Thursday, November 25, 2010

Athy Lions Club

Athy Lions Club is part of a worldwide organisation which prides itself on being the largest charitable organisation in existence.  39 years ago the first meeting to establish a branch of the Lions Club in Athy was held in the Leinster Arms Hotel.  Kilkenny Lions Club hosted that meeting and soon afterwards Athy Lions Club was founded.  The Club’s charter dated 29th June 1971 is now on display in the local Heritage Centre and it records the names of the 24 founder members of the Club.  The first President of the Club was the late Des McHugh and happily 6 of those original members have maintained their membership of the Lions Club over the succeeding 39 years.  Ken Turner, Michael Dwyer, Gerry Cleary, Johnny Watchorn, Michael Wall and Trevor Shaw are the longest serving members of the Club which meets every month in the Clanard Court Hotel courtesy of the Fennin family.

Last week at its November meeting the current President of Athy Lions, Paul Cunningham, presented Michael Wall with Honorary Life Membership of the Club.  Tributes were paid to Michael who for many years was the Club’s treasurer and who also served a term as President of Athy Lions.  Michael who comes from County Mayo and who recently celebrated a significant birthday (I’m not allowed to say what age he is) was in his younger days a dedicated and energetic member of the Lions Club.  He is particularly proud of his involvement and that of his fellow Lions in helping to establish the first canoe club in Athy in modern times. 

The Club Members also took the opportunity of extending good wishes to another great stalwart of the Lions Club, Johnny Watchorn, who is currently in hospital.  Both Johnny and Michael have made significant contributions to the Lions Club over the years and in doing so have helped many local causes and charities. 

Perhaps the most unique project undertaken by the local Lions Club was the development of the sheltered housing scheme in the grounds of St. Vincent’s Hospital in 1989.   Other projects assisted include Sr. Consilio’s Cuan Mhuire, St. Vincent’s Hospital, the Order of Malta, the Travellers Club and Athy’s Care of the Elderly Committee.  There are many other local charities which have benefited from the work of Athy Lions Club Members in organising events such as the Dream Auction to be held in the Clanard Court Hotel on Thursday 25th November.  Starting at 7.30 p.m. with a wine reception and free admission the Auction offers an opportunity to buy a variety of goods, services and unusual items, many of which would make ideal Christmas presents.

Helicopter rides, computer training, dinners for 4 in the Dáil restaurant, tickets for All-Ireland Hurling Final are just a few of the 100 or more items which will be auctioned for charity on Thursday night.  For racing fans a painting of Dawn Run, the winner of both the Gold Cup and the Champion Hurdle, will be of interest and for bibliophiles the sale of a signed copy of a Seamus Heaney book should prove attractive.

The work of the local Lions Club seldom receives publicity as much of the good work of its members is done quietly and discreetly.  However, this is an occasion when publicity is actively canvassed so that as many as can will come to the Clanard Court Hotel on Thursday night and help make life easier for many local charities this Christmas.

Another Lions Club venture to note is the Annual Food Appeal collection which Lions Members and their partners will take up in local supermarkets between Thursday 9th December to Saturday 11th December inclusive.  The proceeds of the Food Appeal go to the local St. Vincent de Paul Conference which is urgently in need of help and assistance to meet the evergrowing demands in these recessionary times. 

I was in London last week and regrettably missed the funerals of Joe O’Rourke and Benny Anderson, two men with family links with Athy going back over many years.  Andersons is of course a landmark in the centre of the town and well I remember how it formed the backdrop to the political rallies held in Emily Square at a time when such rallies preceded by marches from the Railway Bridge were all the vogue.  Several members of the extended O’Rourke family were prominent in the War of Independence and some of those involved subsequently emigrated to America.  Joe is survived by his wife Kay and children Brendan, Anthony and Linda and his brothers Dom, Frank and Christy and his sister Margaret.  Benny is survived by his wife Vivienne and children John, David, Benny, Helen, Nuala and Michele.

To both families are extended our sympathies on their sad loss.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Garda Tony Geoghegan / Sr. Alphonsus

History is made by the man or woman in the street or in the home.  We are all part of the ever unfolding social panorama which viewed from a distance gives us a sense of the community or in a wider dimension the nation in which we live.

For very many of us the community of which we are a part delimits the extent of our interest and our involvement.  Very few others play roles of varying significance on the national stage but it is at the level of community involvement that one’s actions are subjected to the most detailed and exacting scrutiny.  The sweeping statement of the national figure is generally not parsed or examined with the same exactitude as the local figure whose every action or inaction is noted, scrutinised and critically detailed by members of the local community. 

How pleasing therefore it is to come to the end of your working life or to reach an impressive age and find that your community values your contribution to the local community.  Such are the experiences of two persons whose paths followed different routes as they served people of Athy over the years.  Garda Tony Geoghegan retires this week after 30 years service in the Garda Siochana, while Sr. Alphonsus of the local Sisters of Mercy community celebrated her 90th birthday at the end of October. 

Tony who is from Bagenalstown, Co. Carlow came to Athy 25 years ago.  He is one of the very few and every decreasing members of the Gardai who live in the town where they serve as members of the local police force.  It’s an unfortunate fact of these times in which we live that more and more members of the Garda Siochana have chosen not to live amongst the communities which they serve.  The local policeman is no longer an appropriate description for the man on the beat, then again the man on the beat is seldom, if ever, to be seen these days.

Tony Geoghegan epitomised everything that was to be admired in a police officer.  Having known him since his arrival in Athy I have only admiration for the exceptional qualities brought to his role as a local policeman.  He knew the people amongst whom he lived and he was able to bring to his everyday job as a policeman a depth of local knowledge and more importantly a respect for and understanding of what motivated or caused people to come to the attention of the Gardai.

Some years ago he was subjected to a most frightening and dangerous experience when he responded to an armed robbery in one of our local banks.  His bravery on that day was repeated on another occasion when he dived into the Canal in an unsuccessful attempt to rescue an unfortunate young man.  He retires with the good wishes of the people of Athy.

Sister Alphonsus came to Athy to join the local Sisters of Mercy on 6th January 1939 from County Tipperary.  Her sister Winifred, now Sister Oliver, had already joined the local Convent having entered in September 1936.  The young Sheila Meagher received the Holy Habit on 14th November 1939 just as war swept over the European mainland.  She took the name Sr. Alphonsus and pronounced her triennial vows in February 1942 before making her final vows on 16th February 1945.  With her that day and also taking their final vows were Sr. Paul Cosgrave and Sr. Ignatius Fingleton, both of happy memory.

Her earlier involvement in community affairs outside the confines of the Convent included periods in which she helped organise the local Boys Club and during the early years of the local Wheelchair Association.  She had spent a lifetime teaching in the girls Primary School and is remembered fondly as Principal of Scoil Mhichil Naofa for three years before retiring in 1986 to be replaced by Sr. Joseph.  Subsequently she was appointed Superior of the Convent of Mercy in Arklow and happily returned to Athy some years ago. 

The Sisters of Mercy made enormous contribution to education of young people in Athy following their arrival in October 1852.  In later years as restrictions on convent life lessened, their involvement with the local community extended into other areas to the benefit generally of the young and disadvantaged.  Sr. Alphonsus was one of the courageous band of professional women whose pioneering social work gave help and encouragement to those in need.  The unspoken gratitude of generations of Athy people for the work of the Sisters of Mercy over the years can be readily presumed.  Perhaps as the years advance and the Sisters of Mercy become part of an advanced age profile should we as a community consider marking the contribution of generations of Sisters of Mercy to Athy in some meaningful way.

It’s a thought I put to my readers as I wish Sr. Alphonsus a belated 90th birthday and wish Tony Geoghegan a long and happy retirement.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Jens Preisler

November is the month we traditional associate with remembrance of the dead.  It is also the month 92 years ago when the guns fell silent throughout the scarred lands of France and Flanders and men, numbed by the violence of war, dared to hope that they had survived the cruel unforgiving hell of the First World War.  Those same men would return home, some to England, Scotland or Wales, others to Ireland, there to face the harsh reality of unemployment and poverty.  For the young Irishmen who had been cheered to their local railway stations as they marched off to war there was the additional unexpected disappointment caused by the shift in public opinion over the course of the war years.  Pre war Home Rule agitation had given way to a full blooded call for Irish independence which was accompanied by a military campaign waged against men who wore the same style military uniform as the returning Irish men.

Many decades would pass and the enlisted men had long passed away before the Ireland of a new generation felt confident enough to commemorate the men who enlisted and died in the First World War.  Next Sunday 14th November local people will gather in St. Michael’s Old Cemetery at 3.00 p.m. to remember the men from Athy and district who died during the 1914-18 conflict.  The remembrance ceremonies will be held at the graves of six local men who died in Athy while on leave from the war front.  122 men from the town died during the war, while another 96 men from the outlying countryside also perished.  The majority of those men have no known grave.  We, who were spared the savagery of war in our time, should remember those men in their home town.

Jens Preisler died on 20th September last in his 98th year.  He arrived in Ireland in January 1938 to help start up a new cement factory in Limerick.  A native of Copenhagen he was just 23 years old and expected to be able to return to Denmark after a year or two in Ireland.  The Second World War put paid to any such possibility and Jens who qualified as a chemical engineer in 1936 was to spend the rest of his life in Ireland, apart from a three year period in the early 1950's.  He lived in Athy for 55 years, having arrived here to take over as manager of the Asbestos factory which was opened in 1936.

The first manager of the factory was Charles Cornish whose sudden death in the factory yard in 1952 led to the appointment of Charles Stevens as manager, a position he held until Jens’s appointment in 1955.  The Asbestos cement factory in 1955 was the place of work for more than 300 men who with the minimum use of machinery produced asbestos slates.  Most of the work was done by hand and given the nature of the raw material used in the factory it seems somewhat ironic to relate that Charles Cornish, the first manager, had banned smoking in the factory.    The pipe smoking Dane was quick to relax the non-smoking rule soon after his arrival. 

The workers in the Asbestos factory in 1938 earned 1 shilling an hour, a wage rate which prevailed throughout the war years.  By the mid 1950's this had increased to six pounds per week which was still unattractive to many workers who took the emigrant boat to England where earnings in the post war period were far better than in Ireland.  In 1963 Jens spearheaded the modernisation of the factory with the installation of slate making machines.  It was just one of many improvements which Jens implemented during his time as manager of the Athy plant from where he retired in 1976. 

Jens involved himself in many aspects of the social and cultural life of the town.  He was a founder member of the Castlemitchell Gun Club and the South Kildare Association of An Taisce.  His involvement with both associations extended over the years and he was at various times secretary and treasurer of both and was most recently the president of the Castlemitchell Gun Club.  Athy Golf Club and Athy Bridge Club benefited from his membership of over 50 years standing and he filled the role of president of both clubs.  The captaincy of Athy Golf Club was an honour bestowed on him at the 1966 A.G.M. of the club.  

In his involvement with An Taisce Jens was encouraged and indeed partnered by his wife Mai and both of them were dedicated members of the association for many years.  The South Kildare Association of An Taisce and its members of almost thirty five years ago including Jens and Mai Preisler deserve our gratitude for actively and successfully campaigning to save the Town Hall at a time when it was in imminent danger of being demolished. 

Jens is survived by his wife Mai and children Gorm, Kirsten, John, Frederik, Carl and Alan-Georg.

Ar dhéis Dé go raibh a anam.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

1798 in Athy

Next Sunday at 3 o’clock in the afternoon Dr. Pat Wallace, Director of the National Museum in Dublin, will unveil the monument erected in Emily Square to commemorate the men and women of 1798.  That year of rebellion was a pivotal time in Irish history, marking the early stages of Irish Republicanism which would garner support and inspire many over the succeeding 200 years. 

The unveiling of the ’98 monument in the centre of Athy allows us to dispel once and for all the oft repeated claim that Athy is a garrison town.  Growing up in Athy and attending the local Christian Brothers School I was unaware of the impact the 1798 Rebellion had on the town and the people of Athy.  In much the same way we believed that the Great Famine appeared to have not touched the lives of people living in this area.  Of course, with the more recent collating of reports of those times we now have a fuller, if not necessarily, a complete picture of the events surrounding the ’98 Rebellion and the Great Famine and how both events impacted on the people of this area.

Our principal informant for the events of over 200 years ago was local man Patrick O’Kelly, while letters from local residents such as Rev. Nicholas Ashe, Thomas Fitzgerald and Thomas J. Rawson, preserved in public or private libraries, give an even deeper insight into what was happening in Athy in ’98. 

Consider the letter Rawson, who lived at Glassealy before moving to Cardenton when his house was destroyed by rebels, wrote to the Duke of Leinster on 13th August 1799

‘When Campbell commanded this Garrison he caused barriers of hogsheads sods and earth to be made on the different approaches and on the centre of the Bridge – he was ordered to evacuate the Town and it was left for a long time to the sole protection of the Yeomanry – weak and threatened as the Town then was a large body of rebels having the next night approached within 100 perches of it, I considered it absolutely necessary to put up temporary gates and a paling, at an expense of upwards of £50 out of my pocket – the town was protected.  In November last Capt. Nicholson and a company of the Cork City Militia were sent here, he saw the sod work going to decay, he applied to General Dundas, and by the Generals special directions [the Inhabitants at large having subscribed a larger sum] strong walls of lime and stone were added to my gates – two large piers and a strong wall and platform were erected on the center of the bridge under the direction of Capt. Nicholson.  In the beginning of May last Gen. Dundas inspected the Athy Inf.  New made pikes had been recently found in the back house of a rebel Capt. of the town, several new schemes of insurrection were discovered, for which many have been since convicted by Court Martial – the large House in the Market Square was occupied by a noted rebel from the Co. of Carlow and it appearing to the General, that the barrier on the bridge, could be commanded from the house, he was pleased to approve of the building a second wall to cover the men – I neglected it for some time – on the account arriving, that a French Fleet was out, and destined for this country, I concluded that the town, would as before, be left to the Yeomanry.  In a hurry I had temporary walls ran up, merely doubling the former barrier, and recollecting that for four months last summer we had lain on the flag way on the bridge, in the open air with stones for our pillows – I covered the walls with a temporary skid of boards which are not even nailed on.’

We can gauge from Rawson’s letter the depth of loyalist fears and the measures which they felt were necessary to protect themselves from the rebels.  Their fears were well founded as evidenced by the massacres of Hannah Manders and four other at Glassealy in the summer of ’98.   Another atrocity followed a rebel attack on Narraghmore Courthouse where a number of loyalists had sought refuge.  Having surrendered to a large force of rebels six of those taken prisoner were hanged in a nearby wood.

Atrocities were committed by rebels and government forces alike.  Seven men, believed to be rebels, were hanged in the town of Athy in the early days of June ’98 and again Narraghmore figured prominently as six of the unfortunate men were from that area.  They included Daniel Walsh whose brother had been hanged a short time earlier in Naas.

These were dangerous times which like the Great Famine never formed part of the local folklore passed down from generation to generation.  It was if a community memory had been obliterated for reasons which this generation, spared the atrocities of armed rebellion and the inhumanity of death by starvation, can never know or understand.

On Sunday 7th November we can pay our respects to the men and women from Athy and district who in 1798 suffered for their involvement in the United Irishmen’s drive for civil and religious liberty.

Jens Preisler who died recently will be remembered at 7.30 p.m. Mass in the Dominican Church on Friday 5th November.  I had intended to write of Jens in this Eye but will do so next week.