Thursday, September 29, 2011

Fr. John McLaughlin and the Irish Boxing Association

‘The Bell’, a monthly magazine edited by Sean O’Faolain, made its first appearance in October 1940.  It appeared until 1948 and restarted two years later.  However, its irregular appearance in the book shops soon lead to its demise in 1954. 

I was trawling through some of the earlier numbers of ‘The Bell’ during the week and came across an interesting article entitled ‘Boxing in Eire’.  It appeared in the October 1943 edition and prominently featured in that article was Fr. John McLaughlin, Chaplain to the Irish Defence Forces.

It was the same Fr. McLaughlin whom I remember as the senior curate in Athy in the 1950s.  He was, if I remember correctly, the key man in the Parish of St. Michaels during the last years of the elderly Parish Priest Archdeacon McDonnell. Fr. McLaughlin had the responsibility of initiating and developing the Church building fundraising activities which culminated in the opening of St. Michael’s Parish Church on 19th April 1964. 

I served Mass in the Parish Church for several years and recall the trips to Dublin which were arranged each year for the Mass servers.  We travelled in hackney cars, enjoying the same programme each year – a visit to Dublin Airport in the afternoon, followed by an evening’s entertainment at the Boxing Stadium on the South Circular Road.

It was only on reading ‘The Bell’ article of 68 years ago that I understood why the Boxing Stadium was such a prominent part of the annual outings for Athy Mass servers.  It had been opened in March 1939, eleven years after Fr. McLaughlin first became involved with the Irish Amateur Boxing Association.

Fr. McLaughlin was Honorary Treasurer of the I.A.B.A. at the same time when he was Chaplain to the Irish Defence Forces.  The National Boxing Stadium was built at the cost of £13,000 without any contribution from the State or from Dublin Corporation.  Five years after its opening the Stadium’s authorities still owed the sum of £5,000 and it was a measure of Fr. McLaughlin’s success as Treasurer of the I.A.B.A. that the debt was eventually paid off.  No doubt the experience gained during that early period of his clerical career stood him in good stead when he was entrusted with the task of funding the building of a new Parish Church for the most southerly parish in the Dublin diocese.

It is interesting to note that at the time the article ‘Boxing in Eire’ appeared in October 1943 there were approximately 132 boxing clubs in Ireland.  I wonder if the Athy Boxing Club with which Sydney Minch was involved was included in that number.  I am told that Sydney, who served as a Cumann na nGaedheal T.D. for Kildare following the 1932 and 1933 elections and was re-elected as a Fine Gael T.D. for Carlow/Kildare in 1937, started the local boxing club which operated out of St. John’s Hall.  When and for how long the Club was active I cannot say but I’m sure that there are many readers who can answer those questions.

Several years ago Pat Mangan gave me a billiard cue which had been presented to Fr. McLaughlin.  The inscription on the silver band around the stock of the cue reads, ‘Presented to Rev. J. McLoughlin (sic) C.F., to mark his Silver Jubilee 1922-1947 by the Staff Army Club Dublin.’  For me it is a treasured memento of a man who was greatly admired during his time in Athy.

Fr. McLaughlin was a brother of Thomas McLaughlin, engineer and originator of the Shannon Electricity Scheme.  It was Thomas McLaughlin who, realising that water rather than turf held the key to the manufacturing of electricity, devised a hydro-electric scheme based on the River Shannon.  After leaving Athy Fr. McLaughlin transferred to Celbridge as Parish Priest.  His legacy and that of the many others, both lay and clerical, who were involved in fundraising campaigns in St. Michael’s Parish for more than a decade, can be seen in the present day Parish Church of St. Michaels which an eminent architect once claimed ‘was unnecessarily large and lacking in the kind of human reference which I would call “human scale”’.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

1931 Ploughing Match

This week Athy has the unique privilege of hosting the National Ploughing Championships for the third year in succession.  The land at Cardenton owned by the Fennin family will be the focus of all of our attention over the next few days as competitors from every county in Ireland compete for coveted ploughing titles.  It is appropriate that Athy should be honoured in this way for it was Athy man J.J. Bergin of Maybrook who was the organiser of the very first inter county ploughing contest held in Ireland.  That contest was held 80 years ago over Hosie’s lands at nearby Coursetown.

Ploughing contests, whether on a local or county level, were common features of country life in Ireland for decades prior to the first inter county contest organised in February 1931.  J.J. Bergin, an extraordinarily talented man, together with Denis Allen of Wexford came up with the idea of an inter county ploughing match, initially to settle a wager as to whether the best ploughmen came from Kildare or Wexford.  The organising committee for the 1931 event held over Willie Hosie’s lands at Coursetown comprised the following Athy folk. 

A. Reeves, J.N. Greene, E.F. Minch, P.P. Doyle, J. Gracie, Capt. Hosie, F. White, A.L. Spiers, J. Flynn, W. Cox, John Owens, D.C. Greene, Capt. Redmond, C.W. Taylor, J. Melrose, W.K. Hosie, Jas. Kelly, R. Anderson, W. Duncan, P. Dooley U.D.C., J.J. Keegan, M. Malone, Ted Fennin, Jas. Duthie, Jas. Ashmore, Thos. Carty, Hugh Kane, G. Mullins, Hugh Cogan, Capt. Webb, E.J. Fagan, J.C. Yates, C.W. Henderson, T. Ryan, P. Kehoe, J.J. Bergin.

That first ploughing championships took place on Monday 16th February 1931 with four competition classes, an inter county event, the championship of Ireland, a County Kildare event and an open competition for ploughs pulled by tractors.  A gold medal was awarded to the inter county winner, with cash prizes ranging from one guinea to ten shillings for some of the other competitions.  A most unusual prize was a ten stone bag of flour presented by Mr. J. Gracie of Kilmead, Athy for a married competitor with the greatest number in family.

The Nationalist newspaper of 21st February 1931 carried a detailed report of the ploughing matches which were attended by about 3,000 people.  Nine counties were represented in the inter county competition, with 52 competitors.  The champion ploughman award went to Edward Jones of Wexford, with County Wexford winning the inter county contest.  The competition confined to County Kildare competitors was won by J.C. Carolan of Levitstown, with his employer John Melrose’s horse and plough.  His near neighbour, T. Yates of Grangemellon, came second, with a ploughing team worked by P. Kinsella.  The Nationalist noted that ‘one of the outstanding features of the competition was the work done by a young boy of 14 years, James Ryan of Athy, who with a Ransome plough won third prize in the local class.’  For the 1931 competition 34 pairs of horses were provided by local farmers to be shared amongst the competitors who drew lots for the horses to be used by them.

The programme for that first inter county ploughing championship carried a number of advertisements for businesses in the Athy area including Industrial Vehicles (Ireland) Ltd. who were main Fordson dealers for Leinster.  E. Nolan of 1 Leinster Street was the local agent for seeds provided by Hogg & Robertson of Mary Street, Dublin, while Duthie Large & Co. Ltd. with an address at The Foundry, Athy, were agents for Ford cars and trucks.  Eugene J. Fagan of Duke Street, Athy advertised as the Irish sales and service manager for Beardmore Commercial Vehicles. 

Three local hotels had advertisements in the 1931 programme.  The Central Hotel, Leinster Street owned by J. Hutchinson boasted electric lights throughout, with baths, while the Leinster Arms Hotel confined its advertising as a ‘first class family and commercial hotel’.  The Railway Hotel, also in Leinster Street, owned by Thomas L. Flood, concentrated on advertising its grocery business where ‘finest Irish bacon’ was a speciality.  Its advertisement also carried the line ‘official caterer’, presumably a reference to the Coursetown Ploughing Championship.  Rather strangely a full page advertisement for Minch Nortons gave its address as Levitstown Mills, Maganey, with no reference to its long established Athy business. 

Jackson Brothers of 58 Leinster Street as befitting one of the largest firms then operating in Athy had a full page advertisement.  It combined a ‘high class grocery’ with a motor department where a fully equipped workshop catered for ‘all motor and cycle repairs’.  Jacksons had a number of dealerships for agriculture equipment, all of which were highlighted in the advertisement.  Of all the Athy businesses which featured in the 1931 ploughing championship programme, only one, Minch Nortons, continue in business to this day.

The return of the National Ploughing Championship to Athy for the third year in succession is a fitting acknowledgement of the involvement of Athy man J.J. Bergin in founding the National Ploughing Association 80 years ago. 

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Florrie Pender

School day memories came flooding back when I heard of the celebration for Florrie Pender's 100th birthday on the 26th of August.  I was away from Athy that day in a city whose previous name was a further reminder of classroom days in Athy's Christian Brothers School.  Constantinople formerly Byzantium and now Istanbul was one of those almost magical names which learned at school brought up images of the mysterious East and glorious days of the Ottoman Empire.

But it was the mention of Florrie’s centenary which brought my memories back even beyond my first awareness of Eastern Empires.  For Florrie was employed in the local Convent of Mercy and  involved in the cleaning of St. Joseph's boys school on the Monasterevin Road during what I believe was my last of three years in the Sisters of Mercy boys junior school.  She replaced the well loved Mrs Lucy Alcock from Dooley's Terrace whom all the school boys regarded as a surrogate mother in a day time world populated by adults who dressed in a rather severe and challenging fashion. 

The Sisters of Mercy were our teachers in St. Joseph's school and their religious habits must at first sight have seemed extraordinary to young boys who up to then lived in the cosseted world of family and home.  Mrs. Alcock and later Florrie Pender were reminders of the mothers we had left at home and the occasions our paths crossed reinforced the bonds of affection which would forever remain with us.

Florrie’s father Denis worked for many years with the Sisters of Mercy.  Living in nearby Mount Hawkins he was a general factotum for the local convent and more importantly also drove the Convent's horse carriage.  Florrie initially worked occasionally in the Convent and replaced Lucy Alcock when the latter retired in the second half of the 1940's.

Florrie married William Pender and in so doing changed her name as she laughingly once described to me by cutting the “gast” out.  After more than seventy years of lifes service to the Sisters of Mercy and St. Joseph's Boys School and later Scoil Mhicil Naofa, Florrie eventually retired.  However even in retirement she was still a regular visitor to the Scoil Mhicil Naofa staff room up to recent years.

St. Joseph's school is now long gone, demolished at the same time as the old St. Michael's Parish Church to make way for the present church.  The young local boys who in former times were destined to spend three years of junior school in St. Joseph's instead found themselves part of the larger Scoil Mhicil Naofa.  The youngsters were always referred to by Florrie as “my boys”.  The girls who made up the majority of Scoil Mhicil Naofa's school population were never seemingly accorded the same “gra” by Florrie.  Indeed plans announced for the transformation of all primary schools in Athy to co-educational establishments did not gain approval from the good lady who had herself attended classes as a young girl in Athy's Convent school when the 1916 rebellion broke out in Dublin. 

The gathering in Our Lady's ward of St. Vincent's Hospital on the 26th of August to celebrate Florrie’s centenary brought together a representative group of teachers from Scoil Mhicil Naofa and members of Florrie's family.  Fr. Philip Dennehy celebrated mass which was attended by Florrie's son Tom, his family and Florrie’s grandchildren and great grandchildren.  It was a wonderfully happy occasion organised by Eithne Julian of the nursing staff of St. Vincent's Hospital.

The photograph showing Florrie Pender standing outside her house in Convent View was taken by me ten years ago on the day Florrie celebrated her 90th birthday.  Many happy returns to Athy's latest centenarian. 

Thursday, September 8, 2011

St. Patrick's Primary School

The simple notice in the Parish Church bulletin gave little indication of the historic event which it signalled.  ‘School reopening, Scoil Padraig Naofa Thursday 1st September for all students in new building in Tomard.’

The opening of the new St. Patrick’s Primary School to receive pupils marked a further momentous day in the history of education in the South Kildare town of Athy.  It was exactly 150 years ago that three Christian Brothers, John Stanislaus Flanagan, Francis Luke Holland and John Patrick Sheehy arrived in Athy to take possession of Greenhills House.  Some years previously the house and some 12 acres of land at Greenhills had come into the ownership of the local Parish Priest, Monsignor Andrew Quinn.  Archbishop Cullen, a native of Ballitore, had approached the Christian Brothers to open a school in Athy and a two room school was built alongside Greenhills House, funded by local contributions.  The Annals of the Christian Brothers disclose that Pat Maher of Kilrush was particularly generous, as was his daughter, Mother Mary Teresa, Superioress of the Sisters of Mercy, Athy who donated £400. 

The Christian Brothers took possession of the small school and their new Monastery on 8th August 1861 and three days later Archbishop Cullen preached in St. Michael’s Parish Church and introduced the newly arrived Christian Brothers to the townspeople.  The next morning he celebrated Mass in Greenhills House and afterwards blessed the newly built classrooms which each measured 36ft. x 26ft., with a lecture room 10ft. wide in between.

On August 19th 1861 the primary school was opened for the first time.  That day 120 boys were enrolled.  Young boys continued to be received thereafter and as the numbers increased a third teaching brother joined the staff.  Hugh Francis Sweeney’s arrival was facilitated by the continuing generosity of Patrick Maher of Kilrush who agreed to pay the sum of £30 annually for two years towards his maintenance. 

The first public examination of the Christian Brothers School pupils took place on 31st July 1862, at which Archbishop Cullen presided.  More than 300 visitors attended the very successful examination which was conducted by Brothers O’Flanagan and Holland from 11.00 a.m. to 3.00 p.m.  The continuing success of the primary school necessitated the building of an extension to the original school buildings in 1873 and four years later an additional Christian Brother was added to the teaching staff.

For the first 33 years only Christian Brothers were employed on the teaching staff of Athy Primary School.  John McNamee was the first lay teacher to be employed and he took up duty in September 1894 at a salary of £1 per week.  In October 1897 Patrick Humbert Ryan, a native of Tipperary who joined the teaching staff in Athy the previous year, died of diphtheria.  He was the first Christian Brother to be buried in St. Michael’s Cemetery, Athy.

The Christian Brothers School I first attended in 1949 was very different from the school which opened its doors in August 1861.  By then a secondary school was in place, admittedly quite a small one consisting only of three rooms, one of which was subdivided by a curtain.  The primary school had a full complement of six classrooms which included a single storey building erected in 1932.

The difference is not confined to the buildings.  In my time in the secondary school those of us who lived in the town went home for our dinner at midday, while the country lads ate their home prepared sandwiches in the school yard.  Nowadays I see squads of secondary students descending on the local supermarkets and sandwich bars to buy filled rolls, sandwiches and drinks for their midday break.  It would appear that few, if any, of today’s youngsters bring home prepared lunches to school.  It demonstrates the huge differences which must exist between family incomes of 50 years ago and today.

The primary school buildings at St. John’s were vacated in November 1965 with the opening of a new school on lands adjoining the old school, which lands were donated by the local Sisters of Mercy.  That new school consisted of nine classrooms, two teacher rooms, an office, a book room and a cloakroom.  However, it soon proved inadequate for the numbers attending so that a further extension was built the following year.

Thirty-six years later St. Patrick’s Boys Primary School has re-located to Tomard and the St. John’s Lane School will be no more.  The journey which started with the arrival of the Christian Brothers to teach in two classrooms in August 1861 continues today in a 26 classroom facility on the opposite side of the River Barrow.  St. John’s Lane and Greenhills have for generations been associated with the Christian Brothers Schools and with boys’ primary education.  Those links are now gone forever.  The Christian Brothers left Athy for the last time on Monday 23rd January 1995, two years after the last Christian Brother had taught in an Athy school.  The secondary school and the primary school are now located on separate campuses on the Monasterevin Road.  As if to accentuate the break with the past what was once the Christian Brothers Boys Schools are now fully co-ed, catering for boys and girls at both primary and secondary level.