Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Eye on the Past 746

I have just returned from the Riverbank Arts Centre in Newbridge where I attended the opening of an exhibition of works portraying “the vast array of talent amongst the social groupings in Athy”. At least that’s what the exhibition programme described what was on display in the county’s only publicly funded Arts Centre. The concept of an exhibition of local talent was an excellent one, but somehow to ally it to some unspecified social groupings and thereby giving a social consciousness was, as far as I am concerned, guilding the lily somewhat.

The title of the exhibition, “Athy with all its Flavours” required a more comprehensive and wider embracing display of talent than that on show in the Riverbank. Athy has a huge pool of resourceful people of various talents and skills, many of whom, but not all, are involved in local voluntary clubs and groups. If the Riverbank exhibition was to succeed in giving a flavour of our historic town and it’s people it needed to broaden the scope of the works on show. Nevertheless the exhibition which continues until 23rd February is worth a visit. Incidentally it was somewhat surprising to see no more than three Athy Town Councillors at the official opening. I would have thought that an exhibition as important as “Athy with all its Flavours”, showing in neighbouring Newbridge would have merited the full support of our “city fathers”.

Members of St. Michael’s Boxing Club were special guests at the Riverbank on Thursday night. Dom O’Rourke, Club President and President of the Irish Amateur Boxing Association of Ireland, lead in the club’s four Irish champion boxers as they received the generous applause of the audience in recognition of the club’s exceptional success in the National Boxing Stadium over the previous weekend. St. Michael’s Boxing Club is Athy’s most successful sporting organisation and indeed is the most successful amateur boxing club in the whole of the island of Ireland. The continuing success of the Joyces, Ray Sheehan and Eric Donovan and the other club members is one of the great sporting stories of our generation and for Athy represents perhaps the greatest sporting success ever achieved by any club based in the town. St. Michael’s Boxing Club deserves to be formally recognised and hopefully steps will be taken to mark in a suitable way the achievements of the young men who under the guidance of their trainer and mentor, Dom O’Rourke have recently moved into their new club premises opposite Dooley’s Terrace.

Local playwright and author John MacKenna has his play “Who by Fire” in rehearsal for a tour of the provinces which starts in Athy on Wednesday, 14th February. In the absence of a local theatre the play will be put on in a marquee erected in the grounds of White’s Castle providing a unique backdrop for a play which has earned for its promoters some notoriety even before it has opened to the general public. Pre-performance publicity for the play included the flying of a swastika from the top of the medieval towerhouse at the foot of Cromaboo bridge and the unfurling of a large banner on the side of the Castle. I gather a few people objected to the display of the swastika and amidst claims of “racism” demanded that the flag and banner be removed. The “offending” material was removed but really one wonders whether the objectors had legitimate grounds for imposing their will on the promoters of the play.

“Who by Fire” is the story of a young girl who was taken to the concentration camps at Auschwitz with her mother. She survived, but her mother died and twenty years later she revisits the former death camp, where as the author explains, the sights, sounds and smells of her three years in Auschwitz, bring the past back to life. I hope that the success of this important work which is a timely reminder of the barbarity of war is not affected by the controversy generated by a few objectors who seemed unable to distinguish between a theatrical experience and its attendant publicity and the real manifestation of racism in society today.

Early in the week Ernest Coyle, the last watchmaker in Athy, passed away aged 85 years. I don’t know if Ernest did ever make watches but he certainly repaired them and the myriad of clocks which passed across his counter since he returned to Athy over sixty years ago. It was a coincidence that a week or so before he died a Dublin friend gave me a watch hallmarked 1856 bearing the name William Plewman, watchmaker, Athy. Plewman, an Athy watchmaker, had been noted in a trade directory for 1824 and I have come across an early 19th century reference to payments made to Thomas Plewman of Athy for repairs carried out to a Grand Canal clock in Monasterevin. Of course one of Ireland’s greatest clockmakers was an Athy man, John Crosswaite, who as a young man walked from Athy to Dublin where he would in later years establish a well known clock making business. Ernest Coyle was in the great tradition of the watchmakers of old having learnt his trade from his uncle, George Coyle, who had a business in Mountmellick. George Coyle had served, as did his brother Alfred, in the First World War. Both were from Nicholastown but while George survived that terrible conflict, his brother died from gas poisoning on 21st August 1917 aged 22 years. Ernest Coyle had a great store of stories and a wonderful knowledge of Athy and its people and it is my great regret that I did not have the opportunity to share in that knowledge of his native place.

It was wonderful to see St. Michael’s Church full of neighbours and friends for the reception of his remains on Wednesday evening. I am always struck, on the occasions I attend St. Michael’s Church at the top of my old street – Offaly Street – at the huge differences in the congregations involvement in the singing of hymns compared to that encountered in the other St. Michael’s. It’s as if the Roman Catholics, myself included, are muted by what I can’t imagine, in contrast to the full throated participation of the reformed congregation.

I was pleasantly surprised to see Eleanor Hull’s name appended to the end of the ancient Irish hymn, “The Lord’s Prayer” as its versifier. I had not realised that Hull who was one of the founders of the Irish Text Society and a lifelong student of Irish studies was responsible for the appearance in the Irish Church Hymnal of such beautiful lines as :

“Riches I need not, nor vain empty praise:
Thou mine inheritance through all my days.”

On the day Ernest Coyle was buried in Old St. Michael’s Cemetery and less than two weeks after her husband died, Kathleen Delahunt passed away. Her death coming so soon after the death of her lifelong companion and husband Eddie is a sad and shattering blow for the Delahunt family. Our sympathies go to the members of the Delahunt family and to Ruth Coyle and her children.

A number of people have approached me over the past year suggesting, although asking might be more accurate, if a book of old photographs of Athy is to be published. Many people over the years have lent me photographs which I have copied and these form an archive totalling many hundreds of photographs which hopefully will form the basis of a photographic record of old Athy which it is intended to publish later this year. In the meantime I am anxious to include in that book as many old photographs as I can and I would welcome hearing from anyone who might have any interesting photographs of people, places or events connected with the town which they would be prepared to have reproduced in a book on Athy. If you would like to share photographic memories with others I would welcome hearing from you.

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