The Irish have peopled the English speaking countries of the world. The far reaches of what was once the British Empire has become a home to the Irish diaspora. Australia, New Zealand, South Africa but above all North America have been enriched by and in turn have enriched successive generations of Irish emigrants. Emigration was for the Irish of the 18th and 19th Centuries an escape from the poverty and disease of a downtrodden country. In the early decades of the following century, emigration provided a safety valve for many disillusioned by the aftermath of a war waged to regain a nation’s freedom which subsequently degenerated into civil war.
In more recent years, we have become accustomed to describing the emigrant’s impulse to leave the Ireland of the Celtic Tiger as “voluntary emigration”. It’s a flight from the country of one’s birth motivated by desire to savour new lands, new sights and cultures rather than a reaction to the negativity of unemployment and the cultural stagnation of previous decades.
Whatever the reason, emigration has over the centuries claimed uncountable millions of Irish men and women. Whether from Athy, Castledermot or some other parts of Ireland, those who departed these shores seldom if ever returned. Death, when it came, arrived under a foreign sky and the mortal remains of those once young Irish men and woman today lie in scattered cemeteries throughout the world. Buried sometimes without ceremony, often in the absence of family and friends, the Irish emigrants were and remain a forgotten part of our country’s heritage, that undefined yet unique element of collegiality and social interaction which makes the Irish people so special.
Sometimes, but only sometimes, the impersonal overseas burial rite for the emigrant is replaced by the generous send off which is part and parcel of an Irish funeral. Last Saturday was one such occasion when family and friends of Jarlath MacKenna came together in the Church of the Assumption in Castledermot to pay their last respects to a man who had emigrated to North America 35 years ago. He was the eldest son of Una Bray, a Mayo woman who as a young girl came to teach in Castledermot and Jack MacKenna, a railway worker for the Great Southern and Western Railway, later C.I.E. His mother died in 1977 and his father 22 years later and last Saturday part of Jarlath MacKenna’s ashes were laid within his parents’ grave following a moving ceremony in Castledermot Parish Church.
Jarlaith had been ill for some months but his death when it came was unexpected. His son Rob at the start of the church ceremony spoke eloquently and kindly of his father, touching on his career as a physician, his devotion to his family and his loyalty to his Irish roots. The soloist, soprano Colette Boushel accompanied by Sr. Francis Jerome on the organ, provided a fitting hymnal background to the ceremony which was both moving and evocative of the spirit of an Irishman whose adult life had been spent in America.
A very special contribution to the church ceremony came when Jarlath’s younger brother John spoke of a pre-arranged visit to Jarlath in America and of arriving there just in time for the brothers to spend one last night together talking and reminiscing about young days spent in and around Castledermot. It was a particularly poignant contribution made all the more so by John’s reading of a poem he wrote that night, as life slipped away for his brother Jarlath .
The very personal valediction which speaks of a brother’s love for an older brother was read in the Church last Saturday and made a deep impression on the members of the congregation. Jarlath McKenna is survived by his wife Clare, his daughter Holly, his sons Rob and Sean, his sister Dolores and brother John.
Recently, I became aware that Athy has not only given us a former Provost of Trinity College (Dr. Bill Watts) but also a former President of another august University. Dr. William Hayes, whom I understand was born in Athy was President of St. John’s College, University of Oxford from 1987 to 2001. His entry in “Who’s Who” states that he was born in 1930 but does not give his place of birth. His father was Robert Hayes and his mother Eileen Tobin. If any of the readers of the column can help to identify the Hayes family, I would appreciate hearing from them.
Many thanks to the readers who contacted me following the inclusion of the Social Club photograph in a recent Eye on the Past. Most of those included in the photograph have been identified but there are still a few persons remaining to be named. Strangely, the occasion on which the photograph was taken has yet to be positively identified. If you can help. I’d be pleased to hear from you.
My thanks to Ray McCrossan of Naas who wrote to me some months ago. Ray was born in the Post Office residence in Duke Street, Athy in 1928. His late father was the Postmaster and the McCrossan family lived in Duke Street until 1938. His grandmother, Margaret Doyle lived in number 7 William Street (now Wynnes) and he recalls her letting the shop portion of number 7 to Mick Smith who carried on business as a barber. Ray in his letter mentions Tommy Buggy as someone who worked for Mick Smith and wonders if it was the same Tommy Buggy who figured so prominently on the Athy Gaelic Football Championship winning teams of the late 1930’s and early 40’s.
Again, if you can help, I’d be delighted to hear from you.