Thursday, February 29, 1996

Mulhall Barbers Athy - Alex Kelly, Matt Murray, Tosh Doyle

Mens barber shops have given way to unisex hair stylists who cater for all-comers no matter how long or short their tresses. Here in Athy we have retained two establishments which in another generation would be called barber shops but which given the advent of electric razors are now best called male hairdressers. Both Gerry Lynch and Peter Delaney carry on a craft which in my younger days in Athy was largely the preserve of the Mulhalls. Indeed Peter Delaney carries on business in what was “Smiler” Mulhall’s barber shop. The Mulhall brothers, Michael known as “Hocker”, Christy known as “Gus” and Jim known as “Smiler”, were amazingly the first generation of Mulhalls to carry on business as barbers. Their father James married Nell Mulroe, a girl from Spiddal, Co. Galway whose family had come to live in Athy at the end of the last century. Jim and Nell emigrated to New York where they lived for many years and where some of their six children were born. Returning to Athy James took up employment with the local Council collecting refuse with a horse and cart. This work he carried on for many years, all the time living at Leinster Street in the premises now occupied by Data Print. Their eldest son William entered the postal services in London in 1913 and like so many others enlisted to fight in World War I. He was gassed and succumbed to malaria, returning to recuperate in a soldiers home in England where he was traced by his family. Returning to Athy he was to join up again during World War II and was wounded on D-Day. After the war he remained in England where he later died while employed in London.

His brother Michael “Hocker” who was born in America married Ellen Rainsford of Rathstewart and in time set up business as a barber in his parents premises in Leinster Street. His own son Jim also became a barber, as did his grandson Shay, both of whom operate out of a premises in Finglas in Dublin. “Hocker” died in 1947 and his business in Leinster Street was taken over by his brother Christy “Gus” who had previously worked as a barber in Mackens of O’Connell Street, Dublin. Christy married Meg Neill, a butcher’s daughter from Leinster Street and their son Jimmy also followed his father into the barbers business working in Dublin. “Gus” died in the 1950’s and the premises now occupied by Data Print was in time acquired by Nortons.

The third brother Jim “Smiler” had his barber shop in Duke Street where Peter Delaney currently carries on his craft. “Smiler” spent twenty-one years in America and there met Bridie Hackett of Co. Tyrone whom he married. They had no family. Like some of his brothers and sisters “Smiler” had dual American and Irish citizenship. His barber’s business in Duke Street flourished until he died in the 1970’s when it was acquired by the present owner.

The daughters of the late James and Nell Mulhall married and lived in Dublin. Margaret married a Leonard of Rathstewart and lived in Cabra while Molly married a Bramley from where I cannot say and lived in Drimnagh.

The Mulhall family tradition as barbers first established with the three Athy brothers continues today with “Hocker’s” son Jim Mulhall sometimes resident of Grangemellon and “Hocker’s” grandson Shay. “Gus’s” son Jimmy is also a barber and like his cousins operates out of premises in Dublin.

As I prepared this Eye on the Past I was informed of the death of Tosh Doyle, late of St. Patrick’s Avenue. Following close on the passing of Matt Murray and Alex Kelly, the loss of this triumvirate of elders of Athy is a sad blow for our town. I had spoken to Matt in relation to his involvement in the GAA in Athy while Alex unfortunately was on a lenghtening list of people I had hoped to interview in the future. Sadly the opportunity has now gone and I can only now hope to recapture the music and story of this remarkable musician by reference to secondary sources.

I had the good fortune to interview Tosh Doyle in the company of his old friend Tim O’Sullivan on a long October evening in 1994. As I later wrote, listening to Tosh was to open the flood gates of memory. He was a man with a story to tell and in its telling Tosh reaffirmed my belief in the relevance of oral history. He recalled the past and the people who inhabited his memories with an accuracy which was uncanny for a man then nearing eighty years of age. He was a modest man who was liked by his neighbours in Athy, for everyone was Tosh’s neighbour. He was the man who was happiest in his own place. May Tosh, Alex and Matt rest in peace.

Thursday, February 15, 1996

Archival Depository for Athy

I am put in mind today to write of the urgent need for an archival depository for Athy and South Kildare as a result of two telephone calls I received yesterday afternoon. The topic is one I first raised publicly when my booklet on the history of St. Vincent's Hospital was launched last year. One of the phone calls which prompts a return to that issue concerned a number of copies of World War II period newspapers, not in themselves of any great intrinsic value. What was important was the recognition by the caller of the importance of not discarding material which might be helpful to social historians. The second phone call concerned a Rate Collectors book issued by Athy Board of Guardians in the last century. This is an important record even if it relates only to a small part of the Poor Law Union which was the functional area of Athy Workhouse in the last century. The fact that the book had survived was in itself nothing short of a miracle given that the Board of Guardians Minute Books were destroyed some years ago. Their loss is immeasurable and presents great difficulties to any historian seeking to unravel the story of the administration of Poor Law in South Kildare in the 19th Century.

When Athy Museum Society was founded in 1983 it was specifically intended to act as a focal point for those people with material of historical interest, documents or otherwise who recognise the necessity of preserving same for future historical research. Some of the local sports clubs have gifted to the Society Minute Books which are now being held in safe keeping knowing that they will form the basis of a future historians quest for the minutiae of local history.

It is amazing how and where local historical material turns up. Some years ago a then resident of Naas passed on to me a Minute Book dated 1838 which commenced with the inaugural meeting of Athy Literary and Scientific Association. How it came into his possession he could not recall, nor could he throw any light on the nature or purpose of the Association. Fortunately in the course of my research some years previously I had learned of the group which within months of its formation was to become Athy Mechanics Institute. So it was that their first Minute Book came into the possession of Athy Museum Society. The whereabouts of the remaining Minute Books of the Mechanics Institute which existed up to about 60 years ago is still a mystery. Who knows, they may still be lying in somebodys attic awaiting recognition.
When one considers the large numbers of organisations and clubs which have flourished in Athy and South Kildare some times all too briefly in this and the last century, the wonder is that more documentary evidence of their existence is still not with us. There is of course the perennial problem with voluntary clubs. Minute Books tend to disappear with the arrival of a new Club Secretary. It is not malice or anything bordering on recklessness which results in the loss of these Minute Books, rather a lack of regard for historical records and a failure to realise their importance in a local context.

One period of the town's history which is well represented by memorabilia is that of the Great War and the Museum Room in the local Town Hall has a veritable Pandora's box of World War I material on display. All of it came from local people whose family members had fought and sometimes died in the terrible conditions of the battle fields stretching from the Dardenelles to France and Flanders.

The recent drainage work on the Grand Canal opposite St. Vincent's Hospital produced many interesting finds for the seemingly tireless "treasure hunters" who gathered there each day. The more interesting of these finds included bottles and buttons bearing the names of long forgotten Athy businesses. Some of these finds will shortly be displayed in the Museum Room adding another piece to the jigsaw of our local history.

The recent granting of £175,000.00 of public funds to finance the provision of a Heritage Centre in Athy is very welcome indeed. The higher profile which is now accorded to local history generally is a confirmation of its importance in assessing and validating current events and indeed proposals for the future. A knowledge of our past gives us a better insight into why and how things are as they are. This in turn permits us to ensure that decisions, especially those relating to the physical development of our town do not ignore the relevance and importance of what has been handed down to us by previous generations.

The piece this week can be read as an affirmation that local history is coming into its own. It might also be considered as a appeal to all local groups and associations to recognise the importance as source documents of club records and to ensure as far as possible that these records are preserved. All of us play a part, consciously or otherwise, in the continuing story of our local history. The most important unfulfilled need in this area is the provision of an archieval resource where local documents, whether old business records, club minute books or whatever can be gathered in and saved for future research. I wonder if the local Library might consider taking the initial steps by formulating and implementing an archival policy which will ensure the preservation of written records relevant to Athy and South Kildare.

Thursday, February 8, 1996

Convent Lane in 1930s

Small as Athy is and was in the 1950’s a traditional awareness almost tribal in its origin maintained a barrier around the circumference of the area to which as young fellows we felt free to roam. I and the other youngsters in Offaly Street had security in our own street and the areas such as that part of the People’s Park nearest to the Rectory and “The Line” as far as the Railway Bridge. But no where else. There was nothing sinister in this, merely an unstated acknowledgement that we were comfortable in our own area and felt little or no need to wander into other parts of the town.

One area which was on the periphery of our youthful domain was Convent Lane leading from Duke Street to the Dominican Church. A trip down “the line” across the Horse Bridge would invariably mean an excursion through the Dominican field exiting through Convent Lane and back down Duke Street to Offaly Street. As a young fellow in the 1950’s I can recall some of the tenants of the houses still occupied in that lane. Miss Burley, the Malone sisters and Miss Johnson, dressmaker, were the last three occupiers of the small one storey houses now long demolished.

In the early 1930’s Convent Lane was a much narrower roadway than it is now. At the head of the lane facing into Duke Street was to be found John Farrell’s butcher shop in what is now Rachels. On the opposite side of the laneway and facing the Post Office was a stationers owned by two elderly ladies called the Miss Byrnes. Their shop was to be demolished in the 1960’s to widen the laneway. Immediately behind the shop as one went up the laneway was a high cut stone wall with a gateway. Beyond the gateway were three small houses with a long row of terraced houses on the opposite side of the laneway which started at the end of Farrell’s house. Between this row of terraced houses and Farrells stood the entrance gateway to the rear of the Garda Barracks.

Sixty five years ago the occupier of the first house in that terrace was James McNally, Sacristan in St. Michael’s Church. His daughter Maggie who later married in Dublin lived with him. They subsequently transferred to Convent View and in 1937 Jim and Mary Eaton were appointed tenants. Next door was Essie Johnson and her sister May. Essie for many years walked out with Paddy “Sooty” Hayden of Meeting Lane who was a delivery breadman for Dooley’s Bakery in Leinster Street. They never married but Essie did marry, her husband later drowning tragically in the River Barrow. She was a dressmaker and worked a lot for Shaws. Over the door of her small house was to be always seen a sign “E. Johnson Dressmaker” and there she continued to live as one of the last tenants in Convent Lane. Her sister May married Jim Maher of Barrowhouse and they lived in Geraldine.

In No. 3 lived Mrs. Katie Hogan, formerly Katie Wade who worked in Henry Grattan Donnelly’s house in The Abbey. She had no family. Her next door neighbour was Pat Quinn and his wife Mary. Pat worked in the I.V.I. in the later years. They had no family. Ned Timpson and his wife Bridget and their only daughter Mary were their next door neighbours. Mary was later to marry Athy’s most famous musician, the legendary Joe O’Neill and is now living in St. Joseph’s Terrace. Ned was a regular soldier in the English Army and had served in the 5th Royal Irish Lancers. Like his brother Jack Timpson who had served in the 8th Huzzars, both survived the First World War and Ned Timpson and his family were later to live in the Gate Lodge of Ardreigh House which was then occupied by Bob Osborne, Solicitor before the Timpson family moved on to The Bleach.

Mick Johnson and his family lived in the adjoining house for a while before transferring to Convent View where some of the family still live. The Malone sisters, two well-educated ladies from the Luggacurran area later lived in Johnson’s house and were one of the last people to live in the Lane. The O’Rourke family with their son Jackie and daughter May also lived in the Lane leading to what was once Riversdale House but by then the Dominican Monastery. Jackie married Nan Breen and now lives in Offaly Street while his sister May died some time ago while living in McDonnell Drive.

The last house was occupied by the Burleys. They had previously lived in St. John’s Lane and Miss Burley, a daughter of the family, occupied the old family home until her death. Those familiar with John Minihan’s photographic essay on Athy will be familiar with his picture of Miss Burley peering at a magazine wall rack in St. Dominic’s Church. She was a very quiet gentle lady who had suffered a horrific facial disfigurement in her early years.

There were three houses facing Miss Burley’s house at the entrance to the Dominican Church. The Hayes family lived in the first house. Jack Hayes worked on the Barrow Drainage while his wife Margaret sometimes worked part-time in the Parish Church. Of their four sons two are dead, Christy in America and Jack who died a young man in Convent Lane. He was a member of the L.D.F. and when he died of T.B. he was accorded a military funeral. His brothers Ned and Jim are now believed to be in England. I can remember visiting Mrs. Hayes in the early 1960’s and coming away with a lasting impression similar to that experienced when I visited an old lady in Kells in Co. Meath in 1967. Both were widows and lived alone. In Mrs. Hayes’ case I felt my social conscience gripped by the frustration of an economic system which forced young men to emigrate to find work and compelled old women to live out their final years alone without their family. I have never forgotten Mrs. Hayes and I am constantly reminded of the elderly woman living alone in a small house in Kells who told me of her young husband’s death in World War I. She had no children and remained throughout her life a widow, mourning not only the loss of her young love but the joys of family and companionship. Cruelty comes in many guises.

Next door to the Hayes’s lived Stephen and Mary Anne Shortall and family. Their children James, Richard, Ellen and Annie are now believed to be living in England. Stephen worked on the Grand Canal and had married Mary Anne who was originally from Edenderry.

I am uncertain as to who lived in the third and last house in the 1930’s but I understand that Paddy Howard and his family lived there before they moved on to Geraldine Road.

The terrace of houses were owned by John Farrell, the butcher who lived at the Duke Street end of the laneway. In the 1960’s the last of these houses were demolished. Today no trace remains of the small houses which had been built on Tanyard Lane following the closure of George Dakers Tanyard at the close of the 18th century. With the arrival of the Dominicans following their transfer from what is now Kirwans Lane the approach road was renamed Convent Lane. The shop units and apartments recently built in the area give us little hint of what Convent Lane was like even 35 years ago.

Thursday, February 1, 1996

Passage of Time - Athy 1970

The passage of time was the theme of a project recently undertaken by the sixth formers of Scoil Mhichil Naofa. Their work unveiled to admiring parents in the Halla Mor last week dealt with life in Athy in 1970 and what they predicted it would be like in 25 years time. Time locked in a capsule until 2020 it will give a future generation of Athy schoolgirls, not yet born an opportunity to see through the eyes of a previous generation glimpses of past life in our town. The 2020 Project which I understand is a European nature conservation initiative not only requires the girls to record the present but also to look back and forward 25 years.

The changes in Athy over the past 25 years have been quite substantial. A generation ago the Wallboard Factory and the I.V.I., both centres of manufacturing activity, welcomed each morning the men who sweated and laboured for their hard-earned wages. These factories are now gone, spawning in their wake a number of smaller enterprises which happily continue today.

The loss of these two factories which in 1970 had been operating for 35 years and 25 years respectively was not the only dismal news on the industrial front in the intervening years. Minch Nortons, the famous malting business first started in 1847 had almost 78 men employed in its local malting works 25 years ago. Today mechanisation has caused that number to plummet to about six men. In every sphere of activity, especially industrial and farming the same story is revealed. Less men and women are required today to meet the production targets set for their parents 25 years ago.

Some things have not changed. Just a few years prior to 1970 Athy Urban District Council submitted to the Department of Local Government as the present Department of the Environment was then called, its proposals for meeting the new road requirements of traffic passing through Athy on the main Dublin/Kilkenny route. Traffic projections based on figures compiled in 1967 indicated the urgent need for a new road which would free Leinster Street and Duke Street of much of the traffic passing through Athy. Ever optimistic, the local Council chose two alternative routes for the proposed road. The Inner Relief Road and the Outer Relief Road were to remain as lines on the carefully prepared road Engineer's drawing ever since.

Butlers Row, Janeville Lane, Beggars End, Kirwans Lane and Chapel Lane were some of the places where families were still living in 1970. The various housing developments in the Woodstock area were prepared and planned, with insufficient thought it must now be said, to replace the older housing stock in Athy. In time Butlers Row and other old terraces in the town were vacated. Windows and doors were blocked up providing a visual backdrop of decay where previously home life had once been evident. The decay of 1970 was not confined to the older type of private houses, but was evident also in the public buildings of the town. The Town Hall housed the Urban District Council Offices and in the Ballroom on the first floor a shirt manufacturing unit. The latter is now housed in the recently re-opened factory on the Dublin Road and the local Council has managed in the intervening years to create its own piece of architectural history. The aptly called "Glass Taj Mahal" in Rathstewart unblushing stands a mute testament to the prolificacy of a local Council which prepared for the future by discarding its historical links with the most splendid building in Athy - The Town Hall.

Luckily that same Town Hall was saved by the timely intervention of An Taisce and ultimately by the co-operation of Kildare County Council and AnCO - The Industrial Training Authority, in a major rebuilding programme which went on for many years.

Twenty five years ago school boys still travelled the same route taken by their fathers and grandfathers on their way to the Christian Brothers School in St. John's Lane. On their way they passed at one end the Social Club while at the other end Ted Vernal's Forge and Carberys building yard were still going strong. The Christian Brothers have since left Athy while the Secondary School in St. John's Lane has closed down to be replaced by the ultra modern school building in Rathstewart. The builders yard, the forge and the Social Club are now no more.

Closed also is Dreamland Ballroom the mecca for dancers which first opened its doors in 1961. In 1970 it was still going strong but was to be sold within years by its owner, the irrepressible future politician and Taoiseach Albert Reynolds. Today the Dancehall which played host to the showband stars of the past is a sports hall but its future is uncertain and it may well go the way of the Social Club which once stood in St. John's Lane.

Our town which for a short period in the late 1950's boasted two cinemas has witnessed the recent closure of its last cinema, the relatively new Grove Cinema. Hopefully when the time capsule prepared by the schoolgirls in Scoil Mhichil Naofa is opened in 2020 the Grove Cinema will still be there as a popular centre of entertainment for the growing population of Athy.

My wish for Athy is that in 25 years time it will be home to many young families living in a friendly and healthy environment. Would it be too much to hope that the orderly development of the town on the twin waterways of Barrow and Canal will by then be facilitated by an Outer Relief Road which would take away from the heart of Athy the fumes, noise and danger of passing traffic.