The recent launch of the Athy Tourist Boat “Freedom on the Water” drew a small crowd of spectators to the site of what was once Athy’s busy river harbour. The harbour was developed some years after the Grand Canal was extended to the south Kildare town in 1792 and after the filling in of the mill race which served the mill adjoining White’s Castle. ‘Rotten Row’ was the name given to the passageway which ran from the town end of Preston’s Gate at the side of the church located in the Market Square down towards the River Barrow. Just behind where the Courthouse is now located were to be found the saw pits where timbers brought to Athy by canal boat were cut and shaped to order. The contours of the river harbour where boats bringing freight from Dublin and the port of Waterford berthed are barely discernible today. The harbour walls are hidden by spoil dumped there in the 1920s during the Barrow drainage scheme.
The nearby public space once known as Market Square and later renamed after Emily, wife of the Duke of Leinster and mother of Lord Edward Fitzgerald, is a wonderful addition to the linear streetscape of the town which is a throwback to its Anglo Norman foundation. There is not a finer public space in any other town in the county of Kildare. The juxtaposition of Town Hall, Courthouse and White’s Castle gives a wonderful streetscape composition, with the Castle standing sentinel like over the late 18th century Crom a Boo bridge.
The Tourist Boat represents another element in the Regeneration Plan recently announced for the town and hopefully it will complement other tourist related activities in the South Kildare area. Now that Kildare county is part of the Ireland’s Ancient East tourism programme the time is right for Athy to press its claims, as a town replete with history, to be an interesting place to visit. The Tourist boat offering trips on the River Barrow will complement the attraction of the Heritage Centre-Museum which coincidentally during the week received a huge boost with the award of full museum status. Interesting to note that the only two other museums to be similarly awarded this year were Fota House in Cork and the Louth County Museum in Dundalk.
The plans for extending the Museum will require the taking over of the entire Town Hall building to accommodate the revamped Shackleton exhibition. This will undoubtedly attract national and international interest which in conjunction with the Shackleton Autumn School will make Athy the most important venue for visitors and others alike interested in Shackleton and Polar exploration.
It has taken just over 30 years to get the Heritage Centre-Museum to the point where it achieved Museum status. Hopefully it won’t take as long to bring what I hope will be another and perhaps the final cog in the local tourist cycle to fruition. I mentioned earlier White’s Castle, that iconic building guarding the bridge of Athy. The bridge and the castle represent Athy not only in the town seal but also in the memory of anyone who was born or lived in the town. The Castle, once a Fitzgerald fortress, is in private ownership but because of its prominent position in the town centre should be in public ownership. My hope is that at some stage in the near future Kildare County Council will acquire White’s Castle and help it to be developed as a Fitzgerald museum to tell the story of the Earls of Kildare and the Dukes of Leinster. Athy would be an appropriate location for such a museum given that the town was always a Fitzgerald town which even now in the 21st century recalls in its street names members of various generations of that family.
The development of Athy’s tourist potential should not be ignored. Two wonderful attractions, the Grand Canal and the River Barrow, have been underused and largely ignored for far too long. Now that we have the tourist boat in the local harbour and nearby the newly accredited museum surely we can look forward with some confidence to developing Athy as a worthy part of the Ireland’s Ancient East experience. Bookings for the boat can be made by phone on (087)433-5350 or log on to www.athyboattours.ie.
The Kevin Barry exhibition curated by University College Dublin will be officially opened in the Heritage Centre-Museum tonight Tuesday at 7.30 p.m. In last week’s Eye on the Past I mentioned the various links Ireland’s best remembered patriot had with Athy and the exhibition will give a unique opportunity to learn more of the young man whose execution in Mountjoy Jail gave us the most famous Irish rebel ballad of this or any other era. The Mayor of County Kildare, Councillor Ivan Keatley, will officially open the exhibition. All are welcome to attend.