OUR TOWN C. 1850-2000

95, 94 MAIN STREET, SOUTH SIDE

These two shops occupy the ground floor of the Meehan family home. Since the picture was taken, they were replaced by
(a) Cognito Ladies' Fashions, and Kearns and Cuddy, Menswear & Dress Hire (formerly trading as O'Briens at 35, Main Street)
(b) Outdoor Factory Shop (Skiwear, Rainwear, Fleeces, Softshells and winter accessories), followed by Bits and Bobs (Party shop & Giftware).

In 1850, there were two houses here. The one on the left was occupied by Thomas Dwyer, succeeded by William and Ann Walsh (née Drennan) and her nephew Patrick Drennan. The one nearest the lane was owned by John Butler III1 and, in 1865 was inherited by his niece Elizabeth Meehan. Elizabeth's nephew, Rosenallis-born, Patrick Aloysius Meehan (1852-1913), initially worked as a reporter for the Leinster Independent2 but in 1874 took over the grocery and public house here. He bought the adjoining premises and, in 1889, reconstructed both buildings as Maryborough House. More than a century later, the Architectural Survey called it "a substantial and well-proportioned late nineteenth-century former townhouse, which retains much of its original external fabric of good architectural quality at upper levels". In the early years of the twentieth century, the Meehan family also had shops in Abbeyleix and on the Heath (I guarantee purity and goodness of every article and prompt delivery of orders).

On Census Night 1901, the following were present here: Patrick Aloysius (described simply as 'merchant'), his wife Norah, sons Patrick Joseph (solicitor) and Joseph L. (clerk); daughter Mary Elizabeth (scholar); niece Margaret Coyle (clerk) and sister-in-law Mary Keenan. Also on the premises were three shop assistants and a domestic servant. Ten years later, father (now MP, Justice of the Peace and Merchant) and mother were joined by Mary Elizabeth (who, due to a slip of the pen, was only a year older than she was in 1901), and sons William C. (clerk and auditor) and Francis R. (future father of our local historian).

Patrick A. Meehan became the first chairman of Queen's County County Council (1899) and a Member of Parliament (1906-1913). [In November 1908, in his capacity as County Council Chairman, he had a private audience with Pope Pius X in the Vatican. His Holiness sent the Council his heartfelt thanks for their prayers]. Patrick A's son, Patrick Joseph , was also an MP (1913-1918), the first State Solicitor for Laois, County Registrar (1926) and, like his father, a man of diverse interests and activities3. He died in 1929. When they weren't engaged in matters public, Meehan pere et fils turned their hands to writing verse. Patrick A., for instance, penned what, depending on your own sensibilities, is either a rousing clarion call or harmless oul' doggerel:

The land for the people! Hurrah boys hurrah!
Justice and freedom and Erin go Bragh!
We'll rally round the flag, boys, we'll rally once again
Shouting the battle-cry of Freedom!4

The Muse also moved Patrick J. to conjure up this idyllic scene:

Peace and plenty the homes adorn
Meadows shine in the dewy morn
The south wind sighs through the waving corn
In the vales of the land of Leix

And so, we skip over the years from poetry to ballads. In the late 1960s and early '70's, under the name Kamyra Lounge5, Meehan's became a very popular music venue, what we called at the time a singing pub. In 1969, for instance, if you didn't feel like singing your heart out for Ireland with The Wolfe Tones, or practising your yeehaws with the Cotton Mill Boys, you could have started your own group and entered the Ballad Competition. And if you survived the various heats, your eyes were firmly set on the First Prize of £100.00, not to mention the mouth-watering, if somewhat vague promise that Some Groups in the Final will go on an English Tour. The name Kamyra presumably alludes to Camira, the townland near Rosenallis where the Meehan family came from. [According to one of my informants, Patrick A. Meehan's father was known as 'The Black-haired giant from Camira']. In the early '80's, the premises became Meehan's Eurocellar Off-licence, succeeded by Geraldine's Off-Licence and, in the next decade, Poundsworth discount shop. Behind the building now stands Meehan Court and Butler House, the former a small terrace of houses, the latter shop units opened in 1996. One wall bears a memorial plaque to various members of the Butler family.

Finally a word about Patrick F. Meehan (1928-2012), grandson of Patrick Aloysius, and eminent local historian, one-time farmer, author, and eccentric - a term that encompasses everything from the kilt he wore to opinions that had little or no time for the conventional. [A posthumous Appreciation in the Canadian journal, The Dorchester Review Vol. 4 No. 1, 2014, described him as "the most outspoken supporter of the monarchy in the Republic of Ireland"]. In the late 1950's, Frank was the first Irish student at Landsboskole Ronde, Denmark where he studied dairy farming and qualified as a Milk Controller. And therein lies an irony. To facilitate the construction of the Link Road - later called James Fintan Lalor Avenue - the County Council acquired by Compulsory Purchase Order thirty acres belonging to the Meehans. [As well as JFL Avenue, Laois Shopping Centre and the Kyle Centre occupy the land today]. He was deeply upset by the Council's action and the consequent loss of his productive dairy farm and, while many townspeople saw it as necessary to alleviate traffic congestion on the Main Street, there were others who felt that a long-standing Portlaoise family had been mistreated. Even to this day, the subject can arouse heated debate among those of us old enough to remember....

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1 The earliest reference I have found to John Butler, a provision dealer, dates from 1837 but according to Our Heritage: Portlaoise of Yesteryear, an unpublished manuscript by the late Thomas P. Murphy, the first John Butler established the business in 1734,

2 Founded by Patrick Quigley, the Leinster Independent was the Nationalist and Catholic equivalent of the staunchly Unionist Leinster Express. Published sporadically in Maryborough between 1834 and 1872. Microfiched copies may be inspected by appointment at the library headquarters in Portlaoise. Patrick Quigley died at his residence, Bloomfield House in 1874.

Mr Meehan's second name incidentally - which he shared with, among many others at the time, James Joyce - comes from the 16th-century Saint Aloysius Gonzaga, member of the Jesuit Order and patron saint of young students.

3 The extent of the family's involvement in political and civic spheres lies outside the scope of this project, but if you'd like to learn more, see The Members of Parliament for Laois & Offaly (King's and Queen's Counties) 1801-1918 by Patrick F. Meehan.

4 This was written in Naas Jail where, like his near neighbour Patrick Doran, he spent some time for his political activites.

5 In 1970, The Irish Digest Guide to Pubs and Inns in Ireland, (General Publications Ltd, 59 Merrion Square, Dublin), painted a picture of Meehan's premises which, no doubt accurate, I still, for some reason, find amusing: "In the early years of the century, The Kamyra sheltered Parnell and John Dillon, Michael Davitt and Douglas Hyde, the first president of modern Ireland.... one of the mirrors in the diningroom came from the palace at Versailles, it is said.... sandwiches and light snacks are offered in four languages: Irish, English, German and Danish...."

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