Thursday, March 29, 2012

Tim Hickey Butcher and World War I Veteran

Tim Hickey came from a distinguished Narraghmore family.  I remember Tim’s butcher shop in Emily Square with sawdust on the floor and beef carcasses suspended by hooks from railing which crisscrossed the ceiling.  There was no counter, just a large butcher’s block in the centre of the floor where Tim and his assistant worked skilfully cutting and sawing meat.

I recall a small man, nothing unusual in appearance, with a background of which I knew little.  That is unless I exclude the story once told to me of how Tim Hickey had panned for gold in Bonanza Creek following the Klondike goldrush of 1896.  Was it true? – I don’t know but it was what I was told of Tim Hickey, the butcher, over 50 years ago. 

It was not until long after Tim died that I learned he had enlisted and fought in the First World War where he suffered a serious facial injury.  Apparently Tim, while carrying a wounded soldier from the battlefield, was caught in an explosion which killed his companion.  Tim suffered facial injuries which necessitated the insertion in the left side of his face of a plate, which he carried to his grave. 

Tim was one of the many thousands of Irishmen who enlisted to fight overseas during the 1914-18 war.  Encouraged to do so by Church and civic leaders it is understandable why so many young men like Tim chose to enlist.  However, by the time the war had ended in November 1918 the Irish public’s attitude to the British Army had changed.  The Hickey family, like so many other Irish families having already given a son to the war in Europe, were to have a second son involved in the guerrilla war waged by Irish Republicans against the very army which had spearheaded the fight against Germany.  Tim’s brother Jim Hickey, who in later years worked as a welfare officer in Naas, was a member of the old I.R.A.  Once captured by the Black and Tans who knew of his involvement with the I.R.A., Jim was dragged behind a British Army lorry before being thrown into a ditch on the old Kilcullen/Athy road.  He survived that ordeal and continued to play a prominent part in the Irish War of Independence. 

Another brother was Joe Hickey, who married Margaret Walsh, sister of Dave Walsh, who in later years with his son Tommy was a prominent member of the Athy Social Club Players.  The Walsh’s had a hardware/grocery and bar at the corner of Leinster Street and Chapel Lane.  Other brothers were Tom who ran the Post Office in Narraghmore and Mick who had a pub/grocery shop in Calverstown.  Peter, a younger brother of Tim Hickey, emigrated to America and lost contact with his family back home in Ireland.  The last news of him came to Tim in his butcher shop one day when a stranger called to tell him that his brother Peter had been killed in America some time previously in a road accident. 

Tim Hickey had two sisters, Margaret who married Laurence Kelly of Milltown just outside Newbridge and Mary who married Frank McDonald, a butcher in Castledermot.  Coincidentally their son Frank McDonald was a well known actor on the professional stage in Dublin, as indeed was Jim Hickey’s son Tom, better known as ‘Benjy’ in ‘The Riordans’. 

Tim Hickey’s butcher shop was one of several such shops in Athy at a time when supermarkets were unknown.  The changes which supermarkets and out of town shopping centres brought to the high streets of provincial towns in Ireland are disproportionate to the benefits they bestowed.  The independent butcher has almost disappeared from the high streets and the grocery shop of old, which doubled as the local pub, is now but a memory.  Greaneys butchers shop in William Street, with Hylands of Leinster Street  and O’Briens grocery bar of Emily Square are the last of their kind and hopefully they will continue to be part of the business life of Athy for many years to come.

Tim Hickey is but one of my memories of Athy’s business life of five decades or more ago.  Athy then was home to substantially more independent shopkeepers than are to be found in the town today.  Every one of them traded successfully, some more so than others, and all contributed hugely to the commercial success which was evident in Athy of yesteryear.  The persistence of the current local Town Council in designating sites on the periphery of the town for shopping centres is difficult to understand given the adverse impact which these developments have on the commercial life of a town centre.  Businesses such as the Tim Hickey’s of this world deserve to be encouraged and protected and hopefully the newly elected Chamber of Commerce will begin to tackle the many issues which continue to militate against the commercial development of Athy’s town centre.

Monday, March 26, 2012

First Gardai in Athy

The Morris Tribunal now at hearing in Co. Donegal into allegations concerning members of the Garda Siochana in that division is so far as I can recall the first such enquiry since the Force was founded 80 years ago. The Garda Siochana was founded following a meeting in the Gresham Hotel in Dublin on 8th February 1922. Recruiting for the new police force started 13 days later and the RDS in the capital city was used for that purpose. The Garda Siochana paraded for the first time at the funeral of Frank Lawless T.D. on Tuesday, 18th April 1922. Without uniforms the Gardai paraded in civilian clothes and were described in a newspaper report of the day as “men of fine bearing and physique”. The next public display of the new force was recorded in the newspapers reports of the takeover of Dublin Castle from the British Authorities on 17th August 1922. A photograph of that occasion shows Michael Staines, the first Commissioner of the Garda Siochana marching at the head of 380 Gardai into the lower Castle Yard. Only some of the Gardai were kitted out in uniforms that day. The end of August also marked the official disbandment of the Royal Irish Constabulary, even though the process had begun as early as the previous March.

The cap badge of the Garda Siochana first appeared in the Irish Independent of 18th August 1922 with an acknowledgment to its designer John Francis Maxwell, an art teacher in the Blackrock & Dunlaoghaire Technical School. The new badge was worn for the first time by the new Gardai at the funeral of President Arthur Griffith on 12th August 1922. Athy has secured its place in the history of the Garda Siochana by virtue of the fact that the Garda Station plaques which were placed above the entrance door of each new Garda Station were made in cast iron by local firm Duthie Larges. Herbert Painting, Assistant Principal of Athy’s Technical School and a teacher of art made the mould from which these castings were made. The local Technical School was then located in Stanhope Place while Painting lived at St. Michael’s Terrace.

Athy, which once had a County Inspector based in its RIC Station, received its first intake of the newly recruited Gardai in 1922. I have a copy of a letter written by Sgt. William Duggan in 1950 from his home in Charleville, Co. Cork in which he claims that the Gardai first took up duty in the town on 15th August 1922. Prior to that the party consisting of 16 members were, according to Duggan, stationed at the protection post in Bert. This was an outpost which during the RIC days was serviced from the Athy RIC Barracks. Sgt. Duggan whom I hasten to add was not the Sergeant of the same surname who served in Athy from 1944 also claimed in his letter that he was the first Garda Sergeant stationed in the town. A photograph exists of which I have a poor copy, which shows Athy’s first station party of one Sergeant and fifteen Gardai. With them is the Assistant Commissioner, Paddy Brennan and the photograph taken outside the protection post at Bert shows all but two of the Gardai holding rifles. None of the Gardai wore a uniform. Paddy Brennan was one of three brothers from Co. Clare and was regarded as Michael Collins’s most trusted military adviser during the War of Independence.

We cannot be certain about the early years of the Garda Siochana in Athy but Sergeant Duggan’s letter written 52 years ago is an important document, particularly as it records the name of the sixteen men who formed the first station party in the town. Their names were Gardai Michael O’Connor, Peter Curley, Thomas Concannon, Joseph Walton, John Kelly, Joseph McNamara, John Ryan, Michael Somers, Patrick Fitzgerald, John O’Neill, James Dwyer, John Hanly, Peter Tracey, Thomas Irwin, Michael Hassett and Sgt. William Duggan.

The records retained by the Garda Siochana, particularly of the early years of the force may not be as complete as historians would like. For instances those retained at Divisional level for the Athy station shows the first Sergeant in charge as Cornelius Lillis. He was replaced by Sgt. Ed O’Loughlin on 1st May 1924 who in turn gave way to the earlier mentioned William Duggan on 1st August 1924. The records from which this information was gleaned shows that the first fourteen entries were made by the same hand and by all accounts on the same day in 1930. You can picture the scene that year as a member in Divisional headquarters set about to record the names of the sergeants who had served in Athy over the previous eight years. Duggan’s letter, even though written 28 years after the events they record, is more authoritative than the Divisional records written up in 1930, given as it does very clear and comprehensive details known only to someone who had participated in the events of the time.

When the Gardai first moved into Athy town in August 1922 they were accommodated in the Town Hall in Emily Square. The same Town Hall had accommodated the British Army during the Luggacurran Evictions of the 1880’s and would provide similar shelter for the Free State Army during the Civil War. Having spent some time in the Town Hall the local Gardai transferred to the RIC Barracks at Barrack Lane after it was vacated by the Free State Army. The Barracks, originally built in the 1730’s as a Military Barracks, was subsequently burned down during the Civil War, following which the Gardai moved into a hotel in Leinster Street. I was told many years ago that the Garda Barracks for Athy was one time located in the Hibernian Hotel which is now Bradbury’s. Sgt. Duggan however claims that it was the Leinster Arms Hotel that the local Gardai occupied following the burning of the old RIC Barracks. I don’t know for how long Leinster Street was the location of the local Garda Barracks or when the Garda Siochana moved to the Duke Street premises where the Barracks was located for many years prior to the opening of the new station.

Sgt. William Duggan left for Kilcock in April 1923 and was replaced by Sgt. Patrick Hackett whose name does not appear in the Divisional records. Indeed those records show that the first Garda Sergeant in Athy was Cornelius Lillis whom I am now satisfied was the third Sergeant to hold that position after William Duggan and Patrick Hackett. Ed O’Loughlin replaced Sgt. Lillis on 1st May 1924 following the latters transfer to Ballytore Garda Station. Sgt. William Duggan returned as Sergeant to Athy on 1st August 1924 replacing Sgt. Ed O’Loughlin who went to Rathangan. Sgt. O’Loughlin, a Kilkenny man, died the following year. He had opened the Ballytore Station in April 1923. There were three Gardai with him in that rural station, James Kealy, Kieran Keys and John Reville. Castledermot Garda Station opened in September 1922 with Sgt. Thomas Concannon in charge assisted by Gardai Patrick Cosgrave, Tim Hanrahan and Thomas J. Brennan.

Strange to relate that almost 80 years later with a bigger population to police and crime on the increase, Garda stations around the country have fewer Gardai while Athy, a relatively large provincial town no longer has a 24 hour police presence.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

History of Athy in 25 objects (4)

Continuing the story behind the 25 objects chosen to tell the history of Athy I start this week with the bell which once rang out in the Convent of Mercy Athy.  It is now part of the exhibition in the Heritage Centre devoted to the town’s religious diversity. 

The bell hung over the main stairway in the convent with a large rope reaching down to the hall floor.  It was rung to summon the nuns to prayer and to alert individual nuns when they were required to greet visitors in the nuns’ parlour.  Each nun had her own unique bell call and for the 40 or more nuns in the Convent there was a bewildering range of long and short peals of the bell to identify each nun in the Convent. 

The extraordinary impact that the Sisters of Mercy had on the town of Athy, beginning with their arrival here in 1852, has yet to be fully told.  Educating young children and tending to the poor was the mission of the Sisters of Mercy and one to which successive generations of nuns dedicated themselves over many decades.  With their departure some years ago from the local Convent which had been built on part of Clonmullin commons of old, the bell and some other artefacts from the Convent were presented to the Heritage Centre.  The bell, now silent, is a small reminder of that noble band of women whose work among generations of Athy folk encouraged and enabled so many to take advantage of life’s opportunities. 

A small wooden bird cage which once belonged to Ernest Shackleton is one of several Shackleton related items on display in the Heritage Centre.  I have chosen the bird cage, rather than any of the other perhaps more important Shackleton artefacts, as its everyday simplicity brings a human dimension to the Arctic explorer whose exploits excited the world 100 years ago.  Shackleton is perhaps the most widely known man to come from South Kildare and the exhibition space devoted to him in the Heritage Centre is believed to be the only permanent Shackleton Exhibition anywhere in the world.  It is of course appropriate that Athy boasts of its Shackleton connection for the man whose Antarctic exploits were headline news at the beginning of the 20th century was born in Kilkea House just a few miles from the town. 

Looking back on the history of Athy there are a number of key events which stand out.  These include the Confederate Wars, the ’98 Rebellion and the Great Famine but amongst them must also be included happier occasions such as the Gordon Bennett Race of 1903 and the Eucharistic Congress of 1932.  Both events had a huge and lasting impact on the people of Athy and like the night of the Big Wind of 1829 were for many locals a reference point in lives unfettered by calendars or time pieces.  Amongst the exhibits in the Heritage Centre are a number of items linked to the Gordon Bennett Race and I have chosen the Arrol Johnston motor car to tell the story behind Ireland’s most famous road race.  The Arrol Johnston was presented to Athy Heritage Centre by Honor McCulloch in memory of her father William Ringwood McCulloch who as a young boy, then living in Sawyerswood, was a spectator at the Gordon Bennett Race of 1903.  His lifelong interest in cars stemmed from that event and about 31 years later, having discovered a derelict car abandoned on a Scottish farm, negotiated its acquisition and set about its restoration.  It took him three years to restore the Arrol Johnston which had been first purchased as new by Lord Cochrane of Fife in Scotland in 1902.  The car, when restored, was driven in the Empire Exhibition run between Glasgow and Edinburgh in 1938 and also took part in the celebrated London to Brighton run in 1970.  The Arrol Johnston motor car which was previously on display in the National Motor Museum at Beaulieu between 1993 and 2000 is now, due to the generosity of Honor McCulloch, one of the highlights of Athy’s Heritage Centre.

A handball, made by local man Bill Aldridge, is the next item selected to tell another aspect of the townspeople’s story.  Bill was a champion handballer with Athy Handball Club which in the 1920s and earlier had such exceptional players amongst its ranks as John Delaney, Tom Aldridge, George Robinson and Jack Delaney.  Bill was in later years a maker of handballs and an example of his handcraft was purchased by me many years ago.  It’s a reminder of a sport which was very popular in Athy up to a few decades ago.  The town once had two handball alleys, the Barrack Lane court, located next to the Army Barracks, while Leinster Street also had a handball court behind a public house.  The Barrack Lane court survived up to the 1970s and was replaced by a newly built court, provided by Athy U.D.C., which however remained unused and was demolished after a few years.


Thursday, March 15, 2012

Eucharistic Congress

At a recent Sunday Mass in the Parish Church I picked up a postcard addressed to the Taoiseach Enda Kenny, intended to be signed and posted to Government Buildings asking for an invitation to be extended to the Pope to visit Ireland for the forthcoming Eucharistic Congress.  My initial reaction was one of surprise and then of annoyance to think that an Irish Government would have to be petitioned to invite the Pope to our country.  Surely I thought our wounded Church has not plummeted to such depths as to render its leader unwelcome in the country which had withstood religious persecution over centuries.  The papal invitation, if it is to issue from the Government, is for the Pope to visit Ireland during the Eucharistic Congress which takes place between 10th to 17th June of this year.

The Eucharistic Congress will be the second Congress of its type ever to be held in Ireland.  The previous Congress was held from 21st to 26th June 1932 at a time when the country was recovering from the ravages of the War of Independence and the subsequent Civil War. 

Reading through newspaper reports for 1932 I could not but realise how the Irish people of 80 years ago rose to the great occasion which was the Eucharistic Congress in contrast to the rather muted preparations which are currently in place for this years event.  Even allowing for the wounded state of the Catholic Church it seems likely that Ireland’s second Eucharistic Congress will be an event of underwhelming proportions.  If it is, it will be in marked contrast to the events of 1932 when the entire country was gripped with Eucharistic Congress fever of enormous intensity.

While the main Congress events took place in Dublin every town and village in Ireland hosted religious events in local churches attended by those who could not make the journey to the capital city.  Public transport was augmented by private transport comprising private cars and hackney cars, as well as lorries which brought huge crowds of people from rural Ireland to Dublin city.  Here in Athy the local people entered into the Eucharistic Congress spirit with enthusiasm and energy.  The Kildare Observer reported on 16th June 1932 that ‘decorations for the Eucharistic Congress in Athy are almost if not quite universal.  Flags, banners, buntings spanning every street have given the old town a very festive appearance – in fact the town has blossomed into a “perfect riot of colour”’.

Religious ceremonies in Athy started on the first Sunday of the Eucharistic Congress, with two Masses for women at 7.00 a.m. and 8.00 a.m.  This was followed by two Masses for the men of St. Michael’s Parish in the local Parish Church and all the local newspapers reported large attendances by both sexes.  On Tuesday morning a children’s Mass was arranged for 9 o’clock in the morning and at the same time on that day a special Mass was held in what was described as ‘the new hall’ in the Christian Brothers in St. John’s Lane, with the Parish Priest, Fr. McDonnell, as the celebrant.

Athy Urban District Council arranged for notices to be posted in the town calling on local traders to close their premises on Thursday, 23rd June for the Congress celebrations.  A subsequent report indicated that all the local shopkeepers complied and over 500 Athy locals took advantage of the free day to travel to Dublin.  The Urban District Council also arranged for the decorating of the town and made special arrangements for the cleaning of the streets.  Shop fronts were painted with the encouragement of the Council and footpaths, long out of repair, were repaired, while all the public buildings in the town were decorated with bunting and flags.

The local newspapers reported the holding of midnight Mass in St. Michael’s Parish Church and also in the Dominican Church on the Wednesday night.  ‘Dusk fell, illuminations started everywhere – in almost every house.  Each window had its one lighted candle or lamp.  The shrines on the side streets and suburbs were also ablaze with light and the whole town presented a very brilliant appearance.’

It was also reported that owing chiefly to the energies of Joe May, Clerk of the Athy County Home, a wireless set had been installed to give the elderly people in the Home the opportunity of hearing the religious ceremonies during Congress week.  The wireless set, which cost £50, was paid for with the proceeds of a raffle which Joe May and a local committee had organised. 

Loudspeakers were also set up in the Peoples Park where immense crowds gathered and brought chairs which were placed around the trees as the commentary of the events in Dublin was broadcast.  It has recently been claimed to me that the loudspeakers were provided by the proprietor of the nearby I.V.I. Foundry, Colonel Hosie. 

Interestingly local papers reported that the floral decorations for the altar in the Phoenix Park Dublin were provided by A.L. Spiers of Burtown Nurseries, Athy.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Emigration and James Birney

It’s an ironic twist of fate that men and women from Athy, the town settled by English settlers, have over the years turned in large numbers to English towns and cities to find employment.  The period following the Irish Civil War saw a significant number of local men leave Ireland for America and England, realising that they had little prospect of earning a living in Ireland under a Government which they had opposed with arms.  Many others not involved in the Civil War also departed these shores, their confidence in the emerging new State undermined by decades of conflict and in many cases by personal tragedy and loss.  Indeed the 1920s saw so many young men take the emigrant boat that the local Gaelic Football Club was virtually dormant.  It took trojan work by Tyrrellspass native Eamon Malone, a secondary school teacher and activist in the Irish War of Independence, who was based in the local Christian Brothers Secondary School, to revive the Club. 

Throughout the dark years of the economic war of the 1930s Athy was a black spot for employment.  The local brickyards, which apart from farm work had once been the main source of employment in the town, had closed.  Athy, however, benefitted from the opening of the Asbestos factory in Mullery’s field in 1936 and the town which up to then had to rely on local foundries and the maltings for employment now had the foundation for possible future industrial development.  It was the Asbestos factory and post World War II the Wallboard factory at Tomard which gave Athy, for a time, a thriving industrial sector which afforded many local men the opportunity of working in their home town.  However, with a population of 4,000 or so in the town there was never enough work opportunities even at the best of times, which left many Athy men and women with no alternative but to take the emigrant boat.

There have been many fine studies published over the years with regard to the Emigrant Irish in Britain.  In exposing the Irish ghettoisation of English cities in the 19th century to the complicated relationship between the Irish and British of more recent years these studies make sad reading.  However, the more recent history of the Irish in Britain is one in which we can justifiably take pride.
On a recent visit to London I took the opportunity of meeting and interviewing an Athy man who left the town of his birth for England when he was just 13½ years of age.  James Birney is now 62 years of age and was brought up in Athy with seven siblings by his father Mick following the early death of his mother.  Jim, as he is called, has good memories of his family and of Athy.  Jim’s father, Mick Birney and his uncle Jim, were members of Athy Gaelic Football Championship winning teams in 1937 and 1942 and he is understandably proud of his family’s sporting success in their home county of Kildare.  Approximately one year after his mother died Jim went to Manchester to work for his uncle Peter Hickey.  He returned to Athy four years later and worked for almost 1½ years for the late Tommy Keegan at Keegans sawmills in Foxhill.  When Tommy sold the business Jim and his workmates Paddy Supple and Robert Reid had to find alternative employment.  Jim had no option but to return to England and this time it was to London he came, where as he says himself, ‘I was the first Birney to come to the English capital.’  His brother Mick and sister Rita are now also living in London.

Working as a barman Jim was made very aware of the anti-Irish feeling among the English and particularly so when on marrying his Portroe, Co. Tipperary wife Christina found rented accommodation so many times unavailable for ‘Irish or Blacks’.  Undeterred, Jim, who has a wonderful outlook on life went on to build for himself and his family a happy and fulfilling life in England.

As I spoke to Jim and his delightful wife Christina I wondered what the future would have held for him if he had not taken the momentous decision to leave Athy at such an early age.  I could not but feel that if Jim had stayed in Athy he would have counted himself lucky to have got work in a local factory.  He would have possibly missed out on the opportunity to better himself and give his three children the successful careers they now enjoy. 

Emigration inflicts a high toll on Irish towns and villages and deprives local communities of vital young lifeblood.  Yet undoubtedly many of those who left these shores benefitted hugely after emigrating and Jim Birney’s generation is but one of those who over the decades have shown the mettle and the initiative which is invariably crowned with success.