One of the great pleasures of writing a weekly column is the opportunity which arises now and then to meet folk who have spent their lives out of the glare of the public gaze. They are invariably part of the silent majority, that great body of people who go about their daily lives sometimes troubled by what they find happening around them but who themselves cause no difficulties for man or beast.
A few weeks ago I met Mary Higgins then just a few days short of her 86th birthday. Now living with her daughter Ann in Newbridge, Mary originally from Old Court in County Wexford spent over 50 years in Athy having arrived here with her newly married husband John at the end of the Second World War. It was that same war which brought many young and not so young Irish men and women to England in 1939 and the years which followed. Mary was 20 years old and working as a child minder in Dublin when she was recruited to work in the Munitions Factory in Basingstoke in England. Even after 60 years every detail of that work is imbedded in Mary’s mind. Tanks were manufactured on the site and then disassembled for ease of transport across to the continent and Mary’s job was to put serial numbers on the various parts to facilitate ease of re-assembly. There were lots of Irish men and women working there, amongst them was Tullamore born John Higgins.
Indeed, so many Irish were on the factory floor, Mary describes the place as “full of Irish and only English being old age pensioners”. “The pay wasn’t good” claims Mary but there was nothing to match it at home in Ireland. Work started early necessitating a hasty departure from the Irish landlady’s digs at 6 o’clock each morning. If work was hard, it was nevertheless enjoyed by the young Irish who welcomed the opportunity to socialise among themselves both during and after working hours. In Basingstoke was to be found a large number of injured soldiers who had been sent home from the front but even then they and the Irish workers in the local factories were not immune from attack by the Germans. Basingstoke was attacked on several occasions and Mary recalls hurrying to the basement in the factory as the sirens warned of the approach of the Luftwaffe. For young people from rural Ireland, it was a rare insight into the realities of warfare, a reality which earlier generations of young Irishmen had experienced at first hand during the first World War battles fought at Gallipoli as well as on the ruptured soil of France and Flanders.
John Higgins and Mary returned to Ireland after the end of the war and married in 1946 in University Church, Stephen’s Green in Dublin before they arrived in Athy where John was to work for Willie Large of Rheban Castle. The Higgins’ family lived in a house on the lane leading to Rheban Castle and were there until about 1953 when the family moved to a County Council house at Ardreigh which had previously housed the Howard family. By now, John Higgins was working in the Asbestos factory where he would remain until he retired on reaching his 65th birthday.
Athy in the 1950’s was an entirely different place from the town of today. There may be only a period of 50 years or so between that time and now but in reality the differences are immeasurable. The motor traffic of today was nowhere to be seen in the 1950’s. One travelled between home and the town by shanks mare or if possible by bicycle. Mary remembers the weekly shopping trip to Athy when she cycled to the L and N shop in Emily Square followed by a detour to Jackson’s in Leinster Street. Next was Alfie Coyle’s butcher shop in Leinster Street to get the meat requirements for the week before the bags were loaded up on the bicycle for the return trip. A shopping bag on the back of the bike, another carried in the basket on the front presented few problems for the experienced country cyclist. The difficulties arose from the careful balancing act required to ensure one could retain ones balance while cycling home with two more carrier bags hanging from the handlebars. Thus was the average countrywoman laiden down as she set out from town after completing her weekly shopping. So it was with Mary Higgins as each Saturday she made the trip up Offaly Street out the Carlow road past Coneyboro and down the hill at Ardreigh before turning onto Ardreigh Lane and the final stretch of roadway before reaching the safety and comfort of her own home. But not before she had made one last call, a visit made by almost all the Carlow road bound travellers as they left Athy. The final call was to Kitty Webster’s in Offaly Street for there was the eagerly sought toffees and sherberts which all children of the 1950’s hankered after. Mary’s children, now five in number, Maureen, Tony, Anne, Laurence and Joe looked forward to their mothers return from shopping in Athy and the treasured sweets which accompanied her on the last leg of her journey.
It was a journey that the children themselves would make over many years as they travelled to school, firstly to primary school and then to secondary school. Mary remembers the children cycling to town three to a bicycle with Maureen pedalling while two of the younger ones sat one on the crossbar and the other behind the saddle on the straight stretch into town. The hill at Ardreigh was “dismount and walk country”, but the return journey provided an exhilarating pedal free downhill ride which if unchecked by brakes or dragging shoe leather was sufficient with minimal exertion to bring bike and children almost to the door of the Higgins house in Ardreigh Lane.
Sunday brought a calvacade of bicycles out onto the Carlow road as neighbours and friends set out for mass in one or other of Athy’s Catholic Churches. Some were “Parish” mass goers while for others, the comforting ambience of the small Dominican Church had earned their allegiance. Not everyone travelled by bicycle. Some indeed walked to town but for a few others the steel rimmed wheels of the carts or trap were the chosen mode of travel. The Nolans travelled to Sunday mass by horse and cart while the Doyles in their pony and trap were a regular Sunday morning sight.
For Mary Higgins, life in the country was a pleasant experience surrounded as she was by neighbours whom she recalls with fondness. The Howards, the Nolans and the McNamaras, the Loughmans and Mrs. Dowling all lived in Ardreigh Lane in houses which like Mary’s had no electricity. Light was provided by oil lamps, with running water coming from a nearby well. Life by modern standards was difficult but the harshness of the conditions was eased by the friendly spirits of the time which marked the contact between neighbours and those who had regular contact with the local community. Tom Langton, postman, was one of those who had regular contact with the people in Ardreigh Lane and who Mary Higgins recalled with fondness.
Mary’s husband John died 2 years ago but as she sits in her daughter Anne’s kitchen in Newbridge recalling the years which saw her move from Wexford to Dublin to Basingstoke and then to Athy which was to be her home for almost 60 years, her thoughts are of her husband with whom she spent so many happy years.
It was a delight and a pleasure to share time with Mary Higgins.