Thursday, September 28, 2000

Rural Electrification Scheme Kilmead

Do you remember the Rural Electrification Scheme of the 1940’s? It was before my time but
I recall reading an excellent account of it some years ago written by a retired ESB Engineer, Michael Shiel. He called his book “The Quiet Revolution” and indeed the title succinctly described the social and economic revolution which came about when electricity was brought to the homes of rural Ireland.

I was reminded of the events of over forty years ago when I met Alo Brady, a retired ESB executive who spent some time in Athy in 1954 while working on the Rural Electrification Scheme in the Kilmead area. Alo played inter-county football for Offaly during 1949/’50 and for Sligo for the following two years but as he says himself he was not a patch on his brother Michael who starred for Offaly and Leinster during his playing days.

The Rural Electrification Scheme followed on the extension of electricity to provincial towns in Ireland during the 1930’s. Sean Lemass when Minister for Industry and Commerce in 1942 encouraged the ESB to bring forward its plans to extend electricity into the rural areas. The Scheme started in 1946 at the end of the Second World War when once-scarce materials were again becoming available. The country Parishes were to be the focus for all activity in connection with the Rural Electrification Scheme. This ensured that the local clergy played an important role in the entire process as they were an essential part of the marketing team to persuade the local people of the benefits which would follow from linking up to the national electricity grid. When the scheme was planned for Kilmead early in 1954 a group of ESB officials moved into the area office which was specially set up for that purpose. In charge was Frank Kelleher as Area Engineer, with Frank White as Area Superviser, Paddy Fogarty as Area Organiser and the young Alo Brady as Area Clerk.

The Area Organiser had the difficult job of getting the locals signed up to take the electricity supply before the ESB crew arrived to put up the relevant poles and lines which would eventually traverse the entire country. The local Parish Priest spoke from the pulpit in favour of rural electrification, while the Area Organiser and his staff held local meetings and called on houses in the Kilmead area to get the all-important application forms signed. Eventually four hundred and eleven local households indicated their agreement to connect up to the electricity. One of the many frustrating problems facing the ESB at that time was what in organisational terms was referred to as “back sliders”. These were the people who signed the application forms to take the electricity supply but changed their minds when the ESB crew arrived to make the connection. Kilmead was no different than anywhere else in that regard and when the Scheme was completed in October 1954 three hundred and eighty one householders had availed of the service. A total of 30 “back sliders” resisted all attempts by the local Parish Priest and the ESB Area Organiser to get them to go ahead with their original commitment. One substantial farmer in the area who agreed to have electricity poles on his lands refused to take the electricity on a matter of some unexplained principle or other.

Construction work on the Kilmead Scheme which commenced on 27th March 1954 and finished on 2nd October of the same year afforded local men the opportunity for well-paid work. Indeed the ESB found that the wages paid in the local Asbestos, IVI and Wallboard factories made it difficult for them to get a full complement of labourers. Another problem was that posed by the creosote poles put up on farmlands which proved unusually attractive to calves. Apparently the calves licked the creosote, becoming sick in the process and resulted in three fatalities which were the subject of compensation claims against the Electricity Supply Board.

The total cost of the Kilmead Scheme was £44,181, a very substantial sum in those post-War days. The sale of ESB electrical equipment to private households netted £920, most of which was expended on water pumps and electric cookers. Two washing machines, one Bosch refrigerator, ten electric kettles and six electric irons were also purchased from the ESB by Kilmead householders. It is believed that electrical contractors in Athy sold a similar number of electrical appliances in the area.

The ESB officials while working on the Kilmead Scheme lodged in Athy. Alo Brady, originally from Edenderry, stayed in digs with Mr. and Mrs. Andy Cleary in Janeville, while the Area Engineer Frank Kelleher lodged with the Staffords of Emily Square. Another important member of the ESB team was Ned Ryan, a linesman who was subsequently to win two All-Ireland hurling medals with Tipperary in 1949 and 1950. Ned drove a model Y Ford car which was commissioned every morning and evening to transport his colleagues between the work site and the town of Athy.

The story of the Rural Electrification Scheme of 46 years ago in Kilmead results from my recent meeting with Alo Brady who is now retired and living in Dublin. I spent an enjoyable afternoon in his company as we both shared in the celebration of my eldest sibling’s 40th Wedding Anniversary in the Midlands.

Alo Brady who was a boarder in Knockbeg College when Carlow won its only Provincial football title at senior level in 1944 recalled for me the song composed to celebrate the Carlow mens victory over Dublin in the Leinster final which was played in Geraldine Park, Athy.
“In the year of ’44 towards the end of July
The Great Leinster Final was played at Athy
This game of fine football was listed between
The lads from the Liffey and the Carlow fifteen.

I’ll never forget ‘til the day that I die
The crowds that went tramping that day to Athy
They peddled and walked it, excitement was keen
And proud the supporters of the Carlow fifteen.”

The match played on 28th July saw Carlow defeat Dublin on the score of 2-6 to 1-5, but one month later the men from Kerry beat Carlow by 3-3 to 0-10. If any of my readers remember the Leinster Football Final of 1944 played in Athy I would like to hear your memories of that day.

Writing of Athy’s association with the Leinster Final of 1944 reminds me of another Athy connection which arose when I received a most interesting letter some weeks ago from London. With the letter was a photocopy of a book plate relating to “Athy School”. It was a handsome engraving showing Apollo awarding laurels to a worthy young fellow, with a temple surmounted by Fame in the background. I was able to identify it as the book plate of Rev. Nicholas Ashe’s school which he conducted in the town prior to 1798. Ashe who was licensed as a Church of England Curate for Fontstown in October 1794 served as Sovereign Borough during 1797/’98. He suffered greatly during the 1798 Rebellion at the hands of the Loyalists as a result of his supposed sympathy for the rebels. The book plate which bears Ashe’s signature will be included in a future book on the history of book plates. I wonder if any further examples of Ashe’s book plate can be found in this area.

Thursday, September 21, 2000

Knights of Malta

The Athy unit of the Knights of Malta were founded fifty years ago by Eamon McCauley with the help and assistance of members of the Kilkenny City unit. Eamon was employed by D. & J. Carbery Building Contractors at St. John’s Lane and his father had operated a public house at the corner of Barrow Quay in what is now Ann’s Florist. Mr. McCauley Snr. sold the business known as the Barrow Bar to Bobby Flood in 1948 and moved to The Shamrock Bar, Parliament Street, Kilkenny but I believe that Eamon who was then working in Athy continued to live in the town. His brother Jack was a member of the Knights of Malta in Kilkenny and he first encouraged Eamon to set up a unit of the organisation in Athy. Eamon paid a number of visits to Kilkenny City to acquaint himself with the work of the Knights of Malta and it was during these visits that he met his future wife Maura Brophy, whom I believe was a member of the Knights of Malta in the Marble City.

I am told that the foundation date of the Athy unit was 13th August, 1950 but there is no doubt whatsoever as to the man whose energy and initiative brought the ancient organisation of the Knights of Malta to the town. Eamon McCauley was to remain as head of the Athy unit of the Knights of Malta until his untimely death in 1980. By then he had reached the rank of Captain and was employed as a clerk of works with the Office of Public Works.

The early meetings of the Knights of Malta were held in the CYMS building at the corner of Stanhope Street and Stanhope Place. Some of the earliest members of the Knights of Malta included Paddy Timpson of St. Patrick’s Avenue, Anthony Dunne, a barber who worked with O’Rourke Glynn’s in Duke Street and Joe Moloney who worked in the local asbestos factory. These men who devoted so much of their leisure hours to the Knights of Malta are now all dead. Mick Ryan of William Street and Kevin Fingleton of Grangemellon were also early members and happily they are still with us. Two other men also involved were Pat Dunleavy of Foxhill and Paddy Cowman of Pairc Bhride.

As the organisation expanded, meetings were held in the Social Club’s rooms in St. John’s Lane and when the Cadet unit was founded in 1956 the Christian Brothers school building was also used. I remember as a young teenager enrolling for first aid classes with many of my classmates almost 45 years ago. Pat Flinter of The Bleach, Anthony Pender of St. Patrick’s Avenue, Mick Robinson of McDonnell Drive, Pat Timpson of St. Patrick’s Avenue, Frank (Harry) English of St. John’s Lane and Mick O’Neill of Cardenton were just a few of the names I can recall. We learned as best we could how to deal with the different emergencies we were likely to encounter as full fledged members of the Knights of Malta. The units medical officer was, and still is, Dr. Joe O’Neill and it was he who examined all of us youngsters on our medical knowledge. I can still recall the day the oral examination took place in the ground floor classroom of the old Christian Brothers school. We all waited in one of the classrooms and were called in one by one to be examined by the good doctor. God fearing young lads as we were, and apprehensive at the test we were about to undergo, we readily agreed to Pat Flinter’s suggestion to kneel down and say a prayer to ensure our success. I couldn’t imagine a gang of teenagers doing that today but, it seemed the most natural thing in the world to do and highlights the change in attitudes and beliefs in the intervening 45 years. Yes Pat, it was you who lead us in prayer that day, a fact which impressed itself on my mind, never to be forgotten. Indeed Pat Flinter was the natural leader of the group, a fact reinforced when he was subsequently appointed team leader of the Cadet First Aid team of 1957.

Dr. O’Neill, kindly, as ever, passed all of us and later on we were formally inducted as Cadet members of the Knights of Malta. Each Cadet was kitted out in bulls wool trousers, a shirt and a beret, the latter two items bearing the insignia of the Knights of Malta. A kit bag was also provided, containing bandages, cotton wool, dettol, smelling salts, and this with the legendary water bottle was all we needed to rescue the world from any calamity. The one thing I can remember about the Cadet’s uniform is that the trousers supplied were never quite long enough to cover youthful legs which were still growing. So it was that many of us had our trousers legs ending six inches from the ground long before it became fashionable to wear pedal pushers. Despite this sartorial handicap the Cadets, numbering 20 or more, assembled in the yard of the Christian Brothers school in St. John’s Lane every Sunday where we practised our drill under the watchful eye of Cadet Master Anthony Dunne.

Duty for the Knights of Malta Cadet consisted of attendance at inter county football matches in Geraldine Park or if one was extremely lucky the local Grove Cinema. The latter duty, not normally entrusted to the Cadets, allowed you to watch the latest cinemagraphic offering free of charge. However, until the lights went out, you were required to stand at the back of the cinema poised to jump to the assistance of anyone foolish enough to pass out during your tour of duty.

Geraldine Park in the late 1950’s was the scene of many inter-county matches, all of which required the attendance of the Knights of Malta. As a Cadet I remember sitting on the sideline with a senior member of the unit, nervously wondering what I could possibly do if any of the players got injured. My limited medical knowledge was never put to the test, as fortunately, I was only ever required to run onto the pitch, with hands clasping the medicine bag and the water bottle at my side, invariably reaching the injured player as he got up off the ground.

I mentioned in a recent Eye on the Past the Knights of Malta Cadet team’s success in the provincial First Aid Competition in 1957 or 1958. Pat Flinter was team captain and Anthony Pender, Pat Timpson, Frank English and myself were on the team which won the Leinster title in Navan. I can still remember the euphoria of that day and the disappointment when we failed to win the All-Ireland title in Limerick which we contested as Leinster Champions. One other school friend who was a Cadet in those days was Mick Robinson and I gather that Mick who went to Australia many years ago brought with him his Knights of Malta membership scroll. Mick, I can’t find my membership scroll nor indeed the medal won in 1958 which was one of only two medals I won in my entire life. If you must ask, the first medal was won when I was no more than 8 or 9 years of age and it was as a member of a ‘tug of war team’!

The Knights of Malta is still going strong after 50 years and now operates out of its own premises formerly owned by Minch Nortons at the end of Nelson Street. The unit now has George Robinson and Pat O’Rourke as Lieutenants, while George’s son and namesake is Unit Sergeant and Officer commanding the Athy unit. Other members today include Sergeant Catherine Foley and Volunteers Nicola Phillips, Chris Moran, Francis Moran, Nigel Kelly, Michéal Brennan, Michael Schofield, Bernadette Prendergast, Sharon Foley and Charlene Molloy. This weekend sees the 50th anniversary celebration of the Knights of Malta which will be held in Teach Emanuel. Thoughts will be of the men now gone, especially Eamon McCauley who devoted so much time and energy in the 1950’s in bringing to the town of Athy the Order of Malta which was originally established in 1085 as a community of Monks to look after the Hospital of St. John’s in Jerusalem. By a strange coincidence Athy had its medieval origins in the 12th century and had a hospital of St. John’s operated by Monks of the local monastery which is still recalled in the place name St. John’s Lane.

Thursday, September 7, 2000

John Kelly and Retiring Teachers Ann Smith, Frank McNulty and Sean Cunnane

You realise the years are mounting up when you find yourself attending the wedding of a son of friends whose own wedding you attended so many years ago. Such were my thoughts as I met up with old friends and former neighbours in St. Michael’s Parish Church last week to celebrate the wedding of Suzanne Fennin and Leo Kelly. The occasion has a particular resonance for me as I listened to Fr. Dennehy addressing the young groom. He bears the same name as his late uncle who was a friend of mine as we were growing up in Offaly Street. Leopold Kelly and his younger brother Teddy were part of the group from the street who every day met and played together. Willie Moore and Tom Webster were also part of the group as were Andrew and Basil White before their father, the late Tom White and his entire family, moved to Athgarvan in the early 1950’s. Being somewhat older than the rest of us Leopold Kelly was our leader, but irrespective of age differences his athleticism and the sheer qualities of his personality marked him apart from the rest of us.

As I heard the once so familiar name called from the altar of St. Michael’s Church I couldn’t but feel somewhat saddened as images and names of friends whose company I once enjoyed flashed across my mind. For Leopold Kelly died in 1967, just a short time after he was ordained for the priesthood. The group of young people of over 40 years ago with whom I shared so many experiences has been decimated with the deaths of Michael Moore, Andrew White, Basil White, Seamus Taaffe and Leopold Kelly. Nothing brings home the fragility of life and life’s experiences than the reflective moment which like an intruder imposes itself on the busy schedule of everyday life. St. Michael’s Church on the joyful occasion of the wedding of that young couple was one such moment for me last week.

Later that day I met John Kelly, eldest scion of the Kelly family, now 72 years of age and living in retirement in Enniscorthy. He left Athy in 1946 and his memories of the town at that time are of “desolation, depression and dimly lit streets”. The only form of entertainment was the local cinema in Offaly Street or as John explained it “a frolic with a member of the opposite sex against the wall of the Malt House in Stanhope Street”. John assured me that it was a much favoured location for such activity on account of the warmth provided by the malting activity on the far side of the wall. No doubt the heat generation was not confined to the malting process!

John, whose fresh face appearance belies his age, recalled his school pals of nearly 60 years ago. Jackie McCauley, Tommy Walsh and Maurice Kerrigan are now dead, Kerrigan having met his maker after an unfortunate accident on a viaduct in Wales. John McDonnell, Frank Flood and Benny Anderson are still to the good, and tales of evenings spent in Barringtons Pub on the Carlow Road re-awaken memories of old times which are very reminiscent of student activities of the present age. Young people of whatever age undoubtedly know how to enjoy themselves free from the rigorous scrutiny of parents or guardians.

Teachers in the old Christian Brothers School in St. John’s Lane were also remembered by John, some, but not all, with fondness. The lay teachers Bill Ryan and Paddy Spillane earned particular mention as did Brother Nelson whose interest in anything but the class subject in progress gave his pupils ample opportunity for daily diversion.

In the same week as the teachers of sixty years ago were remembered, three of that much underrated and sometimes maligned profession were retiring. Ann Smith, Vice-Principal of Churchtown National School, I knew since we both shared a caravan during the summer of 1957 or was it 1958 touring the countryside selling tickets for Athy Gaelic Football Clubs Fund-raising Draw. Ann and her good friend Eileen Kehoe were part of the team put together by Eileen’s father, John W. Kehoe, to travel the length and breadth of Ireland selling one shilling tickets for what was then the magnificent prize of a caravan and a Hillman car. Five months of the year was spent touring with that unique prize, the caravan, providing the nightly accommodation for the team of ticket sellers. Every village, hamlet and town in a line south of Dublin and Westport was visited as the car and caravan criss-crossed the country with Bridie Gallagher’s latest recording broadcast over a loud-speaker to give advance notice of our arrival. “The Boys from the County Armagh” is a song indelibly imprinted on my mind, even after the lapse of over forty years since the once-oft played single was last heard by me. Ann was a member of the ticket selling team for a few weeks in the first year of the Draw, while I was to see every nook and corner of Ireland over the four years of my involvement.

Coincidentally, Frank McNulty, the other School Principal who also retired this week, over thirty five years ago shared a common experience with me which threw us together for a few weeks. We both underwent appendicitis operations in Naas around the same time and Frank, who was then living in No. 7 Offaly Street and myself living two doors down, spent a lot of our recuperative time together. Frank goes down in the annals of our local history as the first lay person appointed to the principalship of the local Christian Brothers School.

The third School Principal to hand over the baton during the week is my neighbour and former colleague on the local Council, Mayo born Sean Cunnane. Sean was a friend of my late brother Seamus who died in a road traffic accident in 1965. I first met Sean around that time but got to know him better in recent years when we were both members of Athy Urban District Council. No doubt the extra time on his hands will allow him to devote more time to his role as a Town Councillor.

The job of a school teacher can at times seem a thankless one. It is certainly more stressful and frustrating, ever since the right of the teacher to chastise an unruly or disruptive pupil was removed. A good teacher is never forgotten as evidenced by John Kelly’s recall of some well loved teachers of sixty years ago. I know that Ann Smith, Frank McNulty and Sean Cunnane will have many happy memories of working lives devoted to the education of successive generations of young local people. We wish them well in their retirement.

Monday, September 4, 2000

Theatres of Kilcullen and Longford and Jimmy Bennett

Last weekend I made my stage debut - well not quite, but near enough, if one ignores a brief and not to be remembered involvement with the County Council players in Naas and Prosperous over 35 years ago. This time however I did not have to contend with half remembered lines and the uncoordinated movements of would-be thespians frightened out of their wits end by the newness of the stage experience. Saturday morning saw me in the unexpectedly grand surroundings of Kilcullen Town Hall where the new theatre hosted a seminar on the Forgotten Soldiers of Kildare organised by the County Kildare Federation of Local History Societies. I have to say I was, and still am, envious of the splendid theatrical facilities available in Kilcullen. They surpass anything we have in Athy, even though we have a strong theatrical tradition going back many years which should justify us having our own purpose built theatre. I am told that the Kilcullen community benefited from the weekly draw which ran for many years under the aegis of the Kilcullen Development Association. The upshot of the Association’s financial husbandry is that many groups in Kilcullen benefited from their largesse when the funds accumulated over many years came to be distributed.

Without question the Town Hall in Kilcullen is a credit to everyone involved in their community and must surely act as an incentive to other groups seeking similar type facilities. If Kilcullen on Saturday morning created the first stirrings of envy in my ageing bones, my visit to Longford town on the following day whipped up an absolute frenzy of jealously on my part. And how it must have showed on my otherwise normally placid countenance as I took in the first class facilities enjoyed by members of the Longford Slashers Football Club. Situated just a short distance out of the town the new club boasts, in addition to the usual bar facilities, a restaurant with a plethora of meeting rooms and would you believe, a 200 seater theatre. All are part of the one complex with a theatre I believe under the management of a local theatrical group which shares common facilities with the GAA Club. If the Kilcullen Theatre is excellent, the Longford Slashers Theatre is superb. I have not seen, even in Dublin, a small theatre to match it in terms of seating, stage, lighting and audio facilities. It far surpasses the facilities of the famous Taibhreach Theatre in Galway which by comparison seems poky and outdated.

My Sunday in Longford was spent attending the Annual General Meeting of the Federation of Local History Societies of Ireland which was officially opened by the American Ambassador to Ireland, His Excellency Michael J. Sullivan. He is a former Governor of Wyoming in the Rocky Mountains West, a State which is about three times the size of Ireland, with about one tenth of it’s population. He arrived wearing a cowboy hat as was appropriate for a former Governor of what is called The Cowboy State. A lawyer by profession, Michael Sullivan is a descendent of Irish emigrants who left for America in the 1850’s. On his mother’s side his relations came from County Longford, although one of the females married a Birney from Myshall, County Carlow and both settled on a farm in Kansas which they call Myshall Farm. On his father’s side the Irish links are with the Sullivans of the Bere Peninsula.

In my many years both as a public representative and as a lawyer I have listened to many addresses but I have never experienced a more pleasant presentation than the twenty minute talk given by Ambassador Sullivan from the stage of Longford Slashers last Sunday. It was a remarkable tour de force in which he dealt with his Irish past in an easy, pleasant and interesting way holding his audience enthralled as they listened to his every word.

Immediately following my arrival in Longford early on Sunday morning I was approached by a man who held out his hand and said “You must be Sergeant Taaffe’s son”. He turned out to be Jimmy Bennett, now eighty years of age, who spent two years in Athy around 1953/54. He was a barber working with Gussy Mulhall in Leinster Street at a time when the barbers’ business was a flourishing one and needed three men, Gussy, his son Jimmy and New Ross man Jimmy Bennett to meet the daily demands for hair cutting and shaving. Jimmy Bennett stayed in digs with Mr. and Mrs. Tom Moore at No. 7 Offaly Street for a few months after he first arrived in Athy before moving to live with the Dargans in Ardreigh. He talked to me of local people he knew and remembered from 46 years ago. Kerrigan, the Bank Manager, came to him each morning for a shave and others he recalled were Charlie Chambers Snr., Fr. McLoughlin, the senior Catholic Curate and Tosh Doyle whose hackney car was employed to bring Jimmy and his friends to football and hurling matches. His local pub was Floods of Leinster Street - “Is it still there?” he asked, not knowing that the pub had changed hands several times since Tom Flood passed away. He recalled Brophy’s shop which was located in Offaly Street where the first Credit Union office was opened.

A member of the CYMS which was located at the corner of Stanhope Street and Stanhope Place, Jimmy remembered names of some of its members at that time. Tom Moore, Ned Cranny, Christy Dunne and “Sooty” Hayden, all long time members of Athy’s oldest society which like themselves is now no more. He made particular mention of Joe Carty, the Belmullet born Garda who like himself arrived in Athy in or about 1953. He asked to be remembered to all the Athy people he knew so many years ago, recalling that Athy was for him a happy place, full of wonderful memories.

Later on Sunday evening before leaving the luxurious surroundings of the local theatre I enquired as to the root of the name “Slasher”. I was informed that “Slasher” means a man of valour and its prominence is traced back to Myles “Slasher” O’Reilly, a Cavan man who fought bravely at the Bridge of Finea with the army of Owen Roe O’Neill. The footballers who play for the Longford Slashers may or may not be renowned for their bravery, but their club premises located to the front of Fay Memorial Park is a wonderful tribute, as is the Kilcullen Town Hall, to the foresight and hard work of many people over many years.

If we could only engender a little bit of that foresight into our own community dealings here in Athy maybe we could have a theatre which would ensure the survival of the town’s proud theatrical tradition.