From the comfort of 21st century living it is difficult for us to imagine the hardships endured on a daily basis by those who lived in Athy in the 1930’s. The only industrial employment in the area at that time was centered on the local brickyards and while they had in previous years provided steady, if low paid work for the local men and women, their most productive years were long gone. Captain Hosie’s new venture at the top of Leinster Street in the old fair green which he called “Industrial Vehicle’s Ireland” offered the only prospect of permanent industrial employment in the town. The Barrow Drainage Scheme which had been extended to Athy in or about 1926 had moved on downstream but because its stores were located in St. John’s Lane adjoining the River Barrow it still brought some benefits to the town.
Housing conditions in Athy in 1930 were extremely bad. The laneways and courts which would later be swept away under the Slum Clearance Programmes of the mid 1930’s still provided the only accommodation available for many families. The Military Barracks built 200 years previously had lately been acquired by the local Urban Council and the one time Horse Barracks had been adopted to house six families. Amongst them was the Watts family who lived in No. 6 Barrow Cottages. Mr. Watts Senior worked on the Barrow Drainage Scheme and in 1930 his youngest son William was born. As might be expected William Watts was known to all and sundry as “Bill” and in 1935 he started in the Model School on the Dublin Road which his brother and sister already attended. Just across the road from the school was the Presbyterian Church in which the Watts family worshipped each Sunday.
Bill Watts spent six years in the Model School where the Head Master was initially “Boss” Rice and after him Samuel Atkinson. “Boss” Rice served as Head Master for almost forty years and when he retired Samuel Atkinson replaced him. During the five years of Bill Watt’s time in the Model School his fellow pupils included Frank and Leslie Anderson, Albert and Arthur Duthie, Frieda Yates, Mervyn and Billy Shaw, Harry Wynne and Lena Barrington. Their names and youthful faces were to be seen on a number of photographs which Mrs. Duthie of Leinster Street brought to the civic reception which took place last week in the Town Council Offices. Encouraged by his Head Master Samuel Atkinson and with the benefit of extra classes provided, Bill Watts secured a scholarship to St. Andrew’s College, Dublin for the duration of his secondary education. Without the encouragement and help afforded him in the local Model School, especially from Samuel Atkinson, Bill Watts, destined to be the future Provost of Trinity College Dublin, on his own admission would have had an uncertain future.
The Watts family left Athy in 1943 to live in Dublin and so ended Billy Watt’s thirteen year connection with the town. That link, first forged 73 years ago, was acknowledged last Thursday night when Athy Town Council gave a civic reception for Dr. Bill Watts in recognition of his academic achievements and his contribution to the betterment of Irish life.
In a career which commenced with him graduating with First Class Honours from Trinity in 1953 he passed on to University College Hull where he was Assistant Lecturer for two years. Returning to Dublin he took up a similar position with Trinity College, later becoming lecturer and in 1965 University Professor of Botany. However, even greater achievements awaited him and in 1981 he was elected by the permanent academic staff of Trinity College to a ten year term as Provost of the oldest university in Ireland.
Founded in 1592 Trinity College is now so different in so many ways from the educational institution which was once primarily concerned with the training of clerics for the Established Church. It is interesting to note that the town of Athy as a result of a charter granted by King Henry VIII in 1515 has a corporate status older by 77 years than the oldest and most illustrious university in this island. That gives us some measure of the layers of history upon which life in 21st century Athy is founded.
Bill Watts, in addition to holding the highest position in Irish university life for a period of ten years, also held many other positions of national importance. At various times he was Governor of the National Gallery and Governor of Marsh’s Library which has the distinction of being the oldest public library in Ireland. The National Gallery was erected by subscriptions for a testimonial to William Dargan, the Carlow born industrialist who constructed over 600 miles of Irish railway line, including the line to Athy in 1847.
The chairmanship of the National Trust for Ireland was yet another position held by Bill Watts, as well as being Chairman of the Fota Trust and Board member of the U.S.A./Irish Scholarship Exchange Board which is now known as the Fullbright Commission. A member of the Royal Irish Academy from 1964 he was elected President of the Academy in 1982 and as such headed up the most prestigious, learned and scholarly society in Ireland. The Academy had been founded in 1785 under the Presidency of James Caulfield, the first Earl of Charlemont who had been Commander in Chief of the Volunteers in 1780. It was Charlemont’s tutor and travelling companion Rev. Edward Murphy who commissioned Simon Vierpyl, the English born sculptor, to copy statues and busts of roman emperors in the Capitoline Museum, Rome which were later donated to the Royal Irish Academy. Vierpyl came to Ireland in 1756 and was subsequently involved in supervising the construction of many of the finest buildings in Dublin, including Rutland Square [now called Parnell Square], the Casino in Marino and Blackhall Place. Vierpyl is of interest in the context of Bill Watt’s presidency of the Royal Irish Academy because both men have a connection with Athy. Bill Watts spent his early years in the town while Simon Vierpyl who died on 10th February 1810 is buried in St. John’s cemetery in Athy.
Last Thursday the Members of Athy Town Council awarded a civic reception and presentation to Dr. Watts and in the course of his address the Chairman of the Council referred to Dr. Watts’ involvement in so many organisations as “clearly demonstrating his commitment to social action”. The Council Chairman remarked that the duration and extent of that commitment by Dr. Watts confirmed that his experience and skills were being utilised in furtherance of his social responsibilities. “That dedication born of an understanding of the hardships of an earlier generation brings with it the satisfaction of repaying a debt to the men and women whose sacrifices laid the foundations for the standards we enjoy today.”
The big turn out for Dr. Watts on Thursday evening last was an indication of the high regard in which he is held by the town where he grew up in the 1930’s.