When I started on this weeks “Eye on the Past” I planned to write an article in celebration of the life of Alice Myles who was born in 1906. I interviewed Alice on the occasion of her 96th birthday and found a delightfully active woman, full of wit and the joys of life. Last week, preparations were in hand to celebrate her centenary with a birthday party in Athy Golf Club, which by a happy coincidence is this year also celebrating its own centenary. Members of the Myles extended family arranged to travel from America and England for the planned celebrations, but even as some had arrived in Athy and others were in transit, news arrived of Alice’s unexpected death on Thursday night, just over one day short of her 100th birthday.
The centenary of a life is a lifespan few of us can ever hope to enjoy. Alice Myles lived not only a long life, but also a happy contented life surrounded by her extended family, neighbours and friends. She was born at a time when our country was still governed from Westminister and lived through periods of great change. Born three years after the Gordon Bennett Race had brought racing cars on to the streets of Athy giving locals their first sight of motor cars, Alice would live to see the same town streets become an almost permanent traffic jam. A school girl at the local convent schools which had opened in 1852, she witnessed the closure of the Convent of Mercy and the departure some years earlier of the Christian Brothers from the town of Athy.
As a young girl of eight years she would have seen the young men from the town, who following behind one of the local bands, marched to the railway station to start the first leg of a journey, which for many of them, there was no return. The year was 1914 and over the following four years as the numbers enlisting in the Army grew, the young girl would have noticed the frequency with which telegram boys from the local Post Office brought the dreaded news of another death to local families.
She remembered her mother’s brother, Patrick Donohue, who at the age of forty years went to war and died on the 31st of May 1915 from the effects of gas poisoning. She recalled her mother receiving a letter from an officer at the war front, with which he enclosed a photograph showing Patrick Donohue lying on what was to be his death bed, just an hour and a half before he died. The photograph is one of the most unique wartime photographs I have ever seen and with the accompanying letter dated 9th June with the line “I enclose a photograph I took about an hour and a half before your boy died”, is perhaps one of the most poignant reminders of a sad period in the history of our town.
I was reminded of Patrick Donohue and the many other Athy men who died in the 1914-18 war when I heard Jacinta O’Donnell’s wonderful rendition of Alice’s favourite song, “Bunch of Violets Blue” at her funeral mass on Friday last.
“A soldier boy lay dying,
Out in the battle field,
A bunch of withered violets,
On his breast were still to be seen,
And turning to his comrades,
With the life blood flowing fast,
Take them to her and tell her that,
I wore them to the last.”
Alice was a young girl of fifteen when the news of the shooting of Connor and Lacy in nearby Barrowhouse filtered back to Athy in the afternoon of 16th May 1921. The news created excitement and some fear amongst the locals who were becoming more and more aware of the changes in attitudes and allegiances in Ireland after the rebellion of 1916. The Civil War came at a time when Alice worked as a childminder for Mr. and Mrs. Eugene Minch at Cardenton. She was employed by them for five years, caring for the Minch’s only child Claire, and it was while working there that she met her future husband, William Myles, who was chauffeur to Eugene’s brother, Matthew P. Minch. However, before she married, Alice spent four years working for another family in Dun Laoghaire, then known as Kingstown. Returning to Athy in 1930 she married William and the Myles family moved to live in a small house in Rockfield which is part of the Minch’s estate.
It was in the early 1930’s that Alice witnessed the greatest changes ever made in the physical makeup of her home town. The Slum Clearance Programmes initiated by the De Valera government first elected in 1932 saw the removal of many of the courtyards, alleys and laneways of the historic town. Up to then Athy, like so many other Irish provincial towns, was a claustrophobic centre of life where Dickensian living conditions were to be found in the alleys and laneways which lead off the main thoroughfares of the town. Families lived in the small substandard hovels which lined those darkened lanes and alleyways, prone to disease and illness and relying for water on public water pumps which were serviced from the piped water scheme completed by the local council just one year after Alice Myles was born. Up to then the town population relied on nine wells which local medical officer, Dr. James Kilbride, claimed were “situated within closely inhabited areas and from their faulty construction are liable to contamination and permit of the access of surface water and percolation from drains.” Prior to the provision of the towns pipe water scheme, which incidentally was opposed for several years by local ratepayers, the contaminated water from the towns wells resulted in several deaths from typhoid fever each year.
The destruction of the slum dwellings started in 1934 after the re-housing of families from Kelly’s Lane, Garden Lane, Chapel Lane, Barkers Row, Barrack Street, Shrewleen Lane and New Gardens. The clearance programme continued until the last vestige of “old Athy” was gone with the demolition of houses in Janeville Lane and Butler’s Row, both lying on either side of Offaly Street or Preston’s Gate, as the lower section of the street was once called.
Over the years Alice, now the mother of a young family, witnessed the changes in the working life of Athy. Where previously local men were dependent on farm work or the local brickyards for seasonal employment, the opportunities for full time employment became a reality by the 1930’s. The I.V.I. and the newly opened Asbestos factory ushered in a period of industrial activity which the town had never before experienced. It brought a welcome improvement in living standards for some but for many more, the emigration boat offered the only hope of breaking the perennial cycle of unemployment.
The Second World War followed and coincided with William Myles’ prolonged illness which required his confinement for several weeks in Kildare District Hospital. Alice once told me of the many trips she made on a bike to Kildare hospital to see her husband and of the difficult times experienced by her young family during her husband’s prolonged illness. Throughout it all Alice never lost heart or allowed her good humour to be submerged, an attitude which prevailed throughout her long happy life. Her husband William who spent his working life with the Minch’s died 31 years ago aged 72. By then the Myles family had moved to the old Fever Hospital on the Stradbally Road which they shared with the three Moyladd sisters. The Fever Hospital was where another of her mother’s brothers, John Donohue, died some years before the First World War. In telling me this, Alice was unconsciously perhaps, reaffirming how her own life resonated with history and the people who were part of that history.
Last week as Alice’s 100th birthday approached her family and friends prepared to gather to celebrate the event in the surroundings of the other local centenarian, the Athy Golf Club. The good humour which marked Alice’s long life was evident to the last. Her nephew, Ned Conway, who spoke to her early on Wednesday morning and complimented her on her hair she had styled for the upcoming celebrations, received a quick response, “all I need now is a facelift”. It was so typical of the quick-witted and pleasant lady whose passing later that same day was greeted with disbelief and sadness throughout the locality.
Her funeral to St. Michael’s Cemetery took place on the 100th anniversary of her birth on 4th March 1906. As Alice Lacey, and later as Alice Myles, she lived through one hundred years of enormous changes in Irish life and society. In that time Athy had undergone enormous changes including the eradication of the tenements and the laneways of impoverished urban life which marked its uneasy transition from a garrison town to one of the first industrialised provincial towns in Ireland. It was sadly a leading role which Athy did not maintain in the face of a demand for industry from other Irish provincial towns over the decades.
Alice Myles was privileged to live a long happy life and all who knew her were privileged to have shared in her good nature and shared in the sheer delight she enjoyed in the company of her 8 children, 33 grandchildren, 34 great grandchildren and 2 great great grandchildren..