Architecturally Athy is an interesting example of an Irish provincial town which owes its post medieval development to its role as a market town. The town centre square laid out in the early 1700s was the important start of that development, creating as it did what was known as ‘the Market Square’. Here it was that the commercial side of local farming was centered and was to be for another 250 years or more. To the Market Square of the settler’s town of Athy came the cattle jobbers and buyers with farmers and food producers, all anxious to buy or sell. The town which had last seen war during the Confederate period of the 1640s was then enjoying an extended peace which prompted the redevelopment of the town centre.
The buildings now lying in Emily Square are mostly of the 19th century, with evidence of 18th century buildings in the Town Hall and the entrance to what was the town Shambles. The Shambles was the town’s meat market, with stalls lining both sides of the short laneway which was entranced through the archway between present day Andersons and the Emigrant pub.
The Courthouse building in what we now call the ‘Back Square’ is an unusual building, standing alone at the edge of Emily Square and backing on to the River Barrow. Curved gables with tall granite chimney stacks and arched colonnades on both sides of the building allow the Courthouse to present an almost exotic backdrop to the local urban landscape. I have often wondered about the relevance of the stone finials rising high above the roof of the Courthouse. Built at the expense of the Duke of Leinster in 1852, were they I wonder symbols associated with the Free Masons of which the Duke was Grand Master. However, my research has failed to show any connection with any known Masonic symbols.
As one might expect of a provincial urban settlement, and an Irish one at that, the remaining buildings of architectural merit in the town are by and large public buildings. The Town Hall, the Courthouse, the former Workhouse and the Model School (before its recent destruction) are all fine buildings, with an architectural provenance which is impressive.
Frederick Darling, one of the founders of the Royal Institute of Architects of Ireland, is believed to have designed both the Model School and the Courthouse. The Workhouse building, now St. Vincent’s Hospital, was the work of George Wilkinson who oversaw the building of the Irish Workhouses in the years immediately preceding the Great Famine.
The Town Hall, much added to and altered since it was first built in the 1720s, may have been designed by Richard Cassels. He designed Carton House Maynooth and Leinster House Dublin for the Duke of Leinster and while no documentary proof exists to confirm his involvement with Athy’s Town Hall, it is more than likely that he did design the building for his patron, the Duke of Leinster.
The earlier mentioned Frederick Darling was the Architect responsible for St. Michael’s Church on the Carlow Road and the Presbyterian Church and Manse on the Dublin Road. Churches are a dominant feature of Athy’s landscape, with church buildings located on four of the major approach roads to the town. Not included amongst these is Athy’s most exciting modern building – the Dominican Church off Convent Lane. Its extraordinary roofline and dramatic interior gives us one of the best examples of modern Irish church architecture.
Our two St. Michael’s Churches, one erected in 1840, the other 124 years later, provide an interesting contrast. Facing eastwards for worship is a traditional practice in the Christian world and the longitudinal axis of most churches is therefore west – east, with entrances on the west side and altars on the east. The Dominican Church and St. Michael’s Church of Ireland both diverge from this tradition. In the case of St. Michael’s it is clear that limitations on the site donated by the Duke of Leinster and the need to have the entrance adjoin the roadway caused the altar to be placed on the west side of the church. No such restrictions applied to St. Dominic’s so placing the altar of that church on what would appear to be a southwest orientation was a break with church tradition. However, I recall that the previous Dominican Church on the same site had its altar facing north. I wonder why this was?
Everywhere one looks carefully around the town can be seen interesting remains of a building heritage which has been accumulated over many years. It is not just the buildings such as those mentioned in this article which make up this built heritage. It includes the work of craftsmen now long gone which can be seen in the jostle stones, the archways and the many other examples of fine craftwork which adorn the public and vernacular buildings of our town.