Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Athy Heritage Centre and positioning of Shackleton statue

Thirty three years ago a public meeting was held in the Courthouse, Athy to consider the setting up of a local museum.  Following that meeting and subsequent meetings Athy Museum Society was founded.  Its purpose was to highlight the then largely unknown history of Athy and its people.  Within weeks of its foundation the young society opened a museum room in Mount St. Marys every Sunday afternoon displaying articles and material generously donated by local people. 

I recall manning the museum room every Sunday afternoon for upwards of 3 years.  The then County Manager Gerry Ward subsequently allowed the use of a room in the Town Hall to house what was the ever developing but still tiny local town museum.  The room allocated was that which was previously occupied by the Town Hall caretaker’s family.

Around the same time I prepared a detailed submission in relation to the town’s history to support Athy Urban District Council’s application to Bord Failte to have Athy designated as a Heritage Town.  Steps were afoot for the local Fire Brigade, which had been housed for years previously in the former butter market in the Town Hall, to move to new premises in Woodstock Street.  The successful application to Bord Failte resulted in the award of substantial funding which enabled the Urban Council and the Heritage Company which was then formed to refit the entire ground floor of the Town Hall building as a Heritage Centre after it was vacated by the Fire Brigade. 

Fitting out the centre required a detailed re-examination of Athy’s history and the identification of events and persons prominent in that history.  My research unearthed details of interesting but hitherto unknown facts, events and persons such as Athy’s participation in World War I and local involvement in the War of Independence and the Civil War.  The emergence of Ernest Shackleton as a native of nearby Kilkea was a revelation, as up to then I had accepted, as was invariably reported, that Shackleton was a native of Kilkee, Co. Clare.

The Heritage Centre has developed over the years and the Shackleton Autumn School has added enormously to its prestige.  Indeed I have before me a letter from Michael Smith, author and biographer of the Irish Polar explorers Tom Crean and Ernest Shackleton which describes Athy’s Heritage Centre as ‘the most prestigious museum in the world dedicated to Ernest Shackleton’.

The town’s library presently occupying the first floor of the Town Hall will be re-located to the former Dominican Church as soon as refurbishment work on the Church scheduled to commence within months is completed.  Athy’s early 18th century Town Hall will then be given over completely to the Museum.  The plans are to gain maximum national and international coverage for the Museum given its unique Shackleton connections and exhibits, while at the same time celebrating the life of Athy stretching back over 850 years.  Shackleton is an international brand and born as he was in nearby Kilkea it behoves us to reap the benefits likely to be generated by visitors attracted to the only museum dedicated to the world famous Polar explorer.

Kildare County Council conscious of the huge advantages which can accrue to Athy by association with Shackleton recently commissioned a statue of the Polar explorer to be erected in Athy.  This together with the future enlargement of the Museum to include priceless artefacts relating to Shackleton’s Polar exploration presents a unique opportunity to develop tourism as a secondary, if not a primary element, in the regeneration of Athy.

Kildare County Council has now commenced a public consultation process to determine where the Shackleton statue should be sited.  Let your considered views be known to the Council, bearing in mind that the proper positioning of the statue can help highlight the town’s Shackleton Museum and significantly add to the tourism attraction of the Shackleton theme. 

I realise that some people on Facebook have questioned the justification for a Shackleton statue.  Apart from the obvious marketing advantages in promoting a Shackleton Museum, consider the following.  Shackleton was born in nearby Kilkea and always claimed to be Irish.  Indeed when signing onto the Yelcho to rescue his men from Elephant Island Shackleton clearly stated his nationality as Irish.  Shackleton was described by the geologist on the Nimrod expedition as ‘born in Ireland, educated in England, worked in Scotland but from the top of his head to the soles of his feet he was Irish’.

In a letter to the Times some months ago I claimed that public monuments usually articulate a particular national identity, but that part of our identity is not just Catholic, Gaelic and nationalistic but also includes many other diverse elements.  We have commemorated in recent times the men and women of ’98 and those young men from the town of Athy whose lives were destroyed during World War I.  For his achievements in Polar exploration, Ernest Shackleton is a worthy subject for a statue to be erected close to the Shackleton Museum.

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