Thursday, February 11, 2010

The late Frank English

With the death of Frank English we have lost a good man and I have lost a good friend.

Ours was a friendship which had its origin in St. Joseph’s boys school which both of us first attended on the same day. It was the 12th of May 1946, my 4th birthday, when I was brought to infant school for the first time, the same day chosen by Frank’s parents to bring their 4½ year old eldest son to school. Sr. Benignus, faced with the need to differentiate between the two Franks, decided to call my future pal ‘Harry’, a name by which he was known by all his contemporaries until well into his teen years. He had been christened Henry Francis English after his grandfather, but his mother Peg preferred to call him Frank and so presented a dilemma for Sr. Benignus which lead to his temporary re-naming. We shared the same class for the next 12 or 13 years until Frank left school after his Inter Cert. to work in Minch Norton’s laboratory.

Soon after I went to work in Kildare County Council we joined up for holidays abroad, starting with a memorable trip to France in the summer of 1962. We thumbed our way from Cherbourg to Paris and up through Normandy, two inexperienced Irish lads whose time in the Parisian city was to provide an education in life, as well as a talking point for years to come. In those days hostelling was the only possible way of meeting our accommodation needs and meeting and greeting similar age groups from the Continent and from America was an education in itself. We spent another holiday in London enjoying the domestic delights of an Earls Court hostel, with the eye boggling delights of the early 1960s central London scene. We were ready for the world, or so we thought, but nothing prepared us for the charms of Berlin and Amsterdam which were our last holiday destinations while we both enjoyed the single life. The Berlin Wall and Checkpoint Charlie were but a year or so in place when we arrived in the German capital via Brussels and Hanover. Crossing into east Berlin to see the contrast between the bleak soviet controlled part of the city and the western ‘Free’ was an unforgettable experience.

Married life put an end, temporarily at least, to our gallivanting but we did manage once children had stopped appearing to make acquaintenances with New York on two occasions. Sharing a room over the famous McSorley’s Ale House was an experience which we had hoped to recreate again. It is not to be.

Frank was an extraordinary likeable man whose consideration for others was unlimited. His family shared with many Athy families common experiences going back over the generations. His grandfather Henry Francis English, although born in Kilkea, lived in Athy and like so many others in the town served in the British Army. He later became a hackney driver and was tragically killed in a road traffic accident on the Dublin Road. Frank’s grandmother had earlier died during the Great Flu Epidemic of 1918. Frank’s father Tommy trained as a barber but the economic difficulties of post war Ireland forced him as it did so many others in Athy to emigrate in the late 1940s to seek work in England. Military service overseas during World War 1 and the emigrant trail were common features in the lives of many Athy families when Frank and I were going to school.

It was against that background of shared experiences that made Frank’s involvement in politics and community activities uniquely relevant. He was an Athy man – the town where he was born, reared, schooled and worked was for him the centre of his political and community life. He was a founder member of Athy Credit Union and of Aontas Ogra, as well as being a one time active member of the St. Vincent de Paul Society, the Knights of Malta and the choir of St. Michaels Parish Church. In more recent years he was a member of Athy Community Council and a swimming coach who gave swimming lessons to hundreds of children from Athy and the surrounding area. It was as a public representative for 42 years that he is possibly best known. First elected to Athy Urban District Council in 1967 as a Fianna Fáil Councillor he successfully contested eight local elections until he stepped down as a Councillor last year. He served as the Chairman of the Council on four, if not five occasions and proved himself an able and conscientious member of that body.

I was his colleague on the Council for some years and came to see at first hand how he sought to get results by consultation and agreement rather than by headline seeking contributions in the Council Chamber. We did not always agree on how effective the Council was and I can remember one occasion when he took grave exception to my criticism of the Council which he as a Councillor felt was a personal reflection on himself. Frank tried as best he could within the limits of the inadequate Local Government system to improve the town of Athy and he never gave up on that objective.

The political passion which ruled Frank’s entire life was to see him champion the cause of the party founded by Eamon de Valera in 1926. Fianna Fáil was Frank’s second home. His mother Peg was a passionate Fianna Fáil supporter and no doubt she was largely responsible for his unquestioning and unquenchable allegiance to the party which when Frank was first elected as a councillor was still being lead by Eamon de Valera. He was proud of his party membership and the party was proud of him. The young lad who in 1967 joined the then doyens of the local Fianna Fáil party M.G. Nolan and Paddy Dooley on the local Council would 42 years later step down as a Councillor having in the interim become the father of the Council and indeed the father of the local Fianna Fáil Cumann.

His contribution to the community life of his hometown was enormous and over the decades he made a difference to the lives of many people. But most important of all was his good nature, exemplified in his courtesy and his consideration for others. His affability allowed him to meet and greet friends and strangers alike with a pleasant word and a smile. Frank never allowed political differences to intrude into his personal relationships with others and he never allowed differences of opinion to mar those same relationships.

In his role as a Peace Commissioner he called to my offices on a regular basis to sign documents and always partook of a cup of coffee and the opportunity to have a chat. His easy going manner made him a great favourite and nothing pleased him more than recounting the details of Kildare’s latest, if sometimes scarce, football successes. For Frank was an avid supporter of Gaelic football and followed the Lilywhites from venue to venue. It was I think one of his greatest disappointments that he had not played football in his young days, but made up for that by his wholehearted support for the County team and for the local G.A.A. Club in Geraldine Park.

His legacy of dedicated service for the people of Athy is second only to his most cherished legacy. He has left behind his wife Mary and his five children, Conor, Cathal, Gráinne, Tomás and Ciarán, all of whom have brought honour and respect to the family name. He was justifiably proud of Mary and their children and as I visited him in hospital during the last weeks of his life I came to understand and appreciate that he had passed on to his children some of those exceptional qualities which had endeared Frank to those who knew him.

Frank was a family man, a community activist and a Fianna Fáil politician who gave of his best for the town of his birth. He has left us a legacy of dedicated service for the people of Athy and the most cherished legacy of all, the family of whom he was justifiably proud.

Ar dhéis Dé go raibh a anam.

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