Inland towns such as Athy benefitted enormously from improved road making practises of the 18th century. Prior to then, responsibility for road repairs rested with individual householders organised on a parochial basis. Under an Act of 1612, each warden of the established church was obliged to convene meetings of his parish on the Tuesday and Wednesday of Easter week. At these annual meetings, two parishioners were appointed surveyors of whatever road works were considered necessary in the parish. Over a period of six days each year, every local householder was required to provide free labour on the roads, while landlords and farmers supplied horses, carts and drivers. In this way Irish roads of the 17th century were maintained in a very rough and rudimentary way.
In 1727, the first Turnpike Act was passed. In time, turnpike roads led to most of the important towns in Ireland. They were built and maintained by business people and landlords who derived an income from tolls collected on traffic using the turnpike roads. Athy had a turnpike road running through the town from Kilcullen through Castlecomer to Kilkenny. There were three turnpike gates on that road in and adjoining the town of Athy where tolls were paid. One gate was located on the Dublin Road on the town side of St. Michael’s Medieval Church, while another gate was placed across St. John’s Street (the present Duke Street) at its junction with Green Alley. The third turnpike gate and the last to remain in use was on the Castlecomer Road at Beggars End approximately 700 yards from White’s Castle.
By 1760 all compulsory road work for householders was ended and the building of what were called “presentment roads” commenced. Persons wishing to build or improve roads presented plans and estimates of the proposed work to the County Kildare Grand Jury. If those plans were approved, the applicant proceeded with the work and sought payment from the Grand Jury which imposed a county cess or tax on local landowners to cover the cost of same.
The improvements in road making techniques in the 18th century considerably enhanced Athy’s business catchment area and boosted the weekly markets upon which economy of the town largely depended. By 1756 Athy’s population had increased to one thousand seven hundred and seventy nine, almost treble the figure of one hundred years previously. During the same period, the town’s housing stock had increased to 310, while many fine buildings, both public and private, were constructed during the first half of the eighteenth century. At the same time the Market Square [now Emily Square] was laid out with many fine private buildings constructed on three sides of what was Athy’s first public space. Around 1710 an army horse barracks was built on the outskirts of the town by the Quaker Joseph Gill, who was responsible for building similar barracks in Tullow and Carlow. A military map of 1793 indicates that the barracks accommodated 36 horse troops. Athy had long been host to troops of the English army and they had used White’s Castle as their base for almost 200 years prior to the building of the new barracks. The removal of the Army barracks to the Stradbally road gives some indication of the extent to which the town had spread outside its original medieval town walls. The relocation also reflected the end of the siege mentality which for so long had restricted the town’s development within the bounds of the old walls.
In or around 1755, St. Michael’s Protestant Church was erected to the rear of the Market Square just outside the site of the former Dominican Friary. Tradition has it that stone from the Friary’s church steeple was incorporated into the new church. If it was, a direct link with the original Dominican Friary may be found in the present St. Michael’s Protestant Church which was built in 1840, partly of stone removed from the Emily Square Church. The church of 1755 was built to replace St. Michael’s Medieval Church (now known as ‘the Crickeen’) located in the grounds of St. Michael’s Cemetery, which had been used for church services since the Reformation.
Athy’s transition from village to town status was marked by the erection in the centre of the town of the building which is known today as the Town Hall. Its exact date of erection is uncertain but the building is to be found on John’s Rocque’s map of Athy east prepared in 1756. The building served as a County Courthouse, Town Hall and on the ground floor as the Market House of Athy. Fronted by the spacious Market Square, it gave character and durability to the urban settlement which, despite its previous 500 year existence, was only then emerging from the uncertainty of its early years.