The history of the 800 year old town of Athy is a story of a community growing from the close-knit village of yesteryear to the more loosely connected life of a modern day sprawling urban centre. Where once both young and old alike knew everyone and every place within the town, nowadays there are limits to our local knowledge as the population increases and new estates are developed on the outskirts of the town. It has become more difficult to maintain the unified community life which characterised the town’s earlier existence and so almost inevitably we find area communities emerging, lacking the cohesion and common purpose of a strong urban community.
I was prompted to reflect on this when I became aware of the Churchtown and Castlemitchell community celebrations over the August bank holiday weekend to commemorate 150 years of education in the area and the 50th anniversary of the Castlemitchell community hall. Castlemitchell in my lifetime has been unique in terms of its community strengths. Its isolated position at the southern tip of County Kildare and just inside the county border with Laois should have ensured an inconspicuous future for the area, but in truth the reverse was the case. Nowhere was that perhaps better displayed than in the quiet disproportionate influence which it’s Gaelic football club had on Gaelic games in the county in the 1950s and later. Castlemitchell’s footballers were then a rough tough bunch of players who literally left their mark on opponents as well as on G.A.A. administration. They carved out a reputation which was awesome and attracted to their club a host of players, including some very good players of county calibre who for one reason or another fell out with Athy club officials.
In addition to the strong Gaelic games tradition in the area which only came about with the demise of cricket as the local sport, Castlemitchell has a vibrant community life which has been sustained for many years. Uniquely in my opinion Castlemitchell developed and sustained a close-knit community life which over the years has made it the premier rural community in south Kildare. No other area in this part of the county can match the strength of its community involvement. There are several good reasons for this and simply put, these are found in the names, Donnelly brothers, Joe Bermingham, Mick Fennin, Jack Wall, Maisie Candy, Dot Mullan and Mossy Reilly amongst many others. The Donnelly brothers were for so long the heart of Castlemitchell football and earned for it the reputation which marked their team as a team apart. Joe Bermingham was a community activist who went into politics and even though living on the very edge of County Kildare managed to contest and win many elections at county and Dail constituency levels. It’s a feat which Jack Wall, who has taken over Joe’s role, has managed to replicate. Mick Fennin served as secretary of Castlemitchell Football Club for 33 years, retiring two years ago, and his contribution to Gaelic games in the area played an essential part in sustaining the community life of Castlemitchell during these years.
Retired school teacher Maisie Candy perhaps personified more than anyone else the spirit of Castlemitchell. As a historian and a folklorist for the Castlemitchell area, she has highlighted the importance of community involvement and has helped maintain that community spirit which has kept Castlemitchell an active and vibrant community. Mossy Reilly and Dot Mullan were also actively involved in their local community and like Maisie and others not mentioned by me contributed handsomely to the community life of the area.
I am writing this a few days before the August bank holiday celebrations planned for Castlemitchell and Churchtown and courtesy of Ger McDonagh I have received a copy of a book to be launched at the weekend. ‘A Community Remembers’ is a compilation of articles and newspaper extracts on various aspects of life in Castlemitchell over the years. Short articles by former pupils of Churchtown School give a flavour of the happy times spent in the small rural school which opened just a few years after the Great Famine. The history of Castlemitchell Hall is recounted with memories recalled of the Tops of the Club competitions held there in the 1960s.
The stories of the Meggars Club as well as the Churchtown Pipe Band, which I gather is being revived, are told with several other articles of interests including pieces on Joe Bermingham and Mary ‘Dot’ Mullan. I was particularly delighted by the story written by Eibhlis Candy entitled ‘Pole Dancing in Churchtown School’. The book ‘A Community Remembers’ will be on sale over the bank holiday weekend and everyone involved in it’s production are to be congratulated on an excellent job well done.
Here in Athy we are very fortunate that one of the world’s foremost photographers captured the people of Athy on film over a 25 year period from the early 1960’s. John Minihan who lived in Plewman’s Terrace and attended the local Christian Brothers school photographed the townspeople while he was a staff photographer with the Evening Standard in London. He took pictures of life in Athy, building up a unique record of a way of life in a small provincial Irish town. His book of some of the Athy photographs was subsequently published and regrettably is out of print and virtually unobtainable in second hand bookshops.
What John Minihan did in starting to photograph Athy’s people over 40 years ago was to add an important piece of work to the material which in years to come will form a unique record for social historians. Last week the Athy Photographic Group and Athy Heritage Centre announced a photographic project for Athy under the title ‘A Week in the Life of Athy’ scheduled to commence the week commencing 7th September 2008. This project is intended to involve as many local people as possible in taking photographs during that week of people, places and events in the town. The purpose is to build up a documentary archive of life in Athy, realising that, like John Minihan’s work, it too will in time constitute a valuable resource for future historians and others.
The project is one which invites involvement by anyone in Athy with a camera. All you have to do is take photographs in the town of Athy during that week in September and to pass on the photographs to the Heritage Centre. The project will be further outlined at the meeting to be held in the Heritage Centre on Wednesday 20th August at 8.00p.m. If you would like to be involved come along to that meeting when further information and advice on the project will be available. Please note that even if you cannot attend this meeting you can still be involved in the project. Ideally you should pass your name and address onto the Heritage Centre in the Town Hall if you intend to take part in the project. The Centre will give out an information sheet following the meeting on August 20th to anyone wishing to take part in the project.