It’s a strange coincidence that the Clanard Court Hotel opens as the Leinster Arms Hotel is about to close its doors after more than 200 years in business. The old gives way to the new and the elegance of the new hotel with 38 bedrooms surrounded by eight acres of landscaped gardens replaces the one time coaching inn located in the very centre of the town.
The 12th century settlement on the banks of the river Barrow was from its very early years providing comfort and refreshments for the medieval traveller in the local monastery of St. John’s. Attached to the Monastery was a hospital or hostel which catered for the needs of the travellers who passed this way using the river crossing at the Ford of Ae.
The advent of the turnpike roads from Kilcullen to Athy and onwards to Castlecomer in the 18th century prompted the setting up of an inn in the main street of the town where weary travellers could rest and feed their horses while they themselves enjoyed the overnight comforts of the local hostelry. The Leinster Arms was from an early age the principal inn in the town of Athy and directly opposite it on the far side of Leinster Street were located the coach houses and stables which with the advent of mechanised travel later became garages.
It was from the Leinster Arms Hotel that the Liberator from Derrynane, Daniel O’Connell, set out on the last leg of his journey to the Monster meeting in Mullaghmast on 1st October 1843. Many are the visitors who over the years passed through Athy, some of whom later provided a written account of what they found. The exiled French Chevalier de Latocnaye toured Ireland in 1796/’97 and arriving in Carlow he decided to walk to Athy to see the new canal system which had reached the town four years previously. He referred to Athy as a village, at the entrance to which “I was stopped by four or five persons who asked for charity - they explained it was to be used to give a decent burial to a poor wretch who had died of hunger”.
Just fifteen years into the new century in 1815 another traveller by name Atkinson, wrote of Athy which he visited the previous year.
“For the quality and quantity of its wheat, the Athy Market is deservedly celebrated. In the town however there is no manufactory of note save that of two establishments for the distillation of malt into ale and whiskey …… the town has a respectable appearance, the footpaths are neatly paved and in winter the streets are lighted up an accommodation rather unusual in country towns.”
In 1844, the year before the Irish potato crops failed James Fraser, a landscape gardener, published a Handbook for Travellers in Ireland. On visiting Athy he found the town “a place of little trade”, despite being surrounded by tillage country. In the local inn breakfast cost 1/6, dinner 2s., tea 1s. and a bed for the night cost 1/6.
Just a few years after the Great Famine Thomas Lacy made a tour of the country during which he visited Athy. Lacy, who published in 1863 an account of his journeys through Ireland under the title “Sights and Scene in our Fatherland”, gave what was up to then the most comprehensive description of the town of Athy. It ran to almost six closely printed pages and he declared himself impressed with Athy which he described as “a handsome regular town and for its size a very prosperous and flourishing one”.
In 1860 Blacks Guide Book for Tourists appeared in its third edition and in it Athy was described as “the largest town in the county”, which was apparently of interest to the tourist only because of its proximity to Mullaghmast and to the Moate of Ardscull. Murray’s Hand Book for Travellers in Ireland published in 1878 described Athy as “a well built little place” and listed the Leinster Arms as the only hotel in the town. In the 1902 edition of the same guide three local hotels were listed, the Leinster Arms, the Hibernian Hotel and Shiels Hotel. All three hotels were located in Leinster Street, but the leading establishment was still the Leinster Arms which by then was more than 100 years in business.
An English publishing company produced in 1904 a book titled “How and where to Fish in Ireland” in which pike fishing on the River Barrow between Athy and Monasterevin was highly recommended during the winter months. Athy was described as having “a fairly good hotel” and while it was not named I would assume that the reference was to the Leinster Arms Hotel.
Travel books and guide books generally have dealt with Athy, which is in a non-tourist part of the country, in a perfunctory manner, but it was Richard Hayward’s book on Leinster in the “This is Ireland” series published in 1949 which for the first time contained a pictorial image of the town. The pencil sketch by Raymond Piper is of the back square looking across as one stands on the footpath outside what is now Finnan’s house. Its a beautiful sketch of an important part of Athy’s civic centre and the original drawing by Piper is on display in the local Heritage Centre.
The Leinster Arms Hotel has provided many visitors with food and shelter since it first opened its doors back in the 18th century. In the intervening years it has passed from one owner to another and to Gerry Griffin will fall the task of turning the key in the hotel’s main door for the last time when the business closes later in the summer. In the meantime the Clanard Court has opened its doors and the large crowd of well wishers who turned up for the opening last Thursday night no doubt came away impressed, as I did, at the range of facilities which awaits guests at Athy’s new hotel.
Athy’s links with the Earls of Kildare and the Fitzgerald’s is highlighted in the names given to various function rooms in the Clanard Court. Lord Edward Fitzgerald and his mother Emily are recalled, as well as the Duke of Leinster, the Earls of Kildare and Woodstock, all names given to suites in the Clanard Court Hotel.
The Clanard Court is the first purpose built hotel to open in Athy and represents a vote of confidence in the business life of a town which up to thirty years ago was the leading industrial centre in the county of Kildare. Best wishes are extended to the Fennin family for a successful venture and one which is assured the support of the people of Athy and district.