Friday, December 18, 1992


Recent discussions concerning the need for a new roadway through Athy or alternatively around the town focused our attention on Athy's existing road network. The principal street patterns of the medieval village of Athy have not changed over the years. Not so the side streets and alleyways of previous centuries which have disappeared without trace, largely due to the slum clearance programmes of the 1930's.

In the middle-ages the main highways were kept in sufficient repair for travellers on horseback. Under an Act of 1612 each Warden of the established Church was obliged to convene a meeting of his Parish on the Tuesday and Wednesday of Easter week. At these meetings two parishioners were appointed surveyors of whatever roadworks were considered necessary in the Parish. Every householder was required to provide free labour on the highway works for six days in every year. Landlords and farmers were required to provide horses, carts and drivers. In this way roads were maintained.

When wagons and coaches were first introduced, road surfaces were inadequate for such wheel traffic. Changes in the system of road maintenance were made with the passing of the first Turnpike Act. The English Act of 1663 empowered Justices of the Peace of several counties to erect turnpike gates across highways and charge tolls to passing traffic for maintaining roads. The first Turnpike Act in Ireland was passed in 1727. In time the turnpike roads led to most of the important towns in Ireland. These roads were maintained by Turnpike Trusts set up by business people and landlords and although inefficient they ensured that the larger towns were linked by roads on which coaches could travel.

Athy had a turnpike road running through the town from Kilcullen to Kilkenny. There were three turnpike gates on the road in and adjoining the town where tolls were collected. One gate was located on the Dublin Road near St. Michael's Medieval Church. The second was located at the junction of Green Alley and Duke Street while the third was on the Kilkenny Road at Beggars End approximately 700 yards from Whites Castle.

The tolls were collected by toll gate keepers who lived in cottages beside the gates. These cottages were built on the edge of the road and generally had an unusual shape - either round or hexagonal - in order that the keeper could look out on all sides and ensure no one passed without paying the toll.

In 1846 Athy Town Commissioners campaigned to have the last turnpike gate at Beggars End removed as the collection of tolls discouraged farmers from attending the fairs and markets in Athy. On the 27th of April 1846 the Commissioners met the Trustees of the Kilkenny and Athy turnpike road in Kennedys Hotel, Athy, to discuss the issue. Within four years the Town Commissioners were petitioning the House of Commons against the continuation of the Turnpike legislation. As a result of their efforts and those of the farmers in Kildare and adjoining counties the campaign succeeded leading to the removal of the last toll gate in Athy.

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