Thursday, July 26, 2007

Pipe bands past and Holy Communions long ago

Athy has enjoyed a musical tradition extending over many decades, a tradition which gave it a succession of town bands. The earliest reference I have come across to a band in the town was in the early 1880s, when the then recently formed Catholic Young Men Society had a brass band. There had been many more local bands in the intervening years with pipe bands, fife and drum bands and brass all bands making use of the musical talents in the area.

Some weeks ago, I was given a photograph of St. Dominic’s Fife and Drum Band, which I understand was founded soon after the end of World War II. The members of the band practised in a shed at the back of Johnny Lynch’s house in Nelson Street. I have no other information about the band and would welcome hearing from anyone who can help me in that regard. The photograph with this article shows some of the band members and they have been identified, reading from left at the back, as Christy Lamon of Plewman’s Terrace, Jack Corcoran of Dooley’s Terrace, unidentified, Paddy Kavanagh of St Joseph’s Terrace and behind him his son Paddy “Twin” Power of the Dock. The next two men and the two men standing one in front of the other on the extreme right have not been identified. In the front row, from left, the first person is unidentified. The second young man is either Paddy Scott of Dooley’s Terrace or Brendan Murphy of Offaly Street, then Tom Perse of Blackparks, Mick “Bottler” Carroll of the Dock, Paddy Perse, brother of Tom Perse, Martin Cunningham of Levitstown and Noel Quinn of St John’s Lane. There has been great difficulty in identifying some of those photographed and, as always, I would welcome confirmation or correction of any name given by me.

The second photograph comes courtesy of Agnes Bergin. It’s possibly a first communion or a confirmation class photograph. The young boys are very well dressed and many of them sported badges which were common on the occasions of First Communion or Confirmations. The presence of three young women (presumably teachers) would confirm that the boys were not attending the Christian Brothers School, thereby suggesting it was a First Communion photograph. First Communion was taken while youngsters were still in St. Joseph’s School.

The only boy I can positively identify sitting sixth from left in the front row is Michael Kelly of Geraldine. Given that he is now approximately 86 years old, I figure the photo-graph was taken in or about 1930. It is probably too long ago for anyone to be able to identify others in the photograph. However, if you can do so, I would welcome hearing from you.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Sean Lemass and the opening of the Asbestos factory

Last week’s announcement of the resiting of the Tegral factory to a green field site on the Monasterevin Road comes 70 years after the official opening of what was called the Asbestos factory by Sean Lemass, the-then minister for industry and commerce. The choice of Athy as a site for the Asbestos factory owed much to the efforts of MP Minch, managing director of Minch Nortons and his brother Sydney Minch, who had been elected a TD for County Kildare in the 1932 general election.

As a candidate for the Cumann na Gaedheal party, he was re-elected in 1933 and again in 1937 for the revised Carlow/ Kildare constituency, before eventually losing his seat in 1938. MP Minch had previously attempted to have a sugar factory located in Athy and to that end led a deputation of local dignitaries to Holland to put the case for the South Kildare town. The year was 1925 and, when the announcement for the new sugar factory was made, Carlow won out to the huge disappointment of Athy folk.

When the Asbestos factory was first mooted, Athy was one of several locations canvassed as suitable sites. It is claimed that Carlow, which secured the sugar factory just a decade earlier, offered the promoters of the new project a free site and an undertaking from the local authority not to charge rates for the first three years. No wonder, therefore, that the acting chairman of Athy Urban District Council, William Mahon, in proposing a toast to the Minch family on the day of the factory’s opening, praised the part played by Matt Minch and his brother Sydney in bringing a major industry to the town.

The official opening of the Asbestos factory took place on Monday 31 May 1937, just a few months after the Eoin O’Duffy led Blueshirts left for Spain to support Franco and the nationalist rebels. Prior to the opening, the factory had been in production for about three weeks, with 75 men employed on three eight-hour shifts producing asbestos corrugated sheeting and asbestos cement sheeting and slating. Intended to cover 50,000 square feet, the factory was built on a 12-acre field known locally as Mullery’s field and it also embraced the site of the small terraced houses known as Tay Lane, which had been demolished in advance of the factory construction work. The construction of the factory was not fully completed when the official opening took place.

Sean Lemass, who was appointed to the first Fianna Fáil government in 1932 at 33 years of age, had fought in the GPO in 1916. After the 1921 Treaty, he took the Republican side and fought in the Four Courts during the Civil War. Following this, he was captured and interned in the Curragh and Mountjoy Jail until December 1923. Elected to the Dáil in 1925, he was appointed minister for industry and commerce in De Valera’s first government and retained that position in every subsequent government led by De Valera until he succeeded Dev as Taoiseach in 1959.

The one-time freedom fighter was met on his arrival in Athy with a guard of honour of the local gardaí under Superintendent Bergin, drawn up at the entrance to the town hall. There, he was presented with an address of welcome on behalf of the people of Athy and the local council by William Mahon, vice-chairman of Athy Urban District Council. The long-time chairman of the urban council, Patrick Dooley of Duke Street, had died the previous 7 May. Dooley had occupied the position of chairman of the council since 1929 and the Council at its AGM in June 1937 would elect William Mahon as its chairman. Patrick Dooley, whose son Paddy would later be elected a TD for the Kildare constituency, as well as becoming chairman of Athy Urban District Council on several occasions between 1953 and 1978, was an important link with the local Old IRA and would have been well known to Sean Lemass.

Following the address of welcome, Lemass was driven to the Asbestos factory where, on arrival, he passed through the workmen drawn up on either side of the factory entrance. He was greeted by the chairman of Asbestos Cement Limited, MP Minch of Rockfield House, who had been instrumental in securing the Asbestos factory for Athy. It is claimed that a chance meeting between Minch and H Osterberg of Denmark following the passing of the Cement Actin 1933 ultimately led to the opening of the Asbestos factory in Athy.

The Cement Act followed the earlier introduction of import duty on cement and encouraged the setting up of an Irishbased cement industry. Like the earlier development of the sugar beet industry in Ireland, which led the Irish government to arrange with a Belgium syndicate to open a beet factory in Carlow in 1926, the cement industry would require Danish expertise. Asbestos Cement Limited was formed in April 1936 with MP Minch as chairman and as directors H Osterberg, managing director of Irish Cement Ltd, MF Parkhill of Charles Tennant & Co, a Dublin-based company which was the major importer of cement to Ireland, NM Jensen of Tunnel Cement Ltd, and Carlow man FG Thompson, whose firm built the new factory in Mullery’s field.

Minister Lemass, after meeting the company directors, was shown around the factory by the factory manager WE Cornish, who was described as a shrewd energetic Welshman. Prior to coming to Athy, he had been employed by Tunnel Asbestos Cement in the manufacture of asbestos cement goods. At the conclusion of the tour, Lemass started the factory machinery and was presented by Mr Osterberg with a solid silver paper weight bearing the monogram of the firm. The factory was blessed by Canon McDonnell, the local parish priest.

Sean Lemass addressed the crowd of about 500 people from the factory steps after he formally opened the factory. “On your behalf, citizens of Athy,” concluded the minister, “I wish to congratulate those who planned, financed and made possible this enterprise and express the hope that you will never have reason to regret the part they took in establishing it.”

At a luncheon which was given afterwards in the factory, presided over by MP Minch, speeches were made by M Jensen, who proposed a toast of Irish industries, HT O’Rourke (whom I have not been able to identify), Sydney Minch TD, who proposed a toast “to the Press”, and RJ Donaghy of the Leinster Leader. William Mahon in proposing a toast of thanks to MP Minch highlighted the part played by the Minch family in promoting the industrial and social life of Athy and South Kildare over many years. MF Parkhill also spoke and praised the work of the contractor FG Thompson of Carlow, whom, he said, “found many obstacles in his way on the site, but surmounted them and built a factory of which we are all proud.” Seam Lemass in his speech after lunch spoke of “the wider plans entertained by the company’s directors and shareholders”.

This was believed not only to be a reference to the company’s plans when at full capacity to employ over 150 people but also to the government’s expectations that the success of the Asbestos factory “was going to spread itself in many other quarters”.

The factory, work on which had commenced in April 1936, was completed at a cost of £60,000, with a further £30,000 spent on the purchase and installation of machinery. The machinery would achieve maximum capacity in 1946 and in 1976 the name Asbestos Cement Limited was changed to Tegral Building Products Ltd. Ten years later, a pulping plant was installed for the manufacturer of non-asbestos products.

With the building of the Asbestos factory in 1936, the town of Athy which for so many centuries was part of the Fitzgerald family estate became an important element in the drive for Irish industrialisation. That the factory remains strong to this day and plans to move to a more expansive site on the outskirts of Athy is a tribute to all those who have worked there over the last 70 years. The Fitzgeralds may no longer hold sway in Athy, where the largest employer is Tegral, so perhaps it is fitting that the Fitzgerald Dower House at 6 South Leinster Street, Dublin is today the head office of the Tegral group of companies.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Of county managers and sporting success

The first county manager I came across was the legendary Matt Macken. He was the Carlow/Kildare county manager when I got my first job as a clerical officer with Kildare County Council in St Mary’s Naas. He was the nearest thing to God and he received as much obsequious treat-ment from the Council staff as you might expect the Pope to receive today. Well I remember if he appeared in the hallway of the Council offices, mere clerical officers such as myself ducked out of view in much the same way as servants did in the days of the big houses.

My next encounter with that heady level of administrative excellence was when I went to Kells as town clerk. My first day on the job coincided with the monthly meeting of the urban council, which the county manager in those days always attended. Denis Candy was the manager’s name and he too came from Athy, the scion of a well-known Athy family.

Belying his name, he was not all sweetness. Indeed, Denis Candy was a difficult man to get on with at the best of times but, given my lowly position in the ranks, I just had to knuckle under and get on with the job. Legendary are the stories told of Denis Candy’s time in County Meath, equalled only by those told of my next county manager, George Cannon of Monaghan. I have written before of George Cannon, a man small in terms of physique but an intellectual giant who stood apart from his colleagues as much for his waspish contrariness as for the individual streak which marked his daily activities.

Denis Candy, as I have said earlier, was an Athy man and strangely and perhaps uniquely the South Kildare town has given us three county managers since the first County Management Act of 1940. Apart from Denis Candy there was Jack Taaffe, the now retired county manager for Westmeath and John Keyes, presently occupying the premier local government position in the county of Cavan.

John is the son of the late Jackie and Liz Keyes of William Street. Jackie Keyes was office manager in the Asbestos factory in the 1950s and was one of three Keyes brothers who worked for the same company. Jackie’s brothers, Billy and Tommy, worked in the Asbestos company’s head office in Dublin. Their father, William Keyes, was local postman and in the days before footballing of all kinds held sway, was a cricketer of note who played for Athy Cricket Club. Indeed, the Keyes’ involvement in the game of cricket passed from father William to his sons and Jackie Keyes was an excellent cricketer in his younger days. Apart from the three sons, William and his wife, the former Elizabeth Fitzpatrick, had four daughters, Katie, Margaret, Angie and Mamie, all of whom married, uniting in marriage the Rowan, Ryan, Prendergast and McNamara families.

John Keyes, who now holds the reins of municipal power in County Cavan, started his education in the local Christian Brothers School. He was a member of the under-15 school team which won the 1967 Leinster College Championship. Athy CBS played what was the country final against Portlarlington in Mullingar and emerged winners, courtesy of two goals scored by Christy Delahunt. The final saw the country winners, Athy CBS, pitched against St Declan’s, the Dublin City winners in the provincial final played on the GAA pitch in Naas. Athy won, with the Stapleton brothers, Dan and Martin, between them amassing a wealth of scores to ensure Athy’s victory. That year also saw the young footballer, John Keyes, take up association football with Athy Soccer Club, where he played on the under-15 team before graduating to the seniors, where he achieved more success. He was a member of the Athy soccer team which won the Sheeran Cup in 1972. John played on the Athy team with the likes of Cha Chanders and Vincent Gray, who later had a stint with Shamrock Rovers and Limerick City and he recalls one of the more memorable football occasions outside the cup final of 1972 as the last soccer game of what was Cha Chanders long footballing career.

John went to university in Dublin, from where in time he graduated from UCD with an engineering degree. While in university, he played rugby, the game at which his father and his uncle Billy had won Provincial Towns Cup medals with Athy. He was a member of the Anderson cupwinning team of the 1972/73 season and played on the Athy team which competed for the Provincial Towns Cup in the 1975/ 76 season. The photograph of that team shows John sixth from the left at the back row with his father Jackie, then the president of Athy Rugby Club on the extreme left of the same row.

John’s biggest regret is that he transferred from the Athy Club to play senior rugby with Monkstown in Dublin soon thereafter and missed out on the Provincial Towns Cup victories which came Athy’s way in the latter part of the 1970s. John retired from rugby playing following a serious injury in 1981, but continued his involvement in the game as a coach.

The Keyes family name goes back several generations in Athy and over the decades from William onwards the Keyes name has graced the cricket pitch, the rugby pitch, the soccer pitch and the Gaelic playing field. Sport played an important part in the life of at least three generations of the Keyes family, but perhaps none had a more varied sporting career than John Keyes. The holder of winning medals in Gaelic football, association football and rugby, his is a record to be envied. His sporting achievements are in a sense mirrored by the successes in his professional life.

Graduating as an engineer from UCD, he first worked for Dublin Corporation in the mid-1980s, transferring in 1991 to Offaly County Council as a senior executive engineer. He spent 12 years in County Offaly becoming the director of community enterprise and planning in 1999, before taking up the appointment of county manager in Cavan in 2004.

The drive which gave John his successful sporting and professional career may owe something to his spirited grandmother Elizabeth Fitzpatrick, who married the postman William Keyes. It was she who in the early 1930s opened the shop at the corner of William Street and Shrewleen Lane which proved so important after William suffered a stroke a few years later. Elizabeth died in 1963, but the Keyes’ shop was a readily identifiable landmark during the ’40s and ’50s and continued in business right up to the early 1960s, coinciding with the opening of Dreamland Ballroom on the Kilkenny road.

It is a wonderful achievement for a former Christian Brothers schoolboy to climb the highest rung on the local government ladder and for Athy to boast no less than three county managers is a great tribute to the town and to our local schools.

Thursday, July 5, 2007

A week of celebration and achievements

Two local men at opposite ends of the age spectrum come to mind this week as I prepare to write this week’s Eye on the Past. The victory of young Athy man, Roy Sheehan, in the European Championships held in Dublin marked a new high in terms of sporting success for Athy. We have never had a sporting achievement on this scale before and the reception given to the young boxer on Tuesday night on his return home was a wonderful tribute, not only to him but to all those involved over the years in the running of St Michael’s Boxing Club. St Michael’s is one of the most successful boxing clubs in Ireland in recent years in terms of Irish national titles secured by club members. The people of Athy can be justifiably proud of the many achievements of St Michael’s Boxing Club to date and especially of the latest success of club member Roy Sheehan.

To achieve so much at such a young age is an indication not only of Roy’s talent, but also of the dedication and commitment which he has invested in that talent over the years. The active sporting life of a boxer is relatively short, but Roy Sheehan has already secured for himself a place in the sporting annals of Athy which will forever be remembered.

By contrast, the other man whom I want to mention has had a long innings on the local political stage and on 1 July celebrated the 40th anniversary of his election to Athy Urban District Council. Frank English was first elected to the local council in 1967 and since then he has successfully contested six further elections. In that first election 40 years ago, those elected with Frank to the urban council were Jim McEvoy, Mick Rowan, Tom Carbery, Jack McKenna, MG Nolan, Paddy Dooley, Joe Deegan and Enda Kinsella. Competition for the nine council seats was quite intense, with 19 candidates putting themselves before the electorate. The unsuccessful candidates included Jim Bolger, Ann Brennan, Michael Cunningham, Patrick Doyle, James Fleming, John Foley, Paddy Lawler, Tom Moore, Frank Whelan and Ted Wynne.

Frank served on the council for nine years before becoming council chairman at the age of 35 years, leading the Nationalist to claim that “he is Athy’s youngest chairman ever”. He succeeded Megan Maguire, Megan having been the first woman to be elected to the position of first citizen of the town since the establishment of municipal government in Athy under Henry VIII’s charter of 1515.

Frank’s long service as a councillor still has some way to go to match that of Thomas Plewman, who in 1911, when he reached 70 years of age, celebrated 45 years as a member of Athy Town Commissioners, the predecessors to Athy Urban District Council and Athy Town Council. Plewman, who was born in 1842 in Kilcoo, was elected to the town commission in 1866, replacing his father who was first elected 24 years earlier. Thomas Plewman continued on as a member of the council for another nine years and the Plewman family association with the council which had extended over 78 continuous years ended in 1920 when Thomas Plewman resigned. By my reckoning, Frank has another 38 years to go before equalling the Plewman record, but maybe one of the young English family members might be prepared to emulate their father’s record of service and stand for election when Frank eventually steps down.

During the coming week, his fellow councillors will mark Frank’s 40 years as a councillor with a function in the council chamber. In January 1993, Frank was the recipient of a presentation by his council colleagues to mark his 27 years on the council and I have before me a copy of a press report of that presentation which appeared in the Carlow Kildare Post. Headed Frank’s 27!, it included a photograph of the then council chairman Kieran Dooley presenting a crystal decanter to Frank, who described himself as “an ordinary honest to God individual whose hobbies are politics and swiming”. Interestingly, Kieran Dooley’s father Paddy was a member of the council when Frank was first elected and indeed Frank owes his involvement in local politics to Paddy Dooley and MG Nolan, who approached him more than 40 years ago to stand as a Fianna F·il candidate in the local elections.

Frank was also involved during the past week in the celebrations for the 50th anniversary of Aontas Ogra, the youth organisation which for so long has been associated with its long-time leader, Billy Browne. Some of Ogra’s founder members joined with the large numbers who crowded into the former Dreamland Ballroom last Thursday night to celebrate the club’s 50th anniversary, and among them was Michael O’Neill, who travelled across from the English Midlands. Michael was the founder of Aontas Cara, as it was then called, and Frank English and Pat Flinter recalled the early life of the organisation which has remained a constant in the social calendar for the youngsters of Athy for the last five decades.

The occasion was marked with the publication of a book recording in photographs, many of those who as young people were involved in Aontas Ogra over the years. The celebration was a lovely occasion and Billy Browne who in the past has been honoured by the Lions Club and the Urban District Council for his unstinting contribution to the youth affairs in Athy was given due recognition by those in attendance.

Eddie Wall, whom I last met at our class reunion a few years ago, has written to me from England concerning the recent death of Maureen Dunphy, formerly of the Bleach. Eddie writes: “Just a month ago I attended here in Luton the funeral of Maureen Twitchen, née Dunphy, formerly of the Bleach, Athy. Maureen emigrated to England when she was 17 years of age.

Her sister Margaret and brothers John and Eamon would also leave Athy to settle in England. I went to school in Athy with Eamon and John and I met Maureen for the first time in the 1970s when we both worked with the Chrysler Truck Company in Luton. She married Sean Twitchen from Kildare Town and involved herself in the local community and the Church of St Martin de Porres here in Luton. A keen gardener, she won prizes for the most beautiful garden in her area on several occasions. She was a wonderful person who will be sadly missed by her husband Sean, her son John and grandchild. I will miss her warm hello and big smile and the times we shared together reminiscing about the old town of Athy which we called home”.

I am sure many of the readers will remember the Dunphy family of Bleach and I remember Eamon and John Dunphy, both of whom attended the local Christian Brothers School before emigrating to England almost 50 years ago.

I end this article by congratulating Roy Sheehan, Frank English and Aontas Ogra in a week which has seen celebrations marking achievements of which all of us can be immensely proud.