Tuesday, June 2, 2020

The Railway comes to Athy [1]

The first railway line in Ireland was opened on 17th December 1834 when a steam powered train travelled from Westland Row to Kingstown (now Dun Laoghaire), carrying the railway company directors and their wives together with the railway contractor, William Dargan. The journey of 6½ miles lasted for 19½ minutes. It followed on nine years after the world’s first railway line was opened between Stockton and Darlington, England. Plans to build a railway line to serve Athy and further south were proposed by the Great Leinster and Munster Railway Company as early as 1836. The directors of the company promoted the passing of an Act of Parliament to allow the railway to be built. However, the Barrow Navigation and Grand Canal Company raised objections to the proposal and successfully petitioned the Standing Orders Committee of the House of Commons to stop the Members of Parliament considering the matter. In the meantime several Irish railway companies were formed and numerous surveys carried out with a view to building railway lines throughout Ireland. There were so many railway construction proposals a Royal Commission was established to recommend which lines should be built. The Great Leinster and Munster Railway Company succeeded in getting an Act of Parliament passed in 1837 to allow its railway line to be constructed but decided to await the Royal Commissions report. The report when published did not recommend the line proposed by the company and the plans were shelved. Another Parliamentary Act was passed in 1844 which authorised the building of a railway line by the Great Southern and Western Railway Company between Dublin and Cashel, with a branch line through Athy to Carlow. Michael Carey of Athy noted in his Journal on 1st April 1844 ‘Measuring for the railway’. The line of the proposed railway was surveyed by John MacNeill who was Professor of Engineering in Trinity College Dublin. On 26th October 1844 Carey noted ‘railway through Bottoms’ and the following year without specifying the exact date ‘railway bridge at Athy Station finished’. The work on the new railway line coincided with the early years of the Great Famine. The failure of the 1845 potato crop appears to have had less serious consequences for the south Kildare people than elsewhere in the country. Athy’s workhouse which opened the previous year with a capacity of 360 adults and 240 children housed 269 inmates in November 1845. Of those inmates only 2 were able bodied men, while 38 were female adults and the rest children. The low number of male inmates was no doubt due to the work available during the building of the Great Southern and Western rail line to Carlow. The work continued throughout 1845 and up to August 1846. The contractors William Dargan and William McCormack employed a huge local workforce, described as men ‘who never handled a pike or a shovel, never wheeled a barrow and never made a nearer approach to work than to turn over a potato field with a clumsy hoe.’ A letter written by William Taylor, Secretary of the Railway Company to Dublin Castle on 25th September 1846 hints at difficulties experienced by the company during the building work in the Athy area. ‘I beg to inform you that the object for which additional police force was required at Athy has been affected and the works of the company quietly completed in the town in consequence of their presence there.’ A permanent reminder of the difficulties facing the Railway Company in Athy remains to this day in the twin level approach roads from the town centre to the railway bridge. Athy Town Commissioners were somewhat at sea in relation to the construction of the approach road to the bridge and on 1st September 1845 they sought the Duke of Leinster’s opinion as to how they should act. The advice received is lost in time but on 7th May 1846 the Commissioners chairman, Patrick Commons, wrote to the Railway Company stating; ‘The Commissioners now see what is intended to be done and are of opinion that it is the worst plan that could be adopted in as much as it injures the property on the opposite side of the street and entirely disfigures the principal entrance to the town.’ The Railway Company appears to have ignored the Commissioner’s letter for on 30th May 1846 the Town Commissioners solicitor, John Lord, wrote to the Railway Company upbraiding them for attempting to construct a road from the railway bridge into the town, contrary to the plans and specifications which the Railway Company had previously lodged with the Clerk of the Peace for the county of Kildare.

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