In the days immediately following the Great Famine Athy had a reading room where a lending library was available with books to borrow, in addition to the Irish and English daily newspapers. That first library was operated by the Athy Literary and Scientific Institute which was founded in September 1848, its facilities being available for ‘the young men of Athy engaged in mercantile pursuits during the day.’ The Institute’s stated objective was ‘the study and advancement of science and literature.’ The Institute’s library was established following a committee meeting on 2nd December 1848 and while books could be borrowed by members, dictionaries, atlases and periodicals were not to be lent. The library received gifts of books from many locals including shop owner Alexander Duncan who stated that he was doing so ‘as an earnest of the interest he felt in the society.’
A year later on 3rd October 1849 the institute became known as ‘The Athy Mechanics Institute’. The Grand Jury room in the Town Hall which had been used for meetings and lectures and housed the institute’s library, proved inadequate. On 1st August 1850 the members of the Mechanics Institute agreed to rent three rooms in Edward Duggan’s house. The location of Duggan’s house is not known but a letter to the local press in November 1863 referred to ‘a large swamp around the rooms of the lamented exchange bounded on the west by the Barrow, on the east by the dock and the Literary Mechanics reading room and on the south by that part of Emily Square known as “rotten row” and on the north by public houses and the bridewell’.
The select committee of the House of Commons on public libraries heard evidence in 1849 and in relation to Ireland Mr. G. Hamilton M.P. claimed: ‘The Irish people do not read because they have no access to books, not because they cannot read.’ The Mechanics Institute Library, restricted as it was to members who paid ten shillings per year membership fee, was a private members library and so could not be regarded as Athy’s first public library.
The first public library in the town of Athy opened in the Town Hall on 1st December 1927. It was operated by Kildare County Council as the local Urban District Council had earlier relinquished its powers under the Public Libraries Act. A local library committee was set up and was intended to comprise the local Parish Priest Canon Mackey and his three curates, Fr. Ryan, Fr. Browne and Fr. Kinnane who were to be joined by Rev. Dunlop, the local Church of Ireland Rector and Rev. Meek of the Presbyterian Church. The six clerics were to have had as fellow committee members five local Urban District Councillors and the Town Clerk James Lawler who would act as the library secretary. However, Canon Mackey, who had earlier crossed swords with the local Council, refused to come on the Committee for what he declared were ‘reasons obvious to the Council’. He was joined in his boycott of the library committee by his senior Curate, Fr. Kinnane. The Committee in time brought on board more lay members and the first librarian appointed was Mr. B. Brambley of Emily Square.
Choosing ‘suitable titles for Athy folk’ as reported in the local newspapers, was a task assigned to the library sub-committee comprising Fr. M. Browne, T.C. O’Gorman, Manager of the local Hibernian Bank and P.J. Murphy, draper from Emily Square. The library opened on 1st December 1927 and initially stayed open one evening a week from 7 to 9 p.m. This was soon extended to two evenings a week. From these early beginnings the library service in Athy developed, moving from the Town Hall to the Courthouse and back again to the Town Hall, all the time staying within the confines of Emily Square. On Thursday March 1st our new library will be officially opened in the former Dominican Church on the opposite side of the River Barrow to Emily Square.
I remember the library of the 1950s. It opened in the evening times only to give access to the books which were shelved in a small room in the Town Hall which up to recently was used as a reference room. Accessed by the doorway and stairs opposite the house of Mrs. Josephine Gibbons, the scarcity of motor traffic presented no great dangers for library users. Nowadays that same entrance leading onto Emily Row is deemed too dangerous to use and is permanently closed.
The new community library which opens on Thursday March 1st will be a formidable addition to the cultural landscape of Athy. The Heritage Centre, the Arts Centre and the community library form a cultural triumvirate ready to celebrate our place, our people, our past and by doing so enrich our lives and make Athy a better place in which to live.