The River Barrow had cut a channel through this part of the country long before there was any settlement here. It was the ability to travel by boat from the sea up the river which brought the first Anglo Normans to these parts. What was essentially a forested area soon became a medieval village located on the west bank of the river near to where the river was fordable at its shallowest point. The subsequent development of the village overcame many vicissitudes including war before it blossomed in more peaceful times as an incorporated borough and an important market town.
The River Barrow was an important element in that early development, offering as it did the only reliable channel of communication and transport to and from the south Kildare settlement. The arrival of the Grand Canal in 1791 brought great economic benefits to the town of Athy which by dint of its geographical location now found itself as one of the great centres of commerce on the transport route between Dublin and the southern ports of New Ross and Waterford. It was an advantage which depended on the continuing success of canal trade, which success was fortunately duplicated when the railway came to Athy in August 1846. The steam train became the popular carrier of passengers and freight, replacing the slower canal boat and again Athy was ideally positioned to take advantage of the new development in transport.
The early importance of the River Barrow was a matter of historical interest only as the 19th and 20th century passed. By then it no longer fulfilled any worthwhile role as a channel of transport but instead came into its own as a location for sporting activities. Rowing contests on the River Barrow were an important mid-19th century activity and extensive newspaper reports of the time confirmed the river’s undisputed relevance in terms of the social life of the local townspeople. Thomas Rawson in compiling his Statistical Survey of County Kildare published by the Dublin Society in 1807 wrote that the Barrow ‘gave a great supply of salmon 20 or 30 being frequently caught at the bridge of Athy and all the Spring season when meat was scarce and dear, salmon could be had for three half pence and two pence a pound’.
The boating activities of a few decades later brought added attention to the River Barrow. The Athy Regatta which took place on the river on 15th August 1856 was a revival of an earlier regatta which had lapsed some years previously. Amongst the prizes that day was a silver Challenge Cup on offer for the winners of a two oared boat race confined to Athy residents. A press report of the Regatta two years later noted that ‘the embankments presented a thronged and animated appearance.’ The following year Athy’s Regatta Ball was held in the local Town Hall where a string band entertained from 9.30 p.m., while ‘Mr. Doyle, Professor of Dancing, Baltinglass’ acted as Master of Ceremonies. The success of the local Regatta moved the editor of the Leinster Express to write in his paper of 30th July 1859 ‘there is not in Ireland an inland town that can boast a more public spirit than Athy.’ What a wonderful compliment for a community just ten years after the Great Famine had weakened, if not destroyed, large elements of Irish community life.
The normally benign river passing silently and endlessly through the town sometimes show a different side of its nature. In the height of winter its banks are more often than not insufficient to hold the high volume of water which flows downstream. It is then that here in Athy we take notice of the river as its banks overflow and the river waters cascade across the town Square and further downstream envelops Lords Island and other low lying lands in a watery grave.
During the week I had to drive through Rathstewart and found the road at Lower St. Joseph’s Terrace submerged in water. Reading back on newspaper accounts of winter floods of the past, Rathstewart always figured prominently amongst the areas affected. Indeed until this year’s flooding of Corran Ard housing estate, flooding problems in Athy have in the past generally been confined to the Rathstewart area. Urban Councillors over the years have been faced with demands to take action in relation to flooding at Rathstewart, but in practical terms nothing could ever be done. When the Urban Council purchased two acres of land for £180 from the Sisters of Mercy in 1932 as a site on which to build houses to replace those condemned as part of the Slum Clearance Programme, the flood problems associated with the Rathstewart area were already well known. Messrs Duggan Brothers of Templemore built the St. Joseph Terrace houses using Athy brick and as can be seen today the foundation for the houses were raised above the level of the roadway and hopefully sufficiently high to escape the perennial winter floods which always affect the area. Nevertheless over the years since the houses were first occupied in January 1936 there have been many occasions where the locals have experienced enormous difficulties due to flooding on the River Barrow.
The last great flood in Athy was experienced in February 1990 when the River Barrow again burst its banks to leave the houses in St. Joseph’s Terrace cut off. At the same time the Courthouse in Emily Square presented a scene I had not previously witnessed as swans swam around the building. The River Barrow never allows us to forget its presence and usually takes the opportunity each winter to remind us of the care we must exercise in terms of maintaining flood plains and other natural forms of runoffs from Irish rivers.
During the week I came across a reference to ‘Shamrock Road’. It arose in 1902 at a time when the then Urban Council were attempting to secure lands at the rear of old St. Michael’s Cemetery as an extension to the overcrowded cemetery. The entrance to the lands identified as owned by Hollands was to be through St. Michaels or ‘if feasible, to be made from Shamrock Road.’ It would seem that ‘Shamrock Road’ was what we know as ‘Kildare Road’. Can anyone throw light on the subject? Finally I had a query during the week from an overseas reader regarding ‘Pipers Amusements’ which used to travel around Ireland 70 or so years ago. I have found one reference to ‘Pipers’ in an Urban Council minutes of a meeting in October 1933 when mention was made of ‘living vans’ (presumably caravans) in the Pound Field. Does anyone remember Pipers Amusements or indeed any of the other travelling shows or amusements which visited Athy over the years?