I WAS asked recently what changes have taken place in Athy over the years. It was a question which made me think because for someone like myself who spends his working days in the town, the changes, imperceptible as they may be, pass, for the most part, unnoticed.
How does Athy of today compare to the town as it was 60 years ago, or in the time when the Great Western and Southern Railway Guide of 1856 noted*********** ‘few towns in Ireland are more auspiciously situated than the town of Athy’**********. Seven years later Thomas Lacey in his book of travels published under the title *********‘Sights and Scenes in our Fatherland’ **********claimed that Athy was *********‘a handsome regular town’********.
There is no question but Athy is attractively sited on the banks of the river Barrow, a waterway which is complemented by the manmade canal gracing the western side of the historic town. There is no doubt that the town centre plaza, backgrounded by the early 18th century Town Hall, gives Athy a handsome appearance which cannot be matched by any other town in County Kildare. The side streets, spreading out from the town’s main street, which latter street is recognised by archaeologists and historians as a fine example of an Anglo Norman linear type street, helped create the compact urban settlement of earlier years. That compactness was lost with the extension of the town beyond its medieval boundaries and the more recent housing developments on its outskirts.
The town’s centre streetscape has not changed to any great degree in the last 100 years. While many building facades have been modified and business names have disappeared, the buildings themselves for the most part still stand, as high or as low as they were a century ago. But it is not only buildings that make a town – the life of a town comes from its people and here in Athy we can proudly claim that ours is a family friendly town. This was the unqualified view of the many persons and families who in recent years came to live in Athy. The town’s population has increased hugely in the last 25 years and the general opinion of the many new members of our community whom I have met expressed themselves as very happy living in Athy. Their only complaint is the inadequacy of the shopping experience in a town which 60 years ago was one of the best shopping towns in Leinster.
There are certainly changes which have emerged over the past decade or more and they are confirmed by the number of vacant shops on our main streets. Offaly Street, the street in which I lived as a youngster, was then home to a pub, two sweet shops and a cinema, all of which are now closed up.
Athy has changed, even as its streetscape remains largely unchanged. But in many ways it has changed for the better. The 1930s saw the setting up of a Distress Committee headed up by the Town Clerk and the local District Court Clerk to help families affected by flooding on the river Barrow. Flooding was an annual occurrence which particularly caused problems for families in St Joseph’s Terrace and required the provision of a boating service to allow those families to get to the shops and attend Sunday Mass. Before the opening of the I.V.I. Foundry and the cement factory in the 1930s emigration from Athy bled the town of many young men and women. The same St Joseph’s Terrace witnessed an extremely high level of emigration during that decade. Athy had similarly suffered a high loss of men folk to emigration in the mid-1920s, so much so that the local GAA club had difficulty fielding a senior football team.
Times have changed. The scars of emigration no longer mark our community’s life. The local men and women no longer take the mail boat. Now we welcome families to Athy, many of whom find it possible to live in the town while working in Dublin and elsewhere. This has helped to create for Athy a sense of a satellite town with all the advantages and disadvantages this brings.
A major change which we tend to overlook arose with the departure of the Christian Brothers, the closure of the Mercy Convent and the departure of the Dominicans from the town. The loss of the Dominicans after so many centuries of service stretching back to the early medieval years was an unwelcome change for many locals. The loss of the Christian Brothers and the Sisters of Mercy, both of whom brought education to generations of young Athy folk, was in a way a recognition of the improvements in the Irish education system.
Yes, Athy has changed over the years, but remains as a 19th century writer noted ‘a handsome town’.