Paddy Wright has always been something of an agitator. The playing field, sometimes his work environment and nowadays the public forum of local politics have provided Paddy with readily accessible venues on which to engage the “enemy” in battle. Now recently retired as caretaker of St. Michael’s Cemetery, Athy, a job which he held for 28 years, Paddy talked to me recently about the ups and downs of his very interesting life.
Born in Moone in 1938, Paddy was the eldest son of Mary O’Shaughnessy of Broomfield House, Moone and Johnny Wright of Bawn, Churchtown. The young family moved to 3 Geraldine Road, Athy two years later and it was there that Paddy’s siblings, Annie, Noel and John were born.
Johnny Wright was a member of St. Patrick’s Pipe Band, Churchtown and served as Pipe Major for the Band over many years. Many are the stories I’ve heard over the years of the part played by the Churchtown Pipe Band and its Pipe Major Johnny Wright, unwittingly perhaps, in local political rivalry between the Wars. Apparently many of the Churchtown Band Members were avid supporters of de Valera and as such piped him into Athy on his arrival at the Railway Bridge for an open air meeting in the Square. However, when the supporters of Willie Cosgrave sought the same facilities for their man, the Churchtown Band declined to co-operate, a decision which is recalled with some mirth, even after the elapse of over 70 years.
The Wright family moved to the Town Hall in 1949 when Johnny Wright replaced “Sixty” Kelly as caretaker of the complex which was then still owned by the Duke of Leinster. The Town Hall was the social centre of Athy in those days where dances, plays, musicals and variety shows took place in the ballroom on the first floor, which now houses the town’s library. The youngest member of the Wright family, Brendan, was born in the family quarters in the Town Hall.
Paddy on his own admission left school at 13½ years of age, unable to read or write, and for a few years found himself on the periphery of delinquency. Sport played a very important part in his subsequent youthful development and the local sporting scene provided him with his first public platform. He was a member of the 1956 Athy minor team which won that year’s minor championship, defeating Clane by 12 points to no score. The only other time a defeated minor team failed to score was in the 1936 final, played just one year before the start of World War II when Athy defeated Kill on the score of 3-8 to no score. Paddy declares the 1956 minor team as “the best team ever” and right enough several of the team, including Paddy, subsequently played senior football on the County team. These included Mick Carolan, Mick Coughlan, Jimmy Dooley and Liam O’Shea.
It wasn’t long before Paddy was in the wars and the first of his many battles with authority arose when the local G.A.A. club officials had him suspended for playing soccer. When the suspension ended Paddy joined the Castlemitchell Club, where he was to finish his playing days many years later.
The Castlemitchell teams of the 1950’s were a mixture of footballing skills and brawn with the latter qualities more often than not employed in the quest for victory on the field of play. Paddy himself acknowledges this when declaring that “Castlemitchell’s problem was fighting - you can’t fight and win football matches.” It was a rough, tough arena for a young man to find himself in but Paddy contributed to the mayhem which generally marked the onward march of the Castlemitchell men. However, it was the delayed league final between Athy and Kilcock which saw Paddy, by then a Castlemitchell club player but temporarily back in the Athy fold for the postponed final, incur suspension. Apparently he took exception to some of the referees decisions and promptly thumped him. The outcome was an enforced absence from the playing field for some months thereafter.
It was a short time later that the entire Castlemitchell team, including Paddy, was suspended for life following a fracas with Round Towers. Paddy by then was a member of the Senior County Team panel and the County Board contrived to lift the suspension on Paddy so that he could line out for the County team in a second round championship match against Louth at Croke Park. Louth went on to win that game but Paddy was to continue playing with the County team for sometime thereafter.
Paddy, who worked in the Wallboard factory for twelve years, where his father was also employed as a sawman, emigrated to England in 1959. A short stint spent in Birmingham and then in London was followed by his return to Ireland where he resumed his footballing career with Castlemitchell and for a short while with the County Senior team. Two of Athy’s most prominent buildings, the Dominican Church and the Minch Norton Silos, were constructed in the early 1960’s and Paddy proudly declares that he was a steel fixer on both projects. The high rise silos under construction by Crampton’s of Dublin afforded Paddy the first opportunity for a foray into public disputation when he lead the workers out on a two day strike to further their demand for danger money. Another spell in England, this time tunnelling on the Victoria Line Underground, provided Paddy with the unique distinction of being the only Kildare man to work on the tunnelling project which was largely the preserve of men from the Innishowen Penninsula of Co. Donegal.
While in England Paddy attended evening lectures in the Working Men’s College in Camden town where the Irish Socialist, Desmond Greaves, was a tutor. Hyde Park Corner on Sunday mornings was also another favourite venue and in time Paddy overcame the literacy problems which were the legacy of misspent years in the local Christian Brothers School.
Paddy spent a number of years going back and forth between England and Ireland until he finally returned to settle down in his home town in 1968. For a few years he was self employed and when Paddy Rowan, caretaker of the local cemetery, retired in 1975, Paddy was appointed in his place. It was around the same time that Paddy was elected a member of Athy Urban District Council and he has remained a Council member for the past 28 years while he also served a number of terms as a member of Kildare County Council. Never one to understate his position, Paddy has been the most colourful character on the local Council. His sometimes raucous contribution to the staid deliberations of the Town Fathers no doubt causes eyebrows to be raised in some quarters, but Paddy remains largely unconcerned by the public’s reaction.
The agitator who in his time took on allcomers has never shirked a battle, no matter how unevenly the odds are stacked against him. We might not always agree with him, and indeed there is seldom reason to do so, but nevertheless his contribution to local affairs is always entertaining. He is the master of the carefully honed sound bite which is inevitably guaranteed to catch the ears of even the most bored reporter.
During our conversation Paddy spoke of the traumatic experience he had as a young nine year old. He recounted with feeling and emotion how his father, Johnny, after a Sunday morning shooting trip to Killart left his loaded gun aside when he returned to his Geraldine Road home. Young Paddy picked up the gun and innocently fired it, causing serious injury to his uncle Daniel O’Shaughnessy. It was an experience which affected Paddy for many years and the pain and trauma he experienced is still apparent in reliving the events 56 years later.
The recent recipient of an artificial hip, Paddy in his retirement now enjoys a new lease of life. He is a great raconteur whose stories of Athy in the 1950’s are not only embellished in the telling, but provide a ready backdrop for the singing of a local ballad for which Paddy has now become famous.
Paddy Wright, social agitator, raconteur and ballad singer, has in turn entertained, frustrated and often annoyed many of us with his sometimes outrageous statements on local issues. However, one can never find fault in the man, who having left school at 13½ years of age subsequently dedicated himself to self improvement and thereafter to a life of local public service. He retains, even now as a pensioner, all the attributes of a likable rogue whose outlandish statements are overlooked because, although Paddy is unique, he is one of our own.