One of the great pleasures of visiting other countries is the occasional opportunity of meeting people from or in some way connected with Athy. It is almost 30 years since I was first invited to the annual dinner of the Kildare Men’s Association in Manchester. There I met many born in the shortgrass county who for a variety of reasons left Ireland to make a life in the industrial cities of Britain. One such person was Sarah Allen, formerly Sarah Bolger, born in what she described to me as ‘an old house’ off Meeting Lane, Athy in 1932. Her father was Stephen Bolger who worked as a canal boatman towards the latter part of his working life and who was married to Nora Lawler of Ardreigh. Nora’s father, John Lawler, was one of the many local men who fought and died in the First World War. He was a reservist in the Royal Dublin Fusiliers having served in South Africa during the Boer War. He is one of six World War I soldiers who died during that war and are buried in St. Michael’s cemetery, Athy.
Sarah Allen, who has lived in Manchester for many years, has fond memories of youthful days spent in Athy. She recalls picking mushrooms with her mother in Hendy’s field at Ardreigh and being carried in her mother’s arms to see her father while he was working on the sewerage scheme under construction for the houses at Rathstewart. Sadly her mother died when Sarah was five years old, after which she went to live with her grandmother Lizzie Lawler in Ardreigh.
Sarah, whom I met earlier in the summer when she returned to Athy for her step brother’s birthday celebration, spoke to me of Athy’s past and her abiding memories of bygone years. Her memories and those of older generations of Athy folk, whether or not now living in Athy, are the stuff of local history. Their recounted lives and the attendant folk stories allow us to view from a distance the life and lore of past generations which hugely differ from that of the present.
Sarah spent one season working in the local pea factory in Rathstewart before leaving at 15 years of age for London. She was met by her aunt at Euston Station and after a short while got work as a chamber maid in the Royal Hotel, Russel Square. There she remained for two years, earning 22 shilling per week all found. Even then Sarah’s sense of responsibility and duty saw her sending home £1 per week to her father who was then out of work. It was a pattern repeated by so many Irish men and women working and living in England during that post war period. Lack of employment opportunities in Ireland separated families, while the Irish emigrants of London, Manchester and other industrial centres of Great Britain forged an uneasy and sometimes unwelcoming relationship with the war-torn communities on the British mainland.
Sarah endowed with a social conscience and marked with an admirable sense of responsibility paid a prominent role amongst the Irish community in Manchester for many years. The Kildare Men’s Association and the Irish Centre in Manchester were but two of the many organisations with which Sarah was associated with over the years. Now at 85 years of age Sarah has retired from voluntary community work and has time to think back on her life which started in Garden Lane, off Meeting Lane, Athy, extended over some years in Ardreigh before her life experiences were strengthened in the cosmopolitan cities of London and Manchester.
Sarah has proved herself as one of Athy’s finest, bringing as she did to her voluntary work in Manchester the cheerfulness, kindness and wisdom of a girl who first saw the light of day in the town of Athy in the south of Co. Kildare.
Last week marked the 50th anniversary of the death of trade unionist and social activist Christy Supple and his anniversary mass in St. Michael’s Parish Church was attended by his sons Joe and Tommy. I have written previously of Christy and his involvement in the agricultural labourers strike of the early 1920s. Christy encouraged by William O’Brien of the Dublin based Transport Union, set out early in 1918 to unionise the workers of south Kildare. The agricultural workers strike of 1922/’23 was an acrimonious affair and attacks on property resulted in Free State troops having to be billeted in the Town Hall, Athy for 8 months from March 1923. Christy was himself arrested in January of that year and held in Carlow prison for several months. In 1925 he was elected as a member of Athy Urban District Council, but like so many other men and women had to emigrate to England in later years where he died in November 1967, aged 69 years.
Christy Supple’s story is one of courage and commitment to the workers cause but his role in the defence of the agricultural labourers strike of south Kildare is a story which has yet to be written and remembered in his native town.