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.