Last week’s article was written before I received an email from America telling me that Whites Castle was about to be put on the market for sale. You will recall that under the headline, ‘Athy Awakes from Slumber’. I had advanced the case that Athy was about to reposition itself in the drive for tourist development on the basis of several projects currently planned for the town. The announcement that for the third time in twelve years Whites Castle is for sale presents the local community and Kildare County Council with a huge challenge. When the castle first went on the market in 2005 half-hearted attempts by Athy Town Council to acquire the property were quickly dashed by the successful bid at auction of Gabriel Dooley. Gabriel’s ownership of the castle saw the 15th century fortress opened to the public for the very first time. As a native of Athy but with business interests in County Wicklow and elsewhere Gabriel went to great lengths to bring the story of the castle and its involvement in our national and local history to a wider audience. He expended substantial funds in replacing the roof of the castle and in carrying out remedial works under the supervision of an archaeologist and with the agreement of Kildare County Council.
Gabriel Dooley’s ownership of the castle gave Athy locals the first ever opportunity to see the interior of the building which with the adjoining Crom a Boo bridge provides the iconic image which is commonly associated with the town of Athy. Sadly Gabriel, who had wonderful creative plans for community engagement and participation in the use of the castle, had to release his ownership of the property. This resulted in the sale of the castle in 2012 when it was purchased for a much smaller figure than that realized some years previously. Again, to the dismay of many locals the then Town Council failed to step up to the plate and buy the castle, even though the price achieved was less than the price of an average four bedroomed semi-detached house.
Athy Town Council has since been dissolved and our local authority is now Kildare County Council. That Council has brought forward many worthwhile schemes and projects, some of which I alluded to in last week’s Eye on the Past. As a former Council official I am acutely aware of the many demands which are continuously made on public funds at local and national level. Those demands need to be prioritised and it is that process which can sometimes push particular projects to the end of the line, never again to be resurrected.
Is the purchase of Whites Castle such a project? I suggest not, since the iconic building is for Athy people, a part of what we are. It is our history and so we should ensure that we preserve for the future the building, which in itself is important, but which can be developed and used as a part of the tourist regeneration drive about which I wrote last week.
With the recent departure of the Dominicans from Athy we have lost a link with our history stretching back 760 years or so. Whites Castle, built perhaps 150 years after the Dominicans arrived in Athy is with Woodstock Castle the most visible reminders we have of our past history. That history can also be noted in Athy’s street names which record the connection going back hundreds of years between successive generations of the Fitzgerald families and the town of Athy founded by the Anglo Normans soon after their arrival in Ireland in 1169. The development of Whites Castle as a Fitzgerald Museum would be a meaningful attraction in this area and would represent an appropriate use of a former Fitzgerald stronghold.
Many years ago during the late Joe Bermingham’s time as the Minister for State for responsibility for the Office of Public Works I wrote to Joe asking if he would have Whites Castle designated as a national monument. Joe unfortunately was either unwilling or unable to accede to the request and so a great opportunity was missed then by a local government minister to protect Whites Castle. Another opportunity now arises to put the castle into public ownership and so ensure its preservation and further utilisation by and on behalf of the local community. Could I suggest that Kildare Co. Co. and the local community here in Athy come together to see what can be done in that regard?