Sunday 22nd April was the 85th birthday of the evergreen Frank O’Brien. The doyen of Emily Square, Frank is one of Athy’s greatest ambassadors. O’Briens of The Square has been a landmark in the centre of Athy for over a century and it retains the charm of an earlier age when grocery and public house stood cheek by jowl catering for the male and female of the household. Nowadays the supermarkets have reduced the once busy grocery to that of convenience store status, but still it remains as it has for decades, a welcome change from the drab sameness which pervades the commercial world today.
Frank O’Brien personifies in so many ways the Gaelic heart of this ancient town of ours. He glories in its successes, his window displays always bearing testimony to his own Irishness, his support for the Gaelic language and his love of Gaelic sport.
He is a repository of local knowledge stretching back beyond his own time, enhanced by what he learnt from his own father and his father before him. It’s no wonder O’Briens is the first port of call for many visitors to Athy, especially those with links to this area. For there they can expect to hear of the past, of the people now long forgotten, who once were as familiar on the streets of Athy as we are today.
In wishing Frank O’Brien a happy 85th birthday I do so in the knowledge that I would have liked to devote this entire article to him, but modest as ever, he asked me not to do so. Perhaps another day.
Another birthday being celebrated around this time is that of Aidan Higgins, Celbridge-born writer whose 80th birthday is being celebrated with an Aidan Higgins Literary Festival in his native town this May Bank Holiday weekend.
Since the publication of Langrishe, Go Down! in 1966, his has been a unique voice in Irish writing. His first novel won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize as well as an Irish Academy of Letters Award, and was filmed for BBC television in an adaptation by Harold Pinter. Set in the hinterlands of Kildare where its author grew up, it slyly reinvents the familiar traits of the ‘Big House’ in Irish fiction. This was an audacious beginning for any writer, but throughout his career Higgins has continued to innovate - blending styles and genres, working within European as well as Irish traditions - most provocatively in his experimental novel, Balcony of Europe, which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1972. He is now an author of novels, short stories, memoirs, travel writing, and radio dramas; he is an honorary doctor of letters, a Saoi of Aosdána and most of all this weekend, a celebrated Kildare man. John Banville, Derek Mahon, Shane Connaughton, Annie Proulx, John MacKenna, Fintan O’Toole and Dermot Healy are among the writers who this Bank Holiday weekend will gather to pay tribute to a prolific and inventive prose stylist. Full details of lectures and events during this two-day festival can be found at www.kildare.ie/aidanhiggins.
The Churchtown Castlemitchell Community Development Association have organised a meeting for Castlemitchell Hall on 10th May at 8.00 p.m. to plan celebrations surrounding the 50th anniversary of the local community hall and the 150th anniversary of Churchtown National School. Both events, I believe, are to be celebrated next August. The Association is anxious to hear from anyone with past links with either the school or the hall and would welcome to their meeting on 10th May anyone willing to help out with the celebrations.
Writing on celebrations prompts me to remind you that the Christian Brothers Secondary School will be hosting a variety of events next week, ending with a dinner on 12th May in the Clanard Court Hotel to mark the amalgamation of the boys secondary and the girls secondary schools – Scoil Eoin and Scoil Mhuire. I gather a substantial amount of photographs and other memorabilia have been collected for an exhibition in the Heritage Centre during the week. In addition transition year students in Scoil Eoin have been busy completing a booklet to mark the event and this will soon be on sale.
The last celebrations in Athy which were centred around the Christian Brothers Schools took place on 23rd and 24th September 1994 to mark the 150th anniversary of the death of Edmund Rice, Founder of the Christian Brothers. The occasion coincided with the planned departure of the last Christian Brothers from Athy and soon thereafter Brothers Murphy and Quinn left the Christian Brothers Monastery in the town for the last time. The centenary of the Christian Brother in Athy was celebrated in 1961 and the photograph shows a parade of school boys coming over the Crom a Boo bridge and heading towards the old school in St. John’s Lane. My late brother Seamus is one of the boys holding the banner. I wonder how many of the other boys captured in the photograph can be identified today.