Thursday, May 25, 2000

Athy's Inner Relief Road

You have been too long without any reference to the Inner Relief Road controversy in Athy. My apologies for my tardiness in bringing you all up to date on the issue but I had been awaiting with some interest the response of the Minister for the Environment to a letter sent to him last February by Frank English, Chairman of the Urban District Council. That letter read :-

“I am writing to you as Chairman of Athy Urban District Council and one of a number of Councillors elected last June to represent the people of Athy who have campaigned for the holding of a plebiscite on the proposed Athy Inner Relief Road. Athy Urban District Council in the mid-1970’s agreed to proceed with an Inner Relief Road to alleviate traffic congestion in the town. Since then and especially in recent years local people have pressed for a bypass of the town instead of the Inner Relief Road as originally suggested.

In October 1998 Athy Urban District Council adopted the European Urban Charter which formed part of a Programme of Urban Policies adopted by the standing Conference of Local and Regional Authorities of Europe. With regard to citizen participation the European Charter specifically declared that local representatives “are not given a detailed mandate covering all local affairs during their terms of office and must therefore return to the electorate at regular intervals for consultation on particular issues”. The Charter then declares that “the use of a Referendum is essential where elected local representatives while possessing a general mandate do not have one for a new particular problem or policy.”

Having adopted the European Charter it was felt that Athy Urban District Council would adhere to its terms. This was of particular relevance when five candidates who actively supported and canvassed for a plebiscite on the relief road issue were elected to the Council in June 1999. Following the election Kildare Co. Co. officials sought legal opinion on the right of the Council to hold a plebiscite and received two Opinions from Patrick Butler B.L. Mr. Butler concluded that there was no provision within the Planning Legislation for a plebiscite of the public. That opinion insofar as it went was correct. However, as Chairman of Athy Urban District Council I obtained a legal opinion from Edmund Honohan, S.C. which unequivocally stated that if the members of Athy UDC were of opinion that holding a plebiscite to ascertain the views of the local electorate on the Inner Relief Road “is likely to benefit the local community” then it was open to the Council to proceed on that basis and hold a plebiscite on the issue. In this opinion Mr. Honohan cited the provisions of Section 6 of the Local Government Act, 1991.

At a meeting of Athy Urban District Council held on 15th December, 1999 to consider a Motion on the holding of a plebiscite the Deputy County Manager circulated a Memo in which he claimed that the members would be acting ultra vires if they proceeded with the Motion. He also claimed in his Memo that members voting for a plebiscite would be liable to meet any charge or surcharge imposed on the Council.

Faced with this advice the Motion was lost, two members confirming in subsequent radio interviews that they had no alternative but to break their electoral committment and vote against the Motion.

I am now writing to you as Chairman of Athy Urban District Council to bring these matters to your attention and to seek clarification as to whether the advice proffered by the Deputy County Manager to the meeting of 15th December was correct having regard to the terms of Section 6 of the 1991 Local Government Act.

I am particularly concerned to ensure that community participation in Local Government in Athy is encouraged rather than hindered or obstructed, especially so if the rights of the Local Authority under the 1991 Act would allow the holding of a plebiscite or referendum.

As the Minister with overall responsibility for Local Government in Ireland I would hope you will review the advice and opinions offered to the Council members and uphold the right of the local people to a plebiscite.

If the community’s call for a plebiscite is not properly addressed at this stage inevitably difficulties will be encountered at future stages of the road development if and whenever it should obtain Ministerial or approval of the National Road Authority.

I am particularly anxious that this matter be reviewed as a matter of extreme urgency.”

The Minister recently replied to the Chairman of the Urban Council and what he has to say reaffirms the opinion expressed by Edmund Honohan, S.C. that the Urban District Council Members had the absolute right to hold a plebiscite on the Inner Relief Road. Specifically the Minister states :-

“The Local Government Act, 1991 provides that a Local Authority may represent the interests of the local community in such manner as they think is appropriate and for that purpose may promote, organise or assist the carrying out of research, surveys or studies with respect to the local community.”

The final line of the Minister’s letter indicates a course of action which the anti-Inner Relief Group must now consider if they wish to vindicate the rights of the local people to be consulted on the new road issue. Specifically the Minister refers to the Courts as the final interpreter of law in the event of any dispute. Alternatively of course the Members of Athy Urban District Council who rejected the call for a plebiscite on a vote of 5/4 might now reconsider that decision given that the advice which caused Councillors Reid and Lawler to change their views on the issue is shown to be incorrect.

Recent announcements from Kildare County Council and from the town’s Chamber of Commerce have sought to reassure the supporters of the Inner Relief Road that work on the Inner Relief Road will commence within two years. I can only smile at the barefaced buffoonery of Kildare County Council which would issue such an outlandish statement without reference to the many time consuming procedures which have yet to be gone through before a JCB tears up Emily Square. What about the Compulsory Purchase Orders required to secure lands over which any planned road must go? What about the Bridge Order which must be obtained and what about the Environmental Impact Assessment, all of which will require compliance with public display and consultation procedures?

Kildare County Council successfully inveigled the decision it wanted from the elected representatives of Athy Urban District Council as regards the plebiscite but never again will they be allowed to sweet talk their way by trampling over the rights of the local people.

The issue now is will Athy Urban District Council revisit the plebiscite issue, or will the local people of Athy who favour a plebiscite be forced to assert their rights through the Irish Courts?

Thursday, May 18, 2000

Bob's Cinema

The former Grove Cinema presents a forlorn sight as it waits for the bulldozers to put the final imprimatur on the local Council’s recent decision which effectively deprived the town of its only cinema. I was a teenager when the Grove first opened its door in 1957. Our local cinema for years was “Bobs” in Offaly Street, so named because its manager was Bob Webster who lived just a few doors away from my home on the same street. “Bobs” was where as youngsters eagerly aspiring to be adults before our time, we learned whatever it was we had to learn about the charms of the opposite sex. No it wasn’t anything on the screen which gave us that knowledge, rather the opportunities presented to eager young lads when the lights went down on the latest cinematic treat.

Ones young years can be measured in terms of the different ways in which pleasure and enjoyment is earned. For instance, the simple joy of having, in the early 1950’s, a penny to buy a bar of toffee which we nurtured and sometimes shared through the long hot summer afternoons. For the pennies if they came always seem to arrive in the afternoon, never ever in the morning time.

The next stage in ones enjoyment of life came with the “pictures”, long before they became “movies” or “films”. Going to the “pictures” was a weekly ritual. The Sunday matinee in the darkened emporium which was “Bobs” enriched our young minds as we watched the gun slingers of the wild west in action. Oh how we envied their uncanny accuracy with pistols as they shot with practiced ease a gun from a “baddy’s” hand at forty paces. As young aficionado’s of the wild west we practiced for hours with our own guns and holsters which always arrived at Christmas time in the 1950’s. We were by then well beyond the world of snakes and ladders as we pursued the more manly task of chasing indians who could be shot within impunity even if the cowboys could only have their guns shot from their hands. Racism had no part in our young lives.

Hopalong Cassidy was the King. He followed in the footsteps, or should that be the hoof marks of Tom Mix and shared the screen of our imagination with Roy Rogers and his wonder horse Trigger. But somehow or other, Hopalong always seemed to have the edge over the wholesome singing Cowboy Roy as he cut a dashing figure, clad all in black astride his white horse. Never far behind was his faithful side kick Gabby Hayes. We sat in “Bobs” mesmerized by the agility and athleticism of these cowboys and as we later emerged blinking into the day light of Offaly Street, we did so in our best cowboy manner, our hands never moving far from the imaginary holstered guns strapped to our ungainly legs. The feeling of invincibility which accompanied us as we departed from “Bobs” on those Sunday afternoons always seemed to have evaporated by the time we reached home. “What’s for tea”, was and still is a reassuring indication of ones involvement in the present which does not permit of maintaining fanciful notions of cowboy dreams.

Time advanced and we left behind the wild west trail as we wandered off in search of pathways never before trodden by our young feet. The prize was that most horrible of creatures - the female. At least we had thought of them as horrible just months before but as we got older, they had taken on a sheen and a glamour which our young teenage years had never before encountered. Peer pressure, as in every element of life, galvanised a lot of us teenagers into action when it came to forming relationships with the opposite sex. Not that the word had any significance for us in those pre-television days when our experiences were measured and tailored by the narrow confines of our encounters outside the family home. Initially we knew girls to see only because they lived in the same street or were acquaintances of our friends. They might as well have been part of the street furniture for all the attention they got from us fellows, still cradled as we were in the land of Rogers and Cassidy. But all of that was to change. How, even I cannot now say. But change it did and the weekly visit to “Bobs” took on an even more important role in our lives than that of revisiting and re-inventing the world of the wild west in which we had spent our younger teenage years. Now the picture itself (“film” to you and me these days) was of little importance. The screen no longer had our undivided attention although truth to tell, it still got a quick look or an over the shoulder glance every now and then so that our report at the kitchen table as to what the film was about could be made with some degree of accuracy. The real business of our later teenage years spent in “Bobs” was to do with the female species. The lights out at the start of the matinee resulted in a quick change of seating arrangements and the commencement of a learning process embracing many skills which as prospective adults, we were enjoined to do for our own future benefit. And how well we fumbled our way through many an afternoon’s matinee eager to learn and willing to please but ever mindful of the dire warnings of our teachers in the Christian Brothers as to the dangers of keeping company.

I am reminded of the delightful times spent in “Bobs” as I look at the opening souvenir for the “Grove Super Cinema Athy” which was opened in 1957. It of course led to the closing of “Bobs” in Offaly Street. More correctly called The Picture Palace, “Bobs” had served as a cinema and a meeting place for Athy folk for upwards of thirty years. It could not however hope to compete with the Grove Cinema which was built by a local contractor George Nash to accommodate upwards of a thousand patrons. Equipped with the latest projection equipment, its screen could accommodate the requirements of full cinemascope. Even better still, the plush seats were more comfortable than those in “Bobs” and when it came to viewing or smooching, ones comfort was all important. No wonder that “Bobs” went the way of all good things.

Thursday, May 11, 2000

Council Housing Projects of the 1930s

When Sean T. O’Ceallaigh, then Minister for Local Government came to Athy on 5th April, 1934 to open the new Housing Schemes at St. Joseph’s Terrace and Michael Dooley’s Terrace he acknowledged that no local authority had responded better to his Government Housing initiative than Athy UDC. He remarked that Ireland was a “good Christian country with Catholic morals prevailing and families were increasing and would have to be provided with houses”.

The local Council had already made substantial strides in replacing the unsanitary hovels which were the remnants of 18th century Athy with modern local authority houses and suitably emboldened by the Minister’s words planned to build upwards of another 171 houses. No doubt it’s announcement of the proposed 5th Housing Scheme for Athy owed much to the local elections scheduled for 26th June, 1934 and which for the first time would be held under the Proportional Representation System. Six of the fifteen outgoing members of the Urban Council nevertheless lost their seats and John Dillon, Francis Doran, Patrick Kelly, Richard Murphy, James Tierney and Daniel Toomey never again graced the Council Chamber.

The newly elected Council met with it’s Engineer three days after the election and after much discussion decided to reduce the number of proposed new houses to 56. This may have been due to a realisation that the Council’s finances were overstretched for within a few weeks the Department of Local Government felt obliged to inform the Council that the proposed sewerage scheme for Athy “will receive immediate consideration as soon as all outstanding loan instalments are paid and an undertaking given under seal to pay all future instalments promptly.” Despite their obvious financial difficulties the Council advertised in September 1934 for contractors to build 20 one story four roomed houses at Clonmullin, and 25 two story four roomed houses on Carbery’s field at Rathstewart. The Minister for Local Government wrote to the Urban Council in a letter read at it’s meeting on 10th October in which he expressed himself :- “Very dissatisfied with the Council’s attitude regarding outstanding instalments of housing loans and unless they are paid regularly no further advances will be made.” Undaunted the Council opened tenders for new houses in Rathstewart and Clonmullin on 5th November, 1934. Messrs Duggan of Templemore and D. & J. Carbery of Athy who between them had built the recently opened new houses in Lower and Upper St. Joseph’s Terrace were duly appointed as Contractors. Carberys agreed to build 20 one story houses on Mr. Rodger’s site at Clonmullin for £5,482 and Duggans were entrusted with the building of 25 two story houses on Carbery’s field at Rathstewart which when completed would link up with the 17 houses previously built by D. & J. Carbery to form Upper St. Joseph’s Terrace.

The Urban Council must have settled it’s differences with the Department regarding the unpaid loan instalments as the Department approved the tenders and further approved the Council’s acquisition of Mrs. Holland’s field at Geraldine Road and Plewman’s site at Blackparks for £80 per statute acre. Before the end of the year the Council had agreed to purchase 1 acre 1 rood of land from Dan Finter at the rear of Carbery’s houses in Woodstock Street which had been demolished under the first Clearance Order. The Duke of Leinster also sold to the Council the site on which the 22 Carbery houses had stood, measuring 1 rood and 10 perches. Clearly the site density was of quite extraordinary proportions.

Patrick Tierney of Stanhope Street was appointed Clerk of Works for the Council’s fifth housing scheme and two months later in February 1935 the Department of Local Government sanctioned a loan of £36,500 for the Council’s scheme “of about 106 houses”. One can only marvel at the latitude apparently given to the Urban Council.

Before long the Urban District Council were pushing it’s luck when in March it asked the Office of Public Works “because of our poor financial situation” to undertake the sewerage scheme for the town. The Office of Public Works promptly replied that such work was “normally undertaken by local authorities”. Brigid Darby who during her time as a Councillor displayed remarkable foresight was again somewhat ahead of her colleagues when early in 1935 she brought forward a proposal that the Council provide a children’s playground in connection with the St. Joseph’s Terrace houses. She was defeated by an amendment which provided for the tenants to be given all the land at the rear of their houses for gardens.

McHugh’s Malt Store and site at Woodstock Street which the Council had tried to acquire for many years was finally the subject of a Compulsory Purchase Order. A public enquiry was held in the Town Hall on 25th November, 1934 by Denis J. Hickie, Local Government Inspector to hear the objectors and joint owners Miss M. McHugh and Mr. J.S. McHugh. Dr. James McHugh of Dublin Road, Carlow indicated that the store was last used in or about 1923 as a Malthouse. Built of stone it was a substantial building and according to the evidence of the Council Engineer P.J. Sheehan it’s roof was not in the best of condition while the windows of the store were barred with boards and had no glass in them. The Inspector closed the enquiry after deciding to inspect the stores for himself.

On receiving confirmation of the Compulsory Purchase Order on McHugh’s site the Council decided to build 12 houses there under the fifth housing scheme instead of 16 houses as originally intended. J. Reynolds, a local dentist of Leinster Street who was first elected in June 1934 now brought before the Council a Motion that “the Council consider the construction of a swimming pool”. Supported unanimously this led to the appointment of Reynolds, Tom Carbery, Tom Flood, Patrick Dooley and Dr. J. Kilbride to a Committee to confer with the local Engineer J.J. Bergin. The Committee agreed to meet at Chapel Well on Thursday, 9th May, 1935 at 8pm, presumably, although it was not stated, because this was to be the site of the proposed pool. Within two weeks plans for the oft discussed sewerage scheme for Athy were received from Nicholas O’Dwyer B.E. who had estimated it’s cost at £17,866 for which the Department promised a Grant of £400. The Council agreed to go ahead with a modified sewerage scheme costing £13,000 but only if the Department gave it a substantial grant for the work. At the same time the brave Councillors sent to the Department a request for funding for a swimming pool to which the Department Officials replied that they regarded “a sewerage scheme for Athy as more important than a swimming pool”. Dr. Kilbride, the local Medical Officer of Health, agreed with the Department and suggested that a plan to provide bathing facilities could be carried out “owing to the fact that they are less than 100 houses in Athy provided with bathrooms and the population of the town is about 3,700.”

…….. to be continued

Thursday, May 4, 2000

Athy's Courthouse

The building work currently going on in the Courthouse building in Emily Square turned up an intriguing item during the past month. A small piece of timber found behind an architrave bore the following message written in pencil :-
“This Courthouse will be the property of the Irish Republic very soon or else it will be up in the air again.
Rory of the Hill”

The Courthouse building was last refurbished in or about 1928 by a Contractor named Sheridan under the guidance of Architects Foley and O’Sullivan. The Building, first provided by the Duke of Leinster as a corn exchange for the town of Athy, was subsequently re-adopted for use as a Courthouse and as such was a prime target during the War of Independence. Almost inevitably the building was torched on the night of 15th July, 1921 just a few weeks after James Lacey and William Connors had been killed during what has since become known as the Barrowhouse Ambush.

The Athy members of the IRA had not been very active during the War of Independence. An attack on the Military Barracks and raids on a few private houses for guns were the most noteworthy of their activities. Some of the locals visited at night and “encouraged” to give up their firearms included Cootes Drapers of Leinster Street, the local Station Master O’Neill and Hegartys who lived in an isolated cottage at the rear of Offaly Street. These and other similar nocturnal raids involved Jack Bradley of Woodstock Street, better known as “Gay Leg” Bradley, Mick Dunne originally from Clonaslee in County Laois and Bill Nolan of St. Michael’s Terrace. The last named was an energetic member of the local IRA and is credited, if such is the right term, with torching the Courthouse in July 1921. The local IRA had not sanctioned this action in the same way as they had no involvement in Bill Nolan’s earlier destruction of the Post Office clock in Duke Street.

Clearly Bill was a man of action who did not feel himself in any way restricted by belonging to an organised resistance group. In any event Bill’s latest escapade which culminated in the destruction of the Courthouse was not overlooked by the IRA Group leaders and so Bill was court martialled. John Hayden, a teacher in the local Christian Brothers School who was then living with his brother Paddy in Offaly Street was appointed with Mick Dunne to prepare a report on the Courthouse incident. Following this Bill Nolan was suspended by his IRA superiors, but was subsequently taken back into the fold long before the Courthouse itself was rebuilt. Indeed the building, or what was left of it, remained an eyesore for about seven years, fenced off from the rest of Emily Square until Kildare County Council, suitably reimbursed for it’s loss, engaged Sheridans Building Contractors to restore the building.

It was presumably during that work that the piece of timber mentioned at the start of this article was inserted by one of Sheridan’s workman at the rear of an architrave. Bill Nolan is long dead but the events of almost eighty years ago are recalled with the discovery of the small piece of timber by one of Dan Carbery’s workmen last month.

One of the mysteries from the 1990/1923 period in Athy concerns the identity of two men recalled and remembered for me some years ago by older members of the local community who have since passed on. J.J. O’Byrne, a teacher in the Christian Brothers School, lived in Duke Street in the property now owned by Alan Grothier. Next door was the shop of Michael Dooley where the local IRA men met regularly and in whose yard and haybarn they paraded on occasions. O’Byrne is believed to have been married to a woman from Barrowhouse whose name is unknown to me. The School teacher was arrested on 17th August, 1918 after he had got up on a box outside his front door and read out a notice, the contents of which are unknown but which immediately lead to his arrest and imprisonment in Mountjoy Jail. So far as I can ascertain J.J. O’Byrne never returned to Athy and he remains to this day a man of mystery.

Equally mysterious was a young man named Horgan or O’Horgan, an active member of the local IRA who worked as a Chemist or a Chemist’s assistant in McHugh’s of Duke Street. His name was mentioned by several different sources as an IRA member of the time but no one has yet come up with his Christian name. He is believed to have been from County Kerry where he subsequently returned and I am told he was wounded in a shootout between the IRA and the Black and Tans in that county. Is there anyone out there who can throw any light on either of these two men? If so I would be delighted to hear from you.

Writing of the rebuilding of the Courthouse brings me rather sadly to the recent unexpected death of the local Court Clerk, Frances Behan. When the Court last sat less than two weeks ago in the temporary accommodation at the top of Offaly Street Frances was in her usual place in front of the Judge organising the Court’s business in her customary pleasant and efficient manner. Within two days she was dead, a tragic loss to her family and friends and to the Court Practitioners in Athy and Carlow who had come to appreciate her kind and considerate nature since her appointment nine years ago. Working within the Irish Court system, whether at District Court or at a higher level, is for practitioners, staff and everyone else involved a demanding and at times a stressful job and so it is that practitioners especially, appreciate the understanding and graciousness with which our demands on the District Court and particularly Frances Behan were invariably met. Frances was a considerate and helpful Court Official who will be sadly missed.

Wednesday, May 3, 2000

Inner Relief Road

I had intended to write this week of a local man who in the 1940’s and throughout the following two decades proved himself to be one of the most vocal public representatives of his time. However, my plans have to be laid aside for the time being to enable me to highlight the recent announcement concerning the proposed new road linking Dublin and Waterford. The public consultation process which must now accompany any proposal for major road works in this country commenced a few weeks ago and it was Athy’s turn last week.

We have until Friday, 15th June to contact the National Road Authority and let the know our views in relation to the various routes suggested for the proposed Dublin to Waterford dual carriageway and motorway. Here in Athy we are specifically concerned with the route options for the second section of the new roadway, stretching from midway between Kilcullen and Athy and extending downwards to within a mile or so of Carlow town.

The National Road Authority undertook a study following the publication of the National Development Plan for 2000/2006, which Plan identified the need for a reliable road transport system, the need for better access between the regions and the necessity to reduce fatalities and injuries resulting from road traffic accidents. The National Road Authority study concluded that the new road between Kilcullen and Waterford should be located so as to best serve Kildare, Carlow, Laois, Kilkenny and adjacent counties. It also recognised that the new road should separate long distance traffic from other road users and commented that the provision of a dual carriageway or a motorway with limited access points offered the best guarantee of greater road safety. At the same time the National Road Authority acknowledged that the new roadway should also bring with it economic and environmental advantages for the areas which it is proposed to serve.

For the purposes of the public consultation process which is now in operation the full length of the new road from Kilcullen (where it will link with the existing motorway) to the city of Waterford has been subdivided into seven sections, each inter-linked and showing within each of those sections a number of different route options. For instances on the first section taking in Kilcullen, Ballitore and Moone, there are no less than five route options set out on the map prepared by the National Road Authority. The second section covering Athy and Castledermot also has five route options and our immediate concern is in relation to these two sections of the proposed roadway.

The issue facing the people of Athy is whether the new roadway should be brought close to the town, thereby allowing us to gain some advantage from its proximity, or alternatively whether the road should be kept well away from Athy. Common sense decrees that the townspeople of Athy should fight hard to bring the new road as near as possible to their town. Of the five route options the one most likely to bring maximum advantage to Athy is route B1. This starts east of Ardscull and passes south of Athy and crosses the River Barrow approximately 2 kilometres from the town centre. It then turns south and follows the Barrow Valley, passing Carlow on the west side of that town. None of the other four route options could possibly provide the range of benefits which are likely to flow from having the new roadway passing within 2 kilometres of the centre of Athy. The future development of Athy’s limited industrial base depends on the opening up of lands serviced by roads as will happen with this road project. Bringing the road as close as 2 kilometres to the town centre, coupled with an additional spur from it onto the Kilkenny road would provide an outer relief road to take away the through traffic, especially the heavy lorries, which presently clog up our main street. The environmental and safety benefits which would flow from this are incalculable as are the economic benefits to an area hit again recently by the closure of yet another factory.

Many locals have consistently campaigned for an outer relief road, recognising the long term advantages that would follow from such a development and here now is the possibility of committing the Government to a road development which would serve to revive the fortunes of Athy. An overview of the entire roadway from Kilcullen to Waterford shows that the towns of Athy, Carlow, Leighlinbridge, Kilkenny and Bennettsbridge are the towns most likely to benefit. Kilkenny and Carlow, two major centres of development, have achieved their economic success on the backs of being county towns. The new roadway is needed insofar as they are concerned to facilitate traffic movement and not, as in smaller centres such as Athy, to create not only the road infrastructure, but also development opportunities. The latter requires the new road to be brought as near to the town of Athy as the 2 kilometres projected in option B1 because in doing so the land served by the road would give a much needed boost to our local economy. In the case of Athy a roadway close to the town centre would have the additional benefit of allowing an outer relief road option to be implemented without too much difficulty.

Simple put, we need a roadway to come as near as possible to the centre of Athy for it offers the possibility of an economic lifeline for a town pushed for too long to the rear of every queue which ever formed at the doorsteps of successive Irish Governments. If we do not seize this opportunity to put our case with vigour and with justifiable concern for our town’s future, then Athy’s future will be further threatened.

Athy’s Urban Development Group which has been spearheading the demand for an Outer Relief Road will hold a public meeting in the Dominican Hall on Tuesday, 12th June next at 8.00pm to press Athy’s claim for the new roadway on route option B1. Everyone and anyone interested in the National Road Authority’s plans for the new Dublin/Waterford road should come along to that meeting.