Thursday, July 31, 2003

Laois v. Kildare Leinster Final - Jim Hughes

Our own County Kildare and our close neighbours and near friends Laois are destined to share the green sward of Croke Park on July 20th in pursuit of victory in this years Leinster Senior Football Final.  The last time both counties contested the Leinster Final against each other was on Sunday, 14th July 1946 when the Laois men ran out winners on the score of 1-6 to 0-11.

I was reminded of this recently when I met former Laois player Jim Hughes.  He played on the Laois senior team for 11 years and had the honour of captaining Laois in the mid 1960’s.  Jim’s sister Frances is married to my brother Jack and we met on the occasion of a family celebration to celebrate Jack’s 70th birthday.  Jim and Frances Hughes’ mother was the former Frances Ramsbottom, whose parents lived in Asker House, Timahoe.  Their names were James and Frances Ramsbottom and just over a year ago I wrote in an Eye on the Past of a roadside memorial which I discovered on the outskirts of Athy on the Stradbally Road.  It was dedicated to a “Fanny” Ramsbottom who was killed there on 7th June 1916.  I wondered as to the identity of the lady who died all those years ago, yet whose roadside memorial bore evidence of recent attention.  Flowers had been placed there not so long before.  Well, to my astonishment the answer came during a conversation last week when Frances Taaffe, my sister-in-law, mentioned how her grandmother Frances Ramsbottom was killed outside Athy many years ago when she fell from her pony and trap.  This tenuous family connection with Ramsbottoms links me to Laois players of the past including Jim Hughes, Paddy Ramsbottom and Bobby Miller, all of whom come from the same Ramsbottom family tree.

This is all by way of vindicating my excursion into the realms of Laois football in advance of the Leinster Final on July 20th.  The previous meeting of Kildare and Laois all of 57 years ago was an occasion which brought much disappointment to Kildare and especially to the south of this county.  Athy had two players on the county team for that match.  Tommy Fox of Meeting Lane and Tom Ryan known as “Tosh” who was then serving in the Irish Army.  “Tosh” Ryan was one of four brothers, all sons of Patsy Ryan, a World War 1 Veteran who had charge of the British Legion Hall in St. John’s Lane.  His son, Patsy Ryan junior, played for Athy in the 1933 County Final when the South Kildare team won the club’s first Senior Championship title.  His grandson,

Shane Ryan, was to emulate his own fathers success when helping Athy win the Senior County Championship in 1987.  Another of Patsy Ryan’s sons, Willie Ryan known as “Cushy” , also played for the local team and he was on the losing Athy team in the 1946 Senior Championship final.  Tom “Tosh” Ryan who tasted the disappointment of defeat as a member of the County team in the 1946 Leinster Final suffered another disappointment as a member of the Athy Senior team of the same year when it lost the County Final to Carbery.  Incidentally “Tosh” Ryan and another Athy man, Paddy Mullery, played Inter-County football for Tipperary and I believe won Tipperary Championship medals with Clonmel.  Another son of the World War 1 veteran was Johnny Ryan.  I’m uncertain as to his involvement with Athy G.F.C. but his son Billy Ryan was a sub on the Kildare team which won the Leinster Final of 1956.

Like the Ryans, several members of the Fox family played football for their native town and County.  Tommy Fox like his colleague Tommy Ryan played in the 1946 Leinster Final and the County Final of the same year.  Both had also played in the 1942 County Final when the Athy Club won its fourth county senior title.  This was the hey day of Athy football, the South Kildare club having played in five County Finals, losing only one in the previous nine years.  Dennis Fox, another of the Fox brothers, played alongside his brother Tom in the Athy team which was defeated by Carbery in the 1946 County Final.  Dennis later became a member of the Irish Christian Brothers.  Jim Fox played for Athy when it won the first of its two senior finals in 1933 and 1934, Jim was also a player on the County team and was a sub in 1935 in the All Ireland Final losing team.

The contest between Kildare and Laois on July 20th next brings to mind the four occasions when the same counties previously played out the Leinster Final.  It’s embarrassing to admit it, but Kildare’s record against Laois when it comes to the Provincial final is not good.  Our only win was in 1929 but since that Laois has inflicted Leinster final defeats on the Kildare men in 1936, 1938 and 1946.  As you might expect of a Club which won three Senior County Championships in the 1930’s Athy was well represented on the 1936 and 1938 teams.  Kildare had earlier lost the 1935 All Ireland Final to Cavan in a match which it was favoured to win.  However, the Kildare mentors dropped the regular goalie; Athy man “Cuddy” Chanders for that final and three goals were scored by the Cavan team to give the Breffni County victory by four points.  Interestingly,

the man who took “Cuddys” place for the All Ireland final played three further games for Kildare before he was himself replaced by “Cuddy”.  During his four games as County goalkeeper he had an average of three goals per game scored against him.  “Cuddy” Chanders in his three Championship games leading up to the 1935 All Ireland Final had not allowed the ball to cross his line even once.  You’d wonder what the Kildare selectors were thinking of!

Coming back to Kildare’s defeat by Laois in the Leinster Finals of 1936 and 1938 Athy’s most stylish ever footballer, Tommy Mulhall, played in both matches.  Paul Matthews, a local barman, also featured in 1936 while Johnny McEvoy, George Comerford and Joe Murphy of the local Club played in the Leinster Final two years later.  Laois again stymied Kildare when the two met in the 1946 Leinster Final.  This was the last meeting of the neighbouring counties in the Leinster Final and on that occasion two points separated the teams.  Tom Fox and Tom Ryan of the Athy Club played for Kildare on that day.

Kildare’s record against Laois in Leinster finals is not good.  Three defeats and one victory, and that solitary win was all of 74 years ago.  Laois has produced some wonderful players over the years and whenever Laois players of the past are mentioned, inevitably the Delaney brothers of Stradbally feature large.  Mick Phelan of Barrowhouse who played in the 1946 Leinster Final is another great player who is remembered in this area, but perhaps the most highly regarded Laois footballer was Jack Kenna.  He was a stylish half forward, noted for his ability to sidestep and take a drop kick.  His free taking from left or right of the post was impressive, and inevitably his footballing abilities earned him selection on the Leinster Provincial team.

The present Laois team has many fine players but somehow or other the feeling abroad is that this is Kildare’s opportunity to make amends for the defeats of 1936, 1938 and 1946.  On occasions like this it must be wonderful to have a leg, as it were, in both camps, and so, to be able to rejoice no matter which teams wins.  My good friend Johnny, living as he does on the border of both counties, is so blessed but somehow or other I feel our little bet on the outcome will help to dampen his spirits when the final whistle blows.  Enjoy the day.

Thursday, July 24, 2003

Fr. Frank Caffrey

Fr. Caffrey who has served in the Athy Parish since October 1996 transferred to Bayside Parish in Dublin last week.  It will be a homecoming for the Dublin born Holy Ghost Father who was ordained in 1963. 

It was sometime ago while listening to a Sunday morning sermon by Fr. Caffrey that I became aware of his previous missionary work in Africa and particularly how he was caught up in the Biafran War.  He was ordained as a member of the Congregation of the Holy Spirit commonly referred to as Holy Ghost Fathers.  Founded in the early part of the 18th century by a French man, Claude Francois, the Order for many years was centered on the French mainland.  Indeed it wasn’t until ten years after the Great Famine in Ireland that a number of Holy Ghost priests came to this country to encourage Irish deacons awaiting ordination to join their Order and participate in overseas missionary work.

The Holy Ghost Fathers became involved in education in Ireland after establishing a French college in what is now Blackrock College and later still another college at Rockwell, Co. Tipperary.  Education was also the means employed by the Holy Ghost Fathers in evangalising Nigeria and other African states where their order established overseas missions.  It was as a science and maths teacher that Fr. Caffrey joined the Holy Ghost Mission in Nigeria in 1964.  Nigeria was comprised of three main ethnic groups, the Ibo’s, the Hausa’s and the Yaruba’s, who were not always on the best of terms with each other.  On 16th January 1966 a group of Nigerian Army Officers overthrew the Nigerian Government.  This led to much bloodshed and turmoil in the country in which the young Father Caffrey was then engaged in teaching and missionary work.  The following August a counter coup took place and within months a pogrom against the Ibo’s had started.  Moving back into their traditional homelands in Eastern Nigeria, the Ibo’s, encouraged by the French, seceded from Nigeria and named their territory Biafra.  This led to a bitter civil war which was fought out over most of the following three years.  If those of us who live in the West know little of the Civil War in Biafra, at least we know something of its consequences for it resulted in one of the world’s worst human disasters in recent years - famine in Biafra. 

On 7th July 1967 Nigerian troops invaded Biafra where there was a higher concentration of Holy Ghost Fathers than anywhere else in Nigeria.  Amongst them was Fr. Caffrey who was then serving in Obube.  The outbreak of violence interrupted the usual work of the local people so that the planting season passed without crops being sown.  Inevitably starvation followed and Fr. Caffrey with his helpers tried as best they could to feed up to 6,000 children twice a week and another 1,000 or so children four times a week in a desperate attempt to keep them alive.  Children were given priority but arrangements were also put in place to feed widows and the elderly, both of which groups were also extremely vulnerable in the war torn territory of Biafra.

All of this relief work went on while the Civil War was in progress.  Nigerian fighter planes constantly flew over the area firing indiscriminately, killing and maiming men, women and children.  Fr. Caffrey had to take evasive action on several occasions to avoid the menacing attention of Nigerian airforce planes.  An Irish colleague, Sr. Cecilia of the Presentation Nuns, was a martyr of the Biafran War, shot and killed when a car in which she was travelling was attacked by a Nigerian fighter plane. 

Enugu, the Biafran capital, was taken by Nigerian troops and in May 1968 Port Harcourt was seized, cutting off Biafra’s only outlet to the sea.  Thereafter aid from abroad could only come in through a local Biafran airport and 29 pilots were killed during the war while attempting to bring food relief to the starving people.  In January 1970 the Biafran Army resistance collapsed and the Nigerian Army took control of the Eastern part of the country.

Missionaries living or working in Biafra were arrested and confined under house arrest.  These included Fr. Caffrey who was detained with 28 fellow Missionaries including nine nuns and Bishop Joseph Whelan of Owerri.  All were charged with illegal entry into Nigeria and working in that country without permits.  Fines were imposed but although the fines were paid the Missionaries were kept in detention.  Police vans arrived to where they were under house arrest in Port Harcourt to take them to prison.  The Missionaries, priests and nuns alike, staged a sit down in the street demanding to be released as the fines imposed on them had been paid.

The local police and the military authorities could not agree as to what to do with the recalcitrant Missionaries but eventually the impasse was resolved and they were all lodged in a local prison. Cell blocks originally built to accommodate two prisoners were for the next six or seven days home to groups of ten Irish clerics.  Fr. Caffrey and his colleagues were eventually taken from the prison and brought to the local airport where on the instructions of the Police Inspector General they were flown to Lagos from where they were deported from Nigeria.  The fate of the Irish Missionaries who had been the backbone of the Biafran relief effort was later reported in the Evening Herald of 16th February 1970 under the headline, “Jail Protest - Nuns and Priests sit in street”.

Fr. Caffrey spent some time in Ireland and Paris before going again on mission work, this time to Kenya.  Based in Mombasa he taught in the Institute of Mechanical Engineering, while also carrying out what he refers to as “African style parish work”.  He tended to the spiritual needs of nine or so outstations where Mass was celebrated in local halls.  Fr. Caffrey spent the last 13 years of his overseas mission in Kenyan’s capital of Nairobi where he taught in St. Mary’s High School, eventually returning to Ireland in 1995. 

Fr. Caffrey was assigned to St. Michael’s Parish, Athy in October 1996, having spent a short period helping out in Francis Street Parish in Dublin following his return home from Kenya.  In the seven years he spent in Athy he endeared himself to the local people.  A quiet, good natured man with an obvious abundance of courage which showed itself during his years in Biafra, Fr. Frank Caffrey is one of three brothers who ordained to the Priesthood.  His sister Rita is married to Dermot McCarthy, formerly of St. Patrick’s Avenue, whose late father Tim was a forester in this area for many decades.  Fr. Caffrey transferred to Bayside Parish in North Dublin which incorporates Sutton Park as well as Bayside, Sutton.  I know the area very well, having lived in Sutton Park for over 10 years before I returned to Athy.  I wish him well in his new Parish.

Thursday, July 17, 2003

Dominicans in Athy

This year marks the 750th anniversary of the coming of the Order of St. Dominic to Athy.  One of the four main orders of friars, the Dominican’s were founded in 1205 by St. Dominic, an Augustinian Canon.  Known as the Order of Preachers (OP) the Dominican’s wore a black mantel over a white habit which earned them the name of the Black Friars.  The Dominican’s first arrived in Ireland in 1224 and established a foundation in Dublin.  The Order spread out southwards from the capital with a foundation in Kilkenny the following year and another in Waterford in 1226. 

Athy, a late 12th century Anglo Norman settlement, was unusual but not unique because of the two monastic foundations which were located there following the arrivals of the Dominican’s.  Before the Dominican’s came in 1253, the developing medieval village of Athy already had a monastery established by the Friars of the Holy Cross in the area now known as St. John’s.  The Dominican foundation was known as a priory, indicating that it was governed by a prior.  Amongst monasteries a priory was generally a smaller foundation than an abbey and was in many cases a monastery of monks subordinate to an abbey.

Little is known of the early years of the Athy Priory except that Provincial Chapters of the Dominican’s were held there in 1288, 1295 and again in 1305.  This might indicate that Athy Priory was a substantial place of some importance.  Athy at that period was a dangerous place in which to live with regular attacks from the “wild” Irish who lived in the woods beyond the west bank of the River Barrow.  The town was attacked and burned on several occasions and on the 26th January 1316 nearby Ardscull was the scene of a battle when the Scottish army of Edward Bruce fought and defeated the Anglo Irish.  The Scottish dead were buried in the graveyard attached to the Dominican Priory in Athy which occupied the area on the east bank of the River Barrow known today as “The Abbey”.  Amongst those buried were two Scottish chiefs, Lord Fergus Andressan and Lord Walter de Morrey. 

The Reformation saw the suppression of the religious houses of Ireland and the Dominican Priory was seized and appropriated in December 1543.  An inventory of the property taken at the time recorded a church with a bell tower and a chapter house which was a room or building usually attached to a church and used for meetings.  A dormitory and large hall completed the buildings and there was also a cemetery with an orchard and a garden together with several other holdings some distance from the priory.  Even though the mendicant preachers of Athy’s Priory were dependent on the generosity of the local people the Priory nevertheless seemed to be a substantial establishment.  Unfortunately we have no idea of how many Dominican monks were to be found there.  Indeed the early records relating to the Athy Priory are few and far between and we have no knowledge of the local Priors until 1347 when Philip Perreys was in charge.

With the coming of the Reformation the Dominican’s not only in Athy but elsewhere throughout Ireland were forced to leave their priories.  Almost another 100 years were to pass before Fr. Ross Mageoghegan returned to Ireland in 1615 and during the next 15 years he revitalised the dormant Dominican foundations throughout the country.  Athy Priory was one of those early foundations which was revived again and in 1648 Fr. Thomas Bermingham was recorded as the local Prior.  This was a period of some turmoil in Irish history and in the following year Athy’s sub-prior Fr. Richard Overton was beheaded by Cromwellian troops in Drogheda.  Fr. Bermingham was replaced as prior by  Fr. Raymond Moore in 1651 and he was to die in a Dublin jail in 1665 following his arrest.

Despite the loss of two members of the local Dominican Community, Athy Priory continued in existence up to 1697 at least.  King William’s victory at the Battle of the Boyne and the subsequent success of the Williamites, culminated in the flight of the “Wild Geese” and the strict enforcement of the penal laws against the Catholic Irish.  Amongst one of the lesser known anti-Catholic laws which some of my readers might rejoice in reading was passed in January 1699.   Catholics were forbidden to work as Solicitors!  The Dominican’s were forced to leave Athy for the second time and they would remain out of the district for upwards of 40 years.  Thomas de Burgo who wrote the primary source book of Irish Dominican history which was published in Kilkenny in 1762 reported of his visit to Athy in 1756.  He found that the Dominican’s under their prior Fr. Dominic Dillon occupied a small house in the town which some more recent commentators believed was the two story house adjoining the former Grove Cinema.  However the existing Dominican Priory of 1756 was more than likely to have occupied a side lane off the main street and indeed the existence of one such lane known at that time as Convent Lane (now Kirwan’s Lane) would support that theory.  Lewis’s Topographical Dictionary of Ireland published in 1837 states, “near the entrance from the Dublin Road is a modern building occupied by two Dominican friars with a small domestic chapel near which is the ancient burial ground of St. Michael’s.”  This information raises the possibility, indeed the probability, of the Dominican’s having moved from Convent Lane (Kirwan’s Lane) to a more prominent building on the main street following the granting of Catholic Emancipation in 1829, or perhaps even earlier.  However the two story building believed to have been the Dominican Priory was more than likely built after the Dublin Road was realigned as part of the construction of the railway bridge in 1847/48.  If so, the “modern building” referred to in the 1837 publication is unlikely to have survived.

In 1846 Fr. Laurence Cremmin, the local prior, purchased from Joseph Lapham and others a large residence built 50 years or so earlier by George Mansergh.  Riversdale House was to become the Dominican Priory and the adjoining outoffices were fitted out as a chapel and opened in 1847.  Both the chapel and the house are now gone, replaced by the modern church which was blessed and opened on St. Patrick’s Day 1965.  Fr. William Pollock who served in Athy over a 16 year period was the person responsible for the building of that new church which was constructed in a style unique in its day.  The church and present priory are located directly opposite the 13th century site of the original priory of the Black Friars.

The Dominicans are our most enduring link with the town’s past.  The history of the Priory mirrors the social, cultural and economic life of the early medieval village of Athy and the town which developed over the centuries.  The 750th anniversary of the coming of the Dominicans to Athy is an important anniversary and one which we should not allow to pass without some form of appropriate celebration.  In making this suggestion I am conscious that the 700th anniversary was celebrated in 1957 but even then it was acknowledged that the foundations date was either 1253 or 1257, the discrepancy arising from an error in transcribing old records.  The celebrations of 1957 were I believe a grand affair.  It would seem appropriate that the present generation of Athy people should acknowledge the Dominicans 750th anniversary, not only on their own behalf but also on behalf of all those who benefited from the Dominicans presence in Athy over the centuries.

Thursday, July 10, 2003

Jimmy Kenny's Funeral

Funerals are by their very nature sad occasions.  They are at once private yet public events.  Nowhere is this more evident than in the funeral of prominent figures where family grief is overlaid with the public mourning for one admired or remembered with fondness within his or her community.

My father was a great attender of funerals.  In his case it was a measure of his neighbourliness, his respect for the people with whom he came in contact in his daily life.  I haven’t been able to quite match his assiduous funeral attendance record but nevertheless a week seldom goes by without the opportunity to walk behind a hearse as it makes its slow progress to one of the local cemeteries.

Last week I attended the funeral of a man whom I had met but on a few occasions.  One of those was when he called to give me a work manual for agricultural machinery which he and his workmates had used during their time in Duthie Larges.  Jimmy Kenny was a very quiet man who came to Athy over 60 years ago when his father took up a job as a steward for Telfords of Barrowford.  Jimmy married a local girl Jo Pender in 1958 and they had four daughters, all of whom in one way or another played a significant part in making his funeral Mass last week a wonderfully memorable occasion.  I cannot recall a funeral in St. Michael’s Church or indeed any other Church which was marked with such considered dignity and unabashed filial love and devotion.  It was a most moving experience as Jimmy’s family paid their last respects to a much loved husband and father.

The offertory procession gave Jimmy’s grandchildren the opportunity to play their part.  Each in turn brought to the altar an item symbolising an element of the life which had departed just days before.  Tools, a symbol of Jimmy’s work and skill as a mechanic, a model car highlighting his fondness for cars, a football and a County Kildare jersey befitting a man who was a follower and a supporter of his adopted county’s involvement in our national game.  His cap, which he was never without, music which he nurtured and encouraged in his children, and flowers including two peace lillies which Jimmy had grown in his own garden.  The final gift was a photograph of his youngest grandchild carried to the altar by his daughter Siobhan and her husband Glen, before Eileen, the eldest of the four daughters, read a poem written by Jimmy and Jo which they had entitled “Our Four Girls”.  To those who knew Jimmy Kenny well undoubtedly these were emotional moments as the dignified procession of personal items made their appearance one by one, accompanied by the commentary of his eldest daughter Eileen.

Later as the Mass progressed the Church was filled with the haunting words and melody of a song composed and sung by Eileen.  Her voice, beautiful in its intonation and clarity, was that of an angel’s.  Seldom have I heard anyone sing so sweetly, yet so powerfully, and the words which reverberated around the Church were those written by a first child for a much loved father. 

There is a treasure in my heart
It is your smile and warm embrace
There is a memory I will keep
It is the picture of your face

No more suffering, no more pain
The angels wings will bring you home
Now as you journey to the light
You are forever in my sight

So fly spirit, fly so high
Reach out for god and you will find
That he is there and you will see
He’ll hold you close
And keep you safe for me

Your life with us was full of love
Your beauty came from god above
And now you reach out for his grace
Reach and touch that sacred space

 At the conclusion of the Mass daughters Mary and Geraldine stepped up to the sanctuary where Mary played on the accordion the opening chords of a song composed by Phil Coulter and popularised by the Furey Brothers “The Old Man”.  Geraldine sang to her sisters plaintive accompaniment the words slightly adopted to suit the sad occasion.

“The tears have all been shed now
We have said the last goodbye
His soul has been blessed
He is laid to rest
And now we feel alone
He was more than just a father
Our teacher, our best friend
And he will still be heard in the tunes  we share
As we gather on our own.”

It was a fitting conclusion to a memorial service which was a celebration of a life and a tribute to that life which onlookers like myself found emotionally charged yet enchanting and spiritually uplifting.

Jimmy Kenny’s family did him proud.