Frank O'Brien in his grocery bar in Athy.
(Photo: James Fennell)
‘I could tell you the history of most of the old families in this town,’ says Frank. It comes with the territory, of course, being a third generation publican. But Frank didn’t just meet people in his family pub. His father operated a sideline business as a fuel distributor during the 1930s and young Frank was his principal haulier. ‘I used to bring twelve hundredweight of coals down from the Wolf Hill Collieries and deliver it all around. That’s how I got to know every house.’
As we talk, customers of every vintage amble into the grocery bar. They come to buy Bovril and Barry’s tea, birthday cards and creamy soups, detergents, Kimberly Mikado’s, and a few slices of corn beef. Every one of them says ‘Hello Frank’ as they reach the front of the green and white counter. And Frank rounds off the ensuing banter with a peaceful ‘Go raith maith agat’.
Frank has been working at O’Brien’s since he was old enough to nod. During the 1930s, the pub was a popular haunt for First World War veterans. ‘They’d get their pension and have a couple of pints and reminisce’, recalls Frank. ‘You’d hear the same stories every week. Poor fellows. It all came back to them. They’d been prisoners-of-war and were badly shell-shocked. The things they’d seen. There were men who’d lost arms and legs and everything. It’s like that song, ‘Johnny I Hardly Knew Ye’ … that was written for soldiers from Athy who were killed out in Sri Lanka.’[i]
In 1940, Frank’s father contracted rheumatic fever and the 18-year-old was obliged to take the helm. The pub had been in the family since 1875 when Frank’s grandfather, Stephen O’Brien, bought it from James Leahy, a prominent GAA patron and Home Rule MP for South Kildare. Stephen was born in Co Kilkenny in 1830 but moved to Dublin during the Great Famine and opened up a tea-house on Dorset Street.[ii] When his doctor advised him to return to the countryside for the good of his health, Stephen settled upon the thriving market town of Athy and bought the pub. ‘And there’s been no change in here since then’, says Frank.[iii]
Stephen’s wife Annie was a sea captain’s daughter from Drogheda, who bore him eleven children. Frank remembers her well. ‘Queen Victoria, we called her. You had to be all cleaned up with your hair brushed and buttons done up before you were brought into her presence.’
All of Stephen O’Brien’s children stayed in Ireland but Patrick, the eldest, died as a baby.[iv] Another son, George O'Brien, an excise officer in Dundalk, succumbed to the Spanish Flu of 1919, leaving a large family. Most of the remainder lived into their 90s, including Frank’s father – also Frank – the sixth child. ‘When Daddy got sick, I asked the doctor what his chances were,’ says Frank. ‘He said: ‘If I get him to Thursday, he’ll live’. Well, he wasn’t able for the stairs after, but he lived to be ninety-one and he was alert until the day he died.’
In 1921, Frank O’Brien Senior married Annie Kelly from the nearby village of Ballitore. Frank, the eldest of four, was born the following year. [v] His mother also had publican blood in her veins, dating back to 1812 when Edward Kelly, her great-grandfather, leased a pub in Ballitore. Frank remembers seeing the ledgers of Kelly’s pub in his youth. One entry that particularly struck a chord concerned the dispatch of two creels of barley to Cassidy’s Distillery in Monasterevin in 1846 with a note that the potato crop appeared to be afflicted with the same disease as the previous year.[vi]
In 1932, the year Granny Annie died, de Valera’s new government hosted the Eucharistic Congress in Dublin. Frank recalls how, during that week, his father was raising funds to purchase a loudspeaker to install in the park in Athy so they ‘could broadcast the Eucharistic ceremony for people who couldn’t go to Dublin.’[vii] He chanced upon Captain Hosie, a popular war veteran who ran the main foundry in Athy, one of the few places offering full-time employment during those lean years.[viii] Captain Hosie duly astonished Athy when he ordered an enormous wireless from Siemens and installed it in the park. ‘Nobody had ever heard anything like it’, says Frank. ‘Radio was such a novelty! We had a wireless at home but this was the very best that could be got. And there was never as many in the park since or before.’[ix]
Today, the walls of O’Brien’s pub are festooned with sporting memorabilia – photographs of the victorious Ryder Cup team, calendars full of Kildare footballers, posters of grinning rugby players. On my last visit, several customers had both eyes firmly fixed on the horses galloping upon an overhead television screen. Frank was a keen sportsman in his younger years and hurled for Athy when they won Kildare’s junior championship final in 1945. To stay fit, he played a lot of badminton and table tennis. ‘We played table tennis all over Leinster,’ says Frank. ‘In Church of Ireland Halls and Parochial Halls and everywhere. It was big time. There was no class distinction, no religious distinction. And there was always someone looking for a match.’
Frank says the evolution of the affordable car in the 1950s marked the end of that particular sporting era. ‘Before the cars came, we went everywhere by bicycles. But the very minute the motorcar came in, that was it, end of story. Everybody went off on their own and it finished off the whole damned thing.’[x]
One of the greatest gatherings of bicycles in Athy during this age was when Carlow’s footballers took on Dublin for the Leinster Final in 1944. ‘There were thousands of bicycles on the square,’ says Frank. ‘Not hundreds but thousands. And ponies and traps everywhere’. It was deemed the match of the decade when Carlow won by a goal to gain their only Leinster title to date. ‘The Carlow Fifteen was an outstanding team’, concludes Frank.
Frank believes the 1940s were one of the most interesting decades in Ireland. That’s not simply because he was one of the first people to see the desolation of North Strand after the Germans bombed Dublin it in 1941.[xi] In his mind, the summer of 1946 was a defining moment. That was the year when thousands of Dubliners, mostly civil servants and office workers, made their way into the countryside in order to help save the harvest. ‘It was incredible to see so many people from so many different backgrounds coming together to help’, he says.
In 1952, Frank met and married Tríona Carney, daughter of Michael Austin Carney of Kiltimagh, Co Mayo, his wife of fifty-seven years. For their honeymoon, they drove a black Ford over the Cork and Kerry mountains and up the west coast. In due course, they had a son, also Frank, who lives in Detroit, and a daughter, Judith, who married an American and now helps run the pub.[xii]
‘We’re still doing what we always did,’ says Frank who is, ironically, a lifelong Pioneer. ‘But it’s getting harder. Being a publican is a full time job and weekends are big for business. I need to be here the whole eight days, Monday and all.’
[i] He recalls one fellow who was a Japanese POW in Burma who would tell the same story again and again, about how he’d met the doctor from Athy out there in the camp. ‘He’s tell the same story every week’, chuckles Frank.
[ii] He went to Dublin with his brother James who later joined the army. I think he bought a pub in Dublin but was advised not to take it on. He and Annie were married in 1870 and all their children grew up in the pub. He bought the pub from Leahy as a going concern. People came to Athy from all around – from Luggacurran, Stradbally and as far away as Baltinglass. He kept in touch with Leahy for long after; Frank is gutted that the letters the two men exchanged have all disappeared. Leahy went on to become MP for South Kildare under Parnell.
[iii] Before the First World War, Stephen had three horse vans on the road, supplying animal feed to local farmers, as well as homemade lemonade and ginger ale. One of his greatest clients was the historian Lord Walter FitzGerald who often pedalled into Athy from Kilkea Castle on his green bicycle with a shopping list. While Franks grandparents gathered up the goods, Lord Walter drank a brandy and spoke in Irish with the other customers. When he was finished, he left tuppence on the counter to buy a pint for the man who had minded his bike. The Day Books from 1883 and 1884 show castor sugar, rice, baking powder and Worcester Sauce being ordered by His Grace the Duke of Leinster.
[iv] Patrick was buried in Glasnevin. Stephen O’Brien set two of his sons up as publicans - Stephen in Nurney and Frank Snr in Athy. (A nephew, John O'Brien, had the pub in Derrinturn). ‘Only three of them married – George, Stephen and Daddy. The girls were all ladies of leisure except Agnes’, the youngest, who was one of the first graduates of UCD and wrote part-time for The Irish Press. Many of the eleven made it to their 90s. The last to die was Aunt Lily, aged 95. The only one that died young was Uncle George, an excise officer in Dundalk. ‘He got the big flu in 1919 and died a few years after. He left a big family too'. Another uncle, Michael O'Brien, was a curate in Seville Place in Dublin when he died at St Laurence O’Toole’s church.
[v] Frank acknowledges that the decade before his birth was one of the hardest Ireland ever endured. A global war, rebellion and civil war, killer epidemics and economic misery helped propel his grandfather into his grave in 1919. He had three younger sisters.
[vi] In 1812, Frank’s great-great-grandfather Edward Kelly sub-leased the pub in Ballitore from the Quaker family of Willis (who themselves leased it from Sir Henry Meredyth). He bought the pub in 1829. In 1841, there were only 400 people in the village, and at least three pubs. Mary Leadbetter wrote about it. Also used to be a detailed counter book chronicling all expenses as well as moments of local importance, weddings, deaths and such like.
[vii] 'It was the biggest event since the Gordon Bennett race in 1903 and the next big one was the Pope’s visit in 1979. ‘I remember Daddy and Jim Tierney going around collecting a few bob for decorations for the town. They had a notion to get a loudspeaker in the Town’s Park here above the station to broadcast the ceremony for the people who couldn’t go. Anyway, they met Captain Hosie and told him about it. He got the best equipment that Siemens could give him'. Radio was a novelty in 1932. Frank was actually staying with an aunt in Sandycove during the Congress and recalls Cardinal Laurie arriving at Dun Laoghaire in his robes and being presented by de Valera. ‘It was all political – none of it was religious at all’.
[viii] Established in 1929, the Industrial Vehicles Ireland foundry produced agricultural implements, tractor trailers and manhole covers. It was arguably the only place where a man would obtain full time employment during the 1930s.
[ix] Frank believes Captain Hosie should be honoured more. In the Second World War, many southerners went to join up with the British Army in Enniskillen. Colonel H.G. Hosie, as he was by then, saw to it that they were not sent straight to their doom. Nearly 600 men from Athy fought in the Great War and many died, but most of those who went to fight Hitler and the Japanese returned. Alas, Colonel Hosie’s only son was killed flying over Italy.
The power of radio to get messages into everybody’s kitchen in the 1920s arguably put Hitler and Mussolini in power.
[x] ‘There were no cars on the road until 1951. Rations didn’t allow’. They’d start the cars with petrol and the run them on paraffin.
[xi] ‘I was in the Red Cross – the VADs – so I thought I might help’.
[xii] Frank works in Detroit with Magna International automobile manufacturer – Judith was in Rhode Island. She co-organizes annual Medieval festival with stilt walkers, calligraphers and knights in costume. Frank Snr keeps his archives in carefully organised boxes with laminated folders. Loves Shackleton. He goes to Mass on Sunday. Like many he’s getting his head around the abuses. ‘We didn’t know it was as bad as that but then everyone was treated rough in those days. Any young lad who stepped out of line got a shlep. But we didn’t know about the other thing’.