Monday, September 8, 2014

Betty O'Donnell - A 'Gem' of a Lady

Betty O’Donnell, formerly Betty Prendergast of Carlow, came to Athy as the young bride of Manorhamilton, Co. Leitrim native, Jimmy O’Donnell in 1948.  They arrived to take over the running of the shop which Betty’s father, Tom Prendergast, had purchased many years previously for his sister Bridget Gavin.  Bridget had returned from the United States of America and the premises purchased for her was in 1910 occupied by Patrick Prendergast, saddler and stationer.  Whether there was any connection between Patrick Prendergast and Tom Prendergast I cannot say.

Bridget Gavin set up business combining the sale of sweets with the running of an ice cream parlour, which on fair days became an eating house and tea rooms.  On the far side of Convent Lane at No. 12 Duke Street was Mrs. James’s shop where Porters Post Office Directory for 1910 noted she carried on business as book seller, stationery and fancy goods, baskets and picture postcards.  The James’ post cards of 100 years ago showing scenes of Athy are still to be found, but regrettably examples of the basket making craft which once flourished in Athy are seldom, if ever, to be seen. 

Mrs. Gavin whom I believe was a widow returned from America with her son and carried on business for many years.  It was the arrival of Tom Bradbury to Athy and the subsequent opening of his restaurant in Leinster Street which heralded Mrs. Gavin’s retirement from business.  Her niece Betty, with her husband Jimmy O’Donnell, arrived in Athy 66 years ago to take over the running of what had been Mrs. Gavin’s well established business.  As luck would have it Mrs. James at 12 Duke Street retired from business soon afterwards and Betty O’Donnell secured the news agency rights which in the post war years were a tremendous and much sought after asset.  The tea rooms were soon thereafter discontinued and ‘The Gem’ became a fulltime stationery and news agency which continues in business to this day.

Betty was sadly widowed in 1971 when her husband Jimmy died at the young age of 52 years.  With 8 young children to support Betty continued to operate the business which today has become the third oldest family shop business operating in Athy.  Unless I am mistaken the oldest shop business still in the same family is O’Briens of Emily Square, with Shaws of Duke Street the next oldest and Betty O’Donnell’s ‘Gem’ in third place.

Betty is one of the readers of this column whose interest in the history of Athy and its people is matched by considerable background knowledge of events and people of the last 60 years or so.  She has proved invaluable to me in suggesting events, topics and persons whom she feels might usefully be the subject of an ‘Eye on the Past’.  Her help and suggestions are always valued by me and her generosity in sharing historical information is very much appreciated.

It was Betty who first drew my attention to the long forgotten and neglected roadside monument to Tommy O’Connell, former Officer Commander of the Carlow/Kildare Old I.R.A. Brigade who was killed in a road traffic accident near Maganey on 31st August, 1924.  I subsequently found the memorial which was hidden in an overgrown roadside ditch and regretfully, given most recent events, made it visible to passing traffic.  Unfortunately the iron cross which formed part of the memorial was recently broken and removed by persons whom I suspect took it for its scrap metal value.  The shameful act is a sad reflection on a generation which benefit from men such as Tommy O’Connell.  The now lost memorial cross was presented by Mrs. Kearney of Carlow to the Carlow Brigade I.R.A. and was the subject of ‘Eye on the Past No. 600’. 

Betty, who lives in Chanterlands has just celebrated her 90th birthday.  In extending good wishes to her I hope that Betty, whose name is synonymous with ‘The Gem’ in Duke Street, will continue to enjoy good health and many good years behind the counter.

Last week two men whom I admired and met over the years passed away.  Much has been written of Albert Reynolds whose connection with Athy goes back to the early 1960s and Dreamland Ballroom on the Kilkenny Road.  Neither Albert nor his English counterpart John Major got adequate credit for their part in the Northern Ireland peace process which resulted from initiatives taken by both men when they were heads of their respective governments.

Desmond O’Grady, a fine poet who also passed away, did not I feel receive the recognition he deserved.  Both men made a huge contribution, one to political life, the other to the literary heritage of our country.

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