Travellers’ narratives are always a fascinating, if not necessarily dependable, source of information on places and persons of the past. One such narrative, which I came across recently, was published in 1815 by Thomas Courtney of 6 Wood Street, Dublin, for its author A. Atkinson. Titled “The Irish Tourist” it was sub-titled “A Series of Picturesque Views Travelling Incidents and Observations, Statistical Political and Moral on the Character and Aspect of the Irish Nation”. The rather turgid title cloaked the work of a man who claimed in his introductory piece to have collected his material “at the expense of health and ease as well as of time and money”. He travelled 6,000 miles, or so he claimed, on his journeys through Ireland, all the while appealing to what he described as “the rank and property of the country” for funds to publish an account of his experiences. Those who contributed were listed as subscribers in the book, and amongst those listed are Thomas Boake of Boakefield, Athy, John M. Johnson, Athy, Robert Rawson, Athy and Col. Weldon of Kilmoroney.
Atkinson’s journey commenced in November 1810 in Sligo, and ended in Dublin in December 1814. In February 1814 he set out for the South East of Ireland, and reached the small post town and market town of Stradbally, where he found in the centre of the town an extensive cotton mill worked by water. It had been erected on the river adjoining what he described as “that pretty retreat called the Abbey”, by a Mr. Calcott, who employed 50 to 100 hands in the spinning department.
Proceeding to Athy, which he described as a market town, a post town and a corporate town, and alternately with Naas, the assizes town of County Kildare, he gave the following interesting and informative account of our town in 1814.
“It is situated on the river Barrow, which is navigable from thence to its junction with the sea near Waterford, while with the city of Dublin, this town has an open communication by the Grand Canal, so that it is extremely well circumstanced for trade; and in the corn department, I understand, a considerable communication subsists between them. For the quality and quantity of its wheat (with which useful article, disposed of by sample in the market, and afterwards delivered at the purchaser’s stores, for many miles around) this market is deservedly celebrated. In the town, however, there is no manufacturer of note, save that of two establishments for the distillation of malt into ale and whiskey; nor are the public buildings of the place remarkable either for their beauty or magnitude - nevertheless the town has a respectable appearance. It consists of two principal streets, which open a communication with the market-square; and from these principal divisions, several smaller streets issue, which, upon the whole, give this town an aspect of tolerable magnitude. The footpaths are neatly paved, and in winter the streets are lighted up, an accommodation rather unusual in country towns and therefore particularly grateful to the feelings of a stranger. The river passes nearly through the centre of the town, and while engaged in wafting the produce of the country to distant ports, is an object of great beauty in the eye of the passenger, when surveyed from the bridge, a piece of architecture which contributes much to the improved appearance of the town, since its re-construction in the year 1796. The jail, the church, the Roman Catholic chapel, and a small, but very neat chapel belonging to the Calvinistic Methodists, constitute the public buildings of the place. Formerly there was a meeting house of the Friends or Quakers in this town, but this society has been for a long time nearly extinct in this place, and I am now equally ignorant whether this little meeting-house is standing, or has fallen into ruin.
In the vicinity of this town, there are several pretty villas. Of these, that of Mr. Rawson, the collector, is deserving of attention - Mount Ophelia, on the Carlow Road, the residence of Dr. Johnson, is also a pretty retreat from the noise and bustle of the streets - but of all the seats in this neighbourhood which beautify the banks of the Barrow, that of Kilmoroney, the seat of Colonel Weldon, stands pre-eminent. It is situate on the opposite bank of the river, (as you proceed to Carlow) about seven miles north of that town, and three miles south of Athy. The river in the valley and the house, lawn, and plantations beyond them, are in perfect prospect. Among these latter, I would rank, as of no mean effect, a thick coppice or woody elevation on the bank just noticed, as you approach within view of this seat; and about half a mile farther on, a Danish fort embellished with ornamental plantations, is a striking feature of the landscape. Between these distinct objects, which mark the extremities of the lawn, stands Kilmoroney house, on a beautiful elevation; and in a valley, just opposite, are the ruins of the castle of Grangemelon, which , in that picturesque scene forms an object of considerable grandeur. Beside this more remarkable seat, you have the prospect of many inferior villas on the banks of the river, which embellish the country, in your progress to Carlow, and render the drive from Athy to that town, particularly interesting.”
Strange that Atkinson, in referring to the public buildings of the town, made no mention of the Town Hall or the Military Barracks in Barrack Street. What is interesting, was his description of the footpaths as neatly paved and the lighting of the streets in winter. This, as he states, was unusual in country towns and indicates that the corporate affairs of the town were perhaps better advanced than had previously been thought.
Athy did not often figure in the itineraries of early travellers to Ireland, and for that reason Atkinson’s description of the town in 1814 is important, even if it is somewhat incomplete.