Monday, March 29, 2010

Eye on the Past 900

On Thursday last the Athy branch of the Irish Wheelchair Association celebrated the 50th anniversary of the founding of the first branch of the National organisation. Teach Emmanuel was ‘en fete’ for the occasion as volunteers, past and present, returned to acknowledge the wonderful work undertaken by that most underrated of organisations.

The I.W.A. was founded in 1960 by a small group of wheelchair users who had participated in the first Paralympics Games held in Rome. In September of that year the inaugural meeting of the I.W.A. took place on 10th November 1960 in the Pillar Room of the Mater Hospital Dublin, attended by several members of the Irish Paralympics Games team, as well as a number of civic minded individuals. Given the later history of the Athy branch of the Association it is, I feel, significant that the founding meeting was held in the Dublin hospital established by Mother Mary Vincent Whitty. This was the same Sister of Mercy who came to Athy in 1852 to take charge of the new Convent of Mercy and the nearby Convent Schools.

The Irish Wheelchair Association was founded primarily to improve the lives of people with physical disabilities and today the organisation has a network of 20,000 members with over 2,000 staff and many dedicated voluntary workers supporting and encouraging independence for all. The I.W.A. seeks to improve equality and access for wheelchair users as well as providing employment and housing, while encouraging social interaction. A quarterly magazine ‘Spokeout’ is published and made available to members of the Association.

Pride of place at the 50th celebrations went to Sr. Carmel Fallon and Sr. Alphonsus Meagher, both Sisters of Mercy who were part of the small group who in 1968 established the local branch of the I.W.A. It was these two Mercy nuns who with their colleague, the late Sr. Dolores, formed a girls club in Athy in 1968. The young club members were encouraged to visit wheelchair users in their homes and very soon the possibility of establishing a branch of the I.W.A. in Athy became a reality.

The driving force in setting up the branch was the Co. Galway born Sr. Carmel Fallon who entered the convent in Athy in August 1935. The year was 1969 and very soon the local branch developed as socials for wheelchair users were held in Mount St. Mary’s, annual Christmas dinners were arranged and summer holidays were spent in boarding schools operated by the Sisters of Mercy. None of this could have been done without the help of volunteers, both male and female, who from the very start devoted their spare time and energies to helping Sr. Carmel in her determined effort to provide services for the disabled, while integrating them fully into the local community.

Amongst the early volunteers (and apologies if anyone has been overlooked) were Leo Byrne, Lily Murphy, Mary Malone, Mary Prior, Michael Kelly, Bridget Brennan, John Morrin, Tommy Page, Paddy Timoney, Dinny Donoghue, Phoebe Murphy, Caroline Webb, Peadar Doogue, Fr. Lorcan O’Brien and Fr. Denis Lavery.

The Athy branch was in time to provide a fulltime activity service for the disabled and the first Day Centre outside of the association’s facility in Clontarf, Dublin was opened in Athy. Teach Emmanuel was developed on a site in the grounds of St. Vincent’s Hospital and represented a partnership between the Health Board and the Irish Wheelchair Association. It also confirmed, if confirmation was needed, that the diminutive nun from the West of Ireland had an admirable record of achievement since arriving in the South Kildare town at the height of the economic war of the 1930s.

In 1992 Sr. Carmel was appointed president of the Irish Wheelchair Association National Organisation and held that position for 10 years. She is now retired from active involvement in the day to day work of the local association, but still retains a kindly watching brief over the work of Teach Emmanuel.

The 50th celebration was graced by the presence of many of the volunteers, past and present, without whose work and efforts over the years the local branch of the Wheelchair Association could never have been expected to survive. That it has survived and indeed prospered, despite depending so heavily on voluntary financial donations and voluntary workers, is a measure of the generosity, not only of the volunteers involved, but also of the Irish public who can always be counted upon to help those who need their help the most. The Athy branch of the Irish Wheelchair Association can be justifiably proud of its many achievements in helping the physically disabled to better integrate with the local community. At the same time the people of Athy and district can take pride in the continuing success of a local organisation whose presence is a welcome addition to the medico social facilities of south Kildare.

Last week I wrote of the new Traffic Management Plan for Athy and referred to an alternative plan proposed by a group which I understood was the Irish Farmers Association. In fact I am told the plan in question arises from discussions within the Athy Traffic Action Committee and has the support of a large section of the business community. I gather their plan has not yet received the backing of the Town Council but perhaps that support will come when the Council members sit down with members of Kildare County Council to consider the Traffic Management Plan prepared by the Council’s consultants.

Hugh Bolger of 6 Offaly Street passed away last week. A native of Ballylinan he worked for many years in the Wallboard factory and his funeral was marked by a Guard of Honour of members of Ballylinan Gaelic Football Club and by the attendance of many of his former work colleagues from the now long closed Barrowford complex. Hugh married Loy Hayden, now sadly deceased, whom I fondly remember as part of the Offaly Street family of the 1950s. She and her brother Seamus lived with their aunt Mrs. Kitty Murphy and her husband Joe at No. 3 Offaly Street before moving to No. 6 when the Taaffes vacated that latter address to move next door to No. 5.

I had departed Athy for ‘foreign parts’, i.e. Naas, before Hugh married Loy and moved into No. 6. I got to know him over the years and he became part of the familiar Offaly Street background at a time when several of the older families were still living there. It is now a street much changed from my young days and the community of which I was a member and of which Hugh was later a welcome part of, has disappeared. Hugh was one of the last links with that street community and his passing is much regretted. He is survived by his daughters Sinéad and Áine and his grandchildren to whom our sympathies are extended.

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