When the Grand Canal reached Athy in 1791 it marked a turning point in the towns fortunes. Thereafter the South Kildare town was to develop as a commercial centre which boosted and complemented its earlier role as a market town. The canal link which brought the capital within twelve hours of Athy's market inevitably led to a dramatic increase in market activity in the area. Produce brought into Athy by local farmers found its way to Dublin as a thriving carriage industry developed to supplement the Grand Canal Company's efforts. The trade was not one way and the boats returning from Dublin came loaded with merchants goods which soon adorned the shop windows of Athy. Truly could it be said of Athy then that it was taken on the grandeur and style of cosmopolitan Dublin.
Passenger services on the Grand Canal commenced with a 5.00 a.m. start from the canal basin in Athy. The ladies and gentlemen of the day delighted with the advances in travel made possible by the Canal thought little or nothing of the twelve hour journey to Dublin. Before the coming of the Canal the same journey was made on horseback or in carriages, on roads unsuited for the purpose and dangerous to all travellers. An early start on the canal journey necessitated sleeping accommodation being available for the travellers near to the canal basin and so it was that Canal Hotels were built. In Athy the fine two storey overbasement building which was later to become the Canal Company's offices was initially constructed as a small Hotel to accommodate travellers on the Grand Canal. Today it is home to the Duck Press Restaurant owned and managed by Brian Fitzgerald. Brian, born in West Ham in London in 1946 is a cockney who came to Athy in 1993 on acquiring the business from its founder owner Stephen Corcoran. As an East Londoner Brian has led a chequered career since he first went to work as a meat salesman in Smithfields markets in London at seventeen years of age. Memories of Stanley Holloway and Katherine Hepburn in "My Fair Lady" bring to mind scenes reminiscent of those encountered by Brian in his work first in the meat markets and later in Billingsgate Fish Market where he worked for two years. Experiences in the meat and fish markets led him to Covent Gardens Fruit Markets where he was a fruit salesman for three years. His years in the markets brought him in contact with many famous and some infamous characters. Billy Walker, Champion Heavyweight Boxer was a fish porter in Billingsgate in Brian's time while Kenny Lynch, Comedian and television personality, was another colleague who worked as a porter in Smithfield market. However the most intriguing relationship struck up by Brian was that with the notorious London criminals The Kray Twins. They were frequent visitors to the markets and the acquaintanceship extended to the Regency Club and the K. Club both of which were operated by the Kray Brothers.
It was with the financial backing of the Kray Twins that Brian first went into business on his own account when he opened up the Doric Restaurant in Attleborough in Norfolk. Three successful years there led to further business ventures which included two butcher shops in High Street, Walthenstone, London and a boning factory which he operated for Peter O'Sullivan the famous racing commentator in Long Stratham, Norwich. His final business venture in England was as proprietor of "The Old Crown" in Diss, Norfolk, a market pub.
Brian spent his early years in Plashet Road, West Ham, a stones throw away from the Grand Union Canal. He learned to swim as did his friends in the Canal at Stratford Broadway and now he has renewed his links with canal life with his beautifully located Duck Press Restaurant on the Grand Canal basin in Athy.
The London cockney has grown to love the sometimes strange but always charming ways of the Irish and has firmly set his roots down in this country. As he says himself having married Denise Fitzgerald of Allencross in 1993, his home is where his heart is and those of us lucky enough to have partaken of the culinary delights of the Duck Press are glad that he has finally dropped his anchor in Athy.