Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Councillors from the Past

With the local elections on Friday I am prompted to look back at some of the men and women who over the years put themselves before the electorate at past local elections.  In my young days local politics was well represented by the gentlemanly figures of M.G. Nolan, an ardent Fianna Fáiler and Michael Cunningham of Fianna Gael.  Both sat on Athy Urban District Council as well as being members of Kildare County Council and I cannot recall either of them indulging in the type of histrionics which seems to be part and parcel of politics today.

Tom Carbery of St. Martin’s Terrace was an Urban Councillor from 1928 until his death in May 1974.  A man who was not afraid of putting across his point of view, Tom is best remembered today for his involvement in exposing the tight fisted food allowance for inmates of the County Home during the 1950’s.  In those days the administration of the health services was organised on a county basis and Kildare County Council was accused by Tom of providing the inmates with a less than generous daily allowance of butter.  Having obtained from one of the County Home inmates the allotted butter portion for one day, he brought the criticised article in a matchbox to a meeting of the Urban Council where he dramatically threw it on the table at a critical point during the Council discussion.  Tom’s intervention led to an immediate improvement in the dietary allowances of the inmates.

Paddy Dooley was never given to such dramatic interventions.  Instead the man who was first elected in 1945 and who served as a Councillor until 1979 made his points quietly and always with consideration for the feelings of other people.  He was in a sense the very antithesis of the brash outspoken politician of today, yet his approach was effective not only in achieving the desired results, but also in gaining the votes which saw him elected as a T.D. on three occasions.  Jack McKenna, although living in Castledermot, was a member of Athy Urban District Council from 1967 to 1974.  He was perhaps the only local Councillor who did not live in the town but Jack who worked at the local railway station for many years was well known throughout the area.  Indeed he served for a time as a member of Kildare County Council and so far as I can recall he also served at least one term as Chairman of that authority.

Megan Maguire when elected to the Council in 1974 was the first woman Councillor in Athy for almost 30 years.  She was later to have the honour of being the first ever lady Chairperson of Athy Urban District Council.  It is not well known but women Councillors first made an appearance on the local Council in 1928.  Brigid Darby of Leinster Street was elected that year and six years later she was joined by Mrs. Sarah Doyle of Hillsview House on the 15 seat Council.  When the next election came around in 1942 the number of Councillors was reduced to nine and again two lady Councillors were elected.  Mrs. Sarah Doyle for a second term and Mrs. B. Whelan of Holmcroft.  Both ladies departed the scene in 1945 and the local Council remained an all male preserve until the election of Megan Maguire in 1974.  Megan was re-elected in 1979 when she was joined by another lady Councillor, Lenore O’Rourke-Glynn.

In 1925 Sydney Minch was first elected to the Urban Council and he was re-elected in 1928 and 1934.  He contested the general election of 1932 when he was elected a T.D. as a Cumann na Gael candidate.  He successfully contested the general elections of 1933 and 1937 before losing his Dáil seat in 1938.  Sydney Minch continued as an Urban Councillor until 1942. 

Liam Ryan, who more than any other person encouraged my interest in Irish history, served as a local Councillor when he was co-opted in 1946 to fill the vacancy caused by the resignation of John Lawler of Woodstock Street.  Liam who was a teacher in the local Christian Brothers School remained on the Council until the election of September 1950.  That election is the first one I have any memory of and my hazy recollection relates to the sudden death of Tom Flood of Leinster Street who died shortly after the election.  His son Frank was co-opted in his place.  My childhood memory of the events of the time was however faulty as I always believed Tom Flood died just before the election but that his name remained on the ballot paper.  The Council records shows otherwise.

Another Councillor I recall with fond memories was a next door neighbour from Offaly Street.  Tom Moore was elected a Councillor in 1955 and he served just one term until 1960.  I wonder how many today will remember the other Councillors who sat in the Urban Council with Tom Moore between 1955 and 1960.  They were Tom Carbery, Tadgh Brennan, Paddy Dooley, Michael Cunningham, Joe Deegan, M.G. Nolan, Eddie Purcell, Patrick Doyle and Jim Fleming.

Its a great privilege to represent your community, whether at local or national level, and the men and women who put themselves forward for election deserve our thanks, even if some of them are destined never to get our votes.

Elections in Athy up to 20 years ago always caused a hive of activity in Emily Square where the voting booths were located in the Town Hall and the Courthouse.  This changed when the Town Hall fell into disrepair and the polling booths were relocated elsewhere.  The Water Festival weekend brought back to Emily Square some of the excitement and colour which we once associated with the elections of old.  Emily Square came into its own during the Water Festival, proving what a critically important urban space it is within the heart of our town.  Its central position bordering on the River Barrow where visiting boats moored over the festival weekend prompted many locals to realise what a unique composition of inter-connecting public spaces are the front and back squares.

If one single event created an awareness of the importance of these two civic spaces it was the recent Water Festival.  I felt the festival did more to bring home to the local people the necessity of retaining the towns public squares than anything said or done since the Inner Relief Road controversy started 28 years ago.  We surely cannot sacrifice the unique character of our town centre to meet the insatiable demands of vehicular traffic. 

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