Thursday, June 27, 2019

Historic Links with the Sisters of Mercy

Many generous people have in the past contributed handsomely to the maintenance of the social and religious fabric of our ancient town.  Some are remembered, even if only by dint of research into long forgotten archives and minutiae of the previous century.  Many however, are the acts of generosity which were never recorded, or if so have since languished in the forgotten layers of our local history.

Who for instance was Ann Fitzgerald of Geraldine who played a major part in establishing a Mercy Convent in Athy in 1852?  She was probably a daughter of Colonel Fitzgerald of Geraldine House, who some decades previously had built the first school premises for the poor children of Athy on part of what was commonage of Clonmullin.  Other generous benefactors, particularly of religious institutions in Athy, were Mrs. Goold and her daughter of Leinster Street.  Indeed, if memory serves me right, the present Parish Priest’s house was gifted to the church authorities by Miss Goold.  She also donated sufficient funds in 1877 to guarantee the employment of a fourth teacher in the local Christian Brothers School and to ensure that the classics continued to be taught in the school. 

Patrick Commins is recorded as having given significant financial help to the Catholic Church in Athy in the middle of the 19th century.  He was originally a clerk in Minch’s and in 1841 he married Mary Moran of Leighlinbridge, Carlow.  She was a sister of Patrick Francis Moran who was created a Cardinal of the Catholic Church in 1885. 

Commins had a farm out the Ballylinan road and is noted as having a connection with the canal company, but in what capacity I cannot say.  His relationship with Cardinal Moran is of interest because Moran was in turn the nephew of Cardinal Paul Cullen who was from Ballitore.  Commins father Hugh was married twice.  The first time to Elizabeth Murphy and they had one daughter, Alicia, who was to be the mother of a future Cardinal, Patrick Moran.  Commins second wife was Mary Maher of Donore and Paul Cullen, the first Cardinal in the Irish Church, was one of their 15 children.

Mary Maher was the brother of Patrick Maher of Kilrush and William Maher of Burtown, or Birtown as it was known in the 19th century.  The Kilrush farmer, Patrick Maher, was perhaps Athy’s greatest ever benefactor insofar as he made many donations over many years to the local Catholic Church as well as to the Sisters of Mercy Convent and the Christian Brothers School in Athy.  One of his daughters was Sister Teresa Maher who was appointed first Superior of the Athy Convent in 1855.  Patrick Maher’s wife was Louise Dillon, whose sister Mary Dillon was married to Pat Lalor of Tenakill.  Pat and Mary Lalor had 11 children, the eldest of which was James Fintan Lalor.  Pat Lalor was elected as an M.P. for Queens county, as Laois was then called, in 1832 and he supported Daniel O’Connell during the repeal of the Union Campaign.  However, Pat Lalor’s fame was eclipsed by that of his eldest son James Fintan Lalor and a younger son, Peter Lalor, both of whom achieved national recognition which has endured to this day.

James Fintan Lalor who died in 1849, aged 42 years, is remembered in Irish history as a land agitator who was much influenced by William Conner of Inch, Athy.  Both were deeply involved in seeking land reform and Lalor’s influence in particular had a profound effect on the Young Ireland movement and later still on Michael Davitt and the Land League Movement.  His brother Peter Lalor emigrated to Australia and there he lead the insurgent miners at the Eureka stockade in December 1854 which precipitated the Victorian Constitutional Reforms of the following year.

The ties between the Lalors of Tenakill and the Mahers of Kilrush extended beyond the Dillon sisters who had married into both households.  Pat Lalor, M.P. for Queens County and Daniel O’Connell’s faithful supporter shared with Patrick Maher an unswerving refusal to pay tithes for the support of the established church.  On several occasions the Maher’s cattle were seized from his Kilrush fields and driven to markets where they were sold to satisfy the unpaid tithes.  We are told that on one such occasion when 25 of Lalor’s sheep were seized, bailiffs drove them all the way to Dublin as no one would deal with them in Laois or Kildare.  In Dublin they fared little better and the sheep were eventually shipped to Liverpool.  There one of the leading livestock firms was Vendon and Cullen, the Cullen being a nephew of Patrick Maher of Kilrush so that the bailiff’s plans to sell the sheep were again thwarted. 

Patrick Maher was a man with great personal connections, not only in terms of Irish national politics but also as regards the 19th century Catholic church.  His nephew was the Archbishop of Dublin and Irelands’ first Cardinal, while another relation was Cardinal Moran of Sydney.  Three of his daughters were members of the Sisters of Mercy, while his brother in law was the famous Fr. James Maher, Parish Priest of Carlow Graigue. 

Patrick Maher, Miss Goold, Ann Fitzgerald and Patrick Commins are just some of those who in the 19th century proved themselves generous benefactors of Athy and many of its Catholic institutions.  One would like to know more of these men and women who for the most part are forgotten by those who live in Athy today.

Paddy Wright

Paddy Wright has always been something of an agitator.  The playing field, sometimes his work environment and nowadays the public forum of local politics have provided Paddy with readily accessible venues on which to engage the “enemy” in battle.  Now recently retired as caretaker of St. Michael’s Cemetery, Athy, a job which he held for 28 years, Paddy talked to me recently about the ups and downs of his very interesting life.

Born in Moone in 1938, Paddy was the eldest son of Mary O’Shaughnessy of Broomfield House, Moone and Johnny Wright of Bawn, Churchtown.  The young family moved to 3 Geraldine Road, Athy two years later and it was there that Paddy’s siblings, Annie, Noel and John were born. 

Johnny Wright was a member of St. Patrick’s Pipe Band, Churchtown and served as Pipe Major for the Band over many years.  Many are the stories I’ve heard over the years of the part played by the Churchtown Pipe Band and its Pipe Major Johnny Wright, unwittingly perhaps, in local political rivalry between the Wars.  Apparently many of the Churchtown Band Members were avid supporters of de Valera and as such piped him into Athy on his arrival at the Railway Bridge for an open air meeting in the Square.  However, when the supporters of Willie Cosgrave sought the same facilities for their man, the Churchtown Band declined to co-operate, a decision which is recalled with some mirth, even after the elapse of over 70 years. 

The Wright family moved to the Town Hall in 1949 when Johnny Wright replaced “Sixty” Kelly as caretaker of the complex which was then still owned by the Duke of Leinster.  The Town Hall was the social centre of Athy in those days where dances, plays, musicals and variety shows took place in the ballroom on the first floor, which now houses the town’s library.  The youngest member of the Wright family, Brendan, was born in the family quarters in the Town Hall.

Paddy on his own admission left school at 13½ years of age, unable to read or write, and for a few years found himself on the periphery of  delinquency.  Sport played a very important part in his subsequent youthful development and the local sporting scene provided him with his first public platform.  He was a member of the 1956 Athy minor team which won that year’s minor championship, defeating Clane by 12 points to no score.  The only other time a defeated minor team failed to score was in the 1936 final, played just one year before the start of World War II when Athy defeated Kill on the score of 3-8 to no score.  Paddy declares the 1956 minor team as “the best team ever” and right enough several of the team, including Paddy, subsequently played senior football on the County team.  These included Mick Carolan, Mick Coughlan, Jimmy Dooley and Liam O’Shea. 

It wasn’t long before Paddy was in the wars and the first of his many battles with authority arose when the local G.A.A. club officials had him suspended for playing soccer.  When the suspension ended Paddy joined the Castlemitchell Club, where he was to finish his playing days many years later. 

The Castlemitchell teams of the 1950’s were a mixture of footballing skills and brawn with the latter qualities more often than not employed in the quest for victory on the field of play.  Paddy himself acknowledges this when declaring that “Castlemitchell’s problem was fighting - you can’t fight and win football matches.”  It was a rough, tough arena for a young man to find himself in but Paddy contributed to the mayhem which generally marked the onward march of the Castlemitchell men.  However, it was the delayed league final between Athy and Kilcock which saw Paddy, by then a Castlemitchell club player but temporarily back in the Athy fold for the postponed final, incur suspension.  Apparently he took exception to some of the referees decisions and promptly thumped him.  The outcome was an enforced absence from the playing field for some months thereafter.

It was a short time later that the entire Castlemitchell team, including Paddy, was suspended for life following a fracas with Round Towers.  Paddy by then was a member of the Senior County Team panel and the County Board contrived to lift the suspension on Paddy so that he could line out for the County team in a second round championship match against Louth at Croke Park.  Louth went on to win that game but Paddy was to continue playing with the County team for sometime thereafter.

Paddy, who worked in the Wallboard factory for twelve years, where his father was also employed as a sawman, emigrated to England in 1959.  A short stint spent in Birmingham and then in London was followed by his return to Ireland where he resumed his footballing career with Castlemitchell and for a short while with the County Senior team.  Two of Athy’s most prominent buildings, the Dominican Church and the Minch Norton Silos, were constructed in the early 1960’s and Paddy proudly declares that he was a steel fixer on both projects.  The high rise silos under construction by Crampton’s of Dublin afforded Paddy the first opportunity for a foray into public disputation when he lead the workers out on a two day strike to further their demand for danger money.  Another spell in England, this time tunnelling on the Victoria Line Underground, provided Paddy with the unique distinction of being the only Kildare man to work on the tunnelling project which was largely the preserve of men from the Innishowen Penninsula of Co. Donegal.

While in England Paddy attended evening lectures in the Working Men’s College in Camden town where the Irish Socialist, Desmond Greaves, was a tutor.  Hyde Park Corner on Sunday mornings was also another favourite venue and in time Paddy overcame the literacy problems which were the legacy of misspent years in the local Christian Brothers School.

Paddy spent a number of years going back and forth between England and Ireland until he finally returned to settle down in his home town in 1968.  For a few years he was self employed and when Paddy Rowan, caretaker of the local cemetery, retired in 1975, Paddy was appointed in his place.  It was around the same time that Paddy was elected a member of Athy Urban District Council and he has remained a Council member for the past 28 years while he also served a number of terms as a member of Kildare County Council.  Never one to understate his position, Paddy has been the most colourful character on the local Council.  His sometimes raucous contribution to the staid deliberations of the Town Fathers no doubt causes eyebrows to be raised in some quarters, but Paddy remains largely unconcerned by the public’s reaction.

The agitator who in his time took on allcomers has never shirked a battle, no matter how unevenly the odds are stacked against him.  We might not always agree with him, and indeed there is seldom reason to do so, but nevertheless his contribution to local affairs is always entertaining.  He is the master of the carefully honed sound bite which is inevitably guaranteed to catch the ears of even the most bored reporter.

During our conversation Paddy spoke of the traumatic experience he had as a young nine year old.  He recounted with feeling and emotion how his father, Johnny, after a Sunday morning shooting trip to Killart left his loaded gun aside when he returned to his Geraldine Road home.  Young Paddy picked up the gun and innocently fired it, causing serious injury to his uncle Daniel O’Shaughnessy.  It was an experience which affected Paddy for many years and the pain and trauma he experienced is still apparent in reliving the events 56 years later.

The recent recipient of an artificial hip, Paddy in his retirement now enjoys a new lease of life.  He is a great raconteur whose stories of Athy in the 1950’s are not only embellished in the telling, but provide a ready backdrop for the singing of a local ballad for which Paddy has now become famous.

Paddy Wright, social agitator, raconteur and ballad singer, has in turn entertained, frustrated and often annoyed many of us with his sometimes outrageous statements on local issues.  However, one can never find fault in the man, who having left school at 13½ years of age subsequently dedicated himself to self improvement and thereafter to a life of local public service.  He retains, even now as a pensioner, all the attributes of a likable rogue whose outlandish statements are overlooked because, although Paddy is unique, he is one of our own. 

Oweny Prendergast - Death of Dinny Prendergast

Sitting here on the night of the 2004 budget I marvel at how different, how improved, our lives are compared to those who lived 50 years ago.  Many would no doubt take issue with me on that simple assertion, citing personal reasons why it is not so.  But really, taking the ups with the downs, life in Ireland has improved considerably since the 1950’s.  Unemployment I am told now represents 4% or thereabouts of the total working population.  How different it was just five or six years after the end of World War II.  In Ireland, jobs were then few and far between, but thankfully just beyond the Irish Sea our closest neighbour was embarking on a war recovery programme which would utilise the brawn and the sweat of the Irish.

I am reminded of this every time I hear or read of a former emigrant from Athy who has passed away.  Dinny Prendergast died last week after 49 years in Bermingham, to where he emigrated to join his sister Marie in 1954.  He was just one of the many young men from Athy, Dinny being then just 18 years old, who every year took the emigrant boat to Holyhead. 

The Prendergast family are an old Athy family.  Dinny’s grandfather worked for the Lefroys of Cardenton and it was in the gate lodge of Lefroys that Oweny Prendergast, Dinny’s father, lived as a young man.  When Oweny married Mary Timpson, a sister of Jimmy and Paddy Timpson, two old Athy families were brought together.  In the early 1930’s Kildare County Council built a number of isolated cottages in South Kildare, one of which at Milltown was allocated to Oweny and Mary Prendergast where they were to rear their ten children.

Oweny as a young man played Gaelic football and he was a member of Rheban Gaelic Football Club when it was founded in 1929 by the Moore brothers, John and Tom.  When the club won its first football game, defeating Suncroft at the Showgrounds in Athy, Oweny Prendergast was a team member and many years later he was the proud recipient of a gold watch presented by the club on the 50th anniversary of Rheban G.F.C.  Oweny was also a member of the Kilberry Pipe Band with whom he played the drums and for a time both Oweny and his son Dinny, who also played the drums, marched together as members of the Pipe Band.

When writing of Oweny Prendergast and his family it is difficult to avoid references to Bradbury’s Bakery, for Oweny was employed as a bread van salesman by Tom and Peg Bradbury shortly after they set up a bakery business in Stanhope Street.  In those early years Bradbury’s was quite a small operation, with the husband and wife team assisted by Mick Lawler, Oweny Prendergast and Mick Corr.  Oweny was engaged in bread sales locally and travelled throughout the town in a horsedrawn bread van which I’m sure many of my readers will remember.  When the business expanded with the move to a larger premises in Leinster Street, Oweny’s mode of transport changed and a motor van was provided.  In time, staff numbers increased and Paddy Murphy and Tommy Deering were also employed as bread salesmen for what was one of the most popular provincial bakeries in the country.

Oweny Prendergast travelled each morning with bread supplies for Portlaoise but in the afternoons he travelled on the country byroads bringing Bradbury’s breads and confectioneries to rural shops.  Monday afternoon the run was to Stradbally, Timahoe and Ballyroan.  Tuesday afternoon it was to Baltinglass, with Castledermot the following afternoon.  The rest of the week was spent going back over the same routes.  The friendliness of life in those far off days was typified in the story told to me some years ago of how Oweny on his daily trips through the countryside collected shoes and boots to be dropped off for repair by Ned Wynne in his premises in Leinster Street.  I’m told that the only seat in the bread van was that on which the driver sat and anyone wishing to join Oweny on his circuitous journey through the Irish countryside had to sit on a butter box.

Of Oweny’s ten children, six of them would be employed in Bradbury’s Bakery.  Dinny, Paddy, Damien “Boy” and Eugene worked at different times in the bakery, while their sisters Jo and Rose were in the confectionery section where so many other local girls found work over the years.  Dinny Prendergast started work in Bradbury’s soon after leaving school and he worked with Paddy Hayden of St. Patrick’s Avenue, and later still with John Mealy of Geraldine and Jackie Murphy and his brother Paddy of St. Joseph’s Terrace, not forgetting the three Brennan brothers from Cardenton, Sean, Michael and Willie.  As well as working by day and part of the night in Bradbury’s Bakery, Dinny was also a member of the Sorrento Dance Band founded by Paudence Murphy of Offaly Street.  He was 18 years old or so when he emigrated to England in 1954.  He travelled to Bermingham to join his older sister Marie and there he was to remain for the remaining 49 years of his life and where he died last week.  He was married and is survived by his wife and four children.

Dinny Prendergast was of a generation which did not have the economic and social benefits we take for granted today.  He was just one of the hundreds of young local men and women who made the journey by rail, boat and rail again to the industrial centres of England, there to be met and greeted, if they were lucky, by a brother or sister or perhaps a friend on their first day in a strange land.

The typical Irish emigrant, devoid of daily contact with family and kin, generally led a lonely existence until time and memory dimmed and new friends and relationships were formed.  Those who left these shores 50 years or so ago are now in old age and each year brings news of another Athy born emigrant who has breathed his or her last.  Over 80 years ago a generation of Athy men died violent deaths fighting a war which was neither glorious or great, but which nevertheless robbed our town of a generation’s life blood.  In this, the first decade of the 21st century, a later born generation of Athy men and women who were lost to the town of their birth 50 years or so ago, have made or are soon to make their final journeys.

The story of one Athy family is typical of many an Irish family whose long rooted ties with a locality could not always be maintained due to the harsh economic conditions of the day.  How different it is today as the Minister for Finance announced his budget, dealing with figures which were unimaginable 50 years ago.  The bread delivery man is no longer part of our daily lives, the dance band days are but a memory, but somehow, somewhere, there is a part of us which yearns for the pleasant, unhurried days when a lift, even sitting on a butter box, was a generous neighbourly gesture.

Tuesday, June 4, 2019

Photograph of St. Joseph's School boys school circa 1949

They gazed at the photographer with a sense of wonderment, while their class teacher, a Sister of Mercy, in all probability stood behind the man with the camera.  The photograph was of my class in St. Joseph’s School.


I first attended St. Joseph’s School on the day of my fourth birthday, which coincidentally was also the day chosen by Mrs. English of St. John’s Lane to send her oldest child, Frank, to the same school.  It was only in recent years when I had access to the St. Joseph’s School roll that I became aware that my dear friend ‘Harry’ English and myself joined St. Joseph’s School on 12th May 1946.


Looking at the photograph I cannot identify all of the 36 young boys pictured on the driveway to the Sister of Mercy Convent.  It brings back memories of a time when the Sisters of Mercy were entrusted with the first three years of young local boys education before they graduated to the local Christian Brothers School in St. John’s Lane.  Under the care and guidance of St. Bernard, Sr. Brendan and Sr. Alberta we learned the three Rs and prepared for the celebration of the first big event in our young lives – First Communion in the nearby Parish Church.  I have treasured memories of my years in St. Joseph’s School and this photograph recalls for me school friends, some of whom have since passed away, while others like myself, have passed the biblical three score and ten.


I would be delighted to have your help in identifying the young boys in the photograph, even if it is only one boy you can name let me know so that one element of the story of St. Joseph’s Boys School can be fully revealed.

Friday, April 26, 2019

Sarah Allen

One of the great pleasures of visiting other countries is the occasional opportunity of meeting people from or in some way connected with Athy.  It is almost 30 years since I was first invited to the annual dinner of the Kildare Men’s Association in Manchester.  There I met many born in the shortgrass county who for a variety of reasons left Ireland to make a life in the industrial cities of Britain.  One such person was Sarah Allen, formerly Sarah Bolger, born in what she described to me as ‘an old house’ off Meeting Lane, Athy in 1932.  Her father was Stephen Bolger who worked as a canal boatman towards the latter part of his working life and who was married to Nora Lawler of Ardreigh.  Nora’s father, John Lawler, was one of the many local men who fought and died in the First World War.  He was a reservist in the Royal Dublin Fusiliers having served in South Africa during the Boer War.  He is one of six World War I soldiers who died during that war and are buried in St. Michael’s cemetery, Athy.


Sarah Allen, who has lived in Manchester for many years, has fond memories of youthful days spent in Athy.  She recalls picking mushrooms with her mother in Hendy’s field at Ardreigh and being carried in her mother’s arms to see her father while he was working on the sewerage scheme under construction for the houses at Rathstewart.  Sadly her mother died when Sarah was five years old, after which she went to live with her grandmother Lizzie Lawler in Ardreigh. 


Sarah, whom I met earlier in the summer when she returned to Athy for her step brother’s birthday celebration, spoke to me of Athy’s past and her abiding memories of bygone years.  Her memories and those of older generations of Athy folk, whether or not now living in Athy, are the stuff of local history.  Their recounted lives and the attendant folk stories allow us to view from a distance the life and lore of past generations which hugely differ from that of the present.


Sarah spent one season working in the local pea factory in Rathstewart before leaving at 15 years of age for London.  She was met by her aunt at Euston Station and after a short while got work as a chamber maid in the Royal Hotel, Russel Square.  There she remained for two years, earning 22 shilling per week all found.  Even then Sarah’s sense of responsibility and duty saw her sending home £1 per week to her father who was then out of work.  It was a pattern repeated by so many Irish men and women working and living in England during that post war period.  Lack of employment opportunities in Ireland separated families, while the Irish emigrants of London, Manchester and other industrial centres of Great Britain forged an uneasy and sometimes unwelcoming relationship with the war-torn communities on the British mainland. 


Sarah endowed with a social conscience and marked with an admirable sense of responsibility paid a prominent role amongst the Irish community in Manchester for many years.  The Kildare Men’s Association and the Irish Centre in Manchester were but two of the many organisations with which Sarah was associated with over the years.  Now at 85 years of age Sarah has retired from voluntary community work and has time to think back on her life which started in Garden Lane, off Meeting Lane, Athy, extended over some years in Ardreigh before her life experiences were strengthened in the cosmopolitan cities of London and Manchester.


Sarah has proved herself as one of Athy’s finest, bringing as she did to her voluntary work in Manchester the cheerfulness, kindness and wisdom of a girl who first saw the light of day in the town of Athy in the south of Co. Kildare.


Last week marked the 50th anniversary of the death of trade unionist and social activist Christy Supple and his anniversary mass in St. Michael’s Parish Church was attended by his sons Joe and Tommy.  I have written previously of Christy and his involvement in the agricultural labourers strike of the early 1920s.  Christy encouraged by William O’Brien of the Dublin based Transport Union, set out early in 1918 to unionise the workers of south Kildare.  The agricultural workers strike of 1922/’23 was an acrimonious affair and attacks on property resulted in Free State troops having to be billeted in the Town Hall, Athy for 8 months from March 1923.  Christy was himself arrested in January of that year and held in Carlow prison for several months.  In 1925 he was elected as a member of Athy Urban District Council, but like so many other men and women had to emigrate to England in later years where he died in November 1967, aged 69 years.


Christy Supple’s story is one of courage and commitment to the workers cause but his role in the defence of the agricultural labourers strike of south Kildare is a story which has yet to be written and remembered in his native town.