Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Athy's Commercial Life of the 1920s

Coming out of the recent recession its instructive to look back at times past and see how previous generations were affected by business closures.  At the turn of the last century employment opportunities in Athy and South Kildare were largely to be found in the agricultural sector and during the summer months in the local brick making factories.  The tied farm labourer, provided with a cottage by his farmer employer, worked six days a week. The temporary or part time farm worker, usually from the town of Athy was employed, if at all, during the sowing and harvesting seasons.  For many, however, there was little opportunity of earning an honest shilling.  The call to arms in August 1914 represented a welcome opportunity for many unemployed young men to travel abroad and more importantly to earn a regular wage with quite substantial weekly separation allowances payable to wives and children left at home. 


Carriage makers and blacksmiths were an important part of the average Irish provincial towns employment before, during, and for a short time after World War I.  Here in Athy Duke Street was the location of John Glespen’s carriage works, while Hannon’s Mills at Ardreigh and at  Crom a Boo bridge were substantial employers in what was a long-established milling business.  The malting of barley has a long tradition in Athy with many small malting houses once to be found throughout the town.  The old cinema in Offaly Street was the location of one of those malting houses when, unlike today’s operation, malting was very labour intensive.


Duthie Larges was the most successful business in Athy in the 1920s.  At the height of the Irish War of Independence, the firm had to let off 40 men because of a military imposed motor restriction order.  That same month, March 1921, saw the imposition of a curfew in Athy.  It followed the execution of six Irishmen in Mountjoy Jail on the 14th of March.  Those executed included Frank Flood, whose brother Tom would later carry on business in the Railway Hotel in Leinster Street and Patrick Moran who had worked for a time as a barman in Athy.


Duthie Large’s would recover in the years following the Civil War, while the long-established malting business of Minch Norton’s which at one time had malting houses at Stanhope Street as well as at the Grand Canal, would survive and prosper in peacetime. 


In the early years of the newly established Irish Free State, Urban Council workers were obliged to take a 2 shilling and 6 pence reduction in their weekly wage of 40 shillings.  Around the same time, the Hannon milling business first established by the Haughton family closed.  The workers who lost their jobs looked to the Barrow Drainage Scheme for work while others, encouraged by the local Council’s support for the project, placed their employment hopes on the possibility of a sugar beet factory opening in Athy.  The Council workers who had already seen a reduction in their weekly wage packet in May 1925 found themselves losing another 2 and 6 pence per week five months later. Their reduced wage was 35 shillings per week but even that was not enough to balance the Council’s budget and two workmen, John Ryan and Thomas Donohoe, were let go. 


The 1920s was also the start of Henry Hosie’s involvement in the regeneration of Athy’s economic fortunes.  He was the prime mover in the opening up of the Picture Palace in Offaly Street in or around 1925.  I have found a reference to a Cinema Hall in Duke Street in April 1922 but I don’t know if Henry Hosie was involved.  Hosie was also responsible for establishing Industrial Vehicles Ireland Limited, better known as the I.V.I.  He first wrote to the Urban District Council in May 1929 requesting an interview with the members regarding his proposed purchase of part of the Pound Field.  The Council agreed the sale to ‘Captain Hosie as the town is in much need of employment’.   The I.V.I. foundry was the first major factory in Athy and would be followed in 1936 by the Asbestos factory and in 1946 by the Wallboard factory.  All three factories made a huge contribution to the industrialisation of Athy and for a time made industry the main source of employment for the majority of local workers.


I’m reminded of the contribution that Hosie made to the improvements of the town’s fortunes every day as I pass down Offaly Street.  That street was home to a vibrant community in the 1950s and is now a pale shadow of its past.  Kitty Webster’s shop is empty and almost derelict, while the adjoining public house is closed with broken front windows protected by timber planks.  The conversion of Guard Tuohy’s house into a shop premises is unfinished, and the unfinished work adds to the miserable state of the once proud street, which misery is compounded by the nearby vacant former cinema premises.


Athy needs a modern-day Henry Hosie to advance the regeneration plan announced with much enthusiasm two years ago, if our town is to retain its former position as a vibrant business town.


A happy Christmas and a healthy and prosperous New Year to all readers of the Eye.




No comments: