Thursday, January 30, 2003


I have been aware for sometime of my neglect of the great musical shows which graced the stage of the Town Hall in the mid 1940’s.  May Bachelor has been my informant in relation to this part of the musical history of Athy with which I have been unfamiliar.  Over the years I have come across photos taken on the occasion of one or other of those shows.  Whenever I did I always tried to get the names of those, sometimes now forgotten, troubadours who provided entertainment for their neighbours and community over 50 years ago. 

The first musical was I believe put on in 1945.  It was “White Bread and Apple Sauce” and was followed in succeeding years by “Easter Parade”, “Dick Whittington” and “Orchids and Onions” .  I have not seen a programme for any of these shows and indeed cannot be sure that programmes were printed, although it would be unusual if such was the case.

I intend to include as part of the Eye on the Past series over the next few weeks, photographs of the different musicals put on in the Town Hall in the 1940’s.  This is being done so that I can get your help in identifying the people involved in those shows, many of whom, have sadly gone to their external reward.

The photograph to accompany this weeks article is I believe of the cast of “Dick Whittington” in which I’m told was performed in 1947.  I’m open to correction on that date, but in any event I would welcome hearing from anyone who can help identify some or all of those happy people of 55 years ago or so. 

Over the Christmas holidays I received a number of e-mails and postal queries from abroad seeking to trace past links with Athy.  Just two of these queries I will mention this week.

A Southport based lady whose father Robert Foster emigrated from Athy is seeking to trace and make contact with surviving members of his family.  Can you help?

The other query relates to Stephen Leonard who emigrated from Athy in 1955 and who died in London in 1969.  His son is anxious to make contact with any of Stephen’s relations still living in Athy.  Contact me please if you can help in any way with these inquiries and also with the identification of those who appeared in the 1947 photograph of the cast of the musical “Dick Whittington”.

Thursday, January 23, 2003

Gordon Bennett Road Race 1903

Gordon Bennett! The name of an eccentric American millionaire, or if you like that of an international road race for motor cars. But not only that. It was also an expression of disbelief which was particularly popular during World War I with those who felt that the more common expressions were either blasphemous or vulgar. James Gordon Bennett, the man, was a colourful American born in 1841 in New York City. His father, also called James Gordon Bennett, founded the New York Herald and the wealth generated by the Bennett publishing empire enabled Gordon Bennett Junior to lead an interesting and varied life. He financed Stanley’s famous expedition into Africa in search of Livingstone, as well as a polar expedition and a transatlantic yacht race. It was however his involvement with motor racing that Gordon Bennett’s name is recalled today. Bennett donated a silver cup as a prize for a road race between cars at a time when the motor industry was still in its infancy. Originally known as the Coupe Internationale, the prized silver cup was everywhere called after its owner, “The Gordon Bennett Trophy”. The first Gordon Bennett Motor Race took place in 1900, starting in Paris and ending in Lyons and the following year the race was from Paris to Bordeaux. In 1902 the winner of the Paris to Innsbruck race was an English man, Selwyn Francis Edge, and as a result the 1903 race was required to be held in England. However, as motor racing was illegal on public roads in that country it was agreed to hold the race in Ireland. Legislation had to be passed in the House of Commons to exempt those taking part in the 1903 Gordon Bennett Race from the speed limits of the day. The speed limit on Irish roads at that time was 12mph but by March 1903 it had been raised to 14mph. The Light Locomotive (Ireland) Act, 1903 passed in March 1903 and which was to remain in force until 31st December of that year provided that “the Council of any administrative county may on the application of any private persons or club by order declare that any public roads within the county may be used for races with light locomotives during the whole or part of any days specified in the order not exceeding three days in the year”. Kildare, Leix and Carlow County Councils received applications from the Irish Automobile Club to stage the 1903 Gordon Bennett Race on a circuit of public roads in those counties. The circuit commenced in county Kildare and extended into Leix and Carlow in a figure of eight, centered on the town of Athy, taking in Kilcullen, Castledermot, Carlow and Athy on one circuit, with Kilcullen, Kildare, Monasterevin, Stradbally, Ballylinan and Athy forming the second circuit. The race which was to start and finish at Ballyshannon consisted of three circuits of the figure of eight, with an additional circuit of the Kilcullen / Monasterevin / Athy circuit. The total distance to be covered was measured at 307.75 miles. The race which was run off on 2nd July 1903 included twelve international competitors representing England, America, France and Germany. The English drivers who drove Napier cars painted green for the occasion stayed with Harry Large at Castle Rheban just outside of Athy. His son Willie Large writing 70 years later claimed that his father had come into contact with Selwyn Edge while he, Harry, had been cycle racing in England for Dunlops. Edge and his fellow driver, J.W. Stocks, were originally cyclists of note before they got involved in motor racing. Charles Jarrott was the third English driver and staying with them in Castle Rheban in the weeks leading up to the race were the car manufacturer Mr. Napier and his mechanic Cecil Bianchi. Willie Large who died some years ago once told me that the legendary Percy French visited Castle Rheban during the week of the Gordon Bennett Race and entertained the English visitors with a number of his famous songs accompanied on the piano by Mrs. Large. The American drivers, Alexander Winton and Percy Owen stayed in the Timolin Rectory in Ballitore while their colleague Louis Moens stayed with the Cole family in Moone. The American cars were a Peerless and two Wintons which were painted red for the race, the Wintons having been designed by Alexander Winton. The German team of Baron de Caters, Foxhall Keene and Camille Jenatzy, all of whom drove white coloured Mercedes cars booked into the Leinster Arms Hotel. Their cars were garaged in the hotel yard directly opposite the hotel itself in Leinster Street. Ferdnand Gabiel of the French team stayed in Loughbrown Lodge on the Curragh, while his colleagues Rene de Kynff and Henry Farman stayed in Bardons Hotel, Kilcullen. Their cars were two Panhards and a Mors which were coloured blue. On 2nd July 1903 the competing drivers gathered at Ballyshannon with the first driver off at 7.00am. That was Selwyn Edge, the previous years winner, driving a Napier, accompanied by his cousin who travelled as his mechanic. The starter was Major F. Lynsey Lloyd and he let the remaining eleven drivers off at intervals of seven minutes. The last man away was the American driver Alexander Winton whose car developed carburetor trouble at the start. When Major Lloyd gave him the order to go he had to push his car over the starting line and then spent the following 40 minutes in carrying out repairs before he could drive away. He did not finish the course, a fate which also was to befall his two American colleagues, as well as two of the German drivers and two of the English competitors. Only five of the twelve competitors finished the race. The race was won by Jenatzy driving a Mercedes for Germany at an average speed of 49.25mph. Jenatzy described as a small man with red hair earned for himself the nick name “The Red Devil”. A recently published book called “Triumph of the Red Devil” by Brenda Lynch tells the story of the Gordon Bennett Race of 1903. Its a magnificent read and hopefully will be the subject of a book launch in Athy during the new year. This year we celebrate the centenary of the Gordon Bennett Race and Lynch’s book is an excellent record of what was Ireland’s biggest ever sporting event up to then. I understand that various events will be held during the year to celebrate the Gordon Bennett Centenary. Indeed it has been the subject of commemoration rallies for many years and in 1967 a plaque was unveiled at the Moate of Ardscull at the end of the Veteran and Vintage Car Rally of that year. I can recall the 1953 commemoration which was organised by the Leinster Motor Company. The local papers of the day reported that “over 3,000 people gathered at Emily Square on Saturday, to see the 39 “old crocks” that halted in the town for a lunch interval during the 80 miles run over part of the old circuit to mark the golden jubilee of the Gordon Bennett Race of 1903. Present in the crowd were several persons who witnessed the famous race won by Jenatzy fifty years ago. The period costumes worn by drivers and passengers were a source of wonder to the younger generation present. Parked under a row of beautiful trees by the banks of the Barrow the veteran cars and their occupants made a delightful picture. Among the cars which attracted greatest interest was the 1903 Benz owned and driven by Mr. Charlie Taylor, Forest, Athy. The marshalling carried out by the men from the district were excellent. Athy Fire Brigade under Mr. John Creed, County Fire Brigade Officer and Mr. Robert Webster, Athy rendered very valuable assistance in erecting a barrier along the square and in controlling the crowd. Other helpers included Athy FCA Members, Athy Knights of Malta under Mr. Eamon McAuley and representatives and employees of the motor trade in the town.” As to the origin of the expletive “Gordon Bennett” with which I opened this piece it is believed to have originated around the time of the 1903 race. Some locals saw the Gordon Bennett Race as an opportunity to make a lot of money in the shortest time possible and apparently had no compunction whatsoever in asking extraordinary prices for services required by those attending the races. “Gordon Bennett” came to be a favoured expression of disbelief, recalling the days of 1903 when an American mans name became forever associated with an Irish motor car race.

Thursday, January 9, 2003

Athy Ballads and Balladeers (Part Two)

Continuing in the ballad theme this week I reproduce two ballads, one of which is well known, even if it is not often heard to as good effect as one might hope when it is sung. The ballad “Tuberara” which opens with the lines :- “How oft have I stood on the Bridge of Athy And gazed on those waters that flow gently by” is an emigrant’s lament for his home town of Athy. Significantly the recurring reference throughout the ballad is to Tuberara Well, an indication perhaps of the importance of this ancient holy well in the lives of the people of south Kildare. Tuberara Pattern Day was celebrated each year on 24th June, the feast of St. John the Baptist. We are told that people came from far and near on that day to the holy well at Tuberara to drink the water, to pray and to dance. Quite obviously dancing in time became more important than the praying as the local Parish Priest found it necessary to put an end to the Tuberara Pattern day. This happened just before the Great Famine and the Pattern day was only recently revived and is now again part of the folk calendar of this area. In any event the emigrant who penned the lines of the ballad “Tuberara” gave pride of place to the holy well in his remembrances of Athy. Here is the ballad which Athy people of many generations have long regarded as the anthem of our town. “How oft have I stood on the Bridge of Athy and gazed on those waters, that flow gently by Oh! how sweetly, how neatly, how gently they go And it’s into the Barrow Tuberara’s well flows How oft have I drank out of Tuberara’s well They say in its water there is a great spell Where the sick and afflicted can cure all their woe And it’s into the Barrow Tuberara’s well flows How oft have I swam in the Barrow sweet tide And walked with my thoughts down by Lord’s island side And gazed at the waters so easy and slow And it’s into the Barrow Tuberara’s well flows So here’s to my home and my exquisite joy Once again will I stand on the Bridge of Athy and gaze at those waters so gentle below And it’s into the Barrow Tuberara’s well flows For my heart’s in old Ireland across the blue wave My heart’s in old Ireland the home of the brave ‘tis the home of the brave where the wild shamrock’s grow And it’s into the Barrow Tuberara’s well flows.” The second ballad is one which I have never heard being sung but the words of which I got from an old resident of the town many years ago. I believe it was composed by the late Paddy Behan of St. Joseph’s Terrace whose sons Peter, Michael, Paddy and John all attended the Christian Brothers School in Athy. Co-incidentally I got a letter during the past week from Paddy Behan who is now Professor of clinical neurology at the University of Glasgow. The ballad composed by Professor Paddy Behan’s father was called “The Crickeen”, the name used by the older generation of Athy people when referring to the remains of the 14th century stone church in St. Michael’s Cemetery. Here then is the late Paddy Behan’s ballad, Dear St. Michael’s what a lot you’ve seen of sorrow and of strive Tis many a sad tale you could tell If you could speak of life Within your walls the Mass was said For the people of the town While a peasant with a gun in hand Watched for the yeomens of the crown. He heard the horses coming And he dashed up to the door And warned the congregation Who fled onto the moors It was Cromwell and his henchmen The coward and evil swine That burned your roof St. Michael’s And smashed your altar shrine. And many a soul has gazed on you At the rising of the sun And many a soul was judged by God Before the suns task was done.” As this is the last Eye on the Past for 2002 I will take the opportunity of thanking all of those good and kind people who contacted me over the past year to share their experiences, their stories and their reminiscences of times past. I am always delighted to get your letters and phone calls. A special word of thanks to Thomas Hendy, now living in Kilmeague who originally came from Spring Lodge on the Carlow Road. Thomas has been a reader of this column since it started eleven years ago and he has written to me on several occasions, most recently last week with lots of information which I hope to utilise in the near future. Several people contacted me following last week’s question as to where you would find “the asses gallop”. Well its the short stretch below the dividing wall leading to the railway bridge which during the fairs of long ago was used for the purpose of “galloping” asses. I must say, I never saw an ass gallop, except perhaps the Spanish ass which regularly won the races run off in the field next to the Technical School in the 1950’s. Do you remember that? Happy Christmas to everyone.

Thursday, January 2, 2003

Athy Ballads and Balladeers (Part One)

Nowadays we expect to be entertained rather than entertain ourselves. In that regard, we are so different from our parents in whose time entertainment was of the home made kind but no less enjoyable for all that. Now we can turn to the television or the radio at any time of the day or night and if dissatisfied with what we find there, put on a compact disc or a video tape. Wherever we look or listen while being entertained, invariably we take in the words and music of other people. Seldom if ever do we take the opportunity to create our own amusement unlike the folk of years gone by. I was minded of this when I came across a file of papers I had been collecting for some years under the heading “Athy Ballads”. Leafing through its contents made me realise what an important role the local balladeer of bygone days played in the local community. He recorded the key events of the time as well as honouring or sometimes lampooning local characters. The ballads of the days were seldom if ever recorded in print and those which have survived are but a fraction of the many hundreds which were once sung or recited in the hostelries and homes of Athy. One of the Athy balladeers of the 1930’s and 1940’s was Barney Davis of St. Joseph’s Terrace. His image is captured in some of the photographs of the musical shows which were held in the Town Hall before World War Two. Barney’s best known ballad which perhaps is more correctly described as a recitation piece was called “Doctor Don Roderick de Vere”. It ran to fourteen verses of which the opening lines were “He searched up and down, For a house in the town This darkie secured one quite near So resolved to win fame That he hung up the name Of Doctor Don Roderick de Vere”. With the arrival of the fourth verse, we knew how and why he was called Doctor de Vere. “For the weed he searched round And began to compound Medicines to him were so dear Consultations were free When you called in to see This Doctor Don Roderick de Vere. On some shelves he had laid Many bottles he made The cure for all your ailments was here Rodine, Brilliantine, Iodine, Quinnine Had Doctor Don Roderick de Vere. Some people who went for to try his treatment Spread the news out to folk far and near That they knew he could tell If you’d die or get well This Doctor Don Roderick de Vere. All stood still and gazed Every one was amazed They called him a prophet or seer On the lips of the rich And the tramp in the ditch Was Doctor Don Roderick de Vere”. Doctor Don Roderick de Vere came to an unfortunate end but he is still recalled by the older generation of Athy people as the man who had the cures for many ailments. “He has made the dumb talk And the cripples to walk He will cure the nose, throat or the ear He has taken his place With great men of our race This Doctor Don Roderick de Vere. De Vere died in tragic circumstances not long after his release from prison where he had been detained following a conviction for procuring an illegal abortion. Barney Davis also wrote another, perhaps less well known ballad which he called “The Girls who pick the Peas”. “You’ve heard about the factory, You’ve heard about the peas If you want to know the ins and outs I’ll put your mind at ease About the girls who work there I’ll have you all to know For I hear them and I see them As they daily come and go. The hours for starting work Is timed from nine to ten Some are no sooner on the job When their coming out again Its a bally good job I’m big and strong And fed on “Erinox”. For some faces that I see Would drive a badger from its box, The faces that they re-create Is enough to make me faint For some are out to advertise For “Robiallac” paint The finest bunch of glamour girls That I have ever seen Its a pity there’s no hanging For the wearing of the green. To see those “Garbos” passing by You’d be thinking just like me To a fancy dress ball they’re going And not to a factory You’ll meet the Queen of Sheba With the Princess Ballyroe The Duchess of Ballylinan And the Countess Timahoe. I have heard the thunders roaring And the clouds burst in the skies The L.D.F. in training They’re not bad at making noise I’ve heard a haggard of sparrows And a swarm of bumble bees But theres none can hold a candle To the girls who pick the peas. It was in sympathy with the women That made Bell invent the phone They were Edison’s inspiration When he made the gramophone A talking machine that science failed To give a constant run For women hold the secret of Perpetual motion of their tongue”. I’d wager that particular ballad did not get too many airings around Athy. I’ll have more local ballads next week. In the meantime, if you can add to the collection, let me know. Happy Christmas to everyone.