Thursday, November 24, 2011

Athy's Library and Many Young Men of Twenty

Athy’s community library is no longer open over the weekends.  Keeping the doors closed on the Sabbath day can be justified, if for no other reason than to keep the Sabbath day movement off the streets.  But what’s the reason for keeping the doors to the library closed on Saturdays?

The decision, I am reliably informed, is due to the lack of use by the public.  That surprises me, for Saturday is the one day when with schools closed the young reading population can be brought to the library to begin, what will, in most cases, be a life’s journey through the written world. 

My own grandchildren and other youngsters I know had made a visit to the local library on Saturdays a part of the weekend family routine.  But now the library is closed on Saturdays.  What a shame.  What does it say about our Local Government leaders that such an unwelcome decision should be imposed on a town with a population in excess of 8,500 souls?  It is quite frankly mindboggling and a huge disappointment to see our town now without a public library opening on Saturdays to add to the already shameful lack of a bookshop during the entire week. 

Even back in the days immediately following the Great Famine Athy had a reading room where a lending library was available with books to borrow, in addition to the Irish and English daily newspapers.  Athy Mechanics Institute was founded in October 1849 as an extension of the Athy Literary and Scientific Institute which was established a year previously.  The Institute’s reading room was in Market Square, now named Emily Square, and even then, despite the best efforts of local Methodist businessman Alexander Duncan the reading rooms remained open on Sundays.  However, its library facilities were available only to members of the Mechanics Institute and so could not truly be called Athy’s first public library.

The first such library in the town of Athy opened in the Town Hall on 1st December 1927.  It was operated by Kildare County Council as the local Urban District Council had earlier relinquished its powers under the Public Libraries Act.  A local library committee was set up and was intended to comprise the local Parish Priest Canon Mackey and his three curates, Fr. Ryan, Fr. Browne and Fr. Kinnane who were joined by Rev. Dunlop, the local Church of Ireland Rector and Rev. Meek of the Presbyterian Church.  The six clerics had as fellow committee members five local Urban District Councillors and the Town Clerk James Lawler who acted as the library secretary.  However, Canon Mackey, who had earlier crossed swords with the local Council, refused to come on the Committee for what he declared were ‘reasons obvious to the Council’.  He was joined in his boycott of the library committee by his senior Curate, Fr. Kinnane.  The Committee in time brought on board more lay members and the first librarian appointed was Mr. B. Brambley of Emily Square. 

Choosing ‘suitable titles for Athy folk’ as reported in the local newspapers, was a task assigned to the library sub-committee comprising Fr. M. Browne, T.C. O’Gorman, Manager of the local Hibernian Bank and P.J. Murphy, draper from Emily Square.  The library opened on 1st December 1927 and initially stayed open one evening a week from 7 to 9 p.m.  This was soon extended to two evenings a week.  From these early beginnings the library service in Athy developed until the recent extraordinary decision to close the community library on a weekend day which is surely the most suitable day of the week for young people to attend their local library.  I would hope that decision can be revisited sooner rather than later.

A community library is an investment for the future.  It forms part of the cultural mainstream of our local community, as does the local Arts Centre in Woodstock Street.  That Centre is gradually building an audience and two recent performances have proved to be particularly rewarding.  John MacKenna, acting in his own one man play, ‘Redemption’ demonstrated yet again his outstanding abilities, both as a writer and as an actor.

This week Athy Musical and Dramatic Society’s presentation of John B. Keane’s ‘Many Young Men of Twenty’ proved to be an outstanding success.  The mixture of comedy and mournful nostalgia which marked Keane’s depiction of emigration from rural Ireland was played with gusto by a cast in which John Kehoe and Angela Clifford starred.  Everything about this production was excellent.  The programme, the stage setting and the acting under the direction of David Walsh gave the audience a night to remember.  It was a very nice gesture for the Society to acknowledge in its programme the last Athy staging of the play in 1974 and to invite the surviving cast of that production to attend the opening night.  Well done to everyone involved.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Michael Noonan

‘What was it’, I asked, ‘that drew publicans to greyhound racing?’  It was a question that puzzled me ever since my young days when local publicans, most prominently Louis O’Mara, Barney Dunne, Michael Noonan and his younger brother Des, were involved in the sport.  I could not remember a morning without witnessing greyhounds being walked to and from their training gallop in nearby fields on the Carlow Road.  My question was addressed to Michael Noonan, now retired after a lifetime serving customers in his pub at Stanhope Street.  Not even an unsurpassed knowledge of greyhound racing could give the answer to my question, but as Michael mused on the issue it struck me that perhaps the enclosed, almost claustrophobic working conditions of Irish pub life encouraged an interest in a sport which required regular, nearly daily, exercise of dogs in the Irish countryside. 

Michael Noonan, now in his 82nd year, comes from a background immersed in greyhound racing.  His Limerick based grandfather was involved with greyhounds and of course his father Michael is remembered while stationed as a Garda in Athy as a keen participant in the sport.  It was Garda Michael Noonan’s good fortune to acquire a greyhound, which although only a moderate race dog subsequently became a famous and extremely valuable stud dog.  ‘Bellas Prince’ was bought as a stud dog and Garda Noonan was in time able to retire and purchase a public house in Stanhope Street, such was the financial success resulting from ‘Bellas Prince’ stud career.

The pub was acquired in the mid 1940s and the Noonan family which lived in No. 3 St. Patrick’s Avenue moved to Stanhope Street.  It would be the Noonan family home for the next 60 years or so.  Michael, whom I had the pleasure of meeting last week, attended the local Christian Brothers School at a time when Brother Nelson was the superior.  He played Gaelic football for the school team and togged out for Athy Gaelic Football Club at all levels from minor to senior grade.  Michael’s success as a footballer was recognised by the Kildare County Board and he figured on Kildare County teams at minor, junior and senior levels.  Michael later succumbed to approaches made by Rheban’s Club Secretary Tom Moore to transfer to Tom’s beloved Rheban G.F.C.  How long that involvement lasted I forgot to ask but I am sure it was longer than the one year commitment which I gave to Rheban in my early playing days.  Again my transfer from Athy to Rheban was at my Offaly Street neighbour’s suggestion, but not even good hearted Tom Moore felt it worthwhile to continue the alignment beyond 12 months so I soon ended back in Athy G.F.C.

Some years ago I took notice for the first time of Michael Noonan’s fine tenor voice.  It was on an occasion in St. Dominic’s Church and prompted me to marvel at the quality of his singing which drew comparisons with another fine local singer, Charlie Prendergast.  I discovered that Michael sang with the Dominican Church Choir for some years and occasionally with the choir of St. Michael’s Parish Church.  He was also involved in a number of shows in the early 1960s, including the Shopkeepers Show put on in St. John’s Hall as part of the Church Development Fund campaign organised by the late Fr. Joe Corbett.

Michael spent his entire working life in the Stanhope Street pub, where a 24 hour day, 7 day week commitment was required.  The publican’s life was never an easy one and the many changes we have seen in recent times in Athy’s bar business is an indication of the unforgiving demands of a job which makes no allowances for family or social life.  Nevertheless Michael who retired six years ago has many happy memories of his long working life. 

Michael’s wife Helen, formerly a Cullen from the Narraghmore area, showed me a number of photographs featuring Michael in his footballing days.  One photograph was of particular interest and it accompanies this article.  It shows what I believe were the victorious St. Joseph’s football team following its success in a street league competition run by Athy G.F.C.  The photograph was dated 1949, but unfortunately the Geraldine Club’s records for that year are not available.  A St. Joseph’s team from 1947 included Jim McEvoy, Joe O’Neill, Eamon Kavanagh and Michael Noonan, all of whom are seen in this photograph.  Can anyone help to put names on the other players and spectators of 62 years ago?

Gaelic football and greyhound racing were a major part of Michael’s sporting and social life and they gave him great enjoyment and wonderful memories which he shared with me last week.  His greatest joy is undoubtedly his family which now includes several grandchildren, in addition to his son, four daughters and his charming wife Helen. 

Thursday, November 10, 2011

World War I - Kelly and Curtis family losses

The war which was expected to end by Christmas was just three months old when Patrick Curtis of Quarry Farm was killed in action on 5th November 1914.  He had joined the Irish Guards in Glasgow.  His brother John had enlisted in the Royal Field Artillery from the same Scottish city.  It was Scotland which in the early years of the 20th century attracted Irishmen to its bustling cities, for fellow Celts found Scottish life more congenial than life in the harsh industrial cities of neighbouring England.

The call to arms, no matter where heard, proved all too attractive for young spirited Irishmen.  The Curtis brothers soon found themselves amongst the ranks of many other Irishmen who for a variety of reasons threw in their lot with the ‘auld enemy’.  The promise of Home Rule, then temporarily delayed awaiting the end of the war, was in itself sufficient reason to enlist.  For others the encouragement of church and civic leaders prompted a rush to join the colours.

A third Curtis brother, Lawrence Curtis, joined the Royal Irish Lancers.  Like his two brothers, Lawrence was living in Glasgow but he travelled back to Dublin to enlist.  The three Curtis brothers would not survive the war, with John joining his brother Patrick in death on 9th January 1917.  On 4th December of that same year Lawrence Curtis died of wounds received in battle.

The Curtis family loss of three sons was similar to that suffered by the Kelly family of Chapel Lane, three of whose sons enlisted the Dublin Fusiliers.  John was the first to die of wounds on 25th May 1915, to be followed just over two months later by his brother Owen who was killed in action on 1st August 1915. 

They had enlisted in the early years of the war, having listened to the impassioned urgings of Athy’s Parish Priest Canon Mackey and with the encouragement of the town’s civic leaders including members of Athy Urban District Council.  Athy men marched to the local Railway Station behind the Leinster Street Fife and Drum Band as family members, neighbours and friends cheered them on their way to enlist at Naas Barracks. 

Denis Kelly enlisted, despite his mother’s best efforts to stop him from doing so.  Mrs. Kelly having already lost two sons went to the Railway Station in search for her young son, hoping to stop him from enlisting in the Dublin Fusiliers as his brothers had done.  However, Denis Kelly did manage to enlist and like his two brothers died of wounds in the field of battle on 30th September 1916. 

The Curtis and Kelly families were just two of the many local families to suffer the loss of men folk in foreign battlefields which stretched from Flanders and France to Gallipoli in Turkey.  The bodies of many of the Athy men killed in battle were never found and so even in death they were denied Christian burials.  For their families back home in Athy the sense of loss would be accentuated by the absence of burial places where grieving parents, wives and children could pay their respects. 

By the time the First World War ended at the 11th hour on the 11th day of the 11th month 1918 almost five million enlisted men and women had been killed on all sides of the conflict.  Over 900,000 of those were listed as British, but included in that number were upwards of 36,000 Irishmen, of whom 230 or so were from the town of Athy and the surrounding district.  It was a human tragedy on an enormous scale and nowhere was that more apparent than in the more than twelve and a half million men who were injured, many permanently, during the war. 

The tragedy of loss and the suffering of injured soldiers were exacerbated by the change in public attitude to the men who returned from the war.  The emergence of Sinn Fein as a powerful political force in Ireland left little room for ex British soldiers to enjoy the fruits of peace.  Few of those Irishmen who fought in the 1914/18 war lived to witness the more recent acceptance of their war involvement as an essential part of our own Irish history. 

The opening of the Irish Peace Tower at Messines on 11th November 1998 by President McAleese was the culmination of a long drawn out reconciliation process.  We in Athy can be justifiably proud that several years before that we had moved to acknowledge our debt to the local men involved in World War 1. 

We can do so again next Sunday, November 13th when an ecumenical remembrance ceremony will be held in St. Michael’s Old Cemetery at 3.00 p.m.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Dympna O'Flaherty / May O'Neill / Josephine Kenny / Jack Doyle / Reggie Hannon / Eddie Browne

In the past two weeks our local community has witnessed the deaths of several of its members, including two men who had spent their early years in Athy but lived away from their home town for many decades.

Dympna O’Flaherty and May O’Neill were in their eighties when they passed away.  Dympna, who possessed a beautiful singing voice, was a member of the various musical societies which graced the stages of the Town Hall and St. John’s Hall from the late 1930s onwards.  The many photographs which have come down to us of the musicals and shows of the society which flourished in Athy over 70 years ago invariably included amongst the casts a young Dympna and her sister May.  Those halcyon days of community music making coincided with the Second World War and was marked by enthusiastic groups of young and not so young men and women who came together to give Athy a musical heritage of which it is justifiably proud.

That same generation will recall the music of Joe O’Neill, a musical genius whose Stardust Band criss crossed the Irish countryside in friendly competition with Mick Delahunty and his orchestra from Clonmel so many years ago.  May O’Neill, the only daughter of parents from Convent Lane, married Joe O’Neill, an only son from St. Joseph’s Terrace.  Several members of their large family inherited the musical talents of their late father and indeed the O’Neill family organised a music fest in Athy for charity over this October Bank Holiday weekend.  May was a well loved lady whose memories stretched back to recall neighbours and friends whose men folk died during World War 1 and who were largely unremembered and unhonoured in the town of their birth for many decades.  She was justifiably gratified when in more recent years it was possible to remember, without rancour, the young men from Athy and district who died in that war. 

Jack Doyle who also passed away recently was remembered by me as a past pupil of the local Christian Brothers School in St. John’s Lane.  Jack was one of the few from the St. John’s Lane school who was fortunate enough to find employment in his home town.  Like his father Tom he worked in the Asbestos factory before retiring some years ago on health grounds.

Josephine Kenny, formerly a Prendergast of Milltown, died last week after a long illness.  She was predeceased by her husband Jimmy who died some years ago and is survived by her four daughters Eileen, Mary, Geraldine and Siobhan.  Her funeral mass was, I believe, a musically warm hearted farewell for a well loved mother. 

The day of Josephine’s funeral I was in Dublin attending the funeral of an Athy man whom I first met nearly 20 years ago.  Reggie Hannon was the sixth of eight children of Rex Hannon and Grace Telford of Ardreigh.  His grandfather, John Alexander Hannon, who lived in Ardreigh House where I am penning these lines, was the proprietor of the mills which operated up to the mid 1920s at Ardreigh and Duke Street, Athy.  Reggie married Elizabeth Colclough from Carlow and they lived in Dublin in a house which they called ‘Ardreigh’.  Reggie was a fund of knowledge on Athy and its people of the 1930s and later.  He was a wonderful man of courteous and charming manner, whose passing is a sad blow for his wife Elizabeth and daughters Gina and Ingrid.

By a strange coincidence Eddie Browne, who like Reggie Hannon once lived in Ardreigh, died last week.  A retired Post Office official who lived in the south east for many years, Eddie was the brother of Billy and Kieran Browne.

Attending so many funerals over the past few weeks brought home to me the importance of the rituals which are part and parcel of the funeral rites of Christian burials.  They are very much an essential part of the community’s desire to unite in sympathy for the loss of one of its own, while at the same time affording comfort to the family of the deceased.  The marking of the last resting place with a gravestone is generally the final act in the grieving process and helps to retain within the local community that final reminder of the person who was once one of us.  As the generations pass the community’s memory lessens and so our cemeteries become not so much places of family pilgrimage as repositories of a past local history. 

One such cemetery whose location in the very centre of Athy is indicative of its antiquity is St. Johns.  St. John’s was once part of the Monastery of St. Thomas the Martyr and Hospital of St. John which was founded in the early years of the 13th century.  The earliest recorded burial in St. John’s was that of Lord John Boneville who was killed at the Battle of Ardscull in 1309.  The last burial in this ancient cemetery was some decades ago when the Weldon family tomb was reopened for perhaps the last time.  Thanks to the sterling work of Honor McCulloch, whose father was from Sawyerswood, the cemetery has been cleaned up and a forgotten part of our local history brought to the community’s attention.  On Wednesday 2nd November at 4.30 p.m. an ecumenical rededication ceremony will take place in St. John’s Cemetery.  The rededication ceremony is open to the public.