The Great Southern and Western Railway Line to Athy and Carlow was opened on Tuesday, 4th August, 1846. It was originally proposed as a branch of the Dublin/Cashel line for which an enabling Act of Parliament received Royal approval in August 1844. Just ten years previously the first Irish railway line was opened between Dublin and Kingstown, as Dun Laoire was then known. The Dublin/Cashel line with a branch line to Carlow was initially surveyed by John MacNeill, a civil engineer born in County Louth who had spent a number of years in England working with the great canal engineer, Thomas Telford. Telford is most remembered today for the Menai Suspension Bridge which he built early in the 19th century.
MacNeill surveyed the line of the proposed railway track to Carlow and presented his results to the Great Southern and Western Railway Company, following which William McCormack and Carlow born William Dargan were contracted to carry out the work. Dargan, who like MacNeill had years previously worked with Thomas Telford, had also been the contractor on the Dublin/Kingstown railway line.
The construction of the railway line from Dublin to Carlow brought much needed employment to the towns and villages through which it passed and here in Athy its beneficial effect was particularly marked during the early years of the Great Famine. Despite the partial failure of the potato crop in 1845 the occupancy rate for the Workhouse in Athy during the second half of that year was not unusually high. This was probably due to the availability of work in the Athy area during the building of the railway line. Conder in his book “The Men who Built Railways” claimed that William Dargan employed local men when building the railway, “men who never handled a pick or a shovel, never wheeled a barrow or never made a nearer approach to work than to turn over a potato field with a clumsy hoe”. Despite Dargan’s insistence on employing local men, it would appear that there were more men seeking work than there were jobs to fill. This is the only interpretation I can put on a letter written by William Taylor, Secretary of the Great Southern and Western Railway Company to Dublin Castle on 25th September, 1946 in which he stated: “I beg to inform you that the object for which the additional police force was required in Athy has been effected and the works of the company quietly completed in the town in consequence of their presence there”. Was it a case of too many hungry and desperate men seeking work and proving disruptive when not given jobs by the railway contractor?
MacNeill for his part was engaged by the railway company to design station houses which were to be built at various stops along the line. The original plans for the railway included stations at Kilberry, Athy and Maganey but only the last two stations were built in this area. All the railway stations on the Dublin/Carlow line, including Athy station, were designed and built in what may be called Elizabethan style. The Athy Station, somewhat smaller than the Carlow Station, is a two storey building of five bays on the ground floor built of brick with stone dressings and pointed gables with finials and mouldings over the windows. It is an attractive building which rather sadly has not been maintained in recent years as well as it should.
MacNeill’s involvement in designing the stations on the Dublin/Carlow line was unusual insofar as he was a civil engineer and such work was normally assigned to someone practising in the field of architecture. However, MacNeill had previous experience of this work and he is believed to have designed the railway station in Monaghan town which was converted to other uses when the railway line to Monaghan closed in the early 1960’s. MacNeill also designed the railway sheds on the opposite side of the Athy Railway Station which were acquired in the last few years by the local Town Council. These sheds have now been converted for use as stores and a canteen.
Following the official opening of the Dublin/Carlow line on 4th August 1846 the Freeman’s Journal carried a report under the heading “Great Southern and Western Railway” . It read: “The train trips on this splendid line have commenced and the train leaves Dublin for Carlow at 9.00 in the morning and another at 5.00 in the afternoon. The line was first opened regularly to the public on yesterday and the carriages of all classes were densely crowded with passengers, thus giving early evidence of the vast traffic which is likely to accrue on the line when in full and perfect operation. The train proceeded through Clondalkin, Inchicore, Hazelhatch, Sallins, Newbridge, Kildare, Athy and on to Carlow, conveying a delighted assemblage through some of the most pleasing scenery in Ireland. The arrangements at the different stages to secure the comfort and convenience of the passengers were the theme of general praise.”
Athy Railway Station has taken on a new lease of life with the advent of early morning commuting by those who have come to live in Athy while continuing to work in the Capital city. No doubt at sometime in the near future the extension of the Rapid Rail link to Athy and perhaps even to Carlow will guarantee the continued viability of the rail link which up to recent years was thought doubtful.
The opening of Lidl and the provision of traffic lights with its ancillary road works at the junction of the Kildare and Dublin roads have greatly improved the approach to the railway bridge which was built nearly 160 years ago. The construction of the railway bridge facilitated the extension of St. Michael’s Cemetery by removing from the area known as Bothar Bui the one storey cottages which lined the Dublin road entrance to Athy. Today the cemetery which has been in continuous use for over 500 years is used in conjunction with the new St. Michael’s Cemetery which occupies part of the old fair green. Every time I pass St. Michael’s I’m puzzled to see its double-gated entrance wide open despite the existence of a pedestrian access alongside the main entrance. The failure to take the simple precaution of keeping the gates closed to prevent animals entering and wandering through the cemetery shows a distinct lack of respect for our dead.