Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Athy's Wheelchair Association

On Thursday last the Athy branch of the Irish Wheelchair Association celebrated the 50th anniversary of the founding of the first branch of the National organisation.  Teach Emmanuel was ‘en fete’ for the occasion as volunteers, past and present, returned to acknowledge the wonderful work undertaken by that most underrated of organisations.

The I.W.A. was founded in 1960 by a small group of wheelchair users who had participated in the first Paralympics Games held in Rome.  In September of that year the inaugural meeting of the I.W.A. took place on 10th November 1960 in the Pillar Room of the Mater Hospital Dublin, attended by several members of the Irish Paralympics Games team, as well as a number of civic minded individuals.  Given the later history of the Athy branch of the Association it is, I feel, significant that the founding meeting was held in the Dublin hospital established by Mother Mary Vincent Whitty.  This was the same Sister of Mercy who came to Athy in 1852 to take charge of the new Convent of Mercy and the nearby Convent Schools. 

The Irish Wheelchair Association was founded primarily to improve the lives of people with physical disabilities and today the organisation has a network of 20,000 members with over 2,000 staff and many dedicated voluntary workers supporting and encouraging independence for all.  The I.W.A. seeks to improve equality and access for wheelchair users as well as providing employment and housing, while encouraging social interaction.  A quarterly magazine ‘Spokeout’ is published and made available to members of the Association.

Pride of place at the 50th celebrations went to Sr. Carmel Fallon and Sr. Alphonsus Meagher, both Sisters of Mercy who were part of the small group who in 1968 established the local branch of the I.W.A.  It was these two Mercy nuns who with their colleague, the late Sr. Dolores, formed a girls club in Athy in 1968.  The young club members were encouraged to visit wheelchair users in their homes and very soon the possibility of establishing a branch of the I.W.A. in Athy became a reality.

The driving force in setting up the branch was the Co. Galway born Sr. Carmel Fallon who entered the convent in Athy in August 1935.  The year was 1969 and very soon the local branch developed as socials for wheelchair users were held in Mount St. Mary’s, annual Christmas dinners were arranged and summer holidays were spent in boarding schools operated by the Sisters of Mercy.  None of this could have been done without the help of volunteers, both male and female, who from the very start devoted their spare time and energies to helping Sr. Carmel in her determined effort to provide services for the disabled, while integrating them fully into the local community.

Amongst the early volunteers (and apologies if anyone has been overlooked) were Leo Byrne, Lily Murphy, Mary Malone, Mary Prior, Michael Kelly, Bridget Brennan, John Morrin, Tommy Page, Paddy Timoney, Dinny Donoghue, Phoebe Murphy, Caroline Webb, Peadar Doogue, Fr. Lorcan O’Brien and Fr. Denis Lavery. 

The Athy branch was in time to provide a fulltime activity service for the disabled and the first Day Centre outside of the association’s facility in Clontarf, Dublin was opened in Athy.  Teach Emmanuel was developed on a site in the grounds of St. Vincent’s Hospital and represented a partnership between the Health Board and the Irish Wheelchair Association.  It also confirmed, if confirmation was needed, that the diminutive nun from the West of Ireland had an admirable record of achievement since arriving in the South Kildare town at the height of the economic war of the 1930s. 

In 1992 Sr. Carmel was appointed president of the Irish Wheelchair Association National Organisation and held that position for 10 years.  She is now retired from active involvement in the day to day work of the local association, but still retains a kindly watching brief over the work of Teach Emmanuel.

The 50th celebration was graced by the presence of many of the volunteers, past and present, without whose work and efforts over the years the local branch of the Wheelchair Association could never have been expected to survive.  That it has survived and indeed prospered, despite depending so heavily on voluntary financial donations and voluntary workers, is a measure of the generosity, not only of the volunteers involved, but also of the Irish public who can always be counted upon to help those who need their help the most.  The Athy branch of the Irish Wheelchair Association can be justifiably proud of its many achievements in helping the physically disabled to better integrate with the local community.  At the same time the people of Athy and district can take pride in the continuing success of a local organisation whose presence is a welcome addition to the medico social facilities of south Kildare.

Last week I wrote of the new Traffic Management Plan for Athy and referred to an alternative plan proposed by a group which I understood was the Irish Farmers Association.  In fact I am told the plan in question arises from discussions within the Athy Traffic Action Committee and has the support of a large section of the business community.  I gather their plan has not yet received the backing of the Town Council but perhaps that support will come when the Council members sit down with members of Kildare County Council to consider the Traffic Management Plan prepared by the Council’s consultants. 

Hugh Bolger of 6 Offaly Street passed away last week.  A native of Ballylinan he worked for many years in the Wallboard factory and his funeral was marked by a Guard of Honour of members of Ballylinan Gaelic Football Club and by the attendance of many of his former work colleagues from the now long closed Barrowford complex.  Hugh married Loy Hayden, now sadly deceased, whom I fondly remember as part of the Offaly Street family of the 1950s.  She and her brother Seamus lived with their aunt Mrs. Kitty Murphy and her husband Joe at No. 3 Offaly Street before moving to No. 6 when the Taaffes vacated that latter address to move next door to No. 5.

I had departed Athy for ‘foreign parts’, i.e. Naas, before Hugh married Loy and moved into No. 6.  I got to know him over the years and he became part of the familiar Offaly Street background at a time when several of the older families were still living there.  It is now a street much changed from my young days and the community of which I was a member and of which Hugh was later a welcome part of, has disappeared.  Hugh was one of the last links with that street community and his passing is much regretted.  He is survived by his daughters Sinéad and Áine and his grandchildren to whom our sympathies are extended. 

Athy's New Traffic Plan / Michael May

I am very loathe to pass judgment in public on the new Traffic Management Plan prepared for Athy Town Council which was recently on public display prior to being presented to meetings of Kildare County Council and Athy Town Council.  However, my reluctance in that regard vanishes in the face of yet a further potential waste of public funds should the plan be implemented.  I am advised that the Traffic Plan cost in excess of €100,000 to produce and its implementation cost can be measured in millions of euro.  Given the rather poor state of Local Government finances at this time I am afraid it is money we can ill afford to waste.

The Traffic Management Plan proposes a number of radical changes to the existing road layout in the town, the first of which is at the Dublin Road end of Leinster Street.  The existing wall between the two road levels is to be removed and replaced with a new wall to allow two way traffic on the Lidl side of the widened road.  On the People’s Park side of the wall it is proposed to have a pedestrian access route to the railway station and inside that again a road leading from St. Michael’s Terrace to a new road to be built through the People’s Park giving access to the Park Crescent estate from Church Road.  Church Road will be straightened and re-graded to allow access directly onto the Dublin Road via a new junction at the top of the Railway Bridge. 

Another major change centres on Emily Square where further pedestrianisation of the rear Square will effectively reduce the parking facilities there.  However, it is the proposed re-routing of traffic coming from the Carlow Road direction which now turns at the traffic lights onto Leinster Street to go towards Dublin which may create more traffic problems than it can help solve.  Dublin Road bound traffic coming down Offaly Street will have to divert across the rear Square and turn right at Barrow Quay onto Leinster Street.  The traffic planner who came up with this idea has an obvious liking for turning traffic at the bottom of humpbacked bridges as he also proposes a somewhat similar manoeuvre at the Canal Bridge on the Kilkenny Road.  Traffic coming from Stradbally intending to turn onto the Kilkenny Road must go via Nelson Street and hopefully make a safe exit from there onto William Street.  Vehicles will stop on Nelson Street just yards from the Canal Bridge where the sight distance is very limited and will then have to exit smartly and speedily if there is to be any hope of avoiding a collision with traffic coming over the bridge into the town.  Similarly traffic from Kilkenny going towards Stradbally must turn into Nelson Street.

There are a number of other changes, all of which I cannot now recall having attended the information evening in the Carlton Abbey Hotel a few weeks ago.  The overall impression I have of the Traffic Management Plan however is not helped by the use of a plan which has the Courthouse building described as the Town Library.  There are I’m afraid compelling reasons why this latest Traffic Management Plan is unsuitable for Athy, not least being the price tag which accompanies the changes proposed.  I only wish the planners and our Town Fathers would concentrate on the Outer Relief Road which I see is now being described as ‘the Southern Distribution Route’.  It alone can help solve the traffic problems which beset Athy’s town centre and the sooner Council officials and public representatives alike accept this the sooner we can press ahead with this much needed road project.

Incidentally despite the Minister’s clear advice to Athy Town Council and officials of Kildare County Council to make up their minds as to whether they wanted an Inner Relief Road or an Outer Relief Road, the local Council still persists in retaining the Inner Relief Road as an objective in the Town Development Plan.  Apparently the decisions of the Planning Appeal Board and the High Court have had little influence on either party and the Minister’s advice has been ignored.  It’s no wonder then that the Minister has not to date made any funds available for the construction of the Outer Relief Road.  As a consequence we find ourselves today in the unhappy position of attempting to apply what can only be described as ineffective measures to a chronic traffic situation which is crying out for the only viable solution – an Outer Relief Road.

As I came out into the foyer of the Carlton Abbey on Wednesday evening Liam Dunne of the Irish Farmers Association and his team were manning their alternative traffic plan for Athy.  It proposes a much simpler solution to the town’s traffic problems.  Roundabouts at Leinster Street/Stanhope Street junction, at Barrow Quay/Leinster Street junction, at Leinster Street/Woodstock Street junction and at the junction of the Bleach and Kilkenny Road are the mainstay of the I.F.A. proposals.  In addition pedestrian crossings utilising zebra crossings rather than the existing pelican crossings have been suggested by the Farmers Group as a necessary measure to allow traffic to flow as easily as possible.  However, I am aware that pelican crossings are more favoured by wheelchair users. 

I have to say that the I.F.A. plan seemed reasonable and practical and certainly less costly than the Council Plan.  Given the limited costs involved the general feeling of those who examined the two traffic plans at the Carlton Abbey Hotel is that the I.F.A. plan is worthy of further detailed consideration.

I learned recently of the death of Michael May whom I remember well as a pupil in the Christian Brothers School here in Athy in the 1950s.  Michael was usually two classes ahead of me and the ginger haired well built young man was an extremely popular member of the school population of that time.  Michael, a retired Garda Sergeant, was the son of Hester and Joe May who lived in the Gate Lodge at St. Vincent’s Hospital where Joe May was the hospital administrator.  Michael’s parents were part of that great band of Irish men and women who during the War of Independence and later gave so much of themselves so that future generations could enjoy the fruits of a self governing democracy.

Ar dhéis Dé go raibh a anam.

Athy Lions Club Cycle Rally

‘Charity begins at home’.  It’s an old saying familiar to all but uncertain as to its origin.  Its relevance is questionable at times when disasters of so many different kinds affect peoples of far flung regions throughout the world.  That is why a charitable organisation such as the Lions Club is so important.  Lions International is reputed to be the largest charitable organisation in the world and here in Athy we have a Lions Club which has been providing help and assistance for a multitude of individuals and organisations for the past 43 years. 

Athy Lions Club comprises men and women who give of their time, skills and experiences to raise money for local charities.  On Sunday 28th September the Lions Club will host its latest fundraising event with a cycle rally starting in Edmund Rice Square at 1.30 p.m.  It’s intended to be a fun event with prizes for best fancy dress and all those participating will receive complimentary refreshments en route. 

The cycle route will take in Levitstown and Kilkea, finishing in the People’s Park which is perhaps one of Athy’s finest hidden gems.  Local firm Athy International Concentrates are sponsoring the event.  The Coco Cola manufacturers are proven enthusiastic supporters of local community events such as this year’s cycle rally and the annual October Bank Holiday Shackleton Autumn School.  Other sponsors include K. Leisure who have generously supplied a number of vouchers for the use of the facilities in the local leisure facilities at Woodstock and these will also be available to winners in the various fancy dress categories.

The interesting aspect of the Cycle Rally is that the funds collected are to be shared, one half between the local schools, with the balance going towards the cost of replacing and improving the children’s playground equipment in the People’s Park.  I understand that the local schools have arranged for sponsorship cards to be handed out to pupils intending to participate in the rally so you may well be approached by your young neighbours for sponsorship.  The Cycle Rally however is open to adults also and I am assured that some of the elderly and out of shape members of the Lions Club will be peddling as hard as everyone else on Sunday 28th.  Sponsorship cards are available in the Lions bookshop in Duke Street.

It promises to be a fun event to be enjoyed by young and old alike.  All you need is a bicycle, a helmet (which I am told for safety reasons is now an essential piece of equipment on public roads) and most importantly some sponsorship.  After all the whole purpose of the Cycle Rally is to raise funds for the local schools and for the refurbishment of the children’s playground equipment in the People’s Park.

Get out your bicycle clips – and maybe even fancy dress – and come to Edmund Rice Square on Sunday 28th at 1.30 p.m. to join in the Lions Club Cycle Rally.  It’s for a good cause and the exercise will do you an immeasurable amount of good.  SEE YOU THERE.

In 1997 in my capacity as chairman of Athy Urban District Council I wrote to Mrs. Mae Vagts, formerly of Athy, but then living in America wishing her well on her 90th birthday.  She was born in Meeting Lane, a member of the Stafford family, and she later wrote to me with her memories of her father Edward leaving home to fight in World War 1 and of the telegram which was delivered to the Stafford home announcing his death.  Mae was the eldest child of the Stafford family.  Her father and his brother Thomas were both killed in the war and their names are recorded on the Stafford headstone in Old St. Michael’s Cemetery.  May Vagts has since died but members of the extended Stafford family have arranged for a family remembrance mass to be held in our Parish Church on Wednesday, 24th September at 9.15 a.m. for Edward Stafford who was killed at the Battle of Aisne on 24th September 1914 and for his brother Thomas who died on 6th September 1916.  It will, I believe, be the first such mass to be held in Athy on the 100th anniversary of the death of local men in the Great War.

Frank English

Several people have contacted me over the last few days looking for copies of the tribute paid to Frank English at his funeral mass last week.  One individual asked that it be published as an Eye and I am taking the opportunity of doing so this week, despite the fact that some of the material may be duplicating what appeared in last week’s article. 

‘With the death of Frank English Athy has lost a good man and I have lost a good friend.  A family man, a Town Councillor, a community activist and a Fianna Fáil politician, Frank gave of his best for the town of his birth.  For Frank was an Athy man, born, educated and worked all his life in the town which he grew to love so much and the people of Athy grew to love Frank for he was of a local family with a background similar to so many other families in the town.  His grandfather served in the 1st World War, while his father had to take the emigrant boat to England in 1948.  These were common experiences for many families as we grew up in Athy and it was against this background of shared experiences that made Frank’s involvement in politics and community affairs so uniquely relevant.  For 42 years he served the people of Athy as an Urban Councillor and tried all he could within the limits of the inadequate Local Government system to help improve the town of Athy and the lives of the people who lived here. 

Outside of the Town Council he served on the Community Council and was a founder member of Athy Credit Union and of Aontas Ogra.  A long time member of the Vocational Educational Committee he was at one time a member of the St. Vincent de Paul Society, a member of the Parish Choir, served in the Knights of Malta and in recent years taught many hundreds of young children to swim.   An avid G.A.A. supporter he followed his beloved Lilywhites with unchallenged enthusiasm and gave freely of his time for the local football club.

His contribution to the town of Athy is beyond measure and he has left us a legacy of community service which we will always treasure.

Frank participated in politics with a sense of purpose, reserving his political allegiance for the party founded by Eamon de Valera.  However, he never allowed political differences to mar his relationships with others.  He was a devoted and energetic member of the Fianna Fáil party and in that respect followed a path first set out by his mother Peg.  She was his greater supporter, that is until the daughter of a onetime Labour Councillor from Westport, Mary O’Grady, came from the west and captured his heart.  It was then that Frank English added another dimension to his energetic commitment as a politician and a community activist. 

For it was as a family man that Frank achieved his greatest success.  Nothing could compare to the satisfaction of bringing into the world five children, all of whom grew up to bring honour on themselves and on their parents.  That above all is Franks and Marys greatest legacy, but for Frank who was justifiably proud of his children and his grandchildren, it brought him enormous satisfaction and contentment that Conor, Cathal, Gráinne, Tomás and Ciarán were able to have the educational and work opportunities which were not available to him in the Ireland of the 1950s.

I will remember Frank as a friend.  We both attended school for the first time on 12th May 1946.  We shared a classroom for the next 12 years or so, Frank leaving school after his Inter Cert, while I continued on for a bit longer.  We holidayed together for several years until the demands of married life put a temporary stay on our trips abroad.  In 1962 we first went overseas together, thumbing our way around France, staying in hostels and experiencing the delights of Paris.  Over the next few years we visited London, Berlin, Amsterdam, Brussels and quite a few other places, some more exotic than others, but all offering a unique insight for two relatively inexperienced young men from provincial Ireland.

In more recent years we resumed our journeys and enjoyed together the sights and sounds of New York, indeed so much so that a return visit was necessary some time later.  These visits abroad provided Frank and myself with great memories and forge bonds of friendship between us which have only now been broken with Frank’s passing.

His was a friendship I treasured, for Frank above all was a considerate and courteous man whose zest for life was fashioned from an appreciation of the difficulties we all face, week in week out.  Indeed Frank was a friend to many, for his friendly outgoing nature combined with his innate courtesy, good humour and consideration for others, marked him as a man apart. 

Frank and I went to the west of Ireland to find wives.  He to Westport, myself to Connemara.  As a result both of us have strong links with Connaught and last night, mindful of the great number of people who came to Church Road to pay tribute to Frank, I thought of Padraic Colum’s poem, ‘A Connachtman’.  I re-read the poem this morning and felt that with some changes to the placenames mentioned to take account of Frank’s Kildare connections it was appropriate for the man we are honouring today.

            It’s my fear that my wake won’t be quiet,
            Nor my wake house a silent place;
            For who would keep back the hundreds
            Who would touch my breast and my face?

            For the good men were always my friends,
            From Kilcullen back into Kildare;
            In strength, in sport, and in spending,
            I was foremost at the fair;

            In music, in song, and in friendship,
            In contests by night and by day,
            By all who knew it was given to me
            That I bore the branch away.

            The old men will have their stories
            Of all the deeds in my days,
            And the young men will stand by the coffin,
            And be sure and clear in my praise.

The hundreds who turned up to attend Frank’s wake, the hundreds who turned up for the removal of his remains to St. Michael’s Church and the great crowd here this morning confirm, if confirmation was needed, that the people of Athy and those further afield who knew Frank, are in the words of Padraic Colum sure and clear in their praise of a great man.

I will miss him.  We will all miss him.  

Ar dhéis Dé go raibh a anam dílis.’