(Recorded on the 27th of January 1992)
My first knowledge of life in Athenry came when I went to the Nuns’ school in the Presentation Convent, where I was first taught in ‘babies’ and later in high infants by Sr. Dominic, Miss Glynn from Ballygurrane and Miss Earls from Newcastle whom we were all in love with.
We graduated from there to the old boys’ school in Abbey Row. The teachers there in the late 1950s were Mrs. Woods, who lived where Finn’s house is now, Seán King, just after coming to Athenry, single and living as a lodger in Joe Mannings in Bridge Street, and the Master, Mr. Martin Walsh.
There was no play ground in the school and the nearest was the ball alley where every boy in Athenry learned to play: that was the reason Athenry produced some great handballers. The more noted were Christy Barrett and Joe (The Racket) Whyte, Michael (Berla) Walsh, Gerry Cronnelly and Michael (The Barman) Kelly, Seamus Lynch and Tony Curley, all of whom won All Ireland Handball Championships. There were many others who were top class: Thomas Flynn, Paddy Joe Collins, Paddy Corley, Michael (Watt) Doherty, Joe (The Nailer) Howley, Christy O’Grady, Jack Egan and hordes of others too numerous to mention. The ball alley was so popular that even in my day you had to wait all day to get a game.
New School and American Bomber
In 1940 we moved to the new boys’ school in Swan Gate. We marched from the old school in our Sunday best to the new one, a day never to be forgotten. Opposite the school were vacant sites where Somers and Kennedys are now and there was Hanberrys Hote,l, half of it in thatch where often we stood on a wet morning waiting for Mr.Walsh who cycled out from Galway where he lived and cycled back again after school. A tough man was Mr. Walsh. One day in school that stands out a lot was the day we heard this big plane hovering over the town. We were told that it was an American flying fortress that had crashed in the Farmyard. It caused great excitement in the town of Athenry.
Athenry – A Wonderland
Athenry in my childhood days was a wonderland. I knew every nook and corner in it. Leonard’s Lawn had everything: trees, river, walnuts, and apples. You had to raid them, of course, never steal, only raid. If you could not get them there you could always go to Higgins’ orchard (Derry Monaghans) where there were all kinds; the old tower had to be climbed at least once a week and Norman soldiers killed by the million. Another place of fascination was the Old Court (Athenry Castle), then covered with ivy and opened to everybody. It was a place where every outlaw in the West was shot dead on sight. It was also a short cut to the swimming pool in the river at the back of the Bag Factory (McNamara’s Garage).
Big Days in Athenry
Big days in Athenry were Corpus Christi day procession, fair days and Lady Day. The fairs were something else. Imagine you had three inches of cow dung in every street, with the walls of the shops and houses covered with it to about ten feet high: some places had covering to protect them. You could not walk down the town during the real big ones in March and October, cattle and sheep standing from Mickey Tierney’s in Caheroyan to Paddy Greally’s in Swan Gate, from the Valley Gate to Maddens’ forge. The Square was the market place with Cheap Jacks, as they were called, selling everything from a needle to an anchor, calves in pens, pigs in carts covered with bags.
It took Council Road Staff a week to clean the town after a big fair. The Council Road staff at the time were: Tom Milmow, Barrack Lane, Joe Shaughnessy, Old Church Street, and his horse, Jack Farrell, The Lodge, Kick Gunniffe, Park, Dominick Murphy, Kingsland and myself.
I don’t think fairs would work nowadays as people would take a dim view of it. The townspeople made quite some money on fair days. Most people had eating houses where the farmers could have a meal. The hotels and lodging houses were full of buyers or dealers as they were called and, of course, the pubs did a roaring trade, hot whiskeys in the morning and pints of porter in the evening, There were little or no cattle lorries then and nearly all the stock were transported by rail. All the stock that was sold could not leave the town without paying custom a toll per head. The one who collected the toll money was someone who had the contract for it, so all streets out of town had a custom gate. The luckiest being the one below the chapel because most of the cattle were going to the loading bank at the station.
On Lady Day the Square used to be packed with people and stalls from early morning till dark. There was no mass at the well at that time, so people came and went all day
My fondest childhood memory of Athenry was in Court Lane (not tarred at the time). Old Mrs. Cunniffe’s white washed cottage at the head of the lane where Mace is now; Jim Barretts shed where an evacuated family from England lived during the war years, Collins’ old house in Taylors field (opposite Linnane’s Gate). Taylor’s mill was a hive of activity, sawing timber and milling corn. They grounded their own flour and packed it in their own bags.
Around the North Gate was Paddy Murphy the Blacksmith who lived where Finbarr Ryan’s house is now; next was Duffy’s Shop (John Murphy’s now) who was a wholesaler and supplier. There was a little house inside the Arch (Mace Yard) with an Eucharistic Congress crest over the door and in it lived a Kelly family. On the same side was Peter Skehill and Regan’s stone yard (Hession’s Yard) and who could forget Mick Good leaning on his half door, pipe in his mouth, making hurleys and giving out all the time.
Corbett’s was a facinating place with little containers of wire flying from every end of the shop to the cashiers office and back again. Ruanes business was where you could buy a bag of broken biscuits for a penny and all kinds of things going on at the back. Nanny Kelly’s at the corner (opposite Fitzsimons) and her husband the ‘Yank’ Kelly. There was Daly’s grocery shop where you could only enter if you were rich. Higgins’ grocery, bar and bakery (Hop Inn). As a matter of fact in my time they were three bakeries in Athenry: Higgins, O’Neills (Gardner’s Yard) and John Joe Wh.ite (John Kellys Office).
Old Chucrh Street
Maggie O’Brien’s (Joe Burkes, Old Church Street) where we bought ten sweets for a penny; Joey O’Flynn’s (Martin Maloney’s) to get your battery charged for your wireless, John Joe Whytes (Howleys) where on All-Ireland days a crowd stood outside an open window to hear the match on the radio.
Chapel Lane where Paddy and Ned Qualter lived and where we heard Rinty Monaghan win the World Flyweight Championship and every other boxer that ever fought.
Clarke’s Lane, where the pictures were shown in Murphy’s Hall- the film star Errol Plynn won the last war there and ‘Hopalong’ Cassidy beat every bad man in the Wild West to the draw and shot him dead; Charles Boyer was a bore as all he was doing was going around kissing girls. When there was no films we had Tommy Reilly, Kitty Lardner and the Drama crew giving us all Sean O’Casey’s plays; Josie Mahon and Jodie Curran with Gilbert and Sullivan’s light operas.
In Cross Street was Cannon’s Hotel (King John Inn), Carters (Fidler’s Green) and James Sweeney’s where we used to buy the handballs.
Bridge Street, where in later years, we played many a hand of cards in Joe Mannings.
I’ve dealt with only a small part of Athenry: things like Gerry Dobbyn delivering milk from the Farmyard in ‘his milk cart with two churns and blowing his whistle to let the people know he was coming.
Gone forever but never to be forgotten.
In my mind now I see a lovely summer Sunday morning with my pals up in Buddy Hill’s in Park. The town of Athenry silent but for the ring of our church bell booming over the countryside (it was said nobody who heard its sound was ever killed by lightning). Rev. Bomford’s little bell calling his faithful to service in the Protestant Church. Alas, gone forever but never to be forgotten.
P.S. The fairs in Athenry were held once a month on a Friday except on March and October when they were held on Mondays and Tuesdays