Thursday, October 16, 2008

Passing of a gracious lady

Noreen Ryan passed away on Friday last in her 92nd year. She had outlived her generation by several years, that same generation which had lit up the drabness and monotony of life in Athy in the 1940s and ‘50s.

A native of Athy, Noreen’s parents William Doyle from Sillagh, near Punchestown and Mary Butterfield of Ballitore, had married in New York in 1902 where their first two children were born. William Doyle who came from a farming background worked in a variety of jobs in America before opening up Doyle’s public house in Brooklyn, New York. The Doyle family returned to Ireland in 1905 and settled in Athy where William took over a pub and grocery shop in Woodstock Street owned by Minchs which up to then had been leased to the widow McHugh.

Doyles pub is still operating, the current proprietor also named William being the third generation of the Doyle family to have charge of one of Athy’s oldest public houses. Noreen, who was one of six boys and six girls, attended the local convent school before transferring as a secondary school boarder to St. Leo’s in Carlow. She matriculated in 1933, one year after her mother’s death, her father having passed away in 1923. In December 1935 Noreen went to Spain to take up a position as an English teacher in a convent school. On her arrival however and before the school Christmas holidays had finished she impulsively (as she herself described her decision) took a job as a governess. The family she worked for were rich Spanish Cubans living in Madrid and she was in that city when the Popular Front coalition of central and left wing parties won the Spanish General Election and formed a Republican government. Within five months there was a right wing military uprising against the Republican government which resulted in the Spanish Civil War.

Noreen’s memories of the early days following the General Election victory by the Republicans was of religious restrictions where religion was not allowed to be taught in schools and nuns were not allowed to wear their habits in public. Right wing politicians she recalled were taken from their homes and executed. It was, she remembered, a time of great fear and her employers moved to neighbouring Portugal for their own safety. During her time in Lisbon and later Estoril Noreen met a middle aged Irish woman who turned out to be the famous Irish writer Elizabeth Bowen. The young Athy girl subsequently returned to Spain with her Spanish employers, who soon however left for Switzerland, following which Noreen became governess to another Spanish family. She was based in Seville for three months, living not far from the magnificent Cathedral and recalls climbing the sloping pathway to the top of the world famous Giralda. She left Seville after three months to take up an appointment as the governess to the family of the President of the Bank of Spain. Summers were spent in San Sebastian and winters in Seville, both of which were under the control of Franco’s monarchists for the duration of the Spanish Civil War.

Noreen Ryan left Spain to return to Athy in December 1938 having lived through one of the most horrific Civil Wars ever fought on European soil. The Nationalists led by Franco declared victory four months later, bringing to an end three years of fighting in which almost half a million people died, mostly in mass executions on both sides. Unlike George Orwell, the chronicler of the International Brigade, Noreen Ryan had for the most part good memories of Spain during the Civil War. This was understandable as she was shielded from the worst excesses of the conflict, living as she did with families in cities controlled by Franco’s monarchists.

Liam Ryan from Garranmore, Newtown in County Tipperary arrived in Athy in 1936 to take up his first teaching job in the local Christian Brothers Secondary School. He would remain a much loved member of the teaching staff of the same school until he retired in 1975. The young Tipperary man and Noreen Doyle were married in August 1940. Both were members of the local Social Club which during the late 1930s and onwards was the premier social outlet for young people in the town.

I was a pupil in the Christian Brothers School at a time when Liam Ryan was already a staff member of 20 years standing. He was the most influential teacher during my long educational life which extended over many years and many institutions. An avid supporter of De Valera’s Fianna Fáil he instilled in his pupils a respect for work well done, no matter how lowly it might appear in the scheme of things. I always remember his assertion that education was a valuable tool in life. ‘It helps even the road sweeper to do his job better’. Noreen, as was the wont of housewives in those days, was in the background, supporting her husband Bill, as he was affectionately known to all his pupils, and the Ryan children, Seamus, Brendan, Kevin and Frank.

I came to know Noreen well when Athy Museum Society was founded in 1983. Her brother William who ran the family pub in Woodstock Street was treasurer of the Society and Noreen was its secretary. It was a similar position she occupied with the Old Folks Committee which was founded in 1965. Many years ago she told me that it had been arranged that my father John P. Taaffe, then still serving as the local Garda Station Sergeant, was to be secretary to the Committee. However, the tragic death of my younger brother Seamus in a road traffic accident the night before the scheduled meeting necessitated a change of plan and Noreen was elected secretary. It was her first time to take on such a position and admirably she continued in that role for 13 years, stepping down shortly after her husband Liam died in 1977.

Liam Ryan retired in 1975 and sadly did not enjoy the prolonged and healthy retirement which his exceptional service to education in his adopted town of Athy so fully deserved. His death was a tragic loss to the town which had benefitted so much from his involvement with the Social Club players and whose interest in the development of Athy would undoubtedly have inspired a more positive attitude in the 1980s and beyond.

In addition to her involvement with the Old Folks Committee and later the Museum Society Noreen was also a director of Athy Heritage Company and for seven years acted as a bénévole in Lourdes. She first went to Lourdes as a helper in 1983 and each year spent three weeks working voluntarily in the Cite San Pierre which provided hostel facilities for less well off pilgrims.

She is survived by her sons Seamus, a doctor based in Australia, Brendan, a former Senator who is a lecturer in Cork, Kevin who is Vice-President of Limerick University and Frank who recently retired as a secondary school teacher in Celbridge. She is also survived by the only remaining sibling of the Doyle family, her brother Fr. Conleth Doyle who is a Carmelite priest in the Aylesford Friary in Kent. Ar dhéis Dé go raibh a anam.

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