Despite the country’s slow climb out of the recession, provincial towns such as Athy remain somewhat stagnated. A welcome indication that future prospects are brighter can be garned from the recent sale of a number of vacant shop premises on the town’s main street. While the prices achieved were low, nevertheless the very fact the purchases were made indicates a growing confidence in the local economy.
Some months ago a number of local business people concerned at the depressed state of business in Athy came together to consider what could be done to revive the town’s fortunes. We have in the past often heard the claim that Athy was one of the best market towns in Leinster. Indeed those of us old enough to remember the 1950s will recall the busy main streets and the late night shopping which was a feature of Saturday nights in Athy.
It was a desire to reclaim the halcyon days of a previous generation that drove these business people to act. A number of meetings were held with interested parties and finally it was decided to commission a regeneration plan for Athy. A number of consultancy firms tendered for the job and following interviews Shannon Development Consultants Ltd. were appointed to undertake a study of the town and to prepare a detailed strategy for the economic, social, cultural and environmental regeneration of the town of Athy. That plan has now been finalised and will be launched by the Minister for State, Ann Phelan, at the Clanard Court Hotel on 10th November next at 7.30 p.m.
The plan addresses the economic, physical and social regeneration of the town and specifically seeks to:
- Reverse the current decline of the town’s retail sector.
- Promote commercial and industrial development.
- Identify and utilise the area’s natural resources so as to maximise the tourism potential of the area.
The Regeneration Plan provides for the setting up of working groups comprising local people in business or working in the town. Each group will be charged with dealing with a different aspect of the Regeneration Plan.
The plan is but a starting point. The local people must take ownership of the plan and work together to help Athy regain its previous prominence as a centre of retailing excellence and a provider of varied industrial employment.
Looking back over the history of Athy as evidenced in press reports of previous generations I was struck at how often in the past Athy has gone from boom to bust and back again. In 1807 Thomas Rawson of Glassealy wrote:
‘The extensive town of Athy.....holds out much invitation to English capital and English industry, its vicinity abounds with mill sites, it is full of unemployed inhabitants.....yet despite all these advantages Athy is neglected, is in poverty and has not any one manufacture carried on.’
Thirty one years later the situation had not changed and a letter in the Athy Literary Magazine of March 1838 noted:
‘The leaden hand of indifference operates on our rural amusements – no races, no rowing matches in our fine river, no farming or flower shows – no nothing, which could charm the mind, or elevate the sentiments of a people ignorant because neglected.’
Five years later Alexander Duncan, a Town Commissioner and proprietor of Duncan’s store in Duke Street, in a speech at the inauguration dinner of the Town Commissioners’ new chairman, Michael Lawler, said:
‘Those gentleman who had but lately seen the town could well appreciate the progress it has made in recent years.’
The Leinster Express of 30th July 1859 was moved to claim:
‘There is not in Ireland an inland town that can boast of more public spirit than Athy.’
If the 1850s were a period of growth and prosperity for Athy, the same decade witnessed the loss of the summer assizes and the closure of the town gaol. Both were transferred to Naas, thereby marking the beginning of Athy’s decline as the principal town in the county.
Athy recovered from those losses and throughout the 1930s and the 1940s developed an industrial base which was underpinned by such substantial employers as Minch Nortons, the I.V.I. Foundry, Asbestos, Irish Wallboard and Batchelors Peas.
We have endured a sharp fall off in business during the recent recession, but the time is now right for the South Kildare town to exploit every opportunity to lift the gloom and improve business on the main streets. The public meeting in the Clanard Court Hotel on 10th November is our opportunity to play our part in revitalising our town.