On a fine spring day in early April of this year a large assembly of residents gathered with the Aylward family and friends in Cláirín estate, Carrick-on-Suir, to plant a mountain ash, crann caorthainn, in memory of the late John Aylward (Seán Aighleart) who died a year ago at the age of 91.
A living tree set to flourish into the future is a most appropriate tribute to a man who loved trees, as well as Irish history, language and culture in general.
John was a man who was held in the deepest respect and affection by all who knew him for his integrity and intelligence, his warmth and kindness and his devotion to his family.
I got to know John as a near neighbour and friend over the last thirty years and in a number of interviews I recorded some of his recollections of a long, hard-working and remarkable life. He was born in 1919 at Coolmore, between Thomastown and Inistioge in south Kilkenny, where his father, Jack, was a dairyman on a large estate. John’s mother Bridget Aylward nee Hanrahan was from Ballyhale. In 1923 the family moved to the New Ross area in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War. They lived at Corbet Hill, where the Wexford insurgents had camped on the night before the bloody Battle of Ross in 1798.
John Aylward attended the Christian Brothers’ school in New Ross, and completed his Leaving Cert. He disliked school, although not badly treated there.
Hurling became a lifelong passion. He was the last surviving member of the O’Hanrahans (now the Geraldine O’Hanrahans) team from New Ross which won the Wexford Senior Hurling Championship in 1939. He also won a Minor Championship medal in 1936 and a Junior in 1937. He remained very proud of those hurling medals.
As a young man in New Ross John had worked first as a general assistant and book-keeper in Butler’s provision store. Then, on the 3rd June 1940, he was, as he himself put it, “sent to College” at the age of 21, when, in the
atmosphere of wartime emergency he was among hundreds rounded up in a nation-wide swoop and interned in the Curragh. He spent over three years confined there, despite never being charged with any offence. It was in the Curragh that he studied to perfect his Irish and made some lifelong friends amongst other detainees from all over Ireland. He later wrote of that internment experience and I did some recorded interviews with him concerning it also. He harboured no bitterness or recrimination afterwards and this was typical of his character.
Later he worked at an archaic river trade on the Nore and Barrow – the manual quarrying of gravel from submerged sandbanks, working from a traditional barge known as a gabbard. The boat – originally built in Carrick – had 2
a crew of four or five men and worked from below New Ross to as far as the tide-head of the Nore at Inistioge. This was back-breaking work in all weathers and I remember rivermen such as the O’Callaghans engaged in it in the Carrick of my boyhood. The lives of such men were governed by the constant ebb and flow of the tides.
John was a man of impressive stature and strength and also worked for a time at turf-harvesting and large scale wartime turf-storage operations in Offaly, Allenwood and at the East Wall in Dublin. Later jobs included tree-felling in
Wexford, South Kilkenny and Tipperary for the Graves firm of Waterford. This was in the era before chain-saws and other forestry technology. “Our main tools in felling mature trees were a 7lb axe and a 6½ foot crosscut saw as well as plenty of muscle and sweat...”
In fact it was this heavy work which would lead John Aylward to the Carrick-on-Suir area where he was destined to meet Mary O’Dwyer of Lough Street, who was to prove the love of his life. Mary was, and remained a handsome and spirited woman and together they made a very striking couple.
They emigrated to England in search of work and married in Maidenhead on the 18th September 1948, but returned to Carrick the following Christmas.
John succeeded in finding employment at the Plunder & Pollack tannery in Carrick, where he was to work for 34 years (including 22 years a night worker) as the couple raised their family of four: Seán, Bríghdín (McNamara), Cáit (O’Connor) and Seamus. The couple first lived at Lough Street and The Racks, later in Carrickbeg, and from 1978 in the then newly-built estate of Cláirín. John and Mary were devoted to one another and the family was always notable for its love of Irish culture in all its aspects.
John and his children suffered the loss of Mary in 1992 followed by the untimely death of Seamus in 1996, after a protracted illness. These were cruel blows, borne with fortitude, resignation and grace. The losses were mitigated
somewhat by the gift and renewal of grandchildren, in whom John delighted. He loved outings and hurling matches. In his final years his impressive figure could be seen and met with as he walked around his own neighbourhood several times a day, often with his friend and fellow hurling devotee, Dan O’Meara (R.I.P.).
Later, as his eyesight declined, John would be assisted on his walks by a family member.
When this upstanding man who never complained was finally called away on the 6th of May 2010, the rituals of loving remembrance and ritual in which all generations of the extended family participated were a measure of the love and respect that surrounded him. John was laid to rest in the little graveyard of Faugheen with his beloved wife Mary. One rare and touching moment came at the end of the prayers, when the undertaker Tom O’Dwyer – nephew of Mary - stepped forward and sang “Boolavogue” at the graveside in his memory.
The mountain ash we planted for John Aylward this spring is now already in leaf.
Solas na bhFlaitheas dá anam uasal macánta.