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Frank O’Brien (1922-2017) Landlord of O’Brien’s Grocery Bar, Athy

Frank O’Brien in in his grocery bar in Athy. Photo: James Fennell.

‘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.’ Frank O’Brien recalls the war veterans who drank in his family pub, as well as the Eucharistic Congress of 1932, the glory days of 1950s sport and the manner in which Lord Walter FitzGerald liked to shop.

 

*****

 

‘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 side-line 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 his grocery bar on Emily Square, Athy. 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 raibh 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.’

One fellow had been a Japanese POW in Burma and was stunned to meet the doctor from Athy over there, incarcerated in the camp. ‘He’d tell us the very same story every week’, chuckles Frank.

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 Parnell supporter who served as Home Rule MP for South Kildare.

Stephen was born in County Kilkenny in 1830 but left for Dublin, along with his brother James, at about the time the Great Hunger struck in the 1840s. James went on to join the British army, while Stephen opened up a tea-house on Dorset Street. He also had his eye on a pub in Dublin but I think he was advised not to take it on.

Photo: James Fennell.

In 1870, Stephen married Annie, 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.’

When Stephen’s doctor advised him to return to the countryside for the good of his health, he settled upon the thriving market town of Athy and bought the pub from James Leahy in about 1875. ‘And there’s been no change in here since then’, says Frank. Stephen kept in touch with Leahy for long after although Frank was saddened that he could no longer find the letters the two men exchanged. All of Stephen and Annie’s children grew up in the pub, which drew patrons from all around the area – from Luggacurran, Stradbally and as far away as Baltinglass.

Prior to the First World War, Stephen had three horse-drawn vans on the road, delivering animal feed to local farmers, as well as homemade lemonade and ginger ale. One of his 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, his lordship left tuppence on the counter to buy a pint for whichever man who had minded his bike. The Day Books from 1883 and 1884 reveal that castor sugar, rice, baking powder and Worcester Sauce were also being ordered by Lord Walter’s elder brother, His Grace the Duke of Leinster.

All of Stephen O’Brien’s children stayed in Ireland and most made it to their nineties. Patrick, the eldest, died as a baby and was buried in Glasnevin, while the only other child to die young was ‘Uncle George’, an excise officer in Dundalk, who ‘got the big flu in 1919 and died a few years after, leaving a big family.’ George and his brothers Stephen junior and Frank were the only ones to marry. Stephen set up those two sons as publicans – Stephen in Nurney and Frank Snr in Athy. (A nephew, John O’Brien, had the pub in Derrinturn).  Another uncle, Michael O’Brien, was a curate in Seville Place in Dublin when he died at St Laurence O’Toole’s church. As for the girls, ‘they 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.’ The last of that generation to die was Aunt Lily, aged 95.

Frank’s father – also Frank – was the sixth child and was also fated for a long life. ‘When Daddy got sick, I asked the doctor what his chances were,’ recalls the younger 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. She 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. [1]

Frank senior and Annie had four children – Frank, followed by three daughters. Frank junior 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.

A religious man who goes to Mass on Sunday, he was getting his head around the litany of clerical abuse being revealed weekly at the time of our visit.

‘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’.

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.’

‘It was the biggest event since the Gordon Bennett race in 1903 and the next big one was the Pope’s visit in 1979,’ says Frank. ‘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.’

Captain Hosie was a popular war veteran who ran the main foundry in Athy, one of the few places offering full-time employment during those lean years. [2] The captain 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.’[3]

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’. Frank also developed a wary regard for the power of radio to get messages into everybody’s kitchen, In the 1920s, radio is arguably what put Hitler and Mussolini in power.

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.’

‘There were no cars on the road until 1951,’ says Frank. ‘Rations didn’t allow for it’. Instead, they’d start their cars with petrol and run them on paraffin. However, the evolution of the affordable car in the 1950s marked the end of the golden age of sport that had come in after the war.

‘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.’

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. ‘I was in the Red Cross – the VADs – so I thought I might help’. 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. [4] 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.

‘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.’

Frank O’Brien died at his home on Emily Square on 2 April 2017 and was buried at St. Michael’s Old Cemetery, Athy.

 

End-Notes

 

[1] 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.

[2] 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.

[3] 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.

[4] At the time of our interview, the younger Frank was working in Detroit with Magna International automobile manufacturer while his daughter Judith Guernon was in Rhode Island. Judith and her husband Marc co-organized the 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.