Thursday, August 26, 1999

Tadgh Brennan

I have written before of Tadhg Brennan but a phone call this afternoon to tell me of his death prompted a re-visit to my memories of a man who was the epitome of what is best in an Irishman. He used the Irish version of his name Tadgh Ó Braonáin as a statement of his Irishness. His was an Irishness which conformed to the traditional understanding of the term. An avid gaelic football follower he gave decades of support and service to the Athy Club both as a player, mentor, official and supporter. He was a life-long supporter of the Fiánna Fáil party which he saw as the legitimate heir to those who championed the cause of Irish freedom in the early decades of the century. He was, in short, an Irish nationalist but devoid of the nasty extremism which is sometimes part and parcel of those who claim a similar allegiance.

I had known of Tadhg Brennan since I was a young lad in Offaly Street, palling around with Teddy Kelly, Willie Moore and others. The street was then a safe playground disturbed only by the very occasional motor car or lorry which sedately passed up and down. I can still picture in my mind’s eye a black Ford Poplar motor car which Tadhg Brennan parked outside his offices in Emily Square. The registration number was “IO …” and the rest is lost on me but I know that if I phone Teddy Kelly he would be able to recall even this little detail after the elapse of over 40 years. That Tadhg could park his car directly outside his offices without impeding traffic gives you some indication of what few cars were around in those days.

I remember Tadhg in those days as well as his father, that noble patrician Fintan Brennan, a district court officer who occupied the first floor offices at the rear of the Court House. Those same offices were reached from the ground floor entrance, the granite jambs which, to this day bear evidence of the handiwork of a 13 year old lad who carved his name into the ancient stone. The mark of the once thoughtless vandal is there to haunt him in his adulthood as he makes his twice monthly trip to the local court to defend others sometimes charged with far lesser offences. However, to return to Fintan Brennan, I am always reminded of my late mother when I think of Tadhg and his father Fintan. The father was a teetotaller, indeed the proud holder of the silver, or was it a gold medal, marking 50 years membership of the P.T.A.A. Tadhg on the other hand conformed to the traditional Irish male convention of imbibing well, sometimes perhaps a little more than was prudent. My mother, who herself quaffed a little sherry at weddings, wakes and such like always regarded a teetotaller, no matter how otherwise disruptive in his or her normal life, as an example for everyone else to follow. For her, the man or woman who drank was no good, although I think she might have had to revise this erroneous opinion when faced with her own sons early digressions into the delights of alcohol. In any event, Fintan and Tadhg were at two extremes of the alcohol barometer and insofar as my mother was concerned, Tadhg would never be as good as his father. The fact that he had bettered himself, qualified as a solicitor, taken up important offices as State Solicitor and later as County Registrar, meant not a jot to my mother who measured ones worth by reference to his drinking or non-drinking habits. Tadhg well knew of my mother’s opinion which she delivered with a matronly chuckle whenever she met Tadgh. Tadhg good naturadely humoured my mother and he often joked to me about her oft repeated claim to him “you’ll never be as good as your father”.

Fintan was a good man and he was undoubtedly an important man in the world of the G.A.A. and Athy social life in the first half of this century. His son Tadgh, who has now passed on in his 79th year was also a very good man who helped many people both professionally and otherwise throughout his long life. Like many more, I owe him a great debt and in my case its one I will continue to acknowledge. Tadgh set up his own legal practice in Athy in 1945 as I was to do 37 years later. He was very encouraging to me when I started 17 years ago and I am forever grateful to him for that encouragement.

As I said at the start of this piece Tadgh featured in an ‘Eye on the Past’ I wrote some years ago. Quite an extensive piece it was, extending over two weeks because of his involvement in so many different areas of life in Athy over the years. As a sportsman, he was a first class footballer winning a senior championship medal with Athy G.F.C. in 1942. The following year he first lined out for the county senior team in a match in Geraldine Park and played again for County Kildare in 1944. He was a leading light in Athy’s social club of the 1940’s and a cast member of the “Righteous Are Bold” which won the All-Ireland Drama Award in 1949. A former member of Athy Urban District Council, he served on the Council with such legendary figures as M. G. Nolan and Paddy Dooley.

I had the pleasure of interviewing, or rather listening to Tadhg, on many occasions and how delightful it was to hear him talk of Athy and its people of 40 or 50 years ago. On one of the last occasions we talked of times past, he later wrote to me setting out his memories of the characters in Athy in his young days. Such was the thoughtfulness of a man who had an abiding love for his adopted town for like me, he was not born here. Monasterevin laid claim as Tadgh’s birthplace but that did not deflect him from regarding Athy as his native place. For me, Tadgh Brennan or as he was wont to write Tadhg Ó Braonáin was an important part of a generation in Athy which has now almost disappeared. Pat Mulhall, Liam Ryan, and Tommy Walsh are but some of the names of his colleagues and friends in the social club who have pre-deceased him. For once I have to disagree with my mother. Tadhg was a good man who made many friends, helped many people and learned to enjoy life for what it is. A time for passing through and leaving the world a better place than you found it.

Last week we also buried Nancy wife of Paddy Walsh. A daughter of Paddy O’Rourke, the harness-maker of Stanhope Street, Nancy moved a few doors down the street when she set up home with her Ring County Waterford-born husband who first came to Athy in 1950. Like her husband Paddy, Nancy was very involved in her local community, and how appropriate it was to see the ladies of the local I.C.A.Guild provide a guard of honour on her last journey to St. Michael’s.

Our sympathies go to the families of Tadgh and Nancy.

Thursday, August 19, 1999

James McNally and Mrs. Tim McCarthy

A few Sundays ago I attended in the company of 50 or 60 others at the graveside in St. Michael’s Cemetery of James McNally who died over 30 years ago. The occasion was the blessing of the recently erected headstone over the grave of the man who was Sacristan in St. Michael’s Church for almost 61 years. Born in Athy in 1877, James McNally was appointed Sacristan 20 years later. In 1953 James was awarded the Papal medal ‘Bene Mereti’ for his services to the Church. I was a Mass server during the last years of James McNally’s tenure as Parish Sacristan and I can still recall the tall gentleman who organised the ceremonies during the great liturgical festivals of the Church’s year. James McNally saw to it that we turned up on time properly attired and he carefully monitored the wine and alter cruets thereby ensuring that none of us were tempted to break the pledges which we had taken at Confirmation time.

I did not then know James McNally’s background, understandably enough, given that he was a man in his eighth decade while I was a teenager little concerned with anything outside my own circle of friends. In later years I learnt that James had married four years before the outbreak of World War I. His bride was Mary McCann from Bree in Enniscorthy and they had two children, James born in 1911 and Margaret born the following year. While still a young man, James McNally suffered two tragic losses, the first being the death of his only son James, who passed away on the 13th November 1917. Young James was admitted to the Fever hospital in Athy a short time before he and his classmates were scheduled to make their First Communion. First Communion day arrived and his father called to him early that morning with a present of a small prayer book, the gift of Sister Margaret Mary his teacher in St. Joseph’s Boys School. Young James received his First Communion while still lying in his hospital bed after which his father hurried back to the parish church where the First Communion ceremonies for the rest of the class were to be held. While he was attending to his work as Sacristan that day his only son died.

Two years later, James NcNally suffered another tragedy with the death of his wife Mary in childbirth. She was just 27 years of age. James McNally never re-married. With his daughter Margaret, he lived in Convent Lane for some years before moving in the early 1930’s to Number 5 Convent View, where he lived with his sister Mary and her husband Michael Mullery. When James McNally retired as Sacristan in 1958 he continued to live in number 5 Convent View. His daughter Margaret in the meantime had been married and moved out of Athy.

I drew attention some years ago to the absence of a gravestone to commemorate this gentle giant of a man who had served the priests and people of Athy for 61 years. Father Tommy Tuohy, formerly of Offaly Street, mentioned my article to James’s grandson, Thomas Murphy of Kill and it was Thomas who, with the help and co-operation of his brothers and sisters, had a beautiful headstone recently erected to mark James McNally’s last resting place. On a recent Sunday afternoon Father Tommy blessed the grave and spoke of his days as a Mass server in St. Michael’s and of his memories of James McNally nearly 50 years ago. Amongst those in attendance were Mrs McHugh, formerly Mullery of St. Michael’s Terrace and Mrs. Gibbons now in her 91st year, a distant relation of the man we had gathered to remember. Andy and Phoebe Murphy, who now live in number 5 Convent View, were also there, as was another representative of an old Athy family, Paddy Doyle.

James McNally’s daughter Margaret married Philip Murphy and they had 14 children one of whom died in infancy and another Patrick died some years ago in Dublin. Of the remaining 12 children, 10 travelled to Athy with their own children to honour the memory of their grandfather James McNally. Indeed, Maureen Murphy, now married in Ohio, U.S.A., and Sister Rita of the Sisters of Charity also of Ohio, both travelled from America for the occasion. Another sister Josie also living in America was unable to be there with her brothers Steven, John, Dan, Anthony, Thomas, Kevin and Aidan and her sisters, including Pearl Murphy, who lives in Dublin.

Two of their step brothers, Philip and Rory Murphy were also there, sons of their father’s first marriage, Margaret McNally having been his second wife. Rory, who is a former chairman of Wexford County Council, was in splendid form that afternoon delving into the hidden nooks of family connections, extending outwards to include the Gibbons family of Athy and Wexford who were related to Cardinal Gibbons of Baltimore.

That same afternoon, Mrs Tim McCarthy of St. Patrick’s Avenue was buried in St. Michael’s Cemetery. Regretfully I missed her funeral but met up with her sons Frank, Dermot and Malachy in The Leinster Arms Hotel. Malachy is now retired after a 33 year service in the Garda Síochana and is now the proprietor of a taxi company in Bantry. He speaks with a mellifluous Cork accent and recounted how his father Tim and my father, who was the local Garda Sergeant agreed to leave out of his application form for the Gardai any reference to his having suffered from rheumatoid fever as a young lad. Notice of his condition would have been sufficient to stymie his chances of becoming a garda and so the little conspiracy was hatched to protect his future prospects in the Gardai. Clearly the little deceit of our fathers did not create any problems, as the one time patient completed his normal services as a garda without difficulty.

Tim McCarthy was from Clonakilty, Co. Cork and first met his future wife, who was from Armagh while both were working in County Louth. She later came to Athy as a child nurse for the Osborne family and the couple married and lived most of their married life in St. Patrick’s Avenue. Tim was a member of the Defence Forces during World War II and a life-long supporter of Fine Gael. His good neighbour Johnny McMahon, a Mayo-born Garda was a silent supporter of Fianna Fáil and both men exchanged each evening their daily newspapers - Johnny taking McCarthy’s ‘Irish Independent’ in place of his own ‘Irish Press’. Political allegiances in those days would not permit either to be seen buying a paper which supported the political party opposed to their own. Both Tim McCarthy and his wife are now dead as is Johnny and Molly McMahon and the passing of the older generations and that of James McNally leaves us all with memories of times which can ever again be relived.

Some months ago I was approached about the feasibility of setting up an oral history project in South Kildare to include Athy, which would capture on tape, and perhaps on video also, the stories and experiences of those generations who have lived and worked in times which are now long passed. These experiences are irreplaceable and, as more and more of the older generation die off, the urgency of recording for future generations their life and experiences, becomes more and more important. I would be interested in hearing from anyone willing to become involved in an oral history project which might be set up in the coming months.

Thursday, August 12, 1999

George Potters 1949 Report of Athy and Juan Greene

Continuing the Article which was published in the Providence Journal and Evening Bulletin in 1949, where author George Potter recounted his meeting with Juan Greene of Kilkea who discoursed eloquently on farming in South Kildare.

“The farm is run on a five year rotation plan, and the purpose all through is fertilizing. Fertilizing is the secret of good tillage, and we work at it all the time. Let me explain and then later I’ll show you the fields himselves. We sow a field to hay and then plow in after grass, that is, rye grass and clover ploughed in as green manure. The second crops is oats and to that we apply artificial fertilizer. Next for sugar beets we use heavy farmyard dunging and artificial. The fourth, for peas, we use potash manure only. Finally the pea ground is sown with mustard seed and is plowed in for wheat or barley and under-sown with rye grass and clover.

“We could not run this tillage farm without cattle. They are absolutely essential for their manure. We buy from 400 to 500 cattle in October from the adjoining grasslands in North Kildare, Leix, Kilkenny or from Westmeath or from Tipperary. These cattle are stall fed under cover during Winter and as we sell them we replace them . Eight hundred cattle will pass through our barns in Winter until they are disposed of in the spring. We are not cattle farmers, understand, and we buy and sell irrespective of profit. What we want them is for manure. They are sold to cattle buyers, shipped to Dublin and then to England on the hoof. The poorer ones that we cannot dispose of we turn out to graze in the Summer. It’s a constant process of replenishing cattle.

“There are sixty permanent farm labourers working for us and during the peak that number will be doubled, and we hire any number of casual labourers. Farm labour is paid £3=2=6 for a fifty hour week. Our annual payroll for farm labor runs to between £15,000 and £16,000. Yes, they are unionized. They live away from the farm in their own homes built by the County Council; and they are good looking houses. The farm labourers are easy going people, and the great difficulty is to get them to speed up their pace of work. The steward (farm manager) tries every sort of persuasion but they are geared to that pace - and that’s that. With more effort they could make better wages.

“We could mechanize and reduce the number in help but that would create a social problem for the whole area.

“Imagine what a disaster it would be to throw, say, 50 of our labourers out of work because of machinery. Even that raises a problem within the farm. The men who run the machines have to be skilled and they have to be specialized to repair the tractors and therefore they get more money and that creates dissatisfaction among the unskilled help who are getting less.

“Mechanization will make farm work more attractive and take the heavy burden of brute work off the shoulders of the farmers. Ireland. remember, is a small agricultural country. Fifty per cent of the people around here live off the farms. The problem, remains of mechanizing for greater efficiency without upsetting the social pattern. It will have to be done gradually.

“There is a general grumbling of dissatisfaction among farmers and farm help. They see the difference between the £3=2=6 for farm pay and for 50 hours and the £5 for work for 48 hours in industry. They are out in all kinds of weather and those in industry are covered. The people in plants have weekends off; and now we simply cannot get a farm laborer to work weekends, no matter how badly we need him. Farm labor gets scarcer every year.

“The race of small propertied farmers feel that they are being put on by the government. Agrarian policy and city-town policy are coming into open conflict. The rates (taxes) are a very heavy burden on the small farmer. The increasing demands of social security in the cities and towns, mostly for unemployment payments and old - age benefits, make the farmers feel that the cities and towns are living off them and that they are paying the bills and not getting any benefits for themselves. There is a feeling in the country that there is no need of unemployment if only the people will consent to work”.

Mr. Green praised the work of Muintir Na Tire in teaching the farmers self - reliance and co - operation for rural development and a more attractive social life. He spoke of the drabness and isolation of the farm villages and the dreadful monotony and boredom of social life.

“In this district, for instance,” he said “there is one bus in the morning into town and one at night. This sort of service does not work against emigration of the restless and dissatisfied. Emigration is taking the best; the unambitious remain.

“Now, if you wish, I’ll show you the farm. We call the road around the farm the Burma Road. You’ll understand why.”

It took some two hours just for a sightseeing tour around the Greene farm. The narrow road was rather joggy, but he farm itself was a delight to the eye; field lay out in order, well kept, with the satisfactory air of well being, and farm buildings well appointed, clean and in apple - pie repair. Walls and hedges separated one field from another, oats from barley and wheat from sugar beets. In the midst of green field one caught sight of the gold of a field sown to mustard, a combination of utility and loveliness. Standing on a bridge Mr. Greene pointed out each field on the large farm and what it was growing.

Three rivers ran through the land and supply all the water it needs. Small groves of trees here and there break up the pattern of the fields.

Mr. Greene took me to the top of a hill and pointed out another large farm in the distance - the Wright farm - where pedigree bulls are raised for Argentine.

“From this hill” he said, “you can see seven countries of Ireland - Leix, Carlow, Kildare, Wicklow, Waterford, Kilkenny and off there in the haze the Dublin mountains”.

The author concluded with the wish that he might see something of the future of rural Ireland in the well run Greene Farm of 1949. The Fifty years which have since passed has seen Irish Agriculture develop into a multi billion pound business where farm machinery has replaced farm labourers.

On Wednesday, 8th September at 8.00 p.m., I will give a talk in the Heritage Centre entitled “Heroes or Scoundrels - some reflections on Athy and men and women of the past”.

Thursday, August 5, 1999

George Potters 1949 Report of Athy and Juan Greene

In the summer of 1949 George Potter, an American journalist employed by the Providence Journal & Evening Bulletin paid an extended visit to Ireland. He visited what he later described as “all parts of Ireland” and wrote a number of articles which were published in his newspaper. Intended to give his American readers a picture of the people, life and culture of Ireland of the day the articles read fifty years later continue to provide us with many interesting insights. One of the articles written by Potter referred to his visit to Athy and reads :-
“In Athy the busy little center of this tillage area with a population of some 3000, I was introduced by a friend, who had accompanied me from Dublin, to Matt and Sidney Minch, of the well known maltser family whose output is consumed entirely by the mammoth vats of Guinness & Co., of Dublin, the world’s largest brewery, makers of the famous stout.
In Matt Minch’s office, surrounded by samples of grains in saucers, I commented on the busy town and the number of trucks, tractors and automobiles in the main street. I remarked further that I had rarely come across a Kildare man in the United States.
`Kildare,’ Mr. Minch explained, is a comparatively prosperous region and has a fairly consistent ready market for the tillage crops. People who have a reasonable amount of prosperity and can see ahead with some degree of surety for the future do not emigrate.
Besides, we have two new industries in the town. One, about 10 years old, makes asbestos cement and employs 200 people. The second, just started, makes wall boards from straw pulp and employs 100 people. Both are backed mainly by Irish capital. These industries take up the farm youngsters who otherwise might be restless to emigrate and flee the land. The wages in these industries average £5 a week and being higher than farm wages they offer inducements to leave the land without leaving Ireland. They have other attractions. The workers are under cover and not subject to all kinds of weather. The hours are fixed and there are unions. All these contribute to a fair standard of living. If the small towns in Ireland could have such small industries in connection with farming and have power from the Shannon scheme as we have, the emigration picture might not look so black.
The oldest industry here is malting and it is so ordered as to give the region a balance. Malting is a seasonal industry, and most of the work is done in the Winter when things are slack on the farms. That means that the people we employ in that season can go out on the farms in the Summer haymaking and harvesting. This way they manage to keep working all year round.
Yes, mechanization goes on steadily. The area is heavily mechanized in comparison to other areas in Ireland, but nowhere near the degree of America. Even now we are introducing the Massey Harris Canadian type combined harvester, and the donkey of Kerry and the horse are gradually being replaced.
But we Irish will never give up our love of horses. Right beyond here is the Curragh where they breed the finest horses in the world. Here in South Kildare the English have bred their great cavalry horses since the time of Napoleon and now we’re breeding stakes winners in Ireland and England - and in America, too.
Sidney Minch interrupted to say that he was going to take me to his home for a bite to eat and then go on to the green farm. Mr. Minch, an affable man, drove me to his pleasant country house on an Island, with drawbridge and all, in the River Barrow and the `bite to eat’ turned into one of the sizeable meals I had in Ireland.
During the drive out, he told me that the Athy Dramatic Society, an amateur group, had won the All-Ireland drama contest with the play, `The Righteous Are Bold,’ and he complained that the local library stocked up too much with fiction and not enough with serious works. He pointed out tillage farms on the way and explained that the average farm in the area was 100 acres.”
The Green’s like the Minch’s, have long been in South Kildare, and they are close social and business intimates. The elder Green has divided
the farm with his two sons but it is run as a single enterprise. In addition, the Green’s manage the estate of the Duke of Leinster. Most of this area once belonged to the Leinsters, which is the famous Anglo-Norman family of the Fitzgeralds, so prominent in Irish history, and whose Kilkea Castle, now occupied by the Earl of Kildare, son of the Duke, can be seen sheltered in a grove of trees on a ride around the Green farm. This section is also the ancestral home of the late Sir Ernest Shackleton, the polar explorer; and Edmund Burke’s early education was in near-by Ballitore, a village founded by Quakers.
Juan Green, a pleasant and interesting young Anglo-Irishman, bound up in modern farming, graciously placed himself at my service. He was born in the Argentine and had practised medicine until a siege of sickness and an inbred love of the country called him back to his father’s farm. (Incidentally, the so-called Anglo-Irish prefer to be called Irish). In the large living room and library, Mr. Green under questioning talked easily and intelligently of large-scale Irish farming and of rural life generally.
The major crops on this farm, he explained, are barley, oats wheat, peas, sugar beets, belladonna and tobacco. We have a guaranteed price for beets, wheat, tobacco of quality and belladonna and have no trouble in disposing of our other crops by contract with private firms.
There is a beet sugar factory nearby, the first in Ireland, and it handles all the beets we grow. Ireland is now self-sustaining in sugar. The peas go to a large house in Dublin - Batchelor’s - and become canned, frozen, garden or package peas. All our barley we sell to our friend here, Sidney Minch, for malt. The belladonna is contracted for by a London medical house. The wheat goes to the neighbouring millers in Carlow. The hay and oats are for the race horses in the Curragh stables. Tobacco is a government - sponsored crop, since 1934, and is not a popular crop with farmers. It’s not self - sustaining and I think that within five years it will be out”.