Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Athy's rich Architectural heritage

Any town plan comprises a range of inter dependent elements such as housing, roads and utility services, but also a number of inter related but not readily identified elements such as community development, cultural enhancement and the protection and preservation of the architectural and archaeological heritage of the town. Thankfully it is now quite a few years since we heard what was once an often-repeated complaint that ‘heritage is holding back Athy’. It is now accepted that heritage in all its manifestations, whether the architectural or the built heritage of Athy or the historical heritage of its community is but one of the many elements which helps build a vibrant community where facilities and opportunities are available to all. We now realise and accept that Athy has a rich architectural and historical heritage which are an intrinsic part of our community’s past. Foremost amongst the local buildings of note is of course Whites Castle. It is one of over 150 protected structures listed in the current town plan and given its history, its prominent position in the town centre and its current state there is an urgent need for the County Council to act on its declared aim of ‘protecting and conserving buildings of special historic interest’. The future development of Whites Castle can be linked with the hopeful realisation of Athy’s tourism potential which is another key issue to be addressed in the Athy plan. Tourism, retailing and industry are the three key economic footholds on which the future economic well being of Athy will stand. The retailing issue I touched on last week, while the drive for further industrial employment opportunities is largely dependent on the provision of an outer relief road and the identification of serviced land suitable for large and medium sized enterprises. Regrettably we have been slow to recognise the economic and social benefits which tourism could bring to the town. This, despite the huge potential that exists for waterways tourism on the River Barrow and the Grand Canal. The development of the Blueway hub here in Athy, coupled with the provision of improved mooring facilities on the local waterways, should help us realise some of the huge potential created by the unique meeting in Athy of the River Barrow and the Grant Canal. Water related tourism is but one side of the tourism potential of Athy’s future. The history of the town reflecting our national history is a story to be told in the Town Hall Museum and in a possible future museum located in Whites Castle. The current Heritage Centre is to be revamped and extended now that the library services have moved out of the Town Hall. It is to be renamed the Shackleton Museum and as the only permanent exhibition anywhere in the world devoted to the Polar explorer the museum can expect to attract international attention. If Whites Castle is acquired and developed as a local museum it and the Shackleton Museum would offer tourists attractive museum experiences which coupled with the other attractions in the town should help create a sustainable local tourism industry. When writing of other attractions in the town I am mindful of the opportunity as yet unfulfilled of making Athy the centre, as it was in 1903, of the Gordon Bennett race route. Kildare County Council has a key role to play in developing public spaces in and around Athy as evidenced in its current plans for the redevelopment of Emily Square. The existing plan acknowledges the poor quality of materials used during a previous development of the Square and what it calls ‘an abundance of clutter’. Plans announced last year provided for the creation of a traffic free plaza fronting the Town Hall. It was a bold statement of intent which prompted some local business people to bemoan the loss of parking in the front square. I favour the Council plan, seeing it as a far reaching and much needed development which would give our town centre an outstanding public area with the backdrop of the magnificent Town Hall. Any car parking space losses could be easily replaced by the acquisition and development of part of the now derelict Abbey site. Emily Square is the location of the centuries old Tuesday’s market. As currently operated the market is an uncontrolled mix and gathering of ugly stalls. The Council should regulate the market and make it an attractive feature which would enhance the local shopping experience. Stalls provided and put in place erected by Council staff each Tuesday morning for renting to traders together with improvement in the range of goods sold would hugely improve the image of the Tuesday market to the benefit of traders and shoppers alike. The Council’s role in adopting policies designed to promote sustainable development is one which is outlined in Statute. The implementation of those policies requires Council representatives and officials to ensure that the current needs of the local people are catered for, while at the same time planning for the future. The current pre-planning process allows all of us an opportunity to participate in planning for the future of our town.

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