I am not at liberty to mention her age. Not as a result of any prohibition on sharing that information with the public at large, but largely because for as long as I can remember her, Betty O’Donnell has managed to retain the jovial outlook of a happy, carefree young woman. She is a most generous talker, sharing and swapping words and phrases with abandon, but invariably her conversation is both engaging and calculated to retain your interest to the very last. Come to think of it, I did not get around to asking Betty her age when we talked to each other last week, an oversight may I say, rather than any genuflection in the direction of good manners.
I remember Betty’s late husband, Jimmy, for the kindness he showed to me when as an aspiring golfer I took to the fairways at Geraldine when youthful energy was something I could still rely upon. It was in the 1960’s and I was accustomed on an occasional Saturday to take the few second hand clubs I had bought from Phil Lawler to practice my unorthodox golfing techniques on the well manicured course on the Kildare Road. I liked nothing better than to hit the practice balls down the second fairway which for some reason held more appeal for me than any other part of the nine hole course. Jimmy was a very good golfer and I can still remember the lengths he went to to teach me how to hit a pitch and run shot from just off the green. In those days golfing was a leisure pursuit which one could pursue alone or in company, invariably unhurried and without any pressure from players in front or to the rear. However, I digress slightly.
Betty O’Donnell is synonymous with The Gem which most of us probably believe has been part of the Athy scene for generations. In fact, the premises at No. 10 Duke Street is listed in Porter’s Post Office Guide for 1910 as being occupied by Patrick Prendergast, saddler and stationer. Betty tells me that Prendergast was a cousin of the late Charlie Moore and that the premises was subsequently owned by Donegan’s who carried on business as newsagents. The name Donegan brings to mind a report I read many years ago - where, I cannot now recall - of a fire in a Duke Street premises which resulted in the loss of life. Was it, I wonder, Donegan’s premises which was destroyed by fire in or around 1939, the site of which Carlow cabinet maker Tom Prendergast bought to build a shop for his sister who had returned from the U.S.A. with her son?
Bridget Gavin was the returned emigrant and it was she who opened the doors of The Gem for the first time. Known as “Auntie B”, Mrs. Gavin combined the sale of sweets with the running of an ice-cream parlour which on fair days became an eating house and tea rooms. A hairdressing salon was to be found on the first floor. However, the opening of Bradbury’s Restaurant on Leinster Street prompted Mrs. Gavin’s retirement, following which in 1948, Jimmy O’Donnell and his young bride, the former Betty Prendergast who were married the previous year, took over the business. In the intervening 57 years Betty and The Gem have been an ever constant presence on the main shopping street of Athy.
Those of you old enough to be within shouting distance of an old age pension will remember James’ newsagents which was located at the right hand corner of Convent Lane as one looked up towards the Dominican’s. The premises no longer exists, pulled down many years ago to enable the lane to be widened. The shop was there for many years and indeed the 1910 Guide I mentioned earlier has Mrs. M.A. James occupying No. 12 Duke Street where she carried on business as “Bookseller, Stationery and Fancy Goods, Baskets and Picture Postcards”. Postcards of Athy printed from James of Duke Street, Athy are still to be found from time to time in second hand book shops. The inclusion of baskets as part of the goods sold in the shop is quite intriguing and I wonder if it is an indication of the extensive nature of the basket making craft industry in Athy at that time. Soon after Betty O’Donnell came to Athy James closed its doors for the last time and the much sought after newsagency was acquired by Betty for The Gem. That confirmed the future direction of the business and the Tea Rooms which had been a major part of The Gem’s business in the past was finally wound down.
Betty and her Leitrim born husband, Jimmy were blessed with nine children, two of whom, Rosemary and Maura, are in Australia, with Niall in America. Liam died at infancy, Eilish lives in Bettystown, Ann and John in Dublin, while Athy is home to Úna and Jimmy. Betty was widowed in 1971 when her husband Jimmy died at the young age of 52. It was a cruel blow for a young woman left with a large family, the youngest of whom was just five years old. Behind Betty’s cheerfulness lies a resourcefulness and an innate strength which has seen her bring her family to adulthood, while at the same time running a busy town centre retailing outlet. Always good natured, the effervescent Betty has managed over the years to involve herself in the social and community life of the town. Elected by her peers to be Lady Captain and later Lady President of Athy Golf Club, Betty occupied both positions with distinction. She still retains an interest in bridge playing and is a member of the Geraldine Bridge Club and the Bridge Club attached to the local Golf Club.
Betty, a Carlow woman by birth, after 57 years in Athy has an unlimited fund of stories concerning the people of her adopted town which I am delighted to say she willingly shared with me. The Gem continues today as a newsagency and stationery business and like James shop of nearly 100 years ago is the only shop in Athy where one can be guaranteed to be able to buy a book. It was a pleasure talking and listening to Betty O’Donnell, doyen of the Duke Street business world whose premises, if I am not mistaken, is the second oldest business still operating on its original site in Duke Street. No doubt if I am wrong someone will tell me.
One other matter which might prompt a call is a letter which appeared in the Irish Post in March 1973. Written by Joseph Durkin, then living in Southport, he wrote as he described himself as “an Irish bricksetter, living in an English Council house with no hope of regaining a piece of Ireland on which I by right should live”. Writing on the question of the Irish in England being given the vote in the “forthcoming elections in the Free State” he questioned how he could vote for Cosgrave “whose father imprisoned mine in Mountjoy without cause from 1921 to 1926”. Continuing, he claimed that casting his vote would have as little effect as “if I had recorded it in my town of Athy where my father and his father tried many times to imbue the people with sight. Sight that they may see the gombeen man, the self seekers, the craw thumpers, the police spies and informers, the hockey players even. He failed. They failed”.
Durkin’s letter intrigued me and I kept it all these years without ever finding out anything about the man who wrote with such passion. In the hope of getting some information on Joseph Durkin and his unidentified father I append this closing paragraph this week.