Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Martin Thompson and Fire Engines - American Civil Rights

Enthusiasts are to be found in all walks of life. Whether it be music, books, stamps or whatever takes your fancy, the enthusiast pursues his subject with unparalleled and undimmed enthusiasm, all the time striving to extend his collection. Many of us spent early teenage years immersed in stamp collecting, an interest which seldom survived when faced with the pursuits of post puberty years. It was then that football and girls seemed a much more interesting way of passing the afterschool hours, even if ones preferences were not necessarily in that order. Whatever the passion for collecting things, the focus of one’s enthusiasm was of necessity delimited by the space available to accumulate and store the objects of one’s desire. What then, I wonder, prompted someone to collect vintage fire engines. Yes, fire engines .... those red painted machines of steel so easily recognised as they rush to the scene of some emergency or other with sirens blaring and lights flashing.

Many of us have had at some time or other a fascination with emergency vehicles of all types, whether fire engines, ambulances or police vehicles. Martin Thompson has carried his interest far beyond that deemed possible by most people. He has the most extraordinary collection of vintage fire engines anywhere in this country. It’s an interest which also prompted him to found the Fire Service Trust, incorporating the Irish Fire Service Preservation Group ten years ago.

Fire has always been an essential part of community living, providing heat and energy, as well as the means of cooking. It has also however the power to destroy and its destructive nature necessitated the setting up of some form of fire service to ensure the safety of local communities. The history of fire fighting has seen that service develop from the use of simple water containers in medieval times to steam fire engines patented in the 1830s and then on to fire fighting appliances powered by petrol engines in the 1890s. The early appliances were pulled by horses or sometimes by the volunteer firemen themselves to the scene of the fire, but nowadays the modern fire engine is a self contained unit which can be speedily driven to the scene of any emergency.

This week you will have an opportunity to revisit any youthful interest you had in fire engines when Athy Heritage Centre hosts an exhibition of fire fighting equipment. The exhibition is to celebrate the 10^th anniversary of the founding of Fire Services Trust and it will showcase the history of fire fighting in County Kildare, with photographs, documents and equipment going back over the decades.

The exhibition will run for two weeks before being brought on tour to other towns in the county. On the opening night a number of vintage fire engines will be on display in Emily Square, including those which operated out of Athy Fire Station in 1962 and 1976. This is the first such exhibition of the County Kildare Fire Service and the official opening will be performed by Michael Fitzsimons, Chief Fire Officer for the County. It promises to be a most interesting display.

Last Sunday at 12 o’clock Mass I sat behind an African family, parents and two young girls, dressed in what I assume was the native costume of their homeland. Elsewhere in the church were other recent arrivals from the African continent who are now part of our local community. The almost cosmopolitan nature of our town’s population was brought home to me later during the same mass with the appearance of a Latvian-born Eucharistic Minister on the altar. Thinking back on how much the town of Athy has changed over the last ten years I was reminded that we are witnesses to enormous changes in Irish society – a society which for decades, indeed centuries, remained largely unchanged. The changes which we are noting locally are but a reflection of the changes which are also taking place far beyond our borders.

What happened last week in America with the swearing in of Barack Obama as the first coloured President of the United States is extraordinary given the past recent history of the African American’s struggle to combat institutionalised segregation. The history of the African American is one of discrimination and oppression which was only partially relieved following the American Civil War. In the late 1800s the southern States of America deprived the African Americans of equal rights and many of those States followed the lead given by Mississippi which in 1890 amended its law to exclude blacks from voting. Mississippi was the American State which in the 60 years prior to 1940 recorded the death by lynching of nearly 600 black persons. Not a single person was ever convicted of any of these killings.

The segregation of black Americans was enforced by racist laws which were largely uncontested until the American Supreme Court in 1954 declared that public school segregation violated the American Constitution. The next year a young black girl, Rosa Parkes, refused to give up her seat on a bus to a white man in Montgomery, Alabama and was subsequently arrested. The resulting year long boycott of Montgomery’s public transport system by African Americans ended with the American Supreme Court declaring that public bus segregation was unconstitutional. Around this time Martin Luther King found himself thrust to the forefront of the Civil Rights struggle in America, an involvement which would end with his killing in 1968. After years of campaigning, the Civil Rights Act of 1957 was introduced by the Eisenhower administration and secured full voting rights for black Americans. The next 40 years would see a gradual change in the position of African Americans, culminating in the swearing in of the country’s first coloured President last week.

However, the path to civil rights equality in America was marked by many pitfalls. Countless individuals lost their lives during the ongoing civil rights campaign. The most notorious incident was the killing of three young campaigners who were murdered in 1964 in Mississippi. Their murder was the subject of an Alan Parke film, /‘Mississippi Burning’. / Despite the Supreme Courts decision, registering to vote was made particularly difficult for black Americans in southern States where they continued to face discriminatory practices right up to the last Presidential election. Remember the infamous election lost by Al Gore when the result depended on votes cast in the State of Florida, where several counties had successfully debarred many black Africans from registering to vote.

The American Civil Rights Movement brought legislative changes, which on paper at least, and presumably in the Courts also, gave the African Americans equal rights with the white population. Discrimination and oppression still apparently remain issues to be dealt with in several communities throughout the United States in much the same way it was for emigrants from Ireland and the West Indies in post-war Britain. Almost half a million men and women left Ireland in the 1950s, the vast majority to England in search of work which was not to be had in post war Ireland. Many met discrimination for the first time when approaching lodging houses with vacant rooms to let to be told: /‘No coloured or Irish need apply’./ Indeed until the passing of anti discrimination laws notices and advertisements of this kind were a common feature in English cities which attracted migrant labour.

However, the difficulties which the Irish emigrant found in Britain were nothing compared to the discrimination and experiences of African Americans in their own country. Those years in the twilight world of discrimination and segregation are now by and large in the past as America celebrates the election of Barack Obama as the first coloured President of the United States.

We Irish also celebrated Obama’s victory and unconsciously perhaps reaffirmed our support for redressing the injustices which affected the African Americans for so long. Hopefully the African families who have come to live in Athy will be made welcome within the Irish community which has existed on the banks of the River Barrow for over 800 years.

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