Wednesday, March 11, 2015

SOME weeks ago when I visited Kevin Higgins in Abbeyleix, he asked if I would be interested in giving a talk to Portlaoise Probus, of which organisation, I expect, he is the longest-standing member. Kevin may be better known to you as author of this newspaper’s Abbeyleix Notes, or perhaps, as a director of Abbeyleix Heritage Company and former chairman of that organisation.

You would imagine that such an engagement would be a reasonably straightforward affair, and I thought so, too, when I agreed to give the talk. But there was slightly more to it than that.

You see, during my time as manager at Heritage House, it was the same Kevin Higgins who suggested that Portlaoise Probus (of which organisation he was the honorary secretary at the time) should hold its weekly meetings at Heritage House.

At that time, it would be fair to say we were testing the water with a variety of activities at Heritage House, and we weren’t sure just how a weekly meeting like this might pan out. Also, at that time, we were operating a café, and, for that first meeting, we decided to provide tea and coffee and our very own apple tart, made using apples from one of the two trees in the grounds of Heritage House.

We were quite tickled about our historic apple tarts. The trees pre-dated the arrival, in 1933, of the Patrician Brothers to the building, then the North Boys’ School. Indeed, there is a story that the headmaster, who was displaced by the arrival of the Patricians and who would have been resident in the school at the time, was compensated for the loss of revenues which accrued to him from the apple trees, though I cannot say for certain if this was the case.

In any event, Heritage House as a venue proved a hit with Probus, and apple tart proved an even bigger hit. It became a staple of the meetings from then on. But when cupcakes began to come into fashion, Anne Brennan did augment my weekly apple tarts with some of her creations of this new fad, and they went down extremely well, too.

In all the years while I was manager of Heritage House, I was never present at any of the Probus meetings, my duties being confined to ensuring that all was in order, with sufficient tea and coffee available and, of course, sufficient apple tart. But, as the attending members would trickle in for the meetings, they would often stop to chat, or linger on the way out. And so, all the staff got to know these men and looked forward to their coming and going over the years. Indeed, if someone was missing on any given week, we would hardly rest easy until we would see their familiar gait approaching the door on the next occasion.

Of course, some of their number have departed the fold and are now holding court in more heavenly surroundings. Ar dheis Dé go raibh siad. Most recently, I was saddened to learn of the passing of Billy Quinn. Billy had a word for everyone and, given half a chance, had a story to follow it up. We had many chats together over the years, particularly when Billy, as president of Probus, would be waiting at reception to greet whatever guest was addressing the meeting that week.

And last Tuesday, it was my turn. I finally gained admittance to the inner sanctum, where I was received by the current president, John Moore. John plied me with tea, and Leo Keville made sure there was no want on me in the hunger stakes, with a generous helping of carrot cake. I mischievously inquired about apple tart, and with equal mischief, PJ Cahill, on my left, explained that it had gone out of fashion after I left.

As I looked around the table, there was the comfort of familiar faces, all of whose coming and going I had witnessed over the years. As I sat at John Moore’s left hand, Kevin Higgins sat opposite, with Leo Keville, Andy Cole and Michael O’Brien making up that side of the table. And Jim Cahill on my side of the table was flanked by PJ Cahill and Tom Lawlor.

Over the next two hours, we discussed a diverse range of subjects. Members shared recent experiences of visits to Áras an Úachtaráin and a trip to Malta. Current affairs produced robust and good-humoured exchanges. A recent report on the possible effects of the internet on the memory capacity of future generations was also exercising those present.

For my own part, we discussed the resources available for historical research and the importance of local histories in preserving as true a picture of times past as possible. And I made the point that, in the fast-moving busy world of today, few can make the time to sit down and have a discussion for a couple of hours a week. Years ago, the very pace of life provided that time.

For example, gatherings at the forge while the horse was being shod brought you up to date on the goings-on around the parish, and waiting for the tea to be measured out in the shop allowed an opportunity to enquire about this, that and the other.

An old man in my father’s town of Rathmore in Co Kerry was oft quoted at family gatherings. As the company would begin to break up and go their separate ways, the wise Kerryman was wont to state: “We’ve a lot talked now and no harm done … all true, all true.”

And so it was that we had a lot talked, and hopefully, no harm done. A very pleasant couple of hours spent, which hopefully added something to everybody’s day.

Perhaps we didn’t solve too many problems in that short time, but we didn’t create any either. All true, all true.

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By Tom Cox
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