“The new street of Athy will not be implemented as one major project. Rather it happen gradually over a longer period”. So wrote Patrick Shaffrey in the conclusion to his “Report on the Architectural Urban Design and the Heritage Aspects of the Proposed Inner Relief Road”. Note carefully the usage of the term “road” in the title to his report which, by a subtle form of metamorphosis is transformed into a street by its conclusion. The man engaged by Kildare County Council to advise it on the Relief Road Project for Athy first produced his report in January last. It is now being reproduced in a glossy format, replete with photographs and aspirations carefully designed to win over those people who, up to now, have remained unimpressed by the hard sell tactics of the County Council’s road engineers.
To be utterly fair to Mr Shaffrey, he has acknowledged that “the proposals included in this report are indicative only”. They are not definite plans by either Kildare County Council or Athy Urban Council - they serve merely to show what can be done on paper.
There is a hint here of the approach advocated by the Council officials when pressed at meetings of the Urban Council on such issues as pedestrianisation, one or two way traffic flows and other little details of that sort. “These are matters which can be agreed after you have decided to go ahead with the Inner Relief Road”, we were told with all the panache of a head teacher admonishing school boy truants. “Trust us”, is and was the message which the Council and its consultants would have us recite mantra-fashion while the bulldozers move in to rip up the most important urban spaces serving any town in Ireland.
Shaffrey’s report claims the Inner Relief Road is an opportunity to create new civic spaces and to improve the environment for pedestrians by strict and careful management of traffic. The proposed new civic space would be created around the Dominican Church where Mr Shaffrey finds the present building “has a poor connection” with Duke Street. How that “connection” can be improved with a new road running across the front of the church cutting off pedestrian access to Convent Lane is anyone’s guess. What will the Dominicans, who have served us for almost 750 years feel about the public annexation of the ground around their church. What indeed will they think of the huge reduction in the parking facilities for church goers as a substantial part of their car park is taken over by a new road.
Mr. Shaffrey, as an architect of some repute, recognises the importance of Emily Square as the heart of Athy and states that “the impact of the new street (on the Square) needs to be handled with great sensitivity”. How sensitive can you be when you plan to run a major traffic route through an open urban space as important as Emily Square, both front and back, a form never to be regained, if once lost, tier of environmental jewels in the heart of our ancient town. Why destroy a civic space of such importance while seeking to fob us off with the artificiality of a restricted area around the Dominican Church.
How can it be said that the environment for pedestrians can be improved by a decision to channel all vehicular traffic, whether car or lorry, through the heart of the town. This is the basis of all the plans and reports which have flowed from Kildare County Council over recent years in a costly, and I am happy to say, fruitless attempt to persuade the local people of Athy to meekly set aside and let the bulldozers free in our town.
Even Mr. Shaffrey, unwittingly perhaps, highlights the crassness of the County Council’s position when he wrote of the challenge “to moderate the negative impact introduced by increasing traffic”. The negative elements of introducing or retaining traffic within the urban centre is universally recognised and nowhere more so than in England where town planning took its first faltering steps. The English road authorities have had the good sense to protect their own urban environment by by-passing towns. In Ireland, we too have learned the benefits of by-passes and Kildare County Council, to its credit, has included in its own draft Development Plan for the County, the objective of by-passing the towns within the County. Alas, Athy, located in what some public representatives claim is a backwater of the County, is the only town in County Kildare, not to have the benefit of a by-pass. So much for democracy.
There are so many other aspects of the County Council’s latest charm offensive (what I must call Mr Shaffrey’s report) which do not stand up to scrutiny that they cannot be adequately covered in this short article. Suffice it to say that Athy Urban Development Group will be holding a meeting in the Town Hall tonight Wednesday 17th November at 8pm to discuss the latest developments in the Inner Relief Road saga. Everyone with an interest in protecting Athy against the worst excesses of the road engineers should come along to that meeting.
I recently received from her grand-daughter, a copy of a local newspaper report dated the 5th November 1955, which dealt with the passing of Mrs Agnes Glespen of Duke Street, Athy. I can remember as a young fellow, Tommy Glespen works at Duke Street but little or no detail can I recall. Mrs Glespen, in her young days, was a contralto, who sang with the Dublin Operatic Society and later still with the D’Oly Carte Operatic Company in England. Do any of my readers remember Mrs Glespen ? I would be interested in hearing of people’s memories of her and particularly if she ever sang in any of the local halls in Athy.