Monday, October 30, 2017

A Shaws shop assistant's story

I was privileged to interview a number of former employees of Shaws over the last two years while working on a history of that firm.  One of those interviewed was a lady who started to work in Shaws of Athy as World War II entered its final phase.  Her story was typical of anyone employed away from their home town or village in those war-torn years.  The memory of those difficult times is now fading, but accounts such as that of the County Tipperary lass brings home to later generations what life was like in Ireland of the 1940s.  Seventy-two years have passed since my interviewee spoke of her journey home on Christmas Eve 1945 but let her take up her story.


‘I left my home in Co. Tipperary in 1944 to take up my apprenticeship with Shaws in Athy.  Being the war years there were no trains, no petrol for cars, so I set off on my high nelly bike for the neighbouring town from where I continued my journey by bus to Naas with my bicycle safely on top.  I reached Naas at 3 p.m. with a ten shilling note in my pocket.  By this time I was hungry but could not afford to spend money on food, as my ten shillings had to last a long long time.  I would need money for a stamp to write home each week, and a penny for church on Sunday mornings and another penny for the Methodist Church on Sunday evenings, which as a staff member of Shaws I had to attend.  I had to wait in Naas ‘til 6 p.m. in order to continue my journey to Athy on the Dublin bus.  Alas, when the bus did arrive, it was full up.  A man who had seen me waiting there for so long, came and told me that a hackney was coming to Naas from Athy to collect some people and he would ask the owner if he had room for me.  The man was Tommy Stynes who kindly brought me to Athy, and I didn’t have to give him any money.


My first Christmas 1945 I worked ‘til 10 p.m. as some customers seemed to get joy from coming in five minutes before closing time.  Between chatting and browsing, they wouldn’t leave til near 10 p.m., never giving a thought as to how far the staff would have to cycle home.  As I worked in the cash desk, I would be almost the last to leave, so it would be 11 p.m. before I could start my journey home.  As it was the war years street lights and directions on sign posts were not allowed, in case of a German invasion.  The roads were not tarred, except the main roads from Dublin to Cork and Dublin to Limerick.  I knew I had to cycle through Maryborough (as it was known then), Mountrath, Borris in Ossory, Roscrea, Dunkevin and then home.  In Mountrath, I turned right, instead of left and went on to Ballyfin, where I met a man “full of Christmas cheer.”  He told me to go back to Mountrath and turn right after the church.  On reaching Roscrea I was so tired I lay on the frosty grass for a while, and then walked ‘til the numbness left my legs.  I arrived home on Christmas morning at 7.30 a.m., spent Christmas Day at home and then cycled back to Athy on Saint Stephen’s Day.  Oh was I tired?  Some of the staff cycled to Gorey, some to Inistioge, and others to different destinations, just to be home for Christmas.  We had no other option.  For three years this was the way we had to go if we were to see “Home Sweet Home”.


It is understandably difficult for anyone accustomed to modern motorways and motorised travel to imagine how important a bicycle was in the life of Irish folk during the war and indeed for many years after it ended.  I remember my father cycling to Tullow, Co. Carlow where he was temporarily filling in for a local sergeant who was indisposed.  Those were the days when the bicycle was the only mode of transport for most people as car ownership was the preserve of the rich and the professional classes.


Last week when writing of past Shackleton Autumn Schools I overlooked the contribution of Liam O’Flynn, Ireland’s foremost piper who performed at two Autumn Schools.  Another omission was the absence of any reference to the Autumn School journal, ‘Nimrod’ which has been produced every year and this year reaches its eleventh edition. 

Monday, October 23, 2017

Shackleton Autumn Schools of past years

On Friday next, the 17th Shackleton Autumn School will be officially opened.  The very first Autumn School was launched with enthusiasm, some little knowledge and lots of ambition but with little realisation of what would be achieved over the following years.  The School has grown to become a truly international event regarded by Polar experts and enthusiasts as the worlds foremost annual Polar gathering.  A relatively small Irish provincial town previously largely known outside the island of Ireland is now known far and wide as a centre for its annual Polar get together.


Looking back over the years and reviewing the visitors books in the Heritage Centre I have identified visitors to the Autumn School from Australia, Japan, New Zealand, Chile, America as well as France, Germany, Netherlands, Spain, Norway and all regions of Great Britain.  The Autumn School had received as guests,  Ambassadors from Japan, Norway and Australia and this year we had hoped for the American Ambassador to Ireland to open the School but unfortunately the ambassadorial appointment is still awaited. 


For me one of the highlights of past years was the attendance of President Michael D. Higgins to open the 2012 Shackleton Autumn School.  This was a great honour for Athy and the local Heritage Centre and confirmed, if such was needed, that the Shackleton Autumn School had become an important national cultural event.  There has been a great variety of national figures who have come to Athy over the last weekend of October since the first school was opened.  One of the early school’s was opened by Brian Keenan, the Northern Ireland writer who was a hostage for several years in the Lebanon with Terry Waite and John McCarthy.  His visit aroused enormous interest and his address in the library of the Town Hall did not disappoint.  David Norris, Joycean scholar was a colourful and highly entertaining guest of honour on the opening night a few years ago.  Another guest on opening night was Fintan O’Toole, Irish Times journalist and writer who gave a thoughtful and incisive exposition of Ireland’s social and political development on the fringe of the European Community.  One of my favourites was Kevin Myers whose address to the audience was followed up by a question and answer session which gave rise to a contribution from the floor making an uncomplimentary mark regarding Kevin’s writing ability.  I must say how disappointed I am that such a wonderful writer as Kevin Myers is deprived of a readership because of the reaction to the very last article he wrote for the Sunday Times.


The Shackleton Autumn School is not just a series of lectures for every programme includes either a musical or a dramatic presentation which always proves an attractive addition to the weekend’s events.  One of the early Autumn Schools featured Aidan Dooley’s dramatic presentation of the Tom Crean story and he returned the following year with the Ernest Shackleton one man show.  Since then Aidan Dooley has presented his shows in London, New York, Dublin and many other venues and we are delighted to welcome him back this year for a further presentation of his Tom Crean show.  It takes place in the Church of Ireland community hall on Sunday starting at 8.30pm.  Tickets costing €10 can be purchased in the local Heritage Centre or at the Church of Ireland Hall on the night.


John MacKenna, author, whose latest book of poetry is now on sale has been a wonderful friend of the Autumn School having acted in several of his own dramatic presentations over the years.  Perhaps his best known contribution was to the “Shackleton Endurance” a musical journey through the story of the Endurance expedition of 1914 - 1917.  John scripted that wonderful story while Brian Hughes composed the music.  Both John and Brian with others put on a wonderful performance in the Visual Arts Centre, Carlow which at the time was the only venue in this area which could cater for the numbers attending.  Brian Hughes whose latest album “This Day Twenty Years” celebrating 20 years of music making was launched last week, also performed during previous Autumn Schools.  One such performance was in Frank O’Brien’s Pub recognised as the School’s Clubroom during the Autumn School weekend, when Brian on the tin whistle teamed up with the late Michael Delaney of Kilkea and Dun Chaoin, Co Kerry whose rendition of local ballads, some written by Michael himself, proved a great hit with visitors and locals alike.  Brian performed on another Shackleton weekend as did the Clancy group of Irish musicians which included Toss Quinn, Martin Cooney, Seamus Byrne and Conor O’Carroll.  Mention must also be made of Jacinta O’Donnell who charmed the overseas visitors when she performed at an Autumn School dinner in the Clanard Court Hotel a few years ago.


The official opening of the 17th Ernest Shackleton Autumn School takes place in Athy’s Heritage Centre at 7.30pm on Friday, 27th of October.  Come along and join the visitors from overseas and from elsewhere in Ireland in celebration of one of the premier events hosted each year in Athy.

Monday, October 2, 2017

17th Annual Shackleton Autumn School 2017

October brings with it a greyness in our morning skies and also unremitting rain.  It is also the month that sees the return of the Shackleton Autumn School to the town of Athy.  This year marks the 17th year of the school which has been a great success since its inception in 2001. 


This year the school will feature lecturers from Ireland, Britain, Norway, Canada, Australia and the US.  The diverse range of events planned by the Autumn School Committee will appeal to many different interests.  The Norwegian Ambassador to Ireland, Ambassador Else Berit Eikeland, will be talking about the importance of polar history to the establishment of the Norwegian National Identity.  Ambassador Eikeland took up office in September 2016 after a career in the Norwegian Foreign Service, laterally as the Polar Ambassador for the Arctic and Antarctica where she represented Norway’s interests in these regions.  Her fellow Norwegian, Anne Melgård, a Curator at the National Library of Norway, will be talking about Norway’s great polar hero, Roald Amundsen, the first man to lead an expedition to the South Pole in December 1911. 


Irish interest will not be neglected as the Galwegian, Enda O’Cioneen, now residing in Kildare, will talk about his exploits on the high seas over the last thirty years.  Many of us will remember when Enda first came to prominence in the early 1980s when he attempted to cross the Atlantic singlehandedly in a 16ft. dinghy, albeit unsuccessfully when he capsized 300 miles short of the west coast of Ireland, but undaunted he completed the trip a few years later as a world first.


A particular feature of this year will be the involvement of the Byrd Polar and Climate Research Centre from Ohio University, Columbus, United States.  This is the premier Polar institution in the United States and its involvement is a notable first for the Athy-Heritage Centre Museum.  As I write this article a crate of artefacts is winging its way from America to Ireland to form the nucleus of an exhibition about the great American polar explorer Admiral Richard E. Byrd.  Byrd’s exploits in the Antarctica in the late 1920s and early 1930s were pioneering in their scale and their ambition.  They effectively paved the way for the scientific research stations and bases which now are located all over the Antarctic continent.  An exhibition dedicated to Byrd’s exploits with the title ‘Ushering in the Age of Mechanical Exploration: Richard E. Byrd’s First and Second Expeditions to Antarctica’ will be opened on the night of 27th October by Miss Laura Kissel, the Polar Curator for the Byrd Polar and Climate Research Centre  Archival Program. 


There is a welcome return to the Shackleton Autumn School for another Galway man, the actor Aidan Dooley.  I can well remember a stormy night in Athy in October 2002 when I sat transfixed by the extraordinary performance of Aidan in his one man show Tom Crean Antarctic Explorer.  To use that old theatrical cliché, ‘he held the audience in the palm of his hand’.  Little did I know that many years later when he came to write a book about his experiences in performing as Tom Crean he was extremely concerned that the polar experts in the audience would not be convinced by his performance!


Since that date he has criss-crossed the world performing the show to huge acclaim.  The performance, which will begin at 8.30 p.m. on the night of Sunday 29th October in the Athy Church of Ireland Community Centre, is bound to be a sell-out event and whether you have an interest in polar history or not you cannot but be enthralled by the drama of the life story of the Kerryman, Tom Crean.


There are a variety of lectures and events which should have some appeal to all of us and I would encourage the people of the town to attend as many events as they possibly can.  As well as the lecturers themselves, there is a wonderful array of nationalities who come and stay in the town for the four days of the Shackleton School and there is a universally positive response to the town and its people from these visitors, which sees many of the same visitors return year after year after year.  The Shackleton Autumn School has been pivotal in establishing Athy as the centre of the commemoration and celebration of the life of the Kildare-born explorer, Sir Ernest Shackleton and it has been a catalyst in the plans for the re-development of the Museum which will gather pace once the Athy Library moves to its new site in the Dominican Church.  There is no doubt that the success of the Shackleton Autumn School will be a source of pride for the people of Athy for many years yet to come.  The Shackleton Autumn School runs over the weekend of 27th-30th October and details of all events can be found on the school’s website,