EILEEN SPARROW, who died recently, was “one of us - an old citizen of Clonmel. Her family, on both sides, the Corbetts and the Sparrows, had long been residents of the town, and had contributed significantly to the business, cultural, social and civic life of the area.
Eileen herself was not only a “true native” of Clonmel, but as a member of the Corbett family, she was also a citizen of that special place - Irishtown, where she was born. That long street was probably the first suburb attached to the fortified walled Anglo Norman town, which was accessed through the West Gate. It remains today a vibrant combination of businesses and residences and with a still thriving community.
The Corbetts not only had a long involvement in business in Irishtown but also with this newspaper. Her father worked as a printer in the early decades of “The Nationalist,” starting in the days of type-setting and flat-bed printing and later adapting to the new technology of the linotype. Her brother, Willie, replaced him as a printer, and then established his own printing business in Parnell Street. He was elected to the Corporation and served as Mayor for a number of years, where his tenure was distinguished by his capacity for charm and wit.
And charm and wit were characteristics of the family, which were especially evident in the personality of Eileen herself. She was my neighbour for several years, and always made her way to the town-centre on her bicycle, until pressures of traffic made such a method of transport impossible for all of us. She was the sunniest of people, always had a smile, always had the good word, always had a joke; was always good for a laugh; was always charmingly self-deprecating.
She had a special gift for story-telling and for many years occasionally contributed to this newspaper’s sister - “South Tipp Today”. She wrote of youthful memories, of the games children played, of innocent pleasures. Some of these articles, in verse form, were later re-published in a small booklet privately distributed amongst her friends. They make for delightful reading, not only for their winsome nostalgia but because they also re-captured a time and a place and a people. And whenever she was congratulated about her writings and story-telling, she would dismiss it with a wave of the hand and a “Ah! sure - that’s nothing girl!” Eileen Sparrow, like many of us older female citizens in Clonmel, still address each other as “girl.”
Eileen, as a girl and a young woman, was strikingly beautiful. She lived a remarkably long life, and still remained in old age a very handsome woman, indeed all the more attractive because of her sunny disposition.
But any retrospective on the life of Eileen Corbett Sparrow would be incomplete without recalling ‘The Favourite’ restaurant in Parnell Street, established by her sister Mary, assisted by Eileen. This was before its time; an open, bright, friendly pub, restaurant and coffee shop. It gave to us, young people, a place to meet. For one shilling and eight pence, we were served with coffee, Fuller’s cake, and warm comfort, where we could sit and talk to each other for, it seemed hours on end.
‘The Favourite’ was a gift, a social service, at a time when such facilities were generally unheard of. And I have personally thought of those happy youthful coffee-drinking times, especially when a former Minister for Justice was rebuffed and sneered at when he suggested that such coffee shops might be an antidote to the widespread consumption of alcohol by modern young people.
In the tradition of civic service endemic in the family, Eileen sister, Mary, broke the mould of the time. Although there had been a long tradition, going back to the previous century, of women in business in the town, they were unrepresented in either national or local governments. In the mid 1940s, Mary was elected as a Councillor, to Clonmel Corporation, making history as the first woman to challenge successfully the male dominance of that institution. She ran as an Independent candidate representing the business community.
In the context of modern times, this might not make a newsworthy achievement, but it was at a time when womens’ rights were restricted; when their access to third level education was questioned: “Girls don’t need education - they’ll get married,” or, as I personally recall: “You’ll never be good at mathematics - that’s for the boys!”
In many ways, Eileen Sparrow’s long life spanned a period of quiet revolution, and extraordinary changes. She took all in her stride. Her husband, Jack Sparrow, predeceased her by some decades, but he, too, was a member of an old and distinguished Clonmel business family. A Quaker ancestor operated a mill in Toberaheena in the late 18th century. Simmons Sparrow built Oaklands House (close to St. Patrick’s Well) in the early 19th century. Jack Sparrow’s sister, Jessica Simpson, very successfully conducted a large retail business in Gladstone Street, which had been established by her father, Allan, until her retirement some years ago.
And now Eileen has died. She will be greatly missed by her family and by those of us who were fortunate to know her. Farewell, Eileen.
May you rest in peace.