Up to recent years Mary Phillips, known to all as ‘Dolly’, was regularly to be seen cycling from her home in Smallford into Athy to do her weekly shopping. It’s a journey she made times beyond counting, but now that she has reached the venerable age of 90 years the bicycle has been put aside. This week Dolly celebrated her four score and ten birthday with a family celebration in the Hunting Ground restaurant.
I have known Dolly for the last 25 years or so, ever since her son Dick joined me in what then appeared to be the insurmountable task of rescuing from decades of neglect the garden attached to my house in Ardreigh. That same garden, once tended with care by the Haughtons and later by the Hannon family, fell into a state of semi wilderness during the residency of widower, the well remembered Mr. Verscoyle. It was a condition which developed into a more permanent state with the conversion of the house into flats, which remained for 25 years or more. It was Dolly’s son Dick who initially embarked on the gigantic task of cutting back the unrestricted growth of several decades. During that time and since I met Dolly on many occasions and I have never failed to be impressed by her irrepressible energy and cheerful manner.
In many ways she reminds me of my own mother. Both lived through difficult times and reared families, each having five children, in households where the mother had an enormous influence. The traditional skills of sewing, knitting and darning were well known to both mothers and both had to constantly exercise those skills over many years when young children were growing up.
Dolly came of an old Athy family and it was as Mary Kelly that she married local man John Phillips in 1942. John, known as ‘Jack’ worked for local farmers Tierneys of Belview and would later work in the Wallboard factory on the Monasterevin Road when it opened in 1947. That factory was the first industry to be located in Athy in almost two decades following the opening of the Asbestos Factory in 1936. Both factories provided enormous employment opportunities in South Kildare during the dark economic days of the 1950s. Sadly the Bowaters owned factory closed in 1978 and even before then Dolly’s husband, who suffered from ill health, had retired six years previously. Jack Phillips died in 1980.
Dolly and Jack had five children, John, Dick, Martin, Mary and Rose and it was with her children, her 13 grand children and 6 great grand children and friends that Dolly celebrated her 90th birthday in the Hunting Ground last week. Congratulations to the happy nonagenarian.
Some time ago I posed the question of what 25 objects could be identified to best illustrate the history of Athy. I have had several responses to that article, including two from former residents of the town who are now living in Australia. Mick Robinson, a former classmate of mine from the Christian Brothers School in St. John’s Lane suggested, among other objects, ‘Bob Webster’s Old Cinema’, ‘the line’, ‘Bapty Mahers’ and the ‘CYMS’. Interestingly Mike, who understandably also includes our local hospital in that list, still refers to it as ‘the County Home’. It’s a long time since I heard it called by that name. It was the name we all once used and the name which struck fear into the hearts of an older generation who always lived under the perceived threat of spending their old age in the County Home. This was the 1950s and before, when folk memories of the Workhouse were still very much to the fore. The pre famine building was and is still part of the building fabric of the town, but thankfully the stigma of the Workhouse and the much feared connotations of life in the County Home have long disappeared.
Incidentally the Famine National Commemoration Day will take place next May and it is intended to mark the occasion here in Athy with a ceremony of remembrance in St. Mary’s Cemetery where it is believed that the Athy Workhouse victims of the Great Famine were buried. More about this at a later date.
Many thanks to Mick Robinson and all the others who have contacted me with suggestions as to the most relevant 25 objects to reflect the story of our town. If you have any suggestions in that regard why not let me have them before the end of January as I propose to consider all objects put forward for inclusion in an article soon thereafter.