Thursday, February 15, 1996

Archival Depository for Athy

I am put in mind today to write of the urgent need for an archival depository for Athy and South Kildare as a result of two telephone calls I received yesterday afternoon. The topic is one I first raised publicly when my booklet on the history of St. Vincent's Hospital was launched last year. One of the phone calls which prompts a return to that issue concerned a number of copies of World War II period newspapers, not in themselves of any great intrinsic value. What was important was the recognition by the caller of the importance of not discarding material which might be helpful to social historians. The second phone call concerned a Rate Collectors book issued by Athy Board of Guardians in the last century. This is an important record even if it relates only to a small part of the Poor Law Union which was the functional area of Athy Workhouse in the last century. The fact that the book had survived was in itself nothing short of a miracle given that the Board of Guardians Minute Books were destroyed some years ago. Their loss is immeasurable and presents great difficulties to any historian seeking to unravel the story of the administration of Poor Law in South Kildare in the 19th Century.

When Athy Museum Society was founded in 1983 it was specifically intended to act as a focal point for those people with material of historical interest, documents or otherwise who recognise the necessity of preserving same for future historical research. Some of the local sports clubs have gifted to the Society Minute Books which are now being held in safe keeping knowing that they will form the basis of a future historians quest for the minutiae of local history.

It is amazing how and where local historical material turns up. Some years ago a then resident of Naas passed on to me a Minute Book dated 1838 which commenced with the inaugural meeting of Athy Literary and Scientific Association. How it came into his possession he could not recall, nor could he throw any light on the nature or purpose of the Association. Fortunately in the course of my research some years previously I had learned of the group which within months of its formation was to become Athy Mechanics Institute. So it was that their first Minute Book came into the possession of Athy Museum Society. The whereabouts of the remaining Minute Books of the Mechanics Institute which existed up to about 60 years ago is still a mystery. Who knows, they may still be lying in somebodys attic awaiting recognition.
When one considers the large numbers of organisations and clubs which have flourished in Athy and South Kildare some times all too briefly in this and the last century, the wonder is that more documentary evidence of their existence is still not with us. There is of course the perennial problem with voluntary clubs. Minute Books tend to disappear with the arrival of a new Club Secretary. It is not malice or anything bordering on recklessness which results in the loss of these Minute Books, rather a lack of regard for historical records and a failure to realise their importance in a local context.

One period of the town's history which is well represented by memorabilia is that of the Great War and the Museum Room in the local Town Hall has a veritable Pandora's box of World War I material on display. All of it came from local people whose family members had fought and sometimes died in the terrible conditions of the battle fields stretching from the Dardenelles to France and Flanders.

The recent drainage work on the Grand Canal opposite St. Vincent's Hospital produced many interesting finds for the seemingly tireless "treasure hunters" who gathered there each day. The more interesting of these finds included bottles and buttons bearing the names of long forgotten Athy businesses. Some of these finds will shortly be displayed in the Museum Room adding another piece to the jigsaw of our local history.

The recent granting of £175,000.00 of public funds to finance the provision of a Heritage Centre in Athy is very welcome indeed. The higher profile which is now accorded to local history generally is a confirmation of its importance in assessing and validating current events and indeed proposals for the future. A knowledge of our past gives us a better insight into why and how things are as they are. This in turn permits us to ensure that decisions, especially those relating to the physical development of our town do not ignore the relevance and importance of what has been handed down to us by previous generations.

The piece this week can be read as an affirmation that local history is coming into its own. It might also be considered as a appeal to all local groups and associations to recognise the importance as source documents of club records and to ensure as far as possible that these records are preserved. All of us play a part, consciously or otherwise, in the continuing story of our local history. The most important unfulfilled need in this area is the provision of an archieval resource where local documents, whether old business records, club minute books or whatever can be gathered in and saved for future research. I wonder if the local Library might consider taking the initial steps by formulating and implementing an archival policy which will ensure the preservation of written records relevant to Athy and South Kildare.

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