‘While Shepherds Watched’, a musical extravaganza for Christmas, will take place in St. Michael’s Parish Church on Tuesday, 19th December starting at 8p.m. This year’s performance will be the 25th year of this annual Christmas celebration which was first staged in the Dominican Church in December 1992. The late Paul Stafford directed that first ‘While Shepherds Watched’, with Ann Marie Heskins as musical director and Eileen Doyle as choir conductor. For the following 22 years the show was put on in the Dominican Church and it was only in 2015 that the Christmas show transferred to the east bank of the Barrow and St. Michael’s Parish Church.
Athy has a long tradition of music making. When next you visit the Carlow County Museum you can see a poster from the early part of the last century advertising a concert in Carlow town which featured members of Athy’s musical society. Many of the locals involved were no doubt members of the Moonbeam Entertainment Group which put on shows in Athy during the first World War years. Hanging on the wall of my office is a large poster for a ‘Grand Concert in aid of the Red Cross Fund’ which took place in the Town Hall on Thursday, 18th January 1918. The entertainers included the Misses Cranwell, Ashmore, Fennell, Nolan, Mr. R. Evans, Rev. P. Kellett, Rev. A.C. Lockett and Mr. Wilson Kelly humourist. The Moonbeam entertainers put on shows throughout 1921 and 1922 in the local Town Hall and in 1923 in the Comrades Hall. Those taking part in those latter shows included Mr. and Mrs. Painting, Miss Hosie, Mr. McElwee, Miss Cecil, Miss Toomey and Mr. R. Youell.
Several other musical societies have brightened up the local cultural scene here in Athy over the last 100 years or so. The Athy Musical Society, founded in the last year of the Second World War, was particularly active during the latter part of the 1940s. The annual show put on in the Town Hall brought together a wide range of talents supported by a large cast of local men and women. The participants in those early shows were captured in black and white photographs which today are a reminder of the great musical performances of the 1940s. The older readers of this column would remember the musicals ‘White Bread and Apple Sauce’, ‘Cinderella’, ‘Dick Whittington’, ‘Easter Parade’ and ‘Orchards and Onions’. Names associated with those great shows include May Ward, May Fenelon, Paddy Timpson, Tom Whyte, Peggy Glynn, Dan Meany, Veronica Keane, Betty May, Barney Davis and Jim Dargan. There were so many other Athy locals who appeared on the Town Hall stage as members of the Athy Musical Society but space does not allow me to add their names to this list.
1963 saw the emergence of another musical society in Athy, the South Kildare Choral Society. Under the direction of Captain Denis Mellerick of the Army School of Music, that society staged several musicals in the Grove Cinema including ‘The Mikado’ and ‘The Arcadian’. In 1984 the Athy Musical and Dramatic Society was formed and its first stage show was ‘Happy Days are here again’. This was followed by ‘Annie Get Your Gun’ in 1987, ‘Carousel’ the following year, ‘Oklahoma’ in 1989 and ‘My Fair Lady’ in 1990. Later still the Society featured ‘Guys and Dolls’ and ‘Brigadoon’, in addition to a number of dramas including ‘Juno and the Paycock’ and ‘The Year of the Hiker’. Now 33 years after its foundation Athy’s Musical and Dramatic Society will stage ‘While Shepherds Watched’ on Tuesday 19th December. It promises to be an enjoyable evening’s entertainment, with the net proceeds from the evenings show going to Pieta House charity.
The musical tradition of the South Kildare Region also found a champion in Brian Lawler who was sadly laid to rest in his native Kilmead last weekend. As founder and leader of the Ardellis Ceili band his contribution to Irish traditional music was widely recognised and the band’s popularity during the late 1950s matched that of the legendary Gallowglass Ceili band. Indeed both bands featured many times on Radio Eireann. The South Kildare townland of Ardellis will be forever associated with Irish traditional music thanks to the late Brian Lawler.
On Thursday 14th December the recently formed Athy Historical Society will host a lecture by Dr. Sharon Greene who was recently appointed editor of the Archaeology Ireland Journal. The topic is ‘Kathleen Shackleton, artist, illustrator, artic traveller and Blackfoot Indian’. The lecture for which there is no charge starts at 7.30 p.m. in the Heritage Centre. Anyone interested in becoming a member of Athy’s newly formed historical society can join on the night, or do so by calling into the Heritage Centre.