Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Mick Ryan

Talking to Mick Ryan last week brought home to me how much life in Athy has changed over the past 65 years.  When Mick arrived in the South Kildare town in August 1945 aged 17 years, it was to fulfil an engagement as an apprentice grocery and bar assistant to Ned Conway of 31 Duke Street.  Mick’s father, previously a publican in Bray where Mick was born, but from the mid 1930s a farmer in his home place at Toomevara, Co. Tipperary, paid a fee of £12 to Ned Conway so that Mick could enter into a two year apprenticeship.  As the Second World War came to an end Mick was one of many grocery and bar men working as apprentices or qualified men in the various shops in the town.  The ‘Shop Boys’, as they were known, were a huge part of the social life of Athy which found its focus in the Social Club in St. John’s Lane.

Mick Ryan lived over the Conway shop with his colleague Jim Fingleton from Dublin.  During his first year he received his keep but no wages and waited for the second year of his apprenticeship for his father’s £12.00 to be repaid to him at the rate of £1.00 per month.

The use of coupons and food rationing was then still in vogue and the same routine was followed in the numerous local grocery shops every Monday morning.  The first morning of the week was devoted to weighing tea in one ounce and two ounce bags, sugar in half pound, one pound and two pound bags and flour in quarter stone and half stone bags.  A double weighing was required on the Monday before the town’s monthly fair when the country folk arrived in their pony and traps. 

Duke Street and Leinster Street were busy retailing centres in those days and the businesses on Conway’s side of Duke Street all did well.  Conways occupied the corner position adjoining Green Alley.  Next door was the bar and grocery of Michael O’Gorman, known as Paddy, who reputedly did the best trade in the town and in war times was able to offer for sale under the counter any item no matter how scarce.  The Kane sisters were next door and then the butchers shop of Martin Purcell, a brother of Jacob Purcell and uncle of Finbar Purcell.  Purcells butcher shop boasted the open stalls which were typical of an earlier age and were the last of the old style butcher shops where in the absence of window shutters were put up when the premises closed.  Myles Whelan was next to Purcells and beyond the arched entrance was Mrs. Cox’s private house, followed by Willis grocery, hardware and seed merchants.  Watty Cross, the plumber, was next door and the fine big building at the corner known as the Crown House was home to Mansfields drapery shop.

After finishing his two year apprenticeship Mick Ryan went to work with Jim McEvoy in Leinster Street.  Again he lived in but was now earning seventeen shillings and six pence a week, a wage which increased to three pounds ten shillings by the time he left eight years later. 

The strong social interaction in Athy of the 1940s and early 1950s is one of the many positive recollections which I have come across when talking to the older generation.  It’s a view also expressed by Mick Ryan who was involved in several of the local Musical Society shows put on in the Town Hall.  Mick will be remembered as the cat in the second production of Dick Whittington where the principal lead was Ann Lambe.  He also featured in the musical reviews, ‘White Bread and Apple Sauce’ and ‘Easter Parade’, which had large casts drawn from the men and women of the town.  As one might have expected of someone who has spent their teenage years in Tipperary, Mike was a useful hurler and is the proud holder of a junior championship medal won in 1950 with Athy Hurling Club.

The once vibrant sporting and recreational life of Athy began to wane in the mid 1950s as the commercial life of the town began to slide.  This was a time of great difficulties for many families and a time when the emigrant boat sailing out of Dun Laoghaire carried more than its quota of Athy folk on the first stage of the journey to the UK.  It was a route which Mick Ryan also took in 1955 and for the next three years he worked in London before returning to Athy in 1958 to marry Maureen Clandillon of Barrowhouse.  That year the young couple bought No. 6 William Street which had previously been Lehanes chip shop and before that a butcher stall operated by Tim Fennin. 

Mick’s early involvement in the social life of Athy evolved in subsequent years to one of active participation in the socio economic life of the town.  He was one of the founder members of Athy Credit Union, of the Dominican Penny Bank and with Eamon McCauley, Paddy Timpson and Kevin Fingleton of the Knights of Malta.

After 68 years in Athy Mick looks back nostalgically at a time when his adopted town was, in his own words, ‘buzzing’.  A time when all the shops did well and when the social and recreational life of Athy was underpinned by the presence of live-in shop assistants who worked in almost every local bar and grocery shop in the town.  

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Route 44 Pilgrimage - Local Catholic Churches in South Kildare

The Parishes of Athy, Castledermot, Moone and Narraghmore have been grouped together in a cooperative cluster intended to foster cooperation between these neighbouring parishes. It is possibly a recognition of the increasing difficulties facing the Catholic Church as vocations fall off and Mass attendance dips to a new low.

My attention was drawn to the new grouping in a notice in the Church missalette last Sunday which advised of a Route 44 Pilgrimage to nine churches in the aforementioned parishes.  My interest was immediately aroused but despite my best efforts I could only bring to mind eight Catholic churches in the area.  The church which eluded me was the Church of St. Joseph’s in Ballymount, a familiar landmark to travellers on the old Kilcullen to Carlow Road.

I understand the Route 44 Pilgrimage gets its name from the number allocated to the south Kildare cluster of parishes by the authorities in Archbishops house. The purpose of the pilgrimage is to visit all nine churches in the area on the last two Saturdays and Sundays of June making what is described as a social, learning and prayerful short visit to each.  Pilgrims will have available to them a passport which will be stamped in each of the nine churches to be kept as a memento of a unique pilgrimage.

Of the nine churches, the oldest would appear to be St. Ita’s Church in Kilmead reputably built in 1798, surprisingly at a time when the catholic churches in Athy and Castledermot were destroyed by fire.  It’s construction came soon after the passing of the Relief Act which allowed the performance of priestly duties by Catholic clergy then resident in Ireland provided such duties were not exercised within a church with a bell or a steeple.  St. Ita’s was built on a site donated by the Kenna family who were ancestors of the first Irish Cardinal, Paul Cullen of Ballytore. 

The church of the Most Holy Trinity at Moone is almost 200 years old and serves the area where St. Colmcille founded his monastery in the 6th century.  Like its Kilmead neighbour, this pre emancipation church does not have a steeple.  The Church of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Castledermot was built just four years before the passing of Catholic Emancipation.  Like its near neighbour, St. Michael’s Parish Church in Athy, it was a replacement for a church burnt in the aftermath of the 1798 rebellion.

Athy’s post reformation Parish Church, built in the mid 1700’s following the relaxation of the Penal Laws, was located in a side lane which thereafter was known as Chapel Lane.  The thatched church was burnt to the ground on 7th March 1800, allegedly by a member of the Cork Militia but no one was ever charged or convicted of the arson attack.  The then Parish Priest, Fr. Maurice Keegan, filed a compensation claim with Dublin Castle and was awarded the sum of £300.  A replacement church was built in 1808 in what was described as marshy ground, which once formed part of the commons of Clonmullin.  This is the church in which we all worshiped up to 1964 when it was demolished to make way for the present St. Michael’s. Our former County Architect, Denis Cogan, once described the present St. Michael’s Parish Church  as ‘unnecessarily large and lacking in human scale.’

Athy’s Dominican Church which was opened in 1965 replaced a smaller church which had been in use since 1847.  During the second year of the Great Famine the Dominican Prior, Fr. John Kenealy, purchased Riversdale House and converted outoffices for use as a church.  The present St. Dominic’s is a fine example of modern Irish architecture, with a design inspired by the church at Ronchamp and the monastery of La Tourette, both located in France.  The church contains work by important Irish artists including George Campbell and Bríd Ní Rinn.  In contrast the simple design of St. Mary’s chapel of ease in Barrowhouse which was built in the 1820s is indicative of the involvement of a local builder, Peter McEvoy, who built the church assisted by local volunteers.  In the nearby graveyard lie the remains of many Athy folk including Eamon Malone who was for a time Commander of the Carlow/Kildare Brigade during the War of Independence.  St. Mary’s and the nearby school are celebrated in the poetry of Rev. J.J. Malone, a native of Barrowhouse whose clerical life was spent in Australia where he died in 1948.

Crookstown Church, like Levitstown Church and that of Ballymount were built in the mid to late 1800s as part of the church dominated architectural activity of post emancipation Ireland.  In the church grounds of Crookstown is buried a former Parish Priest, Fr. Laurence Stafford, who served as Chaplain during the First World War.  

The pilgrimage on Saturday 22nd and Sunday 23rd June and the following Saturday and Sunday takes in nine churches spread over four local parishes.  The churches will be open between 11.00 a.m. and 7.00 p.m. and the pilgrims are asked to spend some time in quiet prayer on each visit.  Visits will be recorded on the Pilgrim’s passport which will be available in all the churches and the passport carries a very brief history of each church.

The Route 44 Pilgrimage presents a wonderful opportunity to become familiar with some elements of the ecclesiastical history of this area, linking as it does the pre Catholic Emancipation churches in Kilmead and Moone with examples of church buildings, some simple and vernacular in form, which were part of the expansive Catholic Church building programme of the 19th century.  Those churches can in turn be contrasted with the more modern architecture of the mid 19th century as found in our own parish church of St. Michael’s and its near neighbour, St. Dominic’s.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Niamh Boyce and 'The Herbalist' and Photo 1936 Athy C.B.S. Hurling Team

Under the headline, ‘Brewing up a magic potion’, the Sunday Times brought a new writer to the attention of a wider readership with the announcement ‘Niamh Boyce announces her arrival with a devilishly good debut novel.’  The reviewer was Justine McCarthy who wrote of Niamh and her debut novel, ‘The Herbalist’, as ‘doing for women in fiction what Beethoven did for the piano’.  High praise indeed for a young writer who McCarthy claims has ‘plotted and executed an elegant morality tale about the inescapable strictures of women’s lives in post independence Ireland.’  Three days later the Irish Times devoted a half page feature to Niamh’s fictional debut with the headline ‘The Herbalist who captured a market town mob’.  The market town was and is the town of Athy where the events of 71 years ago concerning the Blackparks resident Don Rodrique de Vere were acted out.  Why the reference to a ‘mob’, whether market town or otherwise, I cannot fathom.  The story of Dr. Roderick de Vere was outlined in Eye on the Past No. 122 and I am delighted that Niamh was encouraged by what I wrote then to embark on writing a fictional account of the herbalist and his relationship with women who sought his help.

I am told that the fictional telling of his story nevertheless leaves the readers with a readily identifiable oversight of Athy of the 1930s.  I am reminded of another book written about Athy and Athy folk which was published in 1957.  ‘Himself and I’ was the story of an American family’s brief stay amongst us during the early 1950s.  The writer who used the pseudonym Anne O’Neill Barna was in fact Elaine Ranelagh, an American folklorist and one time radio presenter in New York who championed the music of Ledbelly long before he became an essential part of American folk music.  ‘Himself and I’ followed on another book which also used Athy for its background.  ‘The House in the Heart’ was written by Elizabeth Coxhead, an English writer and journalist with family connections with the Duncans of Tonlegee House, Athy.  These two female writers, together with Niamh Boyce, have immortalised Athy in print.  The market town which one time outshone all other towns in this part of Leinster but which now seems to slumber undisturbed, is forever captured in the novels of O’Neill Barna, Coxhead and now Niamh Boyce.

The ‘Herbalist’ is published by Penguin Ireland and will be launched today, Tuesday, at 7.00 p.m. in Athy Library by John MacKenna.  It promises to be an important literary event for what her publishers describe as ‘a new dazzling voice’.

In Eye No. 1066 I wrote a brief note on Athy Hurling Club and its past successes.  Following that I received a photograph of the first hurling team organised in the local Christian Brothers School.  The young lads, probably 15 or 16 years of age, were photographed in 1936 before they went out to defeat O’Connell’s School Dublin in Croke Park.  The players photographed are Des Hurley, Tadhg Brennan, Dinny Fox, Jim Malone, Joe Gibbons, Paddy Garrett, Joe O’Neill, Lal Murray, Eddie Purcell, Jack Dunne, John Gannon, Frank Kelly, Pat Smyth, Noel Blanchfield, Dick Davis and Munsie Purcell.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Monsignor Paddy Finn

Monsignor Paddy Finn, Parish Priest of St. Mary’s, Haddington Road, Dublin and a native son of Athy, died on the 22nd day of May 2013.  Following a requiem mass in his Parish Church his remains were brought back to his home town for burial alongside his parents Mick and Doretta Finn.

The Finn family lived in Woodstock Street where Mick Finn had a garage in what is now Pearsons.  The family home was in the adjoining house in what was then known as Barrack Lane.  Paddy Finn attended the local Christian Brothers school and was in the Leaving Certificate class of 1955.  He was ordained to the priesthood in May 1962, just three months after his father had sadly died.  Fr. Paddy retained a great interest in his home town and greatly valued friendships which he retained over the years with his classmates. 

One of those classmates, now living in England for many decades, sent me an email following Monsignor Paddy’s funeral.  Michael Behan, formerly of St. Joseph’s Terrace, recalled young days spent in Athy when the future Monsignor ‘travelled the town with a satchel on his back filled with potential comic swaps which came to him courtesy of relations in America.’

Fr. Paddy, as he then was, first contacted me about 18 years ago when he was Parish Priest of Dunlavin, Co. Wicklow.  He sent me on a copy of the Dunlavin Parish magazine which had an article on Canon John Hyland, a former Parish Priest of Dunlavin who left Athy in 1813 to enter the seminary in Maynooth.  I was subsequently able to write an article on the two Athy men who although separated by 130 years were linked by youthful years spent in Athy and appointments to the West Wicklow parish of Dunlavin.

By a strange coincidence Monsignor Paddy Finn was Parish Priest of St. Mary’s, Haddington Road when he died and where one of his predecessors was Monsignor Michael Hickey of Kilberry, Athy.  Monsignor Hickey died unexpectedly while Parish Priest of St. Mary’s in the early 1920s.  About eight years ago I was privileged to meet Paddy Finn here in Athy and to accompany him as he visited some old haunts on the west side of the River Barrow.  He had previously reminded me several times of what he felt was my apparent reluctance to cross the Crom a Boo bridge in search of people and events to include in my weekly column.  I finished the article which I subsequently wrote on the Athy born cleric in Eye No. 612 by noting that with his help the apparent neglect of the western bank of the River Barrow had been corrected.

Another matter which I only now became aware of through Michael Behan’s email was Monsignor Paddy’s criticism of the local Heritage Centre for its lack of coverage of the contribution made by locals in the War of Independence.  Paddy never voiced that criticism to me, but yes, it is a fair comment about that part of our shared history which I have been trying for years to highlight.

I last met Monsignor Paddy Finn about four weeks before he was struck down by the illness which necessitated his subsequent lengthy hospitalisation.  Both of us, avid book readers, met in Dawson Street, Dublin and adjourned to a nearby cafe for talk, almost inevitably about Athy, its chequered history and the characters and the nicknames of our own place.  He recalled his classmates of the 1955 Leaving Certificate class, many of whom have since passed away.  Michael Behan, Jim Blanchfield, Ger Noonan, Sean Usher, Tony Taaffe, Aidan Brophy, Ray Webb, Frank McCarthy, Micheal Dooley, John Lynch, Tom Fleming, Paddy Tierney and Brian Lawler.

To my regret I was unable to attend Monsignor Paddy Finn’s funeral as I was chairing the annual general meeting of the Federation of Local History Societies in Waterford that same day.  Paddy Finn, who was a regular reader of this column, will be sadly missed.  He is now back in his home town amongst the people he knew, sharing a grave with his beloved mother and father in St. Michael’s cemetery.

Ar dhéis Dé go raibh a anam.