Sunday, August 23, 2015

'I hate to see the town go down' - Athy's economic slump

‘I hate to see the town go down’ sung by Dave Mallett is playing in the background as I sit down to write this week’s Eye on the Past.  The blank sheet which faced me as I put pen to paper suddenly came to life with the very words ‘I hate to see this town go down’.

This town is Athy – the one time Anglo Norman village which over a period of 800 years or so grew to a sizeable town.  During its long life it has witnessed good times and bad.  Having survived several destructive wars it faced into the relative calm of mid 18th century Ireland, seeking to claim its share of the prosperity which came with peace. 

Its future as a thriving market town seemed assured when the Canal company extended the Grand Canal to Athy in 1791.  This gave direct access to the great metropolis of Dublin, and courtesy of the navigable River Barrow, to the seaports of Waterford and New Ross.  What more was needed to create the conditions necessary for the commercial and economic wellbeing of an Irish town?  Surely Athy in the 1790s was on the cusp of a great drive forward which would bring prosperity to one and all.  It was not to be for within just 7 years of the Canal opening murder and mayhem again raised their heads with the events of 1798, creating and maintaining for perhaps decades thereafter suspicion and unrest within the local community.

The opening of the railway line between Dublin and Carlow in August 1846 was the next great impetus for reviving and developing the commercial life of Athy.  By all accounts the opportunity was seized on that occasion, not however without some criticism of the alleged failure of the Duke of Leinster (who effectively owned and controlled the town of Athy) in preventing the recently opened town jail and the Quarter Court sessions being transferred to the county town of Naas.  Both were a huge loss to the south Kildare town, but that loss spurred and prompted the local business people to do something about reviving the town’s fortunes.

It was soon thereafter that Athy came to be recognised as the best market town in Leinster.  Local businesses prospered and the town’s markets and fairs flourished.  It was a commercial town where businesses were geared primarily to meet the needs of farmers within a 12 or 15 mile radius of Athy.  Men living in the lanes and courtways of the town had little opportunity for fulltime employment.  Industry was limited to the local brickyards, the malting works and the experimental peat works at Kilberry.  The town’s success in the second half of the 19th century was by and large enjoyed by the local shopkeepers, but at least the trickledown effect gave much needed employment to some of the local population.  Unfortunately there was not enough work to go around, but viewed against the situation then prevailing in towns of similar size in Ireland of the day, Athy was doing well.

The modern industrialisation of Athy started with the I.V.I. Foundry in the 1920s and received a tremendous boost with the opening of the Asbestos Factory in 1936 and the Wallboard Factory in 1949.  Only one of these factories now survives and even that survival is based on an extremely small workforce.  In the meantime our local shops have been hit by the recession and more and more vacant shops are beginning to appear on the local streets. 

What can we do to stop the slide?  Is there in the long promised outer relief road something approaching the Canal and the railway in terms of its beneficial impact on the commercial life of the town?  I believe so, indeed I am firmly of the belief that the commercial revival of Athy cannot succeed unless and until the outer relief road is in place.  I am assured that funding for the road will be made available within the lifetime of the present government, if so the Town Council and local businesses should get together now and plan for the future redevelopment of the town centre. 

Does our future lie in large scale shopping centres on the edge of town or in the development of independent retailing units in the town centre?  Is there a need to look at the possibility of pedestrianising our main shopping streets to improve the town centre shopping experience?  These are some of the questions which need to be addressed now by everyone concerned.  Planning requires action today, not when the outer relief road is in place.

Blame Dave Mallett for this digression or maybe subconsciously I was influenced by my recent experience of city regeneration as practised by the city fathers of Gloucester.  I was mightily impressed how the centre of that ancient city has been transformed into a shopping friendly area by a pedestrianisation scheme facilitated by sensible road traffic routing schemes.  The outer relief road presents us with the same opportunity.  Let’s hope those in charge and those with the opportunity to influence change can give us hope for reviving the town of Athy.

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