“Well sure, when I was young Athenry was a lot different to what it is now”. Christy Flynn lives in Cross Street with his two sisters Philomena and Sr. May. His grandfather, Pat Quinn, ran a blacksmith and carpentry business until his death across the street from where Christy lives today.
Christy’s father, Paddy Flynn, came from Ballinamore, Co. Leitrim. A constable in the RIC he was stationed in Athenry where he met Christy’s mother. At the time, when RIC members got married they would not be allowed to stay in the locality so the Flynn family found themselves stationed in Mountbrack, Co. Laois. It was here that Christy, and the other three in the family, were born. However, tragedy struck and Christy’s father died when he was very young. Times were increasingly hard and because there was no breadwinner left in the family the Flynns came to live with Christy’s grandfather in Athenry.
“A whole time job keeping us out”
Born in 1917, Christy enjoyed growing up in the Athenry of the twenties. “The lawn down there” he tells me pointing to the end of Cross St. ” was a lovely place. There was chestnut trees and walnut trees and apple trees. There was three old ladies there – the Leonards – and they used to have a whole time job keeping us out of it cos we used to be going after the chestnuts and walnuts.”
And was he interested in sport at all? “Well on account of wearing glasses the only thing I was good at was handball. Hurling was out. The handball alley was down at the old national school down at the river. All our spare time was spent in the ball alley. And it produced good handballers – All-Ireland handballers, they won All-Ireland medals – on account of the closeness of the ball alley to the school.”
He can also remember the first picturehouse in Athenry. “Jas Payne was the first man to have movie pictures in town. It was down where Joe Dennison has the scrapyard now. It was a galvanise structure, originally a canteen out in Newford for the horse soldiers where the British army had an outpost.” And does Christy remember giving over his fourpence to see many pictures? “Of course I remember going to them. King Kong…The Patent Leather Kid – a boxing movie. You see, there was no sound and in between every scene there would be writing describing the conversation. It learned people, the younger generation, to read because they’d be interested in the picture to find out what was going on.”
“It was a Mortal Sin to eat meat on a Friday – but we Wired into them”
Christy was in a sergeant in the LDF (Local Defence Forces) during the war years. He assures me that there was plenty of action in the Athenry area but unquestionably the greatest excitement came in the events surrounding the forced landing of “Stinky” the American flying fortress in the farmyard. The B17 was on its way from Gibraltar to Northern Ireland when it crashed outside Athenry. Christy remembers clearly the events surrounding the incident.
“When I saw the plane passing over I was in the front workshop, I rushed out and I saw the American star on the plane so I knew it was American but I didn’t think that it was a flying fortress. It didn’t look as big that time as when it was on the ground. It was on its was from Gibraltar to Northern Ireland. The Germans had airbases on the French coast that time and there was bullet holes on the flying fortress. The German fighters had attacked it. It went way out in the Bay of Biscay to avoid the fighters and the navigator mustn’t have corrected his course and he arrived in western Ireland instead of Northern Ireland. It crashed and I got up on the bike and judging from the noise of the crash I guessed that it was nearer to the railway than the road. It had crashed between the road and the railway and there was a little bicycle path that the railway lads used and I got up on the bike and I cycled over and right enough it was stuck on top of a double stone wall. One of the undercarriage wheels had torn off, and the wheel was so big that it took a full week for the air to come out of the tyre. Oh it was a big thing.”
“There was 14 Americans on it and a British fighter and navigator. The lads came out of the plane , the 16 of them, and if you saw the poor seating accommodation they had in the plane. Only a wooden furm (bench) on each side of plane. No upholstered chairs. Anyway, they produced white bread sandwiches with ham in them. Now it was a Friday and it was a mortal sin to eat meat on a Friday. But we were so glad because the bread we had during the emergency was black, on account of the homegrown flour. But they had white bread and, sure, we wired into them!”
“We got strict orders for nobody to take a photograph of it because there was a German and Japanese embassy in Dublin. Lieut. Gen. Jacob Devers was the highest commanding officer on the plane and he said to Willie Higgins (commanding officer of the Athenry LDF) ‘You’re not going to put me in the Curragh’ he says’ I’m going to be in charge of the tanks in the Normandy invasion’. And he had no right to. It was giving away secret information. Because it wouldn’t do for the Germans or Japanese to know where the landing was in France. But in the heat of the moment he mentioned Normandy.”
“That would leave a Quare Hole”
“Wait till I show you”. Christy leaves his chair. “I have a souvenir.” A few minutes later Christy returns. ” I had strict orders from my commanding officer, Willie Higgins, for not to let any of the lads under my command interfere with anything on the plane. I was having a drink along with one of them on the evening after the plane crash and he pulled that up out of his pocket.” Christy hands a large bullet, about five or six inches long and nearly an inch thick, to me. “You can see RA42 written on it….and it was 43 the plane crashed. 15 January 1943. It’s a .50 tracer bullet.” It certainly looks a mean piece of ammunition. “There was a red tip on it when I got it first from him and I inquired from one of the yanks. I said ‘what’s the difference between the red tip ones and the rest?’ He told me that every tenth round was a tracer bullet so when the gunner would be aiming at a fighter plane it would leave a track in the sky even in daylight, to show whether he was firing accurately or not. Anyway, I said to the fella that had the bullet ‘You had no right to take that. I got strict order from my commanding officer not to interfere with anything on the plane.’ He said to me ‘How much will you give for it?’ I had a ten shilling note in my pocket and I gave it to him. But it wasn’t me who took it out of the plane.”
Christy notices that I am still looking in awe at the bullet. “That’s a live bullet, if you shake it close to your ear you can hear the powder inside in it”. I do and I can. “Ah that’d leave a quare hole!” he laughs. “But I often wondered how many of them survived the war. Lieut. Gen. Devers did, he used to write to Willie Higgins. The generals outlived the war but the ordinary rank and file soldier..he hasn’t as much of a chance.”
Christy’s family has many military links. Apart from his father who was an RIC constable, and himself, he has a cousin in the states, John Flynn Jr.. He shows me a paper extract which pays tribute to him. “He must have been a brave man, he had a lot of medals.” As I read the article I find out that he was indeed a very brave man. In fact he had received a silver star and a purple heart, the highest awards for bravery in the U.S. military, the equivalent of the Victorian Cross.
Christy was on call at all times during the emergency. “During the emergency we used to be out at four in the morning on lookout duty.” He shows me an old photo which was taken in Dunsandle when he was on 24 hour duty with the regular army. He is easy to spot as he is the only one in the picture wearing glasses. ” We used to be out in the hills and expecting a landing of German or British troops. It didn’t matter which side they came from we were supposed to take them under our control. But sure, the flying fortress with artillery like that – they could wipe us out. We wouldn’t have stood much chance with the layfield rifle, it’s only .303 and they were ex-WW1 rifles. I suppose they wouldn’t have been terribly accurate.”
“I’d rather chat with me customers than bury them”
When Christy wasn’t on duty, he worked with his grandfather in the workshop on Cross St. So how long had the business on Cross St been operating for? “In 1859 the grandfather came down to this street. You see it was a kind of tough situation. There was three Quinn families and they were all at the one trade. They were cutting each others throats with competition and it was making the finished article cheap. But they were doing a great job. The Quinn carts and P.J. Connolly of Tuam used to make the axles. If you got a Quinn cart and a Connolly axle it would do you for a lifetime, barring accidents. Of course, there wasn’t as much traffic on the roads them times as there is now.”
Christy’s grandfather ran a blacksmith, carpentry and undertaking trade. Did Christy enjoy all of the work? “Ah I served me time in coffins. I didn’t like the job. I’d rather chat with me customers than put them down in the ground. When the grandfather died I got out of it. But you wouldn’t get much for a coffin that time. The best American oak coffin would only be £8 with special mounting on . Sure it’s up to £800 or £900 now. An undertaker is well paid nowadays.”
Christy didn’t work alone. “There was four carpenters and two smiths. The head carpenter’s wages at that time (50 years ago) was £2.15 and he had to pay his digs out of that and rear a family. The head blacksmith would have about the same wage. The helper who’d be doing all the work with the sledge would only be on £1.50 and he had to pay his digs out of that, so you can see how things have changed. Look at the wages they’re getting now.” “There would be only two smiths in the summertime, the coachsmith and the ordinary smith. The coachsmith wouldn’t shoe horses, he wouldn’t shoe donkeys and he wouldn’t shoe ginnets. The ordinary blacksmith would do that. But the coachsmith would still be very busy, much more to do than the ordinary blacksmith. He would be making parts for traps and sidecars. The coachsmith looked down on the ordinary smith. Mickey Hickey was his name and he was a Northern Ireland man. Oh he wouldn’t drink or associate with him at all. A “dung smeller” is what he would call him. On account of him having to lift up the hooves of the horse or donkey to shoe it.”
“Oh we were very good”
Christy’s favourite form of recreation was drama and he was a member of the drama society in the town. “I was in a lot of Sean O Casey plays, Juno and the Paycock, Shadow and Substance.” The drama society enjoyed huge popularity at the time, and it was much bigger than it is today. “Well only in the wintertime because you wouldn’t get the attendance in the summertime for the rehearsals.” And how successful was the drama club? Did they ever compete in competitions? ” We used to go to Tubercurry and Scarriff in Clare for the All Ireland Drama Festivals. Oh we won things. Oh we were very good.” On his next birthday Christy will be 80 years old. He has led an exciting and happy life which has left him with a wealth of interesting anecdotes. May he have many more years of health and happiness in which to tell us them.
Feature Photo – Christy is second from the left! This was taken of the LDF (Local Defence Force) during the “Emergency” in Dunsandle Army base.
Written by Vincent Murphy
Published here 08 Feb 2021 and originally published December 1996
Georgie and Marilyn
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