Tuesday, March 24, 2020

John Alcock of Athy and North Island New Zealand

He left Athy 71 years ago determined to make a better life for himself. Now at 90 years of age John Alcock last week returned to the town of his birth travelling from his home in the North Island of New Zealand. Before he started on the long journey his near neighbour Aiden Tierney, formerly of Belview, Athy, suggested that he call on Frank Taaffe, as ‘he will no doubt be interested in talking to you’. John, accompanied by his daughter Margaret, were spending eight days in Athy and fortunately I had the pleasure of meeting both of them before the virus crisis put me into self-imposed isolation. John Alcock, at 90 years of age, presents with the physique of a man decades younger and given his journey from the far side of the world, is clearly an adventurous individual. He is the last surviving member of the sons and daughters born to George and Mary Alcock of No. 1 Dooley’s Terrace. George was a military policeman attached to the Free State Army who like his Alcock brothers and cousins was better known locally by his nickname. George was known as ‘Highlander’, how or why I have been unable to find out. Other extended Alcock family members had nicknames which equally defied explanation, ‘Lang’, ‘Boar’ and ‘Cack’ were just some of the colourful nicknames which were once part of the local’s vocabulary. John had eight brothers and sisters, but two of his sisters, Brid and Margaret, died young. His father died in February 1947, aged 48 years of age, by which time John had been working for four years in the moulding department of the local Asbestos factory. He left school at 13 years of age and when I met him last week he remembered with fondness his teachers, Brother Ryan, Brother Heffernan and Brother Keane, as well as a lay teacher who like most adults of that time was remembered only by his nickname, which in his case was ‘Lattie’. Amongst those with whom John worked in the moulding department over 70 years ago were ‘Whack’ Connell, Johnny Corcoran, Francis Cahill, ‘Sloth’ Kavanagh, Shelly Kelly and Ger Robinson. Two years after his father’s death John took the emigrant boat to England, a journey which all of his siblings were to repeat at different times. John worked as a bricklayer in London and in 1955, responding to a New Zealand government newspaper advertisement he took up employment in that country. He feels he was lucky to have been accepted, because during his interview in New Zealand House, London he got the distinct impression that the New Zealand authorities were not too keen on accepting Irish men or women. He has lived in New Zealand since then, apart from some time spent working in Australia. His brother George and sister Sheila also emigrated to New Zealand, while his sister Mollie, who served in the Royal Air Force, died last year aged 95 years having spent many years in India, Suez Canal and Canada. John married Betty Maureen Gallichan and they had a family of four girls and one son. Sadly his wife Betty died last year and today John lives in Kawerau in the Bay of Plenty on the North Island. I was interested to learn of any changes in Athy as seen by John but his youthful memories of over 70 years or more prompted the reply ‘my Athy is spoiled’. His memories of Athy were not so much the buildings or the streetscape but rather his neighbours in Dooley’s Terrace, the orchards which different generations of young boys raided, and youthful rabbiting exploits on the fields in the edge of the town. The changes, he noted with deep regret, were those resulting from the deaths of friends and neighbours he once knew. His journey back to Athy was a pilgrimage of remembrance, tracing his youthful steps through the town he left 71 years ago. It was a great surprise and an honour for me to meet John Alcock, one of the many hundreds of young Athy men and women who over the years left the town of their birth to better themselves. An earlier generation which included Frank and Thomas Alcock left Athy to join comrades in the battlefields of World War I. Frank and Thomas, both privates in the Royal Dublin Fusiliers, died in that war, while their nephew John after a long and happy life in New Zealand returned to Athy to relive cherished memories of the past. I was saddened to learn of the death of my near neighbour Frank Brennan of Coneyboro. Frank, a retired postman, was a courteous and well-liked individual when I had the pleasure of exchanging greetings and chat on many occasions as he took his daily walk around Ardreigh. Sympathy is extended to his wife Kathleen, his sons and his daughter.

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