Market Days and Fair Days in Athy were once an important part of the commercial life of the old town. The Fairs were to be found in Woodstock Street as well as the open space at the top of Leinster Street, while the market was in Market Street, better known today as Emily Square. Here is an account of Athy’s Market which appeared in the second issue of the Athy Literary Magazine published on Tuesday, 21st November, 1837. It gives a unique insight into the happenings of 160 years ago.
“The Market Day” is generally interesting to most people. To the townsman it is a day of anxious activity, whether his business is confined to the counter, or in the more noisy throng of out-door wayfaring. It is not the less important to the farmer and the different gradations of his household, who have each some peculiar traffic to push, or some appointment to fulfil. The farmer sons are summoned and orders are given with precision relative to the corn and goods the farmer wants to send to the market. The thrifty “vanithee” is not less active in her preparations; the `lump’ of fresh butter is encircled in its well scoured wooden bowl, and a napkin `white as the driven snow’ laid over it. The weeks gathering of eggs too is a matter of some moment…... The hour has at length arrived when all must wend their way to the great mart, and Mary the eldest daughter unmarried is not displeased that her mother’s duties oblige her to remain at home, and that she is selected to exchange her burdens for tea, sugar, soap and other household necessaries which must be acquired during the din and turmoil of Athy’s Market Day.
It is indeed a busy day and the Market Day of our own town is more important to us than all the world beside. Good reader sure you have been in Athy of a “Market Day”. If you have not a visit to it will be more profitable than a voyage to see the poison tree of Java. If you are a philosopher you will remark a principal law of nature illustrated in our own language; `birds of a feather flock together’. Just take a walk to Cobb’s Corner, and proceed from thence around the Market Square. On your left is a row of decent looking housewives, clean aprons, clean faces, with “I assure you it is as sweet and clean butter as any in Ireland, and those eggs were laid this blessed good morning.” Don’t be surprised if the butter and eggs get together. Go on a little further through the corn sacks, and it is a chance if you don’t stumble over the new crocks and dishes prepared to pack the butter or hold the milk in, with now and then a sort of jingling knell, sounding in the midst of those self same crocks, when my aunt tries what the stuff is with a tap of her knuckles. Now elevate your body, and look due East, that is if the mountains of cabbage plants will permit a vista for observation, and you will perceive a group standing round an aged figure, who might literally be said to be all in motion, for his feet are perpetually moving like the paddles of a steam engine, and his hands generally wield some deadly weapon, while his tongue, with not less velocity than his feet, keeps up an incessant clamour. You stare - feel no alarm; he is a perfectly sane and harmless poor Scotchman, who is sharpening the wits as well as the razors of his customers.
Well, then you have cabbage, parsnips and pigs’ faces to the world’s end - at least to the other side of the square where, what will you guess comes next? The brogues! Surely when the belly is already provided for, such useful members as the feet merit a little attention; and not very far distant are the hats and bonnets, mixed up with eels, applies, sieves and riddles. A little further, You must push your way, no delicate remonstrance will avail you, should you get your boots bespattered, or your coat pulled half off by the multitudinous crowd, emulous to close round some `lion’ in the corn trade, and push their samples of golden drop, &c. into the rich man’s hands. The whirling maze of the crowd has now brought you in company with the `importance’ of the market - the millers, the malsters, the brewers, the jobbers and chapmen, now whispering, now laughing, now talking aloud; observe, in particular, that little group yonder, one half of whom seem to be supporting the pile of mason-work behind them. They are the Rothschild’s of our exchange. A company of soldiers never copied the harlequin positions of their fugle man with such exactness as the crowd around them adopt their different alternations of countenance, changing as they consider the market is likely to fall or rise. You cannot of course pass our Shambles, so much superior to the manner in which meat is exposed in the generality of country towns, and we know you will feel with us that its cleanliness and good order is highly creditable to the proprietor. Watch that little gentleman yonder with what a restless pleasure his eye wanders o’er the fine proportions of fat and lean which compose that ponderous sirloin, which the butcher has stretched in all its inviting amplitude upon his table. Oh! It would be almost a dinner for a hungry countryman to dwell a little here, even in imagination, on gormandizing. Now, intelligent visitor, we will conduct you from the shambles, and urge you a few paces onward, when you will find yourself among the cocks and hens. It was about here that “Cheap John”, in days of yore, held his weekly auction of pins and needles; poor fellow he is gone the way of all flesh, and it will be long before the tidy wives will look upon his like again. The Court-house door is before you, and close under its protection sit the most notorious of all the notorious animals, the bag-ers - the scourge alike of farmers and threshers. Behind you is the great area of the Market- square, and if you would pause for a moment, and let you inventive faculties shape strange fancies, you might imagine yourself in view of a little fleet, such a number of car shafts erect themselves before your gaze, while if you look more earthly you will see apples, creels and asses, bacon, bere and barley, calico, caps and coats, delt, ducks and drunkards, egg exhibitors and extortioners, flax, fish and fowl. A little to the right is a scene calculated to awake indescribable emotions, the weekly assemblage of the two great rival powers, contending for Ireland’s honor or Ireland’s disgrace. The great links or hinges on which turn our nation’s morals, money and mortality - the pigs and potatoes.”
Athy’s Literary Magazine was a short lived venture but we can be grateful that it captured in print for all time the wonderful world of the town’s Market in pre Famine days.