Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Athy of Yesteryear

I recently came across a press cutting in which reference was made to Athy, described as ‘a thriving market and business centre set amid rich fields’.  The Dublin based journalist, writing in what I believe was a national newspaper, went on as follows:-  This is no town in the doldrums.  In a word the town is a reflection of its citizens.  They are friendly, hospitable, heart warming folk who do not let the grass grow under their feet.  They are up and doing.  They have not only the graces of living; they live.’

What a wonderful tribute, written I believe sometime in the early 1950s at a time when day to day life was difficult for most people in provincial Ireland.  But then the main streets of Athy were replete with shops, all of which did business.  There were few closed business premises in the 1950s, unlike the urban landscape dotted with empty shops which faced us here in Athy as 2014 came to an end. 

Happily there is a belief and a feeling abroad that the business tide has begun to turn and that we are facing into a better future which will culminate in the building of the outer relief road and the start of new industries and retail business in Athy.  Our town like many other provincial towns in Ireland has gone through difficult times in the past.  The 1930s were a particularly difficult time, economically and socially for the people of Athy what with the economic war, large scale unemployment and emigration. 

The resurgence in the town’s fortunes started with the opening of the asbestos factory in 1936 and the founding of what in later years was called the Social Club in the second half of the 1930s.  The club began as the South Kildare Lawn Tennis Club, with tennis courts and a pavilion in grounds just beyond the former Technical School on the Carlow Road.  That tennis club was still functioning in the mid 1950s when I remember the late Mattie Brennan of Offaly Street was the club’s caretaker.

It was when the tennis club committee arranged to buy the Legion Hall in St. John’s Lane that the Social Club came into being.  Apparently local solicitor Henry Donnelly, together with Sidney Minch and Major Tynan of Monasterevin, played important roles in facilitating the sale of the Legion Hall for the sum of £200.  That was in 1939.  Minch and Tynan were associated with the British Legion and it was in that capacity that Minch particularly, who also served as a T.D. for Kildare, facilitated the sale of the Legion Hall to the Social Club trustees.  One of the founders of the Club was the local curate, Fr. Morgan Crowe, who would later describe the contribution the Social Club made to the cultural life of the town of Athy as ‘outstanding’.

The Legion Hall built in 1926 as a social centre for demobbed World War I soldiers required improvements and additions, all of which were carried out by the Social Club.  In time the club had a billiard room, a card room, a badminton court, as well as table tennis tables.  Perhaps its most enduring legacy was the drama section of the club established in 1943 which for many years performed plays in the Social Club hall and in the local Town Hall. 

Some of those associated with the Social Club included John Stafford, Pat Mulhall, Liam Ryan, Ger Moriarty, Tadgh Brennan, John Dolan, Frank Kelly, Ken Reynolds, John W. Kehoe, Frances and May Fenelon, Joe Martin, Patsy O’Neill, Tom Fox, Jo and Florrie Lawler, Dany and Tommy Walsh, Nora McKenna, Kitty McLoughlin, Mary Harrington, Nellie Fox, Brendan Mulcahy, Tommy Doyle, Clare Moore, Fergus Hayden, Chrissie Burke, Paddy Flynn, Maureen Purcell and Agnes Doyle.  The list of members of the Athy Social Club is not exhaustive but I feel it important to record those named, all of whom at different times were part of the club which made a huge contribution to the social and cultural life of Athy in the 1940s and the 1950s.   

On Sunday 25th January at 3.00 p.m. the Dominican Church will be the venue for a specially arranged ‘Songs of Praise’ organised by Athy’s Lions Club.  Five choirs are scheduled to perform that afternoon and their performances will be interspersed with congregational hymn singing which will give everyone attending an opportunity to participate in what promises to be a unique afternoon of music and song.  There is no admission charge but those attending can contribute to a retiring collection at the conclusion of the ‘Songs of Praise’.  All monies donated will go to local Lions charities.

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