Thursday, June 26, 2008

Anybody remember Athy’s An Tostal festival?

I recently came across a rather tattered copy of the souvenir brochure and programme produced for the Castledermot An Tostal Festival of 55 years ago. An Tostal was an initiative of the Tourist Board in which towns and villages throughout Ireland organised cultural events over a three week period in April 1953. I was intrigued because I have never seen a similar publication for Athy, although some years ago I had discovered a somewhat moth eaten An Tostal flag which I under-stood had been used during the festival in the town. Indeed I had never heard or read any local references to Athy’s Tostal Festival of 1953 and so I visited the local history reference room in the County Library headquarters in Newbridge to read back issues of the Nationalistnewspaper for 1953.

Reading newspapers to cull material relating to a particular topic brings its own problems. It’s a pleasant, if somewhat time consuming task, delays being inevitably caused by the many interesting, sometimes quirky references one comes across, none of which are related to the subject in hand. Such was my dilemma when in the few hours available to me I ransacked the newspaper files for the first five months of 1953 in my search for An Tostal material.

The first mention of the impending festival appeared in the Nationalist of 10 January 1953 which noted:- ‘An Tostal was ushered in at Carlow Town Hall on Saturday night last. Courier John Kehoe, cold and numb after his days 170 mile drive handed a Bord Failte greeting to Tostal Council Chairman Mr. Paddy Governey and wished Carlow the success of real achievement in its April projects.’

A week later the Nationalist reported that the Athy Tostal Committee ‘met on Friday night and again on Monday night to arrange the programme.’ The events planned for Athy during the three week festival included a massed parade, field day, drama, concert, football matches, musical review, clay pigeon shooting, industrial exhibition, Irish open air step dancing, ballroom dancing and organised tours of local industries. The Tostal Committee arranging these events was not named but a sub committee elected to decorate the town included JJ Bergin, JJ Usher, PJ Kavanagh, T McCarthy, J Dolan and J Karrigan. The same edition of the Nationalist reported that VEC chairman Fr PJ Doyle, PP Athy claimed that ‘attendances at Athy Technical School is very weak’. On a more cheerful note the award of pre Truce old IRA medals was reported, the recipients, all former members of B Coy 5th Battalion Carlow Brigade, being Patrick Bolton and Joseph Kenny of Dunbrinn and Patrick Maher of Dooley’s Terrace.

Major General Hugo MacNeill who had marched into Baltinglass at the head of Free State soldiers in August 1922, returned to the west Wicklow village in January 1953 as National Director of An Tostal. He explained that the festival was being promoted by the Tourist Board in order to extend the tourist season from 3 to 5 months and to demonstrate that ‘we are proud of our past, our culture and traditions.’

By 24 January the Athy Tostal Committee had added further events to those already planned. Acquatic sports with boat races, a pageant, horse jumping, a play by the Social Club players and a GAA game between a county selection and a London Irish selection were just some of the extra activities expected to form part of Athy’s An Tostal Festival.

Two weeks later local curate Fr. John McLoughlin MC grabbed the headlines with his call to the members of Athy’s Macra na Feirme Club when addressing their annual dinner in the Leinster Arms Hotel ‘to accept the social responsibility of encouraging farmers to marry.’ The senior curate of St Michael’s Parish who was leading the drive for funds for a new parish church for Athy was concerned that ‘here where half the population lives in rural areas, only one fifth of marriages were between persons in rural areas and practically all the bride grooms were farm labourers.’ His passionate appeal would be taken up a few weeks later by Fr P Fitzpatrick of Castledermot who claimed ‘in the past five years not a single farmer in the parish of Castledermot married ..... the only hope now for a healthier marriage rate depends on the enlightened education of young farmers clubs.’

In the first week of February another Catholic curate Fr S O’Sullivan was elected president of the newly appointed Tostal Committee in Castledermot. Secretary of the committee was Tadgh Hayden and both himself and the curate were to carry out research for what was described as a historical brochure to be produced in connection with An Tostal. Frank McDonald, Mr G Hennessy and Seamus Byrne of Ballyhade were part of the Castledermot committee and their responsibility was a collection of traditions ‘still extant amongst the locals’for inclusion in the brochure.

Portlaoise broke rather late into the Tostal spirit setting up its committee in early March, while Monasterevin decided to hold its Tostal festival from 17-25 May long after the countrywide festival had concluded. Perhaps the most intriguing local Tostal reference I came across emanated from Abbeyleix where the local committee planned to have a frog derby as the centre-piece of the towns festival. Their spokesperson in announcing the derby claimed ‘we have the fastest and longest jumping frogs in Ireland’.

In the midst of the preparations for An Tostal, Athy hosted it’s largest St. Patricks Day parade for many years. No less than three local bands took part, including St Michael’s Pipe Band and St Josephs Boys Band which had been formed only months previously by the St Josephs Welfare Club under the direction of the legendary band leader Joe O’Neill. Also parading were the local FCA, the Knights of Malta and the National Foresters. Was there, I wonder, a local branch of the Foresters in Athy at that time? Miss Conneran’s dance class joined the girls from the Convent schools and the boys from the CBS as they paraded with an unnamed band, rather strangely described in the newspaper report as ‘Fife and Drum Band from west urban area.’ Does anyone know anything about this band?

The Tostal festival in Athy commenced on Sunday 5 April when the Tostal flag was hoisted at 1.00pm in Emily Square by Fr P Crowe CC who was chairman of the local committee.

Prior to that the three local bands paraded through what was described as ‘the lavishly decorated streets of Athy.’ That afternoon Kildare played Dublin in the final of the Geraldine tournament preceded by a minor match between Kildare and Laois. The Kildare seniors won the match and Fintan Brennan presented the watches won by the players ‘to the County Board.’ That same afternoon Pioneers (Dublin) played a local team in a soccer match and in the evening a dance was held in the Social Club in St John’s Lane while the Town Hall hosted a soccer club dance.

The Golf Club held a local competition on Sunday and Monday, while on Monday afternoon there was an exhibition of Irish dancing ‘along the River Barrow’. The Social Club players put on the play, ‘The Barretts of Wimpole Street’ in the Town Hall on 9, 10 and 12 April. On the second Sunday an industrial and agricultural parade started from the Showgrounds and for the remaining two weeks of the festival the programme included 13-14 April choral and instrumental concert by parish children in the Town Hall, Tostal Ball in St John’s Hall on 14th, Play and Variety Concert in the Town Hall on 15th and 19th, Irish Dancing Exhibition on 16th with Gala on 19th, an exhibition of works in the Technical School on 23 April. An exhibition of historical and local interest was given by O’Rourke Glynns during the festival.

Apart from reporting the opening of the festival little or no coverage was given to the events in Athy over the three weeks. Mention, however, was made of the elaborate decorations in place for An Tostal in St Joseph’s Terrace provided for by the local Welfare Club.

I wonder if any programme of the 1953 Athy An Tostal Festival has survived, or indeed ever existed, or if there are any photographs of the various events which took place that April? It was undoubtedly a major cultural and social event at a time when the country was bedevilled by unemployed and economic stagnation.

I would be interested in hearing from anyone who has memories of An Tostal of 55 years ago and would welcome the opportunity to copy photographs or mementos of the Tostal Festival.

No comments: