Friday, February 25, 1994

Sean MacFheorais

Isn’t it strange how often we tend to overlook local men and women who have made a substantial or meaningful contribution to Irish life. Take for instance Sean Mac Fheorais, a local man whose published works in our native language are perhaps unfamiliar to most of us. Sean, whose first book of Irish poetry “Gearrcoigh na hOiche” was published in 1954 had his second book “Leargas” published in 1964. In the intervening period his poetry appeared in many literary magazines including ‘Poetry Ireland’ and ‘Cyphers’.

In 1984 he received what I understand was the very first invitation from his native town to return to Athy to read his poetry. Scheduled to appear on 17th March, 1984 he tragically died one month before he could fulfil the engagement which he was eagerly anticipating.

Sean Mac Fheorais was born in Ballintubbert in 1915, the second son of a blacksmith. His father was to die nine months after his last son, Joe, was born in May 1919. Sean, with his brother Joe Bermingham, was educated in Ballyadams National School and later still in the O’Brien Institute, Marino, Dublin. At the age of 16 years he joined the Christian Brothers Novitiate and in time qualified as a teacher, but left the Brothers before taking his final vows. It was while in the O’Brien Institute that Sean developed his great love for the Irish language which was further encouraged while he was a member of the Christian Brothers. He taught for some years at Carrigallen National School, Co. Leitrim, later in Paulstown, Co. Kilkenny and from 1955 until 1979 in Finglas, Dublin, eventually becoming Principal of St. Margaret’s Primary School in that North Dublin suburb.

A frequent competitor in the annual Oireachtais competition he won many Oireachtais prizes for his poetry. He also received a number of awards from Radio Eireann for his literary works. In 1954 his first book of Irish poetry, “Gearrcoig na hOiche” was published and his second volume “Leargas - Danta Fada” in 1964. His best known work is the long poem, “Oiche na Airnean”.

Tá rian on chreidhim go láidir ar a chuid filíochtá - an dán ‘Ionam’ is fear is dócha a thaispeánann an t-omós a bhí aige do Dhia. Éinne a dhein an Ardteistimeireacht le blianta anuas cuimhneoidh sé no sí ar an dán álainn sin ‘M’ Uncáil’ ina léiríonn sé dúinn an cion agus an meas a bhí aige ar a Uncáil.

The last poem on which he was working at the time of his untimely death was about his native town of Athy. He intended to give the first public reading of that poem in Ath Í on 17th March, 1984. He was not to hear the tributes of his neighbours children for Sean Mac Fheorais passed away at 69 years of age before he could return to Athy. He was survived by his wife and six children and his brother, Joe Bermingham.

Sean Mac Fheorais is included in the Dictionary of Irish Authors, a three volume work first compiled by Brian Cleeve in 1971. His memory is one we should remember and cherish as the son of a blacksmith from “our place” whose poetry lives on in his published works.

Thursday, February 17, 1994

O'Rourke Glynns

“O’Rourke Glynn’s Corner” was a well known landmark until recent years. Newcomers to the town probably never heard of the place or if they did remain blissfully unaware of it’s location. However, they can take consolation from the knowledge that not many of the locals would be able to pinpoint the location of other once well known landmarks such as “Nouds Corner” or “Glespen’s Coach Works”. Many of us will remember Ernest O’Rourke Glynn who died in 1976 as a man big of stature with a voice reminiscent of a Shakespearean actor. The eldest son of Nicholas and Florence O’Rourke Glynn who came to Athy in 1916 Ernest had a presence and a majestic voice which instantly suggested a theatrical background.

His maternal grandparents who had no previous theatrical experience purchased in 1896 “Peppers Ghost” a touring show which had been travelling throughout Ireland and England for the previous 20 years. A report in the Leinster Leader of 7th March, 1896 gave an account of the show’s performance in the Town Hall, Athy. The variety entertainment included songs, feats, ventriloquism and spectroscopic scenes.

The new owners, the Reid Metcalfes, employed a young Irish man, Nicholas O’Rourke Glynn, as manager of the touring company and he was in time to marry their daughter Florence. Still touring with “Peppers Ghost” in 1916 the company came to Athy for six weeks during the lenten period. Rebellion in Dublin and unrest throughout the country prompted Nicholas and Florence O’Rourke Glynn to stay in Athy and in time they acquired the Corner House at the junction of Duke Street and Woodstock Street.

Opening the “Theatrical Stores and Scenic Studios” as well as a photographic studio the business flourished and their eldest son, Ernest, was to be joined by a sister Florence, brother Nicholas and a younger sister Peggy. The theatrical stores supplied costumes for amateur and professional groups throughout Ireland. The wicker baskets lined with jute in which the costumes were stored and transported were a familiar sight as they came and went through the local railway station.

A trained artist Nicholas O’Rourke Glynn painted scenery to order and his scenic studios located in the Corner House was a wonderland of paint and colour where snow scenes shared space with forest glades and interior scenes of palatial palaces.

As a commercial photographer he was employed by owners of the local big houses to record and photograph all the great occasions. The Weldons of Kilmoroney and the Geoghegans of Bert House were to possess many fine examples of Nicholas O’Rourke Glynn’s early photographic work.

With his previous theatrical experience Nicholas O’Rourke Glynn became very involved in theatre in Athy. He produced many shows in the Town Hall and was instrumental in holding a Gaelic League Concert in Athy every St. Patrick’s night for many years. One of the pioneers of cinematography in Ireland he put on magic lantern shows in Athy’s Town Hall in the early years and later still film shows long before Athy had it’s own cinema.

Nicholas, born in 1864, made his last stage appearance in George Du Maurier’s play “Trilby” in 1937 in a role which required him to die on stage. Exactly one year later and at precisely the time of his stage death, he was to pass away at 73 years of age. His wife, Florence, who was considerably younger, died 4 years later at the age of 48.

Friday, February 11, 1994

Florrie Pender - St. Josephs School

I had occasion to call to the girls primary school Scoil Mhicil Naofa some weeks ago to meet the newly appointed Principal. In keeping with the tradition long associated with the Mercy Sisters I was brought to the Staff Room for a cup of tea and a bun and who should I meet there but somebody I remember when I was a nipper attending St. Joseph's Boys School at Rathstewart. It was Mrs. Florence Pender still hale and hearty and of indeterminate age. Woe betide anyone who would be so foolish as to ask the question which must inevitably spring to mind.

There are few memories we retain of our very young days but of those still cherished inevitably our early school days figure prominently. I have snatches of memories relating to my three year stay in St. Joseph's Boys School where I was before transferring at seven years of age to the Christian Brothers School. Sr. Brendan, Mrs. Lucy Alcock and Mrs. Pender are prominent in my recollections of St. Joseph's School. Mrs. Alcock was regarded by all the young boys as a surrogate mother and how kindly she reciprocated the trust and friendship lavished on her by the youngsters. Sr. Brendan was of course everyone's vision of the kindly nun. She prepared us all for our First Communion with dextrous use of the scissors which hung from her belt. The skilful art of receiving communion on the tongue in those pre Vatican Two days was rehearsed and rehearsed by Sr. Brendan passing up the line of boys, each obediently sticking out his tongue to be touched with the scissors held in the hands of the diminutive Kerry nun.

Mrs. Pender who is apt to describe herself as being as well known as a "beggars ass" worked occasionally in the Convent and was to replace Lucy Alcock when the latter retired. Her father, Denis Prendergast, who lived in Mount Hawkins also worked for the nuns and drove their horse carriage. This was a feature of transport in Athy up to the 1950's as the nuns were brought to the Railway Station or travelled with the carriage curtains drawn to St. Vincent's Hospital. Florrie Prendergast married William Pender and in so doing changed her name as she herself laughing describes by cutting the "gast" out.

After almost 45 years of service she is still to be found in the Staff Room of Scoil Mhichil Naofa catering for the needs of today's teachers.

St. Joseph's School no longer stands at the side of what was the main entrance gate to the Convent of Mercy off the Rathstewart Road. Demolished in 1964 to make way for St. Michael's new Parish Church the entire area has changed beyond recognition.

Also demolished at that time was the large finely carved Celtic Cross which once stood in the grounds of St. Michael's Church and which was clearly visible as one passed on the Monasterevin Road. Captured many times in photographs as far back as the Lawrence photographs of the 1890's the Cross was erected to commemorate Fr. Thomas Greene, former Parish Curate who played a major part in raising funds locally for the construction of the Convent for the Sisters of Mercy. I wonder where that memorial Cross put up with the contributions of the local people can now be found? It should be restored as a fitting tribute to Fr. Greene and to the people of Athy who before, during and after the Great Famine made many sacrifices so that the town could have a Convent of Mercy.

However I digress, but maybe not. The physical changes in the area around the Parish Church as we knew it in the 1950's mirror the changes which time has wrought on the people we knew at that time. The youngsters who played in the school yard of St. Joseph's School are now scattered far and wide. Of the teachers only Sr. Finbar is still with us while Florrie Pender continues her involvement with the Sisters of Mercy junior school. Times have changed but some things never change.

Friday, February 4, 1994

Quinns - Basket Makers

Quinn is a family name synonymous with basketmaking in Athy. To Michael Quinn of Geraldine Road, now 63 years of age, has passed the unenviable distinction of being the last member of his family to practise the skill once handed down over the generations from father to son. Today Michael occasionally puts his hand to producing a basket but only as an exercise of the ancient skill with no commercial intent at all.

His father, Jerry Quinn, who died in 1965, was with his father-in-law Michael "Pop" Quinn, his brother-in-law Martin "Murt" Quinn and the great Jim O'Neill the last of the basket makers of Athy. Jim O'Neill, father of that superb musician Joe O'Neill, was regarded as the most skilful man of his time to weave sally or hazel rod to produce baskets, baby cribs or whatever you fancied. The other basket makers always deferred to Jim O'Neill and any difficult job requiring the hand of a master craftsman was sent to him. In his latter years he lived in St. Joseph's Terrace where he continued working despite losing his sight in old age.

Jerry Quinn, like his father also called Jerry who died in 1932, spent a lifetime working at basketmaking. In his younger days he had spent 13 years in the British Army serving with the 8th Hussars in India and in France during the Great War. Living in St. John's Lane at a time when the entire area was a thriving community Jerry Quinn worked in a small alcove off his kitchen except during the warm summer months when he was to be found outside his front door. Perched on a low stool with a sack across his knees he worked from early morning until late at night making potato baskets for farmers.

He worked with sally rods in summer and with hazel rods in winter. While sally was pliable all the year round hazel was not usable in the summer when the sap was up. Spending two or three days a week gathering in the raw materials for his craft, Jerry Quinn was a familiar figure with his donkey and cart. He generally worked in the area of Vicarstown, Cloney and Booleigh where the boggy land was ideal for growing the pliable rods and where farmers allowed him to cut what he required. The rest of the week was spent making potato baskets at the rate of approximately 24 a week.

Surprisingly enough Jerry Quinn only made potato baskets which he then sold to shop keepers in Athy, Dunlavin, Baltinglass, Carlow and Portlaoise. The donkey and cart was employed to bring the finished product to the out-lying towns where the price obtainable in 1944 was one shilling to one shilling and three pence a basket. Immediately after the War the price in common with everything else increased to 2/6 a basket. Before he died in 1965 Jerry Quinn sold his last baskets for ten shillings each.

No measuring rods were used in the craft, rather the craftsman used the measurements from the tip of his fingers to his elbow as the diameter of the hoop or ring which he made first. Large thick hazel rods were split down the centre to be used as ribs for the basket and these were wedged into the sides of the hoop. A couple of rods were then plaited in and as the side of the basket was built up further ribs were put in as required. An old cut throat razer with a homemade handle on it was used to trim off the rough edges of the finished basket.

When Jerry Quinn died in 1965 the basketmakers craft ceased to be practised in Athy. The soldier who had survived the Great War had timed his leaving well as the centuries old skill was about to be made redundant by the then emerging plastic industry.