Tuesday, September 3, 2019
A new arrivals view of Athy
‘Why don’t you write about what’s happening today in the town?’, ‘why are you always writing about history?’, the questions came from a reader who apparently oblivious to the headline on the column, ‘Eye on the Past’ believed I should concentrate less on the past and more on the present. I have always thought that week in week out I give a mix of the past and of the present, at all times highlighting the good things about my adopted town. Another reader has often complained to me that my occasional references to the canal side factory and in particular its old name, no longer used, deters visitors and potential investors from coming near Athy. So this week I cast around for a subject which might satisfy my two unhappy readers and hopefully at the same time strike a chord with locals as well as former residents now living away from their home town in south Kildare. In the last 15 years Athy has received more families, who have come here to live, than at any other time in its 800-year history. The town population for more than 100 years up to 1995 or thereabouts hovered between 3,500 and 4,000. The current population is nearly 11,000, quite an increase for a provincial town and one which might be expected to pose difficulties for the town’s infrastructural and social facilities. Those of us living here for years past are sometimes oblivious to the good and bad issues affecting the town which are all too apparent to newcomers. For that reason I sought the help of a new arrival in Athy, someone who has been here long enough to identify what pleases and what issues, if any, cause displeasure and concern. My informant newly arrived within the last few months and dare I say it, possibly a Brexit refugee from the English mainland, expressed overall satisfaction with Athy and its people. What I asked do you like about Athy? The first answer astonished me, given the traffic issues which have affected the town for so long. ‘Easy to get around by car and on foot’. I wondered if the car movement is as easy as claimed, however the claim that ‘everyone is friendly’ certainly rings true. The town’s urban streetscape with the triple communication corridors of river, canal and rail line cutting across the original Anglo Norman linear type settlement is a feature unique to Athy. It was described by my informant as a place with a sense of history. Surprisingly the architectural merits of the town square with the town hall and the courthouse did not figure among the features liked about Athy. The former Dominican Church, now the town library, figured large as a likeable feature of Athy, not for its architectural qualities but for its excellence as a library. The variety of sporting facilities in the town came in for honourable mention, with particular reference to the current upsurge of interest in water sports. Club activities were praised and the variety of clubs, sporting and non-sporting, catering for young and adult members, spoke of an active and healthy community. For a town which in the 1920s and earlier had over 40 pubs, the current small number of public houses still operating were rated as very good. The People’s Park and the children’s playground earned further bonus points for Athy, while the educational campus on the Monasterevin Road featuring primary schools, secondary schools and the Gaelscoil merited special praise. To my surprise there was no mention of the town’s swimming pool and sports complex at Greenhills whose predecessor in the Peoples Park was built following an energetic community drive in the 1960s and later. It’s a nice town to live in declared my informant, but surely I said there must be something with which you might not be too happy. The expected avalanche of complaints did not materialise. Instead I got a few understated references, hardly complaints, concerning the lack of a local greengrocer and the absence of bicycle racks in the town. The lack of a fence around the children’s playground was another issue which was put in the scales to weigh up the merits of the south Kildare town. No doubt many reading this Eye on the Past could come up with an exhaustive list of good points about Athy. I am always struck by the praise which visitors to Athy have for the town. Looking at the town through visitors’ eyes one can recognise as if for the first time the architectural merits of the public buildings of Athy. The River Barrow and the Grand Canal are unique physical features not enjoyed by any other town in the county and they help shape and provide a wonderful landscape background to the town. Overall visitors would appear to regard Athy as a good town to visit, while new residents regard it as a good place in which to live. Those of us who have lived here during the 1950s remember a vibrant business town where business is now in urgent need of renewal. The outer relief road soon to be built and the work now ongoing in connection with the town’s regeneration plan gives hope that visitors, new family arrivals and old Athy stock will share a common success story insofar as the future of Athy is concerned.