A very interesting walk through historic Naas last week under the guidance of Liam Kenny of the local history group prompted me to reflect on the links between Naas and Athy. Both are towns of ancient lineage and owe their development as urban settlements to the Normans. However, Naas in all probability was a settlement long before Athy as it's Irish name Nas na Riogh implies. Translated as the place of the assembly or Kings it's nomenclature clearly derives meaning from the important North and South motes which were a pre-Norman significance. Athy on the other hand was an ancient and important river crossing with nothing to indicate a settlement prior to the coming of the Normans.
It is with the Normans of the late 12th century that Athy and Naas became established as settlements of importance. Both had Dominican Monasteries, Athy founded in 1253 and Naas in 1355. Athy's proud boast is that the Dominicans are still with us after 740 years. The Reformation of 1540 put an end to their involvement in Naas.
Another link stretching back into the medieval past was the existence in both towns of a Whites Castle. Athy's Whites Castle is still prominently located on the Bank of the River Barrow overlooking the Barrow Bridge. Indeed it was built in 1417 to protect the pass over the bridge and ensure the safety of those living within the Pale. Athy was situated on the Marches of Kildare, and while not within the Pale was regarded as an important Fortress in the first line of the defence for the people living within the Pale. Naas of course, situated within the Pale, was one of the many beneficiaries of the military policy which sought to restrict the wild Irish west of the River Barrow at Athy. The Whites Castle of Naas was located in the area of the present Town Hall and was demolished in 1786. Apart from the similar names there appears to have been no link between the Castles, it being common in medieval times to have White and Black Castles throughout the land.
Both towns were chartered as Town Boroughs with Sovereigns and Burgesses - Athy in 1515 and Naas in 1568. The earlier incorporation of Athy points to its greater importance during the early years of the County Kildare towns. Given Naas' central location in the County it was inevitable that Naas would eventually outstrip it's southern neighbour and relegate it to a minor role in County affairs.
In the 1860's the Quarter Sessions which alternated between Naas and Athy were transferred to Naas on a permanent basis and within two years the jail in Athy which had been built in 1830 to replace an older jail was closed and all prisoners transferred to the equally new Naas jail. The emergence of Naas as the County town was now predicable as was the subsequent decline in Athy. The respective populations of Naas and Athy in 1831 were 3806 and 4494, a fair reflection of the advantage which Athy from early time had held over Naas. The trend however was by then changing and their positions were reversed with finality with the setting up of Kildare County Council with administrative headquarters in Naas in 1899. Thereafter Naas was to continue to prosper as it was chosen for no other reason than it’s central location within the County as the administrative headquarters of further state agencies.
The linkage first forged between the ancient seats of the Kings and the Ford of Ae were strengthened when the Christian Brothers and the Sisters of Mercy opened schools in both towns during the 19th century. It was almost as if neither town was prepared to give way to the other in matters of social or educational advancement.
The ultimate link between the two towns apart from the ancient roadway from Dublin was the Grand Canal which was extended to Naas in 1789 and to Athy in 1791. The Ford of Ae, anciently a river settlement was now linked with the riverless town of Naas by the waters of a manmade waterway. This linkage between the present County town and the once larger and busier market town of Athy was in a way the coming together of two estranged brothers who had grown apart from each other. Modern communications have sidelined the Grand Canal but in their histories the towns of Athy and Naas share a common heritage and a common aspiration to give their own people in their own place a future full of promise and hope.