Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Music in Athy

I recently read the following extract from the Nationalist and Leinster Times of 26th June 1937, ‘musically Athy is one of the most backward towns in Ireland.  Out of a population of almost 4,000 the number of adults with any sort of a musical education is negligible.  Confirmation of this fact can be had at local amateur entertainments where the programmes usually consist of 90 per cent child performers.  Lack of opportunity to develop the musical talent which undoubtedly exists in the town is probably the explanation for this state of affairs.  The only contribution from Athy to the recent County Kildare broadcast from Radio Athlone was a “mouth organ” item which in its own category was quite good.’ 

Not true I thought, certainly not in the context of Athy in 2015.  I was made to think of the very active musical societies which put on shows in the Grove Cinema in the 1960s and its predecessor in the 1940s which showcased its member’s talents in the Town Hall.  The shows of the 1940s were particularly important in terms of the town’s cultural heritage as evidenced by the huge casts of both men and women who took part in those shows.  The occasions were thankfully sufficiently noteworthy for photographs to be taken of the casts involved and those photographs remain with us today as visual proof to contradict the press report of June 1937. 

Last weekend I experienced two musical highlights.  The Community Arts Centre in Woodstock Street was the venue for a virtuoso performance by jazz and folk singer Mary Coughlan on Saturday evening.  There, before an almost full house she gave a performance which can be truly described as superb.  The audience’s reaction in itself told how much they enjoyed the night’s entertainment.  The Community Arts Centre is creating an audience for drama, musicals and individual performers and in doing so is fulfilling an important role in the cultural life of the town which 78 years ago was criticised as ‘musically one of the most backward towns in Ireland.’ 

On the morning following the Mary Coughlan concert I attended 10.30 a.m. Mass in St. Michael’s Parish Church during which I was further assured of the musical talents to be discovered in our town.  Youngsters, from a distance, seemingly varying in age from 7 years to 10 years or thereabouts, conducted by choir master Jacinta O’Donnell, sang hymns with gusto and uninhabited joy throughout the mass.  The organ accompaniment was enhanced by the children’s own version of castanets and the happy repetitive sound gave a rhythmatical accompaniment to the full voice singing of the youngsters.  It was a very pleasant experience and one which, as a normally 12 noon mass attendant, I had not previously known.  Well done to the children’s choir and their leader Jacinta O’Donnell and special congratulations to the young girl who sang a solo introduction to one of the hymns. 

On 1st March the Clanard Court Hotel will be the venue for an afternoon lunch and concert featuring local singer Siobhan Mahon.  Siobhan recently took the leading role in the local Musical and Dramatic Society’s presentation of ‘Hello Dolly’.  She is a singer of exceptional quality and on 1st March Siobhan will be accompanied by Ollie Hennessy in a presentation of hits made famous by Barbra Streisand, Carly Simon, Karen Carpenter and a host of other famous female artists.  It promises to be a wonderful afternoon’s entertainment and gives further proof, if proof is required, that Athy, home to artists such as Jack L and Brian Hughes and to what is reputedly Ireland’s oldest traditional music session held every Thursday in Clancys, is one of Ireland’s most musical towns.

The photograph is of a performance of Brian Friel’s play ‘Translations’ by members of Athy’s Musical and Dramatic Society in 1994.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Snippets from the past

Local newspapers are a ready source of fascinating news and as events and people slip from memory those same newspapers remain an accessible depository of information about a locality and its people.  I have been perusing items salvaged over the years from the Nationalist and Leinster Times and other newspapers and give over this week’s Eye on the Past to some of those pieces.

The Nationalist and Leinster Times of 26th June 1937 reported ‘Ernie Glynn of Duke Street has arranged to make a gramophone record of his voice with the D’Olier Music Company Dublin.  The song chosen by him for the recording is “The Legion of the Lost”.  Mr. Glynn’s training for this accomplishment was in the capable hands of his father, the well known veteran actor Mr. N. O’Rourke Glynn.  Another pupil of Mr. O’Rourke Glynns, Miss Josephine Pasley, a Dublin girl, will record on the opposite side of the disc.’  I have never come across a copy of this record and wonder if any of the readers of the Eye on the Past know if the record was made.

On the afternoon of Tuesday 15th February 1853 the paddle steamer Queen Victoria left Liverpool for Dublin with approximately 120 passengers on board.  As the boat approached Dublin at 1.30 the following morning there was a heavy fall of snow resulting in poor visibility.  Some minutes later the first mate saw the cliffs of Howth just yards away and shortly afterwards the boat crashed into the rocks near The Bailey.  The Freeman’s Journal of 19th February reported: ‘the cabin passengers were in bed, and being awakened by the shock, rushed half dressed upon the deck, and to their horror, found the ship fast going down.  The steerage passengers affrightened and dismayed were running in wild confusion about the deck.’  The ship’s captain and his first and second mates went down with the boat, as did about 80 passengers and crew.  Amongst the dead was an Athy woman, Mrs.  Walsh whose husband was saved.

The Nationalist and Leinster Times of 30th June 1934 reported on what was described as ‘serious disturbances’ in Athy on the Sunday before the Local Government elections which took place on 26th June.  Apparently Sidney Minch T.D. was addressing a meeting in Emily Square on behalf of himself and other Fine Gael candidates before an audience which was described by the local newspaper as ‘composed mostly of blueshirts.’  The report continued: ‘rival crowds assembled all around the square and started to boo and raise cheers for prominent leaders of their party.  Things looked very nasty when suddenly a rush was made and fierce fighting took place.  The Guards were obliged to draw their batons and several members of both sides came in for “knocks”.  After some time the Guards succeeded in separating the combatants and formed a cordon between them and the meeting proceeded.  During the evening scuffles are reported to have taken place in many parts of the town.’  The following night at about 11.30 p.m. approximately 60 men gathered by prior arrangement in Emily Square and went about the town painting political slogans on the streets in advance of the local elections.

The first meeting of the newly elected Urban Council a few days later was reported as divided on political lines and ‘a certain tension in the atmosphere of the meeting was noted.’  No doubt the ‘rival crowd’ which attacked the meeting in Emily Square was comprised of Fianna Fáil supporters.  Following the election results a large number of the same supporters gathered in Emily Square and led by two men playing melodeons marched to the various Fianna Fáil’s candidate’s houses where they raised cheers before returning to Emily Square to sing the National Anthem.  

The fifteen members of the Urban Council elected on 26th June included Brigid Darby and Sarah Doyle.  The other Councillors were Patrick Dooley, Francis McNeary, Joseph Reynolds, Thomas Flood, William Mahon, Laurence Doyle, Sidney Minch, Tom Carbery, John Norman, Michael Deegan, Jacob Purcell and William Mulhall.

Describing party political followers as Blueshirts seemed to have been a common and acceptable practice in the 1930s as evidenced by a number of news items in the Leinster Leader in the weeks after the 1936 local elections.  Under the heading ‘Blue Shirts Attacked’ the paper reported that while returning from a meeting in Ballitore two members of the League of Youth named Haydens from Vicarstown were attacked at Mullaghmast.  The four or five attackers were provided with bottles and stones and were aided by a woman who wielded a fire tongs. 

The following week the same newspaper under the headline ‘Blue Shirt Member Threatened’ reported how Patrick Lawler of Pill, Moone, described as a member of the local branch of the Blueshirts, while cycling home from Castledermot was accosted by a number of men who threatened to assault him. 

Clearly elections in the 1930s created more excitement than elections of modern times.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Mark Wilson - 1916 rebel

It’s amazing how the threads of history reach out to bring together people and places from far and near.  Approximately four years ago I wrote of Mark Wilson, a native of Athy, who as a member of the Dublin Brigade Irish Volunteers participated in the 1916 Rebellion.  I had little background information on the man from Athy whose colleagues in the Volunteers regarded as a great source of encouragement when spirits were low following their surrender.

James Durney of the Local History Department of Kildare County Library, prompted by my article, undertook to research Wilson’s background and on 19th December 2012 published his findings in an article on the County Library’s history web page under the title ‘Mark Wilson, an Athy man in the Easter Rebellion.’  He discovered that Mark was born on 31st August 1891 to Robert Wilson of Russellstown and his wife Juliana, formerly Heffernan, of Leinster Street, Athy.  The family subsequently moved to Dublin and the 1911 census records the Wilson family, now comprising both parents and five children as living in Fontenoy Street, Inns Quay.  Mark, the eldest son, was that year employed as a tea mixer.  Two years later he married Annie Stanley, the sister of Joe Stanley, who in 1916 arranged for the printing of the Proclamation read by Pádraig Pearse outside the GPO.

Mark Wilson joined the 1st Battalion Dublin Brigade and was part of a Four Courts garrison under the command of Commandant Ned Daly who was later executed for his part in the Rebellion.  Wilson and his comrades were captured and in a statement made in 1953 for the Bureau of Military History, Patrick Colgan, formerly of Maynooth, made the following reference to the Athy man.  ‘In the ranks in front of me was a volunteer in uniform.  When people shouted out at us to keep our heads up he answered that they were never down.  He was a source of great encouragement ..... that volunteer was Mark Wilson, a native of Athy.’ 

Following his release from prison in late 1916 Mark Wilson rejoined the Volunteers and was attached to the 1st Battalion C Company Dublin Brigade where Sean Flood was commander for a time.  Sean Flood was the eldest of five Flood brothers who were members of the Dublin Active Service Unit during the War of Independence.  Mark Wilson served with Sean Flood and his four brothers, one of whom was Tom Flood who was captured and imprisoned following the burning of the Custom House.  In 1926 Tom Flood came to live in Athy following his purchase of the Railway Hotel in Leinster Street and in time he became a Fine Gael member of Athy Urban District Council. 

Tom Flood’s younger brother Frank was executed in Mountjoy Jail on 14th March 1921.  A friend of Kevin Barry, whose sister later married Athy man Bapty Maher, both Barry and Flood took part in the IRA attack on a British Army contingent at Church Street, Dublin.  Kevin Barry was executed following his capture at Church Street, while his friend Frank Flood who escaped that day was subsequently captured following an unsuccessful attack on a DMP tender in Drumcondra.  Both young men were executed and buried in Mountjoy Jail and following State funerals in October 2001 were re-buried in Glasnevin Cemetery.  Another IRA man executed and buried within the precincts of Mountjoy was Patrick Moran from Crossna, Roscommon who for a few years prior to 1916 worked as a barman here in Athy.  His remains were also removed from Mountjoy Jail for reburial in Glasnevin Cemetery in October 2001.

Following the Treaty Mark Wilson joined Óglaigh na hÉireann and was based in the Curragh.  He retired from the Army with the rank of captain in 1929 and died in Dublin in December 1971 aged 81 years.  He was survived by three sons and one daughter, his eldest son Fergus having died following a tragic traffic accident in his father’s native county of Kildare in 1948.  He was also survived by his wife Annie who was a sister of Joe Stanley, the printer and publisher of many republican publications and who was responsible for printing the War Bulletins issued by and on behalf of the 1916 rebels.

Athy’s links with the 1916 rebellion are centered on Mark Wilson who was born in Athy but lived his adult life in Dublin.  They extend out to Tom Flood who was born in Dublin but chose to live in Athy.  The links are further extended to Kevin Barry, Frank Flood and Patrick Moran, three volunteers who were executed in Mountjoy Jail.
We have much to commemorate here in Athy as the centenary of the Easter Rebellion approaches, as does its aftermath the War of Independence and the Civil War.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Roy Sheehan

Truthfully I’m not a boxing fan but on Friday night I watched the Irish senior boxing championships relayed on T.V. from Dublin’s National Boxing Stadium.  More specifically I watched one contest, that involving Athy man Roy Sheehan.  Roy has been involved with St. Michael’s Boxing Club for many years, during which time he won many national boxing titles and prior to Friday three national senior titles, all at different weight levels.  Having given up the sport for a while he was encouraged by St. Michael’s trainer Dom O’Rourke to return to the gym to help John Joe Joyce prepare for the national championships.  The rest is history.  Roy Sheehan is now the Irish senior champion at 81kg having won his fourth senior title at the boxing stadium last Friday night. 

The newly crowned All Ireland champion is no stranger to success in the boxing ring.  Apart from his four senior titles he has also won twelve other national boxing titles at different weights and ages since he took up the sport under the guidance of Dom O’Rourke.  Eight years ago when he was 22 years old he won a European Senior gold medal but unfortunately lost out on being a member of the Irish Olympic team for that years Beijing Olympic games due to injury.

Boxing has a long history as a sport in Athy.  Sidney Minch, while a member of the Dáil, started a boxing club in the 1930s.  The club flourished for a number of years but never achieved the success of the current boxing club which in recent years gained the honour of being for a time the most successful club on the island of Ireland.  Roy’s championship title is the only senior title won by a St. Michael’s club member this year as his colleague John Joe Joyce lost his 69kg final.

Roy Sheehan’s achievements as a boxer bring with it the accolade of super sportsman.  He has reached the pinnacle in his amateur sport and at 30 years of age deserves enormous praise for the dedication and commitment he has displayed in winning his fourth Irish National Senior Title.  It is rather a pity that the recent local government re-organisation saw the abolition of our Town Council as undoubtedly Roy’s success would have merited some formal recognition by the town fathers.  However, we can all wish Roy every good luck in what I understand will be his attempt to win a 5th senior title next year.  If he succeeds he will have achieved something unheard of in Irish amateur boxing – five titles at five different weights. 

In the meantime congratulations must also be extended to the members of St. Michael’s Boxing Club who by all accounts have created a boxing club of which the people of Athy can be proud.  A special mention must be made of the club’s trainer, Dom O’Rourke, who in recent years combined his duties as a club official and trainer with that of presidency of the Irish Amateur Boxing Association.  The success of St. Michael’s Boxing Club owes much to the work of Dom and the other officers of the club who can be justly proud of the club’s achievements over the years and of their 2015 Irish champion Roy Sheehan.

Roy Sheehan and St. Michael’s Boxing Club might for future generations be suitable candidates for a project initiated by the Federation of Local History Societies of Ireland and the Federation for Ulster Local Studies called ‘Hidden Gems and Forgotten People’.  The purpose of the project is to draw attention to and celebrate some of the lesser known places and buildings in Ireland and the interesting or inspiring individuals whose stories remain untold or forgotten.  The two Federations have received submissions from local history societies and private individuals throughout Ireland and a selection of those hidden gems and forgotten people will go on display in the Heritage Centre here in Athy from Monday 9th February.

The project, which is a very worthwhile one, offers an opportunity to showcase forgotten personalities and places of local interest, thereby allowing them to become once again part of our social history.  The Hidden Gems and Forgotten People Project is one in which I have been involved for some time and follows on my own efforts over the last 20 years or more to bring to the readers of this column the many forgotten persons and events who contributed to our community over the years, although now forgotten.

The Federation’s Project is an ongoing one and anyone interested in contributing is asked to write a brief description, up to 500 words, of the place or about the life of the person to be considered for inclusion as a hidden gem of forgotten people.  If possible a photograph or sketch should accompany the submission and should be sent to Larry Breen, 8 The Paddocks, Naas, Co. Kildare or by email to larrybreen8@eircom.net.