Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Maurice Shortt

Memories and memoirs.  How the very words trigger a response in all of us.  There is, after all, in most of us a need to constantly keep in touch with the persons and events of our time.  A touchstone by which we can guage how we ourselves are doing and a measure of reassurance in the frantic world of work and travel, disappointment and expectations.  More than anyone else perhaps I have constantly delved into the past, always seeking out the forgotten events and the men and women whose stories might hold an interest for all of us.  Local history by its very nature has an ephemeral quality, and if it's not collected and collated in time, will disappear, thereby reducing the quality and indeed the quantity of local knowledge without which our past can never be properly understood.

The local historians work is generally centered on the tape recorder, the note book and pen, all brought into operation when faced with a willing interviewee.  Less often arises the opportunity of encouraging someone to write a memoir, no matter how long or short, and the pleasure of reading the results on the written page. 

Some months ago while attending a funeral in the Parish Church I met a man whom I had not seen for some time.  Maurice Shortt spent eleven years in Athy after arriving here as a Garda Sergeant on transfer from Birr in May 1963.  Retired for many years from the Garda Siochana with the rank of Inspector he served his last years in the Dublin Metropolitan area.  Maurice, as befitting a man who was a G.A.A. player in his young days and a referee after that, retains the trim athleticism of a younger man.  As we talked briefly on the way into the church I wondered if he ever felt inclined to record his memories of Athy in the 1960's.  It is a suggestion I have often made at different times to different people, hoping that the seed might bear fruit and produce some interesting stories which might appeal to the present generation.  Imagine my pleasure when last week the postman delivered some neatly typed pages of script from the typewriter of the retired Garda Inspector Maurice Shortt.  I am giving over the rest of this weeks Eye on the Past to extracts from Maurice's memoirs of Athy of 40 years ago.

            “Athy was a tremendous business town with full employment and a rich well farmed hinterland.  Saturday night with the late opening of shops to 9 p.m. was a revelation, never experienced before or since.  The town used to be thronged with people from far and near and had a festive atmosphere.  I used enjoy patrolling the streets as I was meeting new people and making contacts all the time.  I would say it was the best town in Leinster in those days.  Market day was a particularly busy time, especially coming up to Christmas.  I remember one District Court held during Christmas week when District Justice Sweetman had to abandon his car at the G.A.A. Grounds and walk the rest of the way.  The Courts were very busy and often ran on to five and six o'clock .....

At harvest time often on a Sunday evening when on patrol in the town a car would pull up asking was there any hope of getting someone from Duthie Larges to provide a part for a broken down combine harvester.  I remember drivers coming from Wexford, Laois and Tipperary.  Kevin Bowden often took them out of trouble .....

My patrols often took me to the Canal bank, across from St. Vincents Hospital.  Arthur McDonagh and his large family spent most of the year in a caravan and a few “bender” tents.  Mrs. McDonagh was a lovely person.  She had 23 children “alive” as she said herself.  Indeed she had grandchildren older than some of her children.  In my subsequent travels I discovered that a large percentage of  “travellers” were born in A-athy as they put it.  Sister Dominic told me the women were model patients, never complaining but appreciating the few days rest in comfort and the kindness and care provided by the nuns and staff .....

One year coming up to Christmas I got word that poitin was available in the town.  I investigated and traced the poitin to a family living in the country.  I bided my time until I met the principal in town one day.  I told him what I knew and lectured him on the dangers of poitin.  I related an incident, which occurred in my home country of a man arriving home a few nights before Christmas, out of his mind after drinking poitin.  He had a row with his wife, which was out of character with the man.  One word borrowed another and he took out his rifle and shot his wife dead.  He was arrested and remanded in custody to Limerick Prison, where he hanged himself in his cell.  I negotiated with the Athy poitin maker to surrender his equipment at a designated place and let me know when and that would be the end of it.  He agreed and there was an amicable end to a potentially dangerous situation .....

In the early seventies there was a spate of “bomb scares” in Athy.  Each report had to be acted upon promptly and thoroughly investigated.  Major disruption was experienced by traders, shoppers and motorists passing through the town.  The scares were mainly centred in the Duke Street area.  All were found to be hoaxes.  One afternoon I answered the phone in the public office of the Garda Station.  It was a report of another bomb scare in Duke Street with no elaboration.  I recognised the voice before the phone was put down and I rang the persons number immediately.  I said – addressing my suspect by first name - “please give me details of the bomb you reported in Duke Street.”  I hung up.  That was the last report of bombs in Athy for the rest of my time there.  It was an unorthodox though effective response to the situation.” 

Maurice Shortt remembers with great fondness the people of Athy.  He made some great friends in the town which he cherishes to this day.  As he says himself if he is ever called “Sergeant” by anyone he meets he knows immediately that that person is from Athy.  Athy people remember Maurice, for not only did he serve the people of Athy with distinction for eleven years, but he was also involved, while out of uniform, with the local community.  He convened the local meeting which resulted in the setting up of a branch of KARE in Athy.  It would become in time one of the most vibrant KARE branches in County Kildare.  He served as Chairman of the county wide organisation on four occasions and is still actively involved with the wide range of facilities including schools, adult training and enterprise centre operated by the County Kildare Association of Parents and Friends of Handicapped People.

My thanks to Maurice Shortt for sharing his memories of Athy with me and the readers of this weeks Eye on the Past.

Just over two years ago I welcomed to this world a new family member who because she was my first grandchild holds a special place in my affection.  Now I can proudly announce the arrival of her sister Eva, making this “auld fellow” a grandfather for the second time.

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