Thursday, March 11, 2010

Christopher Fingleton

As you journey on the road to Carlow and beyond you pass about four miles out from Athy the towering gaunt castellated remains of Levitstown Mill. Idle and vacant for almost 70 years the sturdy walls of the once busy mill bear testimony to the skills of the masons who built them nearly 200 years ago. Levitstown Mill for generations has been a landmark for those journeying on the Athy/Carlow Road, as well as boatmen passing by on the Barrow Line.

Imagine my surprise to find myself talking to the man, now long retired, who in the afternoon of Saturday, 14th March 1942 turned the key in the door of Levitstown Mill for the last time. He was the last person to do so as within hours the mill was ablaze. “Tunny” Fingleton was a young teenager at the time, having started work in the mill when he was 13 years old. I met “Tunny” just before the Christmas break and spent an enjoyable few hours in his company, as he re-lived a working life spent in or around the Levitstown area where he was born 80 years ago.

How, I wondered, did Christopher Fingleton get the name “Tunny”, the name by which he has been known throughout his life. He was so named after the legendary Irish American boxer Gene Tunny who was in the news around the time of Chris's birth. The Fingletons came to the Levitstown area in the first year of the Great War when Jim Fingleton, Tunny's grandfather, arrived to take up work as a ploughman with local farmers by the name of Loudain. The Fingletons were originally from the Luggacurran area but were evicted in the late 1880's during the unsuccessful Plan of Campaign waged by the local tenants against Lord Landsdowne. Tunny's father Jack who was born in Ballylinan to where the Fingleton's moved after the Luggacurran evictions, worked with the Sisters of Mercy in Athy for a while but left them to become, like his father, a ploughman in Levitstown where his brother Mick was also already working. “Tunny” would become the third generation of the Fingletons to work on the land but not before he had spent the first three years of his long working life in the Mill at Levitstown.

Levitstown Mill is believed to have been built sometime in the early 19th century and was owned at different times by the Haughton family and the Hannon family who were millers with mills in Athy and Prumplestown, Castledermot. Colonel Magan was Mill manager up to the time it closed in the late 1920's or early 1930's and the mill lay vacant and unused for five or six years until it was taken over by Sidney Minch. It was in the Mill that the young Christopher Fingleton got work just as the clouds of the Second World War were sweeping over Europe. Three years later, despite the efforts of fire brigades from Athy, Carlow and The Curragh, the Mill was destroyed by fire. Listening to “Tunny” as he recalled the events of 14th March 1942 when Levitstown Mill came to the end of its working life was to feel a real sense of history. He remembered many of the men who worked there, men such as the Whelan brothers, Tommy, Stephen, Dan and John, Packie Deering, Mick Wynne, Jack Davis of Plewman's Terrace and Mick Hanley.

Four months later “Tunny” started to work for Johnny Greene where he would remain working on the Levitstown Farm for the next 50 years as tractor driver and in later years as a driver of a combine harvester. The lockout of 1947 comes alive as “Tunny”, possibly one of the last, if not the last, survivor of that historic labour conflict recalls the men who took part in what was at times a bitter labour dispute. Remarkably when it ended after a few months the men went back to work, with apparently no recriminations on either side and never again would farm labourers and their employers in this area come into conflict. One unfortunate man lost his job as a result of the Kilkea strike. Paddy Lambe who was a shop steward for the striking farm workers was not taken back to work when the strike was called off. He later got farm work with Fallons of Maganey. What happened to Paddy Lambe was and remains the unacceptable outcome of the 1947 labour dispute which has become known as the “Kilkea Lockout”.

I was interested to hear “Tunny” say that the Kilkea Lockout ballad was composed by Willie Reilly, the man, who having organised the workers on the bogs, later turned his attention to the unionisation of farm workers. Kevin Fingleton, “Tunny's” brother, is generally credited with having composed the ballad, but the honour says “Tunny” must go to Willie Reilly. Kevin sang the ballad at a strikers meeting in Emily Square in Athy and he became thereafter associated with the ballad which began :-

“Twas the year forty seven, I remember it well
The year of the Lockout, the story I'll tell
Of how the men from Castledermot, Levitstown and Kilkea
They stood out so bravely to win the half day.”

Whenever you talk of Levitstown invariably the conversation turns to two important elements of the townlands heritage. The “Park Wall” and Molly Cully's ceili band. The “Park Wall” was the local meeting place where on Sundays the pitch and toss school was located, where long ago handball was played and in the fine weather cards was the game of choice. Why the “Park Wall” I don't know, referring as it does to the row of houses on the main road at Levitstown. Molly Cully lived in the house nearest to Athy and according to “Tunny” was a virtuoso player on the violin and the button accordion. She was the acknowledged leader of the ceili band which at various times was known as “Cully's Ceili Band”, otherwise known as the “Levitstown Ceili Band”. “Tunny” recalled for me some of the musicians who over the years played with Molly Cully. His older brother Jim was one of the original members of the group before he emigrated in 1936 to England where he became a policeman. Another brother, Tom, was the drummer, while Johnny McEvoy of Woodstock Street played the violin with John Hickey of Kilberry on accordion and Maggie Whelan on piano. Many other musicians were linked at various times with the ceili band which started in or around 1933 and continued until 1948 or so. Levitstown School and Killeshin provided dance venues for the musicians and Tommy Stynes of Leinster Street brought the players in his hackney car to the sessions in Killeshin.

Reference to the “Barrack Field” brought the explanation that it is so called as it was the location of Grangemellon R.I.C. Barracks, no trace of which is to be found today. Mick Conneran who lived in the Lock House was an ex R.I.C. man and may well have been one of the group of policemen who was stationed in Grangemellon Barracks before it was burned down by the I.R.A. during the War of Independence.

Referring back to “Tunny's” long working life with the Greenes, the importance to the local economy of a vibrant farming community in the 1940's and later, is borne out by the number of men working fulltime on farms in those days. Within the Fingleton family three of their men folk worked for Dr. Juan Greene who took over from his father Johnny Greene after the 1947 Lockout. Jim Fingleton and his two sons, Kevin and “Tunny”, worked side by side for many years. “Tunny” continued working on the Levitstown farm until he retired after 50 years of service.

“Tunny” is extremely proud of Levitstown and its people and particularly so of the part he played in encouraging local lad Mick Carolan to become an exceptionally gifted footballer. Carolan's mother was Ann Fingleton, daughter of Mick Fingleton, the brother of “Tunny's” father and Mick Carolan in an interview in 1962 referred to his near neighbour and distant relation Christopher Fingleton as his guide and mentor who urged him and “who kept continually harping at me to keep going and persuaded me that I was a good footballer.” “Tunny's” one regret is that as the 7th son of his father Jack who had a cure for shingles, he did not get to receive from his father before he died the now long lost cure. Sadly Jack Fingleton who was well known for his successful treatment of the ailment was killed while walking on the roadway between Maganey and Levitstown in 1953.

Christy, otherwise “Tunny”, now in his 81st year has wonderful memories and I am delighted to be able to share some of them with the readers of the Eye on the Past this week.