Thursday, April 17, 2008

Keeping the flag flying Down Under

Michael Moran came from Ballyhaunis in County Mayo, a town well known to my mother who, as Kathleen Regan, lived a few miles away near the village of Cloonfad. A painter for 44 years of his working life, Michael is now retired and living in Sydney, Australia, to where he emigrated courtesy of the £10 assisted passage scheme 50 years ago. He spends a lot of his time as a volunteer in Sydney’s Gaelic Club, which today is home to the Padraig Pearse branch of the Irish Nationalist Association of Australasia. Founded in 1915, the association works for the development of Irish Australian cultural activities and the welfare of Irish people in Australia.

The Gaelic Club is on the first floor of the Irish National Association’s fine premises in Devonshire Street, Sydney, which was opened in 1955 by the Irish charge d’affairs. Today, the Gaelic Club is approached by a stairs, the walls of which are adorned by GAA colours of all the Irish counties. The last framed jersey next to the club entrance shows the Lilywhite colours which were presented by Sue Lomansey, whom, I believe, is the Asian-born chairperson of the Kildare Association in Sydney.

Membership of the Gaelic Club, which started in 1974, has declined in recent years. Thirty years ago, the club boasted a membership of over 1,000, but last year had little more than 250 members, almost 70% of which are over 75 years of age. I saw notices for Irish classes held each week on the premises as well as advance publicity for St Patrick’s Night festivities which, regretfully, I was unable to attend. An intriguing advertisement for ‘Sult at the Gaelic Club’ held on the second and fourth Wednesdays of each month promised sessions of music, poetry and the spoken word followed by ‘informal acoustic sessions’.

On the evening I called, the premises were quiet and Michael Moran, who appeared to manage the place with the assistance of a barman, had the opportunity to show me around the club’s library.

Bemoaning the loss of many of its books which had ‘disappeared’ in recent years, Michael nevertheless was able to show me quite a substantial holding of Irish history books, all of which would appear to indicate a purchasing policy which had lapsed some years past.

The club is located in the Surrey Hill area of Sydney, which up to the 1980s was an ‘Irish area’. This changed when the Australian Housing Commission started to renew the area, following which the Irish families moved to the city suburbs, leaving behind the club premises to which they no longer enjoyed easy access. The Gaelic Club continues, offering classes in the Irish language and providing a focal point for the city-based Gaelic teams that play in the New South Wales Championship and the Australian Championship.

The standard of play in the Australian Gaelic games, I’m told, is of a lesser standard than that to be found in New York, that other great bastion of overseas Gaelic games.

It was in Brisbane that I came across another Irish club, this time in Elizabeth Street and not far from St Stephen’s Cathedral, built by Bishop James Quinn, whose brother Andrew Quinn was parish priest of Athy in the 1850s. The Brisbane Irish community would appear to be more active than their Sydney compatriots, the club boasting a membership of almost 7,500, comprised, I’m told, of full members and associate members. To be a full member of what in Brisbane is called a national member, you have to be Irish or of Irish descent. The origin of the Brisbane Club lies in a disagreement which followed the replacement of an Irish commander of the Queensland Irish Volunteer Rifles by a British Army officer. This happened in the centenary year of the 1798 rebellion and the disaffected Irishmen set up the Queensland Irish Association, which moved to the Elizabeth Street premises in 1921.

Brisbane’s Irish Society organises the annual St Patrick’s Day parade, which this year was brought into the city business district starting at the corner of George’s and Elizabeth Street with the salute being taken out-side the Irish Club premises before ending up at the city’s Botanic Gardens. The night before, a gala dinner was held in which more than 500 took part to celebrate the feast day of the Englishman who, strangely enough, is the most iconic representative figure of ancient Ireland.

Australia, which gave a home to several generations of Irish men and women, whether convicts, political prisoners, orphans or free settlers, is not without its contradictions. Racism, which found its most regrettable expression in the white people’s treatment of the aboriginal people, is still a source of concern for observers of the monarchist state which has yet to embrace republican democracy.

Aboriginal Australia of early centuries was a culturally impoverished country compared to the richness of the medieval culture to be found in Ireland of the time. I was reminded of this on reading the programme of events for the South Kildare Medieval Festival planned for Sunday 20 April. From 12.30pm onwards, the centre of Athy will host a variety of talks and outdoor events highlighting the medievalist contribution to Irish life. The idea for the festival arose out of the important archaeological dig which has been ongoing at Ardreigh for the last number of years. The artefacts discovered at Ardreigh and the unfolding story of Ardreigh’s medieval village afford an opportunity to provide a forum for discussion, where the archaeologists can share their knowledge with the local people. It promises to be an enjoyable day and all will be happening between 12.30pm and 4.30pm in the Heritage Centre and outside in Emily Square on Sunday 20 April.

Last week’s photograph of the Ardscull Tug of War Team has evoked great interest and my thanks goes to Peter Kelly of Geraldine who allowed me the opportunity to reproduce it. If you have any information on the members of the Ardscull team, I would be delighted to hear from you.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Of Victory Crosses And Tug Of Wars

Two photographs this week, one of the Ardscull Tug of War team of 1928, the other of a grave in the Cornelian Bay Cemetery in Hobart, Tasmania. The grave is that of members of the Tasmanian branch of the Holland family, a family which had it’s origins here in Athy. I was in Cornelian Bay Cemetery recently to visit the grave of John Vincent Holland, formerly of Athy, who was awarded a Victoria Cross for bravery in the 1914-18 War. I have written previously of Holland and the local Heritage Centre has a display devoted to the man who returned from Argentina to join the British Army in 1914. His gallantry at Guillemont during the Battle of the Somme earned for him a civic reception from Athy U.D.C. and a presentation from members of Kildare County Council. Holland’s grave is but one of the many connections which exist between Ireland and the former Van Diemen’s Land, noted in history for the Irish convicts sent there in the early part of the 19th century.

The second photograph depicts the Moat of Ardscull Tug of War team which defeated the Dublin Metropolitan Police team in the Tailteann Games of 1928. It includes four Dempsey brothers from Kilmead, Paddy, Andy, Mick and Johnny. From left to right at the back the team photograph includes Major Tynan of Monasterevin who trained the team, Willie Owens, Jimmy O’Brien of Nurney, Paddy Dempsey, Peter Hanlon of Booleigh, Andy Dempsey and six foot eight inches tall Joe Beirne whom I believe lived near the Seven Stars. The front row from left has Casey Bell of Kilmead, Paddy O’Brien of Nurney, Tommy Ryan of Ballindrum, Mick Dempsey and Johnny Dempsey.

I have been unable to verify the information given to me about the team’s win in the 1928 Tailteann Games but that year was a triumphant one for Kildare county. The Sam Maguire was presented to that year’s All Ireland champions and the recipient was Squires Gannon, Captain of the Lilywhites. I believe that the Ardscull Tug of War team, like the footballers, wore white jerseys.

I would like to get more background information on the Ardscull team and the men whose photograph was taken 80 years ago.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

The passing of Dr. Joe O’Neill

I was in Sydney Australia when I received a brief text message on my mobile phone, ‘Dr. Joe is dead’. Nothing further was needed to identify the man who since he took over the medical practice of his father, Dr. Jeremiah O’Neill, was known simply throughout South Kildare and further afield as ‘Dr. Joe’. I was visiting the grave of Michael Dwyer, the Wicklow-born patriot of the 1798 Rebellion in Waverely Cemetery in Bondi, Sydney when the news of Dr. O’Neill’s death reached me. The patriotism of both men was unquestionable. Dwyer was a revolutionary patriot of another era while Dr. Joe, devoted to the medical care of the people of this area over many decades, directed his skills to the public welfare and in so doing can rightly be called a patriot of our community.

I had good reason to be especially grateful for the diagnostic skills of Dr. Joe when aged 25 years he diagnosed me as suffering from appendicitis. I was dispatched to Naas Hospital, still then under the control of Kildare County Council as the Health Authority and managed by a member of the Sisters of Mercy. Jack Gibson performed the operation, taking the opportunity to use his skill as a hypnotist to dispense with anaesthetics in some of my post-operative treatment. Sixteen years later Dr. Joe saved the life of my youngest son in circumstances which underlined his skill and his devotion as a doctor. My son Francis, then in primary school, complained one morning of feeling unwell which parents are always wary of hearing from school shy pupils. However, not being one given to making such complaints he was allowed to stay home from school and spend the day in bed.

Late in the evening he called his mother, not in any distress but merely to say that he had heard something ‘pop’ in his stomach. There was no great accompanying pain but fortunately Dr. Joe was called and on examining the youngster diagnosed a burst appendix. He was immediately removed to Temple Street Hospital in Dublin where he underwent surgery that night. Dr. O’Neill’s quick response and his skilful diagnosis of the young fellow’s condition undoubtedly helped save my son’s life.

It is on occasions such as this that the importance of a 24 hour local medical service is highlighted. What I wonder would have happened if the K-Doc system was then in operation? I shudder to think of the possible consequences.

Dr. O’Neill was the third generation medical doctor in the O’Neill family. The first was his grandfather, Dr. P.L. O’Neill who was appointed as medical officer to the local Workhouse in 1874 to succeed Dr. Thomas Kynsey. He had his own private practice prior to this but nevertheless the appointment to the local institution was an important acknowledgement of his standing in the community and his skill as a medical practitioner. Dr. P.L. O’Neill in common with what we would now regard as the educated class of the time was involved in local and national politics. The 1880’s and beyond was an exciting time in Irish political life, what with the Land League Campaign and the developing demand for Home Rule. Men like Dr. P.L. O’Neill and his peers took an active part in the issues of the day, leading the local community as did the local Parish Priest Fr. John Lawler and the local Rector Rev. Henry Bristow, both of whom contested elections to Athy Town Commissioners in 1847. Given their unique positions within the community it was imperative that both the Rector and the Parish Priest would not be embarrassed at the polls and indeed they were not. Both men polled well with the Parish Priest getting 105 votes, tying for top of the poll position with local mill owner Henry Hannon. Interestingly three local doctors, Dr. Kynsey, Dr. Irving and Dr. Ferris also stood for election and were duly elected to what was the first local authority established in Athy following the disbandment of the now elected and unrepresentative Borough Council seven years previously.

Dr. P.L. O’Neill was President of the local branch of the Irish National League until his resignation in November 1885 following a disagreement with Martin Doyle, another member of the League. He continued as medical officer to the Workhouse until 1897 when he was replaced by his son Dr. Jeremiah O’Neill who held the position for the next 51 years. Like his father, Dr. Jeremiah was involved in local politics and served as Chairman of Athy U.D.C. for three years from 1912. He died in 1954 aged 81 years old and was replaced as medical officer in what was by then called the County Home by his son Dr. Joe.

Dr. Joe O’Neill was a dedicated and gifted doctor whose pleasant gentle manner made him a favourite with his patients. He shunned the political arena which his father and grandfather before him had adorned and instead concentrated on his successful medical career which was distinguished by his kindness and thoughtfulness. Dr. Joe continued as medical officer to the County Home until 1991 when his son Dr. Giles O’Neill was appointed as the fourth member of the O’Neill family to that institution which by then was re-named St. Vincents Hospital. Aged 91 years when he passed away Dr. Joe will be sadly missed by all who knew him.

Last week Michael Harris was laid to rest at an age which fell short of the biblical three score and ten. Michael during his life made a huge contribution to the less well off members of the society, having instigated and operated for some years past an annual aid convoy to Romanian orphanages. Michael was in recent years a member of the local Lions Club which is part of the world’s largest charitable service organisation. He organised a number of events to raise funds for Lions charities, the last of which was a very successful concert in the Clanard Court Hotel featuring the soprano Virginia Kerr. A quiet man who made a huge impact within the many charitable causes with which he was associated, Michael will be sadly missed by the wider South Kildare community. His death at a comparatively young age is a further blow to the Harris family who suffered the tragic loss of two family members just over two years ago.

Tragic and sudden deaths are regrettably part of modern life and the recent death of Mary Clare Collins of Ballintubbert while holidaying in Rome brings home to us yet again the uncertainty of life. The loss of a child is a parent’s worst fear and the deaths of Mary Clare and her friend while enjoying a few days in the Eternal City cast a sorrow shadow over communities in Athy and Limerick.

With the deaths of Dr. Joe O’Neill, Michael Harris and Mary Clare Collins our own community has suffered the loss of a wonderful doctor, an exceptional charity worker and a young girl who was part of the generation of young people for whom the future held so much promise. For their families the personal losses are keenly felt and to the O’Neill, Harris and Collins families goes our sympathies at these sad times.