Thursday, August 21, 1997

Athy's Heritage Centre and the Inner Relief Road

An interesting struggle is taking place at the moment. Unknown to most people its existence is perhaps not even realised by those closest to the issues involved. On one side is the Heritage Town Development which holds out so much promise for Athy’s participation in the National Programme for Tourism Development. In the opposing camps are the plans for the proposed Inner Relief Road for Athy.

Athy once a strategic Town on the Medieval Marches of County Kildare was chosen as one of the Heritage Towns of Ireland for a number of reasons. The richness of its 800 year old history was of course a pre-requisite for any initial consideration. What marked Athy out from the many other Historic Towns in Ireland which sought Heritage Status was its character, its layout and the wealth of its Architectural Heritage.

The sedentary pace of development in Athy over the years ensured that important elements of the building fabric and the layout of the Town had survived until now. Much the same can be said for Galway City where a tasteful and sympathetic development of its surviving building heritage is now taking place. The question posed for us by the Inner Relief Road proposal is whether the benefits claimed for this short to term traffic relieving measure justifies the loss of so many of the elements which gave Athy its Heritage Town Status.

The distinctiveness of the layout of Athy stems partly from medieval influences on the Towns Development. This has given us a linear type pattern of settlement with a Main Street running from one end of the Town to the other with various minor side streets. The dissection of that main street by three almost parallel corridors, a railway line, a river and a canal adds further to the distinctiveness of the towns layout.

Within the town itself, there are many important urban spaces. Emily Square both front and rear is a fine example and constitutes an important Architectural composition normally found only in planned towns of a much later vintage than twelfth century Athy.

The question we must ask ourselves is whether we are justified in changing the distinctive layout of Athy to facilitate the traffic relieving measures which admittedly might well be the most economic solution to our present traffic problems. There are a number of other matters apart from finance to be looked at when arriving at any decision. Will the Inner Relief Road provide those of us who work and live in the town with a safe and as good an environment as would follow the re-routing of through traffic on an outer Relief Road? I think not and those who support the Inner Relief Road should consider the effect on people and on the environment of creating a huge traffic island out the heart of the town.

There are of course financial reasons why the shortest and most direct route should be chosen to divert traffic from Leinster Street and Duke Street. If financial considerations alone were to decide the issue, the Inner Relief Road would proceed immediately. But even more important than money matters in this case are the environmental effects, the safety considerations and the future development possibilities for the centre of the town. Put a new traffic route through the centre of Athy and you will have of necessity restrict - the nature and scope of urban development that can thereafter take place there. If on the other hand you rid the town centre of the stifling influence of through traffic you are then free to develop the important shopping and living elements of provincial urban life in a manner which ensures us a healthy and attractive lifestyle.

I started off this article by referring to the covert struggle presently taking place. The struggle is a real one especially as the Heritage Centre which will be the flagship of Athy’s Heritage status will soon be opened in the Town Hall. It will form a focal point in the previously mentioned architectural composition we all know as Emily Square. That is of course unless the Inner Relief Road ploughs through the centre of Athy in which case the Heritage Centre will be a prime example of bureaucratic foolishness stuck in a traffic island between two parallel roadways. How else could one describe a monument to an Urban Heritage which will be destroyed and lost to us forever if the Inner Relief Road is built.

Incidentally, who is pushing this Inner Relief Road on the people of Athy and by doing so, apparently dis-regarding the feelings of the local people, not to mind the other issues which are raised. Is it the County Manager? or the County Engineer? or from whom does the impetus for the prolonged offensive in favour of the Inner Relief Road come from?

I mentioned the subject of the Heritage Centre today because the Heritage Company of which I am a Member is now seeking contributions from the local community and from local businesses towards the cost of completing work on the Centre. I would not suggest anyone give a penny towards the project unless I was confident that the road project which could destroy so much of our built heritage will not go ahead as planned. I am hopeful that common sense will prevail and that Athy will get an Outer Relief Road thereby ensuring the survival of the distinctiveness and individuality of the Town.

The Heritage Centre represents an opportunity for all of us to invest in the future of Athy. Corporate contributions of £5,000.00 are being received as well as individual contributions up to £1,000.00 or more if desired. While writing of Heritage matters and Athy’s importance and a distinctive and attractive Anglo Norman Irish Town, we should realise that people outside of Athy have perhaps a better appreciation of the towns status. Members of the Cork Historical Society and more recently members of Thomond Historical Society have visited Athy and have commented favourably on what they have seen.

On the 11th October, the Federation of Local History Societies of Ireland will hold its Annual General Meeting in Athy. This is an important annual get together of all local History Societies throughout the country and represents an enormous boost for Athy’s claim to be truly a Heritage Town.

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