Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Athy's Big Barrow Splash Day 2019 and past regattas

The recent Big Barrow Splash Day was an enjoyable family day on the local river. Organised by Athy’s Dragon Boat Club it highlighted the huge change in local attitude to utilising what is one of Athy’s greatest natural facilities. It was not so long ago when public comment on the future development of Athy made reference to the regrettable failure to take advantage of the town’s waterways. Athy had effectively turned its back on the River Barrow, but in the last decade or so a revival of interest in water sports and a reawakening in the benefit of environmental awareness has changed how we view and use local waterways. The then Urban District Council’s decision to acquire a jetty for Barrow Quay following suggestions to clean the harbour of the material dumped there during the Barrow Drainage Scheme of the late 1920s was the start of the revival of interest in the local waterways. We will remember the oft repeated advice of the past that boats should not tie up in Athy for fear of being attacked and damaged. It was regrettably a very real possibility some years ago but over time as more and more boat owners used the local river facilities Athy became and remains a safe and enjoyable place for visiting boats to berth overnight. Inland Waterways helped by providing berthing facilities further along the river at Ardreigh. Amongst the locals of Athy there has been an enormous growth of interest in waterways spearheaded by the Dragon Boat Club, the Rowing Club and those young and not so young involved in kayaking. The Sporting Hub located at Rathstewart is a unique and imaginative contribution to the development of water sports in South Kildare. This was an initiative of Kildare County Council and the Council’s continuing support for the Blueway development initiated by Waterways Ireland is a welcome acknowledgement of the importance of our waterways which could bring enormous tourism benefits to this area. Rowing in the early part of the 19th century was a very active sport on the river Barrow. The Athy Regatta had lapsed for a few years and it was not until August 1856 that it was again revived. That year, on Friday 15th August, the regatta took place with six races. The principal event was a two oared boat race for a silver challenge cup. The boats involved had to be owned by a person residing within the town boundary for at least one year while the boats had to be rowed and steered by locals. With an entrance fee of ten shillings per boat it was clearly a rich man’s sport. The regatta continued for several years thereafter and a press report of the 1858 Regatta noted that ‘the embankments presented a thronged and animated appearance.’ Exactly the same words could be used to describe the scene during the recent Big Barrow Splash event in Athy. The revival of the Athy regatta in 1856 coincided with a period of prosperity for the town. This, despite the loss of the summer Assizes, which up to then alternated between Athy and Naas. Around the same time the corn exchange was being built and would open for business on 6th October 1857. That year also steeplechase racing was revived in Athy after a lapse of several years. Four races were held on a course at Bray which attracted a total entry of 19 horses. The local press reported:- ‘The roads leading to the racecourse were speedily thronged with a motley crew of thimble riggers, card setters, trick a loop men, followed by no less accomplished creed of roulette and shooting gallery proprietors, musicians and all those who imbued with a mercantile and enterprising spirit sought the most eligible position for their forthcoming avocations.’ Athy’s Big Barrow Splash Day of 2019 did not have anyone similar to the motley crew which came to the town races 162 years ago. There was however a large crowd of family members who enjoyed a wonderful day out thanks to the Dragon Boat Club led by Aiden McHugh, Dan Curtis ably assisted by several club members. The River Barrow offered a wonderful venue on the day, but I was somewhat disappointed to see the overgrown conditions in the river and on the riverbank next to the Crom a Boo bridge. There is an urgent need for the Barrow Drainage Board to carry out works on the River Barrow to clear the reeds, etc. which have now closed off one of the arches of the town’s historic bridge and threatens to close a second arch.

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