Emigration has always been a central feature of Irish provincial town life but particularly so in Ireland of the post economic war years of the 1930s. I was reminded of this when talking recently to three Athy women whose family lives were marked by emigration. For the vast majority of the Irish men and women who emigrated in the last century the principal destination was Great Britain. So too for the father of sisters Alice Quinn and Esther Flynn who left Athy in 1942 to work for British Rail in Leicester city. Paddy Wall spent several decades working in Leicester. On retirement he returned home to Athy and often recounted to his family stories of his involvement in the aftermath of World War II bombings. Sarah Cahill’s father Thomas Morrin was also driven by Ireland’s past political and economic failures to take the emigrant boat to work in England.
As I sat in Frank O’Brien’s pub to talk to the three cheerful ladies I was struck by their almost sanguine acceptance of difficult past times, but times which they insisted were nevertheless happy times. All three left school at an early age, deprived because of their circumstances of the opportunities which a secondary education might provide. At fourteen years of age they went to work, Sarah Morrin to Plewman’s house on the Kilkenny Road, while sisters Alice and Esther Wall, who with their mother and brother Johnny had joined their father in Leicester, also joined the work force on reaching 14 years of age. Esther worked for some years in a wool factory, while her younger sister Alice worked in Woolworths.
The Wall family returned to their family home in 6 Nelson Street after spending five years in Leicester but a number of years were to pass before they could be joined again by the father of the family. Thomas Morrin was also able to return to work in his home town of Athy when he obtained employment in the local Asbestos factory. Family life with an absent father working and living in England was a fairly common situation to be found in provincial Ireland of the 1940s and 1950s. The difficulties this presented for the mothers of young children and the void it created in family life can only be imagined. However, in a country with so few employment opportunities and where emigration figured large in everyday life Irish mothers proved resilient and resourceful.
Sarah Morrin and Esther Wall were in the same class in St. Mary’s Convent School in Athy with Alice Wall two classes behind before Esther and Alice left for Leicester where they continued their education. Alice on returning to Athy worked in Bachelor’s Pea Factory until she married John Quinn in 1968. They lived in Plewman’s Terrace, the same terrace where her friend Sarah Morrin was born and lived before her marriage.
Esther Wall’s story highlights the persistence of emigration in Irish social life as having spent five years in Leicester before returning to Nelson Street, Athy she again emigrated in 1960. This time the journey was made with her boyfriend Seamus Flynn of Kilberry when both travelled to Manchester where they were married and where they lived for the next 30 years.
Sarah Morrin, who later married Nicholas Cahill, remembers spending a number of years working all year round in Lambs farm in Fontstown. An early morning start saw Sarah and her work companions collected in Emily Square to be brought by lorry to the Fontstown Fruit Farm. On marrying at 21 years of age Sarah went to live in Pairc Bhride where she is now a long time resident. Sarah Morrin whose parents were appointed tenants of No. 18 Plewman’s Terrace in November 1936 proudly claims to have been the first baby born in Plewman’s Terrace.
I met the three happy contented ladies last week when we swopped stories of life in Athy over the years. Tales of the lively town scene of yesteryear when the shops stayed open until late on Saturday night, mixed with stories of ‘the tuppenny rush’ at Bob’s Cinema in Offaly Street brought back treasured memories. Alice Quinn, Sarah Cahill and Esther Flynn are some of the wonderful people who with their friendliness and shared memories make Athy such a wonderful place in which to live.