I have been writing recently the first draft of the new Tourist Trail for Athy which will hopefully be printed in time for the summer season. While doing this I realised just how rich Athy is in relation to historical buildings. Living in the area for so long tends to dull ones appreciation of what is around us and the discipline of putting down on paper the local buildings and localities with historical connections only serves to reactivate a proper sense of appreciation.
The most visible reminder of our past is of course Whites Castle, a resplendent tower of stone, guarding the bridge over the River Barrow. Built in 1417 by Sir John Talbot, Viceroy of Ireland, its unique position in the centre of Athy makes it a focal point for all historical enquiry relating to the town. The Bridge over which it originally stood guard has long since been replaced and the existing bridge dates back to May 1796. Just imagine that's two years before the most harrowing Rebellion of 1798 which engulfed Ireland in bloodshed and grief. Athy and district was now spared in those dark days and Whites Castle, then a jail, held many locals in its dark cells. One of the most famous of those prisoners was Thomas Reynolds, one time resident of Kilkea Castle and notorious informer who somehow ended up here for a while before Dublin Castle authorities realised that they had jailed one of their own.
That same Castle and the Bridge witnessed the harrowing experience of seven Narraghmore men who were taken from the jail and frogmarched across the Bridge to the banks of the Canal to be hanged. Later beheaded their heads were stuck on the Bridge as a warning to others not to get involved in rebellious activity. Many who pass over that same Bridge today know nothing of those terrible times when fear stalked the streets of Athy.
Across the River near Greenhills stands the tall stone skeleton of what was once the proud Castle of Woodstock. This 13th century edifice altered in the 15th century replaced an earlier wooden castle on the site which was built by the Anglo Normans to defend the Ford or river crossing on the Barrow. So it is that two Castles stand on the banks of the Barrow River, separated not only by the "dumb waters" but also in time by almost two centuries. They represent the early and middle years of Anglo Norman influence in Athy and District and are priceless reminders of the heritage of those periods.
The later commercial life of the developing town of Athy is encapsulated in the fine building with the quite remarkable northern facade which acts as a distinctive backdrop to Emily Square. The Town Hall built in the early years of the 18th century marked Athy's transition from village to market town and the fine expanse of open space around it then known as Market Square was a hive of activity where local traders and townspeople mingled with the farmers and their produce. It is not always easy to visualise while standing amongst the parked cars in what is now a municipal car park that not so many years ago men and women worked here while children played among the stalls unburdened by any requirement to attend school. Indeed in a doorway of the Town Hall one local man carried on business as a cobbler for over 20 years, each morning setting up his tools providing a welcome service for the farmers who came to the town.
The building heritage of the town is graced by many fine Churches from the ultra-modern, at least in the context of the 1960's, of the Dominican Church to the earlier examples of ecclesiastical architecture such as the Presbyterian, Methodist and Church of Ireland Churches. The 14th or 15th century Church in the grounds of St. Michael's Cemetery is yet again an important element in the story of Athy. Built on a site outside the medieval walls of the town it served as the first secular Catholic Church in Athy and later in post-Reformation days as a Chapel for the Church of England.
Further out the Dublin Road in the direction of Gallowshill, where many unfortunates paid the ultimate penalty for breaches of the criminal code the fine cut stone building of the former Model School and Agricultural School is to be found. It is a very attractive building part of which would be ideal for recounting in display models and in the spoken and written words the story of the Model and Agricultural Schools of the last century and the Lancastrian system of education. Maybe the Office of Public Works in conjunction with the local Heritage Company might look at the possibility of doing this.
Another possible area of co-operation this time between the Heritage Company and the Eastern Health Board could be in recreating the Workhouse and the Famine experience in what remains of the original Athy Workhouse. The original part of the building to the front of St. Vincent's Hospital presents a fine panorama of what the Poor House was in the 1840's and it is here in part of that building that an opportunity exists for recreating what was an important part of our town's story.
Athy originally the Anglo Norman town later a garrisoned town has a proud history stretching back 800 years. The survival of so many important buildings in the town enables us to relive our past in a context which must enliven our understanding and appreciation of history. There is a marvellous opportunity awaiting Athy as a heritage town to develop its own distinctive historical past in a manner which can prove not only commercially beneficial but also personally satisfying to those who live in Athy.