Thursday, February 1, 1996

Passage of Time - Athy 1970

The passage of time was the theme of a project recently undertaken by the sixth formers of Scoil Mhichil Naofa. Their work unveiled to admiring parents in the Halla Mor last week dealt with life in Athy in 1970 and what they predicted it would be like in 25 years time. Time locked in a capsule until 2020 it will give a future generation of Athy schoolgirls, not yet born an opportunity to see through the eyes of a previous generation glimpses of past life in our town. The 2020 Project which I understand is a European nature conservation initiative not only requires the girls to record the present but also to look back and forward 25 years.

The changes in Athy over the past 25 years have been quite substantial. A generation ago the Wallboard Factory and the I.V.I., both centres of manufacturing activity, welcomed each morning the men who sweated and laboured for their hard-earned wages. These factories are now gone, spawning in their wake a number of smaller enterprises which happily continue today.

The loss of these two factories which in 1970 had been operating for 35 years and 25 years respectively was not the only dismal news on the industrial front in the intervening years. Minch Nortons, the famous malting business first started in 1847 had almost 78 men employed in its local malting works 25 years ago. Today mechanisation has caused that number to plummet to about six men. In every sphere of activity, especially industrial and farming the same story is revealed. Less men and women are required today to meet the production targets set for their parents 25 years ago.

Some things have not changed. Just a few years prior to 1970 Athy Urban District Council submitted to the Department of Local Government as the present Department of the Environment was then called, its proposals for meeting the new road requirements of traffic passing through Athy on the main Dublin/Kilkenny route. Traffic projections based on figures compiled in 1967 indicated the urgent need for a new road which would free Leinster Street and Duke Street of much of the traffic passing through Athy. Ever optimistic, the local Council chose two alternative routes for the proposed road. The Inner Relief Road and the Outer Relief Road were to remain as lines on the carefully prepared road Engineer's drawing ever since.

Butlers Row, Janeville Lane, Beggars End, Kirwans Lane and Chapel Lane were some of the places where families were still living in 1970. The various housing developments in the Woodstock area were prepared and planned, with insufficient thought it must now be said, to replace the older housing stock in Athy. In time Butlers Row and other old terraces in the town were vacated. Windows and doors were blocked up providing a visual backdrop of decay where previously home life had once been evident. The decay of 1970 was not confined to the older type of private houses, but was evident also in the public buildings of the town. The Town Hall housed the Urban District Council Offices and in the Ballroom on the first floor a shirt manufacturing unit. The latter is now housed in the recently re-opened factory on the Dublin Road and the local Council has managed in the intervening years to create its own piece of architectural history. The aptly called "Glass Taj Mahal" in Rathstewart unblushing stands a mute testament to the prolificacy of a local Council which prepared for the future by discarding its historical links with the most splendid building in Athy - The Town Hall.

Luckily that same Town Hall was saved by the timely intervention of An Taisce and ultimately by the co-operation of Kildare County Council and AnCO - The Industrial Training Authority, in a major rebuilding programme which went on for many years.

Twenty five years ago school boys still travelled the same route taken by their fathers and grandfathers on their way to the Christian Brothers School in St. John's Lane. On their way they passed at one end the Social Club while at the other end Ted Vernal's Forge and Carberys building yard were still going strong. The Christian Brothers have since left Athy while the Secondary School in St. John's Lane has closed down to be replaced by the ultra modern school building in Rathstewart. The builders yard, the forge and the Social Club are now no more.

Closed also is Dreamland Ballroom the mecca for dancers which first opened its doors in 1961. In 1970 it was still going strong but was to be sold within years by its owner, the irrepressible future politician and Taoiseach Albert Reynolds. Today the Dancehall which played host to the showband stars of the past is a sports hall but its future is uncertain and it may well go the way of the Social Club which once stood in St. John's Lane.

Our town which for a short period in the late 1950's boasted two cinemas has witnessed the recent closure of its last cinema, the relatively new Grove Cinema. Hopefully when the time capsule prepared by the schoolgirls in Scoil Mhichil Naofa is opened in 2020 the Grove Cinema will still be there as a popular centre of entertainment for the growing population of Athy.

My wish for Athy is that in 25 years time it will be home to many young families living in a friendly and healthy environment. Would it be too much to hope that the orderly development of the town on the twin waterways of Barrow and Canal will by then be facilitated by an Outer Relief Road which would take away from the heart of Athy the fumes, noise and danger of passing traffic.

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