November is the month we traditional associate with remembrance of the dead. It is also the month 92 years ago when the guns fell silent throughout the scarred lands of France and Flanders and men, numbed by the violence of war, dared to hope that they had survived the cruel unforgiving hell of the First World War. Those same men would return home, some to England, Scotland or Wales, others to Ireland, there to face the harsh reality of unemployment and poverty. For the young Irishmen who had been cheered to their local railway stations as they marched off to war there was the additional unexpected disappointment caused by the shift in public opinion over the course of the war years. Pre war Home Rule agitation had given way to a full blooded call for Irish independence which was accompanied by a military campaign waged against men who wore the same style military uniform as the returning Irish men.
Many decades would pass and the enlisted men had long passed away before the Ireland of a new generation felt confident enough to commemorate the men who enlisted and died in the First World War. Next Sunday 14th November local people will gather in St. Michael’s Old Cemetery at 3.00 p.m. to remember the men from Athy and district who died during the 1914-18 conflict. The remembrance ceremonies will be held at the graves of six local men who died in Athy while on leave from the war front. 122 men from the town died during the war, while another 96 men from the outlying countryside also perished. The majority of those men have no known grave. We, who were spared the savagery of war in our time, should remember those men in their home town.
Jens Preisler died on 20th September last in his 98th year. He arrived in Ireland in January 1938 to help start up a new cement factory in Limerick. A native of Copenhagen he was just 23 years old and expected to be able to return to Denmark after a year or two in Ireland. The Second World War put paid to any such possibility and Jens who qualified as a chemical engineer in 1936 was to spend the rest of his life in Ireland, apart from a three year period in the early 1950's. He lived in Athy for 55 years, having arrived here to take over as manager of the Asbestos factory which was opened in 1936.
The first manager of the factory was Charles Cornish whose sudden death in the factory yard in 1952 led to the appointment of Charles Stevens as manager, a position he held until Jens’s appointment in 1955. The Asbestos cement factory in 1955 was the place of work for more than 300 men who with the minimum use of machinery produced asbestos slates. Most of the work was done by hand and given the nature of the raw material used in the factory it seems somewhat ironic to relate that Charles Cornish, the first manager, had banned smoking in the factory. The pipe smoking Dane was quick to relax the non-smoking rule soon after his arrival.
The workers in the Asbestos factory in 1938 earned 1 shilling an hour, a wage rate which prevailed throughout the war years. By the mid 1950's this had increased to six pounds per week which was still unattractive to many workers who took the emigrant boat to England where earnings in the post war period were far better than in Ireland. In 1963 Jens spearheaded the modernisation of the factory with the installation of slate making machines. It was just one of many improvements which Jens implemented during his time as manager of the Athy plant from where he retired in 1976.
Jens involved himself in many aspects of the social and cultural life of the town. He was a founder member of the Castlemitchell Gun Club and the South Kildare Association of An Taisce. His involvement with both associations extended over the years and he was at various times secretary and treasurer of both and was most recently the president of the Castlemitchell Gun Club. Athy Golf Club and Athy Bridge Club benefited from his membership of over 50 years standing and he filled the role of president of both clubs. The captaincy of Athy Golf Club was an honour bestowed on him at the 1966 A.G.M. of the club.
In his involvement with An Taisce Jens was encouraged and indeed partnered by his wife Mai and both of them were dedicated members of the association for many years. The South Kildare Association of An Taisce and its members of almost thirty five years ago including Jens and Mai Preisler deserve our gratitude for actively and successfully campaigning to save the Town Hall at a time when it was in imminent danger of being demolished.
Jens is survived by his wife Mai and children Gorm, Kirsten, John, Frederik, Carl and Alan-Georg.
Ar dhéis Dé go raibh a anam.