Above: Kathleen Doyle & Jackie Bracken
Naas, County Kildare
Telephonist & Cobbler and Power Station Worker
Born 1930 & 1932
(Photo: James Fennell)
‘I lived by the canal all those years but I was a dreadful swimmer. They never succeeded in teaching me. I knew what went into the canal, you see, and there was no way I was going to get into it.’
When Kathleen laughs, it has a tinkerbell effect on everyone around her, making the air feel instantaneously young and vibrant. She is recalling her childhood on the banks of the Grand Canal, where she grew up with her father, Kildare footballing legend Jack Higgins, her mother, Molly, and her five younger siblings.
Jack made his debut for Kildare in 1925 and was to be the pride of the Lilywhites for a decade, during which time they brought home the Sam Maguire twice and won seven Leinster championships.
Such was his celebrity that whenever any boats came past his house, the Higgins children were invariably invited on board. ‘They all knew my father so they’d give me and my brother and my sister, Statia, Lord have mercy on her, a lift to the next bridge and we’d ride back.’
Living by the canal presented the occasional close call. One Sunday morning, the family were enjoying a canal-side stroll when her brother Frank – ‘a lovely little red-head’ – tumbled headlong into the reeds in his two-piece suit. Jack hastily dived to the rescue, clad in his Sunday best. ‘But Frank became a fine swimmer after,’ she chuckles. ‘There was no getting away with it for him.’
One of her grandfathers was gardener for the de Burgh family who lived in the fine mansion of Oldtown just outside Naas. Kathleen and her friends would sometimes slip into the demesne for a play when they were children. ‘We were always very gentle and fairy-like,’ she says. ‘You respected places like that. We never even broke a twig.’
Her greatest passion was Irish dancing. ‘We had so many magic nights in Lawlor’s Ballroom,’ she recalls. ‘There were dances every other weekend, for the farmers, for the guards, for Christmas. Big dickie-tie jobs for the hunt and all. It was brilliant. I remember one time they fitted eighteen hundred people in for the Royal Showband. Mick Delahunty was the man of the time.’
The telephone network in Ireland was moving into the age when the postmistress and her underlings became the most knowledgeable members of the community. Kathleen joined their ranks at the age of sixteen, shortly after she left secondary school.
‘I was the eldest, so I was the first to go out and get a job. I was a telephonist. I started in Naas, in the back of the post office, taking calls and going through the exchange. There was a big piece of wood in front of you and you had to stick a plug into a socket every time you wanted to make a connection. “Number please?” They were long days, eight hours at the switchboard with the odd cup of tea. You had headphones on all the time too, which would give you an earache, but you just had to get on because that was your job.’
After she completed her training in Naas, she was transferred to Arklow, which was ‘lovely except for the smell of stale fish’, and then went on to Bray where she lived a five-minute walk from the esplanade. ‘I have had water by me all my life,’ she says. ‘I have a great love for the sea and water.’
In 1953, she married Cecil Doyle, a clerical officer with Kildare County Council who became one of the founding members of the Naas Credit Union. They have eight children who, all now married, have added Japanese, Italian and American in-laws to the Doyle–Higgins bloodlines. Kathleen and Cecil frequently holiday in Italy. The language barrier isn’t a problem. ‘Cecil learned enough Latin when he was an altar boy for us to get by,’ says she.
Jack Higgins passed away in 1955 on account of the severe injuries he received to his back and spine during his footballing days. He was just fifty-three years old. Nearly six decades on, his daughter still misses him desperately. ‘I had just been up to see Dad in hospital. We weren’t talking to him or anything, just seeing him. And then later I was back at my aunt’s house, listening to the news in Irish on the radio. And they announced that my father had died. It was so terribly sad.’
The Higgins’ house stood quarter of a mile away from the cottage of Jackie Bracken who was arguably Jack Higgins’ greatest fan. ‘I have been closely involved with Kildare football for over sixty years and I’ve enjoyed every minute of it,’ he says. His passion was undoubtedly stirred by the extraordinary success of Higgins and the Lilywhites in the 1920s and 1930s. In less than a minute, Jackie reels off the names and positions of every man who played for that team.
Jackie captained the Naas team which claimed victory in the County Junior Championship in 1952. The following year, the Naas under-eighteens won the County Minor Championship, again under Jackie’s stewardship. He also played in the Kildare junior county team that was narrowly beaten by Monaghan in the All-Ireland final at Navan in 1956. Jackie served as a county board delegate representing Naas from 1948 to 1968. During that period, the greater struggle was not winning titles but watching his best players pack their bags and head off to new lives overseas, primarily in the big English cities of London, Birmingham and Manchester. ‘Emigration was a constant,’ says he.
The Brackens have lived in the same canal-side cottage at Abbey Bridge since at least the 1850s. Jackie’s grandfather, Joseph Bracken, worked for Oldum’s. ‘Every morning he’d set off on his rounds with a pair of draught horses, carrying eight bags of flour, one ton per dray, and he would go around distributing it in Blessington, Donard, Dunlavin and Baltinglass, and then home via Kilcullen.’
Joseph and his wife Marcella had ten children. One of their daughters, Katie Bracken, sailed for the USA in 1905 to start a new life as a nun and teacher but died of consumption as a young woman before the First World War.
Meanwhile, Jackie’s father, also called Joseph, found work as an assistant in McDermott’s hardware store in Naas. Joseph served with the Irish Republican Army in the War of Independence. During the ensuing Civil War, he was embroiled in an ambush of Free State troops at Ferrycarrig, County Wexford. Somebody hurled a hand-grenade into the back of the truck where he sat and, but for a mattress that lay between him and the blast, he would have been killed outright. He was nonetheless badly wounded and lost an eye.
In 1930, Joseph married Mary Coughlan from Glasson, County Westmeath, who worked as a domestic maid for some of the local dignitaries in Naas, such as the vet and the formidable parish priest, Father Doyle.
Born in the canal-side cottage at Abbey Bridge in 1932, Jackie was one of two children. It was a tiny family by comparison with their neighbours – the footballer Billy Kelly was one of eighteen children and the Sheridans had twenty-one.
‘My mother didn’t have time for a large family. She was let die with an appendix on 18 May 1940. That’s a red-letter day in Abbey Bridge. She had my brother out at communion on the Saturday morning and she was rolling around in the bed all day. The doctor never came and she passed away that evening. She died in an ambulance as it crossed over the Abbey Bridge on its way to Dublin.’
In 1946, Jackie went to work in the slipper factory which stood beside the cotton mills. Eighteen months after he joined, the factory closed down. Fortunately Mr Tutty, the manager, started up a new shoe factory on Poplar Square beside Lawlor’s Hotel.
‘And I served my time in Tutty’s then,’ says Jackie. ‘Making shoes and boots. Tutty had a van on the road at that time and we would go all around Kildare and Carlow collecting up shoes that needed to be mended.’
However, Jackie was unconvinced that his future lay in shoe repairs, not least because there were sixteen others on Mr Tutty’s payroll and his chances of a promotion were consequently moderate to slim.
In the mid-1950s, the Electricity Supply Board and Bord na Móna teamed up to build a new power station on the Bog of Allen where turf could be converted into energy. The cooling tower that soared high above the bog remained an iconic Naas landmark until it was demolished in the 1990s.
Jackie decided to up sticks and start anew at the power station. ‘When I told a friend what I had done, he said, “What kind of a gobshite are you? You’re leaving a place where you’re after serving your time!” I replied, “I am, but there might be more prospects where I’m going.” Lo and behold, I was forty years in the ESB and I can tell you one thing, I made the right decision.’
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