Thursday, January 9, 1997

Athy's Heritage Centre

The Heritage Centre for Athy is a dream soon to be realised. The Fire Station has been moved from the ground floor of the Town Hall, and soon the giant doors which disfigured the rear facade of the building will be a memory. The architectural composition which is Emily Square and to which the Town Hall forms an important backdrop gives Athy a very attractive town centre. The siting there of the Heritage Centre will further enhance the area, as will the building works which are intended to improve the rear of the early 19th century building.

My attention was inevitably drawn to this when contemplating the 21 year old plan to put a new roadway across Emily Square with a bridge between the Courthouse and the Dominican Church. How times have changed in the intervening years. Now that Athy has heritage status and we are all beginning to appreciate the historical and architectural wealth of the Town, it seems inconceivable that we should ever have contemplated such a road plan.

Work on the Heritage Centre should start within weeks and behind the scenes professional historians and amateurs alike are working on the Themes which will be featured in the centre. These will relate the history of the town and place local events in the wider context of Irish history.

The long and varied history of Athy offers great opportunities for exploring the different periods of the Irish past. Athy was originally a small settlement, later a thriving village and now a corporate town, all centred around the River Barrow. Even in pre-settlement times the area was important and many reference to Ath I or the Ford of Ae are to be found.

It is the story of the evolution of the urban settlement on the river which will probably provide the material for at least one early history lesson in the new Heritage Centre. Here the story will start with the Anglo Norman settlement established in the late 12th century around the first wooden fortress or castle which was called Woodstock. French speaking people who had travelled from Wales and earlier from France put up the first buildings in what was to be the future town of Athy. The rise of the two monasteries, on either side of the river, gave the area a status and a permanency which it was never to lose. The Trinitarians are long gone from the area, but the Dominicans who came here in 1253 are still an important element of the town's story. I wonder do we realise the importance of the Dominican link with Athy, one which has lasted for over 700 years despite some enforced interruptions during the 16th and 17th century. The Irish Dominicans in Athy are the living embodiment of our past history, and as such should be cherished by all of us.

The evolving story of the medieval town of Athy is one where battles and wars figure prominently. It was a fortress town, garrisoned to protect the pass or bridge over the river and shield from attack those who lived within the Pale. For that reason Athy was of major strategic importance and figured prominently in all the major events in medieval Irish history. Indeed, its turbulent early and middle history saw the disruption of the Monasteries, siege and counter siege and destruction by fire before it was to emerge into the relative peace and prosperity of the 18th century.

Before then the town had received corporate status, first from King Henry VIII (he of the many wives) and later from King James. This gave an opportunity for development and growth, but the continuing wars of the 16th and 17th century restricted this opportunity and so the town grew very slowly. In 1650 Athy was a village of about 100 houses or so with a population of about 600. It had changed little over the previous 100 years. The town walls destroyed during the Confederate wars of the 1640's were never to be replaced. More importantly, the abandonment of these medieval constraints to the outward spread of the village proved to be an important factor in the future development of the town. The relative calm and stability of the 18th century provided the stimulus for growth which was to be a feature of life in Athy during that century. Commercial activity rather than manufacture provided the basis for Athy's early development. As a market centre with a large agricultural hinterland the village was ideally located to benefit from road improvements in the first half of the 18th century. In common with all other settlements of the 18th century Athy had a Manor Mill where the locals were required to grind their corn and wheat. As a town owing it's patronage to the Duke of Leinster, it was not unusual to find in Athy Leases, even into the last century, the stipulation that local tenants should "grind all such wheat, oats, malt and other grain at the Manor Mill of Athy and pay the accustomed toll for grinding." It is also the 18th century which was to give Athy it's unique religious diversity and as we look at the present day town we see four of those religious groups each represented by a Church on one of the four corners of Athy.

The late 18th century story of the town will be taken up with the coming of the Grand Canal in 1791 and the horrific events surrounding the 1798 Rebellion. The Canal came to Athy, perhaps too late to save the thriving brewing, distilling and tanyard industries which were to be found in Athy 200 years ago. Around the basin of the newly arrived Canal buildings were soon erected, including milling stores which are still standing today. The story of the 1798 Rebellion is one of brutal and systematic suppression of the townspeople. It was precisely that brutality and suppression exercised on the local community by the garrison and local yeomanry groups which quickly dispelled any revolutionary tendencies the townspeople once held. This and the later history of Athy will come alive in audio and visual presentations in what was once the town's Butter Market. I hope the Heritage Centre will be the first of many new enterprises which will develop and flourish in the town of Athy.

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