Thursday, November 24, 2011

Athy's Library and Many Young Men of Twenty

Athy’s community library is no longer open over the weekends.  Keeping the doors closed on the Sabbath day can be justified, if for no other reason than to keep the Sabbath day movement off the streets.  But what’s the reason for keeping the doors to the library closed on Saturdays?

The decision, I am reliably informed, is due to the lack of use by the public.  That surprises me, for Saturday is the one day when with schools closed the young reading population can be brought to the library to begin, what will, in most cases, be a life’s journey through the written world. 

My own grandchildren and other youngsters I know had made a visit to the local library on Saturdays a part of the weekend family routine.  But now the library is closed on Saturdays.  What a shame.  What does it say about our Local Government leaders that such an unwelcome decision should be imposed on a town with a population in excess of 8,500 souls?  It is quite frankly mindboggling and a huge disappointment to see our town now without a public library opening on Saturdays to add to the already shameful lack of a bookshop during the entire week. 

Even back in the days immediately following the Great Famine Athy had a reading room where a lending library was available with books to borrow, in addition to the Irish and English daily newspapers.  Athy Mechanics Institute was founded in October 1849 as an extension of the Athy Literary and Scientific Institute which was established a year previously.  The Institute’s reading room was in Market Square, now named Emily Square, and even then, despite the best efforts of local Methodist businessman Alexander Duncan the reading rooms remained open on Sundays.  However, its library facilities were available only to members of the Mechanics Institute and so could not truly be called Athy’s first public library.

The first such library in the town of Athy opened in the Town Hall on 1st December 1927.  It was operated by Kildare County Council as the local Urban District Council had earlier relinquished its powers under the Public Libraries Act.  A local library committee was set up and was intended to comprise the local Parish Priest Canon Mackey and his three curates, Fr. Ryan, Fr. Browne and Fr. Kinnane who were joined by Rev. Dunlop, the local Church of Ireland Rector and Rev. Meek of the Presbyterian Church.  The six clerics had as fellow committee members five local Urban District Councillors and the Town Clerk James Lawler who acted as the library secretary.  However, Canon Mackey, who had earlier crossed swords with the local Council, refused to come on the Committee for what he declared were ‘reasons obvious to the Council’.  He was joined in his boycott of the library committee by his senior Curate, Fr. Kinnane.  The Committee in time brought on board more lay members and the first librarian appointed was Mr. B. Brambley of Emily Square. 

Choosing ‘suitable titles for Athy folk’ as reported in the local newspapers, was a task assigned to the library sub-committee comprising Fr. M. Browne, T.C. O’Gorman, Manager of the local Hibernian Bank and P.J. Murphy, draper from Emily Square.  The library opened on 1st December 1927 and initially stayed open one evening a week from 7 to 9 p.m.  This was soon extended to two evenings a week.  From these early beginnings the library service in Athy developed until the recent extraordinary decision to close the community library on a weekend day which is surely the most suitable day of the week for young people to attend their local library.  I would hope that decision can be revisited sooner rather than later.

A community library is an investment for the future.  It forms part of the cultural mainstream of our local community, as does the local Arts Centre in Woodstock Street.  That Centre is gradually building an audience and two recent performances have proved to be particularly rewarding.  John MacKenna, acting in his own one man play, ‘Redemption’ demonstrated yet again his outstanding abilities, both as a writer and as an actor.

This week Athy Musical and Dramatic Society’s presentation of John B. Keane’s ‘Many Young Men of Twenty’ proved to be an outstanding success.  The mixture of comedy and mournful nostalgia which marked Keane’s depiction of emigration from rural Ireland was played with gusto by a cast in which John Kehoe and Angela Clifford starred.  Everything about this production was excellent.  The programme, the stage setting and the acting under the direction of David Walsh gave the audience a night to remember.  It was a very nice gesture for the Society to acknowledge in its programme the last Athy staging of the play in 1974 and to invite the surviving cast of that production to attend the opening night.  Well done to everyone involved.

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