There are lots of interesting history related happenings in Athy this year. Just published with financial assistance from the South Kildare An Taisce is a booklet on the history of St. John’s Cemetery with an index of burial plots and inscriptions. The booklet was researched and compiled by participants in the Athy Alternative Project which was in turn funded by the Probation and Welfare Service of the Department of Justice. It’s very welcome addition to the growing list of material on Athy and its history and congratulations must go to everyone involved in the project.
As you read this article the finishing touches are being put to the fitting out of the Heritage Centre in the Town Hall. Orna Hanley, Architect and daughter of the former Dublin city Architect Daithi Hanley is responsible for design work in the centre and she has been recently supervising the installation of the display cabinets and audio visual equipment in what was formerly the old butter market of the town. The visual and oral presentation of Athy’s history through the centuries highlights a number of topics which will be of particular interest to visitors and locals alike. Ernest Shackleton famous Antartic explorer and native of Kilkea just outside Athy and not Kilkee, Co. Clare as so many newspapers have claimed, is featured in one of the special displays in the centre. The story of his expeditions across the frozen wastes of the Antartic is told in pictures and sound and features a number of personal items belonging to Shackleton. The centre of attraction will probably be the dog sledge used by the explorer on one of his Antartic expeditions. It was returned to Ireland some years ago from New Zealand where it had been stored for many years in a suburban garage. Jonathon Shackleton who now owns the sledge has very kindly loaned it to the Heritage Company for display in the centre. Athy will have the only exhibition of material relating to Ernest Shackleton in Ireland and it is expected that it will create a lot of interest.
Another first for the Heritage Centre is the important and extensive material devoted to World War I. This is of particular relevance in the context of our town’s story as so many men from Athy and district enlisted to fight in what is now commonly called The Great War. I have extracted the names of 188 men from the area who died during the 1914 - 1918 War and of those 105 men were from the town of Athy.
For so long it was deemed imprudent to recall the involvement of these men in a war in which they fought on the side of “the old enemy”. However, the Irish nation has grown in stature and maturity and the Irish people now realise it does no disservice to what one believes in to honour our dead no matter in what uniform they died. Republicans or not, all of us have a shared history in which some of our parents or grandparents or maybe some of our uncles or granduncles enlisted to fight and perhaps to die in the fields of France or Flanders over eighty years ago.
The untimely death of so many local men during the four year period had a devastating affect on post war life in Athy. Their names will now be recalled in the Heritage Centre’s exhibition relating to Athy and World War I.
Interestingly I see a letter in today’s Irish Times from Mark McLoughlin the Manager of the Centre in which he refers to the World Ward I material to be displayed in Athy. This I believe was in response to some earlier correspondence concerning the controversy surrounding a plan to have a War museum in Tipperary town. While our Heritage Centre will deal with all aspects of our town’s history, I am particularly gratified that at a time when the Northern peace process is gathering support from so many opposing sides that we have a sufficiently strong understanding of our past to be able to acknowledge the contribution of local men during the great War. By a happy coincidence the first public event in the Centre will be a book launch on Saturday 9th May at 4 p.m. when Schull Books of Co. Cork will launch their publication of the history of the Leinster Regiment in which many local men served during World War I.
Lest you think the Heritage Centre will be a war museum let me hasten to add that another of its many exciting exhibitions will deal with the Gordon Bennett race run over the Athy course in 1903. The visual display will include some actual film taken of the race and promises to be a particular interest to car racing fans.
The Heritage Centre has been in the planning for a number of years and it is quite exciting to think that on the 15th May those have given sponsorship for the Centre will be able to see it first hand how their money has been spent. The official opening of the Centre will take place on Thursday 25th June when the Minister for Finance Charlie McCreevy T.D. will be the guest of honour. By a happy coincidence Charlie McCreevy as Minister for Social Welfare officially opened the Town Hall some years ago.
Athy’s rich and extensive history marked out the South Kildare town at an early stage as a likely contender for Heritage town status. When the town was so designated the euphoria which it created was understandable in the light of Athy’s past experience in always being the bridesmaid and never the bride. The granting of heritage town status and more importantly the co-operation needed to realise the dream of the Heritage Centre has laid to rest once and for all Athy’s run of bad luck which I feel commenced with the loss of the sugar factory to Carlow nearly 70 years ago.
We are now confidently awaiting the granting of urban renewal status for the town. Athy surely is now on the move.