Saturday, December 13, 2014

Byrnes in Kilcullen, Part 1

When my grandfather James J Byrne opened his Byrne's Hotel on Christmas Eve 1925, it was just a new chapter of the Byrne family in business in Kilcullen. His own father James had come up during the 1860s from Myshall in Co Carlow, a carpenter by trade, to help relatives who had a grocery and bar on Main Street. The details are indistinct, but he soon took over the business, and the name over the door became, simply, J Byrne.

He married Catherine Coogan, from Mullaghmast, Ballitore, and between 1872 and 1888 they had eight children, six of them girls, a boy Peter who 'died young', and their youngest, my grandfather James Joseph Byrne. Two of the daughters married, Katherine Agnes — the eldest — to Michael Shortall in Ballylinan, and Bridget (Birdie) to John J Byrne of Kilgowan, no relation. That both women married into grocery and bar businesses was probably no accident. As an aside, a daughter of Katherine Agnes, Katherine (Kitty), came back to Kilcullen and married 'Gee' Nolan, becoming parents of the late Andy Nolan and his siblings. Anyone who takes the trouble to look at pictures of Andy in his youth will see that the Byrne gene was very strong in that marriage. He looked just like me.

Birdie, on the other hand, died tragically a few days after the birth of her son Bernard (Barney), on December 29 1913. Her husband subsequently remarried, but it seems didn't have any more children. Barney went to Hong Kong, was made a prisoner of war when Japan invaded, and afterwards went back to the Crown Colony, became a very successful businessman, but died suddenly in 1952.

As a carpenter by trade, James Byrne used the time on his hands when things were quiet in the shop to make coffins out in the yard, which became the foundation of a funeral undertaking business that lasted through the generations until the death of my brother Des nine years ago. Des's own funeral was the last one I conducted. Though I had left the family business in 1977, whenever Des was on holidays or otherwise not available, I stood in as undertaker when needed. After Des's passing, his wife Josephine decided that she didn't want to keep the funeral business going.

In addition to his carpentry expertise, James Byrne conducted some property development and building in Kilcullen, notably being responsible for the construction of the premises that the Nolans moved into for their current business — they had previously operated from a small butcher stall where the Hair Emporium is now. He also built the old Post Office beside it which is now part of the enlarged Nolans of today, and for many years his sister Margaret (Peg) was the Postmistress there. It's an interesting aside that Nolans leased the premises until the mid-50s, when Andy bought it outright for something like £5,000. This was against the advice of his own Uncle Andy from Usk, who told him it would be folly to spend such money when they had such a small outlay on a very long lease that couldn't be increased by any significant amount. As it happened, the legislation on leasehold was changed soon afterwards, in favour of landlords, and Andy's investment turned out to be very shrewd indeed.

James Byrne seems to have also been a very shrewd man himself, and over the years he built up a complex of businesses that included a general merchants, auctioneering, and farming, in addition to the original grocery, bar, and funeral undertaking. When he died at the age of 65 in 1904, just three years after the passing of his wife, my Grandad had to take responsibility for an extensive network of enterprises at a relatively young age.

His father's businesses then included 'Grocer, Spirit, Provision & Hardware Merchant, Timber, Iron & Coal Yard', according to documents from the time. I can only assume that he was helped much by his older maiden sisters, Honora (Nora), Annie, Sarah, and Peg. Nora and Peg seem to have been provided for with the original shop and bar — there are records of invoices from the 1930s which show the 'Grocer, Spirits, Provision and Italian Warehouse' being operated under the title of N. M. Byrne — Nora and Peg, both of whom I well remember as running the grocery and bar when I was young. They never changed the 'J Byrne' name of their father over the shop though, and I have a photograph of Peg standing in the doorway with that name still there. Both of the sisters lived, and died, in the residential area beside the shop. Again, I have a strong memory of their front parlour with a very interesting curved mirror over the fireplace, and the kitchen behind with a range and a high skylight roof. Nora was the first dead person I ever saw, laid out in her small bedroom in 1958. Peg died two years later.

On those invoices, it was the practice of the time that a supplier would provide the invoice books and in return have their advertisement on the top of each slip. In 1933, the sponsor was 'Redfern's Heels, Soles & Tips' for shoe repairs, while by 1936, 'Denny's Star Brand' hams had the franchise. Prior to that, Grandad had inherited a business for which the invoice book was sponsored by 'W & A Gilbey Limited, Wines & Sprits'. One of his invoices on 15 March 1910, to R Pearson Esq, was obviously for a wake and funeral. It totalled £5-14s-11d which included supplying a half gallon of malt (whiskey) for 11s, a dozen loaves of bread for 3/6d, and an 'Elm Coffin, lined and mountings in brass' for £2-5s-0d.

Moving back to where we started, Grandad clearly wanted to expand further once he had his own family. My dad — also James Joseph, so he became 'Junior Byrne' eventually — had been born in 1916 and was followed by Maureen and Tom, so space in their rented home over what was then Dowling's Garage at the crossroads was getting tight. Diagonally across that crossroads was Flanagan's Motor Bar, which had better accommodation upstairs. Grandad made an offer, and bought it for £450 — of which, according to family lore, he had to borrow £250. He moved the family over, renamed the premises Byrne's Hotel, and on the opening Christmas Eve, the takings were £17. I don't think it was ever a hotel in the sense of taking in guests, as there were only three bedrooms upstairs along with a kitchen and large parlour, but it did give Grandad and his wife Mary the space to have another child, Katherine, born in 1927.

When they moved in, Grandad had a new bar counter built by local carpenter Bill Hogan, and the floor was tiled by one John Keogh. The first barman was Pat Quinn — who later became the barman and shop assistant in the aunts Nora and Peg grocery and bar. I remember him very well in that shop when I was growing up. In particular he kept a brass pole, that seemed to have a function in holding up the ceiling, polished, and we kids delighted in swinging around it and leaving our fingerprints so that he'd come out and polish it again. He was also a whiz at the red Berkel slicer, spinning out rashers of bacon to order in whatever required thickness, scaring the heck out of me when his fingers would come within perilously close distance of the spinning circular blade.

Some prices from the time of the establishment of Byrne's Hotel are interesting. A bottle of stout was 6d, 20 cigarettes were 11d and a ha'pence, while you could buy five Woodbine cigarettes (even then known as 'coffin nails') for 2d. A measure of whiskey, gin and rum cost 1/10d a measure, with brandy a seriously costly tipple at 2/6d a tot. On December 23 1970, to celebrate 45 years since Grandad opened, we sold whatever drink had been available then at those prices for the night. I remember so many drinkers in Kilcullen went wild ... but lager and vodka drinkers didn't have the option.

But I'm getting ahead of things again. More to come.