Thursday, May 31, 2007

To the four corners of the world

Last week I wrote about the flu epidemic of 1918 and by the strangest of coincidences I had the privilege of meeting this week John O’Mara who emigrated from Athy in 1942. The coincidence was not in meeting John but in talking to me how he casually mentioned that one of his uncles, Pat O’Mara, had died during the flu epidemic which claimed so many victims throughout Europe and America in the aftermath of the Great War. Pat Mara, as the cemetery records noted, died on 25 November 1918 aged 31 years. He had been employed as a drayman and lived with his family at Blackparks. One of his daughters, Peg, would later marry Tommy English, whose mother Mary had also succumbed to the dreaded influenza and passed away on 7 November 1918. Mary was just 36 years of age when she died, survived by her husband who had served during the First World War and who would later die in a road traffic accident on the Dublin Road. Another daughter, Rose, was to marry the legendary County Kildare footballer Cuddy Chanders and so united by marriage the Chanders and English families of today.

John O’Mara, who now leaves in Clearwater, Florida, shares a birthday with Billy Browne and myself, but his occurred just one year after the end of the Civil War. The eldest son of John O’Mara, who was known locally as “Jack”, and the former Ellen Maher, the O’Mara family lived at 12 Woodstock Street. It was from there that John and his brothers Edward, Patrick and Michael attended the Christian Brothers School and later still the local Technical School. He recalled his classmates as Kevin Maher, with whom he shared a school desk, Joe Moore, “the best writer in the class”, Billy Murphy, Michael Rainsford and Larry Johnson, the last two from Rathstewart. Teachers recalled after nearly 70 years include Brothers O’Donovan and Scully, together with Paddy Spillane from the Christian Brothers School and from the Technical School, Thomas Walsh. On leaving school, John worked in Jacksons of Leinster Street as an apprentice fitter/welder, serving his time to Paddy Fanning of St Joseph’s Terrace.

Emigration beckoned and at the height of World War II John took the emigrant boat for England, where for four years from 1942 he worked near Burton-on-Trent for the British War Department. In 1946, he started work as a welder with McAlpines and within two years married Gladys Willdig of Burton-on-Trent. Over the years, members of the O’Mara family left at different times their Woodstock Street home for places as far apart as England, Australia, America and Canada. Edward died in Australia about five years ago, his brother Patrick passed away 17 years ago in England, while their sister Maureen died in a road traffic accident in Florida in 1950. The only O’Mara family member to rest in the soil of his native place is Michael, who died in infancy.

John emigrated to Australia in 1952, where he was employed as a technical officer on what was the world’s largest hydro scheme operated by the Snowy Mountain Hydro Electric Authority. The remoteness of the Australian landscape was not to John’s liking and so in 1958 he emigrated to Canada. There he was employed on the building of the Toronto International Airport overseeing the fabrication and installation of the steel works before making what was to be his last cross-border move when he went to America in 1964. He spent the next 20 years with Hobart Bros Company, retiring in 1985 on reaching his 61st year. Both John and his wife Gladys retired to Florida, where they still live. Their son, John Thomas, is a Social Services Chief Executive Officer in Toronto, while their only daughter Maureen now recently retired is a Lieutenant Colonel in the Reserve Forces. John, who is still actively involved in church affairs in his Florida parish, attended St Leo’s University following his retirement, taking a Bachelor’s Degree in religious studies, majoring in history.

The emigration trail was not one confined to the young members of the O’Mara family as John’s parents, John and Ellen, followed their eldest son to Australia in 1952. His father died in Australia and is buried in North Sydney, while his mother Ellen died in Canada in 1983, where she went to live with her son John 15 years earlier. Ellen O’Mara is buried in Toronto.

John, who left Athy 65 years ago, when talking to me recalled vividly the events of his young days in Athy and had no difficulty in remembering the names of those he knew all those years ago. He served Mass in St Michael’s Parish Church and remembered Frank O’Brien as one of the “older Mass servers at the time”. Fr Maurice Browne, he recalls as a young curate long before he became the author of The Big Sycamore and In Monavella, two very pleasant memoirs which were very well received by Irish book read-ers in the 1960s.

John’s life-long association with the Catholic Church continues to this day and one of his proudest memories is of meeting a future Cardinal of the Church when Fr Michael Browne visited his brother, the local curate, Fr Maurice Browne in Athy. The young boy from Woodstock Street was delegated to serve the Dominican Priests Mass at one of the side altars and afterwards, when curiosity got the better of him he enquired as to what job the Dominican priest had in Rome. “I am the Pope’s theologian”, replied the clergyman, who would in later years become the head of the Dominican Order and a Cardinal of the Catholic Church.

The most extraordinary story told to me by John concerned the tragic death which befell David Bolger of Blackparks. Some years ago I extracted from a newspaper report details of how the unfortunate man met his death while attending a funeral which was making its way to St Michael’s Cemetery. My imperfect filing system does not allow me to immediately access the information I culled from that newspaper, but the details I recall recounted how he jumped over the cemetery wall just the far side of the Railway Bridge. Unfortunately, the wall hid a big drop to the ground on the far side where the entrance to a tunnel under the road had caused the embankment to be removed. The report in the newspaper gave no further background information, but this week John O’Mara filled in the missing details for me. John was a witness to David Bolger’s death that day, as with his friend Larry Johnson the two youngsters waited in St Michael’s Cemetery for the funeral to arrive. The funeral was that of Jack Bolger, the brother of the man who, probably wishing to get to the graveside ahead of the cortege to arrange something or other, cleared the wall and fell to his death.

Standing close by to where David Bolger fell to his death were the two youngsters Larry Johnson and John O’Mara. John recalled for me with clarity the events of that day over 70 years ago. The sadness of that occasion can only be imagined as one brother was buried, while another coffin was hurriedly procured to bring the remains of his brother back to the Bolger house to be waked.

The family of Jack and Ellen O’Mara, formerly of 12 Woodstock Street, are spread throughout the world. The story of this family reflects in so many ways the story of many other Athy families whose members were once familiar figures on the streets of Athy. Now they are to be found on continents as far away as America and Australia. John O’Mara lies buried in Sydney, his wife Ellen occupies a grave in Canada, while the graves of some of their children are to be found in Florida, England and Athy.

Meeting John O’Mara Junior at 83 years, now very much the senior member of the O’Mara family, I was enthralled to hear of the travels and successes which marked the family’s progress when first John and then the remaining members of the O’Mara family left Athy.

Truly it must be said that there are few corners of the world where enquiries would not throw up an Athy man or woman. The joy is in meeting the emigrants on their brief visits back to their hometown and it is my pleasure to talk this week to Athy man, John O’Mara, now an American citizen living in Florida.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

The great influenza epidemic of 1918

As the end of the First World War approached, a previously unknown form of influenza swept through Europe and America. The first reports of what would become the greatest threat to health, even greater than the cholera outbreak of 1832, appeared in the Leinster Leader of 6 July 1918: “A great many persons in County Kildare are suffering from an influenza which appears to be raging in many parts of the country”. Another report noted the outbreak of fever at Umeras, Monasterevin, following which six persons were brought to Athy Fever Hospital, where two of them later died. On 2 November, both the Nationalistand Leinster Leader reported: “Athy is pretty largely in the grip of an influenza epidemic. In most houses, several family members are ill. Some businesses are closed, as are all the local schools. So far few deaths in Athy, but the large numbers affected have taxed local doctors and nurses to the utmost.”

Athy Urban District Council asked the Board of Guardians who had charge of Athy Workhouse and were responsible for providing the limited health services then available to the general public “to engage more nurses to attend the sick poor during the influenza epidemic which is now raging through Athy.” At its meeting on 4 November, the urban council passed a vote of thanks to Miss M Murphy of Emily Square and Miss Darby of Leinster Street “for their unselfish attention bestowed without hope of monetary reward and irrespective of class or creed on our afflicted townspeople during the present terrible epidemic”.

Miss Murphy was sister of PJ Murphy, a butcher who had served as a member of the urban council from 1900 and whose brother, Monsignor William Murphy, had been Rector of the Irish College in Rome at the time of his death in 1905. Miss Darby was Brigid Darby, a national school teacher who was elected a member of Athy Urban District Council in 1928 and remained on the council for the following 14 years. She has the distinction of being the first female to stand as a candidate in a general election for the Kildare constituency.

The two ladies organised a group of volunteers to visit the poor of the town and to provide them with food and drink during the influenza epidemic. The group was called the ‘Committee of Ladies to the Sufferers from the Influenza Epidemic in the Town’.

The urban council directed one of its employees as sanitary sub-officer for the town to disinfect, fumigate and limewash houses where influenza patients were to be found. He was also charged with the removal of manure heaps from the alleys and laneways of the town, which were believed to be contributing to the growing influenza problem.

Without having recourse to the death registration records for the period, it is not possible to quantify in exact terms the numbers who died in Athy during the epidemic of 1918. Certainly, the situation became so serious that the urban district council was moved to issue a warning to the townspeople as to the undesirability of holding wakes, which the council regarded as “highly dangerous and liable to spread the disease”. The victims of the epidemic, warned the council, “should be coffined immediately and interned with the least possible delay.” Within the first week of November, the number of deaths arising from the influenza epidemic caused delay in securing coffins and hearses. “In some cases, remains were brought to the cemetery by friends” reported the Nationalist on 9 November.

The first significant number of burials in St Michael’s Cemetery on the same day occurred on 30 October 1918. On the next day, seven coffins were brought to the local cemetery. On 2 November, three funerals took place and everyday thereafter until 28 November there were multiple burials in St Michael’s Cemetery.

Between 30 October and 28 November 1918, 57 internments took place in St Michael’s Cemetery, which was the principal cemetery for the town. Burials may also have taken place during this period in St Mary’s, Ardreigh Cemetery, St John’s or in Geraldine Cemetery. However, I have not been able to access the records for these cemeteries.

Looking through the names of those who died, I was struck by the number of young children who succumbed to the dreaded influenza. Three families suffered multiple losses, the greatest loss falling to the Blanchfield family of Leinster Street. On 9 November, four-year-old Andrew Blanchfield died, to be followed two days later by his brothers George, aged seven years, and Edward, aged three years. They were the children of John and Catherine Blanchfield.

John died aged 49 years, less than four years after his three children, while his widow Catherine lived on into her 96th year before passing away in 1970. On John Blanchfield’s tombstone in St Michael’s Cemetery there is inscribed after the details of his early death on 28 June 1922 the words, “also his five children who died young”.

Another family to suffer the deaths of young children during the influenza epidemic of 1918 were the Eston family of Meeting Lane. Patrick Eston was the father of Mary, aged one, and Ellen, aged three, both of whom died on 13 November 1918. Unfortunately, I don’t have any further details to hand of the Eston family who suffered so tragically during the flu epidemic.

The May family of Leinster Street lost two children during the epidemic. Eileen May, just five months old, died on 16 November, while her sister Sarah, known as Sally, aged one, died on 7 December. They were the children of Sarah May, who lived until 1949, and James or Jim May who had died in a tragic accident earlier in 1918. Jim was a carpenter who, when working on the Christian Brothers School in St John’s Lane, fell from a ladder and died from the injuries he sustained in that fall. He was a member of the local Sinn Féin Club and the press reports of his funeral indicated that the Sinn Féin club members attended his funeral in great numbers, while the Leinster Street band played the Dead March. Jim had been a member of the very first Athy Gaelic Football Club team to win a Kildare county championship. The Athy team won the junior final played in Kilcullen on 14 September 1909 under the captaincy of ‘Jack’ Lawler.

The winners medals were not presented until 1927, when a medal presentation ceremony was held in the urban district council offices in the town hall. Jim’s son Tom received his late father’s medal on that occasion. Another family whom I knew well in Offaly Street lost a five-year-old child during the flu epidemic.

He died on 10 November 1918 and tragedy would befall the same family again during the health crisis of the 1940s and ’50s when the White Death or Tuberculosis was rampant throughout Ireland.

The current health services in this country have been the subject of much criticism in recent years, what with patients on trolleys, MRSA in hospitals and waiting lists for admission to hospital for elective surgery. The huge unexpected increase in the Irish population which followed decades of mass emigration, coupled with the longevity enjoyed by so many today, has put a huge strain on our medical services. However, view-ed against the tragic events of post-World War 1 Ireland , when the flu epidemic resulted in more deaths in a few months than had occurred during the four years of the Great War, we have to acknowledge the great strides which have been taken in the provision of health services in this country and elsewhere.

The tragic loss of life during the flu epidemic of the latter part of 1918 now seems so far removed from 21st century Ireland. Yet today we still live among neighbours whose brothers and sisters, uncles or aunts died so tragically and so young 85 years.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Every picture tells a story (I hope!)

This week the pen gives way to the camera. I am showing a number of photographs from Athy’s past.

The first is the local FCA group taken in St John’s Lane, Athy. The pier on the left side of the picture is the entrance to St John’s House, once the home of the Carbery family, and so you can orientate yourself as you visualise the background captured in the photograph which was taken sometime in the early 1960s. Incidentally, can anyone identify the uniformed men in the photograph?

Perhaps easier in terms of identification is the second picture, showing two happy customers in Doyle’s pub in Wood-stock Street.

Photograph no 3 shows a group of workmen standing outside the premises of Duthie Larges in Leinster Street. The man in the centre wearing a hat is Jimmy Duthie and the others, apart from the young boy in front were, I believe, workmen from Duthie Larges. Prior to the coming to Athy of the asbestos factory in 1936, Duthie Larges was the largest employer in the Athy area.

The final photograph shows an unusual scheme. Against the backdrop of the disused Hannon’s Mill at the foot of Crom A Boo Bridge, the horse and cart (is it a milk cart?) with the youthful driver come to a halt for the photographer to take his picture.

Can any of the people captured in these photographs be identified? If so, I would welcome hearing from you.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

A brief history of schooling in Athy

This week I return to the amalgamation of the Christian Brothers Secondary School and Scoil Mhuire, both 19th century institutions which since their foundation have been an integral part of the educational life of Athy.

Indeed, by dint of their influence, both schools have been in their time an integral part of the social life of this area. I was privileged to receive my early education, both primary and secondary, in the local Christian Brothers School and so am more than an interested onlooker as the date of the amalgamation of my old school with Scoil Mhuire draws near.

Until the 1790s, the children of Athy town received no formal education.

The Church of England did not have a parish school at that time and no Catholic was licensed to teach his co-religionists. Only the children of well-to-do families could afford to attend the fee-paying private schools, of which there were a number in Athy at the end of the 18th century. In 1870, the local Church of England rector set up a parish school, which for a time at least was located in the town hall, but later moved to the three-storey house currently standing at the corner of Meeting Lane and Emily Square.

In 1811, the Society for Promoting the Education of the Poor of Ireland, commonly called the ‘Kildare Place Society’, was founded.

Its stated purpose was to afford the same facilities for education to all classes of professing Christians without any attempt to interfere with their religious beliefs. It is from the records of that society that we first learned of the existence of a Catholic free school in Athy. Known also as the ‘Athy Poor School’, it had as a teacher John Goold, who in January 1823 received a payment of £11.4.4- from the Kildare Place Society.

Rev Charles Bristow, the Church of England curate, received a grant of £3.1.9 that same year for running a school in Athy Gaol, which was located on the Carlow Road.

The building of the Athy Poor School premises was attributed to Colonel Fitzgerald of Geraldine House and it was described in the 1824 Parochial Returns as “a substantial building of stone and lime”.

Located at the North East corner of the present St Michael’s Church, it was funded by local subscriptions under the management of the parish priest and a committee of 12 local men.

Patrick O’Rourke and Ann Doogan were teachers in the school in 1824 and on the school rolls were 232 boys and 96 girls, with an average attendance each day of 140 boys and 35 girls.

By 1835, the Athy Poor School was known as the National Day School and the teachers there were George and Elizabeth Carmichael, who had 168 boys and 76 girls on the school rolls. The average attendance in those days, when compulsory school attendance was still a long way off, was 86 boys and 42 girls.

Sometime after 1827, but before 1835, a new schoolhouse was built at the corner of Stanhope Street and Stanhope Place. It would seem, although I cannot be certain, that the original school building continued to operate as a girls’ school, while the new building housed the boys’ school.

Despite the progress made in providing education for the children of Athy, the local Catholic clergy were anxious to desecularise education and bring it more under the control and influence of the Catholic Church. A meeting of the local parishioners was held in the National Day School in the spring of 1843 to further the idea of establishing a convent in Athy for a teaching order of nuns.

The prime movers in this were Anna Goold, who subsequently gifted her house in Stanhope Place to the local parish priest, Rev W Gaffney, a curate of St Michael’s, the Fitzgerald family of Geraldine House and Patrick Maher of Kilrush. That meeting resulted in the building of a convent and a new school in the grounds of St Michael’s Parish Church which the Sisters of Mercy took possession of on 10 October 1852.

The first of the two Catholic educational institutions that are now about to amalgamate had arrived in Athy. The Sisters of Mercy in their early years in the town concentrated on teaching primary school children, but after some time they opened a private secondary school, which later became a public school, known today as Scoil Mhuire.

In the meantime, the Christian Brothers were invited by Archbishop Cullen to open a school for boys in Athy and they were facilitated in doing so by the gifting of Greenhills House by the Sisters of Mercy, which was to become the Christian Brothers Monastery.

Again, like the Sisters of Mercy, the educational facilities provided by the Christian Brothers when their school opened on 19 August 1862 was for primary school pupils and it was some time before more senior boys were catered for.

To complete the educational framework in Athy, mention must be made of the Model School opened in 1852 and the Vocational School, as it was then called, which commenced in November 1900. The District Model School was built by the Commissioners of National Education in Ireland on a five-acre site which was donated by the Duke of Leinster in 1848.

The building of the school commenced two years later and it was opened on 12 August 1852. It catered for infants, as well as boys and girls, and combined the teaching of children with the preliminary training of teachers, known as candidate teachers.

The school was non-denominational and the first two school principals, John Walsh, who had previously taught in Dublin, and Elizabeth Reilly, who had been a teacher in Ballinvally National School, were Catholics.

The success of the Model School is shown by the numbers enrolling in the school. On its first day 13 boys, one girl and one infant were enrolled and by the following February the school had 207 on it’s books and 281 by September 1853.

In each succeeding year up to 1856, when 567 children were enrolled, the Model School attracted more and more of the local children to its non-denominational classes. It achieved its highest enrolment in 1858, when 582 children were listed on the school register.

It was the success of the District Model School which prompted Archbishop Cullen to invite the Christian Brothers to Athy. The Irish Hierarchy’s disapproval of the Model schools was set out in a letter to the Commissioners of the National School, which described the schools as “intrinsically anti-Catholic”.

The fragmentation on religious grounds of the educational system in Athy dates from that period.

The vocational schooling system first came into being following the passing of the Technical Instructions Act in 1899, which, when adopted by Athy Urban District Council, was followed by the setting up of a technical instruction committee.

A technical school was opened in part of the old national school at the corner of Stanhope Street and Stanhope Place and there it remained until a new technical school was opened on the Carlow Road on 5 December 1940.

The amalgamation of Scoil Eoin and Scoil Mhuire brings together two institutions with a shared history extending over 301 years and marks the final chapter in the history of the Sisters of Mercy and the Christian Brothers in the town of Athy.

The celebrations marking this important occasion commence with the opening of an exhibition in the Heritage Centre this Wednesday and the launching of a book of memoirs compiled by transition students of Scoil Eoin.

Other events take place during the week, and on Saturday 12 May a celebratory dinner will be held in the Clanard Court Hotel at which past pupils of Scoil Eoin and the old secondary school in St John’s Lane will attend.

The closing of Scoil Mhuire and Scoil Eoin and their coming together as Ardscoil Na Trionoide, catering for boys and girls, is a huge advance in our local education story which started over 200 years ago with the Athy Poor School.

Thursday, May 3, 2007

Here’s to the Doyen of Emily Square

Sunday 22 April was the 85th birthday of the evergreen Frank O’Brien.

The doyen of Emily Square, Frank is one of Athy’s greatest ambassadors.

O’Brien’s of The Square has been a landmark in the centre of Athy for over a century and it retains the charm of an earlier age when grocery and public house stood cheek by jowl catering for the male and female of the household. Nowadays the supermarkets have reduced the once busy grocery to that of convenience store status, but still it remains as it has for decades
, a welcome change from the drab sameness which pervades the commercial world today.

Frank O’Brien personifies in so many ways the Gaelic heart of this ancient town of ours. He glories in its successes, his window displays always bearing testimony to his own Irishness, his support for the Gaelic language and his love of Gaelic sport.

He is a repository of local knowledge stretching back beyond his own time, enhanced by what he learnt from his own father and his father before him. It’s no wonder O’Brien’s is the first port of call for many visitors to Athy, especially those with links to this area. For th
ere they can expect to hear of the past, of the people now long forgotten, who once were as familiar on the streets of Athy as we are today.

In wishing Frank O’Brien a happy 85th birthday I do so in the knowledge that I would have liked to devote this entire article to him, but modest as ever, he asked me not to do so. Perhaps another day.

Another birthday being celebrated around this time is that of Aidan Higgins, Celbridge-born writer whose 80th birthday is being celebrated with an Aidan Higgins Literary Festival in his native town this May Bank Holiday weekend.

Since the publication of Langrishe, Go Down! in 1966, his has been a unique voice in Irish writing. His first novel won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize as well as an Irish Academy of Letters Award, and was filmed for BBC television in an adaptation by Har
old Pinter. Set in the hinterlands of Kildare where its author grew up, it slyly reinvents the familiar traits of the ‘Big House’ in Irish fiction.

This was an audacious beginning for any writer, but throughout his career Higgins has continued to innovate – blending styles and genres, working within European as well as Irish traditions – most provocatively in his experimental novel, Balcony of Europe
, which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1972. He is now an author of novels, short stories, memoirs, travel writing, and radio dramas; he is an honorary doctor of letters, a Saoi of Aosdána and most of all this weekend, a celebrated Kildare man.

John Banville, Derek Mahon, Shane Connaughton, Annie Proulx, John MacKenna, Fintan O’Toole and Dermot Healy are among the writers who this Bank Holiday weekend will gather to pay tribute to a prolific and inventive prose stylist. Full details of lectures and events during this two-day festival can be found here.

The Churchtown Castlemitchell Community Development Association have organised a meeting for Castlemitchell Hall on 10th May at 8.00 p.m. to plan celebrations surrounding the 50th anniversary of the local community hall and the 150th anniversary of Churchtown National School.

Both events, I believe, are to be celebrated next August. The Association is anxious to hear from anyone with past links with either the school or the hall and would welcome to their meeting on 10th May anyone willing to help out with the celebrations.

Writing on celebrations prompts me to remind you that the Christian Brothers Secondary School will be hosting a variety of events next week, ending with a dinner on 12th May in the Clanard Court Hotel to mark the amalgamation of the boys secondary and the girls secondary schools – Scoil Eoin and Scoil Mhuire. I gather a substantial amount of photographs and other memorabilia have been collected for an exhibition in the Heritage Centre during the week.

In addition transition year students in Scoil Eoin have been busy completing a booklet to mark the event and this will soon be on sale.

The last celebrations in Athy which were centred around the Christian Brothers Schools took place on 23rd and 24th September 1994 to mark the 150th anniversary of the death of Edmund Rice, Founder of the Christian Brothers.

The occasion coincided with the planned departure of the last Christian Brothers from Athy and soon thereafter Brothers Murphy and Quinn left the Christian Brothers Monastery in the town for the last time. The centenary of the Christian Brother in Athy was celebrated in 1961 and the photograph shows a parade of school boys coming over the Crom a Boo bridge and heading towards the old school in St. John’s Lane.
My late brother Seamus is one of the boys holding the banner. I wonder how many of the other boys captured in the photograph can be identified today.