Thursday, April 29, 1999

Historical Walk of Athy

The organisers of Seachtain Na Gaeilge organised a short walk through part of the town last week with yours truly giving a commentary on the people and events associated with the various buildings met on the way. The first stop was St. Michael’s Church of Ireland at the top of Offaly Street which presents a very pleasing aspect as one approaches from Church Road. The Church is at the end of what might be seen as a long private avenue but is in fact is a roadway to give access to the Peoples Park when it was laid out in the 18th Century. The Park was noted on Taylors map of Kildare of 1783 and confirms it as one of the earliest public parks provided in this country.

St. Michael’s Church was built in 1840 at a time when Reverend Frederick Trench was the local Rector. A resident of Kilmoroney House, he later arranged for the building of the Rectory on Church Road but died in 1860 before it was completed. Local tradition relates that stone from the original Dominican Monastery situated at the Abbey was used in the building of the Church but I believe that the facts do not support this claim. However, we do know that in the building of the Rectory, stone from the town jail on the Carlow Road was used. The jail had been built in 1830 to replace the sub-standard facilities in the basement of Whites Castle and during the 30 years it was used, it contained on average 50 prisoners. Some were serving life sentences while the majority were serving seven years for larceny and other minor offences. The prisoners were accommodated in 30 cells built around five exercise yards and the cell blocks were in turn built in a semi-circular format around the Governors House. That house is still standing with just one block of cells, the remainder having being knocked down to provide stone material for the Church of Ireland Rectory.

The Rector, Reverend Trench was an important and interesting figure in the life of early 19th Century Athy. As the last Sovereign of the Borough of Athy, he occupied a unique position in the history of the Town. Nowadays, he is better known as the man whose accidental death while travelling down Offaly Street led to the removal of the last remains of the Medieval Town gate, otherwise known as Preston’s Gate. Trench’s carriage overturned when it struck Preston’s Gate located at the end of Offaly Street next to the Credit Union office and the Rector who was thrown onto the road later died. He was a friend of Reverend John Keble, the man who with the future Cardinal Newman is identified as the founder of the Oxford Movement. Indeed, Keble visited Athy staying in Kilmoroney House with the Trench’s and he officiated at the wedding of Trench’s daughter in St. Michael’s Church. Another interesting association is noted with Trench’s wife who was a niece of Sydney Perceval, the Brittish Prime Minister was assassinated in the House of Commons in 1812. Next time you pass by St. Michael’s Church at the top of Offaly Street, remember its associations with these notable people and events of the past.

Walking through the Peoples Park we approached the railway station. When the railway line was opened to Athy in August 1846, it reduced the travelling time to Dublin by over six hours. Passenger boats on the Grand Canal took thirteen hours to travel between Athy and the Capital City in 1791. The use of fly boats pulled by teams of four horses introduced in 1837 reduced that travelling time on the Canal to eight hours. Within another nine years, one could travel from Athy to Dublin in less than two hours. The advances made in rail travel spelt the death of the Canal Passenger service and soon after the arrival of the railway, the Grand Canal waters were limited to transporting freight only. The cost of rail travel however, was very prohibitive with a first class single ticket to Dublin costing in 1846 the princely sum of 6/6. For this you had a first class waiting room just inside the entrance to the railway station and a seat with a cushion on the train. For five shillings, one travelled second class using the second class waiting room on the far side of the ticket office and a carriage devoid of cushions. The third class passenger had no waiting room available to him and for his 2/10 had to stand on the journey to Dublin.

The railway provided great opportunities for Athy and enabled it to develop as a Market Town of considerable importance. Now over one hundred and fifty years later, the railway is yet again about to play a considerable part in the future development of the town. Athy has been pinpointed as a town to be developed on a secondary basis as part of the greater Dublin strategy and it was the presence of a good road system and a railway link serving the town with the Capital which secured Athy’s future Development Status. The railway which helped to stave off starvation for so many families during the great famine as work on extending the railway line continued now finds itself acting yet again as a possible saviour of a once prosperous market town as it seeks to regain its former glory.

Passing from the station down the steps located about midway in the wall running down the centre of the railway bridge approach road, I wondered why the road is at two levels. Before the railway bridge was constructed in 1846, the road leading out of Athy towards Dublin had houses on both sides. For the most part, these houses were small cottages and their removal to facilitate the construction of the bridge presented few problems. What was more difficult however, was the substantial five bay two storey house occupied by the Duke of Leinster’s agent which in more recent times we had come to know as the Old Folks Home. It seems to me that to preserve this house, the gradient on the north approach to the bridge out of Athy was much steeper than on the south side thereby ensuring that the Duke of Leinster’s agent was not discommoded by the Railway Companies bridge building. Incidentally there is nothing to support the oft repeated claim that the same house was occupied by the Dominican’s when they returned to Athy in the mid Eighteenth Century. All the evidence points to the Dominican’s having a house in what is now Kirwan’s lane. It was the practise following the relaxation of the penal laws for Catholic Churches to be located in side streets and laneways so as not to attract undue attention. Old maps of Athy show that long before the Convent of Mercy opened in Athy, Kirwan’s Lane as it is now known was called Convent Lane. This was because it led to a Dominican House in the area.

Interestingly, when the Dominicans moved in 1824 or thereabouts to Riversdale House at the end of Tanyard Lane, that laneway was renamed Convent Lane. The original Convent Lane off Leinster Street was at the same time renamed Kirwan’s Lane. Passing up Mount Hawkins, I passed high walls on the left where more than sixty years ago hundreds of Athy people lived in laneways and alleyways. Porters Row, Carr’s Court, Kelly’s Lane and New Road were some of the areas which were cleared away during the slum clearance programmes of the 1930’s. Later that same night, I met Mrs. Mary Murphy of No. 1 Upper St. Joseph’s Terrace who told me that the Council houses in lower St. Joseph’s Terrace were first tenanted by families from Kelly’s Lane.

The walk ended in Meeting Lane, so called after the Quaker Meeting house built there in 1780. A Quaker community flourished in Athy from about 1672 until the beginning of the 19th Century. The last Quaker Family in Athy were called Heuston’s and two children were born to the Heuston parents in the years before the great famine. The Quaker influence on the development of Athy is now hard to discern and the only apparent reminder of their one time presence in the town is Meeting Lane.

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