Thursday, October 26, 2000

Book Launch

I was overwhelmed by the response to the book launch last Thursday. There was such a large attendance, I was afraid the library authorities might ban similar events from using their facilities again. Thanks to everybody who attended on the night. It was for me a memorable occasion made even more memorable by the people who came out in support. It all goes to prove that there is enormous interest in local history. This interest is growing all the time and in the case of Athy, no doubt indicates a growing sense of civic pride in the town which has taken a number of knocks over the years.

It was while looking through the book that I realised how many of the good people I had interviewed in the early years of Eye on the Past have passed away. Paddy Keenan, a delightful man, Brother Brett, a generous teacher and Sean MacFheorais, gaelic poet and brother of Joe Bermingham were some of the people who appeared in the early articles. Hester May, that wonderful old lady who had packed into her early life associations with the men and women who across the stage of Irish, Rebellion and Politics was another. Stephen Bolger and Tosh Doyle were two local men who lived into old age and shared with me their experiences of life in Athy of years gone by. So too did Mary Carr of Quarry Farm who lived for a while in the gate lodge of the house where I am now writing this piece. Jack MacKenna, father of John who launched the book last week was the subject of an Eye on the Past when he recounted for me many of the forgotten stories of Republican activity in South Kildare during the War of Independence. Jack Kelly, musician and Jack Murphy a worker from the halycon days of Duthie Larges spoke to me of the lives of the Athy people they grew up with and knew so many years ago. Michael Moore, shop keeper and bee enthusiast, provided me with another insight into the towns past with his detailed knowledge of the early years of the South Kildare Beekeepers Association. Finally there was Julia Mahon whom I did not interview but wrote about after she passed away. Julia was the touchstone for many local Athy people and embodying as she did so much of what it is that makes Athy not only a place in which we all live out our lives but also the place which embraces and nurtures our hopes and our ambitions. Athy is our place and as John MacKenna said in his eloquent and much appreciated launch address, “all lives are of consequence - and poverty and anonymity, a rural way of life or indeed a quietness does not amount to a lack of consequence”.

The first article in the new book was on the Sisters of Mercy and I was delighted to meet during the night of the launch several members of the local Sisters of Mercy Community. I suppose the word “community” is still appropriate despite the emergence from the Convent life of the Sisters of Mercy who now live within the community they served for so long. Sister Paul was not able to be at the launch and sent me a letter beforehand with her good wishes as did Sr. Dominic of St. Vincent’s. It’s quite extraordinary the affection with which the Sisters of Mercy are held by the local people but indeed it is quite understandable why it should be so. Lives devoted to the service of a local people over generations creates its own reservoir of gratitude and the people of Athy have never, and will never, forget the debt owed to the Sisters of Mercy.

For the second time, Noreen Ryan and Georgina O’Neill attended the book launch. On the first occasion, the doors of the Town Hall stoutly resisted their attempts to enter but neither Noreen or Georgina were to know that the launch first scheduled for last September had been postponed. It was good to see both of them back again in company with so many others of their generation whose love for and knowledge of the town and its people is founded on long lives spent in the South Kildare town on the Marches of Kildare.

Derek Tynan, son of the former owner of the Leinster Arms Hotel and now one of the leading Architects in this country was a surprise attender. His mother is living in Beechgrove and in the past kindly sent me on some details of a local involvement in the design of the badge for the Garda Siochana. The sharing of information is an essential element of piecing together the towns story and a recent example of that was the kind lady who brought to my attention the forgotten story of “The Knights of the Plough”. If you knew anything about this organisation founded by a local man nearly sixty years ago, I would welcome hearing from you. And incidentally, it was not J. J. Bergin the founder of the Ploughing Association who set up the Knights of the Plough.

During the Book Launch, an unexpected surprise was the presentation made by Tommy Keegan. I have to say that Tommy’s kind gesture was a remarkable display of friendship and generosity and one which I much appreciated. The Master of Ceremony for the night was a man who has taken over the mantle of the late M.G. Nolan and with whom I have shared many experiences over the last forty years. Frank English was himself the subject of an Eye on the Past in December 1993 when his colleagues on the local Urban Council celebrated his 26 years on that Council. Since then, he has clocked up another seven years making his tenure one which threatens to surpass the record of Thomas Plewman who was a Town Commissioner and later an Urban Councillor between 1866 and 1920. Only another 21 years to go Frank!. Frank’s kind words on the night were much appreciated and I particularly liked the story of the Athy man returning to Australia who asked for the Nationalist to be sent to them so they could read “Taaffe’s Article”.

Fiona and Liam Rainsford of Data Print deserve special thanks for their courteous help in bringing out the book. They have done a good job and I am particularly pleased that a local printer has been involved in producing this book of local reminiscences. Shaw’s sponsored the wine reception and as one of the oldest businesses in Athy, it was appropriate, yet generous of them to be associated with the venture in this way.

So many people helped in so many ways over the years that inevitably I could not hope to name all of them in this short piece. Suffice to say that I thank everyone who has contributed in any way to the Eye on the Past articles and to the subsequent book, Eye on Athy’s Past. I will leave the last word to John MacKenna, the local writer whose talents have earned him an audience beyond the confines of the County and whose eloquent speech at the Book Launch was as ever generous and kind.

“The lives recovered and recounted in the book are the lives of ordinary people. Sometimes that phrase is thrown around as though the ordinary couldn’t possibly be of significance. But as this book proves --- everyone has a story to tell. Everyone has a sorrow to bear or a joy to celebrate”.

I hope that together we can continue to give voice to the lives of the local people for many years to come.

Thursday, October 19, 2000

Eye on the Past - Book Launch

This column has been coming to you for over eight years. I can still vividly recall the occasion when Barbara Sheridan, then the Nationalist reporter for the Athy area, phoned me with an invitation to write a weekly article on local history for the Athy page. My immediate reaction was to demur, not I may say out of my false sense of modesty but rather out of concern at my ability to keep to the strict requirements of a weekly deadline. So it was that I left Barbara’s request unanswered for a few weeks, prompting a letter from her followed up by another phone call. Eventually almost three months after the initial request was made I agreed to try my hand at producing a weekly column for your local newspaper.

Preparing Eye on the Past each week has proved to be an enriching and rewarding experience. After all I had spent several years before then researching the history of my home town in the expectation, that this would result in a published work on the town of Athy. That research never seemed to end, every new line of enquiry leading to previously unknown elements of the towns story. Inevitably that same research was to form the basis for many of the articles produced in the Eye on Athy page. However, the need to get away from the sometimes impersonal detail which clouds the horizon of our local history prompted an appraisal of new elements of the towns social history. This, of course, led to a line of enquiry which sought to clarify and record the story of the men and women who worked, played, lived and died in our home town. This change in the course of my historical research was due entirely to the demands of a weekly column which, to be of interest to the readers had to be topical, and familiar, even commonplace, to the extent of making connections for the local readership.

I have enjoyed enormously the opportunity this has given me of accessing the local people whose stories and experiences form the backdrop against which Eye on the Past has been written. My thanks and gratitude must go to those kind people who have responded so openly to requests for interviews leaving themselves open to question and answer sessions which I trust have been enjoyable to all. I know that I certainly have enjoyed the company of those generous people who in most cases have been elderly and consequently of most interest to someone like myself looking for an insight into the past.

Many people have written to me over the years, and with every letter comes information to fill in the patchwork of the towns story or in some cases a request for help in locating details of a lost family history. Every interview, every letter and sometimes even the shortest conversation carried on at the kerbside unfolds a nugget of information which adds to the store of local knowledge of people and times past. To everyone involved in whatever capacity, I am extremely thankful and grateful for the help and assistance proffered.

All this by way of letting you know that after 424 Eyes on the Past, I have at last succumbed to the temptation to see my weekly jottings produced in a more permanent form than this weekly newspaper. On Thursday, 23rd November, the local Town Hall will be the venue for the launch of my book entitled “Eye on Athy’s Past” consisting of 99 weekly articles printed in the Kildare Nationalist between 1992 and 1994. The book will, I hope, meet the demand for a permanent record of elements of our town’s story.

I would like to extend an invitation to any of my readers, who will be free on Thursday night to come along to the Town Hall at 8.00pm. Even if the book does not live up to expectations, you are likely to enjoy meeting Castledermot born, but Athy-based fiction writer John MacKenna whose literary successes to date are numerous. John has kindly agreed to launch the book and if nothing else, his launching address is sure to be both interesting and dare I say, enjoyable.

Writing of interesting speeches reminds me of wise words recently spoken by Kildare County Manager Niall Bradley. You and I will take heart from what he says when he spoke of how “the bypass route will improve living and safety conditions for local residents and will also complement the urban renewal and heritage initiatives being promoted in the town. It will provide a major boost for local business and will help to secure the towns future as a market town and a tourist destination”.

Niall has in the past been a strong advocate of the Inner Relief Road for Athy [sorry Editor, that dreadful subject again] but his recently delivered speech as reported in last week’s edition of this Newspaper shows that he clearly has had a change of heart. The Inner Relief Road must now surely give way to the Outer Relief Road for the town which has been the centre of my Articles for the past eight years. One has to congratulate the County Manager for what must have been a very difficult decision for him following on his earlier acceptance of the 26 year old Inner Relief Road plan for Athy. Well done Niall, I always knew that any intelligent re-examination of the discredited plan prepared in the hair shirt days of the 1970’s would lead to a rethink on the relative merits of an Inner as against an Outer Relief Road.

What’s that you say Niall? Your remarks as reported in the Newspaper are correct, but not so far as Athy is concerned. Your references were made in the context of Kildare town and do not apply to Athy. Okay, I’m sorry Niall, I didn’t realise that the short distance between the ancient seat of St. Brigid and the monastery town of Athy was such as to make the elegantly stated and sensible benefits of traffic diversion non-transferable.

Well you live and learn, and mercifully I have learnt more than most over the past eight years from listening to these great Athy men and women who have shared their experiences with me. I promise not to mention the Inner Relief Road next Thursday ….. honest!

Thursday, October 12, 2000

General Elections - Athy Candidates of the Past

A recent visit to York Minster Library to seek out background information on William Burgh, a one-time Member of Parliament for Athy prompted me to look this week at Parliamentary election results going back to 1918. I first became electorally aware [so to speak] when in 1957 local teacher Paddy Dooley was elected as a Fianna Fail TD for County Kildare. The election itself is not otherwise remembered by me but what I do recall is our teacher, Brother Brett who was Superior of the Christian Brothers, congratulating my class colleague Enda Dooley on his father’s election on the previous day. Paddy Dooley had previously stood as a Fianna Fail candidate in the 1954 General Election when he polled a very respectable 4791 votes in a three seat constituency contest. He stood successfully for re-election in 1961 before losing out in the general election of 1965. At that election Paddy Dooley was joined by another local man, Charles Chambers, who represented Fine Gael as he had done in the 1961 General Election.

The first local man elected to the Dail was Sydney Minch, a member of the Minch family of malting fame. His father, Matthew J. Minch, had represented Athy as an MP in the British House of Commons from 1892. To give him his full name, Captain Sydney Basil Minch represented the Cumann na Gaedhael party [now Fine Gael] and as such was first elected to the Dail in 1932. The Kildare constituency was then a three seater and his fellow T.D.’s for the constituency were Tom Harris, Fianna Fail and William Norton, Labour. Minch was re-elected in 1933 and for the last time in 1937. Those last two general election saw local teacher Brigid Darby of Leinster Street stand for the Fianna Fail party. In 1932 when the Fianna Fail party was for the first time elected to government, Darby poled 2636 votes and four years later increased her tally to 4021 votes. By then the constituency was joined with Carlow and was a four-seater and Brigid Darby’s colleagues, Tom Harris and Francis Humphries shared the seats with Bill Norton of Labour and Sydney Minch of Fine Gael. For old-timers in the town Sydney Minch was remembered for the part he played in having the soldiers’ houses built at The Bleach, and for a long time these houses were known as Sydney’s Parade.

Brigid Darby did not stand again and missed out the 1938 General Election when Sydney Minch lost his Dail seat. Another ten years were to pass before an Athy-based candidate again stood for the Dail. 1948 saw M.G. Nolan, draper of Duke Street and Michael Cunningham, a publican of Upper William Street stand for Fianna Fail and Fine Gael respectively, with Nolan polling 2452 first preference votes and Cunningham polling 548 votes. Nolan again put his name before the electorate at the 1951 General Election and increased his vote to 3987. He did not contest any further Dail Elections and in 1954 gave way to Paddy Dooley who was elected at his second attempt in 1957.

The 1969 General Election saw Joe Birmingham of the Labour Party putting his name before the Dail Electorate for the first time. Joe got 2711 votes, but not enough to get one of the three Dail seats on offer. A bye-election the following year following the death of Gerard Sweetman in a road traffic accident gave Joe an opportunity to copper-fasten the Labour vote in a contest which was won by Paddy Malone of Fine Gael. Eamon Kane of Castledermot contested that bye-election for Fianna Fail and topped the poll with 10,754 first preference votes. However, the distribution of Birmingham’s 5,923 votes was sufficient to give victory to Paddy Malone of Fine Gael.

In 1973 no less than three Athy men stood in the General Election, each of them representing the main political parties. Paddy Dooley in what was to be his national politics swan song stood for Fianna Fail, with Jim McEvoy of Leinster Street for Fine Gael and Joe Birmingham for Labour. Joe was elected for the first time after his two previous unsuccessful attempts. He retained his Dail seat in 1977, 1981 and twice in 1982 before stepping down prior to the 1987 election. Local Fontstown man, Martin Miley, was Fianna Fail candidate in 1977 and again in 1981 but was unable to increase his vote in that latter election.

Lenore O’Rourke-Glynn of Shamrock Drive, Athy, a nurse in St. Vincent’s Hospital stood in the first of the 1982 elections while in the November election of the same year Michael McManus as a non-party candidate polled rather poorly. Five years later the election of 1987 saw the emergence of the Progressive Democrats and their local candidate was Frank Masterson who shared the Ballot Paper and a similar lack of success with local Sinn Fein Councillor, Paddy Wright.

The first Athy-based candidates to stand for the Dail so far as I have been able to trace was J.J. Bergin who represented Farmers in the General Election of 1922. Kildare/Wicklow was then a five-seater and the election was contested by no less than ten candidates including Art O’Connor who represented south Kildare in the first Dail and who with Erskine Childers represented the Kildare/Wicklow constituency in the second Dail. J.J. Bergin, a local Engineer from Maybrook, Athy, later stood with another local man, George Henderson, both as Independent Farmer candidates in the June 1927 Election. Both Bergin and Henderson who were members of Kildare County Council were unsuccessful in that General Election.

All of the mainstream political parties have been represented by Athy-based Dail Deputies since the 1922 Election. Fine Gael held an Athy-based Dail seat between 1932 and 1938, a total of six years, while Fianna Fail were represented locally for eight years between 1957 and 1965. The Labour Party has had a greater measure of success, having no less than two locally based T.D.’s in Joe Bermingham from 1973 to 1987 and Jack Wall from 1997 to date. In the years since the 1922 Election Kildare has been at different times a three-seat, a four-seat and a five-seat constituency. The changes reflect the annexing of the County, with parts of Wicklow later still with Carlow and in recent years the sundering of the County into North and South divisions. South Kildare is now a three-seater constituency and sends to the Dail the same number of T.D.’s as did the entire county of Kildare up to 1957.

As I am writing this piece I received through the Nationalist Newspaper a letter from a lady in England who is a grand-niece of Brigid Darby. Brigid who was very active in the Athy community for decades from the 1920’s was a formidable lady with powerful political connections who worked assiduously for the local people of Athy. She was one of the first women to stand for elective office in Athy and successfully contested both Urban and County Council elections during the 1930’s.

The visit of the Taoiseach Bertie Aherne to Athy last week was but one of the very few occasions the town has paid host to the head of the Irish Government. John Bruton visited Athy in recent years on the occasion of the official opening of the County Show and on the same day was granted a civic reception by the local Urban District Council. So far as I can ascertain these are the only two occasions on which a serving Taoiseach visited the town. I know that Eamon de Valera addressed an election rally in Athy in 1932 but this was while he was leader of the opposition. If any of my readers can recall any other occasion when the town welcomed the head of the Irish Government I would be delighted to put the record straight.

Thursday, October 5, 2000

Jack Deegan and Cathal Moore

Last Saturday many of us passed and repassed on the road leading to St. Michael’s cemetery, trying as best we could to pay our respects to two local men who were buried that same morning within an hour of each other. One was a young man who was not to have the opportunity of living beyond his prime, while his townsman had lived a full and rewarding life. Both Cathal Moore and Jack Deegan were natives of Athy and members of families which have made major contributions over the years to the social and commercial life of our town.

Jack Deegan was laid to rest in Old St. Michael’s cemetery, only a few yards from the last resting place of Charles Moore Senior of Bray, Grandfather of Cathal Moore who was interred in St. Michael’s new cemetery. The coincidence was not lost on those of us who remember the Deegan and Moore families of the past and the part they played in the life of our town. Jack Deegan and his brothers Joe and Michael lived in Duke Street in a premises which their father, a former policeman, purchased in the early decades of the last century. Jack’s brother Joe was a member of Athy Urban District Council and for many years carried on business as a milk supplier, while another brother, Monsignor Patrick Deegan, was a Parish Priest in County Donegal.

The Moore brothers, Eddie and Michael, uncles of Cathal Moore, carried on business for many years at the corner of Offaly Street and Emily Square. The neighbourhood grocery shop was also a pet shop and one of the few places where Athy Honey could be bought locally. Their brother Charlie, father to Cathal, was a chemist who carried on business for many years in Duke Street, just two doors away from the premises now occupied by his son Ger.

Cathal was a young man not long married who in recent years started and developed a carpentry business. He had overcome some personal difficulties before achieving business success and his quite demeanour readily acknowledged the inherent goodness in everyone with whom he had dealings. He was engaged in building a new house for his wife and family in Arles and was returning from the building site when an unfortunate traffic accident put an end to his life. The cruelty of that accident which cut short a young life was magnified by the knowledge that another moment or two would have been sufficient to save him and his family from the tragedy which unfolded that day.

While the townspeople mourned the passing of a young man with a promise largely unfulfilled, the death of Jack Deegan was announced. Jack was a man who had spent his life in South Kildare and who had an abiding love of the town of Athy and its people. He was a rich fund of knowledge of the past and those who had peopled his home town over the years. With his wife Peg he moved back to Athy some years ago from their former home in Fontstown and took up residence in Emily Square. Their three story house was at the beginning of the 19th century the location of the Parish School operated by the local Church of England Rector. Directly opposite where Jack and Peg lived was, what was then known as Moore’s Corner, the site of Moore’s grocery shop and the family home of Michael Moore and his sisters Claire and Molly. This close proximity emphasised the strangeness of the coincidence which saw members of the two families buried on the same day, with Jack Deegan’s internment just a few yards away from the doyen of the Moore family, Charles Moore Senior.

A few weeks ago and while I was away from Athy, Josephine Gibbons, a next door neighbour of Jack Deegan in Emily Square passed away. Jo as she was known locally featured in a previous Eye on the Past. She was a wonderful person who delighted in sharing her memories of times past. However, I was never to unlock the secrets of her husband Frank, a man who played a significant part in Republican affairs long after the War of Independence had passed into folk memory. While not originally from Athy (she was in fact a railway master’s daughter from Harristown) Jo Gibbons, like Cathal Moore and Jack Deegan, was an intrinsic part of the fabric of the town of Athy, a town which, despite all its failing, was for them, as it is for us, our own place.

For all its history and all its unique physical attributes Athy remains an enigma to many, even to those of us who have spent many years under the aura of mystery and intrigue which is the hallmark of Irish provincial life. The loss posed by the passing of one as young as Cathal Moore can but be imagined, while the legacy of the old timer such as Jo Gibbons and the relatively younger Jack Deegan reaffirms our knowledge of the past which they once inhabited.

Later this week we will have an opportunity to remember the dead of another generation when the annual Remembrance Sunday ceremony takes place in St. Michael’s Cemetery. Ten years ago or thereabouts Athy based writer John MacKenna organised the first commemoration service for the men of this area who died during World War I. I remember that occasion as one where those involved felt somewhat isolated, faced as they were with indifference bordering on disrespect for the forgotten menfolk of an earlier generation. Since then the annual ceremony in St. Michael’s has helped to revive the memory of those local men who died in past wars, especially the 1914/18 War. Attitudes have changed in the intervening 10 years and nowhere is this more apparent than in the generous way we remember our War dead, irrespective of the uniforms worn when they fell in battle.

On Sunday next, 12th November at 3.00 p.m. you are invited to come to St. Michael’s Cemetery to remember the men from our town whose lives, like Cathal Moores, were cut off before their prime. They died violent deaths on foreign soil, far from their families and friends, and many of them were buried in unmarked graves. Only six of the 200 or so local men killed in World War I are buried in St. Michael’s Cemetery and their graves will provide the focal point for the ceremony during which the local men who died during World War I and other Wars will be remembered. Next Sunday therefore affords all of us an ideal opportunity to honour and remember those young men who so many years ago left Athy and were never again to see their families and friends.