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It is over twelve years since I inter viewed Christy Howley for “The Tuam Herald” and even though a lot of water has ﬂowed down the Claren River since then, he was one of the few people who left a lasting impression on me.
The late Jarleth Burke, then editor of “The Herald” knew Christy well and he wanted the definitive story on Athenry’s erstwhile character before time robbed the printed page of something – and someone very special.
To say that Christy was a character would be an understatement. His quick wit, candid nature and air of eccentricity often landed him in hot water but it also endeared him to many in the town – and far beyond it for that matter. Part of the attraction was that Christy didn’t care what people thought of him and he spoke his mind without any hidden agendas – a quality sadly in decline these days.
His house in Cross Street was chaotic the day I called on him for the interview. The said interview had been prearranged but when I knocked on the door Christy feigned surprise and put on an act worthy of a few curtain calls. After a bashful start, Christy began to talk – his favourite pastime – and I was soon transported back in time to the Athenry of the 1940s and ‘50s.
Christy was born in the thirties and left school early to learn his trade as a carpenter. In his early years his interest and aptitude for acting however, became apparent when he joined the “Our Boys Club”, established by his uncle. There he had his first taste of acting and as the years rolled on his name became synonymous with the Athenry Players. This amateur drama group was well known at every major drama festival during the ‘40s, ‘50s and early ‘60s and Christy attributed their success in no small way to Tommy Reilly, under whose direction such plays at “Juno and the Peacock”, “The Plough and the Stars”, “She Stoops to Conquer”, and “Arsenic and Old Lace”, were wonderfully staged. Athenry enjoyed twenty years of glorious drama until the untimely death of Tommy in 1964.
Christy’s face lit up when he remembered his old friends from his acting days, actors and actresses of Distinction including: Mike Fahy, Jack Cunniffe, Jim Feeney, Vincent Doherty, Kathleen Corley, Rose Kennedy and Noreen Hession, who incidentally, played at one time with the Tuam Theatre Guild and won several Best Actress Awards.
Actors in those days, he said, were afraid of “The Gods” in the gallery. These were fellows who sat in judgment of a play as it unfolded on stage. If they didn’t like it or the acting they would heckle, stamp their feet and bang the control box until the actors could not be heard over the din. This form of instant criticism, although cruel, was very infrequent as most of the plays were of a high calibre and there was no doubt that “The Gods” played their part in maintaining the high standard of drama in Athenry in those halycion days.
Perhaps Christy will be best remembered among the older generation of this parish for his carpentry. In the 195Os he set up “St. Bernadette Industries”, making chairs for commercial and domestic use. To this day there are houses all over the parish with Christy’s sturdy kitchen chairs standing the test of time. His industry ﬂourished until the introduction of the mass produced tubular chair in the 1960s.
Christy’s craftsmanship was quickly recognised and during his stint with the National Monuments he was involved with Gerry Collins and Joe Keane, both deceased as well, in the making of a new roof for Ballintubber Abbey. It took six months, two hundred tons of oak and three men to accomplish this feat of engineering.
The three men made the entire roof in Athenry before it was transported in sections to Ballintubber. Working only from drawings, Christy was particularly proud of the fact that the roof was accurately reconstructed and put in place, reputedly without the use of a single nail.
I don’t know if it was my interview technique or the fact that Christy was in a particularly good mood on the day but I remember him suddenly lowering his voice and admitting in a conspiratorial tone that he had to use five, six—inch nails on one small section of the roof that would not “fit properly!
It’s a pity Christy is gone. He would love the way Athenry is progressing now. On the day we met he had a vision of what Athenry should look like and said it would take only a nominal Government investment to restore King John’s Castle, the Old Abbey, the Protestant Church and old town wall. This, he believed, would increase tourism and thereby bring employment to the town. He also predicted that the town would expand as Galway expanded and local employment would only come through the development of the service industries. How right he was!
He did more than talk about it though and while the rest of us are only getting to grips with such ideas now, Christy was plugging away back then, writing to the various Government Departments and knocking on doors in his own inimitable style to try and rejuvenate Athenry, the town he loved so well.
Written by Ann Healy
Published here 07 Mar 2023 and originally published Summer 1998
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