Thursday, June 5, 2008

Passing of two who made Athy their home

Bessie Casey and Denis O’Donovan died during the week. Like so many others now living in Athy neither of them were natives of the town on the River Barrow. Bessie was from Spiddal in County Galway and arrived here to work in St. Vincent’s Hospital in 1953. Denis was from County Limerick and came to Athy to work as an electrical engineer in the Asbestos Factory in 1959. Their lives thereafter were inextricably linked with the South Kildare town, which over the centuries has hosted as diverse a community as French speaking Anglo Normans, Scottish settlers and more often than not the descendants of Anglo Saxons, extending an empire into what was once the Marches of Kildare.

In 1955 Bessie married Kerryman Paddy Casey who was manager of the Bord na Mona works in Kilberry. He was a brother of Molly McMahon whose husband was the legendary Johnny McMahon, a well known and respected member of the Garda Siochana who retired in the mid-1960’s. Johnny, like all his peers, was of the old school of policing, an authoritative figure who never seemed to be out of uniform. Traffic duty at Carolan’s Corner, as it was then called and now probably, but not so often, called Winkles Corner, was Johnny McMahon’s favourite duty. Better than any synchronised traffic light, he kept the traffic moving with rapid sweeps of his hands, never once appearing to pause as he pirouetted in the centre of the crossroads, calling on, stopping and sometimes sidestepping oncoming traffic. He was, as I said, a legend in his lifetime and his wife Molly, a Kerry woman, was famous for her unflinching support for the Kerry footballers who in those days almost always seemed to contest every All Ireland Final, much as they do today.

Bessie lived in Church Road and when I returned to Athy I went to live in the quiet cul-de-sac directly opposite the Caseys. Long before that she had lost her husband, whose premature death in the week before Christmas 1971 left Bessie a young widow with six young children, the youngest of whom were three year old twins. At her funeral mass in St. Michael’s Church prior to her removal to Waterville, Co. Kerry to be buried alongside her husband, Bessie’s children, all now in adulthood, mourned the passing of a courageous and loving mother who gave so much of herself and helped them achieve the success which has marked all their careers. Bessie will be sadly missed.

Denis O’Donovan was a man of many talents, many of which I came to know when we worked together on a project for Athy Golf Club throughout 2006. A first class electrical engineer whose work first brought him to Athy nearly 50 years ago, he was actively involved over many years with Athy Golf Club and in the early years of KARE here in Athy. I was unaware of his involvement in KARE, but it was confirmed for me when I met Maurice Shortt at the removal of Denis’s remains from his house to the Parish Church. Maurice, or Sergeant Shortt as he was known when stationed in Athy in the early 1960s, was one of the founders of KARE and the continuing success of that organisation in Athy and elsewhere in the county is a lasting tribute to the voluntary work of Maurice Shortt and Denis O’Donovan and many others over the years. Denis, who was an avid golf player, was happy to combine his sporting interests with serving the administrative needs of the local golf club and so for many years he was a club committee member. The two highest offices in the local golf club, Club Captain and Club President, were held by Denis, the captaincy in 1993 and the presidency for two years from 1991. He was very proud when his son Derek took on the mantle of Club Captain seven years after he had held the same position, an unusual, if not unique honour for a father and son.

Denis’s enduring legacy to the local Golf Club was the result of five years spent by him researching local newspaper archives in the County Library in Newbridge. He undertook this task while he was Chairman of the Club Centenary Committee because the club records dating back to 1906 were inexplicably lost or destroyed. His research committee decided that the somewhat meagre accounts in the local newspapers of club happenings over the years were the only source of information on the club’s past and so each week over four years or so Denis, with the help of some others, spent many long hours going through the newspaper files, copying, writing out and sometimes photographing the newspaper accounts relating to Athy Golf Club. It has to be acknowledged that the vast majority of this work was done by Denis himself and his note taking and compiling of news extracts allowed him to build up a veritable library of material which he carefully coordinated, indexed and had ready for the writing of the club centenary history.

I was approached by Denis to write the club’s history and was mortified to find that the club’s records, including minute books, had disappeared. A similar experience confronted me some years ago when approached by the Eastern Health Board to write a history of Athy Workhouse, only to be told that all the workhouse records had been destroyed a few years previously. To write a history of any organisation or institution is a daunting task, but to attempt to do so in the absence of records is virtually impossible. The golf club story was however retrievable only because of the meticulous research carried out by Denis O’Donovan and his team in the local newspaper archives. As I said in the preface of the book, ‘the stories gleaned mostly from the pages of the Leinster Leader and the Nationalist give us a somewhat imperfect view of times past but have the merit of preserving forever the names of those club members who have contributed to the success of Athy Golf Club.’

Denis was responsible for the layout and printing of the book and his work in that regard was superb. It was an honour to be involved with him in preparing the Golf Club’s centenary history and that publication will remain a fitting monument to a generous hearted man, who during his years in Athy became more an Athy man than most of those born and reared in the town.

Ar dhéis Dé go raibh a nanamacha.

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