Talking to Mick Ryan last week brought home to me how much life in Athy has changed over the past 65 years. When Mick arrived in the South Kildare town in August 1945 aged 17 years, it was to fulfil an engagement as an apprentice grocery and bar assistant to Ned Conway of 31 Duke Street. Mick’s father, previously a publican in Bray where Mick was born, but from the mid 1930s a farmer in his home place at Toomevara, Co. Tipperary, paid a fee of £12 to Ned Conway so that Mick could enter into a two year apprenticeship. As the Second World War came to an end Mick was one of many grocery and bar men working as apprentices or qualified men in the various shops in the town. The ‘Shop Boys’, as they were known, were a huge part of the social life of Athy which found its focus in the Social Club in St. John’s Lane.
Mick Ryan lived over the Conway shop with his colleague Jim Fingleton from Dublin. During his first year he received his keep but no wages and waited for the second year of his apprenticeship for his father’s £12.00 to be repaid to him at the rate of £1.00 per month.
The use of coupons and food rationing was then still in vogue and the same routine was followed in the numerous local grocery shops every Monday morning. The first morning of the week was devoted to weighing tea in one ounce and two ounce bags, sugar in half pound, one pound and two pound bags and flour in quarter stone and half stone bags. A double weighing was required on the Monday before the town’s monthly fair when the country folk arrived in their pony and traps.
Duke Street and Leinster Street were busy retailing centres in those days and the businesses on Conway’s side of Duke Street all did well. Conways occupied the corner position adjoining Green Alley. Next door was the bar and grocery of Michael O’Gorman, known as Paddy, who reputedly did the best trade in the town and in war times was able to offer for sale under the counter any item no matter how scarce. The Kane sisters were next door and then the butchers shop of Martin Purcell, a brother of Jacob Purcell and uncle of Finbar Purcell. Purcells butcher shop boasted the open stalls which were typical of an earlier age and were the last of the old style butcher shops where in the absence of window shutters were put up when the premises closed. Myles Whelan was next to Purcells and beyond the arched entrance was Mrs. Cox’s private house, followed by Willis grocery, hardware and seed merchants. Watty Cross, the plumber, was next door and the fine big building at the corner known as the Crown House was home to Mansfields drapery shop.
After finishing his two year apprenticeship Mick Ryan went to work with Jim McEvoy in Leinster Street. Again he lived in but was now earning seventeen shillings and six pence a week, a wage which increased to three pounds ten shillings by the time he left eight years later.
The strong social interaction in Athy of the 1940s and early 1950s is one of the many positive recollections which I have come across when talking to the older generation. It’s a view also expressed by Mick Ryan who was involved in several of the local Musical Society shows put on in the Town Hall. Mick will be remembered as the cat in the second production of Dick Whittington where the principal lead was Ann Lambe. He also featured in the musical reviews, ‘White Bread and Apple Sauce’ and ‘Easter Parade’, which had large casts drawn from the men and women of the town. As one might have expected of someone who has spent their teenage years in Tipperary, Mike was a useful hurler and is the proud holder of a junior championship medal won in 1950 with Athy Hurling Club.
The once vibrant sporting and recreational life of Athy began to wane in the mid 1950s as the commercial life of the town began to slide. This was a time of great difficulties for many families and a time when the emigrant boat sailing out of Dun Laoghaire carried more than its quota of Athy folk on the first stage of the journey to the UK. It was a route which Mick Ryan also took in 1955 and for the next three years he worked in London before returning to Athy in 1958 to marry Maureen Clandillon of Barrowhouse. That year the young couple bought No. 6 William Street which had previously been Lehanes chip shop and before that a butcher stall operated by Tim Fennin.
Mick’s early involvement in the social life of Athy evolved in subsequent years to one of active participation in the socio economic life of the town. He was one of the founder members of Athy Credit Union, of the Dominican Penny Bank and with Eamon McCauley, Paddy Timpson and Kevin Fingleton of the Knights of Malta.
After 68 years in Athy Mick looks back nostalgically at a time when his adopted town was, in his own words, ‘buzzing’. A time when all the shops did well and when the social and recreational life of Athy was underpinned by the presence of live-in shop assistants who worked in almost every local bar and grocery shop in the town.