Thursday, December 20, 2007

Christmas memories

On Monday 10th December we witnessed one of the largest attendances at a funeral service held in Athy. John Perry a native of Bunclody but an adopted son of Athy had died three days previously. His passing was not unexpected but when it came it occasioned genuine regret for the man who was universally regarded for his courtesy and kindness.

The name Perry is synonymous in so far as townsfolk are concerned with the motor dealership and garage while for country folk the name is more associated with the farm machinery business. Both were developed from the start up business commenced forty five years ago by John Perry who came to Athy six years previously to work with Duthie Larges of Leinster Street. When he arrived in the South Kildare town he was just twenty years of age and within one week of his arrival he had made his first move in the upward transition which would eventually lead to the opening of his own business. That move, just a short distance up Leinster Street brought him to Jacksons, a firm well known and long established in the town of Athy. He later moved to Smiths Garage next to the I.V.I. foundry before branching out on his own just six years after he first arrived in Athy.

The friendly man who was John Perry was a highly respected business man who according to the many stories I have heard this week treated his customers with remarkable kindness and courtesy. Legion are the accounts that have come to my notice confirming that a happy customer was very important to the Bunclody man whose dealings were always fair and equitable.

As a committee member of the Church of Ireland John was a member of the local Select Vestry for almost forty years and for the last three decades fulfilled the role of treasurer of the Athy Parish. His involvement with the Athy Lions Club was perhaps less well know given that organisation’s work is by the most part carried out discreetly and without undue fanfare. As a past president of the Lions Club and a member of many years standing his contribution to local charities and good causes generally was exemplary. Above all he was an honourable man whose courtesy and innate kindness marked him as a man apart. The huge gathering at his funeral service at the Parish Church of St. Michaels was an indication of the esteem in which John and his family are held both locally and much further afield. To his wife Olive, his sons Stephen, Roger and Niall and his extended family go our sympathies.

Christmas time in Athy has been marked for many years passed with the performance of “While Shepherds Watched” in the local Dominican Church. A Yule time entertainment it’s always a very enjoyable festive offering guaranteed to bring good cheer and set the stage for the celebration of Christmas. This Thursday the 2007 performance takes place just days after Paul Stafford was laid to rest in St. Michaels Cemetery. It was Paul who fifteen years ago produced the very first “While Shepherds Watched”. His involvement in theatrical productions made him an ideal person to organise that first show and the audience reaction ensured it would become an annual event thereafter.

I recall Paul’s involvement in another event, an Oratoria written by John MacKenna and Mairead O’Flynn which he produced for Remembrance Sunday approximately 14 years ago in the Presbyterian Church on the Dublin Road. I had the performance captured on film but unfortunately the film has been missing for a number of years, no doubt lying on someone’s shelf, overlooked and forgotten. I can still remember the evocative scene created by Paul towards the end of the Oratorio when in darkness and with background commentary he gave the names of the Athy men who died in the 1914-1918 war, a candle was lit for every one of those men until finally 125 candles were flickering at the front of the Church. It was a very emotional scene created by a talented producer who worked on several theatrical offerings by John MacKenna and the Mend and Makedo Theatre Company. It was in fact the first public acknowledgment of the contribution made by Athy men during the 1914-18 war and thankfully in the intervening years we have witnessed the reclaiming of their memory as an integral part of our community’s proud history. Paul died after a long illness and our sympathies go to his mother Connie and his sisters Imelda, Celine and Anne.

A recent commemoration of the 40th anniversary of the death of Monaghan poet Patrick Kavanagh saw the planting of a tree at the Canal Harbour. It was a symbolic gesture for the Inniskeen man who wrote.

O commemorate me where there is water,
Canal water preferably
So stilly greeny at the heart of Summer. Brother
Commemorate me thus beautifully.

Later that evening in the nearby Gargoyles restaurant which was once the Grand Canal Hotel an evening of Poetry, Drama and Music brought to my attention for the first time the talented musicianship of octogenarian Seamus Farrell of Ballylinan. The tin whistle is his forte but somewhere along the way Seamus kissed the Blarney stone and luckily for social historians he is blessed with a good memory and a deep knowledge of this part of the country. Talking to Seamus that night and since then has brought a wealth of information from which I hope to piece together a few interesting articles in the new year.

In the meantime may I wish you all a Happy Christmas and a contented New year.

Thursday, December 13, 2007


The last day of November took from us two men, who for many were intrinsically linked with Athy. Tony Bracken was just 63 years old when he succumbed to an illness which first became apparent in March of this year. He knew Br. John Flaherty, indeed Tony was taught in 6th class in the local Christian Brothers School by the tall genial Kerry man who will be remembered by many onetime scholars of the St. John’s Lane school. Both died on the same day this November, Tony who had given a lifetime of service to the G.A.A. and John Flaherty whose life was dedicated as a Christian Brother to educating Irish youths. Flaherty died in advanced old age in St. Patrick’s, Baldoyle, Tony in his own home at Woodstock Street surrounded by his family.

I last met Tony at the Aontas Ogra 50th anniversary celebration in Dreamland Ballroom. He was then very ill but facing into the future, uncertain as it was, with determination and courage. It was that same determination which saw him through a successful career as a handballer, winning softball titles while playing with the Moone club, and becoming the first, if not the only Moone club player ever to be selected on the Kildare County handball team.

Athy in the early decades of the last century was one of the principal centres for handball in this country and produced many champions over the years. When Tony was growing up in Woodstock Street the handball court in Barrack Lane was still in use, even if not as often or as effectively as it had been decades previously. Nevertheless the handball court provided a readymade arena for local youngsters who were willing and able to practice what is after all one of our national games. Tony was one such youngster and he became a handball player of ability, who in later years joined the Moone handball club where he was assured of competitive games with some top class players.

Tony was also a Gaelic footballer. I can’t vouch for his playing prowess or point to any great success of his on the playing field. However, it was as a club official that he is best remembered in terms of his involvement with the G.A.A. A fervent supporter of the game whose membership of the local Geraldine Club went back almost 50 years, Tony always seemed actively involved at local club level. He was a team selector, committee member, team manager and above all, as Club Chairman Marty McEvoy said at his funeral mass, ‘his love of G.A.A. was based on passion, commitment and total dedication’.

He was a selector for the Kildare County Minor team for three years and it was Tony who first spotted the future county footballing star Christy Byrne on the day 14 year old Christy was asked to stand in goal for a Castlemitchell team which found itself a man short one Sunday afternoon. Tony noted the young boy’s excellent performance that day and two years later was instrumental in having him selected for the County Minor team. Christy would later go on to win Leinster Championship and Railway Cup medals as the province’s outstanding goalkeeper. Tony managed the County Minor team in 1991, the year when local players such as Christy Byrne, Glen McLoughlin and John Wall helped secure the Leinster Minor Championship for Kildare to make up for the disappointment of losing the previous year’s final.

The huge funeral cortege which passed through Leinster Street on the way to St. Michael’s cemetery on Monday was a fitting testimony to the popularity of Tony and the esteem in which the Brackens are held. The moving tributes paid to a man whose popularity was unquestionable were well deserved. Athy G.A.A. Club provided a guard of honour for the removal of the remains to the church and the next day to St. Michael’s Cemetery. On both days the coffin bore the red jersey of Tony’s club and the famous Lilywhite of Kildare County in recognition of Tony’s attachment to club and county. He epitomised the well described, if sometimes little recognised, grass roots member of the G.A.A., a great national organisation which is the sum total of the countrywide clubs of which it is comprised.

There are hundreds like him throughout this island, each dedicated to the well being of clubs or organisations which provide outlets for sportsmen and sportswomen and without whose energy and commitment such clubs would falter and perhaps even disappear. Athy Gaelic Football Club will greatly miss Tony Bracken whose work over the years contributed enormously to the continued success of Athy’s premier sporting club.

The moving ceremony in St. Michael’s Parish Church on the morning of the funeral was presided over by Fr. Philip Dennehy, assisted by two other priests. The choir was in good voice and Jacinta O’Donnell gave a moving rendition of the Curragh of Kildare which she reprised at the graveside. Tony’s nephew, Brian Hughes, played on the tin whistle at the end of the Mass, his musical interpretation of ‘Danny Boy’ and the applause which greeted his musical tribute to his uncle spoke volumes for how well the piece was received by the congregation.

Tony’s daughter Glenda paid a moving tribute to her father and her delivery and presentation in the emotional atmosphere of a funeral mass was extraordinarily good. In fact I felt that hers was the most beautiful tribute I have heard paid to a parent at any of the many funeral masses I have attended in recent times. It was a most compelling and sensitive tribute to a father, the sentiments expressed finding an echo in the thoughts of her listeners who had known her father Tony.

Tony is survived by his wife Lily, his son Anthony and daughters Glenda and Olive. Lily I have known since both of us were attending, in her case St. Mary’s, in my case the Christian Brothers School where Tony was also a pupil. The years have passed with startling speed but friendships shaped in youthful times persist and the sorrow felt at the passing of Tony Bracken is palpable and real. He will be sadly missed by his family and friends, while Geraldine Gaelic Football Club and the Lilywhites have lost a lifelong supporter.

Brother John Flaherty and Tony Bracken were part of a shared past dating back almost 50 years ago. Their passing on the same day in November was a strange and a sad coincidence.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

The Sisters of Mercy: at the heart of the town

On 24 October 1873, the Sisters of Mercy took charge of what was then known as the Union Hospital here in Athy. It was part of the work-house opened almost 30 years previously and was more proper-ly called the Infirmary. The small infirmary had been provided within the workhouse by the board of guardians to comply with their statutory obligation to equip hospitals and dispensaries for the sick poor. The Sisters of Mercy worked in the Infirmary during daylight hours only and a trained night nurse would not be employed by the board of guardians until 1897 when upwards of 80 patients were in the infirmary.

This was the era of the so-called ‘pauper nursing’, when female inmates of the workhouse were locked into the Infirmary with the patients at night time in order to look after them as best they could. The Sisters of Mercy undertook the work in the Infirmary as an extension of their mission in Athy and 11 years later they would embark on another local social service which was noted in the Convent Annals on 4 September 1884 as follows:

‘On the Feast of our Lady of Mercy 1884, the House of Mercy was opened. Sister Margaret Hayden was placed in charge and two young girls were admitted.’ During the previous year, a new building was erected at Stanhope Place to house on the first floor what was described as the Pension School (secondary school) and on the ground floor the House of Mercy. This latter facility was intended to offer domestic training for young girls with a view to them taking up employment after a year or two. A report prepared in 1932 on the occasion of the centenary of the Mercy Order claimed that approximately 480 young girls had been trained up to that time in Athy’s House of Mercy, all of whom had obtained work ‘according to their abilities’. Indeed several of the former House of Mercy trainees went on to become valued members of religious orders throughout Ireland.

The Sisters of Mercy’s Convent in Athy closed a few years ago but, before it did, the House of Mercy had ceased to operate and the last Sister of Mercy in charge of the facility was Sister Rita Cranny, a native of Rosebran. Sister Rita, who will celebrate her 90th birthday this month, entered the convent in 1938. She made her triennial vows as a Sister of Mercy on 11 February 1941 and two years later made her final vows in a ceremony presided over by Canon McDonnell, the local parish priest.

Canon McDonnell, who died on 1 March 1956, is remembered today in the estate name McDonnell Drive, which was opened by the minister for local government on 24 September

1953. The urban district council later agreed to name McDonnell Drive in memory of the late canon, who had served as parish priest of St Michael’s Parish for 28 years. The late canon was a generous benefactor to the local Convent of Mercy and especially so to the House of Mercy, which benefited over the years by way of many cash donations made by him.

Sister Rita, who was one of four brothers and four sisters, the children of Tom and Margaret Cranny, was in time put in charge of the House of Mercy and remained in that position until it closed down just a few years before the Convent of Mercy itself. She taught domestic science to generations of Athy girls and in September 1992 celebrated her Golden Jubilee as a Sister of Mercy, 12 months later than intended due to a family bereavement. On that wonderful occasion, she was joined by her sisters, Teresa Kealy and Bridie Whelan from England, her twin sister Nancy and two cousins from Brisbane, Australia, Peter and Pam Cranny.

Sister Rita has been for 69 years a member of the Sisters of Mercy Order and during that time she has witnessed some extraordinary changes in Irish society. These changes have to some extent been mirrored in the followers of Mother Catherine McAuley, whose early mission of educating the poor has been replaced by social involvement with the community at large.

Sister Rita is not the oldest member of the present local community of nuns, an indication perhaps of the age profile of the dedicated missionaries in our midst who for so long were taken for granted by the people they served.

In 1952, the Athy-based Sisters of Mercy celebrated the centenary of the local convent’s foundation, an event that was celebrated in the poem composed by Sister Declan Cullen of St Leo’s Convent in Carlow, a few verses of which read: O’er the graves the trees are sighing Where the ancient sisters lie What think you their bones are crying Through the hundred years gone by.

Daughters, walk as we did, lowly Convents are not built with stones But with humble hearts and holy This the message of our bones.

The legacy of Sister Rita and her sisters in religion is one that in time will be measured by a generation which will have no personal experience of their work within the local community. Six years ago, I spoke at a function to mark the last days of the Sisters of Mercy’s involvement with primary education in Athy following the retirement of Sister Teresa Ann Nagle. I remarked how indebted we all are for the sacrifices made by the Sisters of Mercy in furthering education in our town. For them, cultural and intellectual stimulation were the bedrocks upon which educational standards were to be set and maintained. Their work in education is now finished, but there remains a courageous group of now elderly nuns who are the proud successors of generations of young Irish women who dedicated their lives to the people of this country. We salute Sister Rita and her companions in the Sisters of Mercy and extend good wishes to Sister Rita on her 90th birthday.

An anthology of Athy in song and verse has been produced in CD form by the Cultural Sub-Committee of Athy Town Council. Featuring some of the well-known musicians in Athy, it offers a unique collection of local songs and stories that will appeal to anyone with links to our historic town. Costing €15, it comes highly recommended.

Another launch, this time a book launch, will take place tomorrow night, Thursday 6 December in Athy Library at 8pm. The third volume in the series, being a compilation of edited versions of my articles which appeared in the Kildare Nationalist between 1997 and 1999, will be launched by the Laois Nationalist editor, Barbara Sheridan. I hope you can come along.