We give little thought to the roads and canals which bisect our towns, when they were first laid down and how they developed over the centuries. I was reminded of this when perusing the Biographical Dictionary of Civil Engineers noting those civil engineers who were responsible for the roads which we use today.
One such was David Aher, born in 1780, who began his studies as a civil engineer at the age of 15. He found himself in the Athy area in 1803 when his employers, the Grand Canal Company, leased a number of collieries at Doonane near Athy. At the time the company was proposing to construct a branch canal from Athy to the Doonane collieries for the purpose of both draining the mines and for transportation of the extracted coal. Over the course of the next two years Aher devoted much of his time to designing a tunnel to take the canal to the coal face, but the scheme was ultimately abandoned in 1805. Shortly afterwards he left the employment of the Grand Canal Company and became a manager of collieries owned by the Ormonde family in Castlecomer. His time there was very fruitful and he made marked improvements in both the mining and boring machinery used in the collieries. He was also employed by the bogs commissioners and he made a significant contribution to the surveying of the bogs of Ireland in that period. Not content with working on both mines and bogs he was responsible for the laying out of the main roads through County Kilkenny, including the roads from Castlecomer to Athy and Castlecomer to Kilkenny.
A colleague of Aher's in the Grand Canal Company, John Killally, was a surveyor and canal engineer born in England. We know little about his working life before he came to Ireland. He joined the Grand Canal Company in 1794, becoming its chief engineer in 1798. In 1810 he was sent to Doonane to report on the collieries owned by the company which Aher had previously worked on. He was clearly unimpressed by the collieries and their workings and reported to the company on 6th April 1810 that the prospects for the collieries ‘were by no means flattering’. He was clearly not enamoured with the collieries to the point that he threatened to resign if the company compelled him to take over the position of manager of the collieries.
The principal claim to fame of the colliery at Doonane was its location for the first steam engine in Ireland installed in the 1740s. William Tighe in his book, ‘Statistic Observations Relative to County Kilkenny’ published in 1802 wrote of a Mr. Finlan who had installed at the Coolbawn colliery in Castlecomer two steam engines, one of which was named 'Curragh'. Finlan had learnt his trade on the steam engine at Doonane from a young age and his intelligence and ability had attracted offers of work from England but he remained in Ireland. At Coolbawn, as at Doonane, the engines were used to drain the pits of water. Tighe observed that no thought had been given to using the steam engines to extract coal themselves from the pits, except by the labour of the men. The tunnel that Aher had designed for Doonane would have helped drain the workings and facilitate the introduction of steam engines in extracting coal from the pits.
There was an ongoing debate within the Grand Canal Company itself over the appropriateness or otherwise of the purchase of the collieries and their exploitation by the company. The matter came under the review of the House of Commons in 1812. It appears from these hearings that the reason that the Grand Canal extensions to the collieries did not proceed was because of the expense in paying royalties to a land owner by the name of Dean Walsh. It is clear from the House of Commons’ reports that the ownership and the management of the collieries remained a matter of some debate with the Grand Canal Company. The distinguished engineer, Richard Griffiths, remembered now for his work on the townland boundaries in Ireland and his 'Griffiths Valuation', reported on Doonane in 1814 noting that the collieries were still being worked and much of their product was consumed in the Athy, Carlow and Kilkenny area, while the remainder was brought by canal from Athy to Dublin, Tullamore and Limerick.
The mines are now gone but the road laid out by John Aher from Athy to Castlecomer continues to serve our town to this day