Friday, November 06, 2020

EYE ON THE PAST NO. 1453

LOCAL history is all around us. It is in the buildings, the streets and the people who make up the local community. Interest in local history has grown considerably in recent years and has become one of the major leisure interests in Ireland today. That interest has given us many publications, some good, some not so good, while photographs and videos of the past are featured in Facebook and other media, all adding to our interest and appreciation of what has gone before. The benefit of local history publications, and the shared photographs and videos is increasing our knowledge of past generations. Every reminiscence, whether written or verbalised, can lead to a better appreciation of our shared history as a study of our past in relation to our own locality.

I was reminded of this having read the recently published writings of Joe O’Neill which issued last month under the title Don’t You Remember, Jim?’. Edited and compiled by his son Kevin, the book contains his father’s memories of Athy in the 1920s and the 1930s. When I returned to Athy in 1982 after an absence of about 22 years I was happy to meet Joe O’Neill on several occasions when he called to my offices to discuss his efforts to recover the Celtic Cross removed from the front of St. Michael’s Parish Church during the demolition of the old church in 1960. This fine monument was erected to honour the memory of Fr Thomas Greene who served as a curate in Athy between 1844 and 1862. It was Fr Greene who organised the local weekly collections throughout the town to raise funds for the building of a convent and schools for the Sisters of Mercy. Fr Greene, who was Parish Priest of Skerries when he died in December 1871, was remembered by the people of Athy who had the magnificent Celtic Cross erected in his memory. It was Joe O’Neill’s wish to have the monument returned to Athy, but regretfully Joe died in 1989 while the townspeople’s monument to Fr Greene is still stored in a County Wicklow quarry.

Joe’s writings, which now form part of the new book, give an interesting insight into life in Athy almost 100 years ago. Here is the account of the areas now known as Edmund Rice Square. ‘Hannon’s Mill was in full production up to 1924 ….. the miller was Jim Nicholson, known as Jim the miller, who built the house [later McStay’s butcher shop] ….. Tom Brogan, blacksmith and his mother later moved into the house and they were succeeded by Watty Cross who married Jim the miller’s daughter ….. Watty Cross was the first to have machine made and refrigerated icecream in Athy.’

Next to Hannon’s Mill was ‘Glespens coachbuilders, Brogans Forge, Greg Ronan tinsmith, Vernals forge and ….. Ann Haslam’s Inn. Brogans forge worked until 1950 approximately when Tom retired. Next to go was tinsmith Greg Ronan who turned out billy cans, mugs and pot oil lamps for all the local hardware shops. When Glespens moved to Duke Street, the Board of Works took over their premises and Hannons Mill to use as offices and storage during the Barrow Drainage Scheme.’

Joe’s mention of Haslam’s Inn was a reference to the house at the corner of St John’s Lane occupied by Mrs Haslam, grandmother of the late Frank English. According to Joe’s account the small house had been an Inn up to the middle of the 19th century. It was, he claimed, the location of the popular tale concerning the finding of skeleton remains in the wall of the former Inn during refurbishment work.

Joe’s account of Sleaty Row is a priceless addition to our knowledge of that part of Athy in the 1930s. Many of the houses in Sleaty Row were demolished during the Slum Clearance Programme in the 1930s. ust a few of the houses fronting on to the Monasterevin Road remained until 1960. Joe prepared a plan showing the layout of the 20 houses which made up Sleaty Row and identified the tenants in each of the houses. Sleaty Row is no more but thanks to Joe O’Neill the names of the families who lived there are recorded and preserved for all time.

This is one example of a townsperson contributing his own written account of life in the past. By doing so Joe O’Neill obviously gained some personal satisfaction while at the same time helping to give past lives a relevance in terms of making present generations more informed and aware of their family’s past.

The book ‘Don’t You Remember, Jim? can be bought in Winkles and in the Shackleton Museum when it reopens after the lockdown.

FRANK TAAFFE

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