In some parts of the west, they told me to by-pass Athenry on my way back to the east. “Athenry is dead from the neck up. Nothing of interest has happened there since 1504. The most you could write about it is that it is the only graveyard in the country with buses running in and out of it.” But, as usual, “they” were hopelessly wrong, for at the moment another, if less spectacular, ‘Battle of Athenry” is under way – and it is being fought, for the most part, by one man, whose dream it is to keep the youth of the town and district from emigrating. But of that more anon.
It was market day in Athenry, when I arrived, but I was not aware of this until the local Garda sergeant drew my attention to it. No more than twelve people – buyers who didn’t want to buy, and sellers who didn’t want to sell – were gathered around four pony carts, containing about fifty to sixty bonhams. Patrick Donoghue (a buyer) claimed that the pigs were selling dear. Pat Flaherty (a seller) said that the pig buyers wanted a man to give his pigs away for nothing these days. The bonhams didn’t think much of the proceedings either, and they squealed lustily every time they were taken up for vetting.
The man with the protesting pig is farmer Pat Donoghue, who had just bought the bonham at the weekly market, while Gerry McNamara looks on with interest
“We’ve been having poor markets lately,” Brendan Higgins told me across the counter of his public house in Davis street. “You would see a great difference, if you were here when we hold our annual show. It’s hard to get standing room in the town then.
Brendan Higgins, whose family are old “residenters” in the town, has one all-absorbing topic of conversation – horseflesh. In his youth, he was a noted amateur rider, and up to a few years ago, he hunted with what still is acknowledged as one of the most dashing packs in the country, the Galway Blazers.
“As you probably know, we had a number of American hunting enthusiasts over here last season. They’re still talking about the stone walls – and about the weather!”
Over in the West, the weather was unusually fine last season, with the result that the visiting Americans returned to “God’s Own Country” and told their friends about the marvellous winter climate enjoyed by the Green Isle! Since then Mr. Chris Daly, Secretary of the Hunt, has received letters from America intimating that a still larger quota of hunting visitors may be expected this season. “I hope it keeps fine for them,” chuckled Brendan Higgins…
With a population of roughly a thousand souls, and a relatively high incidence of emigration, this little market town, which once encompassed an area greater than that of Galway city, is fighting desperately to make an economic come-back. Like its prototypes in every part of Ireland, Athenry needs new and permanent sources of employment for the boys and girls coming from the local schools.
Charlie Taylor and his family have been wrestling with this problem since the beginning of the century, and Taylor’s Corn and Saw-Mills provides all-the-year-round employment for eight local people. Charlie and his brother Herbert together keep the wheels turning in what must surely be the oldest corn mill in the West of Ireland, if not indeed in the entire country. “The earliest mention of this mill was in 1575, when the town was besieged and burned by the Mac-an-Earlas. When the walls and fortifications were built around Athenry, this old mill, for some unknown reason, was excluded. It stood just beyond the walls, so that during the siege the citizens possessed plenty of grain, but had no means of milling it.
“When the town was again rebuilt, the stonemasons made doubly sure that the walls encircled the mill. It has been here ever since, grinding away.”
Down on the ground floor, and hidden away in a corner, Charlie showed me the old stone quems with which the corn was ground in olden days. They are still in excellent order and, I was assured, would still give service if put into operation.
In their place, however, has recently been installed a modern roller mill in fact, the only one of its type in the country.
In his efforts to maintain and increase local employment Charlie was instrumental in launching the Western Sack and Bag Company Limited, on the outskirts of the town. Here bags and sacks, imported from Britain and the Six Counties are reconditioned. At the moment, some 12 to 14 local people are employed, but there are hopes of an early and large-scale expansion.
Now meet the man whose dream it is to create full employment in this town and whose efforts in this direction have met with truly remarkable success over the past four years. He is 35-year-old Christopher Howley, proprieter of St. Bernadettes Industries, which manufacture “everything possible from wood”.
To find Christy one must first find that corner of the factory from which the greatest amount of sawdust or timber shavings is flying. It’s ten to one that Christy will be in the thick of it. Root him out into the sunlight and away from the whining machines and he will tell you his story. “The town slowly dying. I saw the local kids playing with toys imported from Germany or Japan. I saw the local farmers’ wives buying wooden butter dishes, chum dishes, even chairs that had been manufactured abroad.
Christy Howley: Also a pillar of the Athenry Dramatic Society
I was only a ‘hick’ carpenter, but I knew that if I once got the chance I could turn out the same articles, better finished, and at a lower price. I hadn’t tuppence in my pocket at the time, but I had a queer kind of faith in the idea. It was worrying me for weeks, so one evening I dropped into the chapel to say a prayer to St. Bemadette. I made a kind of bargain with the saint that evening: if she helped me to get the factory going I promised to put her name on everything we manufactured.” And Christy has honoured his portion of this strange pact ever since.
Starting a factory on just a bare idea, coupled with the type of faith which moves mountains, and without a penny piece of capital, seems an utter impossibility. Yet, Christy Howley succeeded. He began by making wooden toys in an extension tacked onto his own kitchen. The toys were solidly made, and they were cheap. Christy sold them all. To his friends and to the townspeople in general he became the epitome of enterprise. He began to expand his “factory” down the back garden towards the river, and he took on helpers. When these were not making furniture, they were lending a hand to extend the factory floor-space, usually after official working hours. And he found his workers in the most unlikely places. He “rescued” young furniture workers, almost out of their time in other towns – young men and women, already saving up for a one way ticket to a cross-Channel town or city. He took others out of “dead end” jobs in the neighbourhood, because some queer instinct told him they possessed the makings of that type of labour, so essential to his own success. He wanted workers, who would live up to that name, who would give unstinted effort in return for higher wages than they had ever hitherto received.
ORDERS ROLL IN
One by one, the machines were moved into the growing factory and clamped into position. Production figures rose. The men, smothered in sawdust at their improvised benches, were soon surrounded by towering walls of chairs, fireside chain, dining room chairs, traditional Irish farm kitchen chairs. Tables, wardrobes, wooden churns, toys followed, as the scope of Christy Howley’s enterprise broadened out.The orders kept pouring in – from 46 towns in Ireland, and even from as far afield as the United States of America, where some equally enterprising Yank had heard of the traditional Irish chairs being turned out by St. Bemadette Industries.
“I have sixteen men and women employed here with me now,” says Christy. “But, if 1 had the capital, I could increase this figure to nearly one hundred overnight. It’s hard to dig up capital in a little town like this, which has been ‘dead’ since 1916. Down here, we have been ignored by successive Governments, even though it is blatantly obvious that we are an “undeveloped area.” During the troubles, though, this place was a hot bed of rebellion. Come on into the kitchen and I’ll show you evidence of that fact.”
Dutifully I followed him into the house. In one room was a tastefully decorated shrine of St. Bemadette; in another the walls were hung with vivid engravings of historical incidents, ranging in time from 1798 to 1922. A picture of His Holiness the Pope took pride of place on one wall, with two good Protestant patriots, Theobald Wolfe Tone and Charles Stewart Pamell, guarding him on either side! From a drawer, Christy removed a small pearl handled revolver, a Martini rifle and a British bayonet and scabbard, all of these articles eaten away with rust. All three had lately been dug up from the back garden when the factory premises were being extended.
“The revolver belonged to Liam Mellows and I remember the day he buried it in the garden,” Christy’s mother told me. Mrs. Howley was herself an active member of Cumann na mBan and she recollects with a shudder the time when there were so many armaments buried in her back garden she was terrified to strike a match!
Christy and his mother are currently planning another rebellion – against the fates that for so long have threatened to ignore their once prosperous town and against the lack of employment which has been driving the youth towards the emigrant-ships. “Capital or no capital, we’ll carry on with St. Bernadette Industries. As time goes on, we’ll absorb more and more of those who otherwise would clear out of the country. We’re building up good connections and the factory is working under great pressure. We can’t lose, because we have the genuine enthusiasm of every single one of the workers and because we have St. Bemadette on our side,” Christy Howley concluded, as he saw me out the door, and then went back to his beloved machines. Somehow, I believe he is right and the future prosperity of Athenry is assured, so long as men of Christy Howley’s calibre continue to live, dream and work within the shadows of its historic ruins.
Extract from “Times Pictorial”, 18 October 1952
Written by Finbarr O'Regan
Published here 08 Feb 2021 and originally published Spring 1997
Mary Lavin: The Athenry Dimension
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