Thursday, August 28, 2003

'Skurt' Doyle

Jack Doyle, “the gorgeous Gael” was a well known Irish boxing hero, albeit a somewhat flawed one, during the 1940’s and 1950’s.  Here in Athy the name Jack Doyle is a common enough one and was the name of a local sporting legend who was known far and wide as “Skurt” Doyle.  What was the origin of the nickname “Skurt” I cannot say, but it was a name proudly borne by Athy man Jack Doyle, whose prowess on many sporting fields ranked him in the forefront of sporting heroes of his time.

I have been accumulating bits and pieces of information on “Skurt” Doyle for many years, always conscious of his importance in the pantheon of local sporting legends of the past.  There are very few people today who remember “Skurt” Doyle and those who do recall him will have memories and recollections of this great man in his later years. 

“Skurt” Doyle as a young man enlisted in the Dublin Fusiliers a few years after the dawning of the 20th century.  The year was 1904 and just months previously Athy had been en fête for the Gordon Bennett Race which thrilled and excited the locals and visitors alike who thronged the streets of Athy and the roads leading out of the town on that famous day in July 1903.  “Skurt” was sent to England for training with the Dublin Fusiliers following which he was based for a few years in Egypt and Malta.  It was while in Egypt that “Skurt’s” sporting prowess first came to prominence.  He participated in a boxing tournament while stationed in Khartoum and became the British Army Novice Cruiserweight Champion when he defeated Jim Lillis, a Dublin born one time professional boxer.

I have often heard accounts of “Skurt’s” prowess as a runner and the story of how he ran in a marathon race across the Egyptian Desert, only to lose out to a fleet footed Arab.  The story goes that “Skurt” only managed second place, simply because he had consumed a quantity of porter before the race and was not in peak condition for the desert run.  But for that, we were told, the Arab would have found himself floundering in the wake of the Athy man!

Before he enlisted in the British Army, “Skurt” played Gaelic football for the Athy club and was enormously proud of the day he and another local man, Paddy “Thatcher” Nolan togged out to play alongside the legendary Joe Rafferty after the Clane team arrived in Athy to play a football match with only 13 players.  Clane were county champions between 1901 and 1903 and their star player was Joe Rafferty, regarded as the greatest mid-fielder of his time.  Rafferty who was born on Lambay Island was the lynchpin of the Clane team which won three successive county championships and when he transferred to Roseberry he helped that club win seven championship titles in a row from 1904.  One of Kildare’s most famous footballers, Joe Rafferty, played for the county in the famous All Ireland Football Finals of 1905 and 1907. 

That match involving Clane and Athy was played a short time before “Skurt” Doyle left Athy to join the British Army but while a regular soldier in the Dublin Fusiliers “Skurt” continued to play Gaelic football.  He was a member of the regimental team which in 1910 played in Aldershot, England against an Irish Guard’s team before approximately 7,000 spectators.  Was this I wonder the first Gaelic football match between British Army Regiments based in England.

“Skurt” as a regular soldier was part of the British Expeditionary Force which landed in France at the start of World War I.  He was captured during the Battle of Mons and like so many other Irish men spent the remaining years of the war as a prisoner in the Limburg P.O.W. camp.  It was in Limburg that “Skurt” met Fr. J.T. Crotty, the Dominican priest who had previously served in the Athy Priory, who was then one of the chaplains to the 3,000 or so Irishmen imprisoned in Limburg.  Three Athy men, Michael Bowden, Martin Maher and John Byrne who like “Skurt” Doyle were soldiers of the 2nd Battalion Royal Dublin Fusiliers were to die in Limburg before the end of the war. 

On his release from the German P.O.W. camp “Skurt” returned to his regiment and before his discharge from the Army he played both soccer and rugby for the British Army in what is generally regarded as international games.  As an Army soccer player he played with well known English soccer players such as Steve Bloomer of Derby County and Dickie Bond of Bradford City.  In rugby he lined out for the National Army team against the English Navy team and also against the Belgium Army team.  His skill at games was quite extraordinary and on one occasion in a cricket match against the Gravesend town team he made a century for which feat he was presented with a gold medal.

“Skurt” Doyle, on being demobbed in 1919, returned to Athy and rejoined the local G.A.A. Club.  He played football for Athy G.F.C. for the next four years.  Before long his talents came to the notice of the County Selectors and from 1920 to 1922 he was the regular goal keeper on the County Kildare senior team.  His last game for the county was in Croke Park in April 1922.  Athy Hockey Club was another beneficiary of “Skurt’s” talents and he fielded for the Showgrounds based club on several occasions.  It was however his prowess as a rugby player and a Gaelic footballer that “Skurt” Doyle was best remembered.  He joined the Irish Army for a short time in the 1920’s and while stationed in Carlow he was a key member of the local Rugby Club.  On one occasion he incurred the displeasure of his superiors and was confined to barracks.  The restriction coincided with an important match involving the Carlow team and since “Skurt” was such an important part of that team, high powered representations to the Military Authorities were required to allow him out to play.

 “Skurt” played with Athy Rugby Club from 1924 onwards and featured in three memorable, if ultimately disappointing, Towns Cup finals.  Athy, ably assisted by their powerful prop forward “Skurt” Doyle, were involved in the Towns Cup finals of 1927, 1928 and 1929 but on each occasion victory was denied.  Following one memorable final played in Landsdowne Road, a teammate Jerry O’Neill noticed that “Skurt” had difficulty taking off his shirt.  It was later discovered the not so old warrior had broken his collarbone just before half time, yet had played out the entire match without complaint.  Apart from the British Army, Carlow and Athy Rugby Clubs, “Skurt” also played for the Dublin Club, Monkstown, and I believe he may have ended his rugby playing days there. 

On retiring as a player “Skurt” continued his involvement in Gaelic football and rugby.  He was trainer to both the Rugby Club and the G.A.A. Club in Athy and he is to be seen photographed with teams from both codes during the 1930’s and 1940’s.  James “Skurt” Doyle married Mary Lawler of Ardreigh and they lived at No. 18 Convent View.  He worked in later years as a helper on the local C.I.E. delivery lorry.  “Skurt” Doyle, one of the greatest local sporting legends of his time, died 50 years ago and is buried in St. Michael’s cemetery.

Someone, somewhere, has the gold medal presented to “Skurt” Doyle following the cricket match in Gravesend and maybe also his war medals and the watch and chain with which he was presented on leaving the British Army in recognition of his sporting achievements.  He was truly one of the great sporting legends of this town.  His story is one to which I will return again.

The local Heritage Centre in the Town Hall is about to set up a “Friends of the Heritage Centre” with a view to enlisting the support of retired persons who might be willing to devote a few hours every month or so to curating the centre during Sunday afternoon openings.  The Heritage Centre is scheduled to open seven days a week during the summer season but with the limited staff employed it is not always possible to do this.  If you would like to be involved in helping out at the local Heritage Centre please contact the Centre on Ph. (0507) 33075.

Thursday, August 21, 2003

Motor Cars - Peter Fitzsimons

Nothing marks the difference between life in the 1950’s and life today more than the motor car outside our front door.  I lived my young life in a street where our front door opened onto the footpath and the tarred expanse which was Offaly Street.  As part of the main traffic route between Carlow and Athy and the only way into the town from the rural area stretching outwards beyond Coneyboro and Ardreigh, Offaly Street might be expected to have been a bustling and teeming maelstrom of traffic.  It wasn’t.  Instead it was a playground for the many youngsters who in the 1950’s lived in Offaly Street and the lanes which led off it, Butler’s Lane and Janeville Lane.  It was in the quiet, calm, traffic free Offaly Street that the Moores, Kellys, Whites, Websters, Doodys, Cashs and Taaffes played their simple games before graduating later to more adventurous activities played out elsewhere where they could be best enjoyed away from the gaze of adults and elders.  I can picture in my mind’s eye a street, which photographs of the time now show, had a genteel yet shabby appearance.  Shabby in the sense that houses in the street, like houses elsewhere at that time, seldom felt the warming glow of a new coat of paint.  The street always seemed to be bathed in a scorching heat wave, for truth, the rainy days have been blotted from my memory.  It was a street deserted of motor cars.  Nobody in the street had a car, that is apart from Paddy Murphy who had a hackney car but he emigrated to England to work some time in the early 1950’s.  Looking down towards the Town Hall one often saw a black Austin car parked outside the offices of Tadgh Brennan who had set up his Solicitors office in his aunt’s house.  Was the number of that car 1011 IC?  I can’t be sure, but as youngsters we saw the car parked so often in splendid isolation at the side of the road that it is forever engraved in the mind as the one constant visible evidence of Henry Ford’s contribution to the Irish way of life.

Motor cars for all their rarity occupy a large part of the memory bank of my youth.  My first car related memory centres around Archdeacon McGinley’s car travelling slowly down Offaly Street a few days after Christmas.  I was standing with some friends on the footpath outside John W. Kehoe’s Bar and Grocery shop with my Christmas present at the ready to ambush the passing car and demonstrate to my envious friends the deadly efficiency of the spring-loaded gun designed to shoot suction padded arrows at the enemy.  What better target than McGinley’s car as it made its slow progress down our street.  As it drew abreast I fired and scored a direct hit on the side of the Reverend’s car.  To my horror the suction pad did its job - it stuck fast to the side of the car which by now was beginning to disappear around Moore’s corner into Emily Square.  I was in despair and shed tears of one who instinctively knew that he had lost forever a prize possession. 

My next motor car memory comes from 1950 and concerns the vicarious excitement felt when local hackney man Peter Fitzsimons travelled with four companions to Rome in his Ford motor car.  The occasion was the Holy Year, hence my being able to pinpoint the year in question.  This was a journey which was unprecedented in the annals of our locality and for youngsters who could not recall any motoring experiences of their own, it generated the type of excitement and imaginative outpourings which a trip to the unchartered regions of South America might have justified.  Peter and his companions Joe MacTiernan of Kilcullen, Mick Mulhall of Tullow, a Mr. Byrne from Ballymore Eustace and an unnamed man from Cork travelled through England, France and across the Alps down through Italy before reaching the Eternal City to pay their respects to Pope Pius XII.  On his return to Athy, Peter Fitzsimons who lived just around the corner from us in Meeting Lane, resumed his normal hackney business, but this time with a difference.  He was now, so far as the Offaly Street youngsters were concerned, an explorer, a man who had travelled where none had gone before.  We never forgot Peter Fitzsimons and his famous overland trip to Rome in 1950.

The first time I can remember travelling in a car was a trip in Peter Fitzsimons hackney car.  I had obviously travelled by road previously but cannot recall the trip when at three years of age I journeyed from the town of my birth, Castlecomer, to Athy.  The next trip must have been six or seven years later and I can still recall the details all those years later.  I was in Br. O’Loughran’s class in my second year in the Christian Brother’s Primary School.  Someone entered the small porch which led into the classroom and knocked on the inside door.  It was my father, the local Garda Sergeant, who asked Br. O’Loughran for permission to take me out of class for the day.  I don’t know if he told Br. O’Loughran the reason but to my delight I found myself about to travel in a motor car to Dublin.  This was a double first, a first trip in a motor car and the first time in Dublin and it was all courtesy of the State because a prisoner was to be brought to Mountjoy Jail in Peter Fitzsimons hackney car.  I can still recall that first car trip which I shared with a prisoner, my father and another Garda and the man who is forever associated in my mind with motor cars, Peter Fitzsimons.

In the mid-1950’s, and after my County Mayo Grandfather, with whom we had previously spent summer holidays had passed away, my parents rented a small terraced house at Ferrybank, Arklow for two weeks each year.  To travel there and back required another trip in Peter Fitzsimons hackney car and so the man with whom I shared my first car journey is indelibly associated in my memory with youthful seaside holidays in Arklow. 

Peter Fitzsimons passed away last week at 84 years of age.  From Longwood in County Meath Peter joined the Army during the Emergency and served from 1940 to 1945.  Marrying Betty Cunningham of Meeting Lane he worked for a while with Charlie Maxwell in Duke Street before setting up his own hackney business in 1946.  A baby Ford was his first motor car and in time two cars were on the road with Jackie Doyle employed as a second driver.  The trip to Rome in 1950 probably marked the height of the local hackney business which went into decline, as did many other businesses during the economic depression of the 1950’s. 

Peter, who was a mechanic by trade, went to work for C.I.E. at their Aughaboura Depot and after that he emigrated to England where for a short while he was a driver for British Road Services.  He returned to Athy in or about 1964 and went into the coach business which he continued to operate successfully until he retired a few years ago.  My youthful memories of Athy are populated by people such as Peter Fitzsimons, a lovely man whose courtesy and consideration for everyone he met was the hallmark of a true gentleman.  He was small of stature but endowed with a big heart and a magnanimity which endeared him to all who knew him.

Peter Fitzsimons is survived by his widow Betty and his children, Sean, Agnes, Michael, Noel and Colette.  He was predeceased by Sean’s twin Peadar who died a few years ago.

Thursday, August 14, 2003

'Wag' O'Keeffe and Mick McEvoy - Rheban Football Club

Last week Rheban lost two of its great stalwarts.  Willie “Wag” O’Keeffe and Mick McEvoy were Rheban men and both had given years of dedicated service to their local Gaelic Football Club which was founded in 1929 by John Moore and his younger brother Tom.  Both “Wag” and Mick were Rheban players of the past and each of them continued their association with the Rheban Club when their playing days were over.

Mick McEvoy was a member of the Rheban team which was routed by Robertstown in the 1939 Junior Championship Final on the score of 6-2 to 1-4.  However success was however not far away and the following year Mick McEvoy and his team mates clinched the Junior title defeating Ardclough by 4 points.  Within two years and with few changes in the team personnel Rheban went on to win the Intermediate championship title defeating Straffan on the score of 1-11 to 1-3.  Mick McEvoy featured in the Rheban teams of those years, as did his brother Pat.  Others whose names appeared on the team sheets for the 1940 and 1942 finals were Alfie Kane, Mick Hickey, Owney Pender, Tony Keogh, Billy Marum, Tom Hickey, Arthur Lynch, Hugh Owens, Pat Fitzpatrick, Paddy Myles, Jack Foley, Willie Moore, Jim Kane, Pat Connelly, John Cardiff, Bill Tierney, Joe Barry, Nick Owens and Jack Fitzpatrick.

Mick who lived at Bert Lane was in later years involved with the Rheban Club as an official.  He served as President of the club for many years and in that capacity he welcomed Seamus Aldridge, Chairman of the Leinster Council, to the official opening of the Tom Moore Memorial Park on 19th June 1999.  Tom Moore of course was one of the founders of the Rheban Club and the Club’s Secretary/Treasurer, a position Tom held with distinction for over fifty years.  Mick McEvoy worked in Duthie Larges and for many years was a member of the Parish Choir as well as being involved with many organisations in the parish. Mick is survived by his wife Sheila, daughters Ann, Mary, Sheila and five sons, Paul, Michael, Tom, Pat and Joseph.

The same week as Mick McEvoy was laid to rest we also said our sad farewells to “Wag” O’Keeffe.  Willie O’Keeffe, a native of Rheban, was known to all and sundry as “Wag”.  A dedicated follower of the GAA code “Wag” played football for his beloved Rheban in the late 1950’s, continuing into the mid 1960’s.  It was a barren period for the country club, but when “Wag” retired from playing he took up the position of trainer to the team.  It was in that capacity that he brought success to the Rheban Gaelic Football Club.  In 1969 in Geraldine Park, Athy, the Rheban team defeated Castledermot by 2-14 to 2-2 to win the Junior A Championship and so brought silverware to the rural club for the first time in 27 years.  1969 was a vintage year for “Wag” O’Keeffe and the young Rheban team which went on to win the Jack Higgin’s Cup by defeating Rathcoffey on a windswept pitch in Naas.  The following year Rheban achieved what is still regarded in the Club’s Annals as its most historic victory.  “Wag” O’Keeffe turned out the 1970 Intermediate football champions but the joy of being champions was all the sweeter when victory in the final was claimed at the expense of neighbouring club, Athy GFC. 

The defeat still rankles in some Athy memories but perhaps this is due not so much to Rheban’s success as to the fact that Athy went down in the final for the second year in succession.  Kilcock had run out winners in 1969 by a single point.  One of the stylish players who played in my time in the 1960’s and who was still togging out in the 1970’s was P.J. Hyland.  P.J. was “Wag’s” brother-in-law and he played in the centre field position for Athy in the 1970 Intermediate final.  Athy lost by 1-14 to 1-7 and nothing will dissuade the Athy players from claiming that an eight week delay between the final and their semi-final match caused them to lose the game.  I wonder!

All this time “Wag” O’Keeffe was working in Shaws having returned to Ireland very shortly after emigrating to England with Michael Flynn of Cloney in 1952.  “Wag” on arrival in London found the environment not to his liking and he promptly returned to Athy, leaving Michael Flynn who is now retired and living in Manchester.  In or about 1972 “Wag” started to work in the Jet filling station on the Kilkenny Road where he was later to be joined, following the closure of the Wallboard Factory, by his brother-in-law P.J. Hyland.

“Wag” who was married to Maura O’Keeffe of Leinster Street was one of Athy’s best known characters.  He had a friendly word for everyone and was a friend to everyone he met.  Over the years he did a considerable amount of charity work and was instrumental in setting up the Over 40’s  Kildare team which played charity games up and down the country.  “Wag” was one of the early members of the Athy Wheelchair Association and in addition to raising funds for the Association he was also closely involved with the local St. Vincent Hospital Patient Fund and with many other charities.  One could never say “no” to “Wag” because he gave so generously of his own time for so many causes that it would be meanspirited not to have supported him in what he was doing.  Strangely “Wag” died a few days before his 70th birthday, just as Mick McEvoy passed away days before his 83rd birthday. 

The passing of Mick McEvoy and “Wag” O’Keeffe leaves a void in our lives but both will be remembered with gratitude and appreciation for their contribution over many decades to the communities of Athy and Rheban.

Two interesting developments have come to my notice in relation to the much publicised Inner Relief Road Project which Kildare County Council is still trying to push ahead with, despite local opposition.  Firstly, the National Road Authority has indicated in a letter that the section of the N78 around Athy is regarded by them as a Phase 3 Project i.e. to be addressed in the period 2010 to 2014.  Consequently funding for an Inner Relief Road is not available. 

The second development is information which has now come to hand of the traffic study carried out in Athy in 1996 which showed that “through traffic” accounted for almost 40% of the town’s total traffic and not 20% as claimed by Kildare County Council. 

This error, not surprisingly, leant weight to the argument that diverting such a small volume of traffic onto a By-Pass road would have little or no impact on traffic congestion in the centre of Athy.  The disclosure that the correct “through traffic” figure is 40% and not 20% vindicates the call for a By-Pass of the town.

Thursday, August 7, 2003

Dr. Bill Watts Provost Trinity College

From the comfort of 21st century living it is difficult for us to imagine the hardships endured on a daily basis by those who lived in Athy in the 1930’s.  The only industrial employment in the area at that time was centered on the local brickyards and while they had in previous years provided steady, if low paid work for the local men and women, their most productive years were long gone.  Captain Hosie’s new venture at the top of Leinster Street in the old fair green which he called “Industrial Vehicle’s Ireland” offered the only prospect of permanent industrial employment in the town.  The Barrow Drainage Scheme which had been extended to Athy in or about 1926 had moved on downstream but because its stores were located in St. John’s Lane adjoining the River Barrow it still brought some benefits to the town.

Housing conditions in Athy in 1930 were extremely bad.  The laneways and courts which would later be swept away under the Slum Clearance Programmes of the mid 1930’s still provided the only accommodation available for many families.  The Military Barracks built 200 years previously had lately been acquired by the local Urban Council and the one time Horse Barracks had been adopted to house six families.  Amongst them was the Watts family who lived in No. 6 Barrow Cottages.  Mr. Watts Senior worked on the Barrow Drainage Scheme and in 1930 his youngest son William was born.  As might be expected William Watts was known to all and sundry as “Bill” and in 1935 he started in the Model School on the Dublin Road which his brother and sister already attended.  Just across the road from the school was the Presbyterian Church in which the Watts family worshipped each Sunday. 

Bill Watts spent six years in the Model School where the Head Master was initially “Boss” Rice and after him Samuel Atkinson.  “Boss” Rice served as Head Master for almost forty years and when he retired Samuel Atkinson replaced him.  During the five years of Bill Watt’s time in the Model School his fellow pupils included Frank and Leslie Anderson, Albert and Arthur Duthie, Frieda Yates, Mervyn and Billy Shaw, Harry Wynne and Lena Barrington.  Their names and youthful faces were to be seen on a number of photographs which Mrs. Duthie of Leinster Street brought to the civic reception which took place last week in the Town Council Offices.  Encouraged by his Head Master Samuel Atkinson and with the benefit of extra classes provided, Bill Watts secured a scholarship to St. Andrew’s College, Dublin for the duration of his secondary education.  Without the encouragement and help afforded him in the local Model School, especially from Samuel Atkinson, Bill Watts, destined to be the future Provost of Trinity College Dublin, on his own admission would have had an uncertain future.

The Watts family left Athy in 1943 to live in Dublin and so ended Billy Watt’s thirteen year connection with the town.  That link, first forged 73 years ago, was acknowledged last Thursday night when Athy Town Council gave a civic reception for Dr. Bill Watts in recognition of his academic achievements and his contribution to the betterment of Irish life. 

In a career which commenced with him graduating with First Class Honours from Trinity in 1953 he passed on to University College Hull where he was Assistant Lecturer for two years.  Returning to Dublin he took up a similar position with Trinity College, later becoming lecturer and in 1965 University Professor of Botany.  However, even greater achievements awaited him and in 1981 he was elected by the permanent academic staff of Trinity College to a ten year term as Provost of the oldest university in Ireland.

Founded in 1592 Trinity College is now so different in so many ways from the educational institution which was once primarily concerned with the training of clerics for the Established Church.  It is interesting to note that the town of Athy as a result of a charter granted by King Henry VIII in 1515 has a corporate status older by 77 years than the oldest and most illustrious university in this island.  That gives us some measure of the layers of history upon which life in 21st century Athy is founded.

Bill Watts, in addition to holding the highest position in Irish university life for a period of ten years, also held many other positions of national importance.  At various times he was Governor of the National Gallery and Governor of Marsh’s Library which has the distinction of being the oldest public library in Ireland.  The National Gallery was erected by subscriptions for a testimonial to William Dargan, the Carlow born industrialist who constructed over 600 miles of Irish railway line, including the line to Athy in 1847. 

The chairmanship of the National Trust for Ireland was yet another position held by Bill Watts, as well as being Chairman of the Fota Trust and Board member of the U.S.A./Irish Scholarship Exchange Board which is now known as the Fullbright Commission.  A member of the Royal Irish Academy from 1964 he was elected President of the Academy in 1982 and as such headed up the most prestigious, learned and scholarly society in Ireland.  The Academy had been founded in 1785 under the Presidency of James Caulfield, the first Earl of Charlemont who had been Commander in Chief of the Volunteers in 1780.  It was Charlemont’s tutor and travelling companion Rev. Edward Murphy who commissioned Simon Vierpyl, the English born sculptor, to copy statues and busts of roman emperors in the Capitoline Museum, Rome which were later donated to the Royal Irish Academy.  Vierpyl came to Ireland in 1756 and was subsequently involved in supervising the construction of many of the finest buildings in Dublin, including Rutland Square [now called Parnell Square], the Casino in Marino and Blackhall Place.  Vierpyl is of interest in the context of Bill Watt’s presidency of the Royal Irish Academy because both men have a connection with Athy.  Bill Watts spent his early years in the town while Simon Vierpyl who died on 10th February 1810 is buried in St. John’s cemetery in Athy.

Last Thursday the Members of Athy Town Council awarded a civic reception and presentation to Dr. Watts and in the course of his address the Chairman of the Council referred to Dr. Watts’ involvement in so many organisations as “clearly demonstrating his commitment to social action”.  The Council Chairman remarked that the duration and extent of that commitment by Dr. Watts confirmed that his experience and skills were being utilised in furtherance of his social responsibilities.  “That dedication born of an understanding of the hardships of an earlier generation brings with it the satisfaction of repaying a debt to the men and women whose sacrifices laid the foundations for the standards we enjoy today.” 

The big turn out for Dr. Watts on Thursday evening last was an indication of the high regard in which he is held by the town where he grew up in the 1930’s.