Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Athy's Wheelchair Association

On Thursday last the Athy branch of the Irish Wheelchair Association celebrated the 50th anniversary of the founding of the first branch of the National organisation.  Teach Emmanuel was ‘en fete’ for the occasion as volunteers, past and present, returned to acknowledge the wonderful work undertaken by that most underrated of organisations.

The I.W.A. was founded in 1960 by a small group of wheelchair users who had participated in the first Paralympics Games held in Rome.  In September of that year the inaugural meeting of the I.W.A. took place on 10th November 1960 in the Pillar Room of the Mater Hospital Dublin, attended by several members of the Irish Paralympics Games team, as well as a number of civic minded individuals.  Given the later history of the Athy branch of the Association it is, I feel, significant that the founding meeting was held in the Dublin hospital established by Mother Mary Vincent Whitty.  This was the same Sister of Mercy who came to Athy in 1852 to take charge of the new Convent of Mercy and the nearby Convent Schools. 

The Irish Wheelchair Association was founded primarily to improve the lives of people with physical disabilities and today the organisation has a network of 20,000 members with over 2,000 staff and many dedicated voluntary workers supporting and encouraging independence for all.  The I.W.A. seeks to improve equality and access for wheelchair users as well as providing employment and housing, while encouraging social interaction.  A quarterly magazine ‘Spokeout’ is published and made available to members of the Association.

Pride of place at the 50th celebrations went to Sr. Carmel Fallon and Sr. Alphonsus Meagher, both Sisters of Mercy who were part of the small group who in 1968 established the local branch of the I.W.A.  It was these two Mercy nuns who with their colleague, the late Sr. Dolores, formed a girls club in Athy in 1968.  The young club members were encouraged to visit wheelchair users in their homes and very soon the possibility of establishing a branch of the I.W.A. in Athy became a reality.

The driving force in setting up the branch was the Co. Galway born Sr. Carmel Fallon who entered the convent in Athy in August 1935.  The year was 1969 and very soon the local branch developed as socials for wheelchair users were held in Mount St. Mary’s, annual Christmas dinners were arranged and summer holidays were spent in boarding schools operated by the Sisters of Mercy.  None of this could have been done without the help of volunteers, both male and female, who from the very start devoted their spare time and energies to helping Sr. Carmel in her determined effort to provide services for the disabled, while integrating them fully into the local community.

Amongst the early volunteers (and apologies if anyone has been overlooked) were Leo Byrne, Lily Murphy, Mary Malone, Mary Prior, Michael Kelly, Bridget Brennan, John Morrin, Tommy Page, Paddy Timoney, Dinny Donoghue, Phoebe Murphy, Caroline Webb, Peadar Doogue, Fr. Lorcan O’Brien and Fr. Denis Lavery. 

The Athy branch was in time to provide a fulltime activity service for the disabled and the first Day Centre outside of the association’s facility in Clontarf, Dublin was opened in Athy.  Teach Emmanuel was developed on a site in the grounds of St. Vincent’s Hospital and represented a partnership between the Health Board and the Irish Wheelchair Association.  It also confirmed, if confirmation was needed, that the diminutive nun from the West of Ireland had an admirable record of achievement since arriving in the South Kildare town at the height of the economic war of the 1930s. 

In 1992 Sr. Carmel was appointed president of the Irish Wheelchair Association National Organisation and held that position for 10 years.  She is now retired from active involvement in the day to day work of the local association, but still retains a kindly watching brief over the work of Teach Emmanuel.

The 50th celebration was graced by the presence of many of the volunteers, past and present, without whose work and efforts over the years the local branch of the Wheelchair Association could never have been expected to survive.  That it has survived and indeed prospered, despite depending so heavily on voluntary financial donations and voluntary workers, is a measure of the generosity, not only of the volunteers involved, but also of the Irish public who can always be counted upon to help those who need their help the most.  The Athy branch of the Irish Wheelchair Association can be justifiably proud of its many achievements in helping the physically disabled to better integrate with the local community.  At the same time the people of Athy and district can take pride in the continuing success of a local organisation whose presence is a welcome addition to the medico social facilities of south Kildare.

Last week I wrote of the new Traffic Management Plan for Athy and referred to an alternative plan proposed by a group which I understood was the Irish Farmers Association.  In fact I am told the plan in question arises from discussions within the Athy Traffic Action Committee and has the support of a large section of the business community.  I gather their plan has not yet received the backing of the Town Council but perhaps that support will come when the Council members sit down with members of Kildare County Council to consider the Traffic Management Plan prepared by the Council’s consultants. 

Hugh Bolger of 6 Offaly Street passed away last week.  A native of Ballylinan he worked for many years in the Wallboard factory and his funeral was marked by a Guard of Honour of members of Ballylinan Gaelic Football Club and by the attendance of many of his former work colleagues from the now long closed Barrowford complex.  Hugh married Loy Hayden, now sadly deceased, whom I fondly remember as part of the Offaly Street family of the 1950s.  She and her brother Seamus lived with their aunt Mrs. Kitty Murphy and her husband Joe at No. 3 Offaly Street before moving to No. 6 when the Taaffes vacated that latter address to move next door to No. 5.

I had departed Athy for ‘foreign parts’, i.e. Naas, before Hugh married Loy and moved into No. 6.  I got to know him over the years and he became part of the familiar Offaly Street background at a time when several of the older families were still living there.  It is now a street much changed from my young days and the community of which I was a member and of which Hugh was later a welcome part of, has disappeared.  Hugh was one of the last links with that street community and his passing is much regretted.  He is survived by his daughters Sinéad and Áine and his grandchildren to whom our sympathies are extended. 

Athy's New Traffic Plan / Michael May

I am very loathe to pass judgment in public on the new Traffic Management Plan prepared for Athy Town Council which was recently on public display prior to being presented to meetings of Kildare County Council and Athy Town Council.  However, my reluctance in that regard vanishes in the face of yet a further potential waste of public funds should the plan be implemented.  I am advised that the Traffic Plan cost in excess of €100,000 to produce and its implementation cost can be measured in millions of euro.  Given the rather poor state of Local Government finances at this time I am afraid it is money we can ill afford to waste.

The Traffic Management Plan proposes a number of radical changes to the existing road layout in the town, the first of which is at the Dublin Road end of Leinster Street.  The existing wall between the two road levels is to be removed and replaced with a new wall to allow two way traffic on the Lidl side of the widened road.  On the People’s Park side of the wall it is proposed to have a pedestrian access route to the railway station and inside that again a road leading from St. Michael’s Terrace to a new road to be built through the People’s Park giving access to the Park Crescent estate from Church Road.  Church Road will be straightened and re-graded to allow access directly onto the Dublin Road via a new junction at the top of the Railway Bridge. 

Another major change centres on Emily Square where further pedestrianisation of the rear Square will effectively reduce the parking facilities there.  However, it is the proposed re-routing of traffic coming from the Carlow Road direction which now turns at the traffic lights onto Leinster Street to go towards Dublin which may create more traffic problems than it can help solve.  Dublin Road bound traffic coming down Offaly Street will have to divert across the rear Square and turn right at Barrow Quay onto Leinster Street.  The traffic planner who came up with this idea has an obvious liking for turning traffic at the bottom of humpbacked bridges as he also proposes a somewhat similar manoeuvre at the Canal Bridge on the Kilkenny Road.  Traffic coming from Stradbally intending to turn onto the Kilkenny Road must go via Nelson Street and hopefully make a safe exit from there onto William Street.  Vehicles will stop on Nelson Street just yards from the Canal Bridge where the sight distance is very limited and will then have to exit smartly and speedily if there is to be any hope of avoiding a collision with traffic coming over the bridge into the town.  Similarly traffic from Kilkenny going towards Stradbally must turn into Nelson Street.

There are a number of other changes, all of which I cannot now recall having attended the information evening in the Carlton Abbey Hotel a few weeks ago.  The overall impression I have of the Traffic Management Plan however is not helped by the use of a plan which has the Courthouse building described as the Town Library.  There are I’m afraid compelling reasons why this latest Traffic Management Plan is unsuitable for Athy, not least being the price tag which accompanies the changes proposed.  I only wish the planners and our Town Fathers would concentrate on the Outer Relief Road which I see is now being described as ‘the Southern Distribution Route’.  It alone can help solve the traffic problems which beset Athy’s town centre and the sooner Council officials and public representatives alike accept this the sooner we can press ahead with this much needed road project.

Incidentally despite the Minister’s clear advice to Athy Town Council and officials of Kildare County Council to make up their minds as to whether they wanted an Inner Relief Road or an Outer Relief Road, the local Council still persists in retaining the Inner Relief Road as an objective in the Town Development Plan.  Apparently the decisions of the Planning Appeal Board and the High Court have had little influence on either party and the Minister’s advice has been ignored.  It’s no wonder then that the Minister has not to date made any funds available for the construction of the Outer Relief Road.  As a consequence we find ourselves today in the unhappy position of attempting to apply what can only be described as ineffective measures to a chronic traffic situation which is crying out for the only viable solution – an Outer Relief Road.

As I came out into the foyer of the Carlton Abbey on Wednesday evening Liam Dunne of the Irish Farmers Association and his team were manning their alternative traffic plan for Athy.  It proposes a much simpler solution to the town’s traffic problems.  Roundabouts at Leinster Street/Stanhope Street junction, at Barrow Quay/Leinster Street junction, at Leinster Street/Woodstock Street junction and at the junction of the Bleach and Kilkenny Road are the mainstay of the I.F.A. proposals.  In addition pedestrian crossings utilising zebra crossings rather than the existing pelican crossings have been suggested by the Farmers Group as a necessary measure to allow traffic to flow as easily as possible.  However, I am aware that pelican crossings are more favoured by wheelchair users. 

I have to say that the I.F.A. plan seemed reasonable and practical and certainly less costly than the Council Plan.  Given the limited costs involved the general feeling of those who examined the two traffic plans at the Carlton Abbey Hotel is that the I.F.A. plan is worthy of further detailed consideration.

I learned recently of the death of Michael May whom I remember well as a pupil in the Christian Brothers School here in Athy in the 1950s.  Michael was usually two classes ahead of me and the ginger haired well built young man was an extremely popular member of the school population of that time.  Michael, a retired Garda Sergeant, was the son of Hester and Joe May who lived in the Gate Lodge at St. Vincent’s Hospital where Joe May was the hospital administrator.  Michael’s parents were part of that great band of Irish men and women who during the War of Independence and later gave so much of themselves so that future generations could enjoy the fruits of a self governing democracy.

Ar dhéis Dé go raibh a anam.

Frank English

Several people have contacted me over the last few days looking for copies of the tribute paid to Frank English at his funeral mass last week.  One individual asked that it be published as an Eye and I am taking the opportunity of doing so this week, despite the fact that some of the material may be duplicating what appeared in last week’s article. 

‘With the death of Frank English Athy has lost a good man and I have lost a good friend.  A family man, a Town Councillor, a community activist and a Fianna Fáil politician, Frank gave of his best for the town of his birth.  For Frank was an Athy man, born, educated and worked all his life in the town which he grew to love so much and the people of Athy grew to love Frank for he was of a local family with a background similar to so many other families in the town.  His grandfather served in the 1st World War, while his father had to take the emigrant boat to England in 1948.  These were common experiences for many families as we grew up in Athy and it was against this background of shared experiences that made Frank’s involvement in politics and community affairs so uniquely relevant.  For 42 years he served the people of Athy as an Urban Councillor and tried all he could within the limits of the inadequate Local Government system to help improve the town of Athy and the lives of the people who lived here. 

Outside of the Town Council he served on the Community Council and was a founder member of Athy Credit Union and of Aontas Ogra.  A long time member of the Vocational Educational Committee he was at one time a member of the St. Vincent de Paul Society, a member of the Parish Choir, served in the Knights of Malta and in recent years taught many hundreds of young children to swim.   An avid G.A.A. supporter he followed his beloved Lilywhites with unchallenged enthusiasm and gave freely of his time for the local football club.

His contribution to the town of Athy is beyond measure and he has left us a legacy of community service which we will always treasure.

Frank participated in politics with a sense of purpose, reserving his political allegiance for the party founded by Eamon de Valera.  However, he never allowed political differences to mar his relationships with others.  He was a devoted and energetic member of the Fianna Fáil party and in that respect followed a path first set out by his mother Peg.  She was his greater supporter, that is until the daughter of a onetime Labour Councillor from Westport, Mary O’Grady, came from the west and captured his heart.  It was then that Frank English added another dimension to his energetic commitment as a politician and a community activist. 

For it was as a family man that Frank achieved his greatest success.  Nothing could compare to the satisfaction of bringing into the world five children, all of whom grew up to bring honour on themselves and on their parents.  That above all is Franks and Marys greatest legacy, but for Frank who was justifiably proud of his children and his grandchildren, it brought him enormous satisfaction and contentment that Conor, Cathal, Gráinne, Tomás and Ciarán were able to have the educational and work opportunities which were not available to him in the Ireland of the 1950s.

I will remember Frank as a friend.  We both attended school for the first time on 12th May 1946.  We shared a classroom for the next 12 years or so, Frank leaving school after his Inter Cert, while I continued on for a bit longer.  We holidayed together for several years until the demands of married life put a temporary stay on our trips abroad.  In 1962 we first went overseas together, thumbing our way around France, staying in hostels and experiencing the delights of Paris.  Over the next few years we visited London, Berlin, Amsterdam, Brussels and quite a few other places, some more exotic than others, but all offering a unique insight for two relatively inexperienced young men from provincial Ireland.

In more recent years we resumed our journeys and enjoyed together the sights and sounds of New York, indeed so much so that a return visit was necessary some time later.  These visits abroad provided Frank and myself with great memories and forge bonds of friendship between us which have only now been broken with Frank’s passing.

His was a friendship I treasured, for Frank above all was a considerate and courteous man whose zest for life was fashioned from an appreciation of the difficulties we all face, week in week out.  Indeed Frank was a friend to many, for his friendly outgoing nature combined with his innate courtesy, good humour and consideration for others, marked him as a man apart. 

Frank and I went to the west of Ireland to find wives.  He to Westport, myself to Connemara.  As a result both of us have strong links with Connaught and last night, mindful of the great number of people who came to Church Road to pay tribute to Frank, I thought of Padraic Colum’s poem, ‘A Connachtman’.  I re-read the poem this morning and felt that with some changes to the placenames mentioned to take account of Frank’s Kildare connections it was appropriate for the man we are honouring today.

            It’s my fear that my wake won’t be quiet,
            Nor my wake house a silent place;
            For who would keep back the hundreds
            Who would touch my breast and my face?

            For the good men were always my friends,
            From Kilcullen back into Kildare;
            In strength, in sport, and in spending,
            I was foremost at the fair;

            In music, in song, and in friendship,
            In contests by night and by day,
            By all who knew it was given to me
            That I bore the branch away.

            The old men will have their stories
            Of all the deeds in my days,
            And the young men will stand by the coffin,
            And be sure and clear in my praise.

The hundreds who turned up to attend Frank’s wake, the hundreds who turned up for the removal of his remains to St. Michael’s Church and the great crowd here this morning confirm, if confirmation was needed, that the people of Athy and those further afield who knew Frank, are in the words of Padraic Colum sure and clear in their praise of a great man.

I will miss him.  We will all miss him.  

Ar dhéis Dé go raibh a anam dílis.’

Frank English

With the death of Frank English we have lost a good man and I have lost a good friend.

Ours was a friendship which had its origin in St. Joseph’s boys school which both of us first attended on the same day.  It was the 12th of May 1946, my 4th birthday, when I was brought to infant school for the first time, the same day chosen by Frank’s parents to bring their 4½ year old eldest son to school.  Sr. Benignus, faced with the need to differentiate between the two Franks, decided to call my future pal ‘Harry’, a name by which he was known by all his contemporaries until well into his teen years.  He had been christened Henry Francis English after his grandfather, but his mother Peg preferred to call him Frank and so presented a dilemma for Sr. Benignus which lead to his temporary re-naming.  We shared the same class for the next 12 or 13 years until Frank left school after his Inter Cert. to work in Minch Norton’s laboratory.

Soon after I went to work in Kildare County Council we joined up for holidays abroad, starting with a memorable trip to France in the summer of 1962.  We thumbed our way from Cherbourg to Paris and up through Normandy, two inexperienced Irish lads whose time in the Parisian city was to provide an education in life, as well as a talking point for years to come.  In those days hostelling was the only possible way of meeting our accommodation needs and meeting and greeting similar age groups from the Continent and from America was an education in itself.  We spent another holiday in London enjoying the domestic delights of an Earls Court hostel, with the eye boggling delights of the early 1960s central London scene.  We were ready for the world, or so we thought, but nothing prepared us for the charms of Berlin and Amsterdam which were our last holiday destinations while we both enjoyed the single life.  The Berlin Wall and Checkpoint Charlie were but a year or so in place when we arrived in the German capital via Brussels and Hanover.  Crossing into east Berlin to see the contrast between the bleak soviet controlled part of the city and the western ‘Free’ was an unforgettable experience.

Married life put an end, temporarily at least, to our gallivanting but we did manage once children had stopped appearing to make acquaintenances with New York on two occasions.  Sharing a room over the famous McSorley’s Ale House was an experience which we had hoped to recreate again.  It is not to be. 

Frank was an extraordinary likeable man whose consideration for others was unlimited.  His family shared with many Athy families common experiences going back over the generations.  His grandfather Henry Francis English, although born in Kilkea, lived in Athy and like so many others in the town served in the British Army.  He later became a hackney driver and was tragically killed in a road traffic accident on the Dublin Road.  Frank’s grandmother had earlier died during the Great Flu Epidemic of 1918.  Frank’s father Tommy trained as a barber but the economic difficulties of post war Ireland forced him as it did so many others in Athy to emigrate in the late 1940s to seek work in England.  Military service overseas during World War 1 and the emigrant trail were common features in the lives of many Athy families when Frank and I were going to school.

It was against that background of shared experiences that made Frank’s involvement in politics and community activities uniquely relevant.  He was an Athy man – the town where he was born, reared, schooled and worked was for him the centre of his political and community life.  He was a founder member of Athy Credit Union and of Aontas Ogra, as well as being a one time active member of the St. Vincent de Paul Society, the Knights of Malta and the choir of St. Michaels Parish Church.  In more recent years he was a member of Athy Community Council and a swimming coach who gave swimming lessons to hundreds of children from Athy and the surrounding area.  It was as a public representative for 42 years that he is possibly best known.  First elected to Athy Urban District Council in 1967 as a Fianna Fáil Councillor he successfully contested eight local elections until he stepped down as a Councillor last year.  He served as the Chairman of the Council on four, if not five occasions and proved himself an able and conscientious member of that body. 

I was his colleague on the Council for some years and came to see at first hand how he sought to get results by consultation and agreement rather than by headline seeking contributions in the Council Chamber.  We did not always agree on how effective the Council was and I can remember one occasion when he took grave exception to my criticism of the Council which he as a Councillor felt was a personal reflection on himself.  Frank tried as best he could within the limits of the inadequate Local Government system to improve the town of Athy and he never gave up on that objective. 

The political passion which ruled Frank’s entire life was to see him champion the cause of the party founded by Eamon de Valera in 1926.  Fianna Fáil was Frank’s second home.  His mother Peg was a passionate Fianna Fáil supporter and no doubt she was largely responsible for his unquestioning and unquenchable allegiance to the party which when Frank was first elected as a councillor was still being lead by Eamon de Valera.  He was proud of his party membership and the party was proud of him. The young lad who in 1967 joined the then doyens of the local Fianna Fáil party M.G. Nolan and Paddy Dooley on the local Council would 42 years later step down as a Councillor having in the interim become the father of the Council and indeed the father of the local Fianna Fáil Cumann.

His contribution to the community life of his hometown was enormous and over the decades he made a difference to the lives of many people.  But most important of all was his good nature, exemplified in his courtesy and his consideration for others.  His affability allowed him to meet and greet friends and strangers alike with a pleasant word and a smile.  Frank never allowed political differences to intrude into his personal relationships with others and he never allowed differences of opinion to mar those same relationships.

In his role as a Peace Commissioner he called to my offices on a regular basis to sign documents and always partook of a cup of coffee and the opportunity to have a chat.  His easy going manner made him a great favourite and nothing pleased him more than recounting the details of Kildare’s latest, if sometimes scarce, football successes.  For Frank was an avid supporter of Gaelic football and followed the Lilywhites from venue to venue.  It was I think one of his greatest disappointments that he had not played football in his young days, but made up for that by his wholehearted support for the County team and for the local G.A.A. Club in Geraldine Park.

His legacy of dedicated service for the people of Athy is second only to his most cherished legacy.  He has left behind his wife Mary and his five children, Conor, Cathal, Gráinne, Tomás and Ciarán, all of whom have brought honour and respect to the family name.  He was justifiably proud of Mary and their children and as I visited him in hospital during the last weeks of his life I came to understand and appreciate that he had passed on to his children some of those exceptional qualities which had endeared Frank to those who knew him. 

Frank was a family man, a community activist and a Fianna Fáil politician who gave of his best for the town of his birth.  He has left us a legacy of dedicated service for the people of Athy and the most cherished legacy of all, the family of whom he was justifiably proud.

Ar dhéis Dé go raibh a anam.