Enda McEvoy, a sports writer with the Sunday Tribune was moved to write an article for the “Kilkenny Voice” which appeared in it's edition of the 31st of October. Headlined “The town that Time Forgot” his article is a damning indictment of our town. Athy he describes as “an awful looking town with a hangdog appearance and peeling facades and crumbling hotel and shop fronts that haven't received a lick of paint since about 1972”. Apparently a seasoned traveller between Kilkenny and Dublin which necessitates a journey through our town, McEvoy posed a few questions for “local worthies to consider amid their red faced splutterings” at the next meeting of the town council.
“What attractions or facilities does Athy boast” asks the Kilkenny man before extending his cross examination to enquire as to what Athy offers the visitors and concluding with the question “Why does Athy resemble a town that stopped evolving over 30 years ago”. He cites Athy as a prime example of what happened to a place that “has been let down by it's civic leaders – as Athy so clearly has”.
How does one respond to McEvoys questions and claims of civic neglect? On the one hand many would believe that he is right when he writes of a town let down by it's civic leaders but equally he is wrong with his sweeping claims of “an awful looking town with it's hangdog appearance.” Athy is perhaps one of the most attractively located inland towns in Ireland accessible by both the River Barrow and the Grand Canal. Due to the ravages of 17th century wars which saw the destruction of much of the earlier medieval village the subsequent reconstruction of the urban settlement gave us extensive open spaces in the town centre. The interlinking Emily Squares provide extremely pleasant public spaces in which two buildings of architectural merit, the Court House and the Town Hall provide a pleasant backdrop.
The long narrow main street so typical of early urban settlements of the thirteenth century brings with it unfortunate drawbacks when faced with twenty first century motor traffic. The solution was never going to be the building of another road parallel to the main street and within shouting distance of it. More apparently stated as within engine noise distance of each other and creating within the two streets an island of the town centre shop buildings whose customers would be forever subjected to a constant barrage of traffic noise and fumes.
If there is a shabbiness about some local buildings(and I must admit that there are buildings on the main street that represent a blot on the streetscape) the problem is accentuated by the close proximity of the passing traffic especially the heavy goods vehicles which should be removed entirely from the town centre. The ever increasing traffic trundling through Athy town centre from early morning to late at night contrives to keep the shoppers away from the retail shops whose success or otherwise will largely determine if the shabbiness complained of by McEvoy will be tackled. There is little incentive for local shop keepers to spend money on repairs or decoration if the customers are staying away. It's almost a chicken and egg situation but with one difference. The removal of through traffic and especially the heavy goods vehicles, from our town centre is essential if the retailing heart of Athy can reclaim the success which once marked it's efforts.
One can readily understand why McEvoy questioned what facilities the town boasts. These may not be obvious to those passing through the town in a car. For those lucky enough to live in Athy there is an enormous wealth of sport organisations with facilities which are second to none. However there is a serious deficiency when it comes to the arts. While the earlier mentioned Town hall houses the town library and the heritage centre there is no dedicated arts centre to serve the needs of the local community. This has been a serious omission in the town facilities ever since the loss of St. John's hall in the early 1960's and shortly thereafter the change in the use of the Town hall from ballroom-theatre to a factory space.
It is not only in the retailing stakes that Athy has slipped behind all the neighboring towns. When we come to consider the cultural needs of the towns people we find that it is an area where we have lost considerable ground. Newbridge has it's Riverbank Centre, Naas it's Moat Club and Portlaoise its Dunamaise Theatre. This brings me to consider McEvoys claim that Athy has been let down by it's civic leaders. What do you think? What do we expect of the nine men and women who collectively constitute the town council and who in conjunction with the town officials manage the affairs of our town? Are they there only to receive complaints of broken doors and windows in council houses, attend to complaints of broken public lights and generally to act as receivers of complaints to be passed on to the council officials? This would seem to be the belief held by a lot of the local people and importantly so far as the town councils members are concerned, these same people have a vote to cast in the next local election. Unfortunately, the messenger boy element has become an important part of Irish politics, both nationally and locally.
What can we say for the town fathers? Do they devote their time and energy to deal with the corporate business of Athy in a way which would satisfy any auditor of corporate performance? I'm afraid not. McEvoy is right. Athy has been let down by it's civic leaders and nowhere is that more apparent than in the failure to properly and speedily deal with the towns traffic problems. The absence of an arts centre in a town which has a tradition of excellence in the dramatic arts is not only regrettable but surely an indictment of our civic leaders as well as of others in our community.
Athy has suffered decades of neglect but in that regard the entire blame should not be laid solely on the shoulders of the Town council. Civic leadership takes many forms and I'm afraid the leadership which one could and should expect from the business men and women of this town has seldom been forthcoming. There are one or two exceptions represented by business men who are always available and always in attendance whenever attempts were made to create a springboard for advancement in the town.
I know that the Town council hosted a meeting last week to recreate a cultural and recreational committee for the town and the hope is that this may lead in the not too distant future to the development an arts centre for the people of Athy. It's a long awaited and a much needed facility and if and when it arrives it will help to secure and boost the multi-talented artistic skills of young and old alike.
In the meantime the members of the town council will no doubt take umbrage at McEvoy's description of our town as they probably will of my comments and claims as regards their collective failure to act as governors of our historic town. I can understand the reason for McEvoy's complaints even if his descriptions of Athy are somewhat unkind and undeserved. However his article can serve to prompt us to look again at what we are doing, and more importantly what we have not been doing, to help to steer this town of ours through what the economists might call “the recovery period”.
Let me conclude with a little bit of history to justify the “Eye In The Past” title which appears at the top of this article. Last week a silver cup presented in April 1909 by E. Higginson to Athy Golf Club for a competition amongst it's lady members was returned from England by Honor McCullagh whose aunt Nora Duncan last won the cup. I haven't had an opportunity to check back through newspaper files but I suspect she won it in or around 1913. Incidentally I gather Higginson was a jeweller who carried on business in the premises now occupied by the Permanent TSB in Duke Street.