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.

Moira Finnegan

Athy was the place to be on Monday of last week.  The Taoiseach was in town to open Martin Heydon’s constituency office in Leinster Street and later met some local people in the Clanard Court Hotel.  On the same day President Michael D. Higgins was on a private visit to Athy, while the assistant Garda Commissioner Fintan Fanning was carrying out his annual inspection at the local Garda Station.


The Taoiseach’s visit was undoubtedly a boost for the local Fine Gael party members and it must be acknowledged was also a very welcome visit to Athy by the country’s most important political figure.  In addressing those assembled in the local hotel the Taoiseach acknowledged the urgent need for progressing the outer relief road for which planning permission issued recently.  In recounting his own personal experiences of driving through Athy in the past the Taoiseach reassured his listeners, if such reassurance was needed, that the forty year old saga of Athy’s relief road will soon be at an end.  The cost of building the road will not, according to the Taoiseach, be an issue and everything now depends on how quickly Kildare County Council and the National Road Authority push ahead with the project. 


During the course of his address the Taoiseach paid a special tribute to Moira Finnegan, a staunch Fine Gael member for many years, whom I am told held at one time or another every officer position in the local branch of the party.  Due to her sterling work and those of her colleagues, the party flag was kept afloat in this part of the Kildare constituency during many years of Fianna Fail dominance in government.


Moira, who is a native of Mullinalaghta, Co. Longford came to Athy in 1972 to teach in the local Vocational school.  Tom O’Donnell was the headmaster in those days and he must have been particularly impressed by the young girl who, as a former CIE official working in Galway, transferred to Dublin so that she could graduate with a university degree.  Moira, like myself, attended university at night-time, both of us graduating from UCD, Moira with a B.A., yours truly with a Commerce Degree.  Daytime university attendance for our generation was very much limited to the well off and the professional classes so Moira’s attendance at evening classes after a days work was a clear indication of the drive and initiative which was regularly featured in her later role as a branch officer of the Fine Gael party.  Moira, who retired from her teacher’s position in Athy Community College ten years ago after 35 years as an Irish, English and Economics teacher, has now retired to live in her native County Longford. 


I was intrigued to find that her native place, Mullinalaghta is in the Lough Gowna Valley just up the road from my late father’s homeplace of Legga.  Both Mullinalaghta and Legga are not too far from Ballinalee and Granard, two places forever identified with the Irish War of Independence.  Not only with that War but also the subsequent Civil War and it is no coincidence that two of the men who figured largely on the Treaty side of that conflict are forever associated with County Longford.  Michael Collins’ fiancée Kitty Kirwan was a native of Granard, while the blacksmith of Ballinalee Seán Mac Eoin was, as the name indicates, a native of the Longford village of Ballinalee.  Both men, as advocates of the Treaty of 1922, were part of the movement which in time gave us Cumann na nGaedheal and the Fine Gael party.  The current Taoiseach’s kind remarks concerning Moira’s long involvement with the Fine Gael party were received with applause and her many friends in Athy wish her well on her retirement back in her native County Longford.


On the day before Athy played host to so many august visitors the members of St. Michael’s branch of O.N.E. played a significant part in the Remembrance Sunday ceremony held in St. Michael’s cemetery.  There, a colour party consisting of O.N.E. members, paraded prior to a wreath laying ceremony at the memorial to Athy men who died in war.  The prayer service which took place before, during and at the end of the annual Remembrance Sunday ceremony, was conducted by Rev. Olive Donohoe, the local Church of Ireland rector.  Thanks must go to the O.N.E. members, Rev. Olive and all those in attendance for keeping alive the town of Athy’s remembrance of the young men from this area who died during the 1914/’18 war.  It is particularly important that Athy folk do not forget that ‘lost generation’ because it was the town’s leaders and church leaders of the day who actively encouraged the largely unemployed young men of Athy and district to enlist during the course of that war.

Sunday also witnessed the Lions Cycle Rally with cyclists young and old setting off at 10 a.m. from Geraldine Park.  They followed a 24km route through Ballyroe, stopping at Kilkea Castle for refreshments before continuing the journey back to Athy’s GAA Club.  Well done to everyone involved.         

Ernest Shackleton meets G.B. Shaw and Harry Lauder

Part of the joy in researching and writing local history is making connections between people and places.  The re-imagining and re-assessment of historical figures is an important part of this process.  The Royal Irish Academy has been prominent in publishing new studies of major historical figures such as Eamon de Valera and its most recent publication, authored by Fintan O’Toole, ‘Judging Shaw’.  This an interesting book which the author regards as a re-introduction to George Bernard Shaw.  He states that Shaw, as a contemporary figure, has much more in common with musicians such as Bob Dylan and David Bowie than with the great Victorians, William Gladstone or Anthony Trollope.  He observes that Bob Dylan in 2016 became the first artist since Bernard Shaw to achieve the unique distinction of receiving both an Oscar and a Nobel prize.  Neither Athy nor Kildare can make any claims to associations with Shaw.  Carlow town has that honour with the generous bequests made by the Shaw family over the last century, the shining light of which is that great cultural treasure, the Visual Centre for Contemporary Arts Centre and the George Bernard Shaw Theatre built in the grounds of St. Patrick’s College in Carlow.


I was however intrigued to come across a reference to a meeting between George Bernard Shaw and the Kilkea-born explorer, Ernest Shackleton.  After Shackleton’s death in 1922 his brother-in-law, Charles Sarolea published in the Journal, ‘The Contemporary Review’ an article titled ‘Sir Ernest Shackleton a Study in personality’.  Sarolea was a Professor of French in Edinburgh University and was also married to Julia Dorman, Shackleton’s sister-in-law.  Sarolea describes a lunch date shared with Bernard Shaw and Shackleton where he observed two men who had much in common.  Both had a quick and ready wit and though in their temperament and outlook in life they were different both were Irishmen who had established their reputations after leaving these shores.  The lunch was marked by a continuous flow of stories and quips between the men which Sarolea described as a ‘continuous firework of story and anecdotes.’


Another great figure of that time was Sir Harry Lauder, the famous music hall singer and comedian.  His was a name and a voice that would resonate with my late father’s generation and he enjoyed an extraordinary long career from the end of the Victorian age right into the 1930's. 


It is not clear when Harry Lauder first ran into Ernest Shackleton, but certainly by 1909 when Shackleton had returned from the Antarctic they appeared to be moving in the same social circles.  At a dinner hosted by a wealthy friend of Shackleton's, Lauder performed a series of songs.  It was a lavish affair whereby the table was transformed into a picture of the Antarctic, with artificial snow and real ice, where a large model of Shackleton’s ship ‘Nimrod’ was placed at the edge of an ice barrier thickly populated by penguins with menu cards specially created by the artist, George Marston.


Lauder would go on to celebrate this friendship by releasing a song called ‘The Bounding Bounder’ or 'On the Bounding Sea' in late 1910 which was a comic tale of a joint expedition to the Antarctic involving Harry Lauder and Ernest Shackleton as regaled by Lauder.  The recording was released on an Edison wax cylinder and such was the success that it was later released on a 78 record and was still available for sale as late as 1921.  It appears that Lauder and Shackleton’s paths frequently crossed and an article in the Cork Examiner of 17th December 1912 reported that both men were embarking upon the Lusitania sailing from Cobh to the United States.  Shackleton was heading to America on private business with the intention of delivering lectures about his Nimrod expedition, while Lauder had just completed a series of engagements in London and was to begin a tour of the United States for nine weeks, of mostly major cities such as New York and Chicago.


When the Great War broke out in 1914 it would find Shackleton in the Antarctic again on the ship ‘Endurance’, while Lauder was touring Australia.  The war brought great sadness on Lauder’s family, with the loss of his only child, his son John, killed in action while serving with the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders on the Somme in 1916.  Lauder spent much of the war years in organising concerts and fundraising appeals, particularly for the charity he established, the Harry Lauder Million Pound Fund for injured Scottish soldiers and sailors for which he received a knighthood in 1919.  The death of his son also inspired the writing of the song called ‘The End of the Road’. 


Shackleton would find an early death on his expedition to the Antarctic in January ’22, while Lauder would live until February 1950 only fully retiring after World War II during which he made a number of broadcasts with the BBC.

Parish Priests of St. Michael's Parish

The light reflected in the window of the parochial house in Stanhope Place which I noticed earlier in the week had all the significance of a beacon of revival.  Sadly the parochial house, once one of the focal points for the parish of St. Michael’s, had been unoccupied in recent years while the Parish Priest who also had responsibility for Narraghmore and Moone parishes, resided in the rural tranquillity of Crookstown.  Our new Parish Priest has now occupied the early 19th century stone fronted parochial house and by this very act has reaffirmed the importance of the Parish Priest living amongst the people he serves.  This is not to say that the parishioners of Narraghmore and Moone. deserve any less consideration but in terms of population numbers the parish of St. Michael’s must be seen as the first amongst equals in this part of the diocese. 


The parish of St. Michael’s was established I am told in 1670 and the only extant records relating to the priests in the parish record Fr. John Fitzsimons who was ordained a priest in 1673 at 23 years of age.  He had the distinction of being ordained by the then Archbishop of Dublin Oliver Plunkett and was appointed Parish Priest of St. Michael’s 24 years later.  It is interesting to note that his designation as Parish Priest referred to St. Michael’s, St. John’s, Churchtown, Kilberry and Nicholastown.  He was shown in government records as residing in Athy in 1704.


The next recorded Parish Priest was Fr. Daniel Fitzpatrick who was in charge of the parish in 1744 while living over the border in Queens County [now County Laois].  Fr. James Neill or  Nele, was Parish Priest of St. Michael’s from 1771 until his death on 28th October 1789.  Fr. Maurice Keegan was a curate in Athy for 7 years from 1780 and transferred to nearby Castledermot as Parish Priest where he remained until 1789.  He returned that year to St. Michael’s as the Parish Priest and served in that capacity until 26th October 1825.  It was during his stewardship of the parish that the Parish Church, then located in Chapel Lane, was torched and burned to the ground.  It happened on the night of 7th March, 1800 and was one of a number of Catholic churches in this area and throughout Ireland which were similarly burned out following the 1798 Rebellion.  Fr. Fitzpatrick lodged a claim for compensation with the Dublin Castle authorities and those proceeds and presumably further local funding financed the building of St. Michael’s Church, familiar to older residents of the parish which was demolished in 1960.


Following Fr. Fitzpatrick’s death in 1825 I have counted 18 Parish Priests who succeeded him, including the recently appointed Fr. Liam Rigney.  Amongst them was Fr. Andrew Quinn who was Parish Priest from 1853-1879.  A native of Eadestown, Naas, his brothers were Bishop James Quinn of Brisbane and Bishop Matthew Quinn of Bathurst.  Two other Parish Priests who in my young days were remembered in Athy were Canon James Germaine who presided over the parish for 13 years up to 1905.  Canon Mackey was another well remembered holder of the office from 1909-1928.  Both died in office and both are buried in St. Michael’s Cemetery.


Canon Patrick McDonnell, after whom McDonnell Drive was named, was Parish Priest from 1928-1956.  He was the old-style leader of his parish who to a youngster like me attending confessions in the early 1950s was a cross, contrary individual who was unable to deal kindly with the awkward silences of a dumb struck youngster.  My tale of woe has been told in a previous Eye, however now that I am approaching Canon McDonnell’s age I can understand and forgive him.


Amongst the Parish Priests of the past we have had a number of priests with interesting backgrounds.  Canon Owen Sweeney, who was a dynamic Parish Priest for 5 years from 1980, was the former president of Clonliffe College.  Fr. Gerard Tanham, Parish Priest from 2010, was director of the Dublin Institute of Adult Education for 10 years from 1981.  Both left their mark on the parish of St. Michael’s and are remembered with great fondness. 


In any lookback at the Parish Priests of our parish it would be remiss of me not to mention Fr. Philip Dennehy who first came to Athy as a curate in 1963.  He served for 10 years before returning as a Parish Priest in 1985, retiring 21 years later.  Now aged 86 years he remains in the parish as Parish Priest Emeritus, a much-loved pastor who has devoted the majority of his ordained life to the parishioners of the Parish of St. Michael’s.


The parish has gone through difficult times since the departure of Monsignor John Wilson in 2009 and the widening of the pastoral responsibility of the Parish Priest for the outlying parishes has increased the difficulties facing the present incumbent.  His decision to occupy the Parochial House in Stanhope Place goes a long way to reassuring his parishioners that the regeneration of St. Michael’s parish as a relevant and important part of community life in the area can be expected. 

Tim Harward / Eddie Wall

The English and the Irish nations have had an uneasy relationship for centuries but mercifully the appalling ‘No Blacks, No Irish, No Dogs’ boarding house notices of a few decades past are no more.  However, the partnership which could and should mark the relationship between neighbouring islands is held back by politicians and historical baggage foisted on us as a result of the Boundary Commission of 1924. 


My thoughts on the otherwise amicable relationship between the people of Great Britain and ourselves were prompted by my visit last week for a funeral in West Sussex.  I have been a frequent visitor across the Irish Sea and I have always been impressed by the pleasant and courteous manner in which the English and Welsh people meet and greet the Irish.  Everywhere one goes on the British mainland there is evidence of Irish connections.  I was attending a funeral service in St. Andrew’s Church, Bishopstone, a small church dating from Saxon times with 12th century Norman additions.  The Church of England service was an engaging reminder of the ever-slight differences in the services in our own St. Michael’s Church.  The Minister in charge was a Sligo man, now retired from his own parish and acting as priest in charge of the church where miniature sized Stations of the Cross and candlesticks spoke of a High Church following, or as the Rev. Minister later put it to me ‘High Churchish’.


I was there to honour the memory of my daughter’s father-in-law who passed away recently.  Tim Harward, born in Madras, India where his father was an army Colonel was educated in England and attended Trinity College Dublin in the 1950s.  His was an interesting life which saw him work for a time as a theatre critic for the Times, and after service with the 2nd Gurka Rifles in Malaya he worked for several years as an archaeologist in Nepal.  I was particularly interested to find that his first book was published in 1964 by Liam Miller’s Dolmen Press and his most recent book on pillar stones in west Nepal was published in Central Malaya 48 years later. 


Tim Harward’s connection with Ireland reflected in reverse the links which many Irish men and women have with Great Britain.  There are very few Irish families who do not have a family member working or living in retirement on the British mainland.  Once such was my friend Eddie Wall who was born in Ardreigh and like me went to school in the local Christian Brothers.  Shortly after the funeral service in Bishopstone I received a text from Eddie’s daughter, Helen Hives, telling me that her father had died some days previously.  Eddie left school at an early age to work in Andersons and Conroys pubs.  He subsequently emigrated to England where he married Evelyn Barrett from Belmullet, county Mayo and it was in Luton that they reared their family. 


Eddie had a great love for his native place which he never lost, despite the many years he spent in England.  He was delighted to attend the 40th school reunion organised in September 2002 where he renewed acquaintances with men whose faces and ages had changed enormously since last seen as young boys in the Christian Brothers.  Eddie kept in touch with me for a number of years after that and I was very saddened to hear of his passing.


The connections between Eddie’s country of birth and the land where his remains will now lie are so many and so varied it is impossible to untangle the two.  Even on my short trip last week I met and talked to several strangers, all elderly, many still conversing with the soft lilt of an Irish brogue which they brought with them so many years ago from Ireland.  You cannot travel anywhere in England or Wales without meeting an Irish exile who has made his or her home there.  The Irish exile has proved to be a trustworthy, hardworking and genial person, becoming in time an integral part of the local community overseas.


Tim Harward and Eddie Wall came from entirely different backgrounds but somehow their lives enshrined, for me at least, an understanding of those transferable qualities which allow the English and the Irish to live in harmony.  How I wish those qualities could be utilised to solve the difficulties which still mark relationships on the island of Ireland and which have their origin in the shambolic political settlement of almost 100 years ago.


[I wrote the above lines on Thursday morning and later that afternoon I received a telephone call to say that Tim Harward’s wife Paula, who had spoken so eloquently at his funeral service a few days previously, had tragically died following a road traffic accident earlier in the day.]