Thursday, May 1, 2008

Memories Of Athy's Butchers

Last week I mentioned in passing Joe Daly, a native of what I suppose I should call ‘Athy of old’ to distinguish it from the new Athy where housing estates have been created out of the green fields where once my generation ‘sported and played’. Joe’s family came from Stanhope Street and as I mentioned in my piece he opened a butcher’s shop in Leinster Street before leaving Athy 47 years ago to live in Bray, Co. Wicklow. By one of those strange coincidences which tends to mark our journey through life, shortly after Joe’s death another old Athy native, Mick Smyth, also a butcher, passed away. A native of Offaly Street, Mick, who had lived in Clane for many years, was brought back to be buried in his home town, a resting place I’m told he had often expressly wished for. Mick was 84 years of age and is survived by his wife and three children and his siblings, Olive and Denis. The Smyth family lived in Offaly Street before, during and after the second World War. Thinking back on the families in that street in the 1950’s I can recall only two houses still lived in by family members of 60 years ago. Kelly’s and Breen’s, since the recent sale of Tuohy’s house at No. 22, are the only families of the older generation still with family members living in the street.

I am reminded of this when I recently received a letter from a niece of the late Paddy Garrett who lives in Cheshire in England. Paddy had the distinction of living in No. 1 Offaly Street which in the 19th century was known as ‘Preston’s Gate’, a name which can be found on some old gravestones in St. Michael’s Cemetery. He lived next door to the Smyth family and the death of his onetime neighbour Mick Smyth removes yet another link in the chain of friendship which bonded the former residents of Athy’s Offaly Street.

Another letter received this week following my reference to Joe Daly, the Leinster Street butcher, pinpointed the enormous changes in the butchering trade in Athy over the past 50 years or so. The writer listed the butcher stalls, as they were commonly called, which were once a very visible part of the commercial life of the town, but regrettably are no longer in existence.

Conlan’s (later Miss Dallon’s); Tim Hickeys, Emily Square; Andy Finn, Leinster Street (later Barney Days); Dillon’s, Leinster Street; Alfie Coyle, Leinster Street; Jim Fingleton (later Fashion Shop, now Manley’s); Joe Daly, Leinster Street (beside Ned Wynne); Ned Ward, Stanhope Street; John Farrell, Duke Street (now Rachel’s); O’Connell, Leinster Street; Purcell’s, Duke Street; Tom McStay, Duke Street; Ned Ward, Duke Street; Tim Fennin (now Maureen Ryan’s), William Street; Ernie Herterich, Duke Street; Noel Scully, Stanhope Street; Kevin O’Toole’s, Duke Street and Sylvester Murphy, William Street.

He continued:- ‘One recalls the white painted fronts – perhaps three or four on each street with their sawdust covered floors, swept clean at the end of each day and replenished with a clean covering of sawdust every morning. A particularly lovely feature of the butcher shops, almost without exception, was the signage or nameplates above the doors and windows, usually the work of a local sign writer John Bracken. The last specimen of his artistic and skilled craftsmanship was on Tim Hickey’s shop on Emily Square which had yellow and blue lettering on a concave red sign board. The door of this shop with its ornamental fretwork panels which were a source of ventilation remains untouched ..... who can forget the aroma of peppery spices in Herterich’s and the bowls of jellied brawn and trays of bleached white tripe in his window? It is still possible to spot reminders of the butchers trade around the town. Maureen Ryan’s shop in William Street retains the meat hooks from Tim Fennin’s butchering days of 60 years ago which were used to hang sides of beef.’

It’s delightful to get such shared memories from readers of this column. I should also mention another letter received after the photograph of Vincent Holland’s grave in Tasmania was included in a recent article. An elderly native of Athy who now lives in the north of the county wrote to me recalling how as a young lad he heard Holland speak at the showing of a film in which Holland’s World War exploits, which won him a Victoria Cross, were shown. The film, I believe, was one made in 1934 titled ‘The Forgotten Men’ and in it the Athy man, whose parents lived at Model Farm, spoke and finished with the words ‘We are the forgotten men’. Does anyone else remember the showing of the documentary film in the Picture House in Offaly Street 70 or so years ago?

Another person who contacted me following the Vincent Holland piece claimed, not for the first time, that the Victoria Cross should have gone to Michael Kavanagh who was Holland’s batman and not to Holland himself. I first became aware of this claim soon after I first wrote many years ago on Holland’s part in the 1914/18 war. Several of Michael Kavanagh’s old neighbours in St. Joseph’s Terrace were supporters of that claim but unfortunately no-one could give any details which might contradict the official reports of the attack at Guillemont in 1916 which resulted in the award of the V.C. to Vincent Holland. Indeed a careful examination of those named as having taken part in the attack led by Holland on the village of Guillemont does not show that Michael Kavanagh was involved at all. Coincidentally an e-mail received from France only yesterday claims that three Victoria Crosses won at Guillemont, including Hollands, are not commemorated on the Somme. The sender of the e-mail was the Vice President of the Somme Remembrance Association and he wanted information on Vincent Holland’s son Niall who died in 1944. I wonder can anyone help with this query?

During the week I was invited to attend a concert in Tinahely, held in what was once the local Courthouse. The fine building adopted for use as a community arts centre is the focal point for performances and visual arts in that area. I had been invited to hear Johnny Duhan, a Limerick man now living in Barna outside Galway whose performance attracted a sell out crowd on Saturday night. Singing his own compositions accompanied on the guitar, Duhan interweaved story and song in a fascinating and quite an interesting account of growing up in Limerick. Essentially it was his story and that of his family and the storylines, whether in song lyrics or spoken word held the audience enthralled for the entire performance. Described by Ronnie Drew as one of his favourite song writers, Duhan is unquestionably a fine song writer and if the advancing in years has dulled his vocal chords, his songs still prove attractive. I mention Duhan and Tinahely for two reasons. The lesson of the County Wicklow village’s success with its Art Centre is one which we here in Athy can take on board as we slowly but gingerly advance our own dream of an Arts Centre for the town. The other reason is to acknowledge how important it is to have the opportunity to broaden one’s tastes, whether in music or literature, by exposure to new voices and different writers. I was grateful for the opportunity to hear and appreciate Johnny Duhan who joins the long list of musicians, singers, writers and poets who over the years I have learned to appreciate after being introduced to their work by a third party. Hugh Leonard, whose writing I have enjoyed since his days on the back pages of Hibernia Magazine, announced last week that he was laying down his pen. It was Leonard who brought to my attention L.A.G. Strong, the novelist and James Agate, the theatrical critic, both writers, now long dead, whose works I greatly admire.

Thanks to all those who contacted me, especially those whose queries or information prompted this week’s article.

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