Aggie Qualter – Sittin’ on the Bridge below the Town

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Sittin' on the Bridge Below the Town
"Sittin' on the Bridge Below the Town" sung by Frank O'Donovan

Abbey Row Bridge could be the theme of this song when I was young. The Ball Alley, it seems, was the attraction. The elders and young men sat on the bridge during the long evenings chatting and debating. The children sat on the other side taking it all in. Looking back, I just marvel at the depth of knowledge and delivery of words of these men, many of them born in the l850s. Their debating ability would put today’s second level students to shame. “Irish Leaders”, “British Statesmen”, “Current Affairs” and “Sport” were the favourite topics.

All their knowledge came from the Irish Independent (price l/2d), which they read from cover to cover. They were equally expert with figures. It was all head-work then. They could solve their mathematical problems quickly and accurately. From my experience of that generation, it is my firm belief that no system of primary education can ever compare or compete with the “3Rs”, now long abolished.

O’Gradys, Cross Street: From the l880s until the coming of the motor-car, conducted a big Horse Drive business in carriages, hearse, and side-cars. The hearse was solely for the rich. The horses were adorned with black and white rosettes. One of the O’Gradys sat on top in evening suit and high hat trimmed with a white band. Carriages followed with the mourners. The town’s poor were shouldered to the grave. Carriages were hired at the railway station by the well-to-do to take them to their place of residence, often long distant. Carriages also collected the ladies in town and country for the “Big Balls” at the Town Hall – strictly invited affairs.

The new houses in Bridge St. were built in 1911. “The Court Hotel” was opened by Judges, now Brownes. The two adjoining houses were occupied by O’Connor, a P.O. Inspector and Thomas Rohan, a teacher at Newcastle N. S. Mrs. Rohan was a McEvoy, Craughwell. Frank Rohan and his brothers were born there.

The Pound: When I was young, I believed the Pound to be one of the loveliest of places. It had everything that nature could endow. I remember Connor’s thatched white-washed house just beside the river and roman-arched bridge – a wonderful setting. On the other side some yards away – just outside the Old Town Wall was another stone thatched house. In the l880s Ned Cleo lived there. It was then known as the “Rambling House”. His daughter Bridgie Cleo, priest’s house-keeper, married Stephen Burke, Clampar Park, (parents of Paddy Burke, Lodge). When I was a girl, Flannerys lived there (Pat Flannery, Park). History repeated itself, as it was again a great house for the kitchen-dances, and games. I can still see it as it was in years now long gone with its climbing roses, and beautiful flower-beds surrounded by white washed stones – a land-mark on the town periphery. Now roofless, the once well-kept garden is completely overgrown, and “gone is the home that had cradled many”.

Barrack Lane Around l900: an old man, Tom Long, was found dead propped up with pillows, and had to be tied down with wire for the laying out. That night, as the people prayed the Rosary, Tom Cleary and Michael Shaughnessy were kneeling on either side of the bed, as arranged. They cut the wire and the corpse sat up. There was pandemonium, panic and running in all directions. Those were the years of the “merry wakes”, later stamped out by the clergy.

People of the Past, who by their stage performances, brought great happiness to our people 65-70 years ago: Stephan Jordan, Josie and Vinny Mahon, cousins of Mary Lavin, Jimmy and John Payne (Cross Street), Pa John and Sarah Ann Daly (Shamrock Bar), Josie and Tommy Kelly (brothers and bakers), Sonny and Julia Mary Morrissey (Jimmy Nolan’s Shop), Willie Kennedy (Arch), Mrs. Larry Lardner and husband Larry, Frank Hynes, Dick Murphy, Jack Broderick, Mary Rooney (Caheroyan, aunt of Mrs. J. Murray). Sarah Ann Daly (Mrs. Carter) is still alive.

Athenry Races held at Raheen was a great event. People came from all over. Money was won and lost there. The plain people were admitted for one shilling. Major Clarke, Craig-Abbey House was Secretary. He was married to one of the Lopdells.

Protestant Church: As a little girl I nosed my way into the Church. A lovely red carpet was laid up the centre, and the seats were covered with red plush. The Church had one pf the best heating systems of the time. The heat was transmitted through grills on the floor – fed from a furnace in the back wall. It was a fine engineering job.

Food: A widespread practice in hard times was trapping birds for food. A riddle was held up with a short, forked stick and crumbs placed inside. A long twine tied to the stick extended under the half door. When the birds entered for the bait, the twine was pulled trapping them inside. This worked very effectively in hard weather. When scalded, cleaned and stewed the birds made an excellent and nourishing meal. Pigeons were a valued catch.

Hurling: Athenry parish was a place of constant jubilation from mid-1987 to mid-1988. The reason, of course, was that the Parish Club team won the County Final, The Connaught Final, The All Ireland Semi-Final, and had the distinction of contesting the All Ireland Final at Croke Park, but were very unlucky not to win. Athenry is now established as a centre of hurling talent that ranks with the best in Ireland.

There were great storytellers in Athenry when I was young – an art now dead. Listening to them was a great pastime and an education in itself. Tales of Folklore, Ghosts, Leprechauns, great men and events long past, were all related. The gift of words and the accompanying expressions, gave a colourful picture of the past, and brought the characters to life. Saddest stories were those who had emigrated. The loss of popular characters was a cause of deep sorrow and great lamentation. In my mind’s eye, I could see the people who went to America ten years before I was born. Their memory lived on through the stories.

My generation also witnessed the sadness of emigration and the American wakes. I’ll never forget the day, early 1920s, Sonny Hession left for America. The railway platform was packed. I was standing on the cross bridge looking on and the crying and wailing of young and old left a scar on my memory. The train driver too gave his own farewell salute with a long shrieking whistle that lasted until Sonny and his waving handkerchief was well out of sight.

In later years I endured the same heartbreak, as the boys and girls I knew and loved followed the same trail. It seared the souls of our people, and left an emptiness in their lives that could never be filled. America was then far, far, away. It was the point of no return.

The arrival of the cuckoo was an occasion of great rejoicing. The news spread that she was calling. The Abbey Row people rushed out to the wall and Barack Lane people to the Bridge. On hearing the joyous sound, hats were raised, and hands outstretched with the prayer “Buidheachas le Dia” (Thank God) and “Agus go mbeirimid beo ar an am seo arís”. (May we be alive at this time of the year again) Memories such as these often surfaced and I realise that the people of my childhood were very close to God and Nature.

Jimmy Cleary who died in 1980 was born at Abbey Row. I’ll be the last of Old Abbey Row to leave. Sure, there’s no cure for growing old, only to die young, and the cure is worse than the disease or is it? Sometimes I wonder.

Meitheal – A great day in village life. The thrashing-machine pulled in. Every man was at the ready. They joked and laughed, as they fed the machine with the golden sheaves of corn. The feasted with the harvest meals, then off to the next house, and finally to the last house for the dance, drinks and hooley. The meitheal was a great example of village co-operation – sharing and working together for the good of all. ‘

The Big Wind of l832 caused widespread devastation. There were also severe storms in 1859 and 1894 – three hurricanes in the course of one century.

In 1864 Registration of Births began in Ireland.

Large Athenry town families in my time were Burkes, Caheroyan, 14 children; Hessions, North Gate Street, 12 children; all very successful in life. In those years seven and eight children was the accepted average family , especially in rural areas.

Wireless: The first wireless I ever heard was at Jones Sweeney’s garage (top of Barrack Lane). A crowd assembled to hear the Blessing and Sermon at the Eucharistic Congress 1932.

Train fare, return from Clifden to Dublin for Eucharistic Congress, was 10/- (now 50p)

Bóthar Wob ran from Rahard to the far side of Murphys Boyhill – A lovely walk when I was young. ‘Bóthar Wob’ is still there, but overgrown. ‘

After the Great Famine People from the parish and indeed from the county went into America in their bare feet and in tatters. There was no welcome for them. Notices in New York and Boston stated, “No Irish accepted”. They were forced to do the most degrading work. Courage and faith sustained them. In time they achieved social standing and moved to trustworthy positions.

Dama: Athenry got the best of the touring companies, fifty and sixty years ago – Carrickfords; Louis Dalton; Mark Wynne, Dobelles; Harry Bailey; Anew McMaster, O’Meara and Boyer-Westwood Opera companies. Queues for admission stretched from Western Hotel and Muriel Nolan’s.

Jimbo, the town’s bellman was a familiar figure at Glynn’s Comer well over 60 years ago. A great source of local news – Political Meetings, Touring Companies or the Circus coming to town, Bullocks lost from the fair or a Purse of money lost. Crowds assembled to hear all. It was a special after-mass occasion.

Captain’s Pond at Martin Burke’s House should be known as the Colonel’s Pond. Col. Robert Persse – younger brother of Burton (Moyode Castle) was killed there about 1890. Members of the Blazers were waiting while the hounds searched the covert at Caheroyan House. The Col. was adjusting the girth of the horse alongside, when his own horse suddenly shied throwing him heavily. He died instantly of a broken neck. The old people said, that he was “no loss and no good”.

Fields of Athenry: The words “He stole Trevelyan’s com, so the young might see the mom”, may convey that he was a local landlord. He was, in fact, the chief civil-servant and head of the Treasury responsible for the control and distribution of food in Ireland. His policy was a disaster for the Irish. A warning of impending famine was on the cards for four years, yet Trevelyan allowed the grain to be shipped from our shores, which cost us one million lives, and another one and a half million in emigration.

Johnny Coppinger, Grandfather of the late Jimmy Cleary died at the Swangate in 1903 aged 101 years. Dr. Rosario’s house is built on the site.

Swan Gate when l was young: People living there were Waldrons, Mitchells, Nolans, Ryans, McHughs, Hoades. In 1341 there was a forge at the last house.

Caretakers of the Protestant Church were the Stokes, one of the first tenants of Newford Cottages (now Caufields). He was a Sergt. Major of British Army (retired), Mrs Stokes a catholic. Children of mixed religion. They attended both churches. Sammy, a son, was killed in Battle of the Somme. He also married a catholic and left one son who won the Lord Kitchener Scholarship to U.C.G. He qualified as a doctor and was brought to England by British government to specialise and became an eminent doctor there.

Lady’s Well is one of the holiest places in Ireland and a very important part of our religious heritage. Eight hundred years ago and more it was as it is today, a place of pilgrimage and prayer to Mary, the central and greatest woman of our Christian faith. A visit to Ladys’ Well is a great religious experience. Through prayer there, many requests and favours have been miraculously granted. The ancient holy-stone is now affixed to the front wall of the shrine. It was the old custom to touch this stone with the prayer, “Mary, I believe, and I trust in you”. This was very important to past generations. I’d give much to know the origin and history of this stone-sculpture of “Jesus in the arms of Mary”, but the precious knowledge was lost through the centuries. A station to Ladys’ Well is never complete without taking three sips of the Well-Water and reciting an old prayer from the past – “By the word of God, by the Cross of Calvary, by the operation of the Holy Ghost, and the intercession of the Virgin Mother of God, and the power of this water I believe”. Modem intellectuals may scoff, but people will continue to follow the old way. Let us never forget that the shrine is immersed in the faith and prayers of centuries.

Many improvements to Lady’s Well were carried out in 1988 which include a new approach road with ample parking space. A lovely stone-cut wall now surrounds the well and within the enclosure, a new Marian Shrine. Shrubs and flowers adorn the place and the new laid lawns are in first-class trim. Congratulations to the hard-working committee who give so much of their time to maintain the excellent standard and have made Lady’s Well one of the loveliest rural Marian Shrines in Ireland.

Redemptorists Monastery, Esker, just three short miles from Athenry, is a place of great beauty. Situated amidst the most picturesque surroundings of fertile fields, woodland, and hills, Esker has the added attraction of being steeped in the history of four centuries. Apart from the spiritual uplift we get at Novena time, a visit to Esker is always a mental tonic. A walk through the woods surrounding the monastery is a worthwhile experience. The very hard work put into it through the years has paid off and brought it to a very high standard. The Redemptorists have made Esker what it now is, the scenic attraction of the whole area.

The Redemptorists are a noted “Preaching Order”. In the past their sermons were loud, harsh and frightening. They constantly preached of Hell’s fire, and thundered the vengeance of God from the pulpit. It was a God without mercy for the sinner, a God without hope of salvation. For many it was a message of doom and gloom. In recent years the young Redemptorists have completely changed the pattern and tone of the missions. Their sermons and lectures are based on a kind and loving God. The message they now bring is Hope, Joy and Peace to all.

Robert McNamera, Prospect, entered the Redemptorists in 1986. A great scholar, a gifted organist and a grand boy. We wish him well.

In 1900 a Flower Show was held in the Old Court followed by a concert and sketch. It was an event much talked of for decades. Of the people who took part, a few names come to memory – Mary Coleman, Jimmy Dolan, John Kelly, Tom Curtin, Pakie Noone. The best part came, when it was all over. A chance street musician, Bartley Small, played for a ‘bit of a dance’ at the Mill Bridge. Bartley was a ‘wonder-man’ with the fiddle. They said that the “likes” of Bartley was never heard before or after. Notwithstanding the poverty of the times, when half-pennies and pennies counted for so much Athenry must have been a very happy and homely place.

Pakie Noone lived at Old Church Street, around Howley’s. He was later one of the famous De Wetts, football team, (Called after Christian deWet of South Africa). Mary Coleman lived at Cross Street, now Sean Hynes’ house, a lovely old Athenry family. She went to America in the early century. Tommy Curtin lived near Stauntons, now the flats. I have a feeling that Kelly was Johnny Kelly (The pub) – now the Square Inn. Johnny wrote the play. He was a real character, and a very clever man.

Athenry in the 1840s showing the old police barracs where Abbey Row is now

Jimmy Dolan lived at the Ball-Alley School House. His mother was principal of the girls’ school. When a row blew up between mother and son, Jimmy stormed out the back-door, climbed up to the top of the Ball-Alley and stood on his head there. He was dead safe, as a foot or more of thick ivy stretched out on either side, and he had two very safe hand-grips of ivy stems that could never give. While it was frightening watching him, they said that Jimmy could’nt}; fall. Noreen Ryan, Abbey Row, met a grand old man at an English beach two years ago. He told her, that he was born beside the Ball-Alley at Athenry, and that his father was Jimmy Dolan – a small world!

The Crowning of King John 1 of Athenry was an echo from the past. Medieval Athenry had come to life again. Blessed with beautiful weather, August 15th 1984 was a night to remember. The Castle (Bermingham Court) was torch lit as of old – the torches blazed from the great battlement towers. The setting was superb. Thanks be to God that I lived to see the sight and witnessed the crowning of King John Brady, who by hard work and great endeavour collected £8,000. The four contestants were paraded through the town in a horse-drawn open coach, flanked on either side by three beautifully decorated steeds and riders – a wonderful scene. Monsignors, Priests and Nuns came from right across the world, Australia, U.S.A., Canada and Britain, for the great occasion.  They all tripped the light fantastic in the marquee. A smaller marquee was also there for the banquet that followed. It was one of Athenry’s most memorable nights. The other contestants were, Jerry Melia, Cyril McNamara and Mrs. Bridie Finn.

From the book – “Athenry, History from 1780, Folklore and Recollections” by Aggie Qualter, March 1989

Click on the Author’s name, below, to find more articles from Aggie Qualter’s book

Editor’s note: The featured Song ” Sittin’ on the Bridge below the Town” comes from an EMI CD called ‘An Ireland of Treasures’ from 1991 where they re-issued recordings from the old HMV catalogue. It was sub-titled ‘The Voices and the Melodies of Ireland 1913-1948’ (CDP 7965772)



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About this record

Written by Aggie Qualter

Published here 11 May 2022

Page 0058 of the Athenry History archive.

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