By Frank Taaffe
IT was reported in the local press as one of the biggest parades and pageants seen in Athy in living memory. The occasion was the inaugural An Tostal Festival which was held throughout Ireland between 5 and 26 April 1953. The festival was an idea borrowed from the 1951 Festival of Britain and was planned to attract overseas visitors to Ireland during the off-peak tourism season. The festival organised in most Irish towns throughout the country opened with parades and as one could expect the principal parade on that Easter Sunday 5 April, took place in Dublin.
Here in Athy the An Tostal organising committee was chaired by Fr Patrick Crowe C.C. who had been transferred to St Michael’s Parish two years previously. In nearby Castledermot Fr S. O’Sullivan C.C. chaired the local committee with the Church of Ireland Rector, Rev. W. Moncrieff Cox as the vice chairman. Tadgh Hayden, principal in the local Vocational School, was the committee secretary and thanks to him the An Tostal Festival in Castledermot in 1953 was marked with the production of a handsomely printed souvenir brochure and programme. The Castledermot booklet set out the festival programme comprising concerts, a billiard tournament, a historical tour, a children’s fancy dress parade, football matches and a grand parade to open proceedings on the first Sunday.
The only record I have of Athy’s celebration of An Tostal is the press report which under the heading **************From the reaping hook to the tractor*********** gave an account of the first week’s events. The Sunday afternoon parade attracted close on 2,000 spectators, with over 150 vehicles extending for a mile taking part.
Music was provided by no less than three local bands, St Joseph’s Boys Band, St Michael’s Fife and Drum Band and St Dominic’s Band.
The parade comprised four sections, the first consisting of local clubs and organisations preceded by a colour party. Next came the agricultural section, showcasing a pageant depicting the evolution of harvesting machinery in south Kildare from 1853 when the scythe and the reaping hook were used up to the time of the combine harvester. Representing the two final sections were the industries of south Kildare and nearby counties and approximately 25 local businesses. The parade which assembled at the Showgrounds travelled through the town, turning around at Pairc Bhride before returning to Emily Square.
Organisers of the parade were the local Young Farmers Club and the Athy Show Society in collaboration with the town’s An Tostal committee. The press report named J.J. Bergin as the chief steward, with Thomas McDonnell, Michael Rowan and Ivan Bergin as section stewards, helped by members of St Joseph’s Welfare Club, the Knights of Malta and Athy F.C.A. I’ve had for several years a number of photographs which I was unable to identify until I read the press report of the An Tostal Parade. I am now satisfied that those photographs are of the ‘biggest parade and pageant’ held in Athy that Sunday in April 67 years ago.
The days events concluded with a clay pigeon shooting competition in the Show Grounds, organised by Athy Gun Club. Fr Padraig Crowe was responsible for organising a choral and instrumental concert involving pupils of the local Christian Brothers school and the Convent of Mercy later that same week. On the Tuesday night an An Tostal Ball was held in St John’s Hall, while on the second Sunday a River Gala was organised by St Joseph’s Welfare Club.
During the week the Social Club Players put on the play ************The Barretts of Wimpole Street********** in the Social Club in St. John’s Lane. The Social Club Players had put on the play in the Town Hall a month previously and in the cast were what the **********Nationalist and Leinster Times********** described as ‘veteran players’ Liam Ryan, Tadgh Brennan, Tommy Walsh, Ken Reynolds, Tom Fox, Florrie Lawler Nellie Fox and May Fenelon. The press report of the Town Hall performance also made reference to Mary Harrington, described *************as a pretty brunette teenager ….. who infused a light heartedness and gaiety of spirit that could scarcely be excelled by an experienced professional actress.*************’ Sadly, Mary was to die with her friend Breda Kennedy in a road traffic accident on the Dublin road a few years later.