I left the Christian Brother’s School in January 1961 and went to work with Kildare County Council. I was to remain out of Athy for the following 21 years. Just three years before I departed for the heady heights of the county capital, another local, more adult in years than I was, took the emigrant boat for Holyhead on his way to the English capital of London. He was Christy Johnson, then 26 years of age, who after 12 years labouring in the Asbestos and Wallboard factories followed the route taken to England by so many of his peers.
Christy was the seventh of ten children born to Johnny and Dora Johnson, who when he arrived, lived in Meeting Lane. The family moved soon afterwards to No. 7 Lower St. Joseph’s Terrace where they were the first tenants of the newly built Council house. Christy’s father worked at drawing gravel and stones from the Council pit at Gallowshill, while his mother, the former Dora Kelly from Athy was kept busy looking after the ten young Johnson children. Her four sons, John, Larry, Christy and Andy were all destined to emigrate to England, as were two of her daughters, Kitty and Lily. Two of Christy’s sisters Sheila and Irene are married and living in Athy, while Kitty and Lily are married in England. Another sister Molly died at the comparatively young age of 20 years.
Christy attended the Christian Brothers school and recalls classmates with whom he shared lessons taught by Christian Brothers Regan and Keane and a lay teacher, Paddy Spillane. Andy Murphy, Michael Donnelly, Fintan Gibbons, Hugh Kerrigan, Eddie Conway, Jack Taaffe, Pascal Myles, Peadar Dooley, John Fanning and John Joe Dunne are but some of the names he recalls after 56 years. He left school at 14 years of age and started work in the Asbestos factory. There he worked as a juvenile in the moulding room making asbestos eave gutters by hand and recalls his first day when wolf whistles greeted his appearance on the factory floor in short trousers. The next day he reappeared dressed in one of his father’s old trousers which his mother had to cut down by six inches or so to save the young lad’s blushes.
Frank Gibbons of Emily Square was the factory foreman with Willie “Woodbine” O’Neill as chargehand. Other factory juveniles he recalls at that time were John Alcock of Dooley’s Terrace, Jimmy “Cagney” Murray of St. Joseph’s Terrace, Christy Rochford, John Connell of Dooley’s Terrace and George Lammon who retired some years ago after 50 years service with the factory. Dan Meaney, who died recently, was in charge of one of the workshops and the workmen included George Robinson and his brother “Legs” Robinson, Peter Fitzsimons, Tommy Deering of Ardreigh, Jack O’Rourke and Eamon “Slock” Kavanagh. After six years or so Christy left the Asbestos factory for the newly opened Wallboard factory at Blackford where he worked with the likes of Liam Dunne and Gerry Sullivan and one of his first jobs was the digging of foundations for the office block at the factory.
When Christy left for London in 1958 he boarded the Dublin-bound train at the local station with his suitcase in hand and later embarked on the Princess Maud at Dun Laoghaire eventually arriving in Euston Station in the early hours of the following morning. Within a week Christy, who had spent six years moulding asbestos material with his bare hands was working in Lyon’s bakery where he spent the next two years learning to bake bread. There he met Andy Murphy from Offaly Street who was to remain his great friend until Andy’s premature death almost ten years ago. As a result of an introduction by Andy, Christy became a barman and worked in a succession of pubs throughout London over the following years. A spell in Tottenham was followed by a period in a Praed street pub in Paddington and finally in the Prince of Wales pub in South London. Christy finally ended up as a Commissionaire with the B.B.C. in White City where he remained until he retired in 1991. A resident of the Hammersmith/Shepherd’s Bush area for the last 21 years, Christy readily acknowledges that Shepherd’s Bush has been his “home town” ever since he left Athy 44 years ago. “I am Christy Johnson from Athy and Shepherd’s Bush” he says with pride.
I started off this article by mentioning my own departure from Athy 41 years ago. I did so because as long as I can remember, and I believe it pre-dates my leaving Athy in 1961, I can recall Christy Johnson returning in July of each year to his hometown for a two week holiday. He has not missed a trip since 1958 and he is our most regular summer visitor. Even though his father died in 1955 and his mother in 1977 and despite the fact that No. 7 St. Joseph’s Terrace is now occupied by his niece and her family, Christy Johnson’s home is still Athy. Nowadays on his annual trip home he spends time with his sisters Sheila Rigney of Pairc Bhride, Irene Keogh of Geraldine and Nancy McEvoy of Carlow.
Emigration was one of the certainties of life in Athy up to the early 1970’s and Christy recalled for me some of the young men, who like him, took the emigrant boat to England. Entire families left the town, such as the Murphy’s of Offaly Street, the Murray’s and the Territt’s of St. Joseph’s Terrace. The Davis family of No. 9 St. Joseph’s Terrace emigrated to England and with them went the colourful local names with which they were long associated. They were Jim “Cymbals” Davis, Willie “Wag” Davis, John “Merryman” Davis and their brother Barney also emigrated as did the Sullivan brothers Michael and Gerry of No. 5 St. Joseph’s Terrace, Eamon, “Gurdie” Keogh and Michael “Siki” Keogh, formerly of No. 1 St. Joseph’s Terrace. There are few houses in any street in the town which did not give one or more to the emigrant trail of the 1950’s and ‘60’s.
Christy Johnson of Shepherd’s Bush and Athy was one of the Athy men whose adult life was spent among strangers but he has never forgotten the friends and the former neighbours who still crowd his memories of Athy in his younger days. He recalled for me the caretakers of the CYMS, or at it was then known the Billiards Room at Stanhope Street, starting with Dick Connor who lived in that same street. “Skurt” Doyle of Convent View was another, followed by Tommy McDonald of the same terrace, George Sharpe of St. Patrick’s Avenue and George Donaldson of Emily Square. Billiard players of note he named as Dan McEvoy and Jim McEvoy of Rathstewart, Danny Shaughnessy, Ger Doran and his brother Eugene.
The man who learned to read while swinging on the half door in Meeting Lane while facing the dispensary sign on the gate opposite looks forward each week to the Kildare Nationalist which his sister Sheila Rigney sends to him. That same paper goes on to his brother Lar in Wandsworth and from him to another Athy man Bill Power in East Acton, London. The urbane well-dressed man who returns to Athy every July and has done so for the past 44 years has maintained friendships and contacts with friends and colleagues from his younger days in Athy. Truly can it be said of Christy Johnson that while he left Athy in 1958, Athy has never left him.