Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Johnny Day and emigration

The English accents intermingled with the Irish accents during the prayers of the faithful spoke of family lives separated by the Irish Sea and of a time when emigration scarred previous generations of Irish people.  Athy’s Church of St. Michael’s was the scene of the funeral mass for Johnny Day who passed away last week aged 89 years.  Johnny emigrated to England in 1952 when 25 years of age, having already spent 12 years working at a variety of jobs in his home town.  He was just 13 years of age and a schoolboy in the local Christian Brothers School when he took up his first job in Vernals forge in St. John’s Lane.

The son of Owen Day and the former Margaret Ryan, Johnny was born in Meeting Lane in a house which formed part of a row of houses, some of which were thatched.  They were destroyed by fire in 1930.  With the opening of the Michael Dooley’s housing scheme in 1932 the Day family was allocated the tenancy of No. 44 and it was to there that Johnny returned to live 13 years ago after living for 51 years in England. 

Athy in the 1940s and 1950s was, like many other Irish provincial towns, a place where emigration marked the lives of the majority of local families.  The Day family were no different in that regard than many others.  Johnny’s brother Paddy spent some years in England where he married Vivienne before returning to live in St. Dominic’s Park.  Paddy has since died.   Another family member who emigrated to England and who returned to her hometown of Athy was Johnny’s sister Maisie who married the late Ken Sale.  She now lives in Graysland.  Brothers Michael and Peter Day emigrated to Bedford where Michael died at 55 years of age and where Peter still lives.  Johnny’s youngest brother Joe who was a classmate of mine in the local Christian Brothers School died while living in Athy at a relatively young age.  Sister Gretta and brother Oweny continue to live in Athy.

Irish emigrants in the immediate post World War II years were by and large drawn to England rather than America to where a previous generation went in the years immediately following the Irish War of Independence.  This despite the fact that Athy in the 1950s witnessed somewhat of an industrial revival.  Athy had once enjoyed a long history of industrial activity, ranging from the tanneries of the 18th century to malting and brick building.  However, Athy’s once extensive brick making industry disappeared with the closure of the Athy Tile & Brick Company in the early 1930s.  It was the last of the brickyards which from the middle of the 19th century brought much needed employment to the south Kildare region. 

The setting up of the Asbestos factory in 1937 and opening of the Wallboard factory in 1947 brought new hope and added to the employment potential of the town which up to then relied heavily on local foundries.   Foundry work was a local trade craft which developed in Athy and the experienced foundry skills nurtured in the many small foundries in and around Athy prompted the setting up of the Irish Vehicle Industry (I.V.I.) by Colonel Hosie in the 1920s.  Johnny Day worked for some years in Matt and Mick McHugh’s foundry in Meeting Lane and from 1947 to 1952 in the I.V.I. foundry. 

If the early 1950s gave hope for sustained industrial development in Athy those hopes were not realised and the emigration trend set in the previous decades continued apace. In the last decade or so we have often been reminded of the impact emigration has had on family life in Athy and elsewhere in Ireland with announcements at Sunday masses of the death abroad of one time residents of the town.  During the summer, I attended my brother in law’s funeral in Greenford, London.  A Connemara man who had emigrated to England in the early 1960’s, his final resting place, like so many Irish men and women who took the emigrant boat, was in English soil.  On the day of his funeral I walked part of the extensive Greenford Cemetery noting the Irish names recorded on memorials and the county flags occasionally standing side by side at gravesides with the Irish Tricolour.  Both are a common sight on Irish emigrant graves in London.

Over the centuries Irish history has been marked by a constant flow of emigration from its towns and villages.  To the loss of a generation of young Athy men in World War I must be added the silent haemorrhaging over many decades of a potential workforce whose needs could not be met in their native land.  The story of the Irish diaspora is made up of the individual life stories of men and women such as those of my Connemara brother in law Padraig Spellman and Johnny Day of Athy.  Johnny returned to his home town to live out his remaining years while the Connemara man, born in the heart of the Connemara countryside, ended his days in the sprawling cityscape of London

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