Friday, December 31, 1993

Frank English

The celebration of a generation of public service as a Town Councillor brought together Athy Councillors past and present on the 15th of December last. The recipient of many congratulations and good wishes on the night was Frank English who first stood for election to Athy Urban District Council in 1967. His colleagues on the Council that year included M.G. Nolan, doyen of the Fianna Fail party in South Kildare and Paddy Dooley, then a member of the Dail and the only Athy townsman to gain a seat in the Dail since the days of Sidney Minch. Others re-elected in 1967 were Tom Carbery of St. Martin's Terrace and Joe Deegan. While all of these men were being re-elected towards the end of their active involvement in local politics Frank was being elected to the Council for the first time. Also elected with him on that occasion were Jim McEvoy, Enda Kinsella, Mick Rowan and Jack MacKenna.

First elected at 26 years of age Frank has stood for re-election on three occasions since then. The length of his service as a Town Councillor is not unique as longevity of service at this level of Local Government has in the past been the norm rather than the exception. However, in todays volatile political environment 27 years of service as a Town Councillor is sufficiently unusual to merit public recognition. Not least for the level of commitment and public spirit shown in putting his name before the Electorate on so many occasions. Many of us are reluctant to get involved - and in that respect the unwillingness extends to almost all facets of life. Non-participation by the many places an uneven burden on those who are prepared to share the responsibility of community life. Community leaders like Frank English are fair game for the "hurlers on the ditch" who are either unwilling or fearful of putting themselves before the community at election time. Whether in the local club or organisation we have all too often come across the same experience where the willing few share the burden for the many who wish to participate on their own terms without making any contribution at committee level. So it was fitting that we gathered in the Leinster Arms Hotel to pay tribute to somebody who has not been afraid to put his time and his talents at the disposal of the local community.

In his younger days Frank was known as Harry, a name which disappeared as adulthood loomed. Strange when you look back over the years how in the middle of new relationships youthful friendships endure. Harry, as he then was, was never part of the Offaly Street gang but yet it was with Frank as he then became that I shared many experiences over the years. Together as young lads we ventured onto the Continent as intrepid travellers thumbing our way around France and later venturing into East Berlin a few short years after the erection of the Berlin Wall. Trips to Belgium, Holland, England and America followed and experiences were shared which added enormously to our knowledge, if not to our interpersonal skills while no doubt confirming the Continental's perception of young Irishmen as "Mad Dogs of the Midnight Sun".

His penchant for overseas travelling has abated in recent years to be replaced by an enormous likening for a late night pint in the cosy confines of Frank O'Briens. Maybe old age affects you that way. I will have to wait another year before finding out for myself.

Frank, as his mother Peg would say, is "a great lad". Indeed he is and his 27 years on the Town Council amply demonstrates that the townspeople of Athy share that view.

Friday, December 24, 1993

Tom Flood and Kavanaghs Autograph Book

On the 6th of September, 1984 the Irish Independent reported the death of Sean Kavanagh, former Governor of Mountjoy Jail. Born in Tralee in 1897 Kavanagh spent the early part of his life as a member of the Gaelic League, on whose behalf he worked as an Irish teacher in County Kildare. It was in that capacity he stayed in Athy on numerous occasions prior to and during the War of Independence. Unknown to those who met him he was also employed as an agent for Michael Collins’ Intelligence Services as Chief Intelligence Officer for County Kildare. He was a frequent visitor to No. 41 Duke Street, then the home of Michael Dooley who was very active in Republican circles during the War of Independence. Dooley’s Terrace is named after him.

Kavanagh was eventually captured and imprisoned in Mountjoy Jail in November 1920 where he was to remain for 12 months. During his long term in prison he got many of his Republican colleagues to sign an autograph book which was recently for sale at a rare book auction. The first signature in the book is that of Michael Staines, one of James Connolly’s stretcher bearers during his evacuation from the G.P.O. in Easter week. Staines was later to be appointed the first Commissioner of the Garda Siochana. Arthur Griffith and E.J. Duggan, two signatories of the Anglo Irish Treaty appended their signatures in Kavanagh’s book on the 21st of April, 1921.

Perhaps the most interesting signature for an Athy reader is that of Thomas Flood who on the 23rd of September, 1921 dedicated an inscription to his late brother Frank Flood who was hanged in Mountjoy Jail. Given Kavanagh’s links with Athy it is a strange coincidence that Thomas Flood, a Dublin man, was soon thereafter to come to live in the same South Kildare town where he set up business in Leinster Street.

Frank Flood and his brother Thomas were members of the Republican movement during the War of Independence and Frank was captured following an attack on Crown Forces in Drumcondra. Court marshalled and convicted of treason he was hanged at Mountjoy Jail on the 14th of March, 1921.

Thomas Flood took part in the attack on the Custom House, Dublin by Republican Forces on the 25th of May, 1921. After being wounded he was captured and lodged in Mountjoy Jail to await trial. He escaped a probable conviction for treason and the inevitable sentence of hanging when an acute appendicitis on the eve of his trial led to its postponement. He remained in Mountjoy Jail until November 1921 and the Declaration of the Truce on the eve of his re-scheduled trial allowed him to escape the death penalty.

Following the end of hostilities Thomas Flood married Peg Mullane from Carlow and came to Athy where he purchased the Railway Dining Rooms owned by Margaret Byrne. He was later to become a member of Athy Urban District Council and he died in 1950 on the eve of an election to Kildare County Council for which he was a candidate. His son, Tom, lives in Church Road, while another son Danny was a member of the last Kildare team to win a Leinster Championship medal in 1956.

Sean Kavanagh, the original owner of the autograph book, was to return to Mountjoy Jail as Deputy Governor after the Treaty and he was later promoted as Governor, a position he held for 34 years.

Looking through the autographs and inscriptions, now 72 years old, it is difficult to imagine the personal sacrifices made by these men and their women folk at such a crucial time in Ireland’s history. Now that we have arrived at another cross-roads in our country’s story it is important for us to acknowledge our debt to these men and women while realising that it does no disservice to what we believe in if we seek a peaceful solution to the problems facing our country today.

Friday, December 17, 1993

James McNally - Mass Serving

Growing up in Athy in the 1950's the height of every young man's ambition was to be an altar boy. This was not necessarily an indication of religious fervour, merely I suspect a desire to be involved in the adult world from which young people were then so totally excluded. Being an altar boy was almost akin to taking to the stage and like the actor proclaiming his words to a hushed audience the altar boy intoned the responses to the Latin Mass with a solemnity and gravity beyond his years.

The attraction of being an altar boy is even now difficult to ascertain. Maybe it lay in the unquestioning desire to emulate an older brother who had himself perhaps followed in the steps of a near neighbour. The Mass servers surplice was handed down from brother to brother and well I can remember the relatively dishevelled lace ends of my surplice which repeated washing and delicate darning could never hope to conceal was a hand-me-down.

Morning masses in those days were timed to try the body if not the spirit and my memories are of being awakened at 6.30 a.m. by my father to get up on cold dark winters mornings to serve 7.00 a.m. Mass. The only constants at that ungodly hour were the celebrant and the local Christian Brothers who each morning walked alone and some distance apart from each other from their Monastery in St. John's to the local Parish Church. A Mass server could not always guarantee to arise and arrive in time and to this day I recall the terror felt when I arrived at the Sacristy one morning soon after I joined the Altar Servers to find that I was the only server present. In those days one had to contend with responsibilities which seemed awesome for a young lad so a hasty retreat was beaten leaving the Priest to face the congregation on his own.

One man whose face appears to me out of the distance of almost 40 years is James McNally, Sacristan extraordaire. For how long he was in the Parish Church I cannot say but he always seemed an important part of the Church in Athy and I can still visualise him guiding the Priests through the Easter ceremonies with the assurance and confidence of a man well versed in the intricities of Church ceremonies.

James was a widower and he lived in Convent View with the Mullerys. As Fr. McLoughlin, the Senior Curate who was later to become Parish Priest of Celbridge once said "James McNally could say Mass". It was a tribute well deserved and one which acknowledged his value to the local Church which he served with dignity and respect for many years. When he died he was buried in Old St. Michael's Cemetery and today it is sad to realise that this servant of the Church and of the people of Athy lies in an unmarked grave.

I am sure there are many others who like me remember James McNally and his contribution to the Church. It is rather surprising that he should be forgotten but perhaps he was not forgotten, merely overlooked in the myriad of problems and troubles that assail all of us throughout our lifetime. Now that we are reminded of James McNally maybe we can ensure that his grave is suitably marked as a tribute to a man who served a Church and a community so well for so long.

Friday, December 10, 1993

Sisters of Mercy

The Sisters of Mercy have a long cherished involvement with Athy and District. The first steps were taken to bring the Sisters to Athy in the days immediately before the Great Famine. However, it was not until 1852 that the Sisters of Mercy arrived in Athy to take charge of the newly built convent at the rear of St. Michael’s Parish Church. Like other religious communities throughout Ireland the local convent has seen a sharp decline in numbers in recent years. There are approximately twenty-six nuns in the convent today, with another eight nuns in St. Vincent’s Hospital. Thirty years ago there were sixty five nuns in the convent which had it’s own Noviciate to cater for the novices wishing to join the Sisters of Mercy in Athy. The Noviciate is now based in Dublin and no novices have entered for the Athy convent for many years past.

How different the story was in previous generations when the local convent was home to novices from all over Ireland. Athy convent was particularly popular with young women from the West of Ireland while the South of Ireland also gave many novices who were to teach in the local school work in St. Vincent’s Hospital, or do other charitable work in and around Athy. The remarkable fact is that so few of the nuns living in the convent over the years were from the South Kildare area. This is possibly explained by what may originally have been a rule later changed to a tacit understanding that Athy girls would join the Mercy Order in convents outside their own locality.

At a time when religious vocations were the norm rather than the exception it was not unusual for several members of the same family to join the convent. There were no less than ten families represented by two or more daughters in the Athy convent over the last fifty years. These included Sr. Laurence and Sr. Ursula who were Malones of Barrowhouse, and the Cullen sisters of Ballytore who in religion took the names of Sr. Joseph and Sr. Cecilia. The Gavin family of Westmeath gave us Sr. Francis and Sr. Peter while Sr. Sacred Heart and Sr. Agnes were Blanchfields from Thomastown in Co. Kilkenny. Still in the convent today are Sr. Finbar and Sr. Dolores, members of the Cowhy family who entered from Ballyhea, Buttevant, Co. Cork. The O’Leary sisters from Dublin, Sr. Joseph and Sr. Carmel, were another set of siblings who came to Athy to embark upon life as Sisters of Mercy.

Nearer to home were the Fingleton sisters of Ballyadams who as Sr. Ignatius and Sr. Theresa were to live in community with Sr. Claud and Sr. Cecilia, two members of the Hall family from Killinaule in Co. Tipperary. The Meagher family of Doon, Co. Limerick gave us Sr. Alphonsus and Sr. Oliver but perhaps the most extraordinary family record was that of the Cosgrave sisters from Daingean, Co. Offaly. Sr. Xavier, Sr. Paul and Sr. Rose were members of the same family who joined the Sisters of Mercy in Athy and happily Sr. Xavier and Sr. Paul are still with us.

Around 1940 the house rule which restricted the members of the community to the convent was changed to allow sisters and postulants to return to their own homes one day each year. Irrespective of the distance to be travelled anyone availing of the opportunity to visit their home had to be back in the convent by 9.00 p.m. the same night. At a time when so many members of the community were from the West of Ireland even this concession had limited benefit. One can imagine the difficulties posed for someone like Sr. Brendan who entered the convent in Athy in 1914 and who was from the Glens near Dingle in Co. Kerry, a distance impossible to travel in one day.

Community life in Athy’s convent is more relaxed and less restrictive than ever before and the nuns are now actively involved with the wider community outside the convent. The regret is that the future of the Sisters of Mercy in Athy is so uncertain, but hopefully they will continue to have a presence in Athy continuing a tradition extending back over 140 years.

Friday, December 3, 1993

Geraldine Tennis Club

As you walk along the Carlow Road past Chanterlands, Oaklawns, and the other housing estates it is difficult to visualise that just a few years ago the entire area was given over to fields. The only visible reminder of that time is a single yew tree growing on the footpath near the entrance to Oaklawns. It once stood in the front garden of Mrs. Flood's house, which with Mrs. Anthony's house on the same road were once the only dwellings between the railway crossing gates and Coneyboro. Some short distance away and in the area now given over to the Chanterlands housing estate I can recall the site of the Tennis Club now long gone. One of my earliest memories is as a very young lad in the company of other young fellows on our hands and knees looking for weeds on the smooth green sward of one of the Club's Tennis Courts. The Caretaker at that time was Mattie Brennan, of fond memory. I never played tennis on those same courts and could not recall the name of the club until last week when the Minute Book of Geraldine Tennis Club came into my possession.

The inaugural meeting of the club was held in the Urban Council room in the Town Hall on Tuesday the 8th of May, 1934. The first Committee was headed by Fr. Maurice Browne C.C. who was later to become Parish Priest in Ballymore Eustace. He was brother of Cardinal Browne O.P. but is perhaps best remembered as the author of those fine books "The Big Sycamore" and "In Monavello". The first Chairman was Joseph Hickey while Brother Dolan of the local Christian Brothers School was Vice-Chairman. James Tierney was Treasurer and joint Secretaries were Edward Dooley and Philip Gunne. The first Captain of the club was Tommy Mulhall, better known in those days as a County and Provincial footballer. William Keyes was Vice-Captain while the Committee included P.J. O'Neill, John Harvey, William Mahon, Frank Bramley, Joseph Carbery, Michael Mannin and John Dooley.

The Ladies Committee comprised Ms. K. Carolan, Ms. Cullen, Ms. M. Kelly, Ms. P. Bradley, Ms. E. Flinter, Ms. K. May, Ms. Browne, Ms. R. Dooley, Ms. O'Brien, Ms. Hickey, Ms. J. Horgan, Ms. K. Candy, Ms. Molly Lawler and Ms. May Lawler.

On the proposal of Joe May the Club was named "Geraldine Tennis Club" and the meeting also agreed to fix the annual subscription at 12/6. It is interesting to note that 60 years before the emergence of equality legislation those in attendance at the inaugural meeting voted down a Motion that women be charged 2/6 less than men for their annual subscription.

The grounds used by the Club were leased from Mr. Bodley and the tennis courts were officially opened on Thursday the 24th of May, 1934. Early rules established by the club included limitation of sets to not more than eleven games and prohibiting singles play while members were waiting for games. Interestingly enough at an early date the club had more than six courts - as of January of 1936 it was agreed to reduce the number of courts to five or six. The first groundsman employed by the club was John Mitchell.

In September 1934 the Club decided to run practice dances on Thursday evenings every week and an all night dance on September 26th. An all night dance required a band to be booked to play from 9.00 p.m. to 3.00 a.m. As to the nature and purpose of a practice dance I cannot say but I would welcome hearing from anyone who might have attended them. Incidentally the admission charge for an all night dance was four shillings (20p) which included government tax and supper.

In 1935 the club purchased a galvanised hut from the Barrow Drainage Board and this was used as the Clubhouse. You can see the Clubhouse in a photograph of social club players taken in the 1940's which is presently on exhibition in the Museum Room in the Town Hall. In October 1936 the club changed it's name to South Kildare Tennis Club and affiliated with the Irish Lawn Tennis Union. By now the committee included Ger Moriarty, Liam Ryan, M.G. Nolan and Paddy Dooley. On the 18th of November, 1941 a special meeting of the Tennis Club was called to consider the possible purchase of the legion hall in St. John's Lane. It was agreed to proceed and the purchase was made for £213.3.5 inclusive of all costs. Thereafter, the story of the South Kildare Tennis Club is that of the Social Club and I will turn to that story at a later date.