The recently formed Athy Historical Society has arranged a spring lecture series to commence with a lecture on Thursday 8th February. The lectures will be held in the Heritage Centre on the second Thursday of each month at 7.30 p.m. Admission to all lectures is free.
The first lecture in the series will be given by Marc Guernon under the title ‘No field is innocent’ - the hidden archaeology of South Kildare’. Marc was part of the archaeological team which excavated the medieval village of Ardreigh prior to the re-alignment of the Carlow Road some years ago. The second lecture which will take place on Thursday 8th March will deal with ‘Athy and the Great War’. The lecturer, Clem Roche, published his book ‘Athy and District World War I Roll of Honour 1914-1918’ last year and copies are for sale in the Heritage Centre. The final lecture scheduled for Thursday 12th April will feature Colm Flynn whose talk under the title ‘Where are you coming from and where are you going?’ will give a detailed exposition of the old roads of South Kildare. Colm’s book ‘A Tie to the Land’ is available for sale in the Gem.
The developing interest in local history and family history has witnessed the release of an ever-increasing list of publications on the subjects, while regretfully much research at local level remains largely unpublished. I was particularly pleased to receive some time ago a copy of a dissertation researched and written by local man, Seamus Hughes, as part of his studies in Carlow College. His subject was the Grand Canal which is of particular relevance to someone bearing the Hughes name as several generations of that family were bargemen on the Grand Canal and the Barrow Line over the years.
Seamus noted that work on the construction of the canal between Monasterevin and Athy commenced in 1789. The canal from Dublin to Monasterevin had been completed in 1785 and the intention was to enter the River Barrow at Monasterevin and continue the journey downstream towards Athy and beyond. However, the river between the two south Kildare towns proved to be shallow at various points and the decision was taken to extend the canal to Athy. Work on the new stretch of the canal was undertaken by a number of private contractors, all of whom were allocated sections of approximately one mile in length to work on. The engineer in charge was Richard Evans, assisted by William Rhodes, James Oates and Archibold Miller. Evans’s involvement with other projects which he was reluctant to give up led to him being relieved of his duties and his three assistants took over responsibility for overseeing the work of the various contractors. By April 1790 Archibold Miller had taken on the role of head engineer to the Grand Canal Company.
Seamus discloses that in April 1790 3,944 men were working on the canal construction works between Monasterevin and Athy. By March of the following year the canal was open to trade and passenger boats as far as Athy, although final work on the canal locks was still being undertaken.
The extension of the canal to Athy brought the possibility of huge changes to the south Kildare town. Canal transport offered tremendous commercial opportunities which were to some extent hampered or delayed by the 1798 rebellion. The uprising in and around Athy was the subject of local man Patrick O’Kelly’s book on 1798 and the savagery with which the rebels attempt to secure religious and parliamentary freedom was met militated against the possibility of maximising the commercial benefits which should have flowed from the new canal transport system. In the post 1798 period the country remained unsettled and while the Grand Canal company operated a passenger boat service linking Athy and Dublin it could not hope to compete with the railway company when the railway line was extended to Athy in 1847. Passenger boat services on the Grand Canal ceased in 1852, while the transport of commercial cargo continued fitfully until 1960. Seamus Hughes concluded his study by acknowledging that the Grand Canal was of vital importance in the commercialisation of towns, including Athy, which were connected to Dublin by the work of 18th century labourers.
Today the Grand Canal and the Barrow line have taken on a different role. Passenger traffic and the transport of cargo have been replaced by leisure boating. Athy’s town centre harbour is now home to a variety of boats bringing life back to the ancient river which had not seen much activity for decades past. The proposed development of the Barrow Blueway between Lowtown and St. Mullins with a possible waterway hub in Athy offers huge potential for Athy similar in many ways to that which followed the coming of the Grand Canal in 1791 and the arrival of the railway in 1847.