A walk through the streets of Athy is nowadays fraught with danger from passing traffic. The Anglo Norman town has always had vehicular traffic passing through it but in other days the pace was somewhat different than todays. The street patterns laid down in the developing medieval town were designed for pedestrians and horse drawn carts and carriages and not for the motor traffic of today.
A significant amount of the street furniture of the 18th and 19th centuries remain as a vivid reminder of the mode of transport which was once prevalent. Horse power was the graceful if slow way of progressing from manor or farm to town. Within the town it was only the well to do merchants who had carriages for personal use and sometimes carts for transporting goods. The existing stone arch entrances from the main streets to the stables at the rear of the merchants premises are the visible reminders of an era which has long passed on. The jostle stones at either side of these entrances can still be seen in some places in Leinster Street and Duke Street. These carved stones, perhaps two or three feet high, lying against the base of the arch were designed to push cartwheels away from the building. This simple device saved both the cart or carriage and the building from damage.
Horse troughs met a basic but very necessary need for the many horses which passed through the streets of Athy in the last century. The Metropolitan Drinking Fountain and Cattle Trough Association, the equivalent of the modern S.P.C.A. provided water troughs at the roadside for use by horses, cattle and other animals. A fine example of one such trough, the only one remaining in Athy, is to be found at Leinster Street near the junction of Kirwan’s Lane. The large granite piece is now used by the local Council as a container for flowers.
Getting on and off a horse was not always an easy operation and mounting blocks were generally to be found at strategic positions on the main street of provincial towns and almost always at the local Churches. The local Inn would certainly have had a mounting block near to its front door to enable men and women on horseback to mount or dismount as elegantly as possible. Usually made of granite the mounting blocks have unfortunately not survived the many road improvement schemes of the 20th century. The last mounting block in the area is to be found in the grounds of Dukes Lodge on the Carlow Road.
The traffic of horses and other animals through the streets of Athy not only gave rise to the development of a now redundant street furniture but also contributed to the development of a street cleaning service. Horse and cow dung was carefully cleared from the streets on a regular basis by employees of the Borough Council and after 1840 the Town Commissioners. The dung was stored in Green Alley and near the Fair Green and every three months was auctioned off to the highest bidder. It proved to be a not inconsiderable asset for the local Council which zealously guarded its right to collect the dung on the streets of the town.
The era of the horse has long passed. Nevertheless as we walk the streets of Athy we can see many reminders of that time when the horse reigned supreme as a means of transport. Listen carefully and you might hear the “clippity clop” of horse hooves echoing from the past.