Thursday, May 31, 2007

To the four corners of the world

Last week I wrote about the flu epidemic of 1918 and by the strangest of coincidences I had the privilege of meeting this week John O’Mara who emigrated from Athy in 1942. The coincidence was not in meeting John but in talking to me how he casually mentioned that one of his uncles, Pat O’Mara, had died during the flu epidemic which claimed so many victims throughout Europe and America in the aftermath of the Great War. Pat Mara, as the cemetery records noted, died on 25 November 1918 aged 31 years. He had been employed as a drayman and lived with his family at Blackparks. One of his daughters, Peg, would later marry Tommy English, whose mother Mary had also succumbed to the dreaded influenza and passed away on 7 November 1918. Mary was just 36 years of age when she died, survived by her husband who had served during the First World War and who would later die in a road traffic accident on the Dublin Road. Another daughter, Rose, was to marry the legendary County Kildare footballer Cuddy Chanders and so united by marriage the Chanders and English families of today.

John O’Mara, who now leaves in Clearwater, Florida, shares a birthday with Billy Browne and myself, but his occurred just one year after the end of the Civil War. The eldest son of John O’Mara, who was known locally as “Jack”, and the former Ellen Maher, the O’Mara family lived at 12 Woodstock Street. It was from there that John and his brothers Edward, Patrick and Michael attended the Christian Brothers School and later still the local Technical School. He recalled his classmates as Kevin Maher, with whom he shared a school desk, Joe Moore, “the best writer in the class”, Billy Murphy, Michael Rainsford and Larry Johnson, the last two from Rathstewart. Teachers recalled after nearly 70 years include Brothers O’Donovan and Scully, together with Paddy Spillane from the Christian Brothers School and from the Technical School, Thomas Walsh. On leaving school, John worked in Jacksons of Leinster Street as an apprentice fitter/welder, serving his time to Paddy Fanning of St Joseph’s Terrace.

Emigration beckoned and at the height of World War II John took the emigrant boat for England, where for four years from 1942 he worked near Burton-on-Trent for the British War Department. In 1946, he started work as a welder with McAlpines and within two years married Gladys Willdig of Burton-on-Trent. Over the years, members of the O’Mara family left at different times their Woodstock Street home for places as far apart as England, Australia, America and Canada. Edward died in Australia about five years ago, his brother Patrick passed away 17 years ago in England, while their sister Maureen died in a road traffic accident in Florida in 1950. The only O’Mara family member to rest in the soil of his native place is Michael, who died in infancy.

John emigrated to Australia in 1952, where he was employed as a technical officer on what was the world’s largest hydro scheme operated by the Snowy Mountain Hydro Electric Authority. The remoteness of the Australian landscape was not to John’s liking and so in 1958 he emigrated to Canada. There he was employed on the building of the Toronto International Airport overseeing the fabrication and installation of the steel works before making what was to be his last cross-border move when he went to America in 1964. He spent the next 20 years with Hobart Bros Company, retiring in 1985 on reaching his 61st year. Both John and his wife Gladys retired to Florida, where they still live. Their son, John Thomas, is a Social Services Chief Executive Officer in Toronto, while their only daughter Maureen now recently retired is a Lieutenant Colonel in the Reserve Forces. John, who is still actively involved in church affairs in his Florida parish, attended St Leo’s University following his retirement, taking a Bachelor’s Degree in religious studies, majoring in history.

The emigration trail was not one confined to the young members of the O’Mara family as John’s parents, John and Ellen, followed their eldest son to Australia in 1952. His father died in Australia and is buried in North Sydney, while his mother Ellen died in Canada in 1983, where she went to live with her son John 15 years earlier. Ellen O’Mara is buried in Toronto.

John, who left Athy 65 years ago, when talking to me recalled vividly the events of his young days in Athy and had no difficulty in remembering the names of those he knew all those years ago. He served Mass in St Michael’s Parish Church and remembered Frank O’Brien as one of the “older Mass servers at the time”. Fr Maurice Browne, he recalls as a young curate long before he became the author of The Big Sycamore and In Monavella, two very pleasant memoirs which were very well received by Irish book read-ers in the 1960s.

John’s life-long association with the Catholic Church continues to this day and one of his proudest memories is of meeting a future Cardinal of the Church when Fr Michael Browne visited his brother, the local curate, Fr Maurice Browne in Athy. The young boy from Woodstock Street was delegated to serve the Dominican Priests Mass at one of the side altars and afterwards, when curiosity got the better of him he enquired as to what job the Dominican priest had in Rome. “I am the Pope’s theologian”, replied the clergyman, who would in later years become the head of the Dominican Order and a Cardinal of the Catholic Church.

The most extraordinary story told to me by John concerned the tragic death which befell David Bolger of Blackparks. Some years ago I extracted from a newspaper report details of how the unfortunate man met his death while attending a funeral which was making its way to St Michael’s Cemetery. My imperfect filing system does not allow me to immediately access the information I culled from that newspaper, but the details I recall recounted how he jumped over the cemetery wall just the far side of the Railway Bridge. Unfortunately, the wall hid a big drop to the ground on the far side where the entrance to a tunnel under the road had caused the embankment to be removed. The report in the newspaper gave no further background information, but this week John O’Mara filled in the missing details for me. John was a witness to David Bolger’s death that day, as with his friend Larry Johnson the two youngsters waited in St Michael’s Cemetery for the funeral to arrive. The funeral was that of Jack Bolger, the brother of the man who, probably wishing to get to the graveside ahead of the cortege to arrange something or other, cleared the wall and fell to his death.

Standing close by to where David Bolger fell to his death were the two youngsters Larry Johnson and John O’Mara. John recalled for me with clarity the events of that day over 70 years ago. The sadness of that occasion can only be imagined as one brother was buried, while another coffin was hurriedly procured to bring the remains of his brother back to the Bolger house to be waked.

The family of Jack and Ellen O’Mara, formerly of 12 Woodstock Street, are spread throughout the world. The story of this family reflects in so many ways the story of many other Athy families whose members were once familiar figures on the streets of Athy. Now they are to be found on continents as far away as America and Australia. John O’Mara lies buried in Sydney, his wife Ellen occupies a grave in Canada, while the graves of some of their children are to be found in Florida, England and Athy.

Meeting John O’Mara Junior at 83 years, now very much the senior member of the O’Mara family, I was enthralled to hear of the travels and successes which marked the family’s progress when first John and then the remaining members of the O’Mara family left Athy.

Truly it must be said that there are few corners of the world where enquiries would not throw up an Athy man or woman. The joy is in meeting the emigrants on their brief visits back to their hometown and it is my pleasure to talk this week to Athy man, John O’Mara, now an American citizen living in Florida.

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