Glassealy resident, Thomas Rawson, wrote in 1807 of Athy where he was a member of the Borough Council:-
‘The extensive town of Athy, on the navigable River Barrow at its junction with the Grand Canal holds out much invitation to English capital and English industry ..... yet with all these advantages, in the midst of a populas charming country with water carriage to all the world, Athy is neglected, is in poverty and has not any one manufacture carried on.’
Thirty one years later an unidentified local whose letter was printed in the March edition of the Athy Literary magazine had this to say of Athy:-
‘There is not a town so completely neglected ..... during the late and inclement season when sickness and starvation visited alike the able bodies and aged poor there were no humane individuals to step forward to adopt some mould of relief by instituting public works or other useful things which would even partially mitigate their sufferings.’
Towards the end of his letter the writer who was obviously a resident of the town invited his readers ‘to visit through our work days and ramble through our deserted streets and see the able bodied labourers at our corners, hoards of beggars at our doors, disease and famine in the hovels of the poor.’
The Great Famine was just seven years away when that letter was written but the reference to ‘famine’ and ‘hovels of the poor’ were borne out when post famine statistics showed 1205 deaths in the local workhouse and the loss of approximately 1000 persons from the town during the period 1845-1848.
But Athy recovered and quickly, if one is to believe the claims made by Alexander Duncan in 1853, a local draper and Town Commissioner, that Athy had progressed in the previous 20 years. It was a progress which saw the extension of the Great Southern and Western Railway to Athy and onwards to Carlow in 1846. This, coupled with the removal of the turnpikes gates on the main roads leading into the town, allowed fairs and markets and the business of the town generally to develop unrestricted. The introduction of gas lighting in the principal shops in Athy in 1857 gave a further boost to the town’s business sector. In time Athy would come to be recognised as the finest market town in the province of Leinster.
The recession which followed the collapse of the recent Celtic Tiger years has brought enormous changes for the worst to most Irish provincial town centres. Here in Athy vacant business premises are an unwelcome sight on our main streets. The fall off in retail business in the town of Athy which in my youth boasted a vibrant retailing life has been the cause of concern for some time past. A few months ago a number of local business people got together to consider how best to arrest the town’s decline and to plan for the economic, physical and social regeneration of Athy. Partners in that project which was initiated by a number of individual members of Athy Lions Club include Athy Enterprise Centre, Kildare County Council, Athy Chamber of Commerce and several local business persons. Operating under the name ‘Athy Enterprise Network’ the group has commissioned Shannon International Development Consultants to prepare an integrated economic revival programme for the regeneration of Athy with emphasis on local community and business participation.
The consultants would like to hear from anyone with thoughts, ideas or views on the malaise affecting business in Athy and suggestions as to how to achieve the economic, physical and social regeneration of the town. Send your observations in writing to Helen Dowling, Athy Enterprise Centre, Woodstock, Athy to reach her not later than Friday of this week, 17th April.
This is an ideal opportunity for anyone interested in the future of Athy to make a contribution to what is hoped will be an effective plan for the revitalisation of our historic town. Remember there is no-one in a better position to identify the issues affecting life and business in Athy than someone living in the town. Do make your views known by contacting Helen Dowling in the local Enterprise Centre and remember to do so on or before Friday 17th April. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.