Standing at the junction of Woodstock Street and William Street is a simple stone arch. This forlorn structure, close to Tully’s travel agents, is all that remains of the military barracks built in Athy in the 1700’s. The arch does not, however, stand in its original location. It was re-erected by Athy Urban District Council after languishing for many years in the Council’s yard. The barracks formerly stood in the area now occupied by part of the Greenhills estate and gave Woodstock Street its original name Barrack Street. The name was only changed in the late nineteenth century when the Town Commissioners, concerned with the streets association with “Ladies of the night”, who plied their trade near the barracks, re-named the Street Woodstock in an attempt to improve the areas image.
Permanent barracks for troops were established in Ireland, earlier than in Britain, from the late seventeenth century onward. This was a consequence of the instability of the country in the aftermath of the Williamite Wars and a desire by Parliament to provide centres for troops to aid the civil authorities in dealing with disorder particularly of a agrarian nature.
The actual date of the barracks construction in Athy is unknown but the Princess Charlotte of Wales Dragoon Guards are recorded as being stationed there as early as 1716. This regiment of cavalry would serve on a regular basis in Athy for the next 150 years. The earliest surviving description of the barracks is contained in a survey of the barracks of Ireland in 1729 completed by Major-General Honeywood. It noted that a troop of Lieutenant General McCartneys’ Regiment were in occupation of the Athy Barracks. The barracks were run down at the time as the report went on to describe its roof as being “out of repair” while the stables were considered to be “bad”. Otherwise the remaining buildings, which were not described, were in good repair.
A more complete description of the barracks was provided by Carleton Whitelock. He was commissioned by the British Government to complete a survey of its barracks in the south-west of Ireland. Arriving in Athy in the Summer of 1759 he found the barracks were “one of the oldest in the kingdom”. It consisted of three rooms for officers, one for quartermaster, four for privates, and one corporals room. Evidently the room occupied by the corporals had been adapted from a store. The barracks was completed by its square around which were grouped the remaining rooms such as the kitchen, infirmary, straw house and stables. The stables though stoutly constructed, were the oldest part of the building and in need of replacement. Whitelock found that its floors were worn out with its windows and their frames so dilapidated that their replacement was necessary. His recommendation in his report to Parliament was that the stables should be rebuilt while the total works to the barracks, he estimated, would cost £59.4s7¼d.
The barrack was important not only in military but also in economic terms to the town. The stabling of horse guaranteed a constant demand for forage. Though the horses were put out to grass from June to November they were stabled in the barracks for the winter months. The merchants of the town would also have sold provisions to the army including foodstuffs, clothing, leather, candles and all the supplies necessary to maintain man and beast.
Life within the barracks was ordered and regimented and for each horse soldier the care of his horse and the maintenance of his saddlery would have been his primary responsibility. The accommodation for the men was frugal and sometimes little better than that of the horses. The barrack regulations in the mid 18th century laid down that each man should have a minimum space of 450 cubic feet. This compared unfavourably with that of a prison inmate who could expect to have a minimum of 1,000. A map by Alexander Taylor of the military establishments of Ireland in 1790 noted the presence of only 36 soldiers in the barracks. But it was not unusual for the barracks in Athy to hold more than one hundred men at a time which was in excess of its intended capacity. A return for the barrack in 1811 listed its permanent occupants as 4 officers, 60 cavalry troopers and 52 horses while it also housed, temporarily, 86 infantry soldiers. This overcrowding would have resulted in squalid and cramped conditions in the accommodation in the barracks. One officer recalled the conditions in winter.
“The men would block up the ventilation with old sacking and when I had to visit the rooms in the morning the atmosphere was so nauseating that I felt disinclined to touch my breakfast afterwards”.
In the aftermath of the Napoleonic wars many temporary barracks which had sprung up around the country in anticipation of an unrealised invasion were closed. Athy retained its permanent status. It was the home for troops from a multitude of regiments in the 18th and 19th centuries including the 15th Hussars, 4th Royal Irish Dragoon Guards, 1st Royal Guards, 1st Royal Dragoons, Prince Alberts’ Own Hussars and Prince Charlotte of Wales Dragoon Guards. By the middle of the nineteenth century the barracks were not in permanent use. The Curragh became the focus for much of the army during the Summer months. However in winter many of the regiments moved into winter quarters. The 15th Hussars spread themselves in a number of different locations in the winter of 1863 including Kilkenny, Newbridge, Carlow and Athy. Although the barracks were not in constant use they were maintained by a skeleton staff at times. In 1846 the buildings were under the command of the Barrack Master, Major Peter Brown who was assisted by the Barrack Keeper Joseph Caher. The barracks also kept a fire engine which was used to assist the towns authorities at different times. Indeed, it was only when the military withdrew from the barracks that the Town Commissioners established a permanent voluntary fire service in the town in 1881. The last troops to serve in Athy in 1877 were the Princess Charlotte of Wales Dragoon Guards who were back in the barracks they first occupied 150 years previously. By 1889 the barracks had fallen into disuse and the Royal Irish Constabulary which had been based in Whites Castle moved to the barracks. This move was precipitated by a government report which had condemned the accommodation in Whites Castle as insanitary. The sum of £500 was spent on renovating the neglected barracks to house the seven married and four single men who were members of the local constabulary. The RIC occupied the barracks up until 1922 when it was taken over by the local IRA. Thereafter the Athy UDC housed some of its tenants there until it was finally demolished about thirty five years ago.