Thursday, June 22, 2000

Athy in Modern Tourist Guides and 18th Century Toll Roads

I was amazed to find in a recent publication by Bord Failte a very unworthy reference to Athy. The Ireland Guide published this year is intended for visitors to this country, hence Bord Failte’s involvement. The entry reads :-

“Athy is a pretty though perhaps slightly run down town towards the Carlow end of the county. Earlier in this century it was a popular circuit for the Gordon Bennett car racing. Today it boasts sounds of motor cars slugging through viscous traffic.”

That’s all it had to say of Athy, the very same town to which Bord Failte saw fit to give substantial grant aid for the provision of a Heritage Centre. The Centre was officially opened in May of last year and yet it fails to get a mention in Bord Failte’s own publication.

Contrast that with the information on Athy to be found in another recent Publication, this time The Green Guide published by Michelin Travel Publications.

“Athy is a pleasant small town on the River Barrow, for many years the property of the Fitzgeralds, Dukes of Leinster. At the beginning of the middle ages it was the largest town in County Kildare, clustered ‘round a fortified crossing of the river. Athy marks the confluence of the River Barrow and the Barrow line, the southern branch of the Grand Canal. It provides pleasant riverside walks and good fishing for coarse and trout anglers. In 1944 Macra na Feirme, a cultural and social organisation for young farming people was founded in the Town Hall. The present bridge, known as Crom a Boo bridge from the war cry of the Geraldine family dates from 1796. Beside it stands Whites Castle which was built in the 16th century. The main square beside the river is graced by the Courthouse which was built in 1856 as the Corn Exchange. On the opposite side of the Square stands the Town Hall which dates from the mid 18th century and has housed a market, Council Chambers and Law Courts. The brick vaulted ground floor now houses the Heritage Centre. It’s displays evoke the history of the town and of the personalities and events associated with it such as the Antarctic Explorer Ernest Shackleton and the famous Gordon Bennett Motor Race. The fan shaped modern Dominican Church is furnished with stain glass windows and stations of the cross by George Campbell, a noted North of Ireland artist of the earlier 20th century.”

There then follows a page devoted to excursions which visitors can take to interesting sites in the Athy area including Ballytore, Moone High Cross, Castledermot High Cross, Baltinglass Abbey, Rock of Dunamase, etc.

If we are relying on Bord Failte as our National Tourism Organisation to encourage tourists into this area I’m afraid we can never hope to achieve much success. Their efforts as indicated by their references to Athy in The Ireland Guide are as about as effective as were the Trustees of the Kilkenny and Athy Turnpike Road in encouraging farmers and traders to attend the fairs and markets in Athy at the beginning of the 19th century.

Turnpike roads were an 18th century initiative which allowed private individuals to develop and maintain sections of the highway in return for the right to impose and collect tolls from those using the road. There was a toll gate at the Dublin road entrance to Athy and another approximately 700 yards from Whites Castle on the Kilkenny Road. These toll gates barred from entering into the town anyone with produce, animals or goods to sell unless and until an appropriate toll was paid. As a consequence thriving unofficial markets developed on both approach roads to the town but outside the toll gates. This of course resulted in a loss of business for the local traders and in 1849 they began to agitate to have the toll gates removed.

Some years earlier the Town Commissioners had begun a campaign to have the turnpike gate on the Kilkenny Road removed. On 2nd February, 1846 Mr. Lord, a local Solicitor, was requested to prepare a submission in support of the Town Commissioners’ demand and the Commissioners passed a resolution on 6th April of that year to undertake “the duty and obligation of paving, maintaining, keeping and repairing the street” from White’s Castle to the town boundary. In doing this the Commissioners were attempting to take those functions away from the Trustees of the Kilkenny and Athy turnpike road thereby undermining the main justification for the imposition of tolls at the various turnpike gates along the road.

At a meeting in Kennedy’s Hotel, Athy on Monday, 27th April, 1846 both parties agreed to the removal of the turnpike gate at the Kilkenny Road entrance to the town. Within four years Athy’s Town Commissioners were petitioning the House of Commons against the continuation of the Athy/Kilkenny Turnpike Act. Public subscriptions were taken up in the town to defray the cost of the campaign and a “Turnpike Committee” was appointed by the Town Commissioners to liase with Lord Naas who led the opposition in the House of Commons. The Turnpike Bill was eventually defeated in 1850 as a result of the combined efforts of the Athy Town Commissioners and tenant farmers from counties Kilkenny, Kildare and Leix.

It’s interesting to note that the 18th century Turnpike Legislation is again now in favour, what with the National Road Authority announcing plans for toll roads around Ireland. The Toll Road and the Turnpike Road are based on the same concept. Road users pay for private road development work by paying a toll or tax each time they use the road. It seems on paper a fairly logical idea, but closer examination discloses it’s unacceptable features.

Why is it necessary to raise more indirect taxes (which is what road tolls amount to) when the country is apparently awash with an excess of direct taxes collected from the same people who will be called upon to pay the road tolls? Athy’s Town Commissioners of 1846 were astute enough to realise that tolls on roads were an unreasonable imposition which had the effect of diverting business from the town. Is it not reasonable to believe that new toll roads designed to take traffic away from congested city and town areas will result in diverting that same traffic back to the areas which they were built to relieve?

It’s quite a coincidence that while a modern version of the Turnpike Road is now being canvassed by the National Roads Authority our own Community Council is doing its bit to revitalise another 18th century initiative - the Canal. The first stage of the Barge Project started by the Community Council five years or so ago will be concluded this August weekend with the launch of the newly named Aiseiri. The next stage of the Project could bring enormous benefits to the town in terms of tourism and visitors generally and I hope that the Committee Members involved receive the support of the local people for the funanza planned over the August Bank Holiday weekend to coincide with the launch of the Barge.

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