Mr James Parsons, whose death occurred recently, was the last survivor of a truly remarkable group of patriotic Charlestown men who made their native place one of the most progressive small towns in Ireland. An ardent Nationalist and an indefatigable worker, he throughout his long life took a leading part in every effort for the advancement of the welfare of the people.
As a town, Charlestown is young, being little more than one hundred years of age. It was particularly fortunate in the man who built it - Charles Strickland, agent for the Dillon estate. From his foresight came those striking features which impress every visitor - a spacious square and exceptionally wide straight streets. Not so obvious to the stranger however, is the fine system of circular roads by means of which it is possible on approaching the town by any of the five main roads running through it, to make an exit on any of the other four without passing through any of the streets.
Moreover, Strickland's lay-out provided for every house (save three or four located on a bend of the Mulaghanoe river) a large backyard and garden plot. One wonders whether a trained planner sitting down today, when there is so much discussion about and so much money spent on town planning, could, given a similar site and similar material, produce anything better than the Strickland idea. If Charlestown was fortunate in that respect, it was doubly blessed in having, in the 1890's and 1900's, a zealous and enlightened band of residents who rightly considered that amenities that might have been considered adequate in 1846, needed to be supplemented according to twentieth century requirements, although it was in no means badly off in comparison with conditions in other centres at that time.
There was a plentiful supply of water from an excellent well at the foot of the rising ground in Howley's field, but no dwelling had a piped supply. The first sewers, which were in fact, drains covered in with flag-stones, were no longer functioning quite satisfactorily. There was no public lighting, homes depended on paraffin oil lamps. There was no public indoor meeting place, since a great storm had unroofed the old Church at Bellaghy, which had been turned into a Hall. Fairs were still held in the streets - no great inconvenience, perhaps, at a time when traffic was negligible compared with what it is today, though undesirable from the health point of view.
The then Parish priest, Father (afterwards Canon) Keveney, a saintly man with a burning desire to improve the temporal lot of his flock, sought the aid of Mark Henry, JP, Co.C. (who in later times was to be for many years a member of the Dail and for a period "Father" of the house), Pat Doherty of the Store, Jimmy Morrisroe (whose brother was afterwards to become Bishop of Achonry, and himself destined to serve as TD), and James Parsons. They were men of vision, but above all, intensely practical. Their integrity and ability inspired confidence, loyalty and enthusiastic support. In the course of a few short years, they gave the town almost everything that a modern community could wish - a gravitation water-works from sources at Ballyglass, an up-to-date sewerage system, a splendid Town Hall, an electric lighting plant, and a Fairgreen. Strickland had left two short unfinished sections in his scheme of circular roads. Father Keveney's committee completed them, an undertaking involving the construction of a second bridge over the river. Furthermore, existing footpaths were extended along the roads leading out of the town.
What did these great improvements cost the public purse? It is perhaps difficult to believe today the only permanent charge on the rates amounted to a mere sixpence in the £, that being the levy in respect of the waterworks and sewerage. The rest of the required expenditure came from voluntary contributions, willingly given because of the magnificent leadership of Father Keveney and his energetic collaborators, plus some small grants from the Congested Districts Board. These considerable achievements became possible only because five devoted and far-seeing men gave most lavishly of their time, industry and talents to the planning, execution and supervision of the various works. I well remember that most lovable Pastor, Father Keveney, being the first person on the job at 7am every morning. Having seen the day's programe well begun he returned to the Church to celebrate the early Mass. And in so far as his priestly duties allowed, he went on throughout the day visiting the projects in hand.
His co-operators had large and successful businesses of their own to attend to, yet they always found time to serve in the public interest as well. It is gratifying to observe that the admirable civic spirit which they fostered to so high a degree, still flourishes in the Parish, as evidenced by the many further improvements carried out in recent years, which are too well known to need to be specified here. As a young man, James Parsons spent some years at Leith, Edinburgh, in training for the management of the Merchant Tailoring establishment set up by his father, an establishment which, in association with his brother Michael, he continued to run until his retirement a few years ago. On the passing of the Local Government Act of 1898, James Parsons became one of the first members of the Swinford Rural District Council; he was also a member of the Board of Guardians and retained his membership of both bodies for more than twenty years.
Until the new Town Hall was erected, he kept up a custom begun by his father of making their home a meeting-place for local clubs and societies. There, were stored the drums and fifes, the banners and flags of the Land League and the United Irish League. Away back in 1888, James Parsons was one of the founders of the famous Sarsfield GAA Club, a combination which figured prominently in County and Provincial football Championships, and which, happily is still alive to-day, with one of the finest Gaelic parks in the Provinces. Two of his brothers, Martin and Willie, were playing members of the club. As became a man whose greatest pleasure was service to his fellows, James Parsons maintained to the last his abiding interest in public affairs. His wise counsel and ready help were always available to anyone in difficulty. His home was ever open to those in doubt or distress and nobody went away without the comfort of his advice and assistance.
May his generous soul rest in peace.
© Tommy O'Donnell, Cathal Henry 2004