Thursday, March 6, 1997

Athy's Town Hall

There is a feeling of nostalgia in the air this week. As a child of Offaly Street, l look upon the development of Butler's Row and the refurbishment of the ground floor of the Town Hall as further proof, if such is required, that the Town of my childhood is changing every so rapidly. The row of little houses in Butler's Row have been demolished and replaced by modern semi-detached models of the Architect's Training and Skill. It's the demolition work on the ground floor of the Town Hall which commenced on the Tuesday after St. Patrick's Day which brings back memories of times not so long ago.

When the builders have finished reshaping what was once the butter market, in its place we will have a Heritage Centre. I never imagined that such a thing existed when as a young fellow I played in the back square under the watchful eye of Jim Dempsey the Weighmaster. He sat in his little office alongside the Weighbridge which was positioned at the entrance of what up to last week was the Fire Station. Then of course the Fire Station was located in Meeting Lane and the Town Hall housed nothing more than the Wright family, the Ballroom on the First Floor and the Freemasons Lodge at the top of the building. What an extraordinary combination that was in the grand building which was provided for the people of Athy by the Duke of Leinster in the early years of the Eighteenth Century.

The initial construction date for the Town Hall is unclear although it was an existence by the time Bishop Pocoke passed through the town in 1745 . He noted "a new market house at Athy". It was for this purpose that the building was first constructed where its arcaded structure provided easy access for traders while protecting them and their wares from the vagaries of the Irish Weather. The building of the new corn exchange in 1862, a building later converted to use as the Courthouse, reinforced the Market Square as the Commercial Centre of Athy in the Nineteenth Century.

The ground floor of the Townhall served as the Market Place while the upper stories functioned as the centre of local Government during the days of the Borough Council of Athy. A number of borough officers would have used the Townhall. These included the Recorder, the Sergeants at Mace, the Town Clerk and Billet Master, the Bellman, the Weighmaster and the Inspector of Coal and Culm. Also on the first floor of the Townhall was the Courtroom where many a local man and woman faced the fearsome rigours of eighteenth and nineteenth Century Irish Law. Lengthy prison sentences were then common place even for what we would now regard as the simplest form of offence. The theft of a chicken merited the harsh penalty of seven years imprisonment which was served in the primitive conditions of the White Castle Prison up to 1830. Thereafter the new jail on the Carlow Road was the centre of detention where the prisoners at least could expect a more reasonable standard of care during their confinement. The Courtroom was a scene of many notable trials including those of persons implicated in the 1798 Rebellion and Robert Emmets Rebellion of five years later. The infamous hanging Judge Lord Norbury sat in Judgement on offenders in the Town Hall and on one memorable occasion he had a Jury which displeased him transported in turf baskets on the back of jennets to the borders of Co. Laois.

In the more recent years the Ballroom was a welcome addition to the facilities provided in the Town Hall. Again it was the Duke of Leinster who had the Ballroom incorporated into the building which was owned by the Duke's Family before it was acquired by Kildare County Council. For natives of Athy, the Ballroom holds many memories. A Theatre at times, it was home to successive amateur dramatic clubs and to Musical Societies long before the Social Club in St. John's Lane came on stream. Indeed, I can recall the very first play I attended in the Town Hall when I was a young lad, I was brought to the Town Hall by my older brother Jack to see "The Barrets of Wimpole Street". The Social Club players were involved and I have never forgotten what for me was a most memorable experience. Later on the Ballroom was a scene of Sunday afternoon dancing classes organised by Cara an Irish Language Organisation started in Athy forty years ago. There my pals and I made our first faltering attempts to follow in the dancing footsteps of our elders all of whom seemed to us to possess uncanny and seemingly unlearnable Ballroom Dancing skills. But the intricacies of the quick step were in time to be conquered even by us clumsily corduroyed lads of the late 1950's and before long we were able to strut our skill with the best of them. Indeed, the Town Hall Ballroom provided a great training ground for us before we transferred our allegience to Dreamland Ballroom when it opened its doors in 1961. By then the Town Hall was no longer the local dancing mecca having lost out to the Ritz in Carlow and Lawler's of Naas. Everything however was put to right with the coming of the Reynolds Brothers to Athy and the opening of Dreamland. The Town Hall was forgotten as we made the weekly Sunday night trip up past Blackparks to the Glitzy Lights of Athy's newest attraction.

As in life the wheel turns full circle and here we are over thirty five years later returning to the Town Hall. The lights have long gone out in Dreamland and its the ancient Buttermarket Building that is now about to come to life again.

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