Sport has always been an important element in the social life of Athy. For most of us, this encapsulated in the annual pilgrimages to Croke Park to follow the fortunes of the Lilywhites in Gaelic Football. However, in the mid Nineteenth Century before the establishment of the G.A.A., the people of the town found distraction in other public spectacles such as rowing and steeple chasing.
On Friday 15th August, 1856, the Athy Regatta, revived after a lapse of some years, took place on the River Barrow with six races. The important race for the Silver Challenge Cup was for 2 oared boats, the property of persons residing at least 1 year within the town boundary, to be rowed and steered by residents. With an entrance fee of 10/= per boat, clearly it was a gentleman’s sport! A press report of the 1858 Regatta noted that “the embarkments presented a thronged and animated appearance”. while the Athy Regatta Ball for 1859 advertised single tickets at 7/6, the patrons to be entertained by a sting band from 9.30 p.m. with Mr. Doyle, professor of Dancing, Baltinglass, as the Master of Ceremonies. As the Leinster Express of 30th July, 1859 with reference to the Ball stated;
“There is not in Ireland an inland town that can boast of more public
spirit than Athy or among whose inhabitants so many friendly
and social reunions are reciprocated”.
The public spirit so apparent in 1859 quickly dissipated when the Stewards of Athy Regatta procrastinated throughout the summer of 1861 with no prospect of the Regatta taking place that year. Much annoyed by this were local oarsmen Daniel Cobbe and Francis Dillon who had won the Silver Challenge Cup renamed the Corporation Challenge Cup the previous year.
Popular feeling apparently ran in favour of Cobbe and Dillon as evidenced by a ballad sheet printed and circulated in Athy during November and December 1861 titled “Athy Regatta Rhymes.” One such ballad ran :-
Oh! Remember, remember,
The Nineteenth of November
Frustrates a contemptible “do”;
I do not see why
The ONE sport of Athy
Should be stopped by the “whims or mean
schemes of A FEW.
The two local oarsmen inserted an advertisement in the Leinster Express on 9th November 1861 in which they announced the holding of the Athy Regatta on Tuesday 19th November “two challenges having been sent to the Secretary and the Committee not wishing to act in the manner we the present holders of the cups hereby appoint the above day. The cups have to be won 3 times successively and if successful we will claim this as our second year”. The intrepid oarsman duly won the race. Faced with the same official reluctance in 1862 Cobbe and Dillon acted as before. Challenged on this occasion by Delaney and Keefe, victory went yet again to Cobbe and Dillon in what was to be the last of the once popular Athy Regattas.
On 7 May, 1857, steeplechase racing was revived in Athy after a lapse of many years. Four races were held on the Bray course which attracted a total entry of 19 horses, a matter of some satisfaction to the Stewards, Thomas Fitzgerald, J.P., Thomas H. Pope J.P. Anthony Weldon, Hugh Maguire, Joseph Butler and A. Kavanagh, Race Treasurer. The local Newspaper Report catches the excitement of that day.
“Such a sensation was never yet seen in the quiet and unexcitable district of Athy and its vicinity as the dawning of this eventful day created.
………. the roads leading to the race course were speedily thronged with a motley crew of thimble riggers, card setters, trick a loop men, followed by the no less accomplished creed of roulette and shooting gallery proprietors, musicians and all those who imbued with a mercantile and enterprising spirit sought the most eligible position for their forthcoming avocations ……. the proceedings and amusements of the day came off satisfactorily ………. the racing was throughout contested with the greatest spirit.”
Even the local horse racing was not long in resurrecting its critics. On 27 March, 1858, a local correspondent with the name de Plume “short grass” drew critical comparison between the races of 1843 and the previous years’ races implying the reason in his comment “but always in those days the right men were in the right place.” In 1858 the races were held once again during which “disturbances occurred s with subsequent action taken against one of the stewards, he was fined.” The races were not held in 1859. In 1860 Thomas Fitzgerald J.P. was instrumental in reviving the races which were held on Friday evening, 20 April over the Bray course. About 1,000 people attended the meeting and enjoyed the main race for the Athy Cup over a three mile course. The 1862 meeting was run over “a small but well laid out course about 10 minutes walk from the town” but despite Fitzgeralds best efforts, Athy’s tenous claim to racing fame had slipped away.