Friday, May 27, 1994

Athy Credit Union

On Friday, the 17th of March, 1968 a number of local people came together in a room at number 82 Leinster Street, Athy. This was a house which in the past was occupied by the Duke of Leinster's agent but which was then used as a centre of activity for the old folks committee. Those in attendance had come in response to public notices which advertised a talk by Michael O'Doherty of the Irish League of Credit Unions and posed the possibility of a Credit Union for Athy.

130 years previously writing in The Athy Literary Magazine of the 6th of March, 1838 a local man cited the need for a Mont de Piete in Athy. He explained that the Mont de Piete was an institution for lending small sums of money to the poor on the security of pledges. The necessary funds were raised by a loan consisting of £5 debentures bearing an interest of 6% which could at any time be converted into money. After paying interest one half of the surplus profits was expended in refunding the principal and the other half appropriated for charitable purposes.

Reference was made in that letter to the only other Mont de Piete opened by Matthew Barrington in Limerick as a fundraising venture for Barrington's Hospital. "So manifest are the evils of the present system of pawn broking that it is truly astonishing that Mont de Pietes have not sprung up around the country" wrote the Athy correspondent of 1838. A Local Loans Fund had been established in the town some time previously with offices in Emily Square in the house now occupied by the Fennin family. This was a financial institution operated on lines somewhat similar to that of the present Credit Union. It's purpose as it name implies was to lend money to local people and thereby keep them out of the clutches of the pawn brokers and the unofficial money lenders.

The Mont de Piete was not established in Athy but when the meeting opened at 82 Leinster Street, Athy, on Friday, the 17th of March, 1968 there was a general acceptance of the need to have a Credit Union in the town.

The first Board of Directors nominated that night were Donal Murphy, Jim O'Flaherty, Pat Fay, Richard Mulhall, Patsy O'Neill, Christy McMahon, Paddy Keane, Dermot Griffin, Jim McEvoy and John Quirke. Jim O'Flaherty, an employee of Athy Post Office, and married to local girl Carmel Glespen was elected first President. Jim later appointed Post Master in Greystones is now retired and lives in that County Wicklow seaside town. Donal Murphy of Sunnyside then working in Minch Nortons was elected vice-President. Jim McEvoy was appointed the first Manager/Treasurer with Patsy O'Neill as assistant and Paddy Keane, another Minch Norton's employee, as Secretary.

The next twelve months was spent in studying the operation of Credit Unions and visiting neighbouring offices to gain experience of practices and procedures relating to what essentially was an alternative banking system. On Friday the 31st of May, 1969 at 8.00 p.m. Athy Credit Union opened for business in a room in the Courthouse secured with the help of the then County Registrar and former local solicitor, Tadgh Brennan. At the end of the first year almost £5,000 had been lodged as savings.

The business or as it was termed in Credit Union circles "the movement" developed to the extent that a larger and more accessible premises was required. Towards the end of June 1971 number 3 Emily Row which had been once occupied by the town weight Master, James Dempsey, and later converted to a shop by Mr. and Mrs. Brophy was purchased by the Credit Union. Athy Credit Union still occupies 3 Emily Row which was refurbished and extended some years ago. Further growth has lead to the purchase of the adjoining premises and this will be incorporated into the Credit Union premises in time. The Chairman in this the Silver Jubilee of Athy Credit Union is John Dooley and Ger Quinn is vice-President, Noreen Day is Secretary and Peter Barry, Treasurer. The offices which operated for some years with voluntary staff is now managed by the full-time manager Noel Brennan, assisted by Susan Page and Ann Howe.

The achievements of the Credit Union in Athy is reflected in the service which it provides for it's members. If the correspondent in the Athy Literary Magazine of 1838 could look forward to today he would no doubt express himself more than satisfied with the efforts of the volunteers who worked to make Athy Credit Union so successful over the last twenty five years.

Friday, May 20, 1994

Manchester Irish (2)

Enjoying Sunday lunch in the Irish Heritage Centre in Manchester with members of the Kildare Association, I was very conscious of the importance of their links with their home County. The Kildare Arms cast in bronze in the Co-Operative Foundry in Athy and presented to the Kildare Association some months ago, has taken its place with the other County Association emblems which line the walls of the Centre.

Last week I mentioned the effervescent and delightful Sarah Allen, whose father Stephen Bolger and brothers Stephen and John live in Athy. Sarah arrived in Manchester from Athy in 1951 but returns "home", as she and indeed all Irish emigrants still refer to their home towns, every year. She is a volunteer with Irish Community Care based at 289 Cheetam Hill Road, Manchester, a charitable organisation which provides support, advice and comfort to Irish in need especially families and the elderly Irish. The Association has a full-time co-ordinator Sr. Elizabeth, and is funded in part by the Irish Government. Sarah tells harrowing and sad stories of Irish men who left Ireland before and after the War years now living alone and forgotten in dingy, squalid conditions in Manchester. As part of her voluntary work she makes weekly house visits on the aged and lonely Irish and occasionally is involved in making burial arrangements for those poor individuals who left their Irish homes in youth and with high hopes but who ended their lives penniless and alone.

On Sunday afternoon Sarah brought me under the "Fenian Arches" which were the site of the Fenian Ambush in 1867 which led to the public hangings of Allen, Larkin and O'Brien. Later on we visited the Martyrs Memorial in Moston Cemetery, now sadly defaced with paint thrown over the carvings on the celtic cross and the sculptured stone figures at the corners of the memorial damaged.

Not too far away from the most famous Irish Memorial in Manchester I saw the grave of an Athy woman, Eileen Berry, formerly Fennell who once lived in the Tan Yard at the back of Herteriches. Her father Jim was well known in Athy in the 1930's and with his wife Polly and his family he lived in a river house boat which he retrieved from the Barrow and placed on stilts in the Tan Yard. Jim worked occasionally on the canal boats and Eileen his only daughter went to England in the late 1930's to take up nursing. Jim and his wife and his two sons Seamus and Fintan were later to join her in Manchester. Eileen married Paddy Berry of Skerries, Athy, but was to die tragically at the age of 26 years and found a resting place in Moston Cemetery near to the Memorial to Allen, Larkin and O'Brien.

There are many other Athy men and women in Manchester some now in their golden years, all part of the great diaspora of the 1930's, 1940's and 1950's. No visit to Manchester would be complete without calling on another Athy man whose popularity in the Irish and English pub scenes is legendry. Indeed Billy Cunningham is so well known that with his group called "The new Athoys" he has issued a number of musical tapes. Every Saturday and Sunday he is to be found in "The Wheat Sheaf" on Oldham Road where the Landlord is a Tuam woman of indeterminate age who has spent almost a lifetime in Manchester. Billy, whose brother Paul and sister Anne live in Athy, left the town in September 1954 after a spell in the Asbestos and I.V.I. factories and two years in the Irish Army. He even spent a couple of weeks on the canal boats where his strength and youthful energy was amply rewarded in loading boats at 13/6 a time. Billy who recently suffered a bout of serious illness is one of the most popular pub acts in Manchester.

The Kildare Irish in Manchester are a close knit community who have never forgotten their home towns or the experiences of their youth. In three days in the Lancashire city of Manchester I
learned more of life in Athy before and after the second World War than I had ever previously known. Meeting Kildare and other Irish people outside their own country is a sharing and bonding experience which leaves me aware of the loss we in Ireland have suffered through emigration.

Friday, May 13, 1994

Manchester Irish (1)

Some of the young boxers from the local Boxing Club in Athy travelled to Manchester last weekend at the invitation of the Kildare Association based in that city. The Boxing Tournament between St. Michael's, Athy, and a Manchester selection saw the Athy boys emerging victorious with John Paul Brennan of Greenhills winning the trophy for the best boxer. Tommy Sheehan, John Donovan, Pat Phelan and Jim Philips, all members of St. Michael's Boxing Club, will remember their trip to Manchester for many years.

The Kildare Association in Manchester . owes much to its Chairperson Eileen Brock, formerly Eileen O'Neill of Foxhill, who ably assisted by her husband John has brought together the County Kildare people living in that city. The Tournament held in the Grove, owned by Mayo man Michael Costello, himself a generous supporter of the Kildare Association was attended by a large crowd. Athy was particularly well represented. Brendan Hickey, now fifteen years out of Ireland and formerly of St. Joseph's Terrace, provided generous sponsorship for the Tournament. He is a very successful businessman in Manchester, employing almost 50 people in his heavy machinery business . His brother Willie was also there to cheer on the Athy lads, having taken a night off from his own Public House, The Royal Oak, Openshaw, which he has been running for two and a half years. The entire Athy contingent later returned to the Royal Oak to round off the night in style. With the guitar playing of Jimmy Aspel, nephew of Paddy Aspel from Kilcullen, the revellers did not leave the Royal Oak until well into the morning.

Another sponsor in attendance was Mary Lewis, formerly Mary "Babs" O'Brien of Canal Side, Athy, who with her husband Bill is very involved with the Bradford Irish Music Association. Mary teaches set dancing and recalls attending many feiseanna while a young girl in Athy with Freddie Farrell and his sister Mary and Maisie Dooley.

Also at the Grove was Philip Berry, formerly of Skerries, who arrived in Manchester three years ago. The ladies were very much to the fore and Sarah Allen, formerly Sarah Bolger of Plewman's Terrace, was there as was Bridie McCarron, formerly Bridie Mulpeter of Kildare Town. Bridie is P.R.O. of the Kildare Association and is married to the singer Paul McCarron, a Donegal man, who with his Cill Dara group is well known in Lancashire.

Another of the organisers on the night was Tony Connolly, formerly of Kilberry, who apart from being President of the Kildare Association also manages St. Edward's Club in Manchester. Tommy who came to England in 1945 played football for Rheban and returns to South Kildare a couple of times a year.

Two Carbury men who could not understand why the local Kildare papers were not available in the Irish World Heritage Centre in Manchester were Michael Melia and Larry Keenan. Larry, who was accompanied by his wife Babs is Treasurer of the Kildare Association. Apparently the Heritage Centre which played host to President Mary Robinson last month gets all the Irish provincial newspapers except the Nationalist and the Leinster Leader. What about it Mr. Editors?

I was to visit the Centre on Sunday where I was to meet again many members of the Kildare Association including Joan Sparrow, formerly Joan Dunne of the National Stud in Kildare. Her father was the late Bill Dunne, who as head lad at the Stud, looked after the great horse Tulyar before he was sold to the Americans. The house in which Joan lived as a young girl now houses the Equestrian Museum in the National Stud. She remembered Jim Nelson, later a publican in Leinster Street, Athy, and his good friend P.J. Prendergast, in the days before he achieved fame as a horse trainer, visiting the stud on many occasions. Joan, whose husband died some years ago, is an active member of the Kildare Association.

The Irish World Heritage Centre is located on Queens Road, Manchester. A fine building providing bar, dining and function room facilities it is soon to be replaced by one of the most prestigious developments yet seen in Manchester. The new complex to be located on a twelve acre site will incorporate a major trade centre, providing a showcase for Irish produce and crafts.

Friday, May 6, 1994

Workhouse celebrates 150 years

Last week in company with hundreds of others I visited St. Vincent's Hospital on the occasion of an Open Day celebrating its 150th Anniversary. A concelebrated Mass in the small Chapel attached to the Hospital was offered up for those past and present who passed through the gates of what was initially a Workhouse, later a County Home and today a Hospital.

As I stood within the narrow confines of the old Chapel images of destitute and hungry families ravaged by the potato famine crowded my memory. Those very walls which stood for 150 years had been witness to tales of misery, hunger and neglect which were the lot of Irish country folk when the Workhouse first opened its doors in 1844.

The corridors which later that same afternoon resounded to happy voices once echoed to the sounds of barefooted women and children whose only future lay within the precincts of the Workhouse. Their pinched starving faces were without laughter, their frightened hearts without hope as they shuffled along corridors which were now echoing to the sounds of people rejoicing and celebrating an Anniversary.

How many sad souls had given up all hope and entered the dreaded Workhouse in Athy we cannot now say. Full records are no longer available and those that exist conceal within their dusty covers painful memories that are now but names in columns. Across the Grand Canal a short distance from the present Hospital a neglected graveyard holds the remains of those who entered the Workhouse, never again to leave it. As in life their deaths were not marked by any ceremony. Their emaciated bodies were hurriedly carted across the road and over the Canal Bridge to be buried without the benefit of clergy in graves which would remain unmarked.

As the carefully prepared prayers were said in the Hospital Chapel, the ghosts of the past no doubt looked down on a world which they did not recognise. The Workhouse which in its early years provided minimum sustenance and care to the needy and the hungry was in time to change and to improve. The admission of the Sisters of Mercy as visitors and later as Nursing Sisters in the Workhouse ensured an overlay of compassion which up to then had been lacking. Improvements and modification to the harsh Workhouse regime gave us the County Home and later St. Vincent's Hospital. The ghosts of poverty and neglect were expurgated by many years of kindness and comfort afforded to the elderly men and women who have used the services of the County Home and St. Vincent's Hospital.

In celebrating 150 years it was a happy coincidence that two of the most enduring elements of the institution’s story played a significant part in those celebrations. The Sisters of Mercy came as nursing sisters to the Workhouse Infirmary in October 1873 and within a year following the death of the first Medical Officer Dr. Thomas Kynsey, a Castledermot man was appointed in his place. He was Dr. P.L. O'Neill, who was to be succeeded in time by his son Dr. Jeremiah, his grandson Dr. Joe and his great-grandson Dr. Giles. Today St. Vincent's Hospital has as Matron Sister Peg, a member of the Sisters of Mercy and Dr. Giles O'Neill as Medical Officer.

As I left the Hospital driving through the main gateways, I looked across the road towards the Workhouse graveyard. What were we celebrating I thought - was it the longevity of a building or a past which for so long remained hidden and unobserved. We had remembered on a Sunday in April 1994 those unremembered people who had gone before us and who once walked through the Workhouse gates in despair and hunger.

May they find the peace they never found on this earth.