It is not too often that you get the opportunity to walk around familiar and not so familiar parts of Athy with an enthusiastic group anxious to hear some of the history of their own place. Last week was one such occasion when a small group set off at 7.15p.m. first stepping across the former High Street to enter into the narrow confines of Garter Lane. How it got its name I can only guess but I have always presumed that Garter Lane was a corruption of Carter Lane, a name which acknowledged the large number of its one time resident Carters. However the existence of a Garter Lane in Waterford raises the possibility that the name may indeed have nothing to do with the honourable carting occupation.
Anyway our saunter down Garter Lane brought us by the site of Youells Turbine Shed where the first electricity supply for Athy was produced in the early part of the century. Further on we came on the line of the medieval town wall which terminated at the banks of the River Barrow and which we were to follow over the early stages of our walk.
Facing us as we crossed the former Kildare Road, previously known as Cotters Lane, now Stanhope Street, was St. Michael's Parish Church built in 1964 to replace an earlier Church erected on the same site. That Church had stood for over 150 years and was the venue of the first Church Mission given in an Irish Church in 1842. Passing by Miss Goold's house now occupied by the Parish Priest we paused to bring into focus the Convent of Mercy established in 1851.
The small houses in Chapel Lane, the walls of which were standing until recently, are no longer to be seen but on the far side of the road can be found the high stone wall which shields from view the site of the first Catholic Church built in Athy in post-Reformation days. The thatched roof building erected in or around 1740 was burnt in 1800 allegedly as a result of an altercation between a militia man and a local curate during the 1798 Rebellion. Whatever the truth of the claim first made by Patrick O'Kelly in his book "1798 Rebellion" the then Parish Priest Canon Keegan obtained compensation of £288 for the damaged Church and having collected locally an additional £1,700 he built the sturdy St. Michael's Church in 1803 on grounds which up to then had been swamp land.
Crossing the former High Street the small group passed into Meeting House Lane to hear the story of the Quaker settlement established in Athy in 1672. The construction of the Quaker Meeting House in 1780 gave us the name "Meeting House Lane" which name we have retained even though the Quakers departed from Athy in the early part of the 19th century. The local Methodist Community subsequently took over the Quaker Meeting House and the building since modified continues today to be used as a local Dispensary. No trace can be seen of the twelve houses which once stood on Garden Lane and where Peter Fitzsimons buses are now parked. The houses in Meeting Lane were built in 1913 as part of the first Council housing scheme in Athy and the entire terrace cost the sum of £704.10.0 to build. On our right the foundry of Matt and Mick McHugh is long gone as are the houses on Connolly Lane which stretched back behind Emily Row towards the Credit Union Office. The three storey house at the corner of Meeting Lane was the location of the Parish School operated by the local Rector in 1827.
Turning left into Offaly Street we pass over the site of Prestons Gate, the last remains of the medieval town wall in Athy which were removed in 1860. Then up past the former Picture Palace known to my generation as "Bob's Cinema", previously a malthouse and now a printers office.
St. Michael's Church of Ireland stands at the top of Offaly Street as it has since 1840. Its interior has memorials to some of the local dead of World War I and to Captain George Weldon the first Officer killed in the Boer War. The Weldon's were not always a lucky lot!
A trip up the "Crib Road" gives an opportunity to explain how the protective iron crib once placed around the newly planted roadside trees gave Church Road the name by which it was generally known to locals. Through the trees and looking up the avenue towards Kevin Maher's house we can see the remains of one of the prison cell blocks built in 1830 to replace the jail in Whites Castle. On our right the beautiful Rectory which Rev. Crampton tells me was built by Rev. F.S. Trench and presented by him to the Parish.
The night is drawing in as we walk through the People's Park and what a pleasure it is to do so. Laid out over 200 years ago it is a wonderful facility and maybe there is truth in the claim that the Duke of Leinster's family brought back a young tree from every foreign country they visited which they later planted in the Peoples Park.