Founded by French speaking Normans at the end of the 12th century, Athy has over the centuries played host to a variety of migrants and immigrants. They ranged from descendents of the Anglo Saxon to the earlier mentioned Anglo Normans to 19th century Scottish folk who came here to tenant lands which were vacated during the Famine years. All have found a home, sometimes, but not always, welcoming, amongst a folk whose town’s history was marked by wars, plague and disease.
In more recent years the town has witnessed a house building explosion which compared to our neighbouring towns was somewhat late in starting. However, when the new housing estates in Athy were built at the height of the property boom, the majority of those, mostly young families, who made their new homes in the South Kildare town came from our capital city of Dublin.
I made that same journey 27 years ago when I returned to Athy after spending 12 years in Dublin and 21 years out of Athy. Notwithstanding my previous connections with the town the move was somewhat of a cultural shock. I can only imagine what it has been like for the hundreds of Dublin folk who came to live in Athy in recent years.
One Dubliner who has been in Athy for almost 60 years is Connie Stafford. She’s a ‘Dub’ from the area around Dublin’s Portobello Harbour, an area linked with Athy by the Grand Canal and an area which was built during the 19th century with bricks manufactured in the brick yards of Athy and South Kildare. Connie’s father had served in the First World War and lost his right arm in that awful conflict which also ended the life of his brother who served in the same regiment. Her maternal grandfather Matt Gore was a member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, while her Aunt Kitty was an activist in the Cumann na mBan.
When Connie Russell, as she then was, married Eamon Stafford of Athy in 1946 the extended family history of involvement in national politics and the Great War was further widened. Eamon’s uncles, Edward and Thomas, of Butlers Row, Athy were victims of the first World War, both of whom were killed in action in France, while their sister Julia Cleary was a fervent supporter of Cumann na mBan.
Eamon was then working in Dublin as a fitter and his uncle, John Stafford of Duke Street, suggested that he apply for a job in the new Wallboard factory which Bowaters were about to open in Athy. The young married couple decided to come to Athy for one year, with the declared intention of saving enough money to put a deposit on a house in Dublin. The attractive wages on offer in the Wallboard factory at £11 per week made their plans very feasible and the offer of a rented house in Athy was also very persuasive.
The Pairc Bhride Housing Scheme was just then completed in 1950 and six of the houses were allocated to key workers in the new Wallboard factory. Eamon and Connie took up residence in No. 74 Pairc Bhride, while fellow workers Tommy Nevin, Jack Finnerty, Andy Coughlan, Jack Hynes and Chris McKenna also moved into the houses reserved for Wallboard staff. Now 59 years later Connie is one of the last, if not the last, of the original tenants in Pairc Bhride.
Connie liked Athy so much that the Stafford family remained here after 12 months had passed. She recalls the good humoured way the locals responded to what she describes as her typical Dublin greeting of ‘Good morning pet’. In those days young Dublin girls out on the town invariably wore hats, a practice which Connie persisted with when she came to the provincial town. That is until she encountered Miss Dallon, remembered by those of us who lived here in the 1950’s. Dallon’s Corner was a well known landmark in the centre of the town which owed its title to the lady whose sweet shop occupied the Emily Square side of the former Leinster Arms Hotel. Connie, suitably hatted, called to Miss Dallon one morning to be asked ‘What Mass are you going to – you know that down here we don’t wear hats in the day time.’
Connie who had been a member of the Harrington Street Choir in Dublin as well as the Oratorio Society got involved in the very vibrant musical scene in Athy as soon as she arrived here. This was the heyday of the Musical Society and Connie featured in ‘Dick Whittington’ which was performed in the Town Hall in 1953, just one year after her first daughter was born. She was to be involved in all the subsequent musical societies started in Athy, including the South Kildare Musical Society of the early 1960s and the Musical and Dramatic Society reformed in 1984.
I returned to Athy two years before the current society performed its first musical and I recall the fine shows put on, initially in the Lions Centre on the Kilkenny Road and later in the school hall attached to Scoil Eoin. The first show was ‘Curtain Call’, followed by ‘Annie Get Your Gun’, ‘Carrousel’, ‘Oklahoma’, ‘My Fair Lady’, ‘Guys and Dolls’, ‘Brigadoon’ and ‘South Pacific’. The Stafford family’s involvement was not confined to Connie, as her daughters Imelda, Celine and Ann were also very active in the local musical scene. As well as performing up to her 74th year Connie served as secretary of the Society for four years before being appointed President of Athy Musical and Dramatic Society.
As well as her involvement in the local musical scene Connie is also an active member since 1962 of the local I.C.A. Guild which was formed in Athy in 1957.
Sadly Connie’s husband Eamon died in 1986, aged 66 years, having retired nine years earlier due to ill health. Their son Paul who was the only one of their four children born in Dublin, returned to Athy from England in the early 1990s and produced ‘Oliver’ and ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ for the Athy Musical and Dramatic Society. In or about 1994 Paul produced the first ‘While Shepherds Watched’ in the Dominican Church, and 15 years later this annual Christmas concert is one of the most successful and enduring events of the local musical calendar. Sadly Paul died in December 2007.
Connie during her 59 years in Athy has made a well recognised contribution to the musical traditions of the town. Defined by the city where she was born and reared and where she spent her early adult life, Connie is living proof of how involvement in local community life enriches both the participant and the community. An open invitation perhaps to those who have joined our community in recent years and one which would undoubtedly be endorsed by that great lady of song, Connie Stafford.