Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Traffic imporvements in Athy over the years

With preliminary work on the outer relief road now started we can look forward in a few years time to the disappearance of lorries and heavy goods vehicles from Athy’s main shopping streets. Those same streets first laid down in medieval times as passageways for man and beast have witnessed over the centuries the everchanging transport. The linear layout of town’s principal streets stretching from Leinster Street through Duke Street and beyond William Street are typical of what was an Anglo-Norman settlement. Unfortunately, the narrow streets which resulted from the town’s development as a market town are not suitable for modern traffic as large vehicles are driven through streets which should be accommodating shoppers. The outer relief road when built will create the opportunity to make huge improvements to the retailing life of the town. In many ways the new road has the potential to bring change to Athy in much the same way as two earlier major infrastructural developments did in the 1790s and the 1840s. The year 1791 saw the Grand Canal extended to Athy and the new waterway link between Athy and Dublin led to the development of two major industries in the town. The malting stores once dotted around Athy from Offaly Street to Stanhope Street and Shrewleen Lane made Athy one of the most important centres of the malt industry in Ireland. It was an industry which provided much needed employment for the men of Athy, while providing at the same time an enormous financial boost for the farmers of the area. The other local industry which benefitted hugely from the waterway link to Dublin was that of brick making. Before 1791 it was a localised cottage industry, but with the opening of the Dublin market the local brick making industry expanded. It would continue to operate as a substantial employer of local men and women up to the mid-1930s. From the earliest times Athy had a boating tradition with trade between Waterford and the south Kildare town. The opening of the Grand Canal saw the boatmen of the Barrow navigation, many of whom lived locally, engage in the canal freight business between Athy and Dublin. Several local families became canal boat owners and their involvement with the canal extended over several generations and only ended during the post-World War II years. The halcyon days of canal boating were in the pre-railway days when passenger boats and freight boats travelled daily to and from Dublin. That period lasted for less than 60 years but in that time the extension of the canal to Athy brought prosperity to the town never previously experienced. The second major development which brought opportunities for the town folk was the building of the railway line from Dublin to Carlow. It opened on 4th August 1846 during the height of the Great Famine. Its construction provided local men with badly needed employment during that Famine. The railway allowed goods to be brought to and from Dublin much faster than the 13 hours it took by canal boat and as a consequence canal traffic went into decline. The decades immediately after the opening of the railway marked what was possibly the most prosperous years of Athy’s business life. However, in truth the costly railway fares did not find many locals able to take advantage of the third-class open carriages which were first deployed on the Athy Dublin journey. It would take many years before the railway made an impact on the lives of the ordinary folk of Athy, whatever about the benefits it brought to the business people of the town. The advantages created by the opening of the Grand Canal in 1791 were further enhanced by the extension of the railway to Athy in 1846. Both developments brought increased prosperity to the town by virtue of the impetus they gave to the development of industry and the commercial life of Athy. Many believe that the construction of the outer relief road, like its predecessors the canal and railway, can create tremendous opportunities for Athy. If the canal and railway brought industrial and commercial benefits, the outer relief road offers the opportunity to improve the retailing/commercial centre of the town. I understand an Athy Town Team has been established to plan for the town’s future. They can look back at the history of changes for good brought about by the extension of the canal to Athy and the later arrival of the railway to see what can to be done to take maximum benefit from the new road. Retailing Athy is in urgent need of a makeover and the outer relief road offers a unique opportunity to plan for change and improvement.

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