Sitting here on the night of the 2004 budget I marvel at how different, how improved, our lives are compared to those who lived 50 years ago. Many would no doubt take issue with me on that simple assertion, citing personal reasons why it is not so. But really, taking the ups with the downs, life in Ireland has improved considerably since the 1950’s. Unemployment I am told now represents 4% or thereabouts of the total working population. How different it was just five or six years after the end of World War II. In Ireland, jobs were then few and far between, but thankfully just beyond the Irish Sea our closest neighbour was embarking on a war recovery programme which would utilise the brawn and the sweat of the Irish.
I am reminded of this every time I hear or read of a former emigrant from Athy who has passed away. Dinny Prendergast died last week after 49 years in Bermingham, to where he emigrated to join his sister Marie in 1954. He was just one of the many young men from Athy, Dinny being then just 18 years old, who every year took the emigrant boat to Holyhead.
The Prendergast family are an old Athy family. Dinny’s grandfather worked for the Lefroys of Cardenton and it was in the gate lodge of Lefroys that Oweny Prendergast, Dinny’s father, lived as a young man. When Oweny married Mary Timpson, a sister of Jimmy and Paddy Timpson, two old Athy families were brought together. In the early 1930’s Kildare County Council built a number of isolated cottages in South Kildare, one of which at Milltown was allocated to Oweny and Mary Prendergast where they were to rear their ten children.
Oweny as a young man played Gaelic football and he was a member of Rheban Gaelic Football Club when it was founded in 1929 by the Moore brothers, John and Tom. When the club won its first football game, defeating Suncroft at the Showgrounds in Athy, Oweny Prendergast was a team member and many years later he was the proud recipient of a gold watch presented by the club on the 50th anniversary of Rheban G.F.C. Oweny was also a member of the Kilberry Pipe Band with whom he played the drums and for a time both Oweny and his son Dinny, who also played the drums, marched together as members of the Pipe Band.
When writing of Oweny Prendergast and his family it is difficult to avoid references to Bradbury’s Bakery, for Oweny was employed as a bread van salesman by Tom and Peg Bradbury shortly after they set up a bakery business in Stanhope Street. In those early years Bradbury’s was quite a small operation, with the husband and wife team assisted by Mick Lawler, Oweny Prendergast and Mick Corr. Oweny was engaged in bread sales locally and travelled throughout the town in a horsedrawn bread van which I’m sure many of my readers will remember. When the business expanded with the move to a larger premises in Leinster Street, Oweny’s mode of transport changed and a motor van was provided. In time, staff numbers increased and Paddy Murphy and Tommy Deering were also employed as bread salesmen for what was one of the most popular provincial bakeries in the country.
Oweny Prendergast travelled each morning with bread supplies for Portlaoise but in the afternoons he travelled on the country byroads bringing Bradbury’s breads and confectioneries to rural shops. Monday afternoon the run was to Stradbally, Timahoe and Ballyroan. Tuesday afternoon it was to Baltinglass, with Castledermot the following afternoon. The rest of the week was spent going back over the same routes. The friendliness of life in those far off days was typified in the story told to me some years ago of how Oweny on his daily trips through the countryside collected shoes and boots to be dropped off for repair by Ned Wynne in his premises in Leinster Street. I’m told that the only seat in the bread van was that on which the driver sat and anyone wishing to join Oweny on his circuitous journey through the Irish countryside had to sit on a butter box.
Of Oweny’s ten children, six of them would be employed in Bradbury’s Bakery. Dinny, Paddy, Damien “Boy” and Eugene worked at different times in the bakery, while their sisters Jo and Rose were in the confectionery section where so many other local girls found work over the years. Dinny Prendergast started work in Bradbury’s soon after leaving school and he worked with Paddy Hayden of St. Patrick’s Avenue, and later still with John Mealy of Geraldine and Jackie Murphy and his brother Paddy of St. Joseph’s Terrace, not forgetting the three Brennan brothers from Cardenton, Sean, Michael and Willie. As well as working by day and part of the night in Bradbury’s Bakery, Dinny was also a member of the Sorrento Dance Band founded by Paudence Murphy of Offaly Street. He was 18 years old or so when he emigrated to England in 1954. He travelled to Bermingham to join his older sister Marie and there he was to remain for the remaining 49 years of his life and where he died last week. He was married and is survived by his wife and four children.
Dinny Prendergast was of a generation which did not have the economic and social benefits we take for granted today. He was just one of the hundreds of young local men and women who made the journey by rail, boat and rail again to the industrial centres of England, there to be met and greeted, if they were lucky, by a brother or sister or perhaps a friend on their first day in a strange land.
The typical Irish emigrant, devoid of daily contact with family and kin, generally led a lonely existence until time and memory dimmed and new friends and relationships were formed. Those who left these shores 50 years or so ago are now in old age and each year brings news of another Athy born emigrant who has breathed his or her last. Over 80 years ago a generation of Athy men died violent deaths fighting a war which was neither glorious or great, but which nevertheless robbed our town of a generation’s life blood. In this, the first decade of the 21st century, a later born generation of Athy men and women who were lost to the town of their birth 50 years or so ago, have made or are soon to make their final journeys.
The story of one Athy family is typical of many an Irish family whose long rooted ties with a locality could not always be maintained due to the harsh economic conditions of the day. How different it is today as the Minister for Finance announced his budget, dealing with figures which were unimaginable 50 years ago. The bread delivery man is no longer part of our daily lives, the dance band days are but a memory, but somehow, somewhere, there is a part of us which yearns for the pleasant, unhurried days when a lift, even sitting on a butter box, was a generous neighbourly gesture.