5 Offaly Street just shortly before Andy Smith purchased No. 42 Leinster Street. In 1940 the Smith family, now including six children, Peggy, Peter, Kitty, Andrew, Mary and Dolores moved to Leinster Street which was to be the Smith home for the next 28 years.
Last week I had the great pleasure of talking to Peggy Smith who was in Athy for a short holiday from her home in New Jersey. Peggy emigrated to America in 1954 but she still recalls with fondness the town where she spent her youth as a student in the local convent school. Her memories are of the wealth of characters of the time and of the carefree days when as a young girl she was involved in the local Gaelic League. Kevin Meany of St. Patrick’s Avenue and Tom McDonnell of the Technical School were two of the local organisers of the League which met each Monday night in the ballroom of the Town Hall. The Tennis Club on the Carlow Road and dances in the Town Hall and in the Social Club in St. John’s Lane were other favourite social outlets of the time.
Peggy attended St. Mary’s Convent School where her classmates included Tessie Flanagan, Finola Smyth, Noreen Tierney, Frances Fenlon, Sheila Doogue, Maureen Rigney, Betty Myles, Patsy Butterfield, Kathleen Coogan, Breda Delahunt and Irene McNamara. She later went to work for her father before transferring to McClellans grocery shop at Duke Street. McClellans was noted for its exceptionally large china department located to the rear of the shop. Jim Fennin who at that time worked in Myles Whelan’s grocery shop later bought McClellans and Peggy continued to work there with Kathleen Curtis. When Kathleen married John Cusack her position was taken by Helen Walsh. The McClellans shop, later Jim Fennin’s, is now Perry’s Supermarket.
Peggy left for America on 1st October 1954 and still recalls with some misgivings the American wake held in 42 Leinster Street the night before her departure. The happiness and joy of seeing so many friends and relations was tinged with an overwhelming sense of sadness as the night progressed and the time for leaving home for the last time drew near. Strange to relate that of a family of four girls and two boys, the girls, of which Peggy was the eldest, each in turn emigrated to America. The boys, Peter and Andrew, stayed in Athy. Peggy returned to Ireland towards the end of 1955 with the intention of travelling back to the States with her younger sister Kitty. However, Kitty’s visa was delayed and so Peggy worked for a few months with Paddy Dillon in his newly opened grocery shop in what is now the J-1 restaurant at Emily Square. The two sisters left for America in May 1956 to be followed by their sisters Mary in 1958 and Dolores in 1961.
Peggy married in May 1960, Thomas J. O’Sullivan from the Bronx, whose father had emigrated from the Dingle peninsula. They had five children, Thomas, Andrew, Kathleen, Susan and Margaret. Her father Andrew Smith sold 42 Leinster Street in 1968, approximately five years after his wife, the former Kathleen McKenna passed away. He moved for the second time to No. 28 St. Patrick’s Avenue where he lived until his death in December 1970.
Looking back on her time in 42 Leinster Street, Peggy remembers the Smith home as an open house for many people, some of whom dropped in for the Rosary which was said every May and October just after the tea. Every Sunday night a card game took place at No. 42 with the likes of Jim Dooley, Johnny Mahon, Tom McKenna and “Verser” Prendergast taking part. Greatly treasured are the memories of the tea room which was in fact the dry goods store at the back of the shop. Gaelic games played an important part in the life of Andy Smith who was a long standing member of the local football club and of the Geraldine grounds committee. It was customary for county teams playing in Geraldine Park to have a meal after every match and the unofficial tea rooms in Smiths was always the venue. The dry food stuffs were removed from the storeroom, the floorboards were meticulously scrubbed down and trestle tables were brought in in preparation for the players who descended on 42 Leinster Street to partake of Mrs. Smith’s homecooking. Mrs. Alcock of Dooley’s Terrace lent her assistance, while the Smith girls served the players at the tables.
As a young girl Peggy often accompanied her grand-father Tom McKenna on his usual Sunday morning walk “down the line” as far as “Bummeries” and from there up to the Carlow road where the customary stop was made at Barrington’s public house. There Tom could, and did avail of the bone fide traveler’s rule which allowed anyone who travelled three miles from home to take a drink on Sunday afternoons.
I was intrigued to hear Peggy speak of old “Nanny” Whelan, a blind woman who lived in the vicinity of Shrewleen Lane and who each day walked unassisted to Leinster Street to get her dinner. Initially “Nanny” went to Mrs. O’Mara’s but when Andy Smith opened his grocery shop in 1940, “Nanny” shortened her daily journey and called to Smiths where she sat down in front of the fire in the shop to eat what may have been her only meal of the day. On occasions when “Nanny” was unable to make the trip down town, Peggy was dispatched to Shrewleen Lane with a covered basket containing the old ladies dinner. “Nanny” Walsh, who always dressed in black and wore a shawl lived alone in her small two roomed house which is long gone. She apparently lost her sight when she was 10 or 11 years old but little else is known of her. I would like to hear from anyone who recalls “Nanny” Whelan.
Peggy O’Sullivan, eldest daughter of Andy and Kathleen Smith returned to America last week. She brought with her refreshed memories of her youth spent in Athy during the war years and the frugal times which followed. Athy has changed in the 48 years she has been away. New houses have been built in the green fields where once she played. The drab streetscape of the 1940’s has given way to the colour strewn shop fronts of today, while the once derelict Town Hall and its near neighbour, the Courthouse once again give cause to have pride in Athy’s town centre. The only feature of provincial Irish town life which puzzles the New Jersey based native of Athy is the all pervasive steel shuttering in local shop windows.
The days of the open door and evening recitations of the rosary in the kitchen are no more. The memories however, are still as vivid as the day they were first formed all those years ago.