Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Jimmy Bolger

Jimmy Bolger, like myself, is not a native son of Athy.  Nevertheless his links with the town go back so far, over 70 years in fact, to justify the abandonment of any claim to being “a blow in”.  Jimmy was born in Graiguenamanagh in 1929, the son of Peter Bolger and his wife Kathleen Codd, both of whom worked as gardener and housekeeper respectively for one of the big houses which had survived the scorched earth policy of the Republican Movement in the aftermath of the War of Independence.  The Bolger family came to Athy in 1933 to work for Ainsley Verschoyle who had sometime before bought Ardreigh House from local Solicitor Bob Osborne.  For the next twelve years or so the Bolgers lived in the gate lodge of Ardreigh House before moving to a number of different addresses in and around Athy after Peter Bolger left Verschoyle's employment to take up gardening work with the Hosie and Shaw families.  I was intrigued to hear Jimmy recall his family living in Stanhope Street in the residence attached to the public house owned by Scanlons.  They were there for five or six years until Scanlons sold the public house to Noonans and from where Michael Noonan himself recently retired after many years in the business which had been first started by his father who had previously been a member of the Garda Siochana.

Jimmy attended the school in the local Christian Brothers where he recalls the diminutive Br. Nelson who was universally known as “Breezy”, Brothers Egan and Farrell and the two lay teachers, Paddy Spillane and Liam Ryan.  Fellow pupils included Tommy O'Rourke, Jimmy Connell, Kevin Walsh, all of whom co-incidentally lived in Stanhope Street, Michael Egan of Leinster Street, Fergus Hayden, Des Noonan and Frank Duffy.

In the late 1940's Jimmy left school to take up an apprenticeship in the hardware and grocery business of Thompson's of Castledermot.  One of the commonly sought after positions for young men and women of the day, shop apprenticeships had only then witnessed a change in the age old system where those wishing to be apprenticed to the retail trade paid what were relatively speaking large sums for the privilege of taking up such apprenticeships.  It seems rather strange to us in this day and age that a young man or woman availing of the opportunity to train as an assistant in a grocery or hardware shop had to pay a lump sum to the shopkeeper and to work without pay for perhaps the first year of a five or six year apprenticeship.  The system had changed during the Second World War and by the time Jimmy Bolger got his first job apprentices received in addition to free board the princely sum of five shillings a week in wages payable monthly in arrears.  Five and a half years in the grocery and hardware business in the village of Castledermot provided a good grounding in retailing but more importantly made Jimmy aware of the problems which were part and parcel of Irish provincial life in the early 1950's and of the generosity of spirit which prevailed amongst the sometimes tough commercial patrons of Irish shopkeeping.  Nowadays accustomed as we are to the supermarket where everything is checked out and paid for on the spot it is hard to imagine a time when giving and taking credit was almost an essential part of retailing, necessitating the keeping of “the book” into which purchases were noted on a daily basis.

Monday mornings in the grocery business of the late 1940's were spent in weighing out and packing  the tea, sugar, flour and butter which in the war years and for some time afterwards were in short supply.  Jimmy particularly remembers a time when rationing of some food stuffs was still in vogue and when bread tasted as he described it, “like sawdust”.

In the early 1950's Jimmy left Thompsons and went to work for Floods of Leinster Street.  Tom Flood was a Dublin man who had bought what was the Railway Hotel in the 1920's.  He carried on a very successful business and became a member of the local Urban District Council, being first elected to that body in June 1934.  He died in October 1950 and his son Frank ran the business for a number of years and it was while Frank Flood was in charge that Jimmy Bolger worked in the Leinster Street premises.  He was there for about three years when he emigrated to England to be with his girlfriend, local girl Moira Walsh, whose father was porter in the Provincial Bank in Duke Street.  He got work in the co-op in Harleden, London and following promotion to Assistant Manager he and Moira got married in Athy in August 1955.  Irish workers, despite having made valuable contributions to the industrial life of Britain during and after the war, were still badly treated on the English mainland.  “No Irish need apply” was still a common feature of advertisements, whether for jobs or accommodation and Jimmy and his new bride were only too well aware of the discrimination against the Irish when they went looking for a flat.  They eventually succeeded but the arrival of their first child prompted the return of mother and child to Athy as English landlords added children to their list of unwanted tenants which for so long had included “Irish and blacks”. 

Moira, who was born at Geraldine Road, went back to Athy and within a few months Jimmy who returned for summer holidays got a holiday job in M.P. O'Briens of Edenderry which lasted for six months and effectively decided him against returning to England.

His sister Brigid had started with the I.V.I. Foundry in Athy in 1936 as a secretary to its founder Harry Hosie and twenty years later Jimmy joined the firm as a store man and later took on the role of sales representative on the retirement of Jim Tierney of Emily Row.  He was to remain with the I.V.I. until 1973 when he purchased the Pipe Shop from Mrs. Mahon.  Three years later he sold the business and when Jim McEvoy acquired what was formerly the Railway Bar at the top of Leinster Street Jimmy went to help him out for a few weeks but he remained there for ten years.

The I.V.I. was the first local industry to start up in Athy in the wake of the decline and ultimate demise of the indigenous brick making industry.  For decades brick making provided the only constant, if irregular employment, in and around Athy, apart from farm work and work on the Canals.  Captain Hosie as I believe he then was, started Industrial Vehicles Ireland Ltd. in or around 1926 and the business developed and prospered so much that in the 1950's more than 150 men were employed in addition to sales and office staff.  It was a substantial element in the early industrial life of Athy and the story of the I.V.I. and its founder who after the Second World War returned as Colonel Hosie, having lost his only son Terry in that war, is a story which I hope to return to at another time. 

During his years in the I.V.I. Jimmy also worked part-time for a number of local publicans including John O'Brien of the Railway Bar, his sister Molly O'Brien of the Nags Head and Jim Nelson of Leinster Street.  His time with Nelsons coincided with the annual holidays of Paddy Cole, the Carbery man who spent almost twenty five years with Jim Nelson and who after Jim died emigrated to England.  I wonder if any of my readers know what ever happened Paddy Cole.

My first memories of Jimmy Bolger centered on the C.Y.M.S., then located at the corner of Stanhope Street.  I was reminded of the importance of that club in the life of the young and not so young men of Athy in the 1960's and when in Youghal last week I came across a very vibrant and active C.Y.M.S. operating out of quayside building which on a Sunday afternoon was as busy as I can remember our C.Y.M.S. was forty years ago.  Sadly the C.Y.M.S. in Athy disappeared without trace some years after it moved from its original location in Stanhope Street to facilitate the building of St. Michael's Parish Church.

Fundraising for that church commenced in the 1950's under the guidance of senior curate Fr. McLaughlin and continued in the early 1960's under Fr. Corbett, who organised variety shows put on in St. John's Hall.  Jimmy Bolger was very active in those shows, helping to organise them and acting as Master of Ceremonies.  Some of the local businesses which took part in the variety shows which ran over a period of four years from about 1959 onwards included the Asbestos factory, Bachelor's factory, Bord na Mona factory, I.V.I. Foundry and “the shops”, the last being the combined efforts of the local shop workers and their friends, many of whom from a programme I have of one of their shows never worked in a shop in their life.  It was all good fun which gave plenty of enjoyment to the locals and gathered together some funds for the church which opened in 1964.

The man from Graiguenamanagh, like myself, came to Athy when he was a few years old.  Our paths crossed, even if decades apart, when I came to live in the house where Ainsley Verschoyle once lived and where probably the young Jimmy Bolger played amongst the gun dogs which I believe once roamed freely around the grounds of Ardreigh House.  His story is part of the social patchwork of a town which in recent years has seen an unprecedented influx of newcomers who like Jimmy and myself will hopefully in time become an integral part of our town and its people.

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