Last week I attended Mass in St. Michael’s new cemetery and in a scene reminiscent of the rock masses of penal days stood with hundreds more around the temporary altar. Thankfully the rain held off and everywhere I looked I saw familiar faces and some I had not seen for quite some time. This was a gathering of local people, many of whom had a family member or friends lying in the cemetery which in my young days was a lime tree lined field where youngsters played. The new cemetery was opened in 1964 or thereabouts and since then has been extended southwards into an adjoining field. The names on the gravestones are familiar ones and everywhere you look you find reminders of people once part of the wider community of south Kildare.
In the same week it was announced that the Eucharistic Congress would be held in Ireland in 2012. The previous Congress held here was in 1932 at a time when the new Irish State was experiencing tough economic times. The difficulties of that time would be further exacerbated by the economic war which would follow Fianna Fáil’s victory in the General Election that same year. At the end of 1931 the local Urban District Council were lobbying the Minister for Local Government for a special grant for the relief of unemployment in the Athy area. The Councillors claimed that there was ‘no part of the county suffering so much on account of the grave unemployment due to the beet collapse year and a serious agricultural depression prevailing.’ Figures were cited which showed that at least 200 men were unemployed. The unemployment situation would not show any improvement until the end of the decade.’
Local plans for celebrating the Eucharistic Congress scheduled to take place from 22nd to 26th June were overshadowed by a tragic fire which took place in Athy on St. Stephens Day. The first local newspaper of the Eucharistic year carried the headline ‘Woman trapped in burning house – charred remains found in debris.’ Mrs. M. Cunningham, a widow who lived alone in her licensed premises in Duke Street died tragically in the blazing inferno which destroyed the entire premises. Her remains were brought to the house of her daughter in Leinster Street.
The following week initial arrangements for the Eucharistic Congress were announced in the local Parish Church. The Mens Sodality would travel as a unit by train to Dublin on Thursday for the mens’ mass. The following day would see the Womens Sodality members make the same journey, leaving Saturday free for the childrens mass in the Phoenix Park. The Papal Legates Mass with which the Congress would end would take place on Sunday.
Early in January the Parish Priest, Fr. P. McDonnell, unveiled the banner which was to be used by the Womens Sodality members as they took part in the Eucharistic Congress parade. The same day the banner to be carried at the front of the mens fraternity as they marched was shown to the local members of the Fraternity of the Sacred Heart by Fr. John O’Sullivan in the Dominican Church. Rather sadly the same edition of the newspaper carried a report of the sudden death of Fr. O’Sullivan while celebrating 11 o’clock mass on the feast of the Epiphany. He had ministered for almost 40 years in Athy and his memory would be commemorated a year later with the opening of a shrine in the grounds of the Dominican Priory.
Election fever was rampant throughout the country from January 1932 onwards and the three main political parties, Cumann na nGael, Fianna Fáil and Labour chose candidates to contest the General Election. Local man Sydney Minch who had fought with the 16th Irish Division in France during the 1914-18 war was chosen as one of the outgoing Government’s candidates and would succeed in taking a Dáil seat for Cumann na nGael.
Eamon de Valera campaigned in Athy in early February and the Leinster Leader reported:- ‘Little Kevin Maher, son of Mr. J.B. Maher of Sawyerswood and nephew of Kevin Barry was presented to De Valera by W. Mahon U.D.C. at the Fianna Fáil meeting on Wednesday. De Valera kindly took the little boy by the hand and chatted to him.’ Some of Kevin’s schoolmates were also making the newspaper that week with a report of a musical concert in the Christian Brothers School. Tommy Fox aged 8 conducted the boys choir ‘with all the aplomb and ease of a professional’ while Ivan Bergin, aged 9, who played the piano was described as ‘a cool collected kid.’ Boy soprano Paddy Breen of Offaly Street was credited with a beautiful voice, while another highly praised singer was Joe Reynolds, son of J.C. Reynolds, ‘himself a singer of no mean order.’
Notices appeared in newspapers in February of examinations to be held before Holy Week in local secondary schools for choir members wishing to be part of the special Congress choir. Only those subject to favourable reports by the examiner would be allowed to participate in the Dublin event. Tickets for the garden party to be held in Blackrock College Dublin as part of the Eucharistic celebrations were on sale at 5 shillings each. This incidentally represented a full days pay for a man working on the Kildare County Council scheme to relieve unemployment.
On the Sunday before the General Election all three parties held meetings in Emily Square. A torch lit procession preceded by six bands marked the Fianna Fáil meeting, while the Cumann na nGael meeting was remarkable for the use of ‘electric bulbs’ for its night-time meeting. No doubt Betty Brown of Meeting Lane who at 97 years of age was the oldest local voter would have been impressed by the electric light seeing as she claimed to have seen the first ‘railway train to come to Athy.’ She cast her vote in the Town Hall, telling all and sundry that she favoured the Fianna Fáil candidate ‘Tommy Harris’. Harris was elected at the head of the poll with Bill Norton and local man Sidney Minch.
Preparations for the Eucharistic Congress continued once the election was finished and by mid May Nurney National School was the first to erect a Congress flag. Mr. Loughman, the local carrier, was reported as the first lorry owner to have the Congress flag on his vehicle, but before long similar flags were everywhere to be seen. ‘Congress and Papal flags very much in evidence this week’ reported the Leinster Leader on 14th June, ‘motor lorries and push bikes were flying them.’
Business houses and shops in Athy were cleaned up and many were painted in preparation of the Congress. Athy Urban District Council decided to paint all the Council houses and also to decorate the Town Hall. By the 18th of June flags, banners and bunting spanned every street in the town. All the local churches, schools, the Parish Priest’s house, the Dominican Priory, Town Hall, Courthouse, Post Office, Garda Station and the C.Y.M.S. premises were decorated. Soon thereafter it was reported that decorations were also put up by the local banks, the hotels, Shaws and the Railway Station. Drapers were sold out of flags as every house and what the local newspaper described as the ‘smaller streets’ of the town were decorated to make Athy ‘a riot of colour.’ The opening of the Congress on 23rd June led the Urban District Council to request local shopkeepers to close that day and the newspapers reported ‘a generous response’ to that request. By now most of the streets had decorative added arches, or notably Emily Square, but as the local newspapers reported ‘it is in the bye streets and the lanes and suburban areas of Athy that the real decorations are shown, the men, women and girls of Athy may feel proud, they are a credit to the old town, to their land and to their race.’
Visitors to Athy for the Congress included well known handballer Bill Aldridge who had returned home with a Congress party from America. Michael Mahon, Athy and Paddy Stynes, Kildare, both well known County Kildare footballers also returned from America prior to the Congress and it was reported that Stynes was expected to give an exhibition in Athy of the ‘American style of football’.
At the conclusion of the Eucharistic Congress the Nationalist was to claim:- ‘Everybody gave of his best, and the weather was a record for June. The celebrations were far from anything we had dreamed they might be. It was evident everywhere that Catholicity is as great in Ireland today as it was five hundred years ago, and that the man in the street cherishes his Faith in his secret heart just as zealously as any of his saintly forefathers.’