Friday, April 28, 1995

Michael McFadden

It is an extraordinary coincidence which finds three unrelated families residing in Athy who have links with the travelling shows or fit ups which were once so popular in Ireland. I have previously written of the O'Rourke-Glynns and Peppers Ghost. Today it is the turn of Michael McFadden a member of that great show family, the McFaddens.

Michael's grandparents operated the Belfast Hippodrome over 100 years ago. James McFadden, his grandfather, was a violinist and his grandmother Catherine the business woman who ran the Hippodrome for many years. Artists were brought to Belfast from abroad for the weekly shows produced on the Hippodrome stage and strange to relate one of those acts were John and James Duffy who were later to establish the famous Duffys Circus. The Hippodrome in time was to close and the McFaddens took to the road crossing and re-crossing the 32 counties with the McFadden Variety Roadshow.

Michael's father married Catherine Hayes, daughter of the owner of Hayes Roadshow and both continued to travel with the McFaddens Road Show. With the usual mixture of variety acts followed by a second half film show road shows were popular in every town and village in Ireland. Travelling by caravan pulled by horses in the early years and later by motorised power the road shows generally stayed a week in each area. Michael's Uncle, Jack McFadden, in keeping with the travelling show tradition married another show person and their sons were Jimmy, Henry, Teddy and George McFadden of the famous McFadden Shows of recent times.

Michael's grandmother died in 1938 at a time when his father had temporarily retired from show business to live in Limerick City. Michael attended school in Limerick until 1942 by which time he had learned to play the violin. The McFadden family again took to the variety road show circuit by joining the Hayes Road Show owned by Mr. McFadden's father-in-law. For a year young Michael followed the nomadic life, moving with his family and the travelling show from one venue to another. Every Monday it was a new town and a different school for Michael whose education continued while he was on the road. At the same time he played a violin solo at each nightly performance.

In 1943 the Hayes Road Show set up in Ballylinan, Co. Laois and when the tent stakes were pulled a week later the McFadden's family caravan stayed behind. The time had come to settle down and Athy was the chosen town. There was no previous family link with Athy but a small house was rented in Blackparks on the Kilkenny Road and the caravan was sold off to Jimmy Lannigan in Ballybough.

Michael's father was signed up by Paddy Gibbons of Barrack Street to work in England where workmen were scarce during the World War. After a few years the McFadden family moved to James' Place which was nearer to town and just off the Kilkenny Road. While living in Blackparks the musically talented young Michael availed of the opportunity to play violin with the Hughes brothers of Rosebran. They were noted musicians in the traditional style and they imparted their enthusiasm for music and the playing of music to young Michael McFadden. In time Michael was to master in addition to the violin the guitar, trombone and piano accordion. He joined the Levitstown Ceile Band playing the piano accordion and sharing a platform with Jimmy and Paddy Hughes, Tom Fingleton and Mrs. Culley. It was to be the first of many musical combinations with which Michael was involved.

Later he joined the Sorrento Dance Band when it was reformed by Paudence Murphy in 1951. Paudence was Band Leader with Michael on piano accordion and vocals, Paudence and Andy Murphy on saxophone and Dinny Pender on drums. Michael ever the musical virtuoso went on to play the bass guitar when the emergence of Beatles and their music necessitated a shift in musical presentation.

For eleven years into the 1980's Michael and Eamon Walsh played together under the name The Sapphires. It was the emergence of the sing along sessions in lounge bars, especially Malachy Corcorans in Leinster Street, now Kanes, which gave Michael the opportunity to develop as a solo artist. The piano accordion remains the main stay of the latter part of Michael’s musical career which is still going strong.

The show man's son born outside Listowel Co. Kerry on the 27th of June, 1932 while the McFadden Show was on the road surely has show business in his blood. From the McFaddens of the Hippodrome of Belfast to Michael McFadden of Athy there are but three generations, all show business people entertaining others in the best show business tradition.

Friday, April 21, 1995

May Lalor

As a young fellow I remember the almost jesuistical response of my father to a book written by an American lady in which she portrayed life in rural Ireland and particularly Athy in the 1950's. The writer parodied unnamed individuals who were readily recognisable by the local people. The shock and horror felt by many in the tight knit community of Athy did not stop those wanting to read the book from doing so. My father apparently borrowed the book but I recall that he put it on the top of the kitchen dresser out of reach of prying hands, for what reason I cannot now fathom. It was after all a harmless, yet funny account, of the Irish and their endearing qualities.

All this is by way of introduction to May Lalor, a wonderfully vivacious raconteur whom I had the pleasure of meeting some weeks ago. Mother of Councillor Reggie Lalor her late husband was the owner of what old timers still refer to as Reid Lalor's Bar and Grocery in Leinster Street. Michael Lalor whom she married in 1932 had purchased the premises from his sister whose late husband was Christy Reid, hence the name Reid Lalor.

When the Lalors operated the business the grocery occupied what is now the lounge bar of Ryans while the pub was next door adjoining Garter Lane and Mulhalls premises. Jack Hearns of Geraldine worked in the bar while Miss Norman of Whites Castle took charge of the grocery shop. Jack originally worked with Michael Lalor's brother who had betting offices in Naas and Athy. The local office was in Garter Lane at the rear of Michael Lalor's pub. When it closed down Jack went to work as a barman for Michael Lalor and eventually retired from the same job at the end of his working life. Miss Norman, whom I always remembered as a very old lady, worked in the grocery shop and lived in nearby Whites Castle. Her mother and her brother Jim, a bookmakers clerk in O'Meara's Betting Office in Emily Square lived with her in the Castle but by the 1950’s she lived there alone.

Mrs. Lalor recalled the names of the shopkeepers who were her neighbours for many years. Proles Menshop was next door in a premises which was previously owned by Cootes. The Cootes, a Scottish couple with no family ran the shop in the early 1930's when it was a menswear shop which also stocked cigarettes and tobacco. Miss Norman worked in Cootes for a while. Murphy's Commercial House was next door to Proles with Michael Anthony Auctioneer next to Mrs. Carolan's corner shop. Corcorans Auctioneers previously carried on business in the premises later occupied by Michael Anthony.

Across the road in what is now the former Irish Permanent Building Society Building was the L. & N. Stores which was previously McLoughlin's public house. Next door and around the corner in Emily Square was O'Meara's public house and beyond it Georgie O'Meara's Betting Office. Past the arch in what is now Hickeys was the butcher shop of Pip Murphy who lived next door with his sisters Gypsy, Nan and Zilla. Another of the Murphy sisters had married a Mr. Stirling who had a pub in Barrow Quay at the turn of the century.

May Lalor remembers the dances in the Town Hall during the 1920's which she describes as "the best dances in the County, people came from everywhere to Athy". The Nurses Dance, the Golf Club Dance and the Rugby Club Dance, all annual events, were all-night affairs, ending with the dawn.

I'll end with the description written by the American lady not so many years ago of the "double shop, pub to the left, grocery to the right" easily recognisable as Lalors of the 1950's.
"Inside was the hushed atmosphere that prevails in all the shops, a charge attentiveness which occurs because shopping is the breath of life, the only social activity of many of the country people. The smallest transaction has dignity and formality, the slightest word is weighted".

Times have changed. The dignity and formality of another age is almost unrecognisable in the hurly burly of modern life but the memories of those gentle days are still treasured by May Lalor.

Friday, April 14, 1995

The Lost Village - John MacKenna's book

Ten years ago John MacKenna published his second book "The Lost Village". A portrait of life in Castledermot in 1925 it was successfully launched in the local Church Hall to an audience enthraled at the prospect of a local son's venture into the literary world.

In the intervening years John MacKenna's literary star has soared. Now a highly acclaimed writer and winner of the Irish Times Fiction Award, his early venture into social history has now been reprinted by New Island Books. Available to a wider readership than was possible with the first limited edition "The Lost Village" offers an unsentimental peep into the lives of village people 70 years ago.

I am not using the words "peep" in any uncomplimentary sense but merely to convey the almost fleeting looks which the writer allows us to take at incidents and people of the day. Each short piece allows us to taste without quite swallowing. We are never permitted to become too enwraped in any one element of the story before we are whisked almost briskly, if not abruptly, into the next. This is not by way of criticism for I feel that John MacKenna's sure literary touch is evidenced even in this early work.

Football, the District Court, the Garda Siochana and Local Elections figure prominently in the narrative which brings us through a twelve month cycle in the life of Castledermot. I smiled at the many references to the County Kildare footballers, knowing the author's almost fanatical feel for the game at County level. How sorely his patience must have been tried in Clones last week as he watched, as he always does, the Lily Whites always cajoling, ever supporting, always unembarrassingly rich in his use of language designed to scold even if not to permanently mark.

"The Lost Village" is a fun book, one to dip into a will and to be transported back into a world which if not always innocent certainly seemed to lack the deception and deceit of latter day Ireland. Although one must acknowledge that even in those days collecting money from Unemployment Insurance while working was not unknown as evidenced by MacKenna's account of one Castledermot Court case. Strangely as I read that Court case I was puzzled as to whether the author was taking a little licence as I suspect he was when recounting the shooting incident at Ardreigh. However, I must acknowledge that after consulting an appropriate reference book I can only confess that his account was not only possible but more than likely accurate. I still however hold fast to my suspicion that the Ardreigh shooting incident is a colourful piece of fiction.

Whether the book is in part social history or a mix of history and fiction it nevertheless works recreating an interesting landscape for the reader to survey. The account of events in the local Court on the third Wednesday in October raised a chuckle. As MacKenna recounts it "George Jackson, the owner of a garage in Carlow, was being summoned by Guard Halloran in a technical case. Jackson had allowed a load of Mex petrol to be delivered in one of his lorries to Cope's without the lorry being licensed under the Trade Act to carry such a consignment.

"Jasus, they've little to be doin' with their time", a man at the back of the Court whispered to the woman beside him. She nodded."

It reminded me of a case I read about in another newspaper recently where a young fellow was successfully prosecuted and fined for snorting at a member of the Garda Siochana. I would love to have a sneak preview of how the social historians of 70 years hence will relate this "terrible crime".

John MacKenna's book published at £4.95 by New Island Books is now available in the bookshops and deserves your readership. If nothing else it gives you an opportunity of reading what was happening in South Kildare in 1925 before "other families came, new shops opened" and before the community of 1925 became "part of a Lost Village".

It is a lovely book, go out and buy it.

Friday, April 7, 1995

Jack Murphy

He must surely be one of the front runners for the unique claim of oldest man in Athy. I realise that is a dangerous suggestion to make particularly given the proximity of St. Vincent's Hospital but I do believe the honour belongs to Jack Murphy. Recently I had the privilege of meeting and talking with Jack, now well ensconced in his 10th decade and still happily married after 62 years. His wife Margaret, originally from Crookstown, has been a particularly kind friend of the local Museum Society and some years ago donated to the Museum original documents relating to her late father Andrew Delaney who died in the First World War.

Jack and Margaret married in 1933, a year after the Eucharistic Congress in Dublin. At that time Jack worked for Duthie Larges in Leinster Street where he had started as a bicycle mechanic in or about 1919. He worked alongside Paddy Mullery for eight and a half years before moving to Jackson Brothers when they started their garage and bicycle business in Leinster Street. He lost a finger as a result of an accident at work and to add insult to injury it also cost him his job. A move back to Duthie Larges saw him working alongside Joe Brophy, Dinny Bergin, Jim Eaton and Jim Kenny who is retired and living in McDonnell Drive.

In the 1920's and onwards the firm of Duthie Larges was an important employer in South Kildare at a time when the only alternative industrial employment was in the brick yards or Minch Nortons. Their busy workshops turned out machinery and farm equipment while the supply and repair of bicycles was an activity as busy even if not as lucrative as the modern day sale and repair of motor cars. A moulding department, carpentry shop, garage and bicycle shop were some of the main departments to be found in Duthie Larges in those days. Skills abounded with bicycle mechanics, garage mechanics, blacksmiths and pattern moulders working side by side in the huge Duthie Large complex.

It is difficult to imagine nowadays but petrol pumps were once sited on the footpaths of the main streets of the town in Duke Street and in Leinster Street. Duthie Larges and Jacksons had petrol pumps in Leinster Street as had Tommy Stynes while Maxwell had petrol pumps in Duke Street, opposite the old Garda Barracks. No need in those leisurely days for pedestrian crossings!

Jack remembers attending the Eucharistic Congress in Dublin with his good friend Paddy Kelly and he proudly wears a souvenir badge of that Eucharist. Coincidentally he lives in Convent View where the houses have on their facades a crest reminiscent, if not an actual replica, of the 1932 Congress medal. Sitting in the living room of his house in Convent View he recalls with remarkable clarity his young days when he lived with his parents in a small house, one of three at the end of the present Plewman's Terrace.

Jack's parents moved from the Kilkenny Road, or Blackparks as it was called, to Mount Hawkins then a wonderland of small laneways and alleys with names now forgotten - New Row, Kelly's Lane, Carrs Court and Porters Row.

Jack's grandfather Pat Dempsey lived in Chapel Hill and was gardener to the Sisters of Mercy. He still vividly remembers the day his Grandfather died in the Convent garden while in the company of his then 8 year old grandson. 84 years later the sadness and pain of that day still grips Jack as he recalls how he watched his grandfather die.

He moved to Chapel Hill into his late grandfather's house with his parents and brothers Paddy and Andy around 1912. Paddy and Andy were later to become hackney men having gained experience with a namesake but no relation Dick Murphy who had a hackney business at William Street. Paddy was to set up his own hackney business at Offaly Street along side Dowlings pub, later Kehoes and now McHughs before emigrating to England.

Jack never left Athy spending a lifetime in Duthie Larges from where he retired in 1979. By the time Jack left his workbench neither a Large nor a Duthie were involved in the business, even though the name has remained a familiar one in the commercial life of Athy.