Sean Masterson remembers Athenry in the 30s: Part 2

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I was only eight years old when I left Athenry in 1937 so you can imagine my surprise when you found and inserted a school photo which included my sister and I, complete with names.

Some of the names and faces I recognised were; Des Dempsey, Steve Jordan, Joan Duffy, Aggie Hession, Dolores Fitzsimons, Violet Corbett, Phil Milmoe, Ruth Mahon, Pauline Pollard, Derek Corbett, Freda Pollard, Clare Dempsey and Joan Murphy.

Names I was looking for but didn’t find: Joe Mahon, Sylvie Duffy, Tom Milmoe, Jim Kearns and Michael Foley.

My father was station Sergeant of the Gárdaí in Athenry from 1927 to 1937 when we moved to Tuam where he was appointed Weights and Measures Inspector. I was born upstairs in married quarters of the old barracks on Cross Street across from Mahon’s shop. My mother told me she could remember him and Sergeant Cox singing “Sonny Boy” in the kitchen below as she went back to sleep that night, July 13, 1929.

Naturally I remember lots of things about the barracks as I grew up. There were seventeen Gardaí, two Sergeants and a Super stationed there. Many of them were single and ate and slept in the building and I remember the washroom where I saw men go through that strange ritual of shaving.

My questioning was greeted with laughter as I asked why they went around their noses. And I remember the “black-hole” which was a masonry lean-to against the back wall with window slits. It was accessed directly from the large day-room. I remember the Gárdaí drilling and parading in the yard.

Three years ago Charlie King, the owner, let me walk through the building which he was converting to modern apartments. I was looking for the tree planted by my father, beside the yard gate, on the date of my birth. It lasted through to the FCA use of the building in the sixties but disappeared after that. Had it got bigger it may have undermined the wall.

The alley or lane outside connected Cross Street to the small river and the Boys School. The lane was the most convenient access to water for the travelling cinema and we boys helped the man by making a bucket chain when he filled his barrel of water on his fortnightly visit. As a reward we were allowed to sit in the gallery of Murphy’s Hall when he threaded the film into the giant projector. He also had to go through the business of trimming the edges of the screen with black drapes so as to present a neat job. We got to see a few scenes from that nights’ performance while he got set up. He wasn’t over-indulgent of us but I do remember a series of images where monkeys were dressed as cowboys and performed like humans which seemed hilarious.

I also remember this watering spot being used by circus elephants to load up and draw water. My abiding memory is of Taylors field, next to the mill, being used for circus one night stands and it was also used by the more lasting carnival set-ups which had bumpers and chair-o-planes etc.

My father built one of the earliest radio sets in the town and he hooked up an extension to the day-room. In 1932 a large crowd gathered in the day-room and out into the street to hear the broadcast of the Eucharistic Congress from the Phoenix Park. I remember well going to Ruanes generator in Northgate Street with wet batteries to be put on charge and to exchange it for one waiting and already charged.

That was a few doors away from Corbett’s hardware shop. I think it was in the late thirties that I remember my father’s blackened face after he had helped to fight a fire during the night, in Corbetts. It was the first time I experienced the uniquely awful smell of a burnt building. Of course, I remember the Convent School and the Boys School where Mrs Woods and Mr Walsh taught us so well.

And there too was the ball-alley built for economy (at “what a Philistine price”, my sister Una said) against the Dominican ruins. Dad was proud of participating and helping to build the handball alley and years later took great pride in Buster Walsh’s success in All—Ireland championship efforts.

He took me with him to various venues around the country as he followed Athenry handballers to various games. I remember one venue we went to as Athleague. He enjoyed and participated in the activities in the Canton Hall also and my mother took us for walks to Lady’s Well, Castle Ellen and Castle Lambert and of course “around the Pound”.

Years later, I asked my father why there were so many Gárdaí in Athenry at the time we were there and he said it was because it was so soon after the troubles. He said there were over three hundred serious crimes in the area in 1926, the year before he came and as many also in his first year serving there but that something like ninety-seven per cent of those were solved.

He told me that Ireland’s first fingerprint case was solved in Athenry. That was a break-in robbery at Eason’s stand at the railway station. They arrested a suspect with cuts on his arm and it turned out that his fingerprints matched those on the broken glass.

We had in the family possession for years copies of the court exhibits highlighting the similarities in prints. Unfortunately like so many other mementos we did not preserve them to now.

My father loved Athenry and its people. He claimed to know everyone within ten miles of the town and though he thought it was the worst insult to say about a Garda that, “He is a nice man”, because it might mean he was not doing his job, he tried to be rigorously even-handed in his duties. My own experience of him was that he was a stern disciplined man but always thoughtful and loving as well. I remember being taken on the cross-bar of his bike to lots of interesting situations and events as, for example, to see the mail plane which had made a forced landing in a field somewhere near the Galway road. He lifted me up and for a few moments I was allowed to sit at the controls.

He took a particular interest in the archaeology of the town and talked quite a bit about the various monuments, with all of which we were fully familiar. He had a great sense of wonder about history and speculated on all kinds of things, like why was the town called the ford of the king when there was no significant river which needed a ford.

Could it be because Ptolemy’s map showed that a tribe called the “Artenii” (or some such) had been inhabitants of the west of Ireland? After all Galway had once been described as a “small fishing village near Athenry”! Maybe it was much, much older than we thought! or why was the castle called King John’s Castle when everyone knew that King John never crossed the Shannon?

Being known to have this interest in history he was often brought artefacts or told about places of interest. He would bring whatever he received to Dr. Tom Costello, in Tuam, a man, whom he regarded as someone with much greater learning. I remember being brought into a field beside a two storey farmhouse a few miles southwest of the town and shown the entrance to a burial chamber sunk into the ground. He also told me of a large battle which took place on the west side of the Swangate. That stretch of rising ground has long had houses built on it. It is also in my memory that the Swangate was quite substantially preserved on both sides of the street when I was a child though its hardly discernible now. Of course we children romped and climbed the ramparts and spiral staircase tower at the end of Hanbury’s Hotel yard and behind the two semi detached houses where the two Mahon families lived. I seem to recall substantial ruins also in The Back Lawn where a leper colony was supposed to have been.

When we left the people of Athenry presented my father with a Mullard radio set (which was ‘state of the art’ in those days) and which we the family enjoyed for many years afterwards. He accepted it with great pride as a sincere token of love and mutual respect.

But the most poignant memory I have is that the night before we left town in 1937 my sisters Una and Eileen and I did the rounds of some of our friends and neighbours to say good-bye. As we turned for home on the darkened footpath of Cross Street I was overwhelmed by a rush of loneliness. At eight years of age, if you can imagine, I had never experienced anything like it before and was completely surprised by the tears and emotion which erupted from within me. I didn’t know what was happening to me.

All I knew was that I didn’t want to leave Athenry.

A sincere thank you!

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About this record

Written by Sean Masterson

Published here 09 Feb 2021 and originally published December 1996

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