I see from a press report of a recent Town Council meeting that our town fathers (and mothers!) were given a history lesson by one of their colleagues. Garter Lane was the subject of the lesson and no doubt the select audience were suitably enthralled by stories of ladies of the night and discarded ladies garters which were in time (it was claimed) to give this darkened alleyway the name by which it is known today. Well I am sorry to have to spoil a good story. Undoubtedly the aforesaid laneway was in its time, and maybe still is, a location for amorous activities, but sadly the name ‘Garter Lane’ owes nothing to that same activity. Lets look at the evidence for this claim.
The first town maps for Athy came almost 550 years after the medieval settlement was first founded. We owe it to the Duke of Leinster and a French artist, one commissioning the other, for the existing maps of the Fitzgerald family’s extensive estates which included the town of Athy. The French artist Rocques surveyed Athy town east of the River Barrow and produced his manuscript map of the area in 1756. Prepared on the scale of 16 perches to 1 inch it was the earliest layout plan for any part of the ancient town. Twelve years later he produced a map of Athy west of the Barrow and the reason why he initially concentrated on the other side of the Barrow river because it was the location for the civic buildings and the major business houses of the time. The poor Irish lived on the western side of the town and their dwellings did not match in style or grandeur anything to be found across the bridge.
Examining the 18th century maps produced by Rocques confirms that the principal roads through the town on the east to west and north to south axes were already in place. However, they were known by names which have long disappeared from public memory. The present Duke Street was St. John’s Street, while Emily Square was then known as Market Square. Leinster Street was High Street, a name which clearly pinpoints its prominence as the principal street in 18th century Athy. Offaly Street was then known as Preston’s Gate, while on the opposite side of St. John’s Street lay Cotters Lane, which we now call Stanhope Street.
Before the first Ordnance Survey map of Athy was produced in 1839 the Duke of Leinster commissioned the Dublin based artist Clarges Greene to prepare a map of the entire town. It was compiled in 1827 and it and the earlier Rocques maps provide a veritable treasure trove of long forgotten place names.
Who recalls Duncans Lane, Reeves Lane, Matthews Lane, Devoys Lane, Tea Lane, Barkers Row, Carrs Court, Kellys Lane, Merins Lane, Keatings Lane or Coopers Lane? Even new laneways, which were first recorded on the Ordnance Survey maps of 1872, have disappeared without trace, many as a result of the Slum Clearance Programmes of the 1930s. Connollys Lane, Garden Lane, New Row, New Gardens and Porters Lane were some of those later additions to the topography of Athy town.
Coincidentally in the same week as the Garter Lane history lesson received publicity in the local newspaper, a reader of this column sent me a printout from the internet of Griffith’s Valuation of Athy. This was part of a nationwide valuation of land and houses which was carried out between 1848 and 1865 for the purpose of establishing a uniform basis for levying poor law rates to finance the workhouses and levying taxes on land occupiers to fund Grand Jury Presentments. Grand Jurys were the 19th century equivalent of the modern day County Councils, although they had fewer powers. Carried out under the supervision of Richard Griffith, the valuation process identified the boundaries of every townland, parish and barony and eventually led to a separate valuation of tenements in towns throughout Ireland. That part of the work was completed so far as County Kildare was concerned in July 1854. I already possessed a copy of Griffith’s Valuation for Athy but the local man who sent me the computer printout expressed surprise at some of the place names he found in the valuation list. Many of these names have been already noted earlier in this article as appearing in the early town maps but others not previously mentioned include Tanyard Lane, Blackparks, Riverside, Ophally Street, which in modern usage is spelled Offaly Street, Shambles and of course the oft abbreviated Meeting House Lane which you and I now know as Meeting Lane.
Modern Athy was expanded enormously over the last 10 years or so to give us a wealth of new place names, many of which, regrettably have little or no connection with the history of the locality. The old laneways which rejoiced in names such as Kelly or Devoy or Matthews no doubt recall the owners or builders of the cabins which housed many families in the unsanitary and unhealthy laneways of the 19th century. Their destruction under Slum Clearance Programmes brought with it an adjustment in the town’s streetscape and the loss of place names and occasionally a misunderstanding of how and why those names came into use.
Garter Lane undoubtedly fills all the criteria imaginable to justify its name but back in time it was called Carter Lane, denoting the occupation enjoyed by the majority of the men who lived there. The horse and cart was the only form of transport within the town in the pre-combustion engine days and they were used extensively to ferry goods and produce from one place to another. Carters Lane was then a centre of enterprise, its occupants probably enjoying a lifestyle marginally better than those found in Reeves Lane or the multiplicity of other lanes and courts which once shaped the towns geography.
Having mentioned by name many of the now disappeared laneways perhaps I should end this article by telling you where they were once located. Duncans Lane was off Offaly Street, directly opposite Butlers Row, and was later called Barkers Row. Reeves Lane consisted of a few poor cabins off the south side of Leinster Street near its Dublin Road end and nearby was Devoys Lane. Tea Lane was behind Purcells Pub and between it and the present Tegral factory. Carrs Court was off Mount Hawkins, as was Porters Lane, Kellys Lane and Merins Lane which was later replaced by New Row. Keatings Lane was off Chapel Hill, while Coopers Lane was off the Kilkenny Road or as it was called up to the mid 19th century, the Turnpike Road. Both Connollys Lane and Garden Lane were off Meeting Lane and outlines of the small houses in Connollys Lane can be seen in the wall directly opposite the back of Brennans offices in Emily Square. Leading off Nelson Street between Shrewleen Lane and Higginsons Lane was New Gardens.
I have not told you where Matthews Lane or the Shambles were to be found. Can you tell me where they were located?
Athy’s history is bound up in the forgotten laneways of the past and in the families who lived and died in those lanes. Many interesting people with interesting stories came from those same lanes but the pity is that their lives, like the laneways themselves, are overlooked and with the passage of time have been lost to the present generation.
Finally, the Heritage Centre is still anxious to get material on loan for the War of Independence Exhibition opening on Easter Monday, 13th April. If you have anything relating to this time in Irish history Margaret Walsh will be delighted to hear from you on Ph: (059) 8633075.