PART of Athy’s developing cultural heritage is the Heritage Centre located on the ground floor of the town’s 18th century market house. Of course that building is no longer used for the purposes for which it was erected in the 1720s for butter markets and egg markets, once the mainstay of the local farming economy, have now long disappeared. Today the supermarkets have taken the place of the enclosed and open markets for which Athy was famous during the 18th and 19th centuries. It was a time when the Shambles leading off the market square was the only place licensed for the sale of meat. Now the Shambles remains in name only, the narrow passageway which led to the mill race running from the eastern side of White’s Castle having long succumbed to development. The entrance to the Shambles is all that now remains of Athy’s historic meat market.
The 1820s saw the abandonment of the mill race which when filled in gave us, with the subsequent demolition of St Michael’s Church, a through road leading from Emily Row to Crom a Boo bridge. The subsequent reshaping of the town centre and the development of Athy’s quay walls brought a lot of commercial activity with boats docking to unload their cargos at what was previously the slob lands of the medieval town of Athy.
The old market house, now known as the Town Hall, is quite a magnificent building, providing a picturesque backdrop to Emily Square. The large open space backed by the attractive early 18th century building provides Athy with a very handsome town centre. There are very few comparable town centres in any provincial town in Ireland and locating the heritage centre in the Town Hall was, and continues to be, a wonderful addition to the urban landscape of the town.
The heritage centre is but one of several important elements of the cultural and social life of the town. Its importance to our understanding of Athy’s past cannot be overestimated. Nor should we ignore the relevance of seeing the cultural development of our community in terms of what has occurred in the past. We must learn to appreciate what has been done by those who have gone before us and to understand that every generation makes a contribution to the wellbeing of the community. The heritage centre stands as the focal point for our looking back at past generations. In doing so we can acknowledge and understand the contribution that those generations have made and hopefully we will learn from what has gone before.
The heritage centre, which has been operating for the past 14 years, relies financially for the most part on public contributions made through Athy Town Council and Kildare Co Council. I say public contributions because the funding for both councils comes from the public purse, largely by way of rates and taxes. The other source of funding for the heritage centre is from visitors’ admission fees and over the years we have witnessed an increasing number of visitors, including many overseas visitors, stopping off in Athy to visit the heritage centre.
In recent times a Friends of Athy Heritage Centre group was set up to help raise funds to facilitate the purchase of historical artefacts and material for the centre. The griends group is quite separate from the heritage centre itself and is specifically intended to help the centre to enhance and add to the exhibitions relating to the history of Athy and district.
Over the years the centre has been a recipient of many generous donations, all of which have added to our knowledge and understanding of the town’s history. Sometimes it is necessary and indeed desirable to supplement that material with items made available for purchase and hence the necessity for a group such as the Friends of the Heritage Centre.
Membership of the Friends of the Heritage Centre gives unlimited access to the centre and each friend receives a quarterly newsletter outlining news of the centre and events scheduled to take place. Corporate, as well as individual membership, is available and details can be had by contacting the heritage centre on 059 8633075.
Last week I mentioned the need for a history of Athy GAA Club and days later I was in the local history department of Newbridge Library looking for press reports on the death of John ‘Skurt’ Doyle. ‘Skurt’ who was a superb sportsman played for Athy GAA. club as well as the county senior team and in later years played rugby for Athy. He died aged 68 years on 18 July 1953. A very popular and well known man in Athy, ‘Skurt’s’ passing received, to my surprise, scant coverage in the local newspapers. I’d like to hear from anyone who may have photographs or background knowledge of John ‘Skurt’ Doyle, as his many sporting achievements deserve to be recorded. Let me know if you can help.