He was born just days after Rory O’Connor led anti-treaty forces in occupying the Four Courts in Dublin. That action was the start of the Irish Civil War. For someone born in turbulent times Frank O’Brien possesses none of the characteristics of a combatitive man. He is always the genial host presiding over his emporium with calmness and a courtesy which speaks of old world charm and manners.
Frank will be 90 years of age on 22nd April. When you mention the name of Frank O’Brien the talk must be of Athy. When you mention Athy the name Frank O’Brien comes to the fore. Both are synonymous, not just because Frank has spent a long lifetime working out of what was his father’s and his grandfather’s grocery cum public house in the centre of the town. Rather it is the more than obvious pride in his home town, a pride which is apparent even to those whose passing glances might catch the altered Sweet Afton signs at the top of the O’Brien shop windows.
Not a local event goes unnoticed in the O’Brien household but is announced with pride and no little panache by the deft use of handmade posters and other paper memorabilia displayed in the windows facing out onto Emily Square.
Many have described Frank as a historian, something he would never claim for himself. His memories are the stuff which historians mine, culling from 90 years of local experience and knowledge the stories, the family histories and the connections which go to make up a community’s past.
I have lost count of the number of times I have turned to Frank O’Brien to unravel for me some local mystery. What to me was a mystery was to Frank O’Brien a matter of detail which he could extract from a memory going back decades before my time. He is a repository of local knowledge, carefully stored and shaped, ready to be retrieved and made available to anyone who appreciates and values the importance of local knowledge.
I have known Frank for many years and until more recent years did not appreciate his worth, his value to a community which is still emerging crab like from a past shaped by historic allegiances and connections. The garrison town description is one which I and my classmates were familiar with when a particular Christian Brother wished to express his annoyance with the young fellows from Athy.
The emergence of a noticeable community spirit amongst the townspeople of Athy was signalled with the Church building campaign of the 1950s and the subsequent swimming pool funding appeal. Many other projects have come and gone since those days but an important touchstone for all of them was the willingness of people like Frank O’Brien to metaphorically carry the flag for Athy.
Pride of place is the hallmark of Frank O’Brien’s contribution to the local community. We look to Frank’s shop windows at any time of the year to see a positive message, spelling out all that is best and all that is of value in our community.
At 90 years of age Frank has achieved a wonderful stage in his life and can look back with satisfaction and pride at his contribution to his local community. All of us can contribute in so many different ways to the life of our community. Frank O’Brien’s contribution is one of encouragement, one of acknowledgement and one of singular pride in the town of his birth.
It is 138 years since the O’Brien name first appeared over the door of the grocery and spirit merchants shop in Emily Square. Frank’s grandfather Stephen O’Brien, a Kilkenny man, bought the business from James Leahy, a member of Athy’s Town Commissioners who was elected a Member of Parliament for South Kildare in 1880. When Stephen O’Brien died in 1919 at the age of 76 years the business was taken over by Frank’s father Francis O’Brien. Frank has been the owner and proprietor of O’Briens since 1970.