It’s an ironic twist of fate that men and women from Athy, the town settled by English settlers, have over the years turned in large numbers to English towns and cities to find employment. The period following the Irish Civil War saw a significant number of local men leave Ireland for America and England, realising that they had little prospect of earning a living in Ireland under a Government which they had opposed with arms. Many others not involved in the Civil War also departed these shores, their confidence in the emerging new State undermined by decades of conflict and in many cases by personal tragedy and loss. Indeed the 1920s saw so many young men take the emigrant boat that the local Gaelic Football Club was virtually dormant. It took trojan work by Tyrrellspass native Eamon Malone, a secondary school teacher and activist in the Irish War of Independence, who was based in the local Christian Brothers Secondary School, to revive the Club.
Throughout the dark years of the economic war of the 1930s Athy was a black spot for employment. The local brickyards, which apart from farm work had once been the main source of employment in the town, had closed. Athy, however, benefitted from the opening of the Asbestos factory in Mullery’s field in 1936 and the town which up to then had to rely on local foundries and the maltings for employment now had the foundation for possible future industrial development. It was the Asbestos factory and post World War II the Wallboard factory at Tomard which gave Athy, for a time, a thriving industrial sector which afforded many local men the opportunity of working in their home town. However, with a population of 4,000 or so in the town there was never enough work opportunities even at the best of times, which left many Athy men and women with no alternative but to take the emigrant boat.
There have been many fine studies published over the years with regard to the Emigrant Irish in Britain. In exposing the Irish ghettoisation of English cities in the 19th century to the complicated relationship between the Irish and British of more recent years these studies make sad reading. However, the more recent history of the Irish in Britain is one in which we can justifiably take pride.
On a recent visit to London I took the opportunity of meeting and interviewing an Athy man who left the town of his birth for England when he was just 13½ years of age. James Birney is now 62 years of age and was brought up in Athy with seven siblings by his father Mick following the early death of his mother. Jim, as he is called, has good memories of his family and of Athy. Jim’s father, Mick Birney and his uncle Jim, were members of Athy Gaelic Football Championship winning teams in 1937 and 1942 and he is understandably proud of his family’s sporting success in their home county of Kildare. Approximately one year after his mother died Jim went to Manchester to work for his uncle Peter Hickey. He returned to Athy four years later and worked for almost 1½ years for the late Tommy Keegan at Keegans sawmills in Foxhill. When Tommy sold the business Jim and his workmates Paddy Supple and Robert Reid had to find alternative employment. Jim had no option but to return to England and this time it was to London he came, where as he says himself, ‘I was the first Birney to come to the English capital.’ His brother Mick and sister Rita are now also living in London.
Working as a barman Jim was made very aware of the anti-Irish feeling among the English and particularly so when on marrying his Portroe, Co. Tipperary wife Christina found rented accommodation so many times unavailable for ‘Irish or Blacks’. Undeterred, Jim, who has a wonderful outlook on life went on to build for himself and his family a happy and fulfilling life in England.
As I spoke to Jim and his delightful wife Christina I wondered what the future would have held for him if he had not taken the momentous decision to leave Athy at such an early age. I could not but feel that if Jim had stayed in Athy he would have counted himself lucky to have got work in a local factory. He would have possibly missed out on the opportunity to better himself and give his three children the successful careers they now enjoy.
Emigration inflicts a high toll on Irish towns and villages and deprives local communities of vital young lifeblood. Yet undoubtedly many of those who left these shores benefitted hugely after emigrating and Jim Birney’s generation is but one of those who over the decades have shown the mettle and the initiative which is invariably crowned with success.