Friday, August 26, 1994

Athy 75

Most of us are familiar with the Gordon Bennett Race of 1903 and its association with Athy but few amongst us know little or anything about the town's later involvement in motor sport. The Athy 75 was an annual motor cycle road race organised by Athy Motor Cycle and Car Club during the years 1925 to 1930. The inaugural race took place on Saturday, the 16th of May, 1925 over a 9 mile course with the starting point at Taylors just beyond Russellstown Cross on the main Dublin Road. The course ran via the Moat of Ardscull to Fonstown Cross and from there to Booleigh Cross with a left hand turn towards Athy. Another left hand turn at Tullygorey Cross brought the riders back to Russellstown Cross and the Dublin Road. The competitors set off individually at intervals with the high powered machines last. Practise on the course took place at 6.00 o'clock in the morning with the Race starting at 3.00p.m.

The winner of the inaugural race was D. McCrea on a 349 cc OK Bradshaw motor bike which he successfully manoeuvred around the seventy five mile course without mishap despite the heavy rain fall that day. In sixth place in that race was Henry Tyrrell-Smith, the Dublin motor cyclist who was to win the 350 cc T.T. Race in the Isle of Man in 1930.

McCrea also won the second Athy 75 which took place on Saturday 29th May 1926. Participating that day for the first time was a youthful Stanley Woods who set the fastest lap record at 66.14 mph on his Norton motor bike. When the following years race took place on Saturday, the 21st of May, 1927 the organisers had to cater for a much larger entry due to its growing popularity. The winner on that occasion was E. Dawson riding a 172 cc machine at an average speed of 46 mph. Despite the absence of rain the riders had difficulty in moving through the course due to strong winds which reduced the average lap speed. Ernie Nott riding a Rudge Norton motor cycle had the fastest lap speed of 60.39 mph. He was an English driver who was to achieve considerable fame during the 1930's.

When the fourth race set off on the 12th of May, 1928 there were 44 riders in the line up, the largest entry ever. The rain which on some previous years had created dangerous driving conditions was mercifully absent but the heat wave which engulfed the Irish country-side for three weeks prior to the race left parts of the course in a very dusty condition. This caused it's own problems for the motor cyclists who managed to complete the race without mishap. The race was won by H. Adair riding a 348 cc Rex Acme at an average speed of 54 mph.

Local riders who participated in the Athy 75 Races included William Hosie, and the three Taylor brothers - Bill, Charlie and Arthur. They were sons of C.W. Taylor who was Chairman of The Athy Motor Cycle and Car Club. Another local rider was Hugh Coogan of Mullaghamast who rode a 2 stroke Scotch Squirrel.

Saturday, the 18th of May, 1929 saw 48 riders lined up at the starting point opposite Taylors. Weather conditions were good but again the dusty roads caused problems for most riders but not for Stanley Woods who was then Ireland's greatest motor cyclist. He won the race on his 490 cc Norton averaging a record breaking 69.25 mph over the seventy five mile course. He also set a new lap record of 70.60 mph and both speed records were to remain as the highest achieved on the Athy course. The Race was marred by the death of a young Naas man, Henry Francis Sargent who was employed in Jacksons bicycle shop in Leinster Street, Athy. Under the name "Sonny Boy" he entered the Race riding a low powered motor cycle but on the second lap of the course he crashed at the Moat of Ardscull and was killed.

The last Athy 75 took place on the 24th of May, 1930 when 34 riders participated. The race was completed despite another unfortunate accident which marred the event, the winner being J.J. Byrne of Dublin who rode his 346 cc AJS at an average speed of 65.5 mph. On the third lap of the race twenty-three year old Peter Mooney of Manor Street, Dublin, collided with the roadside bank at Fonstown Cross and was killed. A second rider R.W. Kennan who was following Mooney also crashed and was injured. Again the dusty road conditions were blamed leading the Athy Club members under the Chairman C.W. Taylor to consider the future of The Athy 75. The Committee reluctantly decided that because of the fatalities suffered they would no longer organise the race. So ended Athy 75, one of the earliest motor cycle road races in Ireland.

Friday, August 19, 1994

Convent Life

Have you ever wondered about the daily routine in Irish Convents? Today life in the average Convent is more relaxed and less restrictive than it ever was, as evidenced by the routine which once applied in our own Convent of Mercy.

At a time when most Convents were independent houses with their own novitiates, young women were subjected to rigorous scrutiny before being accepted as potential postulants. For the first six months each postulant was easily recognised by the distinctive white bonnet which she wore. The next twelve months was spent as a spiritual year with the postulant wearing a black habit and a white veil. After that 18 months was spent in preparation for first profession after which first vows were taken. The last 3 years were spent in preparation for final profession when perpetual vows were taken.

In the daily life of the Convent the times of prayer, work and recreation were strictly regulated. Each day commenced at 5.25a.m. when the Convent Bell sounded. At 5.55a.m. Matin and Lauds took place in the chapel for 15 minutes, following which everyone spent 40 minutes in private meditation. Mass was attended at 7.00a.m. and breakfast was taken at 8.00a.m. after which there were house charges with each nun and postulant performing various house duties. Silence was maintained throughout the day except during periods of recreation. A card in the front hall indicated whether a period of 'silence' or 'recreation' applied at any particular time.

Teaching nuns went to school at 9.00a.m. and at 12 noon midday prayers were said with lunch at 12.30p.m. The main meal of the day was at 3.30p.m. followed by forty-five minutes of recreation usually consisting of needle work or walking in the garden. Nuns walked in groups and quickly acquired the skill of walking backwards as three or four nuns faced their companions to facilitate conversation while they perambulated around the Convent garden. This was followed by 30 minutes of spiritual reading in the Chapel and another 20 minutes spent at Vespers. Supper was at 7 o'clock followed by another hour of recreation and 30 minutes of night prayers at 9.00p.m. Lights out at 10.00p.m. was followed by the period referred to as 'the great silence'.

Every month a Chapter of Faults was held before the entire community in the Convent Chapel. Each Nun had to confess her transgressions to the assembled community, a duty which postulants had to perform every morning.

Even within the confines of the Convent walls a very strict divide once existed. Early entrants to an Irish Convent were as much dependant upon the availability of a dowry as were their sisters who sought matrimony in the rural Ireland of an earlier age. The dowry became part of the Convent's finances and ensured for the postulant on taking her perpetual vows the rank of a choir nun. As the name denotes a choir nun was one who participated in all the religious ceremonies within the convent freed of the necessity to engage in menial domestic duties. Those for whom the religious vocation was no less strong but who were without the benefit of a dowry, life in the Convent was that of a lay-nun whose duties included serving the choir nuns and providing for their daily needs. The distinction between a choir nun and a lay nun was initially determined by the availability or absence of a dowry but later by educational differences. It may seem to us nowadays somewhat incongruous that such a distinction operated within the convent structure but we should remember that the Church itself merely mirrored life in society itself. I can recall the special pew reserved for one local family in the Catholic Church in Kells, Co. Meath in the mid-1960's where they were assured comfort and solitude free from contact with their more humble neighbours. Who can forget that even in our time and town there existed a gallery in our local Church where entry was confined to those who made a donation of silver at the Church door. An example of clerical entrepreneurship or pandering to a class conscious society? I don't know but these examples like the choir nun and lay nun of another era were but reflections of life in Ireland of it's day.

The number of sisters in the Convent has fallen dramatically in recent years with few new entrants to the ranks of those who devote their life to God. The age structure of those who remain clearly indicates that in a very short time, unless there is an unprecedented reversal of current trends, the Sisters of Mercy Convent may have to close.

If and when this happens it will be a very sad day for our town and will leave a void which I'm afraid lay people could not adequately fill. Whatever lies ahead we must never forget those truly great women who served our community so selflessly for so long and who over the years brought so much good into the lives of so many.

Friday, August 12, 1994


In the past religious and class differences tended to keep apart Protestant and Roman Catholics socially and in the workplace and this segregation was fostered by a mutual suspicion which was self-perpetuating. Attitudes changed and a decision by Sam Shaw, Proprietor of Shaws Department Store in Athy over 50 years ago helped to break the mould.

I remember when growing up in Athy in the 1950's the female assistants working in Shaws who were the last in a long line of girls and young men who had come to the town from addresses all over Ireland to be apprenticed to the drapery trade. The girls, all of whom were of Protestant stock, lived over the premises where they had their quarters, quite separate from the men who had rooms at the back of the yard. A housekeeper was employed to provide meals and keep an eye on any inhouse activity which might not meet with the Proprietor’s approval.

In the mid-thirties Shaws was home to upwards of 20 young women, all of whom paid £25 per year for the privilege of undergoing a three year apprenticeship at the counter. It was only when they qualified that they become eligible for a wage which amounted to £6 per month. The hours were long with a 9.00 o'clock start, half an hour for lunch, finishing at 6.00 p.m. on weekdays and 9.00p.m. on Saturday. Indeed the Saturday closing time often stretched to 10.00p.m. if there were customers still lingering on the premises. Staff had a half day off on a Thursday which was the town’s early closing day.

The girls in the early 1940's included many who were to marry and settle down in Athy. Lucy Dobson was to marry Bob Bryan, while Ethel Donaldson married John Meredith. Florrie Bass who came from Wexford married local farmer Bill Hendy, while Mary Gunnell married John Hendy. Others who worked and lived in Shaws during the war years included Frances Dobson, Etta Eacrett, May Sinnott and Amelia Boyhan. Jenny Hegarty whose home town was Athy was one of the few locals working in Shaws who lived out. The girls generally spent their leisure hours playing badminton or participating in activities of the Girls Friendly Society in the Parochial Hall on the Carlow Road.

Everyone living in was required to keep to a strict 10.00p.m. curfew and woe betide anyone who without good reason sought to stay out any longer. For all that, life was very pleasant for the girls and the men who lived in around that time including George Bryan, Victor Leigh, Jim Boyd and Jim Leggett. Indeed one of the great stories of the time concerned Jim Leggett's unusual use of the pulley system within the shop which sent monies and invoices along a series of wires to the cash office from each sales counter. The money was put into a circular box which screwed into a holder and was then propelled overhead to the cashier who took out the money and returned the box with any change via the same route. Jim, obviously determined to liven up proceedings in the shop one morning sent his box whizzing overhead to the female cashier who duly reached up to unscrew the box and emptied out it’s contents - a dead mouse. It is safe to assume that the Proprietor, Sam Shaw, was not on the premises that morning.

Sam who lived in the Mill House opposite Hannon's Mill in Duke Street before moving to Cardenton was regarded kindly by his staff. Dissatisfaction however was always registered by him if a potential customer was allowed to leave the premises without purchasing. This to Sam Shaw was inexcusable calling forth a myriad of questions as to what had been shown or not shown to the customer.

At one time Catholics were not employed in Shaws. Unfortunately it is not always remembered that this practice ceased as early as the 1940's. I believe that the first Catholic to work there was Doris Ruddy, a daughter of the local Garda Sergeant who left Athy in 1945 to be replaced by my own father. Her brother also worked in the Mens Department of Shaws at that time.

The advertising slogan says "Shaws - Almost Nationwide" but to Athy people Shaws is a local institution which helped in no small way to break down the barriers between Protestant and Roman Catholic. For this we have to thank Sam Shaw who started a process of community integration over 50 years ago of which we are the beneficiaries today.

Friday, August 5, 1994

Athy in 1863

Located in the Barrow valley and in an area of South Kildare which in the past has not often featured in the itinerary of visitors to Ireland, Athy has seldom been mentioned in the many travel books written about Ireland over the last 200 years. Early visitors to Ireland tended to confine themselves to the grand sights of Killarney and Athy’s location off the main routes to the south meant that little or no mention was made of the market town on the river Barrow.

But once in a while one less jaundiced and more discerning than most cast a cold eye over life in our town and recorded it for posterity. One such observer was Thomas Lacy of Wexford who published in 1863 his impressions of his journey around Ireland in the years immediately following the Great Famine. Between 1853 and 1864 he travelled through the Irish countryside visiting towns on the way, all the time recording his impressions and views of those areas.

Lacy was no ordinary traveller for he had previously published a small work entitled `Home Sketches on both sides of the Channel’ and his 1863 publication `Sights and Scenes in our Fatherland’ was in his own words an attempt “to describe some of the most celebrated portions of my native country”.

He arrived in Athy in the autumn of 1855 by railway from Carlow. Athy he declared was a handsome regular town and for it’s size a very prosperous and flourishing one. The spacious area called `Market Square’ was, he observed, surrounded with good houses and handsome shops.
“The Courthouse, a neat moderate size structure, stands in the centre of Market Square to which on each side of the building leads a capacious street. Here also are several good houses and amongst them The National Bank, The Loan Fund and the Dispensary. There was also a branch of the Tipperary Joint Stock Banking Company in the town which on it’s failure was replaced by a branch of the Hibernian Banking Company”.

Continuing with a description of Whites Castle and the bridge over the river Barrow Lacy informed his readers that
“on an open space opposite the Castle and between the Market Square and the river a new corn exchange is being built. It is about 70 ft. in length and 30 in breadth. The base course, quoins and ornamental parts being of cut granite and the material in general a description of limestone. The principal market is held on Saturday and is well supplied and very well attended”.

The arrangements in the market he found particularly satisfactory describing how
“a weighing machine has been established where corn, potatoes and other articles are weighed at one half penny per sack and sworn weighing masters are in attendance by whom printed tickets of the weights are given to those who may require them”.

Continuing he wrote
“about five miles from the town extensive peat works were at this time carried on by Rees Reece Esq. in which large numbers of men, women and children were employed. In these works oil, soap, candles and various commodities were produced by the scientific and ingenious process brought to bear upon the turf which in large quantity and superior quality is raised in this part of the country”.

Commenting on employment in the area he noted that the wages for harvest labourers in the neighbourhood ranged from two shillings to two shillings and six pence without food and from one shilling and six pence to one shilling and eight pence with food.

In his detailed survey of the town’s buildings he mentions the town jail built in 1830 on the opposite side of the Carlow road to St. Michael’s Church. The jail cost £3,000.00 to build, of which £2,000.00 and the site was donated by the Duke of Leinster. One entered the jail he said “through a massive arch flanked on both sides with bold rusticated masonry”. Opposite St. Michael’s Cemetery with it’s medieval house of worship he found a plot of ground with a site marked out and the foundations laid for “the erection of a new Scotch Church”. His visit to the Model School, opened in 1850, disclosed that
“the walls were furnished and appropriately decorated with all the newest and best maps of various sizes and with wondrous illustrations of animals, beasts, birds and fish.”

Lacy’s positive image of Athy in 1855 can be contrasted with the views expressed by J.N. Brewer in his book “The Beauties of Ireland” published in 1826. Brewer described Athy as a town of some importance in the past “but now decayed”, a situation he lamented given the advantages Athy enjoyed “more particularly the great canal navigation and the fertile land of the Barrow valley”.

It is interesting to read of Athy almost 150 years ago and to see how little the town has changed in a structural sense. Apart from the town jail which closed down five years after Lacy’s visit few of the other buildings have changed. I wonder how a visitor in one hundred and fifty years from now will view Athy.