A good friend of the column recently sent me newspaper articles culled from various sources over the years. Taken from different unidentified newspapers, the articles are all undated but have one thing in common - they relate to Athy or persons from the town. One particular piece caught my attention. It was written by a native of Athy called Frank Doran under the headline “Athy as I remember it 50 years ago”. There is nothing in the piece to help me date the article but I am of the view that it appeared in the early 1960’s. I don’t know who Frank Doran was but at the time of his writing the article, he lived in West Cork. Was he related to the Doran’s who first came to Athy from Hacketstown in the 1880’s? I don’t know, but maybe I’ll be able to clarify his connection, if any, after some further research.
Frank Doran recalled the Athy of his youth when there was no concrete or macadam roads, “I remember the horse drawn water sprinkler making its rounds in summer weather through the streets laying the dust”. He also remember John Eston, the town lamp lighter, “moving from lamp to lamp extinguishing the street lamps and Johnny’s fine attempt to beat the challenge of a noted weight lifter in a visiting circus”.
It was in Athy that Frank Doran saw his first all Ireland Football final, “smothered” as he described himself “in the crowd lining the railings six deep.” The final in question was in 1906 football decider between Fermoy of Cork and Kickhams of Dublin which was refereed by John Fitzgerald of this County. The match took place in what is now known as Geraldine Park but on All Ireland Final day, 20th October 1907 was still known locally as the “Agricultural Society field”.
Frank Doran’s story continued, “I remember mission time in Athy and the stands outside the Church gate displaying pious objects for sale. We gazed in fright and fascination but came back again and again to look at a picture depicting a horned cloven hoofed devil waiting at the foot of a dying unrepentent sinner’s bed to snatch the soul to eternity. It was in the shop of Nicholas Keating of Woodstock Street I bought my first cigarettes, a haport of Woodbines, two for a half penny and a penny for a packet of five. I remember the building of Athy Post Office. Amongst those engaged was an Englishman, a fishing enthusiast who commissioned me to catch a supply of roach which he required as a bait in an attempt to catch a monster pike frequenting the Cardenton to Milltown stretch of the Canal”.
The Post Office was built in 1909 at a time when the brick yards of Athy were still working even though they were somewhat in decline. The building contractor engaged to build the Post Office used Tullamore brick in the initial stages but following representations from Athy Urban District Council, the Postal Authorities confirmed that only Athy brick would be used thereafter.
Frank Doran remembered the Christian Brother’s School and Brother Carey’s enthralling tales of the Irish Chieftains, Brian Boru, Owen Roe, Red Hugh etc. “We almost ducked beneath the desk to dodge the imaginary sword he swung. What sport we had under the giant chestnut trees of the school playground with the water cistern nearby with the metal drinking cup on a chain to slake our thirst. I remember at lunch time making for Dooley’s grocery in Duke Street where delicious penny rolls could be got. Kind hearted Mrs. Dooley used to cut them in two for us and yes indeed covered them thickly with butter. In Paddy Donoghues’ small apple shop at the corner of St. John’s Lane, we bought apples at eight or ten a penny”.
The Dooley’s Bakery mentioned was operated by Patrick Dooley who died in May 1937. He was a brother of Michael Dooley of Duke Street after whom Dooley’s Terrace was named in 1934.
“Passing home from school, we never tired of looking at the stuffed otter in the window of Pat Whelan Victualler and the display of athletic trophies won by his nephew Dan Harkins. Whelan’s monster newfoundland dogs lazing on the pavement were part of the town and of interest in William Street was the horse worked pulley raising corn sacks’ to the lofty heights of the Canal Bridge Maltings”.
There is amongst Doran’s reminiscences an interesting reference to the local volunteers. “I remember drilling with Redmond’s Volunteers near Roche’s Lock and discomfiture when our squad was captured by a one led by George Robinson who stole up on us through the graveyard. World War I started a little later and with it came the sad parting scenes at Athy railway station as the army reservists left. “Goodbye Michael” said one fine lad to a friend, “I’ll bring you back a tiger skin”. “Bring back your own skin “replied Michael”. His friend never returned.”
Was the George Robinson referred to in Dorans narrative the famous handballer who enlisted to fight in World War I and who returned to Athy with a badly injured hand?
Frank Doran’s reminiscences recreated for his readers of forty years ago images of Athy which even then were but faint memories. “I recall the drip of rain from the giant beeches at Cardington and their leafy shade, squelch of cattle in the soggy mud at watering time; the smell of new mown hay and sweet scent of wild roses in the green hedge rows of old Kildare; ripples on the Canal and its obedient flow to the locks demand, the rhythmic thump, thump from the Mill at Ardreigh and across the water the long hoot of the horn at Telford’s brick works; brush of parting sedge by Barrow side at Milltown as one pressed through to the Mill stream and the weird cry of a night fowl in the darkness over lonely Tubberara”.
The pen pictures conjured up by Frank Doran’s description of life in Athy almost 100 years ago are a wonderful reminder of a period which in a few short weeks will be relived with the celebrations for the centenary of the Gordon Bennett Race. The famous road race of 1903 will be the centre of attention over the June Bank Holiday weekend when the Gordon Bennett Circuit is inaugurated as a tourist trail taking in parts of Laois, Carlow and South Kildare.
A man who like Frank Doran was familiar with Athy of almost 100 years ago was Liam Price, a noted amateur historian and archaeologist. He sat in this area as a District Justice and spent his leisure hours researching the placenames, antiquities and topography of counties Wicklow and Kildare. His notebooks were presented to the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland and these have been published in book form in the last few weeks under the joint editorship of Christiaan Corlett. Athy Museum Society in association with An Taisce has arranged for Christiaan Corlett to give a lecture in the Town Hall on Tuesday, 8th April at 8.00 p.m. on the Liam Price Notebooks. It promises to be an interesting talk which will be of particular interest to anyone living in this area.