On 14th November, 1863 an unidentified correspondent writing from Athy referred to the “large swamp around the rooms of the lamented corn exchange building bounded on the West by the sweet Barrow, on the East by the dock and the Literary Mechanic’s reading room, on the South by that part of Emily Square familiarly known as Dirty Row and on the North by public houses and a public bridewell”.
The reading room mentioned in the letter was part of the Athy Mechanic’s Institute formed in 1853 from the nucleus of the Athy Literary and Scientific Institute which in turn was founded in Athy four years earlier. There all the Irish and English papers were available to the Institute members. A small lending library was another of the Institute’s facilities and this was possibly the first library of it’s kind in the town. It was not a public library as such as the facilities were confined to members of the Mechanics Institute of whom there were 21 in 1854 rising to 91 members three years later.
The first public library in the town appears to have opened in the Town Hall on 1st December, 1927. It was operated by Kildare County Council who in February of that year had agreed to extend the County Library service to Athy on the Urban Council relinquishing it’s powers under the Public Libraries Acts. I cannot find any reference to a public library operated before then by the Urban Council and can only assume that they had not exercised any of their powers under those Acts.
A local Library Committee was formed in June 1927 which was largely comprised of local clerics of all denominations in Athy. The local Parish Priest Canon Mackey and his three Curates Fr. J. Ryan, Fr. M. Browne and Fr. M. Kinnane were nominated to the Committee, as were Rev. K. Dunlop, Church of Ireland and Rev. D. Meek of the local Presbyterian Church. Lay members of the committee included Michael “Crutch” Malone, Sydney Minch, P.J. Murphy and James Foley, all members of the Athy Urban District Council, with James Lawler, Town Clerk as the Library Secretary. Controversy raised it’s head even before the Committee had it’s first meeting when Canon Mackey and his Curate Fr. Kinnane declined to accept their nominations “for reasons obvious to the Council”. Apparently the Canon had taken exception to a discussion in the local Council Chamber in February 1926 which prompted his resignation from the local technical instruction committee. I have been unable to find out what gave rise to this action, but perhaps some of my older readers can throw some light on the matter. Interestingly the two other local Curates remained on as members of the Library Committee despite the resignation of their Parish Priest. Later additions to the Library Committee included T.C. O’Gorman, F. Jackson, Dr. J. O’Neill, Dr. J. Kilbride and Fintan Brennan. The offer of a room in the Town Hall for the Mechanic’s Institute was declined by the Library Committee and instead the Committee agreed to store books in a room in the same building which was then being used by Fintan Brennan, the District Court Clerk. Fintan’s usual offices in the Courthouse were then out of commission due to the burning of the Courthouse some years previously. Fr. Brown was elected Chairman of the Library Committee which by now included Miss Bagot, Miss Lalor and Mr. J. Malone of Stanhope St. Mr. B. Bramley of Emily Square was appointed librarian, a position he was to retain even after he took up employment as Water and Sewage Inspector for Athy Urban District Council in September 1928.
The local Curate and Chairman of the Committee, Fr. M. Browne with T.C. O’Gorman who was manager of the Hibernian Bank and P.J. Murphy, draper of Emily Square were asked to look over books in the County Repository Newbridge to select “suitable titles for Athy folk.”
The newly appointed librarian was to report the receipt of the chosen books on 30th November which he described as “a very choice and varied selection and should be a boon to the book lovers of Athy and District”. The library opened on Thursday, 1st December, 1927 when 24 readers joined. Initially it opened one evening a week from 7.00pm to 9.00pm but before the end of the first month with 160 members enrolled the Committee extended the opening hours to two evenings a week. I wonder whether the Catholic Curate who chaired the Library Committee was Maurice Browne who in later years was himself to achieve a certain literary fame as a writer of such excellent works as “The Big Sycamore” and “In Monavella”. Certainly Maurice Browne, the writer, was a Curate in Athy in the mid-1930’s but I wonder whether he was also there in 1927 or was it a namesake of his who chaired the Library Committee. I would like to hear from anyone who can help me on this.
I have nothing but wonderful memories of the local library and Kevin Meaney who was the branch librarian in the late 1950’s. For how many years he acted as librarian I do not know, but Kevin’s love of books and knowledge of writers was always gladly shared with the library users. The magnificent library which now occupies part of the beautiful 18th century Town Hall building is a monument to Kevin Meaney and the many people who over the years worked in the library services in Athy. One of those people was Madge Cafferty who last month retired after 23 years service as branch librarian in Athy. Madge I understand was appointed after Kevin Meaney retired and she oversaw the transfer of the library from it’s original room in the Town Hall to a larger premises in the rear section of the Courthouse building. There the library was to remain for many years until the final move back to the Town Hall following it’s refurbishment under a FAS Scheme in 1992.
The present library occupies not only the small room which once housed Kevin Meaney’s library of the 1950’s, but also the ballroom which was the scene of so many soirees down the years. The quiet but cheerful ambiance of the graceful building provides a perfect backdrop to the library which the general public, both young and old, are now using in increasing numbers.
I have been a member of the library for many years and I am delighted to acknowledge that the courtesy and efficiency of the library staff continues to be as good as it was under the late Kevin Meaney. Madge Cafferty has played an important part in continuing that tradition of excellent public service. She has got to know many people during her period as branch librarian and many in turn have learned to respect the quiet helpful lady who has dealt with their queries and questions concerning books and authors over the last 23 years. We wish her every happiness in her retirement.