Thursday, March 29, 2012

Tim Hickey Butcher and World War I Veteran

Tim Hickey came from a distinguished Narraghmore family.  I remember Tim’s butcher shop in Emily Square with sawdust on the floor and beef carcasses suspended by hooks from railing which crisscrossed the ceiling.  There was no counter, just a large butcher’s block in the centre of the floor where Tim and his assistant worked skilfully cutting and sawing meat.

I recall a small man, nothing unusual in appearance, with a background of which I knew little.  That is unless I exclude the story once told to me of how Tim Hickey had panned for gold in Bonanza Creek following the Klondike goldrush of 1896.  Was it true? – I don’t know but it was what I was told of Tim Hickey, the butcher, over 50 years ago. 

It was not until long after Tim died that I learned he had enlisted and fought in the First World War where he suffered a serious facial injury.  Apparently Tim, while carrying a wounded soldier from the battlefield, was caught in an explosion which killed his companion.  Tim suffered facial injuries which necessitated the insertion in the left side of his face of a plate, which he carried to his grave. 

Tim was one of the many thousands of Irishmen who enlisted to fight overseas during the 1914-18 war.  Encouraged to do so by Church and civic leaders it is understandable why so many young men like Tim chose to enlist.  However, by the time the war had ended in November 1918 the Irish public’s attitude to the British Army had changed.  The Hickey family, like so many other Irish families having already given a son to the war in Europe, were to have a second son involved in the guerrilla war waged by Irish Republicans against the very army which had spearheaded the fight against Germany.  Tim’s brother Jim Hickey, who in later years worked as a welfare officer in Naas, was a member of the old I.R.A.  Once captured by the Black and Tans who knew of his involvement with the I.R.A., Jim was dragged behind a British Army lorry before being thrown into a ditch on the old Kilcullen/Athy road.  He survived that ordeal and continued to play a prominent part in the Irish War of Independence. 

Another brother was Joe Hickey, who married Margaret Walsh, sister of Dave Walsh, who in later years with his son Tommy was a prominent member of the Athy Social Club Players.  The Walsh’s had a hardware/grocery and bar at the corner of Leinster Street and Chapel Lane.  Other brothers were Tom who ran the Post Office in Narraghmore and Mick who had a pub/grocery shop in Calverstown.  Peter, a younger brother of Tim Hickey, emigrated to America and lost contact with his family back home in Ireland.  The last news of him came to Tim in his butcher shop one day when a stranger called to tell him that his brother Peter had been killed in America some time previously in a road accident. 

Tim Hickey had two sisters, Margaret who married Laurence Kelly of Milltown just outside Newbridge and Mary who married Frank McDonald, a butcher in Castledermot.  Coincidentally their son Frank McDonald was a well known actor on the professional stage in Dublin, as indeed was Jim Hickey’s son Tom, better known as ‘Benjy’ in ‘The Riordans’. 

Tim Hickey’s butcher shop was one of several such shops in Athy at a time when supermarkets were unknown.  The changes which supermarkets and out of town shopping centres brought to the high streets of provincial towns in Ireland are disproportionate to the benefits they bestowed.  The independent butcher has almost disappeared from the high streets and the grocery shop of old, which doubled as the local pub, is now but a memory.  Greaneys butchers shop in William Street, with Hylands of Leinster Street  and O’Briens grocery bar of Emily Square are the last of their kind and hopefully they will continue to be part of the business life of Athy for many years to come.

Tim Hickey is but one of my memories of Athy’s business life of five decades or more ago.  Athy then was home to substantially more independent shopkeepers than are to be found in the town today.  Every one of them traded successfully, some more so than others, and all contributed hugely to the commercial success which was evident in Athy of yesteryear.  The persistence of the current local Town Council in designating sites on the periphery of the town for shopping centres is difficult to understand given the adverse impact which these developments have on the commercial life of a town centre.  Businesses such as the Tim Hickey’s of this world deserve to be encouraged and protected and hopefully the newly elected Chamber of Commerce will begin to tackle the many issues which continue to militate against the commercial development of Athy’s town centre.

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