Smith's guitarist Johnny Marr with his aunt Betty Wallis
Over the years I’ve seen many initiatives that aim to celebrate local places but absolutely none of them were ever as brilliant as the Made of Athy Project.
In case you don’t know, it’s a celebration of people who have links to the town and who are high achievers in the music industry.
Plaques are erected on the walls of landmarks around the town explaining their connection.
The vast majority of those honoured so far are still alive, like Johnny Marr or Jack L.
They have very real and tangible links to the town, in the sense that they are ordinary people from the area, or the sons and daughters of those ordinary people.
I probably won’t be thanked for saying this, because there is huge genuine tourism interest in him and it’s bringing in a few bob and all that, yet compared to the recipients of the Made of Athy plaques, the links Ernest Shackleton, the son of gentry who lived in Kilkea House and left for good long before he was in long trousers, has to the town are quite tenuous.
The Made of Athy project on the other hand celebrates the people of Athy and their lives — whether it’s putting a plaque at the bus stop in Emily Square to mark where Mani’s mother took the bus to England in the 1950s, or in Garter Lane which gave its name to one of Jack L’s songs.
The project celebrates the sense of place in the town, and the sense of community and, as many of the recipients of the awards can attest, a sense of belonging.
It is one of the human primary desires and needs, to have a feeling of belonging to some tribe. And we can but imagine what it must be like to be the son of an emigrant from the area who is greeted by the Cathoirleach of the municipal district with the words “welcome home”.
Behind the scenes I’m reliably informed that in each case, there were tears — accompanied perhaps by a feeling of something being resolved in their own sense of identity.
When Mani, a bass player in both the Stone Roses and Primal Scream, came to the unveiling of his plaque, he first visited his family graves in Maganey where he told his two young sons that his mother’s heart was in Ireland.
“You know what, that was absolutely bloody amazing,” he told me over a pint later that day. “I brought my kids here with me. It’s important for me that they know where their family is from.
“It’s important that they know — not in a cheesy American kind of way — that they’ve f**king Irish blood in their veins, and for me that’s important.”
For a variety of reasons too complicated to get into now, Athy has a troubled image, and unfairly so.
The Made of Athy Project is the perfect response to that — not because it tries to engage in fake positivity about how great it is, but because it is a profound assertion of self-identity.
“This is who we are, and we like it,” it seems to say.
And it turns out many others like it too. A group of Finnish mountain bikers who recently came to Ireland to savour the trails of the Wicklow mountains deliberately went to Athy to see where the father of Finnish popstar Erinn used to drink with her mother’s family.
And that’s the other great thing about it.
Beyond the sense of identity and celebration is a community bound together by great stories, for the local and the visitor.
That the idea for it all emerged from the brain of Colm Walsh, a man who will gladly drop everything to either hear or tell a great story, is no surprise.
I’ve known him for 25 years and have come to accept that when I see his name come up on my phone, the next half hour will be both unproductive in the conventional sense and hilarious.
But that’s ok, there is far more to life than productivity. There are stories, there is community and there are the wonderful ties that bind.
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