David Neill was half a generation ahead of me and so, although we were both of Offaly Street, we never shared a youthful friendship. However, he was part of the memories gathered by me during years spent in No. 6 and later No. 5 Offaly Street. Memories of families who lived in the street – treasured memories of happy times spent amongst people who although not rich in the material sense were nevertheless happy and content.
David’s funeral last week brought members of some of those families who once lived in Offaly Street back to Athy to pay their respects. Next door neighbours Tommy Tuohy and Brendan Murphy were joined by members of the Kelly, Moore and Taaffe families, all of whom lived in close proximity to each other over 60 years ago. In those days there was a sense of pride in our own street – our own part of Athy where we knew our neighbours and treasured friendships which endured over the years. We identified with our neighbours foibles, measured ourselves against their achievements and took pride and shared sorry in equal measure in the trials of everyday life.
David was part of that simple life we all enjoyed then and he reaffirmed his Offaly Street allegiances when he married May Breen, whose family were residents of Offaly Street long before the Taaffes migrated from Castlecomer in 1945.
Brendan Murphy, whose family home next door to the Neills was torn down and rebuilt during the Celtic Tiger years, travelled from Tramore where he now lives in retirement. He remembers better than I could Alec Neill and his formidable wife and the almost daily visits by Mrs. Neill to her next door neighbours, the Murphys. On the far side of the Neill home lived the Tuohy family and Fr. Tommy Tuohy, fulfilling a now well established tradition of officiating at ‘Offaly Street funerals’, once again officiated at the funeral mass in St. Michael’s Parish Church.
Offaly Street is now changed, with only Marjorie Kelly and Nan Breen still living in the houses where their respective families lived for so long. It is still a street of memories – a street where the past is reflected in the seemingly unchanging house fronts of another era. What I can remember with some pride is the way in which the adults of 60 or so years ago played their part in the local community. David Neill was one such man. He was one of several who week in week out went from house to house collecting money for the Parish Church Building Fund. Later on David was a member of the Swimming Pool Fundraising Committee which worked tirelessly to collect monies to build the town’s first swimming pool. He was also one of the early members of the local Credit Union and in most recent years was actively involved with Athy’s Rugby Club.
Like so many others in the town David Neill contributed in his quiet but effective way to the well being of the local community. Athy of the 1950s and 1960s was marked by a huge upsurge in community centered activity. It was a time of whole hearted involvement by many locals seeking to provide facilities which were lacking in the town. We now have a Credit Union and a swimming pool thanks to the voluntary work of people like David Neill and we can boast of superb facilities in our local sports clubs, once again due to the voluntary work of generations of Athy men and women.
On a personal note I want to record the passing of historian Robert Kee and poet Dennis O’Driscoll. Robert Kee’s book ‘The Green Flag’ was the catalyst which awakened my interest in Irish history, while Dennis O’Driscoll’s poetic work has been a favourite of mine ever since I first came across a copy of his collected works published in 2004. Strangely I never met Dennis O’Driscoll, yet when I look at Kim Haughton’s photo of the poet which graces the cover of his collected works I am conscious that I am looking at a man who was very familiar to me. Yet I cannot say why. His poem ‘The Home Town’ has the following lines which seem appropriate to include in a tribute to a volunteer of the past :
‘And a bond deepened between you: you responded to its easygoing wit,
its readiness to lift a hand, took pride in its sizeable stadium, watched
the river flee beneath the bridge like a non-stop mainline train.
Hardly a day passes that the town does not cross your mind,
and though, officially, you’ve left behind the confines of its square,
acquired what lawyers call new domicile, it still answers to home.’