29 Jun 2022

Then & Now: A wee bit of music in Athea

Then & Now: A wee bit of music in Athea

Fleadh Cheoil Luimnigh will take place in Athea over the June Bank Holiday weekend. See for full list of performances Picture: Adrian Butler

WHEN THE Hawthorn tree is in blossom it is time for the annual Limerick Fleadh Cheoil , which takes place over the June Bank Holiday weekend. Athea is the venue this year, and an action packed programme of events has been put in place for traditional music lovers by the host Comhaltas branch. A lot of events will be held and if the sun shines it promises to be a wonderful weekend. The county Fleadh has been held there nine times since 1975, and in 2001 it was chosen to host the event in a very special year celebrating 50 years of Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Eireann. 2019 was the last time the pretty village by the Banks of the flowing Galey hosted the annual event. The river that flows under the magnificent footbridge has been immortalised in song and story by many writers including the late Dan Keane. I quote the second verse from his composition titled The Galey.
How oft on summer's evenings the burning beast repair
To quaff the rimmed green goblet twixt Clash and Knockanare
By gorse gold glades a gurgling with silver splashing spray
Wild waters warbling westwards dash down across Athea.

Athea is a pretty little village nestling at the bottom of a valley at the north side of the high ridge of Dromada which runs westwards from the Ardagh direction. Only about two miles from the Kerry border. Athea stands at an important crossroads, where the road from Glin to Abbeyfeale crosses the road from Rathkeale to Listowel. The name Athea is generally taken to derive from the Irish Ath an tSléibhe, meaning "the Ford of the High Moorland".
As well as being a village, Athea is also a parish. Up to comparatively recent times, however the parish was not known as Athea but as Rathronan. Rathronan was a huge parish comprising, according to Lewis (Topographical Dictionary of Ireland), 18,153 statute acres. At the time Lewis speaks of (1837), 1,000 acres of the parish were under tillage. 5000 acres were meadow and rich pasture, and the remainder consisted of mountain pasture, plantation and turbary.
The land in the eastern portion towards Ardagh-was , Lewis states “of good quality being based on a substratum of limestone and produces excellent crops under a good system of cultivation”.
We do not know when the village of Athea came into existence, but it appears on an estate map of 1710. At that time it would have been a very isolated village, situated in a wild and largely inaccessible country. The road from Glin to Abbeyfeale, which now passes through it, was not yet constructed, nor would it be for another 120 years or so. In fact, it was the building of that road that was to prove the principal factor in the development of Athea.
Athea was noted for its athletes, and two won world-wide fame. Dan Ahearne established a World record in the Hop Step and Jump event and won numerous titles in America. His younger brother Tim, a sprinter, hurdler, and high class jumper, won an Olympic gold medal in the Hop Step and Jump event in London in 1908.
A focal point in the village is their community hall which is named after Con Colbert one of the executed leaders of the 1916 Rising.
He was born in Monalena, Castlemahon but he spent his youth in Athea. The President of Ireland Erskine Childers officially opened it on January 20, 1974.
Famous people associated with Athea include author Kevin Danaher who worked for the Irish Folklore Commission collecting folklore and recorded it in ten books. Maighréad Mc Grath a renowned historian who was at the forefront in promoting all Athea's history. Domhnall De Barra a past President of Comhaltas Ceoltoirí Eireann, and a member of the present committee who are organising this year's Fleadh. Timmy Woulfe author, set dancing teacher and former Limerick Gaelic footballer, referee and board officer. Tom Moran Dublin hotel owner (Red Cow) is a native of Athea which has a lovely footbridge which was named after Pope Paul II.
The plaque on the footbridge reads as follows:
Athea Footbridge
Dedicated to the memory of Pope Paul II 1920-2005
Opened June 10th, 2005, by Most Reverend Donal Murray D.D.

The village of Athea at present has a lot to recommend it to visitors, who will flock in their thousands to enjoy its musical heritage this weekend. They will be able to visit the Fairy Trail and admire the wall murals. The Tidy Town Committee recently erected 20 place name signs around the village, and beyond which connect up to make a lovely walk.
There is something about Athea as a venue for a Fleadh, as it has an atmosphere of its own. This is due in no small way to the hospitality of the local people who know what a Fleadh is all about and make the visitor feel at home. They are proud to host the near long week festival which attracts people from all corners of the county and beyond. Enjoy the experience.

Irish Dresden
I NOW conclude the Irish Dresden Factory in Dromcollogher story from the last column. Irish political leaders often presented Irish Dresden pieces to visiting dignitaries over the years. They were always very well received, being quality gifts, showing the craftsmanship of the Irish workforce to good effect. Johanna was named International Business Woman of the Year in 1987 and received the Veuve Clicquot Award at a special lunch in Trinity College Dublin. As part of her prize, she got to visit the Cliquot Vineyards in Reims for a christening ceremony of a wine named after her. She appeared on the Late Late Show as a result which was massive recognition for her family factory and the people of Dromcollogher.
As a result of the economic downturn which affected sales of many luxury goods the factory closed its doors in 2009 after a number of poor trading years, and the remaining dozen staff were let go. Following the liquidation daughter Sabina Best continued to work on the porcelain figurines in her garage, hoping to reopen again. She kept her business contacts and links open and re-opened in 2015 with a small staff and a new business partner Martin Crotty. The void she and her mother Johanna faced in 2009 had been turned around by sheer doggedness into hope for the future.
Johanna Saar passed away on Tuesday April 20, 2021. She was a trailblazer in a male dominated world, who led the way for other businesswomen in Ireland to follow. She was much loved and highly respected for close on 60 years by the people of Dromcollogher. She was laid to rest in St Nicholas Cemetery in Adare, far from her birthplace in East Germany. The success story continues with Sabina in charge and long may Irish Dresden continue to produce beautiful porcelain figurines.

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