Athy Regatta was held in 1859 and again in 1860 when victory in the principal race went to two locals Daniel Cobbe and Thomas Dillon. An interesting aside to the race was the attempt by Cobbe and Dillon to purchase a newly built boat owned by John Haughton of Ardreigh Mills to use in the race. However, their opponents, local men by the name of Doran and Delaney, sealed the deal for twenty guineas by using the newly installed electric telegraph, while Dillon was still travelling from Athy to Ardreigh to negotiate a deal. Cobbe and Dillon had no option but to acquire ‘Gypsey’, a Carlow boat. Thousands thronged Athy for the race and ‘Gypsey’ oared by Cobbe and Dillon won by a dozen lengths in a time a little over 9 minutes. The newspapers report noted that ‘when the victors were on terra firma they were placed on chairs triumphantly carried through the town proceeded by their boat and oars.’
Two weeks later the People’s Park was the site for the holding of the Kildare, Queens County and Carlow Horticultural Association Show which was being revived after a lapse of seven or eight years. The following May the same association held its spring show in Athy’s corn exchange.
The summer of 1861 saw excitement on Duke Street when two gunsmiths, Michael Melay and William Cullen had a race along the length of Athy’s main street. Melay was on a velocipede, while Cullen was using his own hand driven invention which he called ‘the patent ziramza’. Both men, whom I assume were locals, were subsequently prosecuted by the local Council under the Town Improvements Act. No doubt many of the town’s population of 4,113 enjoyed the event and gave much needed business later that day to the town’s 44 public houses.
The difficulties which affected the Athy horserace meeting seem to have transferred to the regatta as in 1861 the regatta committee, for whatever reason, was not disposed to hold the annual event. Messrs Cobbe and Dillon who had won the Corporation Challenge Cup the previous year for boats and crews from Athy, challenged the regatta secretary to hold the regatta. When the committee took no steps to do so Cobbe and Dillon arranged to row the course and claimed their second victory. The two locals were of course anxious to win the valuable silver trophy three times in succession as they could then claim ownership. In 1862 when the regatta committee again declined to organise the annual races Messrs Cobbe and Dillon issued a challenge which was taken up by two locals, Delany and Keeffe. The race was won by Dillon and Cobbe who then claimed ownership of the Corporation Challenge Cup which was never again raced for and Athy regatta races were never again held.
Somewhere today there may be a silver cup once known as the Corporation Challenge Cup which was the centrepiece of the once popular annual regatta which brought thousands of spectators onto the streets and river banks of Athy.
The 1860s were seemingly a bad period for Athy for in addition to losing the county assizes to Naas and the closure of the local jail, sporting Athy lost in quick succession the annual horserace meeting and the annual regatta. Undaunted some locals tried to reverse the town’s fortunes for in July 1862 the local newspaper reported ‘Athy pony races came off on Wednesday in a small but well laid out course about 10 minutes walk from Athy ..... the programme comprised two pony races, hack, donkey and men racing.’
Two months later the inaugural exhibition of the Kildare Agricultural Society was held. August the following year the People’s Park was the venue for the inaugural reunion of the Grand Leinster Archery Fete held over two days. A large marquee was erected in the park, while the archery contest for men and women took place in the adjoining field which was walled in. The band of the 86th Regiment performed in the park, while on the road outside were ‘cigar or light men, roulettes, targets, etc.’
Neither the horticultural show nor the archery contest proved attractive for the locals as the subsequent newspaper report claimed: ‘We regret to learn that the inhabitants of Athy and neighbourhood did not come forward to the support of the recent archery meeting in the manner they might. Last year there was a similar complaint to make with respect to the agricultural exhibition and if there is not some person energetic enough to keep up the credit of the town we fear it may even be minus the latter.’
The horticultural show did survive and in 1864 it was held in a large marquee on the same day and in an adjoining field as the county cattle show. Was this, I wonder, the earliest reference to the Showgrounds which in time would become the homes of the GAA Club, the Rugby Club, the Soccer Club and Athy’s Tennis Club?