PORTERS Directory and Guide published in or around 1909 carried an alphabetical list of names of Athy businesses associated with the manufacture and sale of Irish products. The listing included Athy Brick Works owned by Telfords, manufacturers of machine made bricks, as well as Stephen Hayden’s handmade brick works in Churchtown. The only other survivor of the local brick industry which at one time had upwards of twelve competing firms was the Coursetown firm of Mr. Hosie who like his near neighbour Stephen Hayden was also engaged in the manufacture of handmade bricks.
One of the three local advertisements which appeared in the directory was for S.J. Maxwell, Cycle Agent, ‘successor to A. Duncan, Son & Co. Ltd.’ Duncans were also listed as woollen and general drapers, boot merchants, house furnishers and stationers.
Sam Maxwell was a native of Dundrum in Co. Tipperary and came to Athy to work for Duncans. When he took over the bicycle business is uncertain but the advertisement in Porter’s Guide indicates a date prior to 1909. Interestingly the advertisement apart from listing the cycle manufacturers for whom S.J. Maxwell was agent also described the firm as ‘Maker of the Maxwell Cycles’. I wonder if there is any example of the Maxwell bicycle still in the area. Motor repairs, spare parts and a garage were also part of the Maxwell business, but apparently in those early years as a minor adjunct to the cycle business.
Sam Maxwell later emigrated to Canada and the business of S.J. Maxwell was taken over by his brother James, better known as J.S. who developed the motor business with which Maxwell’s Garage has been synonymous for decades past. A younger brother Charles also worked in the business and his daughter Doris recalls her father recounting how he drove a party to Fairyhouse Races over Easter 1916. On the return journey, unaware of the seizure of the G.P.O. by Pearse and Connolly, he encountered a dead horse on the city tramlines and was stopped and questioned by military and police.
When J.S. Maxwell died suddenly the business was taken over and for a while was run by his sister Isobel, a widow who had previously operated a small shop in Thurles. Charles Maxwell would in time take over the running of the Maxwell business and expanded it with the acquisition of a Volkswagen dealership in 1952. Joining Charles Maxwell first as a salesman and later as a director of the business was Johnny Watchorn who had previously worked as a law clerk to Henry Grattan Donnelly, the founder of the firm which still bears his name. Henry Donnelly was a former Barrister who lost his sight and opened a Solicitors practice in offices rented from Maxwells at Duke Street.
The Maxwell garage business prospered and one of the scenes remembered by me of Athy in the 1950s was the petrol pumps located on the footpath outside No. 50 Duke Street, directly opposite the Garda Barracks. It’s an indication of how little vehicular traffic passed down the main street of the town in those days and how much life has changed in the last 60 years.
Charles Maxwell died in 1972 and was replaced as a director of the firm by his daughter Doris. In 1985 Maxwells acquired the premises formerly occupied by Smiths Garage next to the I.V.I. Foundry. The underground petrol tanks at Duke Street were filled with sand, the petrol pumps removed as was the Maxwell sign which had graced the premises at 50 Duke Street for almost 75 years of business.
When Doris Maxwell retired in 2005 her interest in the firm first established by her Uncle Sam was acquired by local man Louis Wynne. Maxwells Garage still under the directorship of Johnny Watchorn and Louis Wynne continues to be an important part of the commercial life of Athy.
Over the years many people have worked for Maxwells Garage including the fondly remembered Tosh Doyle who drove hackney cars for J.S. Maxwell for many years. Still with the firm after 50 years as a motor mechanic is Jim Archbold and the business which was started as a cycle shop by Alexander Duncan in the last decade of the 19th century continues today as the oldest garage business in the town of Athy.