Wednesday, February 12, 2014

O'Gormans Garage - Jack O'Gorman

Not too long ago the town of Athy stretched southwards in the Carlow direction as far as St. Patrick’s Avenue.  The thirty six houses graced with the name of Ireland’s Patron Saint when opened in 1931 were built in what was known as the “gaol field” which the Urban District Council bought from Miss Kilbride, sister of the local Dr. John Kilbride.  The “gaol field” was a field of 2½ acres approximately which formed part of the Town Gaol complex opened in 1830 and which continued in use for thirty years or so thereafter.  The gaol had been closed for almost seventy years by the time the Town Council purchased the field for housing, but folk memory had not quite forgotten its hidden past.  The next housing development in the area was the Kildare County Council housing scheme at Coneyboro built in 1950/’51.  Those houses were regarded to be so far out in the countryside as not to be part of the town.  The Carlow Road side of Athy was otherwise free of development and would remain so until the early 1960’s.

The building of a garage on the Carlow side of Athy in 1953 was a noteworthy event.  The garage was built by Jack O’Gorman, originally from Bennekerry in County Carlow who had earlier established a garage business in Crookstown.  Jack was an innovative businessman who made such a success of his Crookstown garage that he came to the notice of the Ford motor company.  Encouraged to establish a main Ford dealership in Athy, Jack built a new garage in the grounds of Mount Offaly House.  How well I remember the official opening of the garage in 1953 when Gerry Sweetman, the Kill based T.D. for County Kildare cut the tape.  My recollection of the day centres around the excitement generated amongst us youngsters in Offaly Street when we discovered a Ford car was offered as a prize for whoever guessed the correct number of moving parts in a Ford Prefect.  How contented were Leopold, Teddy, Willie, Andrew, Tommy and myself as with pencils in hand we peered, counted and noted our way around the car on display.  It all came back to me as I looked at a photograph showing Gerry Sweetman cutting the tape, flanked by Jack O’Gorman and his son Benny, while peering over their shoulders I spotted Mrs. John Dooley and Len Hayden of St. Patrick’s Avenue, Joe Murphy of Offaly Street and a youthful looking Leopold Kelly.  The garage was and still is an impressive building, which when first opened bore the name J. O’Gorman & Sons, Main Ford Dealers over the main garage door.

Jack O’Gorman who was born in 1911 served his time as a mechanic in Thompsons of Carlow where his father was a foreman.  One year before the start of World War II Jack and his wife Bridie started a garage business in Crookstown.  It was not a propitious time to start a business but by dint of hard work and with Bridie’s help in the small shop she ran for a while in Crookstown, the O’Gorman Garage prospered. A Ford dealership soon followed and Jack’s interest in engines of all sorts inevitably resulted in an interesting assortment of machines dotting the landscape around the Crookstown Garage.  Many will no doubt remember the Lysander aeroplane which for years was visible to travellers on the Dublin Carlow road as they passed Crookstown Motors.

With the opening of the Athy Garage, Jack, his wife and family moved into Prospect House on the Carlow Road, conveniently located directly opposite the new garage.  The former gaol governors residence, Prospect House was and still remains a fine cut stone building which up to recently had to its rear some remaining sections of the old town gaol.  At the height of the garage business in Athy O’Gorman’s employed upwards of fifty people and two of the key men were Seamus Armstrong, the Store Manager and John Cusack, the Garage Foreman.  Jack O’Gorman’s interest in machines and engines resulted in him producing several engineering modifications which improve existing mechanical systems.  He invented a gauge for use on combine harvesters for measuring work done and his interest in steam engines developed to the point where he was one of the founding fathers of the Stradbally steam rally.  In time Jack became less involved in the garage business and left it to his sons Benny and Pat to run the Athy garage while his son Sean stayed on in Crookstown to continue the business started by his father. 

The P.M.P.A. Company established by Joe Moore bought the Athy garage in the late 1970’s and in time the Crookstown Garage was sold by Sean who in retirement lives in Youghal.  Benny opened a garage in Naas but he too is now retired, while Pat still lives in Athy.  A few years ago I had the privilege of meeting Jack’s youngest son Michael and his wife while on a flight to New York.  They live in Greystones and were travelling to meet their son who was then Vice President of one of the financial companies based in Manhattan.  A car was despatched to collect Michael and his wife and they kindly offered the Taaffes a lift.  It turned out that a stretch limousine was on hand to bring us into the centre of Manhattan and you know, it was a grand reward for the hours spent way back in 1953 trying to figure out the number of moving parts on the Ford Prefect car parked in the forecourt of O’Gorman’s garage.

Jack O’Gorman passed away in 1982 and soon thereafter his wife Bridie sold Prospect House and moved into a granny flat built on the grounds of her daughter Kathleen’s house on the Carlow Road.  Bridie passed away in 2002 in her 95th year.  In addition to her sons she was survived by her daughters Kathleen, May and Breda. 

O’Gorman’s Garage is no more but Jack O’Gorman is still remembered with fondness in the town of Athy to where he came over fifty years ago to help revitalise its business life.  He is remembered as a cheerful good humoured man whose legacy is still to be seen in the fine building on the Carlow Road erected in 1953 and which for almost two decades proudly bore the name “J. O’Gorman & Sons”.

On another note next Saturday, 27th November, the Meeting Lane Theatre Company are putting on a dramatised reading of Patrick Kavanagh’s masterpiece “The Great Hunger” in the Town Hall at 8.30 p.m.  Generally regarded as Kavanagh’s most creative work, “The Great Hunger” tells the story of one Paddy Maguire through a series of descriptive and reflective passages that are amongst the best in Irish poetry.  It’s a night not to be missed, especially as the show is Athy’s contribution to Kavanagh’s centenary year.

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