Tuesday, February 12, 2013

WITHIN the space of a few weeks Athy has lost two of its most stalwart campaigners. You may think it strange of me, or indeed of anyone else, to regard any person as a campaigner on behalf of the town which has grown from a village to town through uncounted generations.  For their part Johnny Watchorn and Mai Preisler would have seen their active participation in so many aspects of town life as the normal requirements of community living. But their involvement in the life of Athy went far beyond that normally expected. Johnny Watchorn was an exceptional individual who for almost 80 years made an enormous contribution to the town of his birth. Equally Mai Preisler, although not a native of Athy, was a person who made a significant contribution to her adopted town over several decades.

I have come across press reports of the young Johnny Watchorn in the last 1930s when he graced the stage of the local Town Hall. In those early days Johnny was a committed member of the Athy Musical Society. His working life encompassed such diverse roles as legal secretary to local solicitor Henry Grattan Donnelly who in the 1940s had offices over what was then Maxwell Motors of Duke Street. Johnny later joined Charlie Maxwell’s firm as a car salesman and he would in time become a director of Maxwell Motors which continues in business to this day. It was as a campaigner and a consistent advocate for the development of Athy that Johnny stood out amongst his peers over several decades. He was a founder member of Athy Development Association which was responsible for establishing Athy’s first industrial estate. The realisation that job creation was the lifeblood of the community prompted Johnny and his colleagues in the development association to focus their talents and energies on the difficult task of attracting new industry to Athy. Their successful work, voluntary and unpaid, which as time went on was largely unacknowledged, nevertheless gave Johnny and his colleagues in the development association justifiable pride and satisfaction.

Growing up in Athy I knew of Johnny Watchorn but it was only when I came back to the town in 1982 that I came to realise the extent of his contribution to the local community.  Apart from being a successful businessman he was also hugely encouraging of any effort to improve the commercial and social life of the town. Numerous were the meetings I attended of different organisations and groups in the town over the years and invariably Johnny Watchorn was in attendance to lend his assistance and encouragement to the task in hand.

He was a man who loved his native town and whose contribution to its wellbeing was unequalled, but perhaps Johnny would regard his work in the Lions Club at local and national level as perhaps his most important legacy. As part of the largest charitable organisations in the world, Athy Lions Club was formed in 1971. Johnny Watchorn was a founder member of the cub and remained a member until his recent passing.  A past president of Athy Lions Club, he was for many years a member of the national executive of the organisation and devoted much of his time to promoting the work of Lionism in Ireland.

Mai Preisler was a campaigner on environmental and planning issues who with her late husband Jens was an extremely active member of An Taisce for many years. At one time that much maligned organisation was the only recognisable safeguard this country had against the sometimes appallingly destructive proposals of developers who were so often assisted and facilitated by politicians of questionable standards. Mai lent her support at difficult times for An Taisce, ever mindful that our generation are but the guardians of a built and environmental heritage which must be passed on to future generations. It was Mai with Megan Maguire and others in the local branch of An Taisce who successfully campaigned over 40 years ago to stop the demolition of Athy’s Town Hall. That fine building which might otherwise be long given over to car parking spaces is now home to the town’s heritage centre and the local library.

Johnny Watchorn and Mai Preisler were campaigners whose contributions to Athy were important in terms of community awareness and enrichment. Their passing is a loss to the local community of which they were a part for so many years and our sympathies go to their families at these sad times.

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By Frank Taaffe
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