Thursday, November 22, 2007

Literary launches and a week filled with memories

An eventful few days during the past week saw me attending two book launches and meeting the family of a pioneer trade union activist on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of his death. It was also the week when I learned of the shooting dead of a young Athy man while wearing the uniform of the RIC during the War of Independence.

But firstly to the book launches which I believe to be unique, given that they were of books independently penned by a father and his young son and both of which were launched within days of each other. For John MacKenna, the launching of one of his books is by now a common enough event, but nevertheless his latest literary offering brought together a great gathering in the local Heritage Centre. Launched by Joe Taylor, the man of many voices on our national radio station, MacKenna’s continuing literary insight into the landscapes of South Kildare, and in particular Castledermot, proves yet again his mastery of the written word.

His son, Ewan, at just 23 years of age, had his first venture in the book production launched in Dublin just a few days afterwards. Ewan, who is a sports reporter with the Sunday Tribune, has written the story of Armagh footballer Oisin McConville’s addiction to gambling. The launch of a first book is always a memorable event and while Ewan MacKenna will no doubt pen many more publications, this, his first book, will always hold special memories for him. ‘The Gambler --Oisin McConville’s Story’ is published by Mainstream and is available in all good bookshops.

On Thursday 15 November I met the family of the late Christy Supple who died 40 years ago in London and whose remains were brought back to his native town for burial in St. Michael’s Cemetery. His widow, Kathleen, who is 86 years old travelled from Harrow in London with her son Tom to be at her husband’s graveside on the 40th anniversary of his death and with them was her son Joe who travelled from British Columbia in Canada.

Christy Supple was for me, and I’m sure for many locals, an overlooked figure from Athy’s past who in the 1920’s and later played a leading part in developing the trade union movement in South Kildare. I have written previously of Christy’s involvement in the Farm Workers Strike of 1919 and of his attempts to extend membership of the Transport Union in South Kildare before and after that time. It was a difficult period for everyone, the War of Independence brought with it murder and mayhem and in it’s wake followed the lawlessness which was inevitably created by those who took advantage of the situation. Christy Supple’s task in organising the farm labourers of South Kildare at an age when he was just a few years out of his teens and in the midst of civil unrest was an unenviable one. The truce between the British Authorities and the I.R.A. which came into effect on 11th July 1921 did little to ease the burden of the lowly paid Irish farm labourers and towards the end of 1922, even as the Civil War raged, they went on strike. Christy Supple was to the forefront of the dispute, which was extended in January 1923 to parts of County Waterford.

Athy Urban District Council tried to arbitrate between the union and the local farmers, but to no avail. The Minister for Industry and Commerce next took the initiative to bring the parties together but before he could do so the Ministry authorities arrested Christy Supple on 29th January 1923. His arrest came about as a result of a letter he had sent to a worker on Melrose’s farm in Grangenolvin. In that letter Supple, as Branch Secretary of the Transport Union, called upon the workman to strike and continued, ‘failing to do so we will be compelled to take drastic action against you and the employer’. The workman by name Melville apparently ignored the call to strike and was subsequently attacked by a person or persons unknown and shot in the hand. This at a time when the Civil War was at its most intense was a relatively unremarkable criminal act for which no-one was ever subsequently convicted. However, suspicion attached to the Trade Union Branch Secretary who had written to Melville and so Christy Supple was arrested and lodged in Carlow jail. While he was incarcerated the situation in South Kildare worsened and a number of farmers haggards were burned. Claim and counterclaim came from the workers and from the Farmers Union, each blaming the other for what happened. Some workmen who broke the strike had their houses attacked and a threshing machine and a straw elevator were destroyed on lands at Bennettsbridge. A number of farm labourers who were picketing in the Bennettsbridge area were arrested and held in military custody for three months. The situation in South Kildare was so bad that a troop of Free State soldiers took over the Town Hall in the centre of Athy on 9th March 1923 where they remained billeted for over eight months.

In the meantime Christy Supple continued to be detained in Carlow Jail and during the period of his imprisonment his mother took suddenly ill while travelling from Athy to Carlow to visit her son and died soon afterwards. Christy’s request for leave to attend his mother’s funeral was refused. This would rankle with him for the rest of his life and would later prompt his dying wish to be brought back to Athy to be buried alongside his mother.

Christy Supple was eventually released from prison late in 1923 and as to his sub-sequent career I have but sketchy details. He was elected to Athy Urban District Council in June 1925 at a time when he was living at the Bleach. I believe he may have been living with his married sister, Mrs. Margaret Corcoran. Like so many others from the town of Athy he emigrated to England sometime in the 1930’s where he married Kathleen Walsh of Clon-bern, Tuam in 1944. Their eldest son, Tom, was born in 1948 and three years later the Supple family returned to Athy where their second son Joe was born in 1953. They lived for a while in the Bleach with Mrs. Corcoran before renting a house at 2/6 a week opposite Plewman’s Terrace. Christy was by now working in the Asbestos factory but in 1955 the Supple family returned to England. Christy died in London on 15th November 1967, aged 69 years, and his remains were brought back to his native place to be buried alongside his mother. In addition to his immediate family he was survived by his brother Tom from Foxhill and his sisters Mrs. Corcoran and Molly Dalton. His other brother Joe had died in Dublin in 1953.

Christy Supple’s story can only be told in part as there is still much to learn of the young man, who encouraged by William O’Brien of the Dublin Transport Union set out as early as 1918 to unionise the work-ers of South Kildare. His story is one of courage and enduring hardship and meeting his family in Athy on the 40th anniversary of his death was a great privilege.

Earlier in the week as a small group of local men gathered to commemorate the men from Athy who died in World War One I learned of the killing of another Athy man. Unlike his townsmen who were killed in war by members of an opposing army, young Edward Doran was shot and killed by a fellow Irishman on 17th May 1921 as he went about his duties as a member of the R.I.C. I was told he was shot as he attempted to take down a tricolour from a pole but the official records disclose that he and his colleague John Dunne, who was also killed, were serving jurors summonses in the village of Kinnity when they were fired on. Dunne, aged 22 years, was from Kilconly in Tuam, while 24 year old Edward Doran was from Athy. Prior to joining the R.I.C. less than three years previously Doran had worked as a gardener for Minch’s of Rockfield. I understand his sister was a secretary in Minch Nortons, although my informant claims that she worked for local Solicitors Malcomson & Law. Was he I wonder a brother of Frank Doran who lived for many years in County Cork and whom I believe occasionally wrote on G.A.A. matters? If anyone has any information on the family of Edward Doran I would be delighted to hear from them.

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