As part of an overall pastoral review of the diocese of Tuam requested in June/July ‘95 by Archbishop Neary a survey of the Athenry parish was undertaken. The results of this painted an interesting picture of many areas of Parish life in Athenry in terms of population, employment, emigration and education as we reach the end of the millennium. While the amounts of information gathered are too vast to print here, the following is an outline of some of the more interesting results. Over 70 people throughout the parish have assisted the completion of the survey which was coordinated by Vincent Murphy, Taiquin. We are confident that the statistics gathered are very accurate, and would like to thank all those who gave their help. Without their time and effort this survey would not have been possible. 

Fr. Tony King

Population Breakdown

Athenry parish covers an area of approximately 55 square miles. It spreads from Colemanstown to Derrydonnell, from Moyvilla to Coshla and many places in between. It has a total population of 4378 people. That consists of 2176 males and 2202 females. While in the past it may often have been said in passing that Athenry’s population is 99% catholic, that figure can now be taken as official. Less than 1% (41 people) of the entire population could be categorised as “non catholics”. Athenry has a protestant population of 14.

Of the persons over 17 years of age, 1037 are single, 1704 are married and 217 are widowed. In the last five years 180 parishoners have got married, 99 of those marriages taking place within the parish. Of those, 90 couples have taken up residence in the parish. While Athenry may not be able to hold onto all of it’s own newly-weds, it is proving an attractive location for couples to move to.

Almost 100 couples have moved into the parish in the last five years including 13 retired couples and 28 newly-weds. There are 79 more houses in the parish now than in 1990. While this is a positive overall figure, it does not mean that all areas benefited. In fact a number of areas showed a deficit in the number of houses today when compared to 1990. In the area of Cuddoo/Colemanstown, for example, seven houses have closed down in the last five years with no new houses being built.

44% of the population are under 25 years of age. The figures for education are very positive with 57% of the people between the ages of 15 and 25 in full time education. Just over 40% of those over 66 years of age live without members of a younger generation in their homes with them. There are 69 elderly people in the parish who require care.

The population of the parish has remained pretty much stagnant in the last five years with a natural increase of just 62 people.

Employment:

There are 967 people from the parish in full-time paid employment. 243 of these work inside the parish and 724 work outside. There are 303 less women than men in full-time employment, with 708 women with full-time home duties. Athenry provides 162 full-time jobs to people from outside the parish. There are 163 part-time jobs in the parish and 110 of those are taken up by people from the parish. There are 463 full-time self-employed males in Athenry along  with 62 self-employed-females.

The job situation has changed very little with 32 more full-time jobs and 5 more part-time jobs now than five years ago. There are 174 people m- who are unemployed in the parish.

Emigration:

There was a detailed look at the history of emigration in the parish for the last fifty years. 1387 people have left the parish. 33% of these moved elsewhere where in Connaught with 58% of all remaining somewhere in Ireland. Of those that went abroad England/Wales was by far the most popular destination, with one-quarter of all emigrants choosing to live there. The next most popular destination was the U.S.A. with 11.39% going there. Europe and Australia were also very popular. Of all that have gone abroad only 55 people have come back to settle down in Athenry in the last five years.

If all those who have left had stayed, then the population of the parish would be 32% greater than it is at present. If all those who left Newcastle returned it would increase its population by 53%. The town could increase its population by 33%. Emigration has, of course, hit some areas harder than others. The Newcastle area has been worst affected. Two regions, Gloves and New Line, have seen more people leave than are currently living in the area.

I was not sure what to expect when I went to meet the oldest lady in Athenry. I know I was not expecting to see her with a cigarette but this was how it turned out. We are reminded daily of the dangers to our health caused by smoking. Yet here was a woman who has enjoyed her cigarette for three-quarters of a century and still managed to outlive everyone else. It is quite extraordinary, but then, there is little about Delia which isn’t extraordinary.

Delia Ryan (nee Carr) lives in Park with her three sons Michael, ‘Lol’ and Tony. She displays (apart from a slight deafness) remarkably good health and humour, clearly the result of a lot of love and care from her family.

Despite her years, she is very agile and lively. Although a quiet, shy, retiring individual who likes to keep to herself as much as possible, she has an interesting tale to tell.

Born in 1901 in the parish of Gurteen, Delia is a woman that has seen Athenry, Ireland, and indeed the world, change in ways she could never have imagined as a girl. She has lived through two world wars, the arrival of the motor-car, the introduction of electricity, the invention of television and the computer. When she was born the airplane had not yet been invented, now men walk on the moon. Yet such fanciful things do not take a prominent place in her memories.

Instead she likes to remember fondly her childhood, her life on the farm where she grew up and her schooldays. She recalls working with her father and mother on the land where they lived. “The work” she tells me ” ‘twas very hard that time”. She smiles at me, suggesting that our generation could not understand the meaning of hard work. For this was the age of “squitching”, churning, tramping hay, and fair days. The arrival of the tractor, the combine harvester, the baler, the creamery and the mart lay in the future. Work was done by hand, farmers were almost self-sufficient and the horse was every bit as valuable as a tractor is today. The work was hard, but rewarding.

Her schooldays were among her happiest. “Oh I remember going to school alright” she enthuses. Delia attended Temple school, which is situated just off the Athenry – Gurteen road at Temple cross. It was a two teacher school at that time, being reduced to one in later years. The school has been closed down for a number of years now, but the building remains behind, as do the memories. Her teacher was Ms. Duffy. “We loved going to school, loved it”.

Delia was a young woman when Ireland sought its independence. She remembers clearly the events of this time. The tension and patriotism of the Rising, the War of Independence and later the Civil war must have been exciting, but the danger of the situation was always understood. She remembers lorries of Irish soldiers going around the roads near where she lived. “We’d hide from them for fear they’d see us” she said.

The stark realities of war were experienced firsthand by Delia through the murder of Gurteen priest Fr. Griffin by the Black and Tans during the rising. The Carr family lived down the road from the priest’s house and Delia knew him well. The church in Gurteen parish is named after him today.

Shortly after her marriage in 1923 to Martin Ryan, she came to live in Athenry where she raised seven children. Delia has always been a deeply religious lady. She remembers coming to Athenry on Lady Day every year during her childhood and right through her life. She never missed a year. She recalls large crowds, much larger than today, going to the well. She met people there from all over the county, from Connemara to Gurteen.

Of course, Gurteen has its own holy well – St. Kerrill’s Well. She always went on the pilgrimage there on the l3th June, which is Kerrill’s day. She remembers large crowds attending that also, assuring me that at that time it was every bit as big as Athenry on Lady Day. “The church was very good that time. Everyone went to their Mass” she reminds me. “It’s different now. The religion was very strong then.” Delia is saddened by the decline she sees happening in the church. It is just one of the things she doesn’t like about the way our society has changed.

Times may have been hard then but Delia is not so sure that we are better off today. The increase in serious crime which has plagued our country over the last while leads her to think that things were better then. “Twas quieter that time, anyhow” she said, “you could go where you like any time at night and you wouldn’t be afraid. There was none of that work (crime) goin’ on at all.” We may have advanced hugely in technological terms and maybe our economy is stronger now than it has ever been, but modernity has brought with it new dangers and fears.

Delia can remember a time when “you could travel anywhere”. She remembers a much stronger sense of community and friendship. This was a time before television, and before electricity. She recalls a strong custom of house visiting where people would regularly visit relations and friends. They would gather to play cards of an evening under the dim light of paraffin oil lamps. The difficulty in reading the cards under the poor light was compensated for by the atmosphere of fun and friendship which prevailed.

She remembers the arrival of the wireless and the excitement and change it brought about. These radios operated on wet and dry batteries which had to be charged. The wireless added a new dimension to the house visits and, where once large crowds would come together for a céilí or to play cards, they now gathered round the radio to listen to the immortal voice of Micheál O’Hehir commentating on hurling or football matches.

Delia loved sport. She played camogie for Gurteen at one time. She recalls travelling “all over the country” to play and remembers playing a match for Gurteen against Athenry in Kenny Park, then the Back Lawn. “Handball too” she tells me “was very popular”. She often watched matches being played in the outdoor courts which are now to be found unused scattered throughout the countryside.

It is probably the healthy lifestyle of her early years which leaves Delia looking so fresh and healthy, today. Being the eldest lady in the parish is not something that she gives much thought to. She may be old in years but she is young and full of life in spirit. I thank her for a pleasant chat. Then I leave her where she is happiest — sitting at home beside the fireplace with her sons and another cigarette.

“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.

With over two thousands pupils receiving education inside our parish, the schools are among our parish’s most important and valuable institutions. The hard work of the 131 teachers in our parish will, in the future, provide Athenry with an invaluable asset – a highly educated and learned population. As the end of the century approaches, strong educational qualifications are fast becoming a basic requirement in the eyes of employers. But the school system is not simply a centre of academic study, it is also where the young people of our parish socialise and interact. It is during their school years that young people’s characters and morals are moulded.

There are six primary schools in Athenry parish.  These include Carnaun N.S., Newcastle N.S., Lisheenkyle N.S., Coldwood N.S., and the Boys School and Convent Girls N.S. in the town. 29 teachers have the task of teaching basic skills of literacy and mathematics to 643 pupils. 58 pupils from outside of the parish attend National Schools inside the parish. In primary schools pupils are taught to read and write, to spell and pronounce, to add and subtract, to multiply and divide. They are taught the basics of the Irish language, Music and Social and Environmental Studies which include History, Geography, Nature Study and science. Contact with the parents is maintained with regular parent-teacher meetings to inform parents on the progress of their child.

Religious education is given a central place in the education of the child with basic catholic catechism illustrated to the children in a simple comprehensible manner. It is during their national school years that children receive the sacraments of First Communion, First Confession and Confirmation and the teachers play a huge role in the preparation of the child for these occasions.

It is in national school that a child,s extra-curricular interests first develop and it is here that the signs of natural talent in sport, music etc. are first identified. The national schools throughout the parish offer the children a wide range of extra-curricular activities like hurling, basketball, football, soccer, Irish dancing, the girl’s school band, drama and many more. Teachers give freely of their time to help the children develop skills and over the years they have developed a knack for spotting genuine talent from an early age. The annual Community Games “sports” in Athenry provides a stage where children can represent their school with pride and enjoy the excitement of friendly competition. Most schools go on annual School Tours which gives the child the opportunity to spend a day away from home with their friends and see places which they have never seen in their short lives.

At around the age of 12 the baton is handed over to the second level institutions. By now the basics have been learned and the task is to prepare the young people for the outside world, and more specifically exams. Athenry boasts two fine second level institutions – the Presentation College and the Vocational School. The two schools have a catchment area which extends well beyond the parish boundaries. Last year, of the 535 students in Presentation College 214 came from outside the parish, with the corresponding figure for the Vocational School being 524 out of 762. There are 40 teachers in Presentation College and 54 in the Vocational School.

Time at second-level is spent preparing the student for the two public examinations facing them. The Leaving Cert is both the hardest and most important exam which a young person has to face in Ireland today. Both schools provide a wide range of subjects for the student to choose from, allowing the student to select those which he/she has an interest or ability in. Irish, English, Maths, Geography and History are compulsory for Junior Cert with History and Geography becoming optional at Leaving Cert level. Physical Education and Religion are two non-examination subjects which are still maintained through to Leaving Cert.

Once again a wide range of extra-cirricular activities have acquired a prominent place on the agenda of both schools. The Vocational School have many sports teams in their ranks including basketball, football and athletics.  But pride of place in recent years has gone to their hurling squad which have the unique and special distinction of winning five All Ireland Championships in a row.  That is an unprecedented achievement by any standards. The Presentation College offers an equally wide spectrum of activities including soccer, hurling, camogie, basketball, quiz, public speaking, debating, and cookery teams. The excellence of the annual musical produced by the fourth years has drawn a wide following from all catchment areas. Once again school tours at second level, which are always adventurous in their destinations, offer a great oppurtunity to students and teachers alike to travel.

The Leaving Cert results propel many students to even greater things and some decide to continue on to Third level education. Athenry has its own third level institution in the Mellowes Agricultural College which has become one of the most respected training colleges in the country. 79 students and 8 teachers make up the college population where extensive training is provided in all areas of modern farming. 112 people from the parish were attending third level colleges, including universities and RTCs last year. A further 37 were attending Post Leaving Certificate courses.

The fact that 57% of the people from Athenry between the ages of 15 and 25 are in full time education is testament to the fact that we have a very strong educational system in operation here. Students are well prepared for exams, and indeed life. Yet, the opportunities for education in our parish do not stop there.

Adult Education is becoming increasingly popular in Athenry and in response the Vocational School provides 12 -14 evening courses each year. Last year saw 175 participants in courses as varied as Woodcarving and Aerobics, Furniture Restoration and Guitar, First Aid and Computer Studies, and Stain Glass Shade Making and Oil Painting. In September a new course -Bachelor in Business Studies Degree – will commence in the Vocational School, and I am sure it will prove equally popular.

Opportunities for young and old are there today like never before. Good educational credentials offer an advantage in an increasingly competitive jobs market. Therefore it is comforting to know that the educational needs of our community are so well catered for. Even better is the knowledge that our educational institutions in Athenry offers more to the student than mere academic training. Much more.