Thursday, August 2, 2007

Sr Carmel Fallon’s legacy

Last February on the occasion of her birthday I had intended to write of a gracious lady, small of stature but big of heart, who has had an extraordinary impact on the lives of many people who for one reason or another are seriously physically handicapped. However the best laid plans of mice and men and all that.

Carmel Fallon was born two months before Pearse and Connolly marched up O’Connell Street and seized the General Post office. Kilcreest, Loughrea in County Galway was her birthplace but I see that the Parliamentary Gazetteer of Ireland gives the place name as Kilchrist, a parish about three miles south west of Loughrea.

She entered the Athy Convent in August 1935. It was a great period for vocations, both for the priesthood and the many religious orders, branches of which were once to be found in almost every town in Ireland. Economically it was a difficult time for the Irish people. The economic war which resulted from De Valera’s withholding of the annuities claimed by Great Britain under the terms of the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921 would have another few years to run.

The number of young women who entered the Athy Convent of Mercy, especially from the western counties, has always intrigued me. County Galway, particularly, was for decades a ready source of postulants for the Sisters of Mercy, why I have never been able to answer. 19-year-old Carmel Fallon travelled to Athy in August 1935 to the south Kildare town which was still in the grip of an unemployment crisis following its unsuccessful bid for Ireland’s first sugar factory.

Just a few weeks before she arrived Fr Michael Browne, a Dominican friar and a future cardinal of the church, gave the annual retreat to the Athy Sisters of Mercy. His brother, Maurice, had been a curate in Athy for a few years previously but transferred to Bray around this time.

The young Galway girl was one of several girls who joined the Athy convent around the same time. Indeed their numbers were such that it was found necessary to enlarge the novitiate in the local convent. Sr Mary Carmel took her triennial vows on 16 February 1938 and three years later pronounced her final vows. With her on that latter day was another young nun who will be remembered by many of my readers, Sr Michael Hickey.

Sr Carmel attended Carysfort College in Dublin to train as a primary school teacher and on completion of her training returned to the convent primary school. She spent her teaching years in the old St Michael’s School and in later years with the junior infant boys. Apart from classroom teaching Sr Carmel was also involved in tutoring pupils in both violin playing and singing and prepared many students for school concerts.

Fundraising for the new primary school which opened on 23 October 1958 was another activity in which Sr Carmel and many of the other local nuns were involved. Sales of work, school concerts, jumble sales and concerts in the Town Hall were organised and overseen by Sr Carmel and her colleagues in a prolonged effort to accumulate the local contribution of £18,666 which the Department of Education required to be paid for the new school, which was estimated would cost £112,000 to build. Does anyone remember the show Bits and Piecesput on in the town hall in May 1957 by the Oblate Boys Club of Inchicore under its director Tim O’Leary? It was a great success and the same Tim O’Leary who was a brother of Sisters Joseph and Bernard would be involved in several other fundraising activities for the new school.

Many of the sisters, including Sr Carmel, were involved in preparing the primary school pupils for a production of their operetta The Boy Mozart, again a school fundraising venture which was put on in the town hall in May 1956. An entry in the convent annals notes with disappointment “the support by the people was not commensurate with the labour”.

Sr Carmel, with Sr Michael Hickey, was instrumental in securing a remedial class for young pupils attending St Michaels primary school who needed additional help. Initially volunteers were engaged to help out but persistent lobbying of the Department of Education eventually resulted in sanction for a remedial class in the local school. It is of interest to note that Athy Lions Club donated a prefab for the remedial class. Sr Carmel was also responsible for enlisting for the first time the services of a psychologist for St Michael’s School. Twelve years before retiring from teaching in 1980, Sr Carmel, with Sisters Dolores and Alphonsus, set up a club for young girls. She continued to work with the girls club, even while undergoing a diploma course in community care in Maynooth College. It was however for the setting up and helping to develop the Irish Wheelchair Association (IWA) in Athy and nationally that Sr Carmel is now best known.

The IWA as a national organisation was formed some 40 years ago at a time when services for people with limited mobility was practically non-existent. With the intention of better integrating people with disabilities into their local community Sr Carmel, together with Sisters Alphonsus and Dolores, encouraged the members of the girls club to visit the disabled in their own homes. Social evenings, home visits and day outings for the disabled, all promoted by Sr Carmel and her helpers, eventually led to the formation of an IWA branch in Athy in 1969. The local branch grew as socials were held in Mount St Mary’s, annual Christmas dinners were arranged and summer holidays were spent in boarding schools belonging to the Sisters of Mercy. None of this work could have been achieved without the help of the day volunteers, both male and female, who from the very start devoted their time and energies to helping Sr Carmel in her twin aims of providing much needed services for the disabled, while at the same time integrating them more fully into the local community.

The Athy IWA was eventually able to provide full day activity service for the disabled within the south Kildare catchment area when Teach Emmanuel was opened on a site in the grounds of St Vincent’s Hospital. This facility represented a part-nership between the Health Board and Athy IWA and confirmed Sr Carmel’s admirable record of achievement since arriving in Athy over 70 years ago.

In 1992 Sr Carmel was appointed President of the IWA national organisation. It now caters for a membership of over 20,000 and her appointment as national president was a timely and well-earned acknowledgement of her pioneering role in the development of services for the disabled in county Kildare. Sr Carmel retired from that position in 2002 but still retains an interest in the work of the Wheelchair Association at local level. She is often to be seen at Teach Emmanuel which is a permanent monument to the energetic and innovative work of the diminutive nun from county Galway.

In the past I have had occasion to mention the community related work of different member of the Sisters of Mercy here in Athy. Sr Carmel, Sr Consilio, Sr Dominic, Sr Joseph are but some of the Mercy Sisters who have done trojan work amongst the people of the area as part of the Mercy mission to the people of Athy.

The legacy of the Mercy Sisters will live on, long after the religious order founded by Mother Catherine McAuley has ceased to exist

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