Thursday, December 27, 2001

Des McHugh / Niall Dunne / Athy Businesses 1824

Christmas time sometimes brings sorrow as well as joy. Last week Athy mourned the passing of Des McHugh, a man full of years and Niall Dunne, a young man some years short of his prime. I knew both quite well.

Des McHugh, for me, epitomised all that one could desire in a man who lived in and for his hometown. Born in Athy over eight decades ago, he lived out his long life amongst the people of the South Kildare town where his father had founded the family business over one hundred years ago. A gentleman to his fingertips Des McHugh played an active role in the social and cultural life of Athy over many many years. He was a past captain of the local Golf Club and of Athy Rugby Club and with the latter club captained the first Athy team to win the Towns Cup in 1938. He was also responsible for the setting up of the Lions Club in Athy which he did with the active participation and encouragement of his brother-in-law, Paddy Reynolds. Des had a vast store of local knowledge and lore, all of which he was generous in sharing with me whenever we met. On our last meeting at the November meeting of the Lions Club held in the Leinster Arms Hotel he spoke of a photograph of old Athy which he had wished to pass on to me. Unfortunately his sudden death deprives us of a cultured man who shared his experiences and knowledge with a generosity and a kindness which is often difficult to find nowadays. He will be sadly missed but his memory will live on in the work of the local Lions Club of which he was the first President and in which he was active right up to the very end.

Niall Dunne was a young man whom I had met on several occasions in recent years and who was intended to follow in the footsteps of his father, the ever popular Pat Dunne and his Grand-father in the family hostelry in Woodstock Street. The large attendance at his funeral comprised of young and old alike, bore witness to the respect in which Niall and his family were held by the local people. He was a hugely popular man amongst his youthful peers and his unexpected and sudden death shocked the town where the Dunne family has been so well known for so long.

Our thoughts at this time are with the McHugh and Dunne families, two of the oldest business families in the town of Athy.

I recently came across a Directory of Irish Towns of 1824 which include a list of shopkeepers, traders and tradesmen in Athy 177 years ago. I wonder how many of those businesses named are still represented in the town.

Richard Alcock Tailor
John Andrews Nailer
James Atkinson Schoolmaster
Thomas Bailey Boot and Shoe Maker
Thomas Ballen Hatter
Mrs. Jane Barras Post Mistress
George Blacking Painter and Glazier
Mary Bryan Grocer and Baker
Mary E. Bryan Grocer
John Butler Tanner
James Byrne Publican
Jeremy Byrne Grocer
Michael Byrne Baker
William Clarke Match Maker
Thomas Coffer Woolen Draper
Mary Coram Grocer
Edward Couse Boot Maker
Mary Cox Haberdasher
William Craig Grocer
Michael Cummins Corn Factor
Richard Cummins Tailor
John Delaney Chandler
John Duan Dyer
John Duncan Boot and Shoe Maker
John Dunn Publican
James English Smith
Catherine Fogarty Grocer & Baker
Dennis Fogarty Publican
John Fogarty Woolen Draper
Goold & Dunn General Merchants
John Holmes Leather Cutter
James Hoysted Publican
John Johnson Shoe Maker
John Johnson Tinman
Peter Keating Publican
William Keating Grocer
Michael Kehoe Grocer
John Kelly Linen & Woolen Draper
Edward Kennedy Leinster Arms & Head Inn
James Little Smith
Alex McDonnell Haberdasher
Robert Molloy Merchant Tailor
James Moore Publican
Patrick Murphy Publican
William Murphy Publican
William Nevil Saddler & Harness Maker
John Owens Soap Boiler
John Peppard Grocer
William Plewman Watch Maker
Catherine Purcel Baker
Peirce Sharman Carpenter
Richard Sharman Shoe Maker
Thomas Sheil Grocer
John Slater Publican
John Sourke Baker
John Staines Publican
James Wright Brewer
George Youall Soap Boiler and Chandler

May I thank all those from Athy and abroad who wrote to me or otherwise contacted me during the past year. I wish all of you a happy Christmas and prosperous New Year.

Thursday, December 20, 2001

Christmas Time in Athy / Bob Morrisson

Two letters received during the week brought me back to the Athy of 50 years ago and to the days when life seemed so much simpler and less complicated than it is today. The first letter was from a Coneyboro resident who wrote of memories of Christmas past.

“The night we brought our Christmas grocery list to Frank O’Brien’s was a great family occasion. All my teenage life, our family did the weekly shopping in O’Brien’s and each Friday, Mr. O’Brien would be seen delivering the weekly groceries and firing. But come Christmas our shopping list was special in more ways than one. I can still remember and sometimes still feel the excitement and magic of walking into O’Brien’s shop on that special night. Surrounded by Christmas everywhere, boxes of Cadbury’s chocolates, selection boxes, Christmas cakes and puddings and Santa’s smiling face on the Tayto boxes high up on the shelves. To me this was part of the Christmas magic for a young boy”.

My own recollections of Christmas when I was a young lad living in Offaly Street was of Duthie’s Santa Claus, the excitement of window shopping in Duke Street, the festive goose or turkey for Christmas dinner, and the eerie calmness of a Christmas day afternoon in the local streets. The nodding Santa in Duthie’s shop window placed in position some weeks before Christmas day was for us youngsters the start of the Christmas season. The winter evenings closed in early and the darkness descended on the quiet streets necessitating the advancement of the public lighting up time to an hour or so before tea time. It was that time which marked the schoolboys’ free time between the closing of the school for the day and incarceration at home following tea to “do our exercise”. In those innocent days “doing your exercise” had nothing to do with physical training, but rather an acknowledgment that we had to sit down at the kitchen table and learn the prescribed poem in Irish or English for the following day and perhaps agonise over an English or Irish essay.

The darkness of the November evenings were but sparsely illuminated by the old fashioned public lighting of the time but this merely added to the sense of adventure to the wanderings of the young fellows who walked up one side of Duke Street as far as Glynn’s Corner returning on the opposite footpath.

The shop windows all suitably decorated for the Christmas offered a hint of excitement to come when the long anticipated day dawned. We enjoyed peering into the shop windows and soaking up the atmosphere of a town where town and country folk came together in a mixum-gatherum of indistinguishable class and creed. Shaw’s of course, provided the biggest attraction with a number of shop windows, one of which always featured toys. A number of the smaller shops also stacked some Christmas toys while Duthie’s jewellery provided the Christmas window shopping show piece, the nodding Santa.

In those days, I can remember the long build up to Christmas each year. Maybe its only the anticipation of a young mind but everywhere then seemed to take on a christmassy feeling at the start of November. Displays in shop windows were changed, toys were taken out of storage and given pride and place where they could encourage little minds to prompt big dad’s and mam’s. The toys never seemed to change from year to year unlike today when the latest book or film inevitably spawns a plethora of gadgets in its wake.

Can anyone remember from fifty years ago any toy other than the gun and holster and if exceptionally lucky a cowboy suit for a boy and a doll and a pram for a girl. They were the basic and it has to be said the most desirable toys for young children then even if jigsaws, small paint boxes, snakes and ladders and other party games were sometimes also part of the usual Christmas fare. I am very aware now although I wasn’t then that for many local children even a gun or a doll was not to be had on Christmas Day. The very real poverty of the 1950’s, a poverty which saw children go to school barefooted and sometimes without a bite to eat for breakfast is now mercifully behind us.

The second letter I got last week was from an old friend and former neighbour who brought to my attention the recent death of Bob Morrisson. I remember Bob Morrisson who in the 1950’s worked in Shaw’s and lived in St. Patrick’s Avenue. He was a familiar figure as he walked briskly through Offaly Street each day on his way to and from work. His name was familiar to anyone who shopped in Shaw’s at the time and who in Athy of fifty years ago did not do that. Almost every local household involved in the rural electrification scheme of the 1940’s and 1950’s would have done business with Shaw’s for the new fangled cookers and other electrical equipment on offer at that time. Bob Morrisson was the man who with the proprietor Sam Shaw ran the sales campaign which Shaw’s of Athy put on in conjunction with the rural electrification scheme. He transferred to Waterford in the early 1960’s as Manager of Shaw’s Department Store in that City and died last week at an advanced age.

While I was writing on Bob Morrisson, I was reminded of these years when most if not every shop in the town gave tick or credit to their customers. I can recall my own mother having a book for Shaw’s wherein the goods bought and the instalments paid each month were faithfully recorded. I can also recall how a similar arrangement operated with the family grocer who in our case was Myles Whelan of Duke Street and later still Jim Fennin. This, of course, had the attraction, so far as the shopkeeper was concerned, of maintaining customer loyalty, something which is not very obvious today. The changes in shopping habits over the years and the discarding of the book in favour of cash sales has probably brought some benefit to the shopkeeper. I wonder to what extent the cash only sales concept has contributed to the loss of business to individual shops or indeed to our town of Athy as shoppers become more mobile , more demanding in terms of quality and service.

While I am writing of Athy in 1950’s its appropriate that I should mention that this week a group of school lads from the local Christian Brothers school of that time have agreed to have a class reunion in the town of the weekend of the 20/22 September next. Some of those not now so young fellows live as far apart as Australia, China, America and other far flung places, with just a few of us still here in the town. If anyone reading this knows of someone who was school with the likes of Mick Robinson, Teddy Kelly, Ted Wynne, Brendan McKenna et al, would you pass on word of a class reunion in September and ask them to contact me.

Happy Christmas to all my readers.

Thursday, December 13, 2001

Launch of Carloviana

I received a phone call a few weeks ago from a man whom I had never met but whose name was known to me as the author of two recently published books on differing aspects of local history. Michael Conry, a native of Tulsk in Co. Roscommon has for 40 years or so lived in the Carlow area and he was the man who wrote and produced two volumes, one recording Culm Crushers in the Barrow Valley and the other dealing with the Carlow Fence. To the average readers, neither Culm Crushers or Carlow Fences are likely to evoke identifiable responses and I must admit that prior to reading the books I knew naught about either subject. Anyway, the purpose of Michael Conroy’s phone call was to query whether I was the man “who is involved with local history” and being satisfied that I was, invited me to launch the 2001 edition of Carloviana on behalf of the Carlow Archaeological Historical Society.

So it was that last week I travelled to Carlow to join the members of what was formerly the Old Carlow Society in the venerable surroundings of St. Patrick’s College. You know its difficult not to envy the resources available to Carlow Folk which includes the likes of the over 200 year old Seminary whose former alumni included such diverse characters as Cardinal Cullen and John O’Leary, the legendary Fenian who in his latter years was the father figure of Irish Nationalism.

I saw a friendly face early on my arrival in the person of Dan Carbery of Carlow whose firm did so much good work on the recent restoration of Athy Courthouse. Dan, quick to spot an Athy interloper among the proud Carlovians, laughingly advised that the invite to an Athy man to launch the Carlow Journal was a small gesture of reparation for Carlow taking the Sugar Factory from Athy in 1926. I couldn’t but chuckle at how Dan had anticipated how an Athy man, (even with a streak of Castlecomer in him) would look upon the events of 1926 as defining the centuries old rivalry between the Barrow Valley Towns.

I was delighted to meet the President from Carlow College, Fr. Kevin O’Neill who promptly asked Dan to tell me of his involvement in the greatest mile race of all time. The year was 1958, the track was Santry Stadium Dublin, which the late Billy Morton had developed for an occasion such as was to develop that day as the World’s best milers lined up in competition. Included in the line up was Ireland’s Olympic Champion Ronnie Delaney and the one mile World Record holder Herb Elliot. Amongst the runners was a young Carlow man, Dan Carbery whose task on the night was to bring the runners through two fast opening laps and in a world record time if possible. Dan did his job so well that the world’s newspapers next day proclaimed that the first four runners home in the Dublin race had beaten the existing world record for one mile. Dan returned to Carlow a few days later and while passing down Tullow Street, heard his name called “young Carbery come here”. Getting off a bicycle, Dan’s caller came over to him and wondered out loud as to what happened him during the Dublin race. “I caught your name on the wireless early on but begob you weren’t there at the end. What you should have done young fellow, was snug yourself in behind those other fellows and at the last bell sprinted as fast as you could for the line”. The bemused Dan did not have the heart to tell his fellow town man that snugging in behind World and Olympic champions and keeping pace with them over four laps required more than wishful thinking to accomplish.

Later in the night as I launched what I understand was the 50th Edition of Carloviana, I commended the various contributors to the Journal whose work of recovering the lost voices of past years is typical of the work of local historians throughout Ireland. Every historian who researches, collates and puts into print the stories and accounts of past events and long forgotten people provides material which helps to underpin the history of their areas. As I referred to the task of recovering the hidden past, I had in mind a book which I had bought just days previously. “Dancing the Culm”, is the latest production from Michael Conry of Carlow and its a fascinating account of how Culm was processed and used as a domestic and industrial fuel in Ireland. Within the pages of the book, the author has a striking example of how the opportunity can be taken to remind us of little remembered events. I was pleasantly surprised to find a reference coupled with a photograph of the late Jimmy Gralton of Leitrim and America who was shamefully deported by the DeValera of Government of 1933 because of his Socialist tendancies. Jimmy was a Community activist, or if you will, a Community Socialist and having spent many years in America where he took out American citizenship, fell foul of both Church and State in the Ireland of the early 1930’s and suffered the ignominy of being deported from his native country to America where he died in 1945.

The Carloviana Journal is recommended to you as a good read whether you have County Carlow connections or not, while Michael Conry’s new book “Dancing the Culm” is guaranteed to engage your interest from start to finish.

Before finishing this week I must pay my respects to two men who passed away last weekend while I was out of Athy. Denis Cahalane was former Managing Director of Minch Norton’s at a time when that firm played a full and active role in the life, as well as the economy of the town, where it traded for so long. Times have changed, and the once proud name of Minch Norton’s, while still in Athy, can hardly be said to be involved in the life of the town as it was in previous years. Denis Cahalane was a friend of Vincent Cullinane one of the founders of Macra Na Feirme and he was involved with Vincent, in the early years of the Farmers Journal.

Pat Taylor a teacher in Enniscorthy died tragically in a car accident just a week or so after I had last met him in Athy. He taught in the local school but left Athy just before I came back to the Town. I met him subsequently and he struck me as an innovative and go ahead man who might have made a major contribution to this Community if he had continued to live here. My condolences go to the Cahalane and Taylor families.

Thursday, December 6, 2001

County Home

In 1949 an Interdepartmental Committee was set up to examine the future of the County Homes in Ireland. In its report the Committee found that many of the old workhouses which were still accommodating the chronic sick, the aged, mental defectives, and amenities. However, it was recognised that these old buildings could be refurbished or reconstructed to provide for the aged and chronic sick while mental defectives, unmarried mothers and their children, it suggested, it should be accommodated in separate institutions to be specially provided. The recommendations of the Committee were accepted in the Government White Paper issued in 1951 and funds were in time made to upgrade a number of the County Homes including that at Athy.

Kildare County Council embarked on a scheme of improvement to the County Home to replace the patient accommodation which was then located on the ground floor and first floor of the original workhouse building. The County Architect, Niall Meagher, was responsible for the planning, design and construction of the new St. Vincent’s Hospital, ably assisted by Eric Wallace, a member of the staff in his department. In this they worked closely with the staff of the Department of Health under Architect Cecil Dowdall. The administration of the project and commissioning ,equipping and staffing of the new buildings also involved the Matron, Sr. Dominic, and Kieran Hickey, then a young newly-appointed Staff Officer under whom I worked in the Health Section of Kildare County Council. Work on the construction of the new buildings by Bantile Limited of Banagher commenced on 27th July 1996 and took almost three years to complete. The new hospital, which cost £250,000 contained two Hospital blocks for 100 female patients, three Hospital blocks for 168 male patients and a 14-bed maternity unit with two delivery rooms. A sparkling new fully-equipped kitchen was also included in the building project and this replaced what was, in effect, the old Workhouse kitchen.

The new buildings were occupied on 3 April 1969, 128 years after the Workhouse had first opened. The transfer of 268 of the elderly residents from the old County Home to the brand new spacious hospital ground floor accommodation was a major event for them and, of course, for the staff of St. Vincent’s. It was not without its moments of poignancy and mixed feeling at leaving the familiar surroundings of the old home. The following poem, written at the time by Mrs. Ruth Wiley, aged 90 years, eloquently describes these mixed feelings.


The Sister said “Come all ye, get ready
We are going off today
From an old to a new spot
Not very far away”.
So we gathered up our toothbrush
Just a toothbrush and a brush
And felt that life began anew
With an almighty rush.

New friend, new loungs, new bathrooms too,
Oh, we felt mighty grand;
Just as the Israelites had felt
When they reached the Promised Land.

Yet I think of the many cures
Witnessed in the old block
We have to ask the Lord to bless
Every stone of ancient spot.

In 1971 the newly established Eastern Health Board took over responsibility for St. Vincent’s Hospital. The first visiting committee of the Board under the chairmanship of Councillor Paddy Hickey met in the hospital on 20th May 1971. Like the board of Guardians of old, the representatives of the Eastern Health Board expressed themselves pleased with the conditions in the hospital and the treatment afforded to the patients.

In the following year the Department of Health gave approval for the construction of a new convent building, a nurses’ home and a mortuary. The Sisters of Mercy had retained a presence in the hospital and former workhouse since 1874 and on their first arrival they had occupied rooms at the back of the main building block. Later they moved to the front of the building where they occupied rooms on the first floor and where they remained until they moved into the purpose-built Convent. The contractors for the new development were Messrs M. Turley & Co and, in late 1974, the work was completed and the buildings officially opened on 25 June 1975.

In 1981 Sr. Dominic retired as Matron of St. Vincent’s and was succeeded by Sr. Peg Rice. In her forty-one years in the County Home and later in St. Vincent’s Hospital, Sr. Dominic had witnessed an increase in staff numbers in keeping with the improved quality of care provided for the patients. In the 1940s the County Home employed three religious and three nurses and in 1952 the first attendants were employed. Today, despite a reduction in the number of patients in the hospital compared to fifty years ago, the staff employed include 73 nurses/medical, 97 attendants and 10 administrative and support staff.