Last Sunday the death of three Athy persons who in these changing times were readily identified with what I call “old Athy” was announced. The distinction is drawn with the new generation of persons living in Athy, people who have no previous connections with the town but who nevertheless make a welcome and valuable addition to the social fabric of our town.
Michael Sullivan was the youngest of the three at 76 years of age. A native of Athy, he had suffered from ill health for many years past but despite this he retained a keen interest in his local community and the events and people of the past. His interest was apparent in his regular letters to me in connection with this column. He was one of several readers who wrote to me on a regular basis regarding articles which interested him or to bring to my attention, persons or events from the past which might form the basis of a future article. Michael’s contributions was always appreciated and were extremely helpful in drawing my attention to interesting facts of local interest of which I might otherwise not have known.
Like so many of his peers, Michael had to emigrate in the early 1950’s and for 20 years or so he worked in England. The tricolour which was placed on his coffin spoke volumes of his allegiances to a country which disappointed so many of his generation in their quest for employment in their own place.
Kathleen Byrne was of an older generation than Michael and for her, life in the early decades of the Free State were harder than for most. Hers was a hardship shared with her neighbours in Athy which she briefly referred to when I met her some time ago. Her story was typical of Athy in the 1930’s and later and told of summer times spent working in country fields as part of the daily struggle for life in provincial Ireland. Those years she told me were years of genuine hardship for most people and may not be readily appreciated by the present generation facing an economic recession cushioned by State agencies of one kind or another. Regrettably, Kathleen Byrne did not want to revisit those unpleasant days of hardship and so I lost an important opportunity to record the recollections of a lady who had so much to tell of a time which is fast disappearing from folk memory.
Ned Wynne would have been 93 years old next month. I have written some years ago of this gentle courteous man who was the quintessential Athy man. He was an iconic figure easily and readily identified with our town. In fact he was not a native of Athy but came here from the neighbouring village of Ballylinan 71 years ago. His was a life measured out in terms of family life and family events centred on Athy which coupled with his work as the local shoemaker made him an iconic figure in the human landscape of the town.
Looking back over the years, there are few persons who stand out as the human faces of the town which has always been home to settlers of one kind or another. Ned Wynne was one such person and the small front room in Leinster Street where he worked was a place of pilgrimage for those revisiting their home town as well as the locals who dropped in unannounced for a chat.
My late father and Ned Wynne were good friends. Theirs was a friendship forged over the years in which they shared a common bond with young families attending the local school and playing football with the local G.A.A. Club. Members of the Gardai in the 1950’s and 1960’s spent most of their time on foot patrols in the town and on Saturday nights, being a late closing night to facilitate local farmers and their workers, the local Sergeant could always be expected to find Ned Wynne working away in number 63 Leinster Street. The weekly chat was welcomed by both men and indeed it was a practice continued at less frequent intervals by my brother George after my father died.
Ned Wynne was one of Athy’s best known persons and certainly was one of the town’s most respected and well liked citizens. His passing signals the end of an era. The era of local craftsmen had begun to disappear many decades ago as the harness maker, the blacksmith and the carriage maker closed their workshops leaving only the shoemaker as the last remaining craftsman still plying his skill. But even those days were numbered and Ned Wynne for many years was the last leather craftsman at work at his trade in the town of Athy.
His funeral was marked by a guard of honour provided by members of Athy G.F.C. where he was Club President and by a second guard of honour provided by Ballylinan G.F.C. It was fitting that both clubs honoured in this way a man whose footballing skills brought him a Laois Intermediate Championship medal won in 1938 with Ballylinan and some years later a Kildare Senior Championship medal which he won with Athy.
Michael, Kathleen and Ned died the same day and their funerals to St. Michael’s Cemetery on Tuesday prompted me to think what Athy may have experienced during the influenza epidemic at the end of the First World War. Then three or four funerals a day was a common feature for a few weeks as young and old alike succumbed to the debilitating effects of the Spanish Flu. Last Tuesday was a sad day as the town of Athy bid farewell to three of its older citizens all of whom in their own way had made their contribution to the local community and all of whom left grieving relations and friends to remember them. Ar dheis De go raibh siad.