I was in Hay-on-Wye in the upper Wye Valley on the borders of England and Wales when news reached me of the death of Kevin Maher. Kevin was the subject of a previous Eye on the Past (No. 633) when I wrote of his immense contribution to the sporting and social history of Athy over many decades. A son of the legendary ‘Bapty’ Maher, Kevin, the sports man, graced the local golfing scene as the winner of the Captain’s Prize in Athy on two successive years, as well as the winner of numerous competitions over the years. He was a member of the Athy Golf Club Committee since 1947 and in later years was a trustee of the club. His sporting prowess extended to rugby and it was here that he suffered perhaps his greatest sporting disappointment when Athy lost the 1948 Provincial Towns Cup to Dundalk. The only score of that game was a penalty kicked by Frank Johnson for Drogheda, who for many years sat as a District Justice in Naas and Newbridge.
Kevin played a prominent part in the formation of the local Old Folks Committee and was responsible for the Committee’s subsequent acquisition of No. 82 Leinster Street which for many years served as the Old Folks Centre. A veterinary surgeon by profession, Kevin was elected Chairman of the Veterinary Benevolent Fund in 1981, a position which he continued to occupy for the next 23 years.
A gracious man, Kevin was intensely interested in his native town and I can recall many occasions when he wrote to me or contacted me by phone to clarify some matter or other the subject of one of my articles. His passing is a sad blow for his family and our sympathy goes to his wife Molly and to the Maher family.
I have been visiting the attractive market town of Hay-on-Wye, known simply by locals as ‘Hay’, for close on thirty years. My first visit was prompted by a television programme on the town and the role of Richard Booth in creating a book town out of the decaying economy of a Welsh market town. Booth opened his first book shop in Hay in 1961 in what was the old fire station. He was then just 23 years old and his success in acquiring libraries and book collections and selling on the books encouraged other book dealers to join him in Hay. Six or seven years later Booth purchased the town cinema and converted it into what was then and may still be the largest secondhand book shop in Britain. Today Hay-on-Wye boasts no less than 28 secondhand book shops in a town with a population of about 1,750.
The town’s success story, originally founded on book sales, has now been further strengthened with the continuing success of the Hay Festival of Literature and the Arts. First started in 1988 the festival which runs from the last week of May to the first week in June attracts an enormous number of world class writers. It was said by Bill Clinton to be ‘the Woodstock of the mind’, a claim which thousands of visitors who attend the festival each year would support. To the extraordinary attraction of the Welsh book town must be added the unique attractiveness of the independently owned local shops which offer a range and diversity of products and goods not likely to be matched by any of the international conglomerates which are to be found today in every shopping centre in Britain and Ireland.
Hay-on-Wye, a onetime fortified town on the Marches of Wales as Athy was on the Marches of Kildare, has become the book capital of Britain. It is twinned with the Belgium book town of Redu which, encouraged by Richard Booth’s success in the 1960s, started up its own secondhand book shop enterprises in 1984. Books have energised Hay’s economy, a fact which I can confirm having witnessed the enormous improvements in the town during my visits over the last thirty years.
When I visit Hay I am always reminded of Herbert Armstrong, the local Solicitor who was hanged for the murder of his domineering wife in 1922. Armstrong, of diminutive stature, a retired Army officer and a member of the local Masonic Lodge, attempted to poison another local solicitor whose offices were directly opposite Armstrongs. The failed attempt prompted police to exhume Mrs. Armstrong’s body and it was found that she had died of arsenic poisoning. Armstrong was tried, convicted and hanged in nearby Gloucester Prison on 31st May 1922. His offices and those of his lucky colleague are still operating in Hay as solicitors’ practices.
If you ever get the opportunity to visit Hay-on-Wye seize the chance to enjoy one of the great little towns of either Britain or Ireland, even if arsenic and solicitors do not find favour with you.