Just a few weeks ago a good friend from my days in Offaly Street dropped into my office a copy of a First Communion photograph which was taken about 55 years ago. I should be able to date the photograph more accurately than merely referring to it in such general terms because I was one of the five young lads caught forever through the camera lens sitting on a bench in the Park. The circular bench which adorned the top of the small mound near to Mrs. Lawler’s Park House has long gone. Gone too is one of the young fellows in that photograph. Basil White who lived at No. 5 Offaly Street died some years ago. Paddy Doody, Teddy Kelly and Willie Moore are still going strong and long may it be the case.
I was reminded of the photograph when earlier today I passed down Rathstewart going by what used to be St. Joseph’s Boy’s School and the entrance gate leading to the Mercy Convent. Both the old school building and the convent entrance were removed with the building of St. Michael’s Church in the early 1960’s. It was however the recent breaking open of the wall which surrounded the convent garden off Rathstewart which opened up for the first time in forty years the view of the main convent building from the public road. That is how the public viewed the convent through the entrance gates before St. Michael’s Church was built.
As I stood looking up at the convent building I was reminded to recall St. Joseph’s School and the nuns who taught generations of youngsters within its hollow walls. Sr. Brendan, the diminutive nun from Dingle in County Kerry was a particular favourite of all the young boys who over the years passed through the school. Julia Walsh, as she was, entered the Convent of Mercy in Athy in 1907 and she remained in the Athy convent as a Sister of Mercy for the next 76 years. When she died on 13th December 1983 Sr. Brendan had reached her 98th year.
Sr. Brendan it was who during my time in St. Joseph’s, and I believe for many years before and after, took the second class boys and prepared them for their First Holy Communion. How well I remember as we stood to attention with our hands joined together as Sr. Brendan acting out the role of the Priest passed up the line, pressing the tip of a scissors gently onto the extended tongue of each pupil. That same scissors was secured by a cord to Sr. Brendan’s belt and as it passed from open mouth to open mouth no thought was given to the dangers of passing infections. But then, living as we all did in the late 1940’s in conditions which now seem almost primitive compared to those prevailing today, I am sure we built up a reserve of immunity which stood us in good stealth. Sr. Brendan was a lovely person and was about the same age as I am today when I first went into her class.
What I wonder prompted a young girl from Dingle in County Kerry to enter a convent in Athy? Julia Walsh, as far as I know, had no connection with the town or its convent, but it was to here she came the same year as the first Sinn Fein clubs were being formed in Ireland. 1907 was also the year that Synges’ “The Playboy of the Western World” opened in the Abbey, resulting in rioting in the theatre. It all seems like another age, as indeed it was, seven years even before the world would erupt in the savagery of the First World War.
Sr. Brendan who was born in 1885 was our link with a past which we could never know at first hand and which only existed in the history books. Sr. Brendan’s first year in the Athy Convent overlapped with the last year in this world of Mother Mary Magdalene O’Grady Dillon who died in September 1908. As a young novice Sr. Mary Magdalene arrived in Athy in July 1855 when the Athy Convent was set up as an “independent community” with Mother Therese Maher, a native of Kilrush as Superior. Sr. Mary Magdalene was one of the first nuns in the Athy Convent and between herself and Sr. Brendan there was almost 130 years service in the Sisters of Mercy which provided a continuous link with the early years of the Convent of Mercy in Athy.
The development of the Convent will hopefully bring an exciting range of new buildings into being adding to the appearance and growth of Athy. I could not but be pleasantly surprised by reading in the Irish Times today (21st September) what the Minister for Transport, Mr. Brennan, had to say on the occasion of the opening of the Ballincollig bypass in Co. Cork. His remarks were headlines in the Press Report and they caught my eye, giving expression as they did, to my own views on road development needs of this country. “Ballincollig bypass gives the town back to the people, says Brennan” was the heading. How right you are I said to myself, thinking of the self inflicted wound which some headless bureaucrats want to inflict on us here in Athy by refusing to support the townspeople’s call for a bypass of Athy. It’s difficult to pick up a national newspaper these days without reading of bypasses planned, commenced or opened somewhere in the country. Loughrea, Monasterevin and Kinnegad are just some of the towns to be given back to the people snatched from the avaricious clutches of the fume laden traffic which we can do without in the centre of our towns.
We should all take up the Minister’s call and have the centre of Athy given back to the people of the town.
As we approach the month of October it’s time to remind one and all of the Shackleton weekend now in its fourth year which will take place in our local Town Hall over the October Bank Holiday weekend. Contact the Heritage Centre on Tel. (059) 86 33075 for the programme of the lectures and events planned for that weekend. It promises to be a super show.