I have been spending some time during the month of August in our National Library in Dublin reading contemporary newspaper accounts of the early part of the last century. All the newspapers of the time are on microfilm and so one does not have the luxury of handling and turning the pages of the newspapers. A small screen allows you to scroll up and down through the long forgotten national and local news of the day, bringing to life the incidents and happenings of a time beyond any of our experiences.
Last week Annie Timoney whom I never met died at the age of 103 in Sligo. Her memories stretched back to the time when as a young girl she accompanied her brother Tommy on his way to the local railway station to join up for the 1914/18 war. He was killed in action and now lies buried in a grave in Egypt. That same period which saw Tommy Timoney enlisting was the centre of my research in the National Library. Reading the newspapers of the day confirmed for me how little of what happened then is known today. Even the important events and incidents of the time are lost, but thankfully not irretrievably so, due to the lasting qualities of the printers ink.
Bands proliferated in Irish towns and villages in the early years of the last century. Here in Athy we had at least three bands, the Barrack Street Band, the Leinster Street Band and the Pipers Band. The Pipers Band accompanied by a large following paraded the streets of Athy on New Years Eve 1916 playing what the ‘Nationalist and Leinster Times’ described as “national airs”. The Pipers Band was formed in or about 1914 due to the efforts of J.J. Bergin of Maybrook and for the first few years of the band’s existence members practised in the Hibernian Hall in Duke Street. The hall was the premises of the Ancient Order of Hibernians, located in what was subsequently the Garda Barracks and is now O’Neill’s. I was intrigued to read in the Nationalist of January 1917 that Francis Joseph Biggar, a Belfast Solicitor and historian, presented to Athy Piper’s Band an Irish poplin flag on which the arms of the ancient borough of Athy were painted. This representation of the castle and bridge of Athy was painted in dark colours in the centre of the flag and in the top left hand corner, “Athí Abú”, was artistically worked in Celtic lettering. The flag was surrounded by a deep fringe, dark green in colour, and massive red cords secured the flag to the staff which was finished with a large brass spearhead.
The flag was blessed and presented to the pipers by Canon Mackey, P.P. at a special mass in St. Michael’s Church on Saturday, 6th January 1917. Subsequently the band was at the centre of local controversy when in February 1918 the band members were asked to leave the Hibernian hall as a result of the band’s association with the local Sinn Fein club. As the Secretary of the A.O.H. indicated in a letter to the Nationalist “Athy Piper’s Club was not associated with the A.O.H. other than as occupiers of a room in the Hibernian Hall for band practice and storing band instruments.” However, late in 1917 the Piper’s Band took part in a Sinn Fein demonstration and the A.O.H. decided that if there was a repetition of this the band would be asked to vacate the Duke Street premises. Inevitably a time came when the band were asked to leave, because as the A.O.H. Secretary Peter P. Timmons wrote “the A.O.H. as a body refuses to be identified even in the most remote degree with the republican lunacy”. The Pipe Band members removed their instrument to the Sinn Fein Club premises across the road in Duke Street and thereafter became more closely linked with the developing republican movement.
The third local band, the Leinster Street Band, had lost several members at the start of the War. This accounted for a newspaper report of 13th January 1917 “on Sunday, the Leinster Street Band which has not been heard in Athy for a considerable period, made a welcome appearance. Despite the absence of some members at the front the band played with customary finesse the stirring airs so appreciated locally when the Irish Volunteers were such a fine force in Athy”.
I wonder whatever happened the band instruments of these three local bands? Their banners, especially the banner presented by Frank Biggar, cannot have disappeared without trace. Does anyone know the whereabouts of any of these items?
Around the same time as the fallout between the Pipers Club and the A.O.H., Gaelic games were going through something of a revival in Athy. Brother Hoctor who was principal in the C.B.S. formed a juvenile club called “Geraldines” for under age players around the same time the Athy Club called “the Young Emmets” was established and at a meeting on the 13th of January 1917 the club rules were adopted and a decision made to affiliate the club and enter the County Championship.
Soon after the “Geraldines” were formed, Mr. Mara who was described as a “popular local sport” presented the young club members with a set of caps which were apparently an important part of a footballers outfit. The club colours were blue, red and yellow, a colourful eye catching combination for the time.
1917 was described by a reporter on Gaelic games as “a stirring one in Gaelic circles in Athy.” The reason for this was the Young Emmet club’s success in eleven of the thirteen matches played that year. Unfortunately one of the games lost was in the senior football semi-final where the club was defeated due, it was claimed, “to some players not travelling to the venue as a result of petty jealousies”.
An interesting find among the papers of the day was the following report.
“While digging in the garden of St. John’s Mr. M. Heffernan unearthed a large bust or model it is thought the figure was one time in a garden attached to the Monastery of St. John.”
The bust discovered in May 1917 is now on display in the Heritage Centre to where it was removed prior to the sale of St. John’s by the Carbery Family some years ago.
Today Athy is actively looking for industry but back in May 1917 a new industry was set up in the town. The local papers reported the opening of a factory in Convent Place (Sic) where local women were working from 8.00 a.m. to 6.00 p.m. grading and washing scutch roots prior to shipment to America. There the scutch roots were used in the preparation of medicine. Apparently the scutch root was previously harvested and processed on the Continent, but because of the War, Ireland now met the needs of the American market. The bands, the football teams and the scutch root processing plant have all passed on and out of memory. No doubt there still remains in our midst, some tangible evidence of those days, in the form of an unrecognised football jersey or cap or perhaps a battered musical instrument or a torn flag or banner. History is all around us, even if most times it goes unrecognised.