On February 21st 1944 a number of Athy men who had been attending an evening Agricultural Class in the Technical School over the winter months met in the school. They had come together at the suggestion of their teacher, Stephen Cullinan, a young man from Castlegar in County Galway. Aged only 24 years Stephen was to provide the dynamic leadership for the Young Farmers Club which was formed that night in Athy Technical School. The declared aim of the Club was to increase the efficiency and prosperity of farmers through education.
Athy has always claimed the honour of having Ireland's first Young Farmers Club, an honour which is also claimed by Mooncoin in County Kilkenny. Those involved in Athy's Young Farmers Club included Juan Greene, E. Minch, A. Spiers and Paddy Kehoe and it was Paddy Kehoe of Kilcoo and Stephen Cullinan who were instrumental in the subsequent formation of a national organisation for young farmers to be known later as Macra na Feirme. In September 1944 a meeting was called for Newman House, St. Stephen's Green, Dublin. Paddy Kehoe was elected Chairman with Stephen Cullinan Secretary. They set about organising representatives from different parts of Ireland and within two years fifty two Clubs were established. In 1946 the National Executive adopted the name Macra na Feirme and local man Ivan Bergin of Maybrook, Athy, was commissioned to design a special badge for the new organisation.
Macra's headquarters was set up in a room in the Town Hall, Athy, vacated by the Mechanics Institute. The billiard table left behind by the Institute was sold to the C.Y.M.S., Athy, after Macra had moved in. Local politicians were astonished when on the 1st of September 1947 the President of Ireland, Sean T. O'Ceallaigh officially opened the Macra offices. Little attention had been paid to the organisation before that but thereafter everybody acknowledged that Stephen Cullinan was not only a man of vision but also an achiever.
Stephen, who lived in a flat in the Crown House (now Griffin Hawes) was soon planning further developments. Recognising that there was no Irish farming paper he suggested to his friend Paddy Kehoe that they should start one. Paddy agreed to speak to J. Greene on the matter and both men each put up £1,000.00 to start the Irish Farmers Journal. Printed in Portlaoise and initially distributed through the Young Farmers Club the venture soon ran short of money and was later carried on by the Leinster Express. Eventually the paper was bought by John Mooney and Paddy O'Keeffe and continues to this day as a national newspaper with an extensive circulation.
Macra na Feirme went from strength to strength and quickly outgrew the County Kildare town where the first Young Farmers Club was founded. The headquarters moved to Dublin in the late 1950's. The National Farmers Association, later re-named the Irish Farmers Association, sprang from Macra and its first President, Juan Greene, coincidentally also held that same position in the first Young Farmers Club founded in Athy in 1944.
The initiative and drive of the young farmers of 49 years ago has brought immeasurable benefits to the people of Ireland. Amongst those men two stand out. Paddy Kehoe of Kilcoo, still happily with us, provided the pragmatism and support for the idealism and vision of Stephen Cullinan who sadly died in 1951.
The death of Stephen Cullinan, in the words of his friend and colleague Paddy Kehoe, was a terrible loss to the country and to the farmers of Ireland. Stephen, who was unmarried, suffered from asthma and died while undergoing dental treatment in Dublin. He had often said that his life would be short but in his time he achieved more than could be expected of one so young. His legacy is not forgotten in the town of Athy, where as a young graduate he brought together a community and encouraged it to face into the future with confidence and belief in itself. He lies buried in Castlegar, County Galway, and he is commemorated with a plaque on the front of the Town Hall, Athy.