Thursday, November 27, 2008

Declan Wall & Paddy Eaton

For the second week in succession I have had to put off the article I had intended to write about the Carbery family of St. Patrick’s Avenue. The passing of two men of my acquaintance, one in relatively old age, the other at the far end of the age spectrum, both dying within 12 hours of each other, prompts the article this week.

Declan Wall was just 33 years of age when he died in tragic circumstances shortly after returning from the Circuit Court in Naas where he had shared some time with my son Seamus. Indeed both had lunch together that same day and Seamus returned to the office in the late afternoon, little realising the awful tragedy that would later overtake his companion.

Declan was a young barrister whose advocacy skill and commanding Court presence marked him out as a rising star amongst his colleagues on the Eastern circuit. His early years at the Bar, like those of his bewigged junior colleagues were spent building up contacts, amassing knowledge and know-how, all in preparation for a legal career which held out much promise for the future. It was not to be and Declan’s death caused great sorrow amongst his colleagues and friends. Our sympathies go to his wife Fiona, his mother and the Wall family.

Within hours of Declan’s death I heard the not unexpected news that my good friend Paddy Eaton had passed away. Paddy had been unwell for some time but yet when I last visited him, only a week or so ago, he was bearing up well and was as cheerful as ever. I knew Paddy ever since he returned to his hometown of Athy after many years in Birmingham. A master painter, who like his father before him acquired and the skill and good taste of a craftsman, Paddy took pride in his work.

Verschoyles old house in Ardreigh was perhaps one of the last place to benefit from his craft work. I know he took great pleasure in restoring the doors and woodwork of that old house which had suffered greatly after years of subletting and apartment living. The internal walls of the house built for Samuel Haughton, the Quaker miller of Ardreigh Mills, immediately after the Great Famine were also to benefit from Paddy’s attention to detail. Almost 20 years after he had devoted so much time and skill to re-decorating Ardreigh House his workmanship is still as fresh and appealing as it was two decades ago.

Paddy was the second generation of the Eaton family to take up the painting trade. His father Martin worked for Newcombe Empey Sign and Ornamental Painter and Gilder of Leinster Street and Paddy who was born in 1934 began his apprenticeship with the same firm in 1948. He was just 14 years of age and earned 7 shillings and 6 pence per week which is the modern equivalent of 37½ cent. Despite his youth it was his second job, Paddy having spent the previous year working in Tom McHughs foundry in Janeville Lane. The youngster of 13 years of age had started working in the foundry when his father fell ill and Paddy as the oldest in the family took on the responsibility of earning a wage to help his parents and siblings through what were very difficult times.

Paddy talked to me some years ago of his time working for Tom McHugh and mentioned the names of some of his fellow workers such as Mannix Thompson, Frankie Aldridge, Des Donaldson and Robbie Lynch of Shrewleen Lane. Tom McHugh was one of two brothers who operated foundries in Athy – the other foundry being based in Meeting Lane. Paddy described Tom as the ‘best floor moulder’ in the country who worked the sandboxes with an artistry which belied his down-to-earth appearance, tracing intimate designs in the red sand which came from Dan Neill’s field on the Carlow Road.

Working in the Foundry at such a young age was contrary to the law relating to school attendance but in the harsh economic climate of the post War years, the local Garda Sergeant, who happened to be my own father, took a benign attitude to the youngsters school absence. At 14 years of age Paddy was free to take up an apprenticeship with Newcombe Empey and for four years served his time, the latter part of which was as an ‘improver’.

The economic difficulties currently facing the country will no doubt disimprove before they get better and those of us not acquainted with the economic stagnation and the unemployment of the 1950s will come to appreciate what young men like Paddy Eaton faced during those dark days. The emigrants boat held out the only hope for many at a time when jobs were scarce and where those lucky to be in employment earned little more than enough to keep body and soul together. Paddy Eaton was one of the many hundreds men and women who had no alternative but to leave their hometown in search of work in the 1950s. Sally Oak, Birmingham would in time be home to Paddy and many more of Irish descent who found work in car manufacturing and in the huge engineering works of that city. Having trained as a painter Paddy continued to work at this craft, even while employed full time in a Birmingham factory. Working on his own account at the weekends added long hours to the working week and Paddy continued to do this for many years until a heart attack prompted him to cut back on his work schedule.

He returned to Ireland and to Athy following his early retirement and it was then that I first got to know Paddy. The craft skills acquired almost 50 years previously were never to leave him. His training in mixing paints, in the preparation of surfaces for painting and in the other detail which marked him out as a craftsman required a patience and an attention to detail which suited his temperament. A courteous even-tempered man, he enjoyed most of all his pint and ruefully admitted to over indulging on some occasions. However, Paddy was always courteous, always pleasant and ever good natured. The hard times he had experienced as a youngster of 13 years working in the adult world were never allowed to colour his attitude to those he met. He was immeasurably proud of his son Patrick and his daughter Shirley who in recent years returned to live and work in Birmingham City where they were born. He is survived by his wife Mary, his two children and two grandchildren.

Ar dhéis Dé go raibh a nanamacha.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Church’s role in bringing community together

It’s just a few short miles out of Athy, yet on last Sunday it seemed a place apart. To Kilmead, formerly in the holding of the Fitzgerald family of Earldom and Dukedom fame, came neighbours and friends of the Conlan family to pay their respects to their 29 year old daughter Niamh who tragically died while on vacation in Australia. St. Ita’s Church, where I sat in the transept facing the choir gallery, had the ambience of what in my minds eye was a rural church in 19th century Ireland. The pews, polished by generations of use, to the ancient walls painted and maintained over the years with careful attention spoke of a community’s pride. Everywhere one looked there was evidence of community involvement. From the stewards outside the church gate marshalling cars as they arrived, to the choir which was in position a long time before the appointed hour. The choir’s choice of hymns was so different than anything I have heard before. The thundering evangelical-like hymns favoured a generation or more ago gave way to the more gentle strains of hymns I had never before heard. ‘I watched the Sunrise’ was one of those hymns sung to the accompaniment of a young local man, Stuart Lawler, whose sensitive playing of the organ provided a pleasing musical backdrop to the mass voices of the mixed choir of St. Ita’s Church.

‘I watched the sunrise lighting the sky,
Casting his shadows near
And on this morning bright though it be,
I feel those shadows near me.’

The choir leader was Joan O’Connor who played a beautiful instrumental piece on the tin whistle during the mass.

I remarked afterwards what a strong community involvement there seemed to be in the area and it made me realise how important is a church (any church for that matter) in maintaining a vibrant community spirit in its area. The church where the local community come together at least once a week to share in a common activity helps to develop and maintain a strong community spirit. We generally tend to overlook the importance of church based services or activities and the role they have played over the years in developing and maintaining the sense of community. Kilmead is a fine example of a church exercising its influence on community relationship and in this way seemed a place apart from my own town of Athy where the influence of the church has diminished alarmingly. Mass going is now a minority activity in Athy, the numbers who attended mass a generation or so ago have disappeared and I suspect that presently perhaps less than one third of those who once attended mass are now doing so. The fall off must have had an effect on the cohesiveness of the local community. If we no longer meet on a regular basis in the church where else are we likely to meet? For many the answer is nowhere.

St. Ita’s Church, according to a plaque on its front wall, was opened in 1798. If the date is correct it represents a unique event in Irish history. ’98 was a time of conflict, a time of terror and regrettably also it must be acknowledged, a time of sectarian barbarism. Several churches throughout the country were destroyed, and in that regard south Kildare suffered as much as many other areas. Our own Parish Church in Chapel Lane was burned to the ground on 7th March 1800 in an attack allegedly involving some members of the South Cork militia. The church in Castledermot had been torched on 20th March 1799 and nearby Stradbally Church suffered a similar fate on 24th June 1798. Indeed a total of 35 churches were destroyed in the five counties of Wexford, Wicklow, Kildare, Laois and Carlow during and in the immediate aftermath of the 1798 Rebellion. The opening of a Catholic church in Kilmead in the midst of such tumult seems improbable. However, despite the questions which must hang over the claim to be a ’98 church, St. Ita’s is unquestionably home to a vibrant and caring congregation and community which came out in great numbers last Sunday to pay tribute to one of its own.

I mentioned last week when I inserted a photograph of youngsters from the Avenue taken 65 years ago that I would write of the Carbery family of St. Patrick’s Avenue this week. Unfortunately and inexplicably while I mentioned the Carberys I gave the wrong names of those photographed, referring to the Carbery boys as Carrolls. Fortunately Denis Smyth has once again come to my rescue and courtesy of his letter I can confirm that Joe Carbery is photographed between Vinny Smith and Mary Kehoe and his brother Liam Carbery is in the front row.

Denis, who in his younger days lived at No. 2 Offaly Street, was able to identify the men in the second of last weeks photographs which was taken outside John W. Kehoe’s premises. The men from left to right were Bob Webster, J.W. Kehoe, Tim Scally, Tom McHugh and another. Bob and his brother Jack Webster were painters and Bob later became manager of the cinema in Offaly Street. Tim Scally worked in Kehoes and indeed I understood he also worked for Tom Dowling who was the previous owner of the premises. Tim later emigrated to England and is now living back in Athy. Tom McHugh lived at No. 8 Offaly Street and he operated his own foundry in Janeville Lane. The unidentified man standing next to Tom is believed to have been one of his workmen.

Another photograph from the Carbery collection in America is shown this week. It was taken on 22nd August 1948 and shows three young local lads sitting on a canal boat which I understood was captained by Mr. Wall of St. Patrick’s Avenue. Does anyone know anything about him? The boys are from left Alfie Rafferty, Des Noonan and Joe Carbery. Rafferty and Carbery lived in St. Patrick’s Avenue, while Des Noonan lived in Stanhope Street. The Carbery story is postponed to next week.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Images of times past

Thanks to everyone who took part in the recent photographic survey of Athy. Cataloguing of the photos handed in will commence shortly but in the meantime there is an opportunity for anyone who still has photos to give them into the Heritage Centre.

Photographic images provide an exciting and accurate record of moments in time! As old photographs become available they give a rare insight into often long forgotten times. Images of Athy in the past can be expected to be found in almost every corner of the world, in any place where Athy men and women have settled. Such a place is America, from where a number of photographs of Athy and Athy folk in the 1940s and early 1950s came back to the town, courtesy of Joseph Carbery. Now living in Stoneypoint, New York, Joe, whose family lived at No. 20 St. Patrick’s Avenue, emigrated to America in 1949. This week I am reproducing two of these photographs. One shows John W. Kehoe’s public house in Offaly Street with five men standing outside. Second from left is the proprietor John W. himself who during the 1950s was chairman of the Geraldine Park Committee. He spearheaded many of the improvements which were made to Athy’s Gaelic football venue during his chairmanship of that committee. I cannot identify the other men in the photograph but perhaps readers of this weeks Eye will be able to do so.The other photograph was taken in 1943 and shows a number of youngsters who were then living in St. Patrick’s Avenue. From left at the back are Vinny Smyth, Joe Carroll, M. Keogh, Paddy Kelly, Vera Rafferty and Niall Smyth. In front are Joe Carroll, Liam Carroll, Mary Noonan, Frank McCarthy and C. Carroll.

In next weeks Eye on the Past I will tell the story of the Carroll family who once lived in St. Patricks Avenue.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Remembering Athy’s war dead

‘The remains of men who fought in the war are still unearthed from time to time.’ That simple sentence, culled from a newspaper article some months ago reminds us that so many of those killed during the course of the 1914-18 war never had the dignity of a Christian burial. How many lie in unrecognised and unmarked graves is not known. The fatality figures for Athy men which I have been compiling from different sources has increased to 121, with the addition of Robert Bloomer, a local postman from St. Michael’s Terrace. Bloomer, who left a young wife and family, died in India and is buried in Poona.

Looking through the list of names of the men who left Athy to enlist for the duration of the war it is obvious that few local families were not represented on the battle fields of France and Flanders. Many families such as that of Mrs. M. Mulhall of William Street had several family members involved. I have no information on the Mulhall family other than that extracted from a report in the Nationalist newspaper of 19th January 1918 which mentions Mrs. Mulhall’s three enlisted sons and the award of a Parchment Certificate of the Irish Brigade to one of them, Lance Corporal P. Mulhall. Was he, I wonder, a brother of John Mulhall, a 20 year old Private in the Dublin Fusiliers who was killed in France on 23rd October 1916?

Athy man, Frank Redmond, who is now living in London, has been researching for some time past the World War I dead from Athy and County Kildare and he recently sent me part of his findings. He has found that at least 39 of the Athy men killed during the war have no known graves and their names are recorded on war memorials at Thiepval, Arras, Helles, Tyne Cot, the Menin Gate in Ypres and other similar memorial sites. Sadly their mangled remains sank into the ground, never to be found and even if found in later years were never identified.

Fellow soldiers and townsmen who died in battle and were buried in known graves include Denis Kelly who was only 20 years old when he was laid to rest in his grave at Poperinge in Belgium in October 1918. His brother John had also reached his 20th birthday when he died in Netley Hospital, Hampshire in England three years previously. He is buried in Netley Cemetery. Another brother Owen, who had enlisted at the same time as John, was also killed in the second year of the war and he is buried in Le Treport Military Cemetery. Their parents, John and Mary Kelly, lived in 4 Chapel Lane. I have been trying for some time to get some information on the Kelly family and I have found two memorials in St. Michael’s Cemetery to Mary Kelly who died on 6th May 1964, aged 86 years and John Kelly who died on 4th May 1940, aged 66 years. His memorial was erected by ‘his wife and sons’. Were they the parents of the three young Kellys from Chapel Lane who were killed during the 1914-18 War?

The slaughter of the 1914-18 battlefields resulted in the death of almost ten million soldiers, which with the civilian losses of life during the same war give a total of over 19 million war fatalities. The death of 219 men from Athy and the neighbouring hinterland seems little in comparison. However, within the small close-knit community of Athy the loss of so many in such a short period most certainly had serious repercussions for the social fabric of the local community. Those difficulties were exacerbated by the advent of other wars which this time was fought on Irish soil. The War of Independence and the subsequent Civil War effectively kept the Irish countryside in a continuing state of emergency for almost 9 years. Frank Aiken’s call in May 1923 for anti-treaty forces to dump their arms brought an end to the Civil War and to years of armed conflict which started with the outbreak of hostilities on the Continent in August 1914.

The soldiers, demobbed after the ceasefire on 11th November 1918, returned home to Athy where for a decade or so they felt able each year to come together to remember their fallen comrades. The election of De Valera’s Fianna Fáil government in 1932 coincided with a growing public disenchantment with the annual old comrades parade on Remembrance Sundays in provincial towns such as Athy. The parades ceased to be held from the early 1930s and thereafter the events of 1914-18 and the men who had participated in them were largely ignored. For many local families however, especially those who had lost family members in the Great War, the 11th of November held a special meaning. It was a day set aside to remember and grieve for the young men who had died in the war but for decades that remembrance was held behind closed doors within close-knit family circles. There was no public acknowledgement and no public recognition of what a generation of Athy folk had suffered.

In recent years attitudes have changed. We can now pay a well deserved public tribute to our neighbour’s children knowing that their participation in a foreign war, irrespective of the uniform they wore, is a valued part of our shared Irish history.

This year the usual Remembrance Sunday ceremony in St. Michael’s Cemetery will not take place. This is due solely to the absence on the day of a number of people who have organised it in the past. Instead on Tuesday evening, 11th November at 8.00 p.m., the Heritage Centre will host a short talk with poetry reading, music and the showing of a short video as part of the 90th anniversary of Armistice Day. The performance under the title ‘In Some Faithful Heart’ will be Athy’s contribution to that anniversary and admission to the event is free.

Commemorating past events and remembering those people involved in them is one of the ways in which we can pay tribute to past generations of locals who once walked the same streets as we do today. It is particularly gratifying to acknowledge the part played by Athy Town Council in putting up a plaque on the Town Hall to the local men involved in the First World War. Less pleasing however is the failure of the same Council to erect in Emily Square a memorial to the Athy men and women who suffered during the 1798 Rebellion. I am at a loss to understand the Council’s neglect in this regard and fail to see why the Memorial designed and sculpted by Brid Ni Rinn cannot be erected. Ten years have passed since Brid Ni Rinn completed the commission given to her by the Council and her finished work still languishes in the Council yard. Is there a possibility it might be put in position before the local election next June?