Usually it is the people from a rural background that we think of when wanting to record the reminiscences of times past. However, we sometimes forget that the change in the town is often far more rapid. Just ask yourself how many shops and houses in Athenry have changed hands in the past ten years. Therefore, I was lucky to have the opportunity to speak to Winnie Kennedy, a woman who has watched this town grow and evolve over most of this century.
Being a townie myself, I was surprised to find a very different Athenry exists today in contrast to the one of the 1920s and 30s. For a start, I doubt if today we would find many people in Athenry killing a fowl and sprinkling its blood in the four corners of their home. According to Winnie, this was done every St. Martin’s Day on the 11th. of November and its purpose was to ward off evil. Other customs included each area erecting a May Altar which was decorated with eggshells and candles. There was also a Maybush from which the townspeople took a branch to put over their door. St. John’s Night and Hallowe’en were big bonfire nights as there are now, but Winnie describes peculiar Hallowe’en games involving three plates, one filled with water, another with clay, and a third containing a ring. If the blindfolded person picked water it meant that they would cross the sea, the clay meant death and the ring meant marriage. If you fell in the graveyard you would be the next to die and that went for any time of the year. Christmas was a very special time of the year and on Christmas night the front door had to be left open no matter what the weather so that if the Blessed Virgin Mary was passing, ‘She could come in for a rest.’ Winnie remembers how everyone would look forward to the Christmas Box from O’Neill’s shop which was delivered by Johnny McNamara (my great-grandfather).
Winnie Kennedy (nee Byrne) was born into a railway family at Athenry station in 1914. She amusingly recalls that she was so used to the sound of trains that she found it difficult to sleep for a long time after moving to her son Frank’s house set in the tranquil surroundings of Farnablake. Was growing up in the age of steam as railway children a romantic way of life? I asked. Her answer was that they felt they were different to others, that ‘we were special people.’ Listening to her following story I was immediately convinced. One day she was in the signal cabin and unfortunately fell out of the window. By a stroke of luck, Mikie McNamara from Caheroyan (my grand-uncle) was delivering goods to Sweeneys and passed by just in time to catch her. This sense of near invincibility must have also belonged to her father who had to pass the staff to the train driver at speed while running along the platform. If the driver dropped the staff this was called ‘a staff failure’. The train would go on to the next station where it had to stay put until someone drove there by road to give the staff to the train driver so he could continue his journey. Indeed, many was the time my own grandfather had to do this job of ‘beating the train’ so as to keep any delay to a minimum. Winnie’s father was a country boy from Roscommon who ran away from home to join the railway and met her mother while he was posted in Achill Island. Eventually he ended up transferred to Athenry. These were the days of the railway companies such as the Midland and Great Western Railway Company which ran through Athenry. ‘The station had to be shining when anyone important such as the engineer arrived. He would come to the station in a special railcar which was like a little house on wheels’. Another advantage of being a railway child was free or reduced rate travel for herself and her family.
Winnie remembers the night Eamonn de Valera passed through Athenry in the early 1920s. There was a guard of honour stretching from the station itself along both sides of the railway track to the bridge at Prospect. Each man had a pitchfork on which was stuck a blazing oil-soaked sod of turf. Her earliest memory is of Lady Day when every girl in Athenry got a new dress. She says that it was quite nice growing up in a town although she had a strict upbringing. However, during her late teens she was allowed to go to the ‘practice dances’ which took place in Murphy’s Hall. It cost sixpence to get in and they ran from 9pm to midnight. Some dances, such as those for the agricultural show and the coursing committee, ran all night and they had an entrance fee of half-a-crown which included supper. It was Jimmy Payne who brought ‘the pictures’ to Athenry and Winnie remembers that the piano was played by Mrs. Broderick, who married Christy Broderick, the chemist. Once, at 18 years of age, she was all set to go to the coursing dance in Loughrea but regrettably her parents decided otherwise and disappointed a young gentleman caller who had driven to her house and knocked at the door. Not surprisingly, Winnie met her husband at a dance but she was engaged before she even told her parents of her liaison. She thinks that they probably knew anyway as there was a lot of gossip in those days.
Winnie attended the convent school as a young girl where most of the nuns were ‘very nice people’. However, there were one or two who weren’t so nice who she thinks were frustrated that they had been forced into a way of life that they didn’t choose for themselves. She can remember brown paper being pinned on the end of her skirt by the nuns if it was considered to be too short. Sometimes pupils were made to wear the dunce’s hat and either stand in a corner or parade themselves around the school. Later, she took the relatively unusual step of going to ‘the Tec.’ in Galway rather than staying on at the convent to finish her education. There she learned typing, shorthand and other office skills.
During the 1920s and 1930s attitudes to religion were very different. The priest, indeed God himself, was an object of fear. She remembers how one priest used to go around with a torch at night looking for courting couples until someone made a very brave-for-its-time gesture of telling him to mind his own business. In contrast, other priests of the time were popular such as Canon Farragher, and especially Canon Conway who was very generous and gave all his money to the poor. ‘I believe he hadn’t tuppence in his pocket the day he died,’ Winnie says. Business people and the wealthy seemed to make sure that there was at least one priest or nun in the family and she thinks that there motives were more to do with keeping up with the Joneses rather than the propagation of the faith. Of course, the rich had nothing to fear when the dues were being read out from the altar and some tried to keep even more well in with the priests by giving them geese and the ‘odd bottle’. Much as we might not like to know it, according to Winnie there was class distinction in Athenry. She can remember a nun threatening to tell the rich parents of a pal of hers that she shouldn’t be hanging around with Winnie and ‘that would put a stop to it’. This kind of snobbery was not just the preserve of the rich, indeed, the people of the town thought they were better than Caheroyan, or as Winnie puts it ‘you weren’t supposed to have anything to do with anyone the other side of the Arch’. Unlike people in the country who were largely self-sufficient, the people of the town bought everything and frequently used catalogues to buy there clothes.
By the way, Winnie says that she never heard the name ‘King John’s Castle’ until recently and always called the castle where I now work ‘The Old Court’, as did everyone else in Athenry. Incidentally, I was taken down a few pegs to find out that I am currently working in a building that was used as Athenry’s Public Latrine for the past century and not as a castle. Winnie had one brother and four sisters. Her older brother and sister left for America in the late 1920s. Regrettably, they never heard from their brother again after he left at the age of eighteen years and they do not know whether he is alive or dead. Indeed, she adds that every single week there was a ‘funeral’ at the station for someone emigrating. Regarding the political events of the day, she can remember the Black and Tans passing over the railway line pointing their guns at them. She draws a distinction between the ‘Tans’ and the British Army who were billeted in the Railway Hotel. She says that unlike the ‘Tans’, the British army were very nice people, polite and well-disciplined. Indeed, one British soldier used to call to their house regularly to bandage Winnie’s knee after she suffered a bad burn, and needless to say, it healed perfectly.
The Civil War did not have much impact on her as she was still very young but she can vividly describe the hardship of the Economic War during the 1930s. Many found it very difficult to make ends meet and there was thriving black market in the shops where you could buy rationed items such as tea under the counter for a certain price. Nevertheless, even through such hardship Dev. still had huge popular support. During the Emergency, Winnie’s husband was a volunteer in the Irish Army and his picture proudly hangs over the mantelpiece. It was with her husband that she rented out Mattie McNamara’s shop (my grandfather) on Old Church Street. They had a travelling shop which meant that they used to collect eggs from the local farmers and sell them to a company in Dublin called, funnily enough, Carton Brothers.
Markets and fair days were very busy times. Cattle were loaded onto the trains often with a bit of cruelty involved – the animals being whipped until they bled to get them into the cattle cars. At the end of the day the council gathered all the cow dung into pools in the middle of the street and journeys on foot through the town at night would want to be kept to a minimum, considering that there was no street lighting in those days. It goes without saying that many found out the hard way. There were a few Protestant children going to school in Athenry and they went out to have their lunch during the Angelus and Catechism. The Byrnes had more contact than most people with the Protestant community as they lived close to the Old Rectory. Winnie says that all the ministers living there ‘were lovely people’. The rector, Mr. Bomfort, had a lovely garden from which he sold flowers. Surprisingly, he used to give free flowers for the Catholic procession on Corpus Christi. Winnie sees a lot of differences in Ireland today. ‘There are no really poor people in Ireland and life is much easier’, she says. She doesn’t believe that religion means anything to people today. It did then although the church had its fair share of ‘crawthumpers’ going through the motions so that people would notice them.
Earlier on, Winnie said that she felt people on the railway were special people. If Winnie herself is anything to go by they must have been very special people and interesting people indeed. It really is a pity we don’t have more recorded about the trains in Athenry given that they have contributed so much to the life of this town.
Paul McNamara for the “Athenry Journal” August 1995
Paul McNamara is the author of “Sean Lester and the Nazi Takeover of Danzig” 2009
Written by Paul McNamera
Published here 09 Feb 2021 and originally published August 1995
A Walk Around Athenry with Seamus Lynch 1998
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