Nothing marks the difference between life in the 1950’s and life today more than the motor car outside our front door. I lived my young life in a street where our front door opened onto the footpath and the tarred expanse which was Offaly Street. As part of the main traffic route between Carlow and Athy and the only way into the town from the rural area stretching outwards beyond Coneyboro and Ardreigh, Offaly Street might be expected to have been a bustling and teeming maelstrom of traffic. It wasn’t. Instead it was a playground for the many youngsters who in the 1950’s lived in Offaly Street and the lanes which led off it, Butler’s Lane and Janeville Lane. It was in the quiet, calm, traffic free Offaly Street that the Moores, Kellys, Whites, Websters, Doodys, Cashs and Taaffes played their simple games before graduating later to more adventurous activities played out elsewhere where they could be best enjoyed away from the gaze of adults and elders. I can picture in my mind’s eye a street, which photographs of the time now show, had a genteel yet shabby appearance. Shabby in the sense that houses in the street, like houses elsewhere at that time, seldom felt the warming glow of a new coat of paint. The street always seemed to be bathed in a scorching heat wave, for truth, the rainy days have been blotted from my memory. It was a street deserted of motor cars. Nobody in the street had a car, that is apart from Paddy Murphy who had a hackney car but he emigrated to England to work some time in the early 1950’s. Looking down towards the Town Hall one often saw a black Austin car parked outside the offices of Tadgh Brennan who had set up his Solicitors office in his aunt’s house. Was the number of that car 1011 IC? I can’t be sure, but as youngsters we saw the car parked so often in splendid isolation at the side of the road that it is forever engraved in the mind as the one constant visible evidence of Henry Ford’s contribution to the Irish way of life.
Motor cars for all their rarity occupy a large part of the memory bank of my youth. My first car related memory centres around Archdeacon McGinley’s car travelling slowly down Offaly Street a few days after Christmas. I was standing with some friends on the footpath outside John W. Kehoe’s Bar and Grocery shop with my Christmas present at the ready to ambush the passing car and demonstrate to my envious friends the deadly efficiency of the spring-loaded gun designed to shoot suction padded arrows at the enemy. What better target than McGinley’s car as it made its slow progress down our street. As it drew abreast I fired and scored a direct hit on the side of the Reverend’s car. To my horror the suction pad did its job - it stuck fast to the side of the car which by now was beginning to disappear around Moore’s corner into Emily Square. I was in despair and shed tears of one who instinctively knew that he had lost forever a prize possession.
My next motor car memory comes from 1950 and concerns the vicarious excitement felt when local hackney man Peter Fitzsimons travelled with four companions to Rome in his Ford motor car. The occasion was the Holy Year, hence my being able to pinpoint the year in question. This was a journey which was unprecedented in the annals of our locality and for youngsters who could not recall any motoring experiences of their own, it generated the type of excitement and imaginative outpourings which a trip to the unchartered regions of South America might have justified. Peter and his companions Joe MacTiernan of Kilcullen, Mick Mulhall of Tullow, a Mr. Byrne from Ballymore Eustace and an unnamed man from Cork travelled through England, France and across the Alps down through Italy before reaching the Eternal City to pay their respects to Pope Pius XII. On his return to Athy, Peter Fitzsimons who lived just around the corner from us in Meeting Lane, resumed his normal hackney business, but this time with a difference. He was now, so far as the Offaly Street youngsters were concerned, an explorer, a man who had travelled where none had gone before. We never forgot Peter Fitzsimons and his famous overland trip to Rome in 1950.
The first time I can remember travelling in a car was a trip in Peter Fitzsimons hackney car. I had obviously travelled by road previously but cannot recall the trip when at three years of age I journeyed from the town of my birth, Castlecomer, to Athy. The next trip must have been six or seven years later and I can still recall the details all those years later. I was in Br. O’Loughran’s class in my second year in the Christian Brother’s Primary School. Someone entered the small porch which led into the classroom and knocked on the inside door. It was my father, the local Garda Sergeant, who asked Br. O’Loughran for permission to take me out of class for the day. I don’t know if he told Br. O’Loughran the reason but to my delight I found myself about to travel in a motor car to Dublin. This was a double first, a first trip in a motor car and the first time in Dublin and it was all courtesy of the State because a prisoner was to be brought to Mountjoy Jail in Peter Fitzsimons hackney car. I can still recall that first car trip which I shared with a prisoner, my father and another Garda and the man who is forever associated in my mind with motor cars, Peter Fitzsimons.
In the mid-1950’s, and after my County Mayo Grandfather, with whom we had previously spent summer holidays had passed away, my parents rented a small terraced house at Ferrybank, Arklow for two weeks each year. To travel there and back required another trip in Peter Fitzsimons hackney car and so the man with whom I shared my first car journey is indelibly associated in my memory with youthful seaside holidays in Arklow.
Peter Fitzsimons passed away last week at 84 years of age. From Longwood in County Meath Peter joined the Army during the Emergency and served from 1940 to 1945. Marrying Betty Cunningham of Meeting Lane he worked for a while with Charlie Maxwell in Duke Street before setting up his own hackney business in 1946. A baby Ford was his first motor car and in time two cars were on the road with Jackie Doyle employed as a second driver. The trip to Rome in 1950 probably marked the height of the local hackney business which went into decline, as did many other businesses during the economic depression of the 1950’s.
Peter, who was a mechanic by trade, went to work for C.I.E. at their Aughaboura Depot and after that he emigrated to England where for a short while he was a driver for British Road Services. He returned to Athy in or about 1964 and went into the coach business which he continued to operate successfully until he retired a few years ago. My youthful memories of Athy are populated by people such as Peter Fitzsimons, a lovely man whose courtesy and consideration for everyone he met was the hallmark of a true gentleman. He was small of stature but endowed with a big heart and a magnanimity which endeared him to all who knew him.
Peter Fitzsimons is survived by his widow Betty and his children, Sean, Agnes, Michael, Noel and Colette. He was predeceased by Sean’s twin Peadar who died a few years ago.