Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Kerry O'Sullivan, Liam O'Flynn and Ken Dodd

A school friend from the Christian Brothers secondary school in St. John’s Lane passed away recently. Kerry O’Sullivan was a quiet but very likeable fellow, whose father Mossie O’Sullivan was the town engineer for Athy Urban District Council. Kerry was fortunate enough to go straight from secondary school to university where he qualified as a dentist. A few of his school pals eventually made the journey through university, some availing of night classes to do so. Kerry, who married Kirstin Preisler formerly of Hillview House on the Kilkenny Road, had a dentistry practice in England from which he retired some years ago. I last met Kerry in June of last year on the occasion of a school pals get together for Seamus Ryan on a visit from his home in Australia. Even within the Leaving Certificate class of 1960 (the 11 pupils represented the largest ever Leaving Certificate class in the school up to that time) it’s surprising how many emigrated. Kerry to England, Mike Robinson and Seamus Ryan to Australia, with just four of the class of eleven still in Athy, the rest scattered throughout the 26 counties. With Kerry O’Sullivan’s passing the Leaving Certificate class of 1960 has lost another link with its youthful past. We had previously lost Gerry Byrne, a native of Ballyadams, who died a relatively young man not long after his ordination to the priesthood and Anthony Pender, formerly of St. Patrick’s Avenue. Two recent deaths which took place while I was out of Athy on holidays saw the loss of two talented men whom I greatly admired. One was the king of uilleann piping in Ireland, Liam O’Flynn, who came to reside in the south Kildare area some years ago. I was privileged to have known Liam O’Flynn and indeed met his father many years ago when I was living in Naas. In 2001 following a concert in the Dominican Church featuring Liam and the Pipers Call band as part of that year’s Shacketon Autumn School Liam was commissioned to compose music on the theme of Ernest Shackleton’s polar exploration. He launched the piece called ‘Endurance’ at the concert held in the Dominican Church during the following year’s Shackleton Autumn School. Liam O’Flynn was a wonderful musical ambassador for our country and it is sad to think that another great Irishman, the poet laureate Seamus Heaney who collaborated with Liam on the hugely successful ‘The Poet and the Piper’, has also passed away. Strange to relate that four days before Liam O’Flynn’s passing one of the co-founders of Claddagh Records, Garech Browne, also died. Liam O’Flynn as a young fellow had been a pupil of Leo Rowsome, as was Garech Browne and it was Browne who with his namesake Ivor Browne founded Claddagh Records. That company’s first record captured the uilleann piping of Leo Rowsome and went some way to help revive the ancient music of the complex elbow blowing instrument. The connection between Leo Rowsome, Liam O’Flynn and Garech Browne was uilleann piping. The first, a player, maker and teacher of the uilleann pipes, the second Ireland’s greatest uilleann piper and the third, a one time pupil of Leo Rowsome whose record company, Claddagh Records, widened the audience for Irish traditional music. It was the involvement of all three with the Irish traditional music scene which saw its re-emergence as an important part of Ireland’s cultural renaissance. No doubt eyebrows will be raised when I mention the other man I admired who died recently. He was none other than Ken Dodd, the greatest stand-up comedian of his generation. As someone with an abiding interest in social history I have always looked upon the history of the Music Hall as an important part of working class history both here in Ireland and in England. Music Hall developed to meet the entertainment needs of the working class and became the popular theatre form of the 19th century. Music Hall was effectively dead by the time Ken Dodd made his first appearance on stage. However, Ken Dodd’s material offered an insight into the working class social attitudes and he was for me a superb exponent of the comedic talent which marked the heydays of the English Music Hall. Despite the demise of the Music Hall its legacy lived on in the work of Ken Dodd, a master vaudevillian, whose performance in ‘An Appearance with Ken Dodd’ was captured on film and can still be viewed on the internet. With the passing of Kerry O’Sullivan a friendship first formed in school days many years ago is relegated to fond memories, as indeed is the enjoyment felt and experienced on hearing the magisterial uilleann piping of Liam O’Flynn and the quite different, yet equally enjoyable talent of England’s finest comic talent, Ken Dodd.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Bishop James Quinn (brother of Athy's Parish Priest Dr. Andrew Quinn)

St. Patrick’s Day is the one time in the year when the Irish diaspora gets to celebrate our national festival.  Its origins lie in a feast day celebrated by the Catholic church since the early 17th century, but nowadays it has become the focus of cultural events internationally.


This led me to reflect on the contributions made by those men and women who have left our shores over the last century and a half for economic and other reasons.  One such individual was James Quinn. There is some confusion over Quinn’s birthplace.  A lot of early publications cite his birth place in 1819 as Athy, while more recent research indicates that he may have born in Rathmore, near Naas. Notwithstanding same it is clear that he had strong and ongoing links with Athy during his life.  I touched on Quinn’s life briefly in an Eye on the Past many years ago when writing about the Parish Priests who had served in the Catholic Church here in Athy. 


Quinn was an interesting, if not divisive, character who trained for the priesthood in the Irish College in Rome, graduating in 1845.  After his ordination he returned to Ireland and he began a lifelong association with the Sisters of Mercy. He was based in Blackrock and also acted as a chaplain to the Sisters of Mercy in Baggot Street, Dublin.  He particularly assisted in sourcing volunteers amongst the Sisters of Mercy to travel to the Crimea to nurse British soldiers wounded in the war there.  Quinn himself wrote of a journey to Kinsale in the company of two Sisters of Mercy to a convent seeking volunteers for this expedition to the Crimea.  Arriving early in the morning in Kinsale he went to the Convent’s chapel to perform his morning’s devotions, admitting somewhat ruefully that he fell asleep while kneeling in the chapel, only to be awoken by a Sister of Mercy perplexed at the presence of a man in her chapel at such an early hour.  Quinn had previously travelled to Amiens in France with the Sisters of Mercy in 1852 to make a tour of the hospital system.  This mission was of fundamental importance in the establishment of the Mater Hospital in Dublin.


By the time the Mater Hospital was founded in 1861 Quinn was already on his way to Australia after his appointment as the first Bishop of Brisbane.  His was a dynamic, if not  domineering presence in this young diocese which he found in a weakened and financially parlous state.  His dynamism did not endear himself to a lot of his parishioners, nor to some of the local clergy and he found himself in a number of quarrels which appeared to bedevil his episcopacy in the decades thereafter.  Utilising his good relations with the Sisters of Mercy he encouraged the establishment of a novitiate in Brisbane for the training of sisters for the order.  With the assistance of his brother, Dr. Andrew Quinn, who was a Parish Priest in Athy, many young women left Athy for the novitiate in Brisbane.  Several of the young women sent back accounts of their voyage to Australia.  One wrote, ‘we could not sleep for the incessant uproar of sailors, ducks, sheep, etc. which were perhaps sea sick or else giving way to great rejoicing at the prospect of a pleasure trip to Australia.’  The exigencies of the voyage did not prevent these young women from performing their religious obligations.  One described a Saturday afternoon on the deck of the ship as follows:-  ‘Confessions on deck, the captain helped to make the confessional, poles covered with the sail.  On Sunday 30 communicants.  All assembled for rosary at 10.  We are getting at home in our strange abode.  It seems as if almighty God has taken the power of fretting from me.’  Another nun wrote of her initial impression of the native aboriginal people of Australia, as follows:-  ‘I never saw such fearful looking creatures as the natives, especially the women.  Some are bare headed, others so completely covered with feathers that one would think feathers, not hair, grew on them.  They are painted in all colours.’  And on arrival:-  ‘On Saturday we reached Brisbane.  The Bishop and Fr. Connolly came for us and drove us to the convent where we got a very warm reception.  The prayers of the Sisters saved us.  For 3 whole weeks it was gale after gale.  All is over now and we are quite well and happy.’


Quinn’s own brother Matthew, who had also studied in Rome, had gone to India as a missionary in 1847 but because of health issues returned in 1853.  After assisting in raising an army of Irish volunteers to defend the papal states in the 1860s he went out to Australia in 1865 and was appointed the first Bishop of Bathurst. In all, four Quinn brothers joined the priesthood.


James Quinn died on 16th August 1881 and his funeral was attended by representatives of many faiths, including the Anglican Church and also Rabbi Phillips.  He is commemorated in a number of places in Queensland and principally by a life size statue by Signor Simonetti in St. Stephen’s Cathedral which was installed in 1892.                             

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Danny Kane and Mary Fleming

Danny Kane and Mary Fleming came from a similar rural background in South Kildare.  Danny was from Oldgrange, while Mary was from the nearby townland of Fontstown.  In age they were a generation apart but both passed away within weeks of each other.  Mary was an extremely devout person whose commitment to her church never waivered, while Danny’s work ethic was an essential part of his approach to life. 

Mary left Ireland as a young girl in 1937 at the height of the economic war.  She would spend the next 67 years of her life in England where she qualified as a nurse and midwife.  Even in retirement she continued working as a health visitor in Northampton, near to the home place of the great English poet John Clare.  She was however never lost to Ireland or to the extended Fleming family and she returned to Athy 12 years ago.  Here in Athy she renewed her commitment to the local parish in the same way as she had committed herself as a volunteer in her UK parish over many years.

Danny Kane, who was one of the most agreeable persons one could meet, left school like so many of his peers at an early age.  His lack of formal education did not in any way impinge on his ability to relate to people and he enjoyed an excellent relationship with everyone as he passed through life.  While working on local farms at an early age he developed an extraordinary work ethic which he maintained all his life.

In or about 1971 Danny purchased a small grocery shop at 32 Woodstock Street.  I am told that the enterprising young man from Oldgrange found that the mortgage repayments exceeded his income and so with friends Syl Bell and Eddie Ryan he purchased a chip van.  Travelling to various functions in the area selling chips proved profitable and prompted Danny to open a chipper in part of the existing grocery shop in Woodstock Street.  In time Danny gave over the entire premises to the fish and chip business and it flourished while Danny was the proprietor before selling it on in 1998. 

Legion are the stories I have heard of Danny’s thoughtfulness and generosity during his time as the shop proprietor in Woodstock Street.  It was the same spirit and thoughtfulness which saw him working later in his life as a volunteer driver for the Cancer Society.  After retiring from the business he had built up over 26 years Danny worked for a time as a driver for his brother-in-law Fergal Blanchfield.  This was followed by a spell as a driver with local hardware firm Griffin Hawe Ltd. and later as a taxi driver for Vals Cabs and Ernest O’Rourke-Glynn.

Sadly in more recent years Danny was troubled by a heart complaint brought on unquestionably by a life of hard work and long hours.  He was scheduled to have heart surgery for some time past but health cutbacks caused the operation to be postponed several times.  When at last the call came it was via a text message while Danny was attending 12 mass at St. Michael’s Parish Church.  He was admitted to St. James’s Hospital the following morning but tragically following a 14 hour operation died shortly after being transferred to the intensive care unit.

Danny is survived by his wife Fidelma who on their marriage in 1972 brought together two families, Kanes and Blanchfields, who are long associated with this part of the county of Kildare.  Fidelma and their 8 adult children have lost a wonderful caring husband and father and a man for whom the local community came out in their hundreds to honour on the occasion of his funeral. 

The contrasting lifestyles of both Danny Kane and Mary Fleming, both from rural backgrounds, were founded on commitment, one to the church, the other to the family.  Mary, who remained single throughout her whole life, found contentment and purpose in the Catholic Church and in her later years on returning to Ireland found great happiness with the extended family members, young and old, with whom she spent her final days.  Danny found great happiness in his family life and the life stories of Danny and Mary while different in so many ways show that their passages through life were marked by dedicated commitment to life’s true values.  Our sympathies go to the families and friends of Mary Fleming and Danny Kane. 

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Ireland's commemoration of World War 1 since the 1920s(2)

In Athy where 223 men from the town and the surrounding district died during the 1914/18 war, I joined a few friends on Remembrance Sunday 1986 to publicly commemorate for the first time in over 50 years the local men who had died in that war.  The ceremony was held in St. Michael’s cemetery where six World War I soldiers who died at home were buried and I am proud to say that the Remembrance Sunday commemorations have been held every year since then, with ever growing numbers attending. 


It is often claimed that commemorations in the North of Ireland were organised for many years on religious or political grounds.  For many Catholic families who had lost sons or fathers in the war, collective commemoration in public was not deemed appropriate, particularly in nationalist areas of Belfast.  For many Catholics in the North the 1914/18 commemoration were viewed as loyalist events and the war itself as a futile conflict to be ignored.  Participation in the annual commemoration events was seen as a badge of loyalty.  The divergence of opinion was noticeable from the first Armistice Day commemoration held on the 1st of November 1919 when in Belfast businesses stopped for two minutes silence at 11.00 a.m.  At the same time there was no mass observation in Derry city.  In Dublin a demonstration was held on that first anniversary, but it was accompanied by rowdy scenes, with clashes between Unionist and Nationalist supporters.  The newspapers reported ‘hardly had the Trinity students concluded the singing of “God Save the King” when a crowd of young men, mostly students from the National University, appeared in College Green shouting and singing “the Soldiers Song”.  A scene of wild disorder followed. 


In 1966 the Taoiseach Sean Lemass, a one time critic of remembrance ceremonies in Ireland acknowledged that Irish men who had enlisted in the British Army during World War I ‘were motivated by the highest purpose and died in their tens of thousands in Flanders and Gallipoli believing they were giving their lives in the cause of human liberty everywhere, not excluding Ireland.’


One of the first cross community approaches in Northern Ireland in re-telling the 1914/18 war story in a bipartisan way was the 1993 publication by the West Belfast Youth and Community Development Project which told of the Somme story as one involving both the 36th Ulster Division and the 16th Division.  It was after all the Battle of the Somme which brought Republican and Loyalists together as one and where both traditions suffered huge losses fighting in a common cause.  Despite this the Somme had always been seen by Loyalists as a 36th Ulster Division conflict which was highlighted on many orange lodge banners as central to loyalism.  The 1993 project recognised Republican involvement and losses on the Somme for what was the first time in the North’s modern history.


The IRA ceasefire in 1994 prompted the SDLP in Belfast to attend as a body for the first time Remembrance Sunday commemorations in that city.  That same year the SDLP took part in commemoration ceremonies in Armagh, Omagh and Enniskillen.  The SDLP Mayor of Derry, John Kerr, was the first Mayor to lay a wreath during the 1995 ceremonies in Derry and two years later Belfast’s first nationalist Mayor, Alban Maginness participated in the city’s remembrance ceremonies.  He was accompanied by the Lord Mayor of Dublin when laying a poppy wreath during the Somme commemorations on the 1st of July. 


The first cross border approach to joint commemoration resulted in the opening of the Irish Peace Park at Messines in 1998 by the English, Irish and Belgium Heads of State.  This was an initiative by Glen Barr and Paddy Harte, a Fine Gael T.D.  The park with the round tower commemorates Loyalist and Republican involvement at Messines in June 1917 when they fought side by side as part of the 10th, 16th and 36th Divisions.


Perhaps one of the most far reaching participations in Remembrance Sunday events in recent years was that of Belfast’s first Sinn Fein Mayor Alex Maskey in 2002.  His participation and that of all the other participants previous mentioned was a long overdue recognition that people from both traditions shared the losses and sacrifices which marked the 1914/18 war.


The renewal of interest in commemorating the dead of World War 1 has seen the establishment of a Western Front Association in 1980 and the setting up of branches of the Dublin Fusiliers Association in Dublin and Belfast.  The Somme Association set up in 1990 provides a platform for the communities in Northern Ireland to share a common heritage – a heritage of loss and sacrifice endured by the men from Northern Ireland of the 16th and 36th Divisions.


Nevertheless, First World War commemorations will remain for many a controversial subject for some time to come given its roots and the complexities of what is a contested past.

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Ireland's commemoration of World War 1 since the 1920s(1)

Men and women from both parts of the island of Ireland played prominent parts in World War I.  Their response to the call for volunteers was a cross community response.  However, when it came to commemorate and remember the awful events of those troubled years the community’s response in the South and in the North of this island were radically different.


Here in the South World War I commemorations during the 1920s and early 1930s were largely confined to participants who had returned from the war.  Armistices Day parades were somewhat muted affairs in the South and in Athy these parades were not actively supported by the local population.  However, it was accepted that the men who had gone overseas should be allowed to commemorate their colleagues who fell in battle.  It was an ambivalent attitude by the local population whose church and civic leaders during the war years had actively encouraged local men to enlist.  Many did enlist – Athy earning for itself the oft repeated claim of having given proportionately more men to the war than any other town in Ireland.  ‘Do as Athy has done’, urged the recruitment officers as they sought to swell the ranks during the final years of the war.


Despite this, World War I commemoration in Athy and generally throughout Southern Ireland was always problematic.  19th July 1919 was designated ‘Peace Day’ in Britain and plans were made to mark the day in Dublin.  A large parade was organised to start from Dublin Castle and included a large number of demobilised soldiers and sailors organised by regiment and led by their former officers.  The Dublin newspapers reported however that upwards of 3,000 Irish Nationalist Veterans boycotted the event and also reported that ‘some cheers were raised as demobilised soldiers passed, but the regular troops were received by the most part in silence.’  Later that evening scuffles broke out in the city between Sinn Fein supporters and some of the participating soldiers, a clear indication that war commemoration in the capital city challenged cultural and political allegiances.


The subsequent Armistice commemorations in Dublin also led to disorder as it did in the following years.  On 11th November 1923 and 1924 a temporary cenotaph was erected in College Green outside Trinity College and a large crowd attended to mark the anniversary.  Fighting between Nationalists and ex-service men prompted the Garda Commissioner to refuse permission for College Green to be used again.  In 1925 the commemoration moved to St. Stephen’s Green and a year later to the Phoenix Park where it was held for the next decade.  Following the election of a Fianna Fáil government in 1932 and the start of the economic war it became less easy to continue the Remembrance Sunday commemorations and the annual ceremonies ceased in and around the mid-1930s. 


In July 1919 it was agreed to erect in Dublin a Great War Memorial home to be used by ex-servicemen.  This did not meet with official approval and the plan was dropped but in the meantime it was agreed to have some form of a war memorial erected.  Funds were contributed by the public and approximately £42,000 was collected.  £5,000 of those funds was used to publish ‘Ireland’s Memorial Records’ of which 100 copies of the eight volume set were printed and distributed to all the principal libraries in Ireland.  A further £1,500 was spent on replacing wooden crosses with stone crosses on battlefields where the Irish Divisions had fought. 


In 1924 a committee was formed to consider proposals for a permanent memorial in Dublin to Irish men and women killed in the First World War.  The committee suggested Merrion Square and later St. Stephen’s Green as suitable memorial sites.  Public opposition to these proposals prompted the Irish government lead by W.T. Cosgrove to set up its own war memorial committee. 


Eventually the war memorial committee completed its work and a site at Islandbridge across the River Liffey opposite the Phoenix Park obelisk about 3 kilometres from O’Connell Street on grounds not too far distant from Kilmainham Jail was chosen.  Work on the Islandbridge Memorial started in 1932 but it was not until 1938 that it was completed.  The Islandbridge memorial park designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens is one of four gardens in Ireland designed by this world famous architect and is not only a place of remembrance but also of great architectural interest and beauty.  An official opening planned for July 1939 was postponed indefinitely due to the threat of war. 



From 1940 to 1970 the British Legion held annual Armistice Day ceremonies at Islandbridge.  Because of the troubles in the North the Park memorial was closed between 1971 and 1988.  It only reopened in 1988 in response to criticism of the Irish government’s attitude to World War I remembrance in the face of the Enniskillen bombings of the previous year. 


Another six years were to pass before the Islandbridge memorial park was formally opened in 1994 and for the first time an Irish government minister attended with the then Minister for Finance, Bertie Aherne, representing the Irish government.