Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Athy's Musical Tradition

Music making has always been an important part of the social life of Athy and South Kildare.  Like other Irish provincial towns, Athy throughout the latter part of the 19th century, had a number of marching bands.  One such band was the brass band attached to the local Catholic Young Men’s Society.  The Society founded in 1862 formed a band following the breaking up of a juvenile fife and drum band in the town in 1881.  Around the same time there was a fife and drum band based in the Coke, Kilberry.  Later on during the early years of the 20th century piping bands were established in the South Kildare area.  These included St. Brigid’s Pipe Band formed shortly before the start of World War I.  Later still Churchtown had its own pipe band called St. Patrick’s, while the Kilberry Pipe Band was, I believe, formed following the breakup of the local L.S.F. band at the end of World War II.  The piping tradition continues today with the recently formed St. Brigid’s Pipe Band and the reformed St. Patrick’s Pipe Band, both of which are based in the Churchtown area.  Other bands in the South Kildare area included fife and drum bands in Bert, Geraldine, Inchaquire and Nurney, while Ballitore had a brass band and neighbouring Castledermot and Narraghmore boasted pipe bands, the latter of which is still going strong.

Of course the most famous of the local bands in terms of stories which have been passed down the generations were the Barrack Street Band and the St. Michael’s Leinster Street Band, both of which were fife and drum bands.  The latter band was acknowledged to have a Nationalist following, while the Barrack Street Band was comprised largely of ex British soldiers who were not allowed to forget that they once gave their allegiances to the King of England.  Stories abound of the two bands meeting on the Barrow Bridge and the affrays which resulted, many of which stories undoubtedly have been embellished in the retelling.  Nearer to our time were to be found St. Joseph’s Fife and Drum Band formed by Joe O’Neill and other adults in St. Joseph’s Terrace and the St. Dominic’s Band which so far as I can recall was based on the West side of the River Barrow.

The 1930s ushered in the dance band era, of which the band of the late Mick Delahunty of Clonmel was the most prominent.  Joe O’Neill of St. Joseph’s Terrace and his Stardust Band, were very popular throughout the 1940s and the 1950s.  Later still Paudence Murphy of Offaly Street and his Sorrento Band featured prominently in the 1960s and the 70s.  A succession of Athy bands took to the stage from the 1980s onwards to continue a well established local musical tradition.
That same musical tradition was nurtured and developed by local amateur musical groups, the earliest ones unfortunately we know little about.  In the 1940s Athy Musical Society was thriving and well supported, putting on shows in the Town Hall Ballroom over several years.  Indeed the membership of the Society was sufficiently strong to allow the same musical to be performed on alternate days of a one week run by different casts.  The economic recovery which marked Britain’s post war period saw many young and not so young Athy men and women emigrate to English cities.  Their loss impacted on local clubs and societies and almost inevitably the once flourishing Athy Musical Society went out of existence.

There was a musical revival in the early 1960s when the South Kildare Musical Society was established under the direction of Captain Mellerick of the Curragh Camp.  Several shows were put on in the Grove Cinema and elsewhere before the Society went into decline.  1984 saw the emergence of Athy Musical and Dramatic Society which continues to this day.  Its 25 year life span is the longest period enjoyed by any of the musical societies established in the town of which I am aware.

The musical tradition which links the marching bands, the piping bands, the dance bands and the musical societies now finds expression in the musical output of local musicians and singers.  A number of these local artists have produced compact discs and I have counted no less than 21 CD’s in my own music collection of works performed by singers and musicians from this part of South Kildare.  They range from the highly popular Jack L whose musical profile has reached a transnational audience to lesser known artists who on their own admission are still struggling to achieve national recognition.  Brian Hughes of whom I have previously written has achieved a preeminent position in the world of Irish music.  The Waltons Guide to Irish Music has described his album ‘Whistle Stop’, on which he plays the whistle ‘as one of the finest of its kind’.  Unquestionably his status as one of Ireland’s finest whistle players is assured. 

A list of the local artists who have produced CD’s in recent times include The Sullivan Brothers, Woodbine, Jim O’Keeffe, The Fifth Degree, Martin Cooney, Ceol Galore, Dinny Langton, Dave Donohue, Pat Whelan, Dave Bradbury, Karen Plewman and Frankie Lane, formerly of The Fleadh Cowboys.  Currently on sale is the CD, ‘Walk In Dance Out’ by local group Hill Billy Porter.   Perhaps the first local man to venture into music production and at a time when vinyl was all the rage was Brian Lawler of Fontstown whose Ardellis Ceili Band first broadcast over the radio in 1957.    However, I am also informed that possibly the first record of a local singer was made by Ernest O’Rourke Glynn in Dublin in the 1940s or thereabouts.  Unfortunately I have not been able to come across a copy of his record.

Jim O’Keeffe is a neighbour of mine in Ardreigh and in his home studio he has performed and produced no less than 4 CD’s, all of which are for sale on his website  Jim plays a variety of instruments and sings his own compositions comprising ballads and rock with a strong blues undertone.  I was particularly taken with ‘Red Deer’ which is included in his most recent CD, ‘Devil in the Grain’.  One CD which I haven’t mentioned was produced last year by Colm Walsh.  ‘Made of Athy’ is a compilation of songs, sayings and words about the town of Athy which is still on sale in the local Heritage Centre.

Last week County Clare born Eddie Tubridy passed away after many decades amongst us as a teacher in the local Vocational School and a resident of Chanterlands.  He was a brother of Michael Tubridy, one of the founding members of the Chieftains who produced a solo album, ‘The Eagles Whistle’ some years ago.  Eddie was a popular man in his adopted town of Athy and will be sorely missed.  So too will Sarah Nolan, another near neighbour of mine from Coneyboro who also passed away last week.  A member of an old Athy family she was a gracious and well liked neighbour.