Thursday, May 2, 1996

Athy's Architecture

There has been a veritable deluge of talks and lectures in Athy over the last few months. Attending them is a very invigorating experience while both enjoyable and enlightening. The latest talk was given by Denis Cogan, Kildare County Architect, who is shortly to take up another similar appointment with Dun Laoghaire Borough Council. His talk entitled “Athy, Architecturally - Yours” was a stimulating romp through the buildings and stones of Athy interspersed with revealing insights into the people who either commissioned or designed them. The use of slides added tremendously to the occasion and were enjoyed by the good sized audience who sat in the former court room of the Town Hall.

It was to the outskirts of Athy, if one presumes to stretch that geographical term somewhat, that Denis first brought us. Kilkea Castle, the most important Anglo-Norman building in South Kildare, was the focus of his attention as he showed in slides the twelfth century building which was first occupied by Sir Walter De Riddlesford. He was a young knight of Anglo-Saxon stock who was reputedly related to King Henry of England. The family lasted only three generations in Kilkea and it was through the marriage of a grand-daughter of the original owner to Maurice Fitzmaurice Fitzgerald, third Baron of Offaly, that Kilkea Castle came into the ownership of the Fitzgerald family. It was future Earls of Kildare and Dukes of Leinster, head of the Fitzgerald family, who down the years exercised manorial control over the village and the later town of Athy. Understandably many of the fine buildings in Athy were designed and built as a result of the patronage of the Fitzgerald family.

One building which did not come about in this way was Woodstock Castle which Denis Cogan told us was built in the thirteenth century by the St. Michael family of Rheban. He referred to the fine examples of medieval stone tracery still visible in the blocked up windows of Woodstock. Whites Castle with the bridge which it was intended to defend was described by him as forming “the strongest image which visitors have of Athy”. In that he was clearly correct and in drawing our attention to the fact the County Architect was singling out Athy’s most important building in terms of the future development of the town’s historical heritage. Whites Castle stands at the very centre of Athy, a readily recognisable focal point and one which must engage our concern and aspirations for the future.

The profusion of Churches in Athy prompted a comment that “religion is big in Athy”. Perhaps it might have been more accurate to say that past religious fervour as exemplified in the many fine Church buildings of the town is unlikely ever again to be repeated. The Dominican Church drew extremely favourable comment from Denis who told us that the architectural source for the unusual Church design was a Church at Ronchainp and the monastery of La Tourette together with the work of American architects of the 1950’s who used complex double curved roofs such as that found in Kennedy Airport, New York.

It was revealing to hear his comments concerning St. Michael’s Catholic Church which he described as “unnecessarily large” and giving rise to problems of scale. For directly opposite reasons he found the new civic offices of Athy Town Council lacking the height necessary to “proclaim its civic presence”. It certainly suffers in comparison with the eighteenth century Town Hall which presents an imposing and commanding backdrop to Emily Square. Very favourable praise was reserved for St. Michael’s Church of Ireland, located at the end of Church Road which he described as making for “a dramatic axial view of the Church and spire”.

The involvement of Frederick Darley, a nineteenth century Architect best known for designing the RDS and the Kings Inn buildings in Dublin, was noted in many of the fine buildings in Athy. Chief amongst these was the Presbyterian Church, the adjoining Manse, the Model School and the Courthouse. Darley had been engaged by the Duke of Leinster to re-model Kilkea Castle and it was through the Duke’s patronage that this important Architect was employed in designing so many buildings in Athy. We are fortunate to have so many fine examples of his work in the town, particularly so when the buildings he designed are still in use and in relatively good condition. The stone finials on the Courthouse puzzled the County Architect as they have many others who have examined the building over the years. Are they mesonic symbols or are they symbols linked with the building’s original use as a Corn Exchange? If you have any views on this I would like to hear from you.

The former workhouse designed by George Wilkinson, an Oxford-based Architect, was next shown on slides, to be followed by the railway station which mercifully has recently been repainted in colours which are pleasing to the eye. The Rectory and Mount Offaly were highlighted as very important examples of private houses. The former was the work of Dean and Woodworth while the latter was described as a fine example of an early Georgian townhouse. Later Georgian houses at Woodstock Street were also favourably commented upon.

It was very interesting to hear Denis’ view of what he described as “the greatest architectural achievement” by succeeding generations of Athy people. This accolate was reserved for the central piazza dominated by the Town Hall which we all know as Emily Square. As County Architect Denis Cogan did much to ensure that the Town Hall would be restored in the 1980’s. The initial move to save the building which was in danger of being lost to the town was made by the local branch of An Taisce. The then County Manager Gerry Ward thankfully recognised the merit of the case made by An Taisce and put in place an innovative scheme to restore the Town Hall at a time when the County Council’s finances were limited. The Town Hall will remain a monument to the combined efforts of An Taisce, Gerry Ward and Denis Cogan, Architect in charge of the restoration.

In concluding his talk Denis confirmed that Athy is well endowed with buildings of architectural merit designed by many of the leading Architects of their time. His audience no doubt realise that but perhaps the message needs to go out to everyone in Athy. I wish Denis every success in his new appointment knowing that he will bring to that position the same good taste in architectural design that marked his work in County Kildare and especially Athy which he rightly described as “architecturally the most interesting town in County Kildare”.

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