Thursday, May 29, 2003

Gordon Bennett 50th Anniversary Run 1953

The Gordon Bennett Race of 1903 brought Athy to the notice of an international audience for what was perhaps the very first time.  The race inaugurated by the proprietor of the New York Herald was a truly international event and one which captured the public’s imagination at a time when the “horseless carriage” was still in its infancy.  Nowadays it is difficult to realise the vast scale of the 1903 event which was centered on what is generally described as the “Athy Circuit”, even though that same circuit went through parts of Counties Laois and Carlow as well as of course Co. Kildare.  The term “Athy Circuit” arose from the fact that the Gordon Bennett Race Circuit consisted of two loops which overlapped at Athy, thereby necessitating two trips through the narrow streets of the South Kildare town on each complete circuit.

For a generation or two after the race the Gordon Bennett was still part of the folk memory, not least on account of the tremendous excitement it created in the area.  Not even the visit of King Edward to Ireland in July of the same year matched the Gordon Bennett Race for popularity and excitement.  It’s no wonder the entire Irish nation was captivated by the idea of cars racing over the public roads around South Kildare and the adjourning counties.   After all there was still on the Irish Statute books a law which required cars travelling on the public road to be preceded by a man carrying a red flag.  Indeed 1903 was the year that requirement was repealed and replaced by a 20 m.p.h. speed limited.

In time folk memory faded and with the passing of those who had lived through the events of 1903 the Gordon Bennett Race became an almost forgotten note in the annals of Irish motoring history.  I first became aware of the Gordon Bennett Race when in 1953, its 50th Anniversary was celebrated by the Leinster Motor Club.  I recall the vintage cars parked in the back square next to the Abbey when the drivers stopped in Athy for lunch.  In my minds eye I can visualise a photograph taken at the time which subsequently appeared in the local newspapers.  As I am writing this I have before me a copy of the programme produced, for the golden jubilee of the Gordon Bennett Race.  The 1953 event was the sixth annual Gordon Bennett Race promoted by the Leinster Motor Club and took place over the original course, but with an eleven o’clock morning start on Saturday 20th June from the Curragh.  Fifty years earlier the race had started at Ballyshannon, with the first car off at seven o’clock on the morning of 2nd July.  The 1953 commemoration event had a number of prizes on offer, including a silver Salver donated by the motor traders of Athy for the best turned out car and crew to reach the town.  Among the veteran cars participating in the jubilee race of 1953 was a 1903 Benz owned by Charlie Taylor of Forest.  The programme notes indicate that Taylor’s car had been found under a coal dump in 1938 where it had rested for 30 years.  I wonder where is that car today?  Another entrance was Benny O’Gorman, garage owner of Crookstown who drove a 1912 Ford.  Within a few years Benny would open a new garage on the Carlow road in Athy where he was to carry on business for many years.

I was interested to read the advertisements inserted in the 1953 programme by local businesses.  These included, as you might expect, Shaws, but what about the following two businesses which are now long gone.  Do you remember James Fleming, carpenter and registered timber merchant who carried on business at the Sawmills, Chapel Hill or  E.T. Mulhall, Hardware and General Merchant as well as a publican of Barrow Bridge House, who advertised that his business was established in 1840.  The Leinster Arms Hotel was also included, noting that it had two telephones on the premises, one for visitors, the other for management.  One advertisement proudly claimed, “You always get the best in eats at Bradbury’s Restaurant Athy”, while Maxwell’s Garage, motor and general engineers, then located in Leinster Street carried on business as main dealers for Volkswagon cars and vans.  The remaining advertisements placed by local firms were those of Bryan Brothers of Commercial House, and Industrial Vehicles (Ireland) Ltd. which held a Morris car dealership.

A report in the local newspapers of 20th June 1953 described the scene as the vintage cars passed.  “All along the route cheering crowds gave the competitors who were dressed in period costumes a hearty welcome.  Many of the cars carried lady passengers whose attire was one of the picturesque features of the colourful calvacade and notwithstanding the threatening weather the ladies appeared to have enjoyed their long trip of 80 miles”.  Later in the same newspaper reports we read, “Over 3,000 people gathered at Emily Square, Athy on Saturday to see the 39 old crocks that halted in the town for a lunch interval during the 80 mile run over part of the old circuit to mark the golden jubilee of the Gordon Bennett Race of 1903.  Present in the crowd were several persons who witnessed the famous race won by Jenatzy fifty years ago.”  What a pity that those who witnessed the 1903 event had not committed their memories of the Gordon Bennett Race to print.  The newspaper report also referred to the marshalling for the 1953 event, praising Athy Fire Brigade under Robert Webster and the Knights of Malta under Eamon McCauley.  The mention of Bob and Eamon brings back memories of untroubled days when as a youngster I “sported and played” on the streets of Athy. 

I gather there are plans in hand to celebrate the centenary of the 1903 Gordon Bennett Race on the weekend of Saturday, 31st May when vintage cars will once again make their appearance in Emily Square.  The town will be in festive mood over that weekend and I am assured that everyone in Athy will be encouraged to emulate the fashion style of the drivers and the spectators of one hundred years ago.  I am told the organising committee are offering a free drink to every person who makes an effort to appear in period dress, with a special prize going for the best turned out person.  Veteran cars will be on show in the back square throughout 31st May, while a number of 1903 cars will take part in a time trial over a course at Ardscull before returning to Athy for the official opening of the Gordon Bennett tourist trail in the late afternoon.  More details will be given later.

An announcement will be made shortly concerning a number of musical events that weekend but it is confirmed that Brendan Lynch, author of “Triumph of the Red Devil”, the definitive history of the 1903 Gordon Bennett Race will give a lecture in the Heritage Centre at 8.00 p.m. on Saturday evening.  The Heritage Centre will also host a special exhibition of Gordon Bennett memorabilia over that weekend, and, of course, actual film footage of the 1903 race is currently on show in the centre.

The 1903 Gordon Bennett Race was the first international race to be held in Ireland or Britain.  It ensured international recognition for the 700 year old town of Athy and now 100 years later we have a unique opportunity to celebrate an event which astonished and delighted men and women of the time.  If you would like to help the organising committee with their plans for the Gordon Bennett weekend, Frank English or Dave Henshaw would be delighted to hear from you.

Thursday, May 22, 2003

Harvesting - 1946 Harvest - Fruit Farms

Do you remember “The Harvest Army” which was raised in September 1946 to save crops flattened by weeks of torrential rain and wind.  The then Minister for Agriculture, Dr. James Ryan, called on every able-bodied adult to lend a hand to save the oats, wheat and barley which it was feared would be lost because machinery could not be used in the waterlogged fields.  Almost 250,000 men and women volunteered for the harvest work, with women making up about half of that number.

Here in Athy volunteers were marshalled by the local Gardai, while Brother Nelson, Superior of the local Christian Brothers, allowed the senior pupils to lend a hand in the national effort to save the harvest.  For many of the young pupils it was their second time to be called upon in this way.  During the war years the Christian Brothers in Athy had to cut turf in the bog at Killart and sow wheat in the field behind their Monastery to overcome war induced shortages.  The entire community assisted by a number of pupils were involved in cutting, footing, heaping and clamping turf on the bog during the spring and summer months.  A contemporary account of the saving and reaping of the winter wheat amply demonstrates the many kindness’s extended at that time to the Christian Brothers by the local people.  All the machinery, horses and man power required for the task was made freely available to the Christian Brothers.  It was only in the saving of the wheat that the expertise of Brother Zachary O’Regan in his skillful use of a scythe was called upon.  The rest of the community and their helpers were involved in binding the sheaves and stooking the corn.  The corn was taken to the local premises of Minch Nortons for threshing and drying and in time the grain was sent to Ballitore Mills for grinding before it was returned to the Christian Brothers Monastery to be stored ready for use.

Harvesting techniques have changed over the centuries.  Flax, which at the start of the 19th century was widely grown in Ireland was almost always harvested by hand.  Hay was cut using hand held scythes, while most grain crops were reaped using sickles or reaping hooks. Horse drawn mowing machines first exhibited in Dublin about five years after the ending of the Great Famine soon thereafter came into general use, particularly in the eastern counties of Ireland.  The change over to horsedrawn powered machines caused a considerable fall in agricultural employment which up to then was the mainstay of many town based families especially during the summer months.  The fall in agricultural employment continued over the years and accelerated with the introduction of reaper binder machines and later still combine harvesters.

Women in employment were traditionally to be found in agriculture or in domestic service.  Indeed in 1926, up to 60% of all women working outside the home were so employed.  The five weeks spent in saving the harvest of 1946 was the last time women were to work in any large numbers in agriculture. In the 1940’s there was little or no alternative work for women outside the home.  Factories in Athy such as the I.V.I. Foundry and the Asbestos Cement Factory provided jobs for men only, while female employment was to be had in Bachelor’s Pea Factory in Rathstewart. The tradition of female labour was also carried on in the fruit farms operated throughout the country by Lambe Brothers.  They had three farms in Co. Dublin and two in South Kildare, located at Fontstown and Barley Hill, Moone. The Kildare farms had been purchased during the latter part of World War II.  The Fontstown Farm had 156 acres, with 30 to 40 acres of fruit while the Barley Hill farm extended over about 500 acres of which 75 acres were in fruit.  Most of the fruit grown was soft fruit comprising mostly of strawberries, gooseberries and  blackcurrants.

Harvesting of the fruit commenced in June each year and continued unabated until September during which time up to 1,000 females and young persons were employed.  The fruit pickers were drawn from the surrounding areas as far away as Carlow and Newbridge but with Athy as the focal point.  Family members were transported early each morning to the picking fields of Barley Hill or Fontstown.  The fruit workers were generally female, mothers and daughters with some young boys, as the work tended not to be favoured by men or young male adults.

Gooseberries were the first fruit picked and buckets were used to hold the glossy green fruit as it was stripped from the bushes.  When the time came to pick the raspberries punnets were used of which there were 12 to a tray.  Everyone was paid on a piece rate basis and the quicker you filled your tray or punnet the more money you earned.  Teams of fruit pickers spent their time stooped between the ripening fruit from early morning until evening time.

Gooseberry picking was guaranteed to give even the most experienced fruit worker thorn pitted hands.  You were warned not to eat the fruit, but to young fruit pickers the first day in the fruit field was an opportunity to assuage a hunger for fresh fruit.  The first mornings work always meant a slower rate of fruit picking.  Once the hunger for fruit had been satisfied the work rate increased and the almost mechanical movement of hand to fruit to bucket or punnet continued without pause or hesitation throughout the day.  Times were hard but the fruit harvest at Lambe Brothers brought its own financial harvest to the families who flocked each year to Barley Hill and Fontstown.

I am interested in interviewing anyone who worked on the fruit farms in the 1940’s or 1950’s or as a member of the harvest team of 1946 as part of an ongoing study of female employment in South Kildare.  If you would be willing to share your experiences of those days with me I would be delighted to hear from you.

In the meantime I must mention the Water Festival which will take place in Athy from the 16th to 18th May.  It will open with a funfair in the back Square and the Waterways Association will be encouraging its boating members to come to Athy for the weekend.  It promises to be a great occasion and one which everyone in the town should support.

One other matter which I have mentioned in the past and which I must come back to again is the 1798 Memorial commissioned by Athy Town Council to commemorate the bicentenary of the Rebellion.  Is there any possibility that the local Council will ensure that the Memorial is put in place before the bicentenary of Emmet’s Rebellion comes around on 23rd July?  Robert Emmet is perhaps one of the most romantic heroes of Irish history and the involvement of Nicholas Gray of Rockfield House, Athy in the planning of Emmet’s rebellion makes the bicentenary celebration of particular relevance to us.  More about that again, but in the meantime could I appeal to the Town Council to have the 1798 Memorial in place before 23rd July.

Thursday, May 15, 2003

Eamon Walsh

Seventy five years of continuous family service as a bank porter ended on Wednesday last with the retirement of Eamon Walsh from the local branch of the Allied Irish Bank.  Eamon held the position for 34 years having taken over from his father Eddie who was porter in the Provincial Bank for 41 years.  Eddie Walsh will be remembered by the older generation who will recall the Provincial Bank located in the building now occupied by Donnelly’s Solicitors.  Eddie married Molly Mahon, sister of Micky Mahon, the only Athy man to win an All Ireland Football medal, which he did as a substitute on the successful Kildare team of 1928.

Their son Eamon was the youngest of four children, the others being Moira, John and Helen.  Eamon went to school in the local Christian Brothers where his classmates included Sean Loughman and Paddy Wright.  A keen sportsman he played hurling and football with Athy Gaelic Football Club while managing to tog out with the local soccer club without falling foul of the invidious ban on foreign games.  He cheerfully admits not having achieved any success on the playing field, but is equally proud to have played basketball with a member of the Irish international team.  The player in question was Donal Dooley of St. Michael’s Terrace whose brother Peadar was a noted Gaelic footballer.  Both Eamon and Donal were playing members of Athy’s Basketball Club whose games were played on grass in the field in front of McDonnell Drive.

On leaving school Eamon worked for a while in Smith’s Garage where Maxwells is now located before taking up a job as a porter at the local railway station.  Michael McNamara was station master at the time and Eamon worked with the senior porter Sean Bowden.  He remembers his three years on the railways with fondness, recalling in particular Dinny Whelan, another local man whose own father had also served with the railway company.  On approaching his eighteenth birthday Eamon obtained a better paid position with the local I.V.I. Foundry.  There he was to work for fourteen years as a general moulder with the likes of Robbie Robinson, Tom Farrell, Des Donaldson, Mannix Thompson, Terry Lawler and Denis Byrne.  The foundry work was hard and demanding but everyone in the moulding department took pride in turning out first class products which for decades made the I.V.I. one of the most successful provincial foundries in Ireland.

It was during his time with the I.V.I. Foundry that Eamon met local girl Margaret McConville and they married on 6th June, 1960.  They were blessed with six children and all of them joined in the family festivities to celebrate their father’s retirement.  Desmond, the eldest son, lives in Celbridge, Louise is in Dublin, Verona and Angelina are married and living in the Athy area, while their sister Sharon is married in Denver, Colorado, U.S.A.  The youngest son, Eamon Junior, lives with his parents in St. Dominic’s Park.  I recall that I was to meet Sharon’s American husband when they were visiting Athy during the Christmas holidays.  Unfortunately we did not get together but perhaps we will do so on his next visit.

Eamon, of course, is known to everybody in Athy, not just as the public face of the Allied Irish Bank but as a talented musician who has been entertaining us for more than four decades.  Gifted with a good singing voice, Eamon’s first musical association was with the “Sorrento Dance Band” lead by Padence Murphy of Offaly Street.  This was in the late 1950’s and Eamon played the bass and sang vocals.  The “Sorrento Dance Band” had been formed in the years before the Clipper Carlton ushered in the Showband era and like all other dance bands at the time played orchestrated pieces while sitting on stage.  The Showband period brought changes, with smaller groups who dispensed with orchestrations, and chose to stand on stage as they played their music for the dancers.  In keeping with the changes in musical style the “Sorrento Dance Band” changed its name now once but twice, becoming in turn “The Dixie Kings” and then “The Pirates”.  Eamon was a member of these various musical combinations for five years, during which time the band travelled all over Ireland to fulfill engagements.  Dances in those days generally started at 10 o’clock and went on until 3 o’clock in the morning with the band playing on stage all the time except for a brief ten minute break.  It was a demanding schedule, even for somebody as young as Eamon and the demands of his day job in the I.V.I. required that he take a break from long distance travelling.  He subsequently joined up with Mick McFadden and the two of them continued to provide music for weddings, pub and club functions over the following eleven years.

Later still Eamon joined up with Andy Murphy, Denis Chanders, Patsy Kelly, husband and wife team Christy and Kathleen Dunne to form “The Saphires” which later became “The Spotlights”.  After about twelve years the band reduced to a three piece combination , with Eamon and the Dunne’s continuing on as “The Spotlights”.  The group is still going strong and Eamon who now plays the drums and doubles on vocals is this year marking his 42nd year as a member of a local band.

Highlights of his years on stage include sharing the bill with the likes of “The Royal Showband” and Dickie Rock for whom Eamon and his group played relief band.  He played Dreamland Ballroom when it was at the height of its fame as a dance venue and remembers particularly the Military Ball where again he played as a member of the relief band.

I have known Eamon for a few years and it would be difficult to find a more cheerful, good humoured individual.  He will invariably have a joke to share when you meet him and with the shared laughter there is always the good natured spontaneity of the man who last week marked his 65th birthday by retiring from the Allied Irish Bank.  In a way his retirement was a double event insofar as it marked the final link between the Bank and the Walsh family which Eamon’s father Eddie first forged 75 years ago.

1928 was the year a young Eddie Walsh joined the Provincial Bank in Athy.  That same year FitzMaurice and his two companions were the first persons to successfully fly East / West on a transatlantic flight which took 36½ hours.  1928 was also the year the Irish tricolour was first raised at an Olympic Games to signal the victory of Dr. Pat O’Callaghan. 

There have been many changes in Irish Society in the intervening 75 years, not least of all in the Irish banking system itself which has seen bank amalgamations and the absorption of the Provincial Bank in the what is now called Allied Irish Bank.  Seventy five years ago, few, if any of us, would have  been allowed inside the bank, much less have any reason to be there in the first place.

I don’t know how Eddie Walsh’s retirement was marked 34 years ago but I do know that last week the A.I.B. staff were very generous in the manner in which they marked the retirement of their colleague Eamon Walsh.  He got a great send off from the bank staff and from the local people who called into the bank during the day to wish one of nature’s gentlemen a happy birthday and a long and contented retirement.

Thursday, May 8, 2003

Photographs - Garda Barracks in Duke Street - Opening of Garda Barracks 1983

This week I am showing two more photographs from Athy’s past.  The building with the Garda crest above the front door was the Garda Barracks in Duke Street.  Next door to the Gem the premises is now occupied by The Gift Box and has been much altered so as to make it unrecognisable from the days it served as the centre of law and order in the town.

The second photograph was taken on the occasion of the opening of the new Garda Station in Athy in 1983.  The official opening was performed by Joe Bermingham TD who was the Minister for State at the office of public works.  Seated next to him are Chief Superintendent James Murphy and Superintendent Tom Hennessy.  The Athy Station party pictured standing behind the Minister are Sgt. Pat Tierney, the late Liam Farrelly, Jim Bergin, Tom Friel, Tony Timoney, Joe Carthy, Sgt. Michael Hurley, Leon Kenny, Eoin Doyle, Det. Kevin Brady and John Murphy.  The only members still serving are Jim Bergin, now a Sergeant and recently returned to Athy and Leon Kenny, now a Detective.