Located in the Barrow valley and in an area of South Kildare which in the past has not often featured in the itinerary of visitors to Ireland, Athy has seldom been mentioned in the many travel books written about Ireland over the last 200 years. Early visitors to Ireland tended to confine themselves to the grand sights of Killarney and Athy’s location off the main routes to the south meant that little or no mention was made of the market town on the river Barrow.
But once in a while one less jaundiced and more discerning than most cast a cold eye over life in our town and recorded it for posterity. One such observer was Thomas Lacy of Wexford who published in 1863 his impressions of his journey around Ireland in the years immediately following the Great Famine. Between 1853 and 1864 he travelled through the Irish countryside visiting towns on the way, all the time recording his impressions and views of those areas.
Lacy was no ordinary traveller for he had previously published a small work entitled `Home Sketches on both sides of the Channel’ and his 1863 publication `Sights and Scenes in our Fatherland’ was in his own words an attempt “to describe some of the most celebrated portions of my native country”.
He arrived in Athy in the autumn of 1855 by railway from Carlow. Athy he declared was a handsome regular town and for it’s size a very prosperous and flourishing one. The spacious area called `Market Square’ was, he observed, surrounded with good houses and handsome shops.
“The Courthouse, a neat moderate size structure, stands in the centre of Market Square to which on each side of the building leads a capacious street. Here also are several good houses and amongst them The National Bank, The Loan Fund and the Dispensary. There was also a branch of the Tipperary Joint Stock Banking Company in the town which on it’s failure was replaced by a branch of the Hibernian Banking Company”.
Continuing with a description of Whites Castle and the bridge over the river Barrow Lacy informed his readers that
“on an open space opposite the Castle and between the Market Square and the river a new corn exchange is being built. It is about 70 ft. in length and 30 in breadth. The base course, quoins and ornamental parts being of cut granite and the material in general a description of limestone. The principal market is held on Saturday and is well supplied and very well attended”.
The arrangements in the market he found particularly satisfactory describing how
“a weighing machine has been established where corn, potatoes and other articles are weighed at one half penny per sack and sworn weighing masters are in attendance by whom printed tickets of the weights are given to those who may require them”.
Continuing he wrote
“about five miles from the town extensive peat works were at this time carried on by Rees Reece Esq. in which large numbers of men, women and children were employed. In these works oil, soap, candles and various commodities were produced by the scientific and ingenious process brought to bear upon the turf which in large quantity and superior quality is raised in this part of the country”.
Commenting on employment in the area he noted that the wages for harvest labourers in the neighbourhood ranged from two shillings to two shillings and six pence without food and from one shilling and six pence to one shilling and eight pence with food.
In his detailed survey of the town’s buildings he mentions the town jail built in 1830 on the opposite side of the Carlow road to St. Michael’s Church. The jail cost £3,000.00 to build, of which £2,000.00 and the site was donated by the Duke of Leinster. One entered the jail he said “through a massive arch flanked on both sides with bold rusticated masonry”. Opposite St. Michael’s Cemetery with it’s medieval house of worship he found a plot of ground with a site marked out and the foundations laid for “the erection of a new Scotch Church”. His visit to the Model School, opened in 1850, disclosed that
“the walls were furnished and appropriately decorated with all the newest and best maps of various sizes and with wondrous illustrations of animals, beasts, birds and fish.”
Lacy’s positive image of Athy in 1855 can be contrasted with the views expressed by J.N. Brewer in his book “The Beauties of Ireland” published in 1826. Brewer described Athy as a town of some importance in the past “but now decayed”, a situation he lamented given the advantages Athy enjoyed “more particularly the great canal navigation and the fertile land of the Barrow valley”.
It is interesting to read of Athy almost 150 years ago and to see how little the town has changed in a structural sense. Apart from the town jail which closed down five years after Lacy’s visit few of the other buildings have changed. I wonder how a visitor in one hundred and fifty years from now will view Athy.