Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Tommy Whelan Shoes and Shaws

If you bought shoes in Shaws at any time in the last 40 years you will undoubtedly have met Tommy Whelan.  The engaging, likeable Laois man who crossed the county border each morning and evening while working in Shaws is now retired.  I first met Tommy when we shared a classroom in the Christian Brothers School in St. John’s Lane.  He was one of the many country lads who enrolled in secondary school, for the most part just for a year or two to bed down the primary education they had received courtesy of a local rural primary school.  Tommy left school at 15½ years of age to join Bryan Bros. in Emily Square and where he was to spend the next five years, starting on a wage of 30 shillings a week.  Memories flooded back as Tommy recalled his work colleagues of 55 or so years ago.  Danny Kavanagh, Margaret Ryan, Edith Furlong, Sheila Cahill, Ann Bambrick and George Donaldson were just some of the names he recalled from the 1950s.

Do you remember Bryan Bros. and the overhead pulley system which brought cash payments by overhead wires to a central cash booth?   A similar system as far as I can remember was operated in Shaws.  As a young shop assistant Tommy worked in all the departments of the store as and when required, as well as sweeping floors, cleaning windows and as he recalls it, ‘washing the bosses car’.  Calling on customers to collect outstanding monies was another task entrusted to the male staff, as was the collection of items given out to customers on approbation.  Goods on approbation was one of the distinguishing features of retailing in those days, seldom, if ever, to be encountered today.  Tales of coats, hats and dresses leaving the shop for trial at home and featuring the next day at a wedding or other social event before being returned to the shop were common.  The wiles of some customers could never be underestimated. 

After five years retailing experience in Bryan Bros. Tommy moved to McCormacks of Ballinrobe in County Mayo where he remained for one year.  He remembers the journey from Slatt, Wolfhill across country to the County Mayo town courtesy of a lift in a Flemings Fireclay lorry.  Life in the west of Ireland apparently appealed to Tommy and within a year he took up a position with Logues of Eyre Square, Galway where he was to remain for seven years.  Our paths crossed in Galway and more particularly in the Seapoint Ballroom, the onetime Salthill dancing mecca for visitors and natives alike during Tommy’s time in Logues.

A brief sojourn in Coads of Limerick intervened between Tommy’s Galway job and his return to Athy to join Shaws in June 1971.  In the 36 years spent in Shaws shoe department Tommy dealt with an extraordinary array of customers, not all of whom could be said to be good for business.  The potential customer who insisted on trying on every imaginable pair of shoes, only to walk away without buying anything, was the bane of every shop assistant’s working life.  Some folk deemed it a necessary part of everyday life to extract the maximum value for their hard earned shilling and bargained for every purchase.  The bargaining invariably started at half the marked price and much coaxing and not a little loss of profit was required before the deal was done.  Nothing however compared to the customer who after months, even years of constant wear, insisted on returning a tattered pair of shoes or boots and demanding a full refund.  Despite all this Tommy enjoyed dealing with the public and indeed the public delighted in dealing with Tommy.

I was amused by one of Tommy’s stories concerning his boss, Samuel Shaw, who although heading up the Shaw Department store business still operated out of the Athy store where he was constantly on the shop floor.  Private security staff, then as now, were an essential part of the retailing business.  One day a security man came to Shaws and after a while observing staff and customers advised the staff to keep an eye on a suspicious man who was moving between the various departments putting dockets into his pocket but never putting money into the tills.  He little realised that the man in question was the proprietor, Sam Shaw. 

In 1982 Tommy met his match in Brigid Walsh who is from my own birthplace of Castlecomer and their son Barry is today a teacher in nearby Castledermot.  Interviewing Tommy gives a marvellous insight into the retailing world of provincial Ireland.  It’s a world which in many ways has changed, with open displays rather than counters, but what remains the same is the man or woman whose job it is to close the sale and keep the till busy.

Tommy in his time sold thousands of shoes, enough I’m sure to keep many tills busy.  He is now enjoying his well earned retirement which was to start on a Good Friday some years ago but which, being a superstitious Laois man, he brought forward by two days.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Sullivan Brothers C.D.

I missed the recent launch of the Sullivan Brothers CD and to make amends I went out
immediately and bought the disc.  The first time listening to their songs and I listened to them all, I had mixed feelings, but their songs  grew in appeal, at least that's what I found after I had played the CD for the third time.  Its a wonderful achievement for a singer to put out a record in much the same way as it is for an aspiring writer to publish a book.  The Sullivan Brothers have achieved great success over the last twelve months and who knows, the CD may bring them further and even greater success into the future.

The last months of 2006 promise to bring a veritable avalanche of books and CD launches, what with the Sullivan's musical contribution soon to be followed by a CD of songs and stories relating to South Kildare by  Colm Walsh.   Brian Hughes, I gather, is working on his second CD and while I have no knowledge of when it will appear, I would hope it will issue in time to catch the  Christmas market.  Of course, the recording daddy of them all, Jack L issued another CD a few months ago and like his previous releases, it proved to be the work of an extraordinary musical talent. 

Local writers are also busy, what with Zoltan Zinn Collis' book hitting the book shelves in September followed soon afterwards by John MacKenna's latest contribution to the literary scene.  In November, the local Golf Club will publish its centenary history while the long awaited book on County Kildare in the County History series will be launched before Christmas.

There are a lot of good things happening in and around South Kildare and the local Town Hall will host a number of events during October and November.  The Shackleton Autumn School kicks off on Friday evening, 27th and goes on for the following three days with a variety of events including some extremely interesting exhibitions with  lectures, drama and music.  There is literally something for everyone and every age over the October Bank Holiday weekend in the Town Hall and the Heritage Centre.

And the following Wednesday, Zoltan Zinn Collis will give a talk in the Town Hall.  This is an event not to be missed and comes soon after the launch of his book “Final Witness – My journeyfrom the Holocaust to Ireland”.  Three days later, the Heritage Centre will be the venue for the official launch of John MacKenna's latest book, “Things you should know”. Derek Mooney of radio and TV fame will launch the book which has already been tipped for literary honours in 2007.  John MacKenna is presently touring his play “My Fathers Son”with  The Mend and Makedo Theatre Company which tour finishes in Mullingar this week.  November is definitely  MacKenna's month for on Sunday 12th   hisOratorio, “Still and Distant Voices” which he wrote some years ago to commemorate the involvement of local working men in World War 1 will be performed in the Methodist Church in Woodstock Street.  Music for the Oratorio was composed by Mairead O'Flynn when  she was a teacher in Scoil Mhichil Naofa some years ago.  She is now Principal of the National School in Ballymore Eustace. Interestingly, Jack L's father,  Sean Loughman and the golden voiced Jacinta O'Donnell are the singing stars of the Oratorio, more details of which will be  given in next weeks Eye on the Past.

I got a letter from one of my Athy readers concerning my piece on the River Barrow canoe trip with particular reference to the railway bridge.  You may recall that I mentioned that the bridge built  in 1919 as part of the railway extension to Wolfhill was the first prestressed concrete bridge in Ireland.   My correspondent tells me that his father, who was a well known building Contractor, claimed that “Coy” Moore's father mixed all the concrete for the bridge using a hand turned mixer.  Can any other local confirm that story for me.

Another letter received this week was from a woman in Fairview, Dublin whose mother worked for the Hannon's in Ardreigh House in 1920. Her mother, who was  from Castledermot, started working for the Hannon's who previously lived at Prumplestown, Castledermot when she was a month short of her fourteenth birthday. The pay was one pound a month which Mrs. Hannon sent home to the young girl's mother in Castledermot.  The charming letter gave an account of life in Ardreigh House eighty six years ago and I smiled at the following reference which brought back memories of summer evenings spent by me and my friends at Sunnyside in the late 1950's.  “Entertainment for the girls who worked in Ardreigh House consisted of walking out to Bray or into Athy.  They seemed to know every shop worker who ever worked there at the time and indeed, my mother bought her groceries for two decades in Dublin from a man whom she had known when he served his time at the grocery in Athy”.

When I read the letter, I was prompted to think yet again of the treasures of memory and the life experiences which all of us have garned for ourselves and which for the most part are destined never to be shared with others.  I have at various times in the past raised the desirability of encouraging older people to record their reminiscences of  times past.   There are some extraordinary stories  to be learned, many extraordinary people with tales to tell which, if not told will soon be lost forever.  I know that the late Billy Kelly was engaged on behalf of the library services of Kildare County Council in recording the folk memories of people living in his area of South Kildare but how far that project progressed, I cannot say.  I do know that last year Laois County Council through its Heritage Officer instituted an oral history project with the intention of  recording the reminiscences and the experiences of the older generation.  In the mid 1930's the Folk Commission in conjunction with the primary schools throughout Ireland organised a Folklore collection scheme, the results of which  now form a major part of the holdings in the Department of Folklore in University College, Dublin.  This was a scheme organised on a twenty six county basis through the Folklore Commission and points  the way as to how an oral history project could be established nationally if we are ever to hope to reclaim the untapped fields of enquiry dealing with the social life and labours of ordinary men and women.  Now that Heritage Officers have been appointed by some County Councils, perhaps the Minister for the Environment might consider ensuring that the Heritage function in each county is directed so that a national scheme for recording oral history can be set up under the aegis of the Department while using the Heritage Officers in each County as the County organisers for the project.

Writing of the Minister reminds me that the Relief Road Project for Athy has been the subject most often raised with me by locals during the past week or so.  Everyone wants to know what is happening about a new road.  It would seem that precious little information is being given out by either Kildare County Council or the Town Council.  The latest information I have is that housing developers at Gallowshill are required to build sections of the outer relief road where it borders  the lands being developed for housing.  As a result, I am told that approximately 180 metres of the outer relief road has been laid down and that further development of that road as far as the railway crossing can be expected, but when I don't know.  I welcome the current Town Council Chairperson's invitation to the local people to make known their views on the relief road measures.
It makes a huge change from the attitude of a previous Council which when presented with a petition signed by more than 2,500 local people ignored the views expressed.  Indeed, the local people who attended the Council meeting to present the petition were rather discourteously treated by some public representatives on that Council.  Democracy was not best served that day in the Council Chamber. However, that is all water under the bridge now, and given the current Town Council's  continuing attempts to get Kildare County Council to move on the relief road, we must be hopeful that the County Council, which moved with amazing speed when dealing with the Inner Relief Road Project in the lead up to the An Bord Pleanala oral hearing can bring the same energy and commitment to putting an acceptable Relief Road in place for the town of Athy.

The Sullivan Brothers CD “Keep Holding On” which I mentioned at the top of this article was dedicated to the memory of Mark Browne, a young man who died last year after a long battle against illness. I did not know Mark personally but knew his parents and following his funeral, I wrote some lines of appreciation for a young life so sadly lost.  A few weeks ago, his father Kieran gave me a copy of a number of poems which he was inspired to write following the loss of his only son who was dearly loved and greatly missed.  Having read them and particularly one poem entitled “Without Him”, I have to admit that I have seldom been moved so much by words written on a page  The poem written by Kieran Browne  following the death of his only child is very evocative and a fine piece of writing and reads:
                        My past I have lost
                        My past and my future
                        My hoped  for dreams gone forever
                        Gone are the days I would never say never
                        No shared enjoyment of Milligan and Co.
                        No shared appreciation of symphonies and riffs
                        Of images on celluloid           
                        The past to be viewed during the twilight years
                        No man to man chats
                        No disagreements on which players were prats
                        No nuptials now
                        No “Grandad” called out
                        Memories of body and soul being tortured and broken
                        No explanation at my bedside when it's my turn to die.          

Con Costello - 6th Shackleton Weekend

The death of Con Costello, historian, author and columnist for the Leinster Leader has deprived his adopted county of it's foremost historical researcher and it's most prolific writer on historical topics. I was privileged to have served as a member of the County Kildare Historical Monuments Committee for the last eight years or so under the chairmanship of Con. He brought to his role a wealth of knowledge pertaining to the places and buildings of the county unrivalled by anyone I know. From his first book “Ireland and the Holy Land'”published in 1974 to his last “A Class Apart – the Gentry Families of County Kildare” published last year he maintained a scholarly rigour and precision in all his historical writings.

His written legacy is to be found in the twelve books that he wrote and the twelve hundred or so articles written  for his Leinster Leader column “Looking Back”. Con Costello was a truly exceptional local historian, local in the sense that his research tended to concentrate on the localised historical picture and not in the disparaging sense in which academic historians tend to regard those whose research and writing operate outside the hallowed halls of academia. His research undoubtedly helped to extend and conserve the history of the short grass county while his weekly newspaper articles helped to bring the fruits of his research to a much wider audience than could ever expect to be reached by book publishers. Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam

The October Bank Holiday weekend will see the sixth Ernest Shackleton Autumn School taking place in the Town Hall Athy. Commencing on Friday the 27th of October the weekends events will be opened by Senator David Norris who will give the Shackleton memorial lecture. Norris, who is a distinguished Joycean Scholar, is also one of the most significant figures in Irish political and cultural life today. Incidentally, the proceedings on Friday evening are open without charge to everyone and if you would like to hear in person one of the most engaging and interesting public speakers you are likely to meet in a long time do come along to the Heritage Centre. That same evening a musical performance devised by Cliff Wedgbury will be given in the Castle Inn commencing at 9pm. Wedgbury, London born but now living in Cork is a singer and poet who has previously performed in the National Museum in Dublin during last years Shackleton exhibition which exhibition was on loan from the New York Museum. Admission to the Wedgbury show “The Boss – A Life told in Story and Song” is €5.

The weekend lecture series starts on Saturday morning at 10.30am in the Town Hall with Dr. Seamus McCann's talk on “South Georgia” followed by Joe O'Farrell's talk on the “Ross Sea Party”. McCann is an experienced Antarctic scientist while O'Farrell, a lifelong student of polar history, will reprise the lecture he gave the National Museum in Dublin last year.

On Saturday afternoon at 2.30pm we welcome New Yorker Margot Morrell who is travelling from the Big Apple to talk on her book “Shackleton's Way”. The book examines the success of Shackleton's leadership skills and draws on it to give insights into the nature of man management and leadership. The final lecture that day will be given by Jarlath Cunnane who received the prestigious Blue Water Medal from the Cruising Club of America earlier this year in recognition of his achievement as skipper and builder of the Irish yacht Northabout which completed the first east to west Polar circumnavigation in October 2002. His talk entitled “Northabout – A Polar Circumnavigation” will deal with that epic journey.

Whites Castle will be the venue for a special performance for children by Cliff Wedgway of his show to take place on Saturday at 3pm. On Saturday night the inaugural Shackleton Autumn School Dinner will be held in the Clanard Court Hotel and not the Carlton Abbey Hotel as stated in the programme of events. Tickets at €30 each are limited and early booking with the Heritage Centre is advised.

On Sunday the 29th of October the lectures resume at 10.30am with Robert Stephenson co-ordinator of the acclaimed Antarctic Circle website dealing with the topic “Antarctic Sites Outside The Antarctic – Memorials, Statues, Houses, Graves and the Occasional Pub”. Twelve noon brings on stage the inimical Dr Bob Headland of the Scott Polar Institute who will deliver his lecture “Attainment of the North Pole – A Historical Account”.

The film on Sunday afternoon will be “With Byrd at the South Pole”. Released in 1936 this is an Oscar winning documentary of the Americans journey to the Antarctic together with his famous first flight over the North Pole. Following the film there will be an open forum with an opportunity for questions to be asked of the participating speakers.

Later on Sunday evening a one woman play “A Father for My Son” based on the life of Captain Robert Scott's wife is to be performed for the first time in Ireland by Jenny Coverack. Jenny trained as an actress at the world famous Bristol Old Vic and the play written by herself and Robert Edwards has been performed to acclaim all over the world.

The field trip which has been an outstanding feature of the Autumn School in recent years will again take place on Monday the  30th of October starting from the Heritage Centre at 10am. During the trip a visit will be made to Ballytore for the formal launching of the Folk Archive of County Kildare.

The Antarctic Adventures a group of re-enactors who specialise in recreating the world of Shackleton, Scott and Amundsen will recreate over the course of the weekend a three man sledging party of the 1901-1930 period with clothing, sledges and equipment of the period.

Books and memorabilia relating to Shackleton and the Antarctic will be on sale during the weekend and this year a specialist book dealer will be in attendance with books of interest to those attending for the weekend lectures.

It promises to be an interesting weekend and one deserving of support by the local people of Athy. Programmes for the Shackleton Autumn School can be collected at the Heritage Centre where bookings can also be made for all or any of the events. A weekend ticket to include the dinner on Saturday night and all lectures and events costs €65 and may be obtained by contacting the Heritage Centre on 059 863 3075. The individual lectures cost €5 each.

A special thanks this year goes to local employers Tegral Building Products who are the principal sponsors of the sixth Shackleton Autumn School.

On Wednesday 1st November at  8pm Zoltan Zinn Collis, whose book “Final Witness – My Journey from the Holocaust to Ireland” was recently launched, will give a talk in the Town Hall. Zoltan's experiences as a young boy in a Nazi concentration camp during World War II is a tragic story and part of those horrifying events which were a defining episode in the history not only of the twentieth century but in the history of mankind. Admission to the lecture is free but because of the limited seating available those wishing to attend should arrive as early as possible.

Canoe Trip on the Barrow

In all the years I have lived in Athy I never, that is before Sunday last, spent any time boating or canoeing on the River Barrow or the Grand Canal.  All that changed last week when in deference to my age I was invited to take part in a canoe trip on the river during Age Action Week.  It's extraordinary to think that many of us reared within stone throwing distance of a river or a canal bank never took a boat trip up or down either waterway.  It was as if we had turned our backs on the water corridors in much the same way as had the local house builders of the past who kept the dwellings of the local people as far away as possible from waters edge.  Indeed the houses in Athy had their backs to the river and it was only the canal stores of the early 1800's which embraced the man made canal to form a pleasant and harmonious setting which survives to this day.

Last Sunday a couple of elderly and not quite so elderly males, each chaperoned by a young skilled canoeist, set out from the slip at Rathstewart to travel on the river to Levitstown.  As we approached Crom A Boo Bridge we passed over the site of the weir which once ran across the Barrow almost opposite St. Michael's Parish Church.  It had been put there to divert water into the millrace which powered the mill at the town centre bridge.  The last owners of the mill were the Hannons of Ardreigh and the closure of the mill in or around 1924 gave the Barrow Drainage Board an opportunity to dredge the river and remove the weir.  Many of you, I'm sure, will have seen photographs of the Barrow Drainage Scheme of the 1920's and particularly the photograph of the workmen standing in the river bed which had been drained while they removed the weir.

Crom A Boo Bridge which I passed under for the first time ever last Sunday presents an awesome sight when viewed from underneath one of its arches.  The Duke of Leinster lay the first stone of that bridge in 1796 and how well it has endured the passage and weight of traffic for more than 200 years.  That same bridge was defended by local loyalists under the command of Thomas J. Rawson during the 1798 Rebellion and for a few months of that year the heads of some hapless local rebels were displayed on Crom A Boo bridge as a grim warning to the disaffected locals. 

Just after the bridge the river widens, or at least it once did, when the stone quay walls of the harbour were exposed and kept free of mud dredged from the river bed.  Unfortunately the earlier mentioned Barrow Drainage Scheme resulted in the filling in of the harbour in the centre of the town with dredgings from the river bed and the planting of a tree or two on the heaped soil was thought a worthy replacement for what had been lost.  The opening up of the harbour back to its original quay walls has been discussed for years but we still wait for those in authority to authorise the restoration work which when done will add greatly to the appearance of the river and the town itself. 

The horse bridge and the railway bridge soon came into view as we journeyed downstream to meet the Grand Canal.  The first pre-stressed concrete bridge in Ireland was built in Athy in 1919 as part of the Athy Wolfhill railway line which was opened to facilitate the movement of coal from the Wolfhill collieries.  The difficulties posed by the First World War had prompted the building of the Wolfhill railway line but when the war ended and coal supplies again became plentiful, the local coal fields were closed.  Train movement over the bridge was for decades thereafter limited to the carrying of cement to the Asbestos factory, but even that has now ceased.  The railway bridge will in time carry motor traffic as part of the relief road measures planned for Athy. 

We passed over the weir separating the Barrow River from the Grand Canal to paddle a course along the west bank of Lords Island, keeping clear of the canal cutting and instead keeping to the River Barrow as it meandered between banks handsomely endowed with ash and drooping willow trees.  The site of Ardreigh Mills, closed like its town centre counterpart in and around 1924, was quickly passed as we struck out for Levitstown.  Up ahead was Bunberrys Weir where nearly fifty years ago we youngsters from Offaly Street spent many an enjoyable afternoon in what was then a popular bathing place.  I can't say I had as much enjoyment as Niall Smith or his friends had in their time in Bunberrys which included, if Niall is to be believed, the playful removal of a young maiden's swimming togs by a teenager who would later become a well known figure in footballing circles.

On our right ahead of us appeared Kilmoroney House, even in the October morning sunlight a sad and almost ghostly sight on the headland, while just beyond on the left were the remains of what was once Grangemellon Castle.  What stories could be told of “Handsome Jack” St. Leger who came to live here in 1766.  A member of the Hellfire Club which is reported to have met occasionally in Grangemellon Castle, Jack was the founder of the English classic horse race which today bears his name.  We had bypassed the Levitstown canal cut to stay on the River Barrow and in so doing missed out on the longest canal cutting on the Barrow navigation which runs to two miles or so.  Tankardstown Bridge made its appearance as we approached Levitstown Mill which was to be our final destination.  What I wondered was the connection, if any, with Christine Longford's play, “Tankardstown”, written perhaps fifty years ago and seldom, if ever, performed since.  I had never before been up close to the mill at Levitstown which was burned down in 1943.  It operated as a maltings up to then and the canal boats travelled up and down each day to and from Dublin with malt on the journey to the city and Guinness on the return journey.  Here we got out, well satisfied with our journey, and pleased with ourselves at having experienced something which most of us had never before enjoyed.  Jimmy Kelly, the oldest and freshest looking of the lot, was I believe a seasoned canoeist, but Niall Smith, Dave Henshaw, Noel Scully, Jack Wall and myself were first timers who needed all the help we got from our youthful minders that day.  My thanks to rugby playing Ciaran English for seeing me safely on the journey.  I gather Ciaran recently received a sports award for Gaelic football.  In my time he would have been the recipient of a GAA ban if he had even looked at a rugby match, not to mind playing the oval ball game.

The River Barrow is a rich source of game and coarse fishing and on our journey downstream we came across mute swans and ducks, the first flying overhead while the ducks paid little attention to the water invaders whom they no doubt noticed at a quick glance were too enfeebled to pose a threat.  At Levitstown I gather eel traps are still in use, a reminder of the rich harvest to be garned from the local river of a delicacy which I must admit I ate for the very first time only a few weeks ago in a London restaurant.  In my younger days eels were always plentiful in the Barrow, but somehow or other they never seemed an attractive fish and so were avoided by many, including myself, until a few weeks ago.  Having tasted eel for the first time I must profess a liking for the fish which in medieval times was a rich source of nourishment for those living in the village of Athy, including the Dominicans who had their own eel weir on the River Barrow.

Congratulations to Dave Henshaw and Mark Wall and everyone involved in the Age Action Week.  This ould fellow enjoyed himself immensely.  A special thanks to Aidan McHugh and his team of canoeists who gave up their Sunday morning to steer a few old codgers safely down the Barrow.

Finally, I came across a reference last week in Florence O'Donoghue's book “The I.R.B. in the 1916 Rising” to the Philo-Celtic Society of New York.  In the book O'Donoghue, quoting from the diary of Diarmuid Lynch, referred to the appointment of Michael J. Doyle of Athy as president of the Philo-Celtic Society in New York.  The society, founded in 1873 by Irish emigrants, sought to encourage the use of the Irish language by holding Irish classes in and around New York city.  The society survives to this day.  But whom I wonder was Michael J. Doyle, formerly of this town, who was president of the Philo-Celtic Society of New York?  If you can help to identify him or his family connections I would be delighted to hear from you.