Athenry in 1947 – Dec 1997

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Article taken from The Irish Press, Friday, Feb.7, 1947

William Verrand, a common soldier in the service of Raymond Le Gros, came to Ireland in Strongbow’s time, eventually reaching Athenry. He brought leprosy with him. Many were infected with this, the terrible disease of mediaeval Christendom and a leper colony had to be set up.

“Come over here to the window.” M. J. Walsh, Principal. of the Boys School, laid down the copy book from which he had been turning Irish into English for my benefit. “Part of it was behind that wall –  there’s a vegetable garden there now- and the rest was in the present Horse Show grounds just over that other wall”.

Boys School Pupils 1940s – Can anyone name the others?

Front: Gerry Cronnolly, ……, ………, ……, Maurice Browne, ……., Kevin Whelan

Middle: Peter Healy, ………, ………., ……….., ……….., Tomsey Cannon, ,,,,,,,,, ,,,,,,,,

Back: ………, ………., ……, ……….., Jody Curran, ………, ………..,

“Athenry was not only a walled town but it was also moated and protected by several look-out towers”. We went back and sat by the pleasant fire; the boys romping and hollering outside and we in the nice quiet.) “There were four gates… the Berminghams were the ‘big shots’… the town was sacked in 1576…the Dominican Abbey had the status of a university and was recognised by Rome.” Thus he continued with the snippets from the copy-book.

“Do you give them this stuff in the school?” Mr. Walsh seemed to think my interruption hardly worth answering.

But it had point. An hour later I was going around with James Barrett, one of Liam Mellows’ men in the Easter Week operations of this area. I will tell you about this in another paragraph and he made a gesture towards a ruin. “Do you want to see the Franciscan place?” “Beg pardon,” says I, the newest graduate of the Athenry Boys School “but that’s the Dominican Abbey and not the Franciscan Friary. “

Athenry Dominican Priory – Gary Ryan Facebook

“ Oh, very well ,” replied Mr. Barrett, “ but when I when I was going to the local national school I really loved History; they only taught me to be a good little English boy…”. “They didn’t make much of a success of you, did they? “said I. But I must get back to the school- which, indeed, I should never have left and not get distracted by History, much less the gaps in Mr. Barrett’s education. It is a grand new school, built in 1940 at the very moderate cost of £2,100 ( £400 of which was raised by local subscription); there is a roll of over a hundred. We saw the old abandoned school too— a horrid place in comparison with the new premises.

Talking of schools, I discovered that there is a great hunger in Athenry for secondary schools. It seems that quite a crowd of young people have to be sent off daily to Loughrea- twelve miles away. Athenry will never be so much of a place until it has better educational facilities.

It was J.J. Ruane, County Councillor and “live wire”, who introduced us to the 1916 veterans, James Barrett and John Cleary. Mr.Ruane deals in tractors and agriculture machinery; his stores are full of most attractive things, threshing mills and so on, and if it were not for getting on with the (cursed ) job I would have had a mornings entertainment in poking about his place.

He says that the local farmers are quickly turning to mechanised farming. “Ten years ago they were laughing at tractors.” And he has several views on a “Better Athenry” which I may as well give right away. They have no legal facilities for house building, as Athenry is reckoned only as a rural district – this should be remedied. A fair green and a loading bank situated near the station would be an immense boon. “Nobody can leave their houses on a fair day because the streets are both jammed and filthy. They want funds to develop the Horse Show grounds so as to make a decent playing field out of the large but virgin site. They want both a new Town Hall and a cinema. They plan to erect a memorial to Liam Mellows in the town.

I “reviewed” two of Liam Mellows’ men. “Where were you in Easter Week?” They mobilised on Easter Sunday, dispersed on receiving the countermanding dispatch from Dublin, mobilised again on Monday and were joined by Liam Mellows, who had been in Clarinbridge, and his western contingent. Almost a thousand strong they took over the Agricultural College and held it in spite of the R.I.C. until Saturday. Then they went on the run.

“What arms?” “Rifles and pikes.” “Pikes?” “Yes, pikes according to the ’98 pattern and very dangerous weapons they were too, eight feet long and deadly. John Cleary reckoned they must have had about twenty pikes. He had two or three of them himself by way of mementoes, but now has them no longer. John was captured by the Crown forces and imprisoned in Galway, Dublin and Frongoch. It wasn’t a very marvellous campaign but it was heroic. ”And it was a gesture,” said John. “Don’t forget that we moved in an open country,” put in James Barrett “and that we were much more exposed than the lads defending in the Dublin houses…”

Then, with James Barrett as companion, we saw some of Athenry’s many famous ruins. “It is a squalid town and only of interest to the antiquarians” I quote from a hoity-toity guide by an Englishman. Aye, faith but it is of immense interest to antiquarians. We inspected only the Dominican Abbey (though we also flashed in and out of the Protestant church which embodies the Franciscan friary) and we liked it tremendously. Only for the rain we would have made a longer stay and improved our acquaintance with it’s various interesting remains – that does not include the elephantine Clanrickarde and Bermingham tombs which fill up the interior as pianos and sideboards might fill up a furniture warehouse. Best of all I would have liked to have got on to familiar terms with a little eighteen-inch high effigy of a monk ; tonsured, stuck-out ears, nose-less and grinning like a small boy.

The surroundings of the Abbey are pretty mouldy. To begin with there is a ball alley placed against the street end of the venerable ruins. Mr. Barrett refuses to agree with me when I press my views on the conjunction of ball alleys and Abbeys. “After all” he argued philosophically, “a ball alley is clean anyway. It might be a stables or a turf shed they’d make in the ruins…” The ball alley was clean but the graveyard on two sides of the Abbey was not; I saw it at it’s Winter best but I can imagine how it would look when the nettles begin to grow again. Ireland is surely the land of neglected graves. Although we love a funeral we seem to despise a grave.

It’s a long cry between the 1241 Dominican Abbey and the 1936 sack works, but that is the sort of a skip that the writer of a short article must frequently take. The Western Sack and Bag Company occupies a nice fresh building, is manned exclusively by women, and has (they say great prospects. But the war upset their original plans; instead of making bags from jute yarn, they now only make up bags out of other bags and patch and repair. They buy sand-bags from the Irish and British military authorities (the largest consignment consisted of 75,000) and four of these artfully assembled make a pulp bag, while two and a half make a potato bag.

A girl can turn out 350 pulp bags per day on her electricity driven machine. The lady in the office was very nice, the forewoman was very nice – they were all very nice. It seemed a happy family sort of a concern altogether.

Photo: Taylor’s Mill and House compliments Gerard Kearney – “The Taylor Family of Ardrahan Post Office”

We looked in at Taylor’s sawmills and cornmills also. “Kept going, nothing extra…” was Mr. Taylor’s crisp summary of his business conditions. He was more inclined to discuss dirt and dumps. “A shocking town for rubbish,” he said. He showed us his newest signboard “Please-Don’t-Dump-Rubbish-Here” which he will put up, along with the others, when the paint is dry. It seems that there is no regulation place in Athenry for dumping refuse, and when it comes to arranging such a site the nearest inhabitants thereto raise a storm of protest. Everyone, I gather, is most anxious to have a nice town, but no one will agree as to where the niceness should stop and the nastiness begin.

“It is a squalid town and only of interest to the antiquarians,” says the guide writer. Antiquarians with strong nasal filters too… Don’t let that sort of thing be said, good Athenry people neither by a haw-haw Englishman nor one of your own nationality. Athenry is a town to be proud of: it has had a heroic “historic” past and a heroic “modern” past. If you have doubts about this, then borrow M.J. Walsh’s copy-book for a while; after that you might look up your fellow-townsmen, the men who came out in 1916 with eight-foot pikes.

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About this record

Written by Irish Press Reporter

Published here 17 Feb 2023 and originally published December 1997

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