The role and functions of local authorities have evolved and changed enormously over the years. Borough Councils were brought into existence, usually by royal charters, as in Athy, where the 1515 charter of Henry VIII provided for the annual election of a Provost and the appointment of a Borough Council. Its functions were largely confined to control of the local market and collection of market tolls to finance the building of town walls. Control and power rested with the Earls of Kildare and their nominees, a position which was to remain until many Borough Councils such as Athy were abolished in 1840. It was succeeded a few years later by Town Commissioners elected by property owners in the town. Their functions were extended to include paving and street cleaning and were further added to during the course of the 19th century. Replaced by an Urban District Council in 1901 the Council as we knew it up to more recent years played an important part in the economic and social life of the town of Athy.
As we approached the last decade of the 20th century huge demands were made on Athy U.D.C. in terms of planning and economic development. Those were the years of the Celtic Tiger, but even as other nearby towns were flourishing Athy began to feel the effects of several factory closures. The shirt factory on the Dublin Road closed, followed by the loss of Peerless Rugs in 2001 and three years later the closure of the Shuttleworth factory. These losses were the catalysts for the setting up of an investment, development and employment forum by the local Council. Represented on that multi agency body with Athy U.D.C. were Kildare County Council, members of the Oireachtas and officials of the I.D.A., County Kildare Enterprise Board and Athy Chamber of Commerce. The local Council’s involvement was indicative of its developmental role as one of its primary functions under the 1963 Planning Act. As an extension of that role and with a view to regenerating the retailing sector in Athy the Council engaged consultants to prepare a retail strategy for the town in 2008.
All of this work was carried out against a backdrop which saw the transfer to Kildare County Council of functions once the responsibility of the Urban District Council. This was done in advance of the subsequent legislative changes which saw the abolition of Town Councils and the taking over of their functions by County Councils.
One of those roles was the provision of local authority housing. Perhaps the greatest change to the previously unrivalled role of local authorities in the provision of social housing was the emergence of voluntary housing associations. A number of such groups have provided social housing in Athy in recent years. RESPOND built 43 houses in Flinter’s field in 2001 and eight years later provided 28 house and a community building at Ardrew Meadows. In more recent years TUATH housing association provided 37 houses in Clonmullin, 14 houses in Cois Bhearu and 4 houses in Ardrew. The CLUID housing association provided 36 houses in Coneyboro in 2013.
The role of the former Town Council in the economic regeneration of the town was complemented by a similar role in relation to the social and cultural life of the townspeople. In about 1985 the Urban District Council established and funded a cultural recreational sub committee comprised of Council members with a large membership from the general public. That sub committee did much good work in fostering and encouraging cultural activities which led in time to the setting up of Athy’s Art Centre in Woodstock Street. That Centre is presently managed by Directors representing Kildare County Council and a number of cultural interests in the town.
The former Town Council’s encouragement of the arts and cultural activities generally was first recognised with the official opening of Athy’s Heritage Centre in the Town Hall in 1992. This again was a joint venture involving Athy U.D.C., Kildare County Council and Athy Museum Society. The management of the Heritage Centre rests with Athy Heritage Company Limited which like its sister company, Athy Arts Company Limited, is a company limited by guarantee with directors representing Kildare County Council and various cultural and social interests in the town. The former Town Councils role in fostering and encouraging cultural activity in the town was formally recognised with the winning of an Excellence in Local Government award in 2010.
Kildare County Council has continued to exercise a highly commendable role in community affairs insofar as Athy is concerned. The unveiling of the Shackleton statue as part of the Decade of Commemoration events planned for the county is further proof of the Council’s commitment to Athy. It’s rather a pity that the positive story was somewhat lost in the unexpected headlined story which appeared in the front page of this newspaper last week.