Thursday, April 23, 1998

Inner Relief Road

Today I return to a subject which has exercised all of our minds over the past few years. The inner relief road saga is about to take another step on the way to oblivion or completion depending on the outcome of next Saturday’s meeting of Athy Urban District Council. The elected members of the Council all true and trusted warriors of local democracy have the responsibility every five years of adopting a town development plan for Athy. This time round, the Council’s deliberations take on a significance which it has never before enjoyed. The reason can be found in the exceptional growth of building development in and around Athy and the expectations raised by the prospect of urban renewal status for Athy. Even this would be sufficient to give the planned Council meeting an importance far beyond its normal worth. However, the inclusion on the agenda of the proposals for an inner relief road through the centre of Athy gives the entire proceedings an importance seldom before equalled.

By now I must assume that anyone with a morsal of interest in Athy and its future must be acquainted with Kildare County Council’s plans for the new roadway. The issue to be decided by Athy UDC is whether the planned inner relief road should proceed or whether Athy’s future is best served by a by pass or an outer relief road.

It was 23 years ago that the proposal for an inner relief road was first mooted. That was the time when there was little environmental consciousness in Ireland. Thankfully there have been changes in that regard since then and town communities are no longer prepared to have their towns mutilated in order to facilitate traffic movement. It is a well known fact that traffic will always increase to meet any extra roads that may be provided. It is for this reason that road planners in recent years have acknowledged the necessity of preserving urban areas as free as possible from vehicle traffic, and why by pass routes are being built with greater frequency throughout Ireland.

Advocates of the inner relief road claim that the free movement of traffic in Athy necessitates the building now of such a road with a by pass being required in another fifteen years. I can visualise the scene in twenty years time when Athy will begin to take on the appearance of Los Angeles suburb geared to accommodate the local people so long as they are travelling in cars.

By the time you read this the Heritage Centre, the latest addition to Athy’s facilities, will have opened its doors to the general public. Located in the ground floor of the Town Hall the centre is a visual feast of Athy’s past showing the town’s development since it was founded 800 years ago. That such a centre should be located in the middle of the town in a building flanked on all sides by such important urban spaces as Emily Square is a happy coincidence. The substantial Town Hall building forms an important back drop to the cobbled plaza while its rear environs provides a sense of spaciousness which is both pleasing and environmentally important in the context of a town centre.

The inner relief road, if built, would occupy the back square obliterating that fine urban space and replacing it with a spaghetti type junction serving approach roads on four sides. The tenacity with which the project is being pushed is surprising. Opposition to the County Council plans has been steam rolled into oblivion over the years and in more recent times consultants have been engaged presumably at enormous expense to get around the growing local opposition to the roadway plans. It is therefore of some satisfaction to find that the consultants having reported back to Kildare County Council and Athy Urban District Council have found themselves at odds with those who commissioned the report.

An interesting fact about the relief road plans for Athy is that nominally responsibility for same rests with Kildare County Council. However, the County Council will not proceed with the inner relief road plan if the majority of the people of Athy are opposed to it. This in some quarters has been taken to mean a majority of the elected members of the Athy Urban Council. The town Council comprises nine members all of whom are elected for five year terms by the townspeople. During that five years the elected representatives take many important decisions and generally do so having regard to the best interests of the town and its people. Politicians local or otherwise are smart enough to work within the parameters set by their supporters and understandably always strive to act in a way which would meet with general approval.

The decision on the inner relief road is the most important decision to be taken in the life of this or any other Council. The local people have amply demonstrated that they do not want the inner relief road which would destroy the amenities of the town and turn this most attractive of towns into a twin highway. Despite this the elected representatives or at least some of them would deny the townspeople the right to express their views on the issue and certainly would not permit them to participate in the decision as to how Athy town is to develop in the future.

It has been suggested in the past that the Urban District Council might take a vote of the local people to assess the strengths of those in favour of or opposed to the inner relief road. This proposal never got the necessary backing of the Urban Council and indeed attempts were made to copper fasten the inner relief road supporters case by a snap decision which would not allow further discussion on the merits of the issue.

The shifting sands of the Sahara are brought to mind when observing the moves and counter moves of those who promote the inner relief road project. Pedestrianisation, partial or otherwise, a new roadway, which might be a street or might not, are all part of the features of the Inner Relief Road which have been given to us in recent years. Even urban renewal status has been brought into the frame by officials who eager to stifle opposition to the plans hold out the possibility of such status not being granted unless the inner relief road goes ahead.

This is reminiscent of the claims made last year that funds were then immediately available if the people of Athy would only support the inner relief road. Those funds we were told would be lost to us if we did not row in and support the savage mutilation of our town centre. It was not of course described in such terms and now it is clear finance was not available at that time.

I have been questioned by many people over the weeks as to what local men and women can do. Is there any way of expressing their feelings on the issue I am asked and what affect, if any, will those views, once expressed, have on the local government officials and public representatives who are pushing the inner relief road project. My answer is simply to remind everyone that Kildare County Council and Athy Urban District Council are all part of the democratic process which is called local government. In other words its government by the local people and unlike national government it is the one area of activity where local people’s views and opinions must have a say. So do not be afraid to voice your opinion on the relief road proposals for Athy and do so on or before Saturday 23rd May when the local Councillors will meet in special session commencing at 10 a.m. to consider inter alia whether Athy’s future is as a motor way site or a heritage town.

If you wish to influence the Council decision on the 23rd May why not contact your local Councillor and let him know your views. It may be too late on the 24th May.

Thursday, April 16, 1998

May Murphy No. 4 Offaly Street

May Murphy formerly May Kelly of Leinster Street died in Adelaide, Australia last week aged 87 years. She had left No. 4 Offaly Street about 8 years ago to stay with her daughter, Noeleen who had emigrated down under in the 1970’s. Offaly Street in my young days had no less than three Mrs. Murphy’s. Mrs. Joe Murphy who lived in No.3, Mrs. Paddy Murphy who lived across the road in No. 24 and Mrs. May Murphy who lived next door to our own house. Now they are all gone, May being the last to pass away many years after her husband John Joe had died.

I can still recall as a young fellow in Offaly Street together with Teddy and Leo Kelly, Tom Webster and Willie Moore attending my first wake. The deceased was May Murphy’s young husband, John Joe whom I cannot recall other than as a dead man laid out in the front room of No. 4 Offaly Street. We five youngsters self consciously and somewhat apprehensively walked through the front door of Mrs. Murphy’s house that day, knelt at the end of the bed, said some prayers for the dead and before leaving sprinkled holy water over the body. To be in the same room as a corpse even though it was a room crowded with sympathisers was to us youngsters a badge of courage. It was something we could talk about, even boast of, until later years of maturity cloaked us with the awkwardness and repressed silence of teenagers.

That’s my memory of John Joe Murphy. I can’t recall his funeral but I can still picture the scene as we young gurriers tiptoed into the waking room and looked upon the first dead person we had ever seen. John Joe was a former British Army Soldier who had enlisted at the start of World War 2 and had been involved in the retreat from Dunkirk. Indeed, I understand that his involvement in soldiering was very limited after that. I have often heard him described as a powerful footballer in his day as was his brother Joe. Both played for Athy Gaelic Football Club and featured in the 1934 Senior Championship winning side which Joe Murphy captained. John Joe who was a big man played at full back, a position which he also held when he won his first Championship Medal with Athy in 1933. He was still playing in that position in the 1936 team and his brother Joe was again the Captain. I gather that John Joe’s height and strength allied to a competitive streak discouraged many a forward from advancing too close to the goalpost he defended.

May and John had two daughters. Eva was my own age and I remember her for a particularly enjoyable birthday party in her house where as a very young fellow I took notice for the very first time of the fact that girls could be quite enjoyable company. There were several other boys and of course girls also at the party none of whom I can now recall. However, I can still remember the innocent enjoyment of a forfeit game for which the penalty involved the unlucky participant engage in a smooch with a member of the opposite sex. Imagine the embarrassment of that for a young fellow not yet old enough to know when he should be enjoying himself. Eva let me hasten to add was not the cause of my embarrassment. She later married Michael Toft of Kildare and sadly she died at a very young age while living in St. Patrick’s Avenue. Her daughter, Pauline who is now married was in Australia with her granny when Mrs. Murphy died.

May Murphy’s second daughter Noeleen married Denis Reidy, son of the late Garda Sergeant Reidy of Carlow before emigrating to Australia. It was with Noeleen and her family that May Murphy lived for the last eight years of her life.

Very recently I wrote of Mrs. Josephine Gibbons another woman who like May Murphy was widowed at a very young age and had to fend for her young family. Both were great friends over the years and both had to work very hard to give their children the opportunities they got in life. May Murphy worked in Duthie Large’s for as long as I can remember, remaining there until the business closed down. She also worked as a Cashier in the Grove Cinema until it closed its doors to the public.

May like her brother Alex Kelly was an exceptionally good musician. She played the Piano, one of the many instruments which Alex also played during his dance band days. When she left for Australia some years ago, I understand it was for an extended holiday but as time went by, she eventually decided to stay there with her only surviving daughter Noeleen. May was a lovely friendly woman who was always kind and never known to utter a harsh word.

Another who passed away last week and who was buried in St. Michael’s Cemetery on his 86th Birthday was Donegal born, Jim O’Doherty. An Army Officer who married Mona Purcell of William Street, he established an Auctioneering business on his retirement from the Defence Forces. A staunch follower of Gaelic Football, he represented his native County at Senior level and had the privilege of seeing his eldest son, Bryan play on the Kildare Senior Football team.

Athy born May Murphy now lying in Australian soil and Donegal born Jim O’Doherty were once part of Athy’s community life. Their passing will recall for many people times past and other days when the older generation of today shared a world of young dreams.

Thursday, April 9, 1998

Adoption of Town Improvements Act for Athy

On the 17th November 1855 the Lord Lieutenant in Dublin Castle was memoralised by forty “inhabitants of the town of Athy occupying houses and tenements rated to relief of the poor, at the annual value of £8 and upwards” to have the provisions of the Town Improvements (Ireland) Act 1854 carried into operation within the town. The signatories headed by Martin Kavanagh, Chairman of the Town Commissioners suggested “that the boundaries of the said town for the purpose of the Act shall extend three quarters of a statute mile from White’s Castle which is in the centre of the town”.

On December 14th Dublin Castle suggested the adoption of the boundaries as delineated by Richard Griffith which the Town Commissioners declined to do on the grounds that “some public buildings would be outside the limits proposed”. Following a visit to Athy on 8th February 1856 by Mr. Griffiths Assistant James Montgomery the boundaries were redrawn and agreed. The stage was now set for the legal formalities to be complied with and on Monday March 10th 1850 a public meeting in the Courthouse adopted the boundaries and agreed a memorial to be forwarded to the Lord Lieutenant. Transmitted to Dublin Castle on March 20th the memorialists request that Athy be put under the 1854 Act was approved in principle by letter of April 30th. Mr. B.L. Lefroy and Thomas E. Fitzgerald Justices of the Peace for Athy were instructed by Dublin Castle to convene a meeting in the town for the purpose of formally adopting a resolution
“That the Act entitled “The Town Improvements (Ireland) Act 1854 be adopted by the ratepayers of Athy”.

Public notice of the meeting having been advertised in the Leinster Express of the 17th May 1856 the meeting was scheduled for Thursday 22nd of May at 7 o’clock in the Courthouse of Athy. With the passing of the required resolution and its certification to the Lord Lieutenant by Benjamin J. Lefroy and Thomas E. Fitzgerald the application of the 1854 Act to Athy was formally approved on 2 June 1856.

On 10th June 1856 the following 15 qualified ratepayers were unanimously elected the first Commissioners under the Town Improvements (Ireland) Act 1854.

Martin Kavanagh Farmer
Mark Cross Architect
Thomas Fegan Merchant
Henry Hannon Miller
Patrick Cummins Malster
Joseph Irving Apothecary
Michael Lawler Merchant
Robert Molloy Merchant
Patrick Byrne Merchant
Edmund E. Butler Farmer
James Leahy Merchant
Alexander Duncan Merchant
John McDonald Merchant
William O’Melia Auctioneer
Thomas Peppard Merchant

On 21st June 1856 the Leinster Express published a letter to the Editor from a disgruntled Athy ratepayer complaining that he was unaware of the meeting held a week previously by the Athy Ratepayers Association to elect 15 householders as Town Commissioners.
“I hope they will show by their future acts that they are worthy of the important trusts reposed on them - for what they had been doing as old Commissioners amounts to nothing.” The letter continued:
“The streets would require to be frequently cleansed. It is impossible to cross any of the main streets without being up to ankles in filth. The market ought to be better regulated at present. Bad fish and meat are frequently exhibited for sale and the confusion at weighing corn is so great that it is impossible for the weigh master to avoid making mistakes.”

The disgruntled ratepayer continued
“the furious driving of cars through the streets ought to be prevented the town. Athy and its inhabitants are in a most prosperous state due to the individual exertions of its individuals and not to anything done by the Commissioners as a body.”

The Commissioners held their first meeting on the 16th June 1856 and appointed Martin Kavanagh as Chairman and Henry Sheill as Town Clerk at the salary of £10 a year. John Roberts was appointed Inspector of Nuisances at a yearly salary of £12. John Hayden obtained the lucrative position of weighmaster and adjuster of weights and measures for which he was paid £35 a year. Patrick Byrne the public bellman received two guineas a year. While the weekly meetings of the Commissioners were held in the grand jury room of the Courthouse the Town Clerk’s office was located in Henry Sheill’s house in Leinster Street. Porters appointed to the public crane and weighbridge were William Langan, Pat Hyland, Michael Moore and James McDonald.

Public dissatisfaction with the town commissioners resulted in an attempt on the 15th October 1857 to contest five vacancies on the Commission caused by retirements under the agreed rota system. The five outgoing Commissioners were opposed by Luke O’Neal, Patrick Whelan, John B. Meredyth, John Diven, Pat Grace and James Lawler who however only received five votes each compared to the twenty votes cast to the outgoing Commissioners. A Poll demanded by Matt Minch was agreed to and fixed for October 22nd but was subsequently rescinded on technical grounds and the five outgoing commissioners were deemed re-elected. The decision was a cause of frustration for many unhappy ratepayers and was in time to result in concerted effort to break the existing town Commissioners monopoly of the elected positions in the town.

Thursday, April 2, 1998

Athy's Heritage Centre

There are lots of interesting history related happenings in Athy this year. Just published with financial assistance from the South Kildare An Taisce is a booklet on the history of St. John’s Cemetery with an index of burial plots and inscriptions. The booklet was researched and compiled by participants in the Athy Alternative Project which was in turn funded by the Probation and Welfare Service of the Department of Justice. It’s very welcome addition to the growing list of material on Athy and its history and congratulations must go to everyone involved in the project.

As you read this article the finishing touches are being put to the fitting out of the Heritage Centre in the Town Hall. Orna Hanley, Architect and daughter of the former Dublin city Architect Daithi Hanley is responsible for design work in the centre and she has been recently supervising the installation of the display cabinets and audio visual equipment in what was formerly the old butter market of the town. The visual and oral presentation of Athy’s history through the centuries highlights a number of topics which will be of particular interest to visitors and locals alike. Ernest Shackleton famous Antartic explorer and native of Kilkea just outside Athy and not Kilkee, Co. Clare as so many newspapers have claimed, is featured in one of the special displays in the centre. The story of his expeditions across the frozen wastes of the Antartic is told in pictures and sound and features a number of personal items belonging to Shackleton. The centre of attraction will probably be the dog sledge used by the explorer on one of his Antartic expeditions. It was returned to Ireland some years ago from New Zealand where it had been stored for many years in a suburban garage. Jonathon Shackleton who now owns the sledge has very kindly loaned it to the Heritage Company for display in the centre. Athy will have the only exhibition of material relating to Ernest Shackleton in Ireland and it is expected that it will create a lot of interest.

Another first for the Heritage Centre is the important and extensive material devoted to World War I. This is of particular relevance in the context of our town’s story as so many men from Athy and district enlisted to fight in what is now commonly called The Great War. I have extracted the names of 188 men from the area who died during the 1914 - 1918 War and of those 105 men were from the town of Athy.

For so long it was deemed imprudent to recall the involvement of these men in a war in which they fought on the side of “the old enemy”. However, the Irish nation has grown in stature and maturity and the Irish people now realise it does no disservice to what one believes in to honour our dead no matter in what uniform they died. Republicans or not, all of us have a shared history in which some of our parents or grandparents or maybe some of our uncles or granduncles enlisted to fight and perhaps to die in the fields of France or Flanders over eighty years ago.

The untimely death of so many local men during the four year period had a devastating affect on post war life in Athy. Their names will now be recalled in the Heritage Centre’s exhibition relating to Athy and World War I.

Interestingly I see a letter in today’s Irish Times from Mark McLoughlin the Manager of the Centre in which he refers to the World Ward I material to be displayed in Athy. This I believe was in response to some earlier correspondence concerning the controversy surrounding a plan to have a War museum in Tipperary town. While our Heritage Centre will deal with all aspects of our town’s history, I am particularly gratified that at a time when the Northern peace process is gathering support from so many opposing sides that we have a sufficiently strong understanding of our past to be able to acknowledge the contribution of local men during the great War. By a happy coincidence the first public event in the Centre will be a book launch on Saturday 9th May at 4 p.m. when Schull Books of Co. Cork will launch their publication of the history of the Leinster Regiment in which many local men served during World War I.

Lest you think the Heritage Centre will be a war museum let me hasten to add that another of its many exciting exhibitions will deal with the Gordon Bennett race run over the Athy course in 1903. The visual display will include some actual film taken of the race and promises to be a particular interest to car racing fans.

The Heritage Centre has been in the planning for a number of years and it is quite exciting to think that on the 15th May those have given sponsorship for the Centre will be able to see it first hand how their money has been spent. The official opening of the Centre will take place on Thursday 25th June when the Minister for Finance Charlie McCreevy T.D. will be the guest of honour. By a happy coincidence Charlie McCreevy as Minister for Social Welfare officially opened the Town Hall some years ago.

Athy’s rich and extensive history marked out the South Kildare town at an early stage as a likely contender for Heritage town status. When the town was so designated the euphoria which it created was understandable in the light of Athy’s past experience in always being the bridesmaid and never the bride. The granting of heritage town status and more importantly the co-operation needed to realise the dream of the Heritage Centre has laid to rest once and for all Athy’s run of bad luck which I feel commenced with the loss of the sugar factory to Carlow nearly 70 years ago.

We are now confidently awaiting the granting of urban renewal status for the town. Athy surely is now on the move.