Thursday, January 27, 2000

School pals from Athy C.B.S.

One of the greatest gifts enjoyed by anyone is that of friendships founded on shared experiences. For most of us our first friends were to be found among the ranks of our school mates, but where those friendships endure beyond the school gate and into adulthood the bond is all the more rewarding.

Looking back on my own classmates from the Christian Brothers old school in St. John’s Lane I find that the friendships which grew in youth act like an anchor in middle age, constantly bringing one back to the glorious days when the world was our oyster. Even yesterday as I got ready to leave my office I turned to the Athy on Line page on the Internet to read yet another piece from that computer wizard Mick Robinson, now living in Australia. Mick was a classmate of mine in the Christian Brothers and a star pupil who with lots of natural talent eschewed the slogging studious methods employed by untalented individuals like myself. His contribution to the Athy on Line page confirms his undoubted talents and belies Br. Keogh’s oft repeated claim:- “they’ll hang you yet Robinson”.

Mick was never overly concerned with the future prospect of such an event and lead a charmed and charming existence as a schoolboy full of devilment and good humour. I can recall an occasion at the height of winter in 1959 or thereabouts when Mick for a side bet of six old pence from each of his classmates went for a swim in the Canal lock. This was typical of the young Mike Robinson, clearly a budding entrepreneur whose horizons were not to be limited by the road signs leading out of Athy.

Another classmate and one I had the opportunity of meeting in 1998 in Beijing was Seamus Ryan, eldest son of Mrs. Noreen Ryan of Woodstock Street and the late Bill Ryan, school teacher extraordinaire. Seamus was called to teacher training on foot of his Leaving Certificate results, coming first in the class, and later qualified as a National Teacher. After a few years in the classroom Seamus returned to University and qualified as a Doctor. He is now head of the American Medical Centre in Beijing, China and thanks to the wizardry of the computers still keeps in touch with his classmates around the world.

Others with whom I shared the rough and tumble of life in the Christian Brothers school in the 1950’s included Kerry O’Sullivan, now a dentist in England. Pat Timpson, Lecturer, Sligo Regional College and Brendan McKenna, Managing Director of Abbott Laboratories also in Sligo are two of the class who did well in their own country. It wasn’t always easy for school leavers to find jobs in Ireland, especially in the late 1950’s or early 1960’s and the opportunity to attend University, now so common, was then restricted to a very few. Of my class only one person entered University as a day student following the Leaving Certificate. The rest like myself were not financially able to do so and the height of our ambition, assuming that you did not have enough honours to get teacher training, was to apply for a job in Guinness’, the County Council, the ESB or Bord na Mona. You might dream in those days of getting a job in the Banks but really for provincial “hicks” like ourselves, such exalted doors were not then opened. How times have changed!

Nowadays students finishing second level schooling can look to a more secure future than that which faced their counterparts of forty years ago. The secondary school is now but a step on the way to a further three years or so in University before taking up a job in Ireland. Forty years ago those of us who passed through the Christian Brothers School got jobs wherever and whenever they could be obtained. Our home town offered few job opportunities but amongst the lucky few were Teddy Kelly, Pat Flinter and Ted Wynne, all of whom then and still currently work within the Tegral Group of Companies. Of the Leaving Certificate Class of 1960 they were the only ones to get employment in their own home town at a time when travel was less easy than it is today. When I took up my first job with Kildare County Council in 1961 I stayed in digs in that town as the twenty-two mile journey to Naas was in those days regarded as too far a trip to undertake on a daily basis. Nowadays locals travel each day to Dublin and beyond to fill positions which are not available in Athy. How our horizons have broadened over the last forty years.

The common bond between the schoolmates of forty years ago was not just the town in which we lived, but rather the school which we attended. Our coming together each morning and the shared experiences of the classroom and the characters it spawned forged friendships which cannot ever be laid aside. Almost like prisoners of conscience incarcerated together for years on end we forged bonds which survived into adulthood [not that the school in St. John’s Lane was ever regarded by any of us as a penitentiary].

Just a few weeks ago one of my old classmates Hilary Drennan died, gone to join Fr. Jerry Byrne who passed away at a very young age, not long after we had left St. John’s for the last time. The surviving members of the class are to be found in Australia, China and America and throughout our own island in places as far apart as Cork and Sligo. The old school closed in 1984 with the opening of Scoil Eoin in Rathstewart and the last of the Christian Brothers who founded the school in 1861 left Athy in 1994. Nowadays the school, although still known as the Christian Brothers School is staffed by lay teachers and the increase in student numbers attending the school is matched by an academic record second to none.

On 18th March next Scoil Eoin will organise a Dinner Dance in the Dolmen Hotel, Carlow featuring a four course dinner and music by Marble City Sound. The event which is being billed as a Millennium Reunion Dinner Dance has been arranged by the Parents Council of Scoil Eoin in the hope of attracting those past pupils living abroad who may be returning for the St. Patrick’s Day celebrations. The School Principal, Tony O’Rourke, would like to hear from any past pupil who would like to attend and he can be contacted at (0507) 38223. I don’t suppose my school mates from Australia or Beijing will be able to attend at such short notice but hopefully the class of 1960 might yet get together later this year to celebrate the 40th anniversary of our graduating from the St. John’s Lane Academy of Excellence.

Thursday, January 20, 2000

Martin Joe Rigney

In a most eloquent eulogy spoken after he had received the remains of Martin Joe Rigney into the Parish Church of St. Michael’s, our Parish Priest, Fr. Philip Dennehy, referred to Martin Joe as a man woven into the fabric of the lives of the local people. As the funeral undertaker for Athy Martin Joe had dealt with thousands of funerals in a quiet and efficient manner, ensuring that the bereaved could mourn and grieve without the added burden that such occasions thrust upon families.

It was his father Joseph Rigney who started the undertaking business in 1919 at a time when the only other undertaker in the town was John Maher of Leinster Street. John’s mother is believed to have been the first undertaker in the town, having commenced business in or around 1872. Martin Joe began working with his father when he left the local Christian Brothers School in 1941 at 14 years of age. By then the undertaking business first started by Mrs. Maher from premises on the corner of Kirwan’s Lane had moved to 23 Leinster Street. It was to there that her son John, having married into Quigleys bar and shop had transferred the undertaking business. In 1941 that undertaking business was then being operated by John’s son, “Bapty” Maher.

In the early days the local undertaker made up coffins or had them made locally. For a long time this work was carried out in Blanchfields sawmills of Leinster Street. Other local carpenters involved from time to time were Tom Breen of Offaly St. and old Jim Fleming of Chapel Lane. Martin Joe Rigney who served his time to coffin making, continued to make coffins at his Blackparks premises up to some years ago. However, the manufacture of coffins in Dublin factories made it impractical and unnecessary to continue at local level with this part of the traditional undertaking business.

It is believed that the first funeral undertaken by Joseph Rigney in 1919 was that of a Mrs. Leonard of Blackparks. Martin Joe recalled with certainty that his first funeral in 1941 was that of old Dan Chambers whose remains were brought to Churchtown Cemetery. Martin Joe drove the hearse pulled by horses along the country road which in war time was completely devoid of vehicular traffic. He recalled for me some years ago that the first motorised hearse brought to Athy by the Rigney family was in 1936 but how during World War II, petrol rationing caused a revival of the use of the horse hearse. The horse pulled hearses were to remain a feature of funerals in Athy until 1950.

The horse hearse was an awesome sight as the horses strode out ahead of the mourners, each of the horses bearing funeral plumes. Black plumes were used for an adult deceased, while white plumes were reserved for young people and single ladies. Martin Joe recounted for me many stories about a popular local curate Fr. Ryan who could not understand how a lady from Shrewleen with four children but no husband could still merit white plumes on the funeral horses as her funeral wound its way through the town to St. Michael’s Cemetery. Fr. Ryan spent much energy and no little of his money in encouraging unmarried mothers to enter into the married state. The lack of money proffered by many as an excuse for staying single was invariably overcome by Fr. Ryan’s generosity, always accompanied by the plea, “You won’t forget me when you get work”. One local wag finding himself propelled somewhat quicker than he wished into marrying the mother of his child replied, “I won’t forget you Father, and I won’t forgive you either”.

Up to about 1950 funerals started at the house of the deceased and invariably went directly to the local cemetery. If you could pay 30 shillings to the priest then the coffin was allowed to be brought to the Church where it was placed inside the Church door. If you had enough money to pay for a sung Mass the coffin was allowed to rest before the altar. The majority of funerals went from the house directly to the cemetery accompanied by neighbours and friends with the local Sacristan James McNally in attendance to say the De Profundis at every cross roads on the way. This is believed to be the origin of today’s traditional stoppage at the town centre cross roads for funerals on the route to St. Michael’s Cemetery.

Funerals are for the Irish people an important part of local community interaction as evidenced by the large numbers which accompany remains to our local graveyard. The largest funeral ever in Athy was in 1986 following the tragic death of Marian Byrne, Martina Leonard, Declan Roche and Martin Flynn in a road traffic accident on the Monasterevin road. This was a particularly sad occasion reviving memories of another tragic accident at Gallowshill on St. Patrick’s Day in 1970 when Matt McHugh, his wife and child, together with Stan Mullery and his girlfriend were killed. No funeral was perhaps more poignant than that of the married couple from Woodstock Street who died within a day of each other in January 1946. Margaret Cassidy died on 11th January, 1946 aged 45 years and her husband William who was a local postman died the following day, aged 47 years. Both were brought for burial on the same day to St. Michael’s Cemetery. Another double funeral recalled by Martin Joe was that of National Bank Manager Patrick Foley who died on 15th February, 1945, the same day as his mother-in-law Eleanor Fitzgerald who had lived with him and his family in the Emily Square Bank premises.

One of the most difficult tasks to fall to a local undertaker is the removal of bodies taken from the local river or canal. The stretch of River Barrow from Vicarstown to Carlow has claimed many lives over the years, the last of which occurred only two weeks ago. Ambulance personnel are not used for such occasions and the duty falls on the local undertaker to convey the remains to Naas for post mortem.

The name “Martin Joe” identifies for everyone the man who was our local undertaker for almost 59 years. It is perhaps strange to relate that he intensely disliked the double appellation, preferring to be known as Martin or Joe, but never as “Martin Joe”. To locals, Martin was known as “red” Martin to distinguish him from his first cousin of the same name who was known locally as “black” Martin. The third generation of the Rigney family, Martin’s son Joe now carries on the undertaking business which his grand-father Joseph who died in 1952 started in Blackparks, one year after the ending of World War I.

On Wednesday, 9th February the Urban Development Group which has canvassed opposition to the Inner Relief Road will hold a meeting in the Town Hall at 8.00pm. The recent debate concerning the Dublin/Waterford road link has brought into sharp focus the merit of the Outer Relief Road Plans for Athy. Everyone is welcome to attend.

Thursday, January 13, 2000

Athy Courthouse

Two years ago the Irish Times carried a letter from a Dublin man who chastised those responsible for the neglected state of Athy Courthouse. The fine Jacobean style building was indeed in a sad state, and remains so to this day but not for much longer. The Department of Justice is now about to loosen the purse strings to rescue what is an important part of the architectural heritage of our town.

The building now known as the Courthouse was originally the towns Corn Exchange. The first reference I found to it was in the Leinster Express of 25th April, 1857 when that newspaper then published in Naas and Maryboro carried a report of a banquet in the Leinster Arms Hotel. The occasion was a celebration for the newly elected Member of Parliament, W.H.F. Cogan and the following weeks headlines noted that one guest refused to stand for the customary toast to the Duke of Leinster. As Landlord for the town of Athy the Duke was accustomed to receiving unsolicited and uncritical allegiance from the subservient townsfolk and the action of the unnamed man was the first occasion such a public act of defiance was noted. The reason was the Dukes family’s involvement in the proposed closure of the town jail on the Carlow Road. It eventually closed in 1859 when all the prisoners were transferred to the new jail in Naas.

At the same time the Duke of Leinster received the gratitude of all those assembled in the Leinster Arms Hotel for the new Corn Exchange, then under construction in the Square of Athy. Newspaper reports claimed that the Duke was providing for the town of Athy “as pretty a building as any in Ireland” to be used as a Corn Exchange. It was opened for business on Tuesday, 6th October 1857 but before long the same newspapers carried reports that “the ventilation of the building was very defective and the manner in which it is lighted was also objected to”.

The criticism was surprising given that the Architect employed by the Duke of Leinster was none other than Frederick Darley, one of Ireland’s foremost Architects. Darley is best known for designing the Kings Inn Library in Henrietta Street, Dublin as well as a number of buildings in Trinity College and the wrought iron conservatories in the Botanical Gardens, Glasnevin. He was at different times Ecclesiastical Commissioners Architect for the Archdioceses of Dublin, and Architect to the Board of National Education. While Architect for the Archdioceses he designed St. Michael’s Church which was built on the Carlow Road and dedicated in September 1841. It is highly likely that Athy’s Model School on the Dublin Road opened in 1850 was also the work of Darley who was Architect to the National Board of Education at the time.

Whether the ventilation and lighting problems was the cause of the subsequent closure of the Corn Exchange we cannot say but certainly within five years the building was lying idle. A letter in the Leinster Express of 14th November, 1863 referred to the “large swamp around the ruins of the lamented Exchange”. To add to the woes of the locals the Summer Assizes hitherto held alternatively between Athy and Naas were transferred on a permanent basis out of Athy in the summer of 1858. Up to then the Court was located on the first floor of the Town Hall which had been built by the County Kildare Grand Jury in the early part of the 18th century. The Courts held there included the quarterly Assizes, the Petty Sessions which dealt with minor crimes and the Town Commissioners Court at which matters arising under the Town Improvement Act were heard.

When the former Corn Exchange was adopted for use as the Towns Courthouse I cannot yet confirm, but it would seem to have been utilised for that purpose before the end of the 19th century. The Assizes eventually returned to Athy but during the War of Independence the fine stone building with its flamboyant curved gables, dramatic tall granite chimney stacks and elliptical arched colonnades was burnt to the ground. The local IRA who were attached to the Carlow/Kildare brigade were believed to be responsible. It was felt to be an act of reprisal for the death of John Byrne of Gracefield, Ballylinan who died during the burning of the Luggacurran RIC Barracks. However, the truth which was known to a few was perhaps less heroic. One of the local volunteers acting on his own initiative and without the approval of his superiors torched the Court building on 15th July, 1921. The man responsible was Bill Nolan of St. Michael’s Terrace and he was subsequently court martialled by the IRA for his youthful indiscretion. The Court Martial Report prepared by John Hayden and Michael Dunne recommended his suspension from the Brigade. The suspension was soon thereafter lifted and Bill returned as an active member of the local volunteers.

The Duke of Leinster subsequently lodged a claim for compensation with the Urban Council and was awarded £1,455. The Clerk of the Petty Sessions Thomas J. Bodley lodged a similar claim for the loss of books, stationery and office furniture and received the sum of £30. Kildare County Council also applied for compensation indicating on 7th January, 1924 that the delay in paying the award made to it in Court was holding up the rebuilding of the Courthouse. The Urban District Councillors at their monthly meetings made regular reference to what they described as “the unsanitary state of the ruined interior of the Courthouse” and at one such meeting directed the town surveyor to “have a proper barbed wire fence erected to enclose the ruins”. The earlier arrival in the town of the first contingent of the newly established Garda Station prompted the same Councillors to request Kildare County Council to erect a Barracks for the Civic Guards in the vicinity of the Courthouse when it was being reinstated. The request obviously fell on deaf ears!

The rebuilding of the Courthouse was apparently completed sometime in 1928 under the supervision of Foley and O’Sullivan Architects. For whatever reason the building contractor delayed in handing over the building to Kildare County Council, a matter regarded by the local Urban Council as “a cause of inconsiderable inconvenience”. When the Courthouse was eventually reopened it continued to house the District Court and the quarterly sessions of the Circuit Courts. The offices of the District Court Office were located on the first floor and the last person to hold that office in Athy was Fintan Brennan. Rather strangely the local Garda Sergeant acted as the District Court Officer during the occasional absence of Fintan Brennan and I recall my own father doing short stints of duty in the District Court Office. The Irish penchant for centralisation resulted in the loss of the local District Court Office and for a while threatened the very future of Circuit Court sittings in Athy. Circuit Court Criminal Trials are no longer held in Athy, locals being required to travel to Naas for such hearings. Maybe with the refurbishment of the Courthouse we can look forward to the return of many of the lost elements of Court life in Athy.

Last week in what could have been the last Court sitting in the old building a fine tribute was paid to Bill Delahunty, Courthouse Caretaker who died recently. Billy, a member of an old Athy family will be sadly missed. Another recent death which was that of Michael Drennan, with whom I shared many happy schooldays in the local Christian Brothers. Hilary, as he was known, died just a few days after his mother passed away. May they rest in peace.

Thursday, January 6, 2000

'Daney' Walsh and the Leinster Street Public House

A lot of changes in the commercial life of Athy have been noticed during the past few years. Chief amongst them is the change in personnel owning and manning the various local public houses in the town. As I passed down Leinster Street last night I saw that the sign over one of the those establishments has changed yet again. Now known as “Next Door”, it houses an off-licence where in years past there was a grocery and public house.

The first reference to this premises I have so far come across relates to the pre-Famine days of 1843 when the Duke of Leinster granted a lease in favour of William Fogarty. The shop was described as being formally in the possession of Denis Fogarty, in all probability, the father of William. The next occupier was Michael Keating whom I have reason to believe was the owner of Clonmullin Mills which was destroyed in the mid 1860’s. In November of 1865 the Keating shop in Leinster Street was sold to Michael Rourke of Castlecomer for the sum of £560. Keating, unable to meet his debts was declared bankrupt and the shop premises was auctioned off. The lease was subsequently assigned to Edward Rourke, presumably the son of the aforementioned Michael Rourke. When mortgaging the property in 1880, Edward was described as a grocer but, when selling on in 1884 to James Nugent, the property itself was described as a licensed house and included 13 other houses. These were the small two-roomed one-storey houses which once stood at the side of Chapel Lane immediately behind the public house. Some of those houses were still occupied up to the early 1960’s and I can remember the Fleming Brothers Saw Mills located in the middle of the terrace in the late 1950’s.

On the 2nd September 1902, James Nugent sold on his interest in the licensed premises, stores, stabling and yard to David Walsh. Walsh had already been in possession of the property for some years a matter which was confirmed in the lease from Nugent. David Walsh, son of James Walsh, farmer and Margaret Devoy of Graiguenamahona, Abbeyleix, was born in 1860 and married Mary Lalor in 1888. His younger brother Edward Walsh was later to achieve sporting fame as a rugby international being capped for Ireland 7 times between 1887 and 1893. David’s wife, Mary Lalor, was a kinswoman of James Fintan Lalor the County Laois political essayist and his brother Peter Lalor, Trade Unionist and Speaker of the House of Parliament in Victoria, Australia. David and Elizabeth had a thriving business in Leinster Street. The youngest of their 5 children also named David was born in Athy in 1898. Their eldest son James joined the Civil Service becoming a senior auditor in Dublin where he died in 1962. Their second son Joseph died unmarried aged 40 years in the year of the Eucharistic Congress 1932. That same year Margaret Walsh, at the age of 38 years married Joseph Hickey from Narraghmore who had been working in Walsh’s public house cum grocery for many years. A younger sister died in infancy while the youngest member of the family, known locally as “Daney”, married Florence Darcy in 1924. Florence was from Roscommon and at the time of her marriage was working as was two of her sisters in the Leinster Arms Hotel, Athy.

Following the death of Margaret Walsh in 1948 her husband Joseph Hickey continued on the business in Leinster Street until his own death in 1964. There were no children of the marriage and the business which had been the Walsh family for over 70 years then passed into other hands. I remember Joseph Hickey, an old man, or so I thought, in the late 1950’s, and my memory is of his acknowledged expertise as a locksmith. He was the person to whom you referred if you needed a lock repaired or a key replaced. His stock of old locks and keys were kept in drawers around the shop which had once been the grocery part of the country pub cum grocery.

Dave or “Daney” Walsh, born in the centenary year of the ’98 Rebellion worked for a while in the family business and at other times for Minch Nortons. Following his marriage to Florence Darcy he lived in St. Patrick’s Avenue and the couple had 2 children, Mary born 1925 who died 4 years ago, and Tommy born 1927, who died last year. “Daney” and his son Tommy were members of Athy Social Club and “Daney” or “D.S.” as he was known on some occasions, was one of the leading men in the Social Club Players of the 1940’s. A photograph of the cast of “Cupboard Love” put on in the Town Hall in April 1943 shows D. S. Walsh amongst the Players. Another photograph of the Social Club Players five years later includes D. S. Walsh as one of the actors in “The Far Off Hills” together with his 20 year old son Tommy. By then “Daney” who was 49 years of age sadly had but two years to live. He died on the 26th November 1949 and is buried in St. Michael’s Cemetery with his wife Florence who died 20 years later.

The Walsh family involvement in amateur theatrics was continued on by “Daney’s” son Tommy who participated in almost all of the plays put on by the Social Club Players until their disbandment in the 1950’s. Tommy’s own son David has featured prominently in stage plays in South Kildare over the last 17 years and he is currently Chairman of Athy Musical and Dramatic Society. The third generation Walsh family member to be so involved, David is currently organising the staging of another play from the pen of local writer John MacKenna. I gather auditions are still being held so if there are any budding thespians out there willing to thread the boards, why not contact David Walsh at the offices of K.A.R.E.

I received a letter during the week from James Fitzpatrick of Kildare who spent an enjoyable 4 years as a postman in Athy from 1946 to 1950. James remember his colleagues in the post office including Patsy Delahunt who trained him on the town post, Tom Langton, Tom Donoghue, Mick McEvoy, Jim Kelly, Jim Keyes, Bill Corr, Danny O’Brien, Paddy Keenan and Harry Hegarty. He lodged with Mrs Keogh of St. Patrick’s Avenue and quenched his thirst in Jim Nelson’s of Leinster Street where he enjoyed the company of Mick O’Shea, Kevin Watchorn and Jim Dargan. James wrote to me following the recent piece on the late Frank Whelan to whom he was grateful for many lifts back to Athy in the mail lorry following weekends at his home in Kildare town. Now 75 years of age, James certainly seems to have enjoyed his years in Athy and as he wrote himself, “It’s lovely to recall the old days”.