Friday, January 27, 1995

Stephen O'Brien

Athy is noted for its extraordinary large number of public houses. At one time most of the local publicans were grocers and spirit merchants. They combined the dual roles with the front portion of their shops meeting the housewives grocery needs while in the back portion almost always dark and secluded, pints and spirits were served to the menfolk. "Monsie" Purcells and Clancys were two of the most recent grocery and spirit merchants to give up the uneven struggle of combining two so diametrically opposed businesses in a world where specialisation is the norm.

To Frank O'Brien goes the distinction of being the last of the old style grocer and spirit merchants in Athy. As you enter through the outer door you come upon a scene similar to that which greeted past generations of Athy people. The names on the boxes lining the shelves may be different but you feel almost imperceptibly the homeliness of an almost lost heritage which has been retained here, albeit perhaps temporarily, for the present generation to savour. The small grocery counter has witnessed many transactions in its time but the one constant is the O'Brien who serves you from behind that same counter.

The O'Brien name was first put over the door in 1874 when Frank's grandfather Stephen O'Brien, a Kilkenny man, bought the business from James Leahy. Leahy was a member of Athy Town Commissioners who was elected an M.P. for County Kildare in 1880. His nomination for that election did not initially find favour with Charles Stewart Parnell who confided in his right hand man Andrew J. Kettle that Leahy was "too fat and would fall asleep in the House of Commons". Parnell's misgivings were somehow allayed and Leahy went on to win the nomination and the subsequent election and to represent Athy and South Kildare for many years.

Stephen O'Brien was a Home Ruler who quickly became involved in local affairs and it is no surprise to find that he was a member of the Election Committee appointed to support Leahy's candidature in the 1880 Parliamentary Elections. He was also a member of the welcoming Committee which greeted Charles Stewart Parnell when he attended a meeting at Athy on the 27th of March, 1880, only two days after his arrival home from an American tour.

Like a number of other Home Rulers and Land League supporters in the town Stephen O'Brien was to find himself out of favour with the authorities when with a number of other local publicans he was prosecuted for refusing to serve in his pub R.I.C. men and others who supported the Government cause. This form of boycotting was an important plank of the Land League Campaign as it gathered momentum in South Kildare in the 1880's under the leadership of local Land League Secretary John Cantwell.

In 1894 Stephen O'Brien was noted as a member of Athy C.Y.M.S. while in 1898 he was appointed by the Commissioners of National Education as one of five members of the local school attendance committee. The other members were M.J. Minch, M.P.; Stephen Telford, Town Commissioner; Thomas Whelan, Town Commissioner and John A. Duncan J.P. In 1907 he was appointed Vice-President of the local football and hurling club. The G.A.A. Club was incidentally a sub-section of Athy C.Y.M.S., a clear indication of the power and influence of the Catholic Young Mens Society at that time. In the same year he was carrying on a mineral water manufacturing business in Emily Square. This business lasted up to the end of the First World War and his grandson, the present licensee Frank O'Brien, is the proud possessor of a vintage bottle of O'Brien's mineral water. Stephen O'Brien's active involvement in the local community also saw him appointed to a Committee set up in the town in 1914 to deal with cases of distress arising as a consequence of World War I. Stephen died in 1919 at the age of 76 years.

Frank O'Brien today carries on the business purchased by his Grandfather in 1874. The three storey, three bay building which houses the bar and grocery has an excellent Ionic shop front with heavy engaged columns. It is a landmark in the centre of our town, well known to visitors and townspeople alike, where the O'Brien family have lived and worked for 121 years.

Friday, January 20, 1995

History Repeating Itself - Athy's Circuit Court

History has a habit of repeating itself. This is a truism which is easily accepted when one considers the old saying “study the past for we are heirs to the wisdom of the past”. That we do not always benefit from the events of the past is clearly shown by the headlong rush by Government into World War II twenty-one years after the end of the “war to end all wars”. Up to 1858, Athy, once the principal town of Co. Kildare, shared the Summer Assizes with Naas, then emerging as an urban settlement rival to its south Kildare neighbour. In that year however a decision was taken by the Chancellor’s Office to transfer all sittings of the Summer Assizes to Naas to the total exclusion of Athy.

The consternation felt by the Athy residents and business folk found a ready target in the person of the Duke of Leinster whom it was felt had not done enough to ensure Athy’s continuation as an Assize town. The efforts of the locals however were in vain and no further change was made in the revamped court system. Within a few years Athy was to suffer another body blow when the relatively new town jail opened on the Carlow Road in 1830 was closed and all its inmates transferred to Naas jail. This form of mid-19th century centralisation had a dramatic effect on the respective county towns of Naas and Athy. Thereafter Naas was to be the favourite location for all new county agencies formed during the remainder of the century. Kildare Co. Council, founded in 1898, was to locate its administrative headquarters in Naas while the county hospital was also to be found there. No doubt there were logical geographical reasons why so much authority was centred in Naas. But whether it should have been done to the exclusion of other urban areas in the county is questionable.

What is even more questionable is the current proposal of the Circuit Court Review Group to discontinue sittings of the Circuit Court in Athy. This is where history may be repeating itself, replicating the decision of 1859 relating to the Summer Assizes. The Circuit Court, which is the court of First Instance for serious crime and substantial compensation claims sits in Athy on four occasions each year. This conforms to the old Circuit practice of the last century when barristers went out on circuit around the country to deal with cases in various provincial towns.

Of course the District Court, which deals with minor crime and smaller compensation claims, will continue to be held in Athy Courthouse every two weeks but what guarantee can we have that even this facility will be allowed to remain in Athy given that the offices of the District Court Clerk serving Athy District Court were moved to Carlow some years ago. Older readers will recall when Fintan Brennan was the resident District Court Clerk with offices on the top floor of the courthouse building. I remember him for the good reason that I spent a lot of time staying out of his sight after I had etched my name on the granite plinths of the courthouse door in 1955. The name and the accompanying date are in view every time I step into the court to remind me of a summer’s day 40 years ago when it was obviously too wet to set out on an orchard robbing expedition. But to return to the proposal to transfer the Circuit Court from Athy to Naas one wonders for whose benefit such a move is suggested. Obviously litigants and witnesses from the south of the county will be considerably inconvenienced if they have to travel to Naas for court sittings. I can find no discernible benefit likely to flow from the implementation of the proposal.

Its a matter of civic pride that Athy retains its status as a Circuit Court venue. After all the courts are part of the fabric of any large provincial town and to remove this important strand could start an unravelling process, the end result of which would be diminution of services available to the people of Athy.

Friday, January 13, 1995

Dr. Don Rodrique de Vere

The 1930's in Athy as elsewhere were hard times. "There was not a shilling about" is one common claim. The weekly markets in the town were a hive of activity to where the local farmers brought their produce to sell in an attempt to off-set the worst effects of the economic war.

The Tuesday market was as always the more colourful of the weekly markets with clothing and haberdashery stalls offering a wide variety of goods. Amongst the Tuesday market stalls in 1935 there appeared a man who by his colour and appearance marked him out as a foreigner. He was believed to be of Indian extraction and the temporary stall which he set up that first morning displayed a bewildering array of bottles, potions and medicines. The stranger who described himself as a herb specialist was known as “Doctor” Don Rodrique de Vere. His appearance excited curiosity as did his loud proclamations as to the efficacy of his specially prepared potions designed to cure the most stubborn of ills.

The response which the new market trader encountered in Athy encouraged him to prolong his stay and he set up home in a disused shed at the rear of Garter Lane. He continued to sell his potions and herbs earning the approval of the local people for whom home remedies handed down from generation to generation were more highly regarded than a visit to a local Doctor for conventional medicine.

A Doctor he was not but nevertheless the well-spoken articulate Indian was always referred to as Dr. Don Rodrique de Vere. His background was unknown but it is believed that he was a former medical student who, for whatever reason, had given up his medical studies.

His success in Athy prompted a search for a permanent address and he secured the tenancy of No. 22 Blackparks, the last house in a row of single storey terraced houses on the Kilkenny Road which have since been demolished. By now a well known character in the town the Black Doctor as he was commonly called was the subject of a ballad composed by local Balladeer Moses Rowe of Churchtown, part of which read:-

"He searched all round for a house in the town
and then he secured one quite near,
Where he took his place with the men of his race,
Dr. Don Rodrique de Vere."

Erecting a sign over the door of his small house proclaiming to all and sundry that he was a "Herb Specialist" the Black Doctor soon built up a substantial clientele. His fame spread beyond the immediate area of Athy and soon he purchased a motor bike with a side car which he ingeniously covered in to give the appearance of a bubble-like car. An impressive dresser he always wore a Panama hat and gaiters which with an off-white suit and a double watch chain to match his gold tooth marked him as a man apart.

His success with potions and lotions almost inevitably brought him into contact with those unfortunate women who for one reason or another wanted a concoction to induce a miscarriage. This was at a time before Public Health Schemes were in place. Poor people, especially those unable to pay for medical treatment, were left to their own devices and in the absence of any health education or information concerning birth control it was almost inevitable that the services of a herb specialist such as the Black Doctor would be called upon.

This was to be his downfall. In time he was arrested and charged with assisting in procuring an abortion and on his subsequent conviction he was sentenced to imprisonment. After his release from jail he returned to his small house in Blackpark but by then the women folk had turned against the Black Doctor. He was shunned by the local people and confining himself indoors he did not venture out even to replenish his bucket of drinking water from the nearby pump. Instead he availed of the rain barrel in his yard and in time he contacted lead poison, requiring his admission to Naas Hospital where he died in or about 1945. I have been unable to trace his last resting place.

Dr. Don Rodrique de Vere is often mentioned by the older people of the town as a colourful character who is remembered with fondness and whose eventual fall from grace is overlooked in the backward glance at times past.

Friday, January 6, 1995

Zolton Zinn Collis and Belsen

On the 15th of April, 1945 British Troops entered Bergen Belsen Concentration Camp in Germany. Emaciated corpses lay everywhere. The living lay with the dead. Up to 60,000 men, women and children had been crowded into the Camp which had been built to accommodate 9,000.

The doctors from the British Army together with Army and Red Cross nurses set to work. It took them four and a half weeks to clear the Concentration Camp and to create a vast Hospital holding 17,000 patients out of a nearby German Army Compound. Amongst them was an Irish born doctor, Robert Collis, a childrens physician who had responsibility for the 500 or more children in the Camp. Despite his best efforts more than 100 of these children died soon after liberation. The majority of the children who were affected with typhus or tuberculosis were in time reunited with their relatives. However a small number of children remained unclaimed and amongst them was a brother and sister Edith and Zolton Zinn, aged seven years and five years respectively.

The Zinn family had lived in the foothills of Tatra Mountain in former Czechoslovakia not far from the village of Gerlachov. Arrested by the Germans they and hundreds more were transported by cattle trucks to Belsen. In the ensuing confusion Adolf Zinn was separated from his wife and children and was never seen again. The youngest Zinn child, a babe in arms, died on the train journey to Belsen. Despite the atrocious conditions in Belsen Concentration Camp Mrs. Zinn and her children survived for a while only for the mother to die in the arms of her seven year old daughter Edith as the British soldiers entered the Camp. The tragedy of her death was all the more acute given that help was then at hand. When she died her name died with her never again to be known to her children to whom she was simply called Mother. Within a short while her eldest son Aladar also died leaving Edith and Zolton alone in the world.

Dr. Robert Collis wrote of his experiences in the Belsen Camp in his book "Straight On - Journey to Belsen and the Road Home" in which he related this description of the young bedridden Zolton Zinn
"he lay moaning to himself in a corner. He was but five years old. His side made him cry nearly all the time and his big brown lovely eyes were full of pain. He never spoke. It nearly broke our hearts to look at him."

When his work in Belsen was finished Dr. Collis decided to bring to Ireland seven of the young children who remained in the Camp without family or friends. Edith and Zolton Zinn were among those seven who on arrival in Ireland were nicknamed "the Belsen children".

Zolton Zinn was seven years of age when he arrived in Ireland in 1947 having spent some time recuperating in Malmo, Sweden. Suffering from T.B. he was initially hospitalised in Fairy Hill Hospital, Howth, Dublin before joining his sister Edith in the home of Dr. Robert Collis at Fitzwilliam Square, Dublin. Irish adoption laws did not permit Dr. Collis, a Protestant, to adopt Slovakian children but in all other respects Edith and Zolton were part of the Collis family and adopted the Collis name.

Zolton Zinn Collis as he is known today has lived in Athy for the past fifteen years having first come to the area to work as a Chef in Kilkea Castle. As a survivor of the Holocaust. Zolton who until recently did not speak of his experiences has now had his personal recollections included in a recent book by Mary Rose Doorly entitled "Hidden Memories". The horror and sadness of his story is tempered by his quite extraordinary attitude which does not curry sympathy or seek undue publicity. The Nazi savagery which destroyed his family had understandably left him haunted by the images of the past. Images such as that of his distraught mother resisting a German solder's attempt to wrest the tiny corpse of her dead baby from her arms during a short stop-over on the train journey to Belsen are typical of the flashbacks which come to his mind after the elapse of almost fifty years.

"I can never forget" he says as he ponders aloud the words of an Israeli Prime Minister who declared "Only the dead can forgive, we have no right to forgive on their behalf". For Zolton the question raises issues which he cannot as yet answer.

The tolerance and forgiveness with which he was imbued during his school days in Newtown, the Quaker boarding school in Waterford, have stood him in good stead as he wrestles with the memories of his past. For Newtown he reserves the highest accolade as having brought the greatest influence to bear on his life.

"We should all learn from the past but not live in the past - we should forgive but not forget" are the words of the man who takes pride in the fact that he is a survivor. He is left with his memories of a time which should never again be repeated and of a family and a country which can never again be his. His losses are more than one man should bear but Zolton Zinn Collis is a survivor who has fashioned for himself a life made bearable by an attitude of forgiveness and tolerance. "After all", he says "I owe it to those who did not survive".