Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Athy's rich Architectural heritage

Any town plan comprises a range of inter dependent elements such as housing, roads and utility services, but also a number of inter related but not readily identified elements such as community development, cultural enhancement and the protection and preservation of the architectural and archaeological heritage of the town. Thankfully it is now quite a few years since we heard what was once an often-repeated complaint that ‘heritage is holding back Athy’. It is now accepted that heritage in all its manifestations, whether the architectural or the built heritage of Athy or the historical heritage of its community is but one of the many elements which helps build a vibrant community where facilities and opportunities are available to all. We now realise and accept that Athy has a rich architectural and historical heritage which are an intrinsic part of our community’s past. Foremost amongst the local buildings of note is of course Whites Castle. It is one of over 150 protected structures listed in the current town plan and given its history, its prominent position in the town centre and its current state there is an urgent need for the County Council to act on its declared aim of ‘protecting and conserving buildings of special historic interest’. The future development of Whites Castle can be linked with the hopeful realisation of Athy’s tourism potential which is another key issue to be addressed in the Athy plan. Tourism, retailing and industry are the three key economic footholds on which the future economic well being of Athy will stand. The retailing issue I touched on last week, while the drive for further industrial employment opportunities is largely dependent on the provision of an outer relief road and the identification of serviced land suitable for large and medium sized enterprises. Regrettably we have been slow to recognise the economic and social benefits which tourism could bring to the town. This, despite the huge potential that exists for waterways tourism on the River Barrow and the Grand Canal. The development of the Blueway hub here in Athy, coupled with the provision of improved mooring facilities on the local waterways, should help us realise some of the huge potential created by the unique meeting in Athy of the River Barrow and the Grant Canal. Water related tourism is but one side of the tourism potential of Athy’s future. The history of the town reflecting our national history is a story to be told in the Town Hall Museum and in a possible future museum located in Whites Castle. The current Heritage Centre is to be revamped and extended now that the library services have moved out of the Town Hall. It is to be renamed the Shackleton Museum and as the only permanent exhibition anywhere in the world devoted to the Polar explorer the museum can expect to attract international attention. If Whites Castle is acquired and developed as a local museum it and the Shackleton Museum would offer tourists attractive museum experiences which coupled with the other attractions in the town should help create a sustainable local tourism industry. When writing of other attractions in the town I am mindful of the opportunity as yet unfulfilled of making Athy the centre, as it was in 1903, of the Gordon Bennett race route. Kildare County Council has a key role to play in developing public spaces in and around Athy as evidenced in its current plans for the redevelopment of Emily Square. The existing plan acknowledges the poor quality of materials used during a previous development of the Square and what it calls ‘an abundance of clutter’. Plans announced last year provided for the creation of a traffic free plaza fronting the Town Hall. It was a bold statement of intent which prompted some local business people to bemoan the loss of parking in the front square. I favour the Council plan, seeing it as a far reaching and much needed development which would give our town centre an outstanding public area with the backdrop of the magnificent Town Hall. Any car parking space losses could be easily replaced by the acquisition and development of part of the now derelict Abbey site. Emily Square is the location of the centuries old Tuesday’s market. As currently operated the market is an uncontrolled mix and gathering of ugly stalls. The Council should regulate the market and make it an attractive feature which would enhance the local shopping experience. Stalls provided and put in place erected by Council staff each Tuesday morning for renting to traders together with improvement in the range of goods sold would hugely improve the image of the Tuesday market to the benefit of traders and shoppers alike. The Council’s role in adopting policies designed to promote sustainable development is one which is outlined in Statute. The implementation of those policies requires Council representatives and officials to ensure that the current needs of the local people are catered for, while at the same time planning for the future. The current pre-planning process allows all of us an opportunity to participate in planning for the future of our town.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Athy's new six year Development Plan

Last Tuesday officials from the Planning Department of Kildare County Council held a pre-draft consultation session in Athy’s new library to get feedback from local people on plans for the future of the town. The publicity for the consultation process set out its purpose as proper planning for the development of transportation, housing, retail, heritage, employment, social and community facilities. In short, planning for living in Athy. The declared aim of the public consultation was to engage with people who live, work, recreate or visit Athy and so stimulate debate on the future of the town. I called into our magnificent library just before 6pm, the session having started three hours earlier and which was scheduled to last for one further hour. At that stage approximately 30 persons had called to interact with the planners, a figure which I felt was extremely low given the town’s population of 10,000 or more. Perhaps the advance publicity for the consultation process did not reach out sufficiently far and wide to attract attention. Whatever the reason anyone interested in the future of Athy can make their views known to the Council planners at any time before 5pm on Tuesday 24th April. Submissions can be made online or by post to the Planning Department at Aras Chill Dara, Naas. To help those wishing to do so the Council has prepared an eight page booklet setting out the key issues to be addressed and copies of the booklet can be picked up in the local library. The present six year development plan for Athy is a very comprehensive document which sets out what is described as ‘an overall strategy for the proper planning and sustainable development of the town’. If one examines the record of implementing the multi-faceted strategy adopted under various headings six years ago there cannot be complete satisfaction with the results. An examination of the Transport and Movement element of the plan shows that the outer relief road and the foot bridge across the River Barrow have not been progressed as we might have expected. The continued absence of cycle parking facilities in the town centre is another part of the existing plan which was not implemented. The use of car parking facilities in the urban area subject to fees during business hours is a feature which is generally felt runs counter to the Council’s declared vision of re-establishing Athy as a ‘key shopping destination’. While Athy is well serviced with strategically placed parking areas in the town centre local shopkeepers find that car driving customers are not encouraged to shop in the town. This is because of what is perceived to be unnecessary prohibitive car parking fees. Shopkeepers and shoppers alike ask why the County Council cannot accept its responsibility to encourage town centre shopping by allowing customers two hours free parking. Such an arrangement would allow the independent shop keepers to compete with the large conglomerates who have stolen a march on them with out of town shopping centres with free car parking facilities. I have listened to the oft repeated argument that traffic management requires car parking fees, but I am not convinced that genuine traffic management concerns would in any way be increased by allowing two hours free parking for shoppers. Such an innovative move by the Council would make a huge contribution to improving the retail profile and competitiveness of the town of Athy. Time limited free car parking has been provided in some towns in County Cork – why not here in County Kildare? There is an urgent need for a bold and innovative move by Kildare County Council in relation to car parking for shoppers in the town of Athy if we are ever to stop the leaking of retail expenditure to adjoining towns such as Carlow, Newbridge and Portlaoise. The current town plan acknowledges that unless local people are encouraged to shop locally there will be serious consequences for the vitality and viability of the town centre of Athy. That view was expressed in the Town Development Plan six years ago, but nothing has been done in the meantime to address the parking issue. If it was addressed in the manner suggested by so many, ie. 2 hours free parking for shoppers, I have no doubt that coupled with the construction of the outer relief road it would sustain and more importantly lead to the expansion of the retailing heart of Athy. Next week I will look at other elements of the town plan but in the meantime your views on issues which might be addressed in the new local area plan for Athy should be made known to the officials in the Planning Department of Kildare County Council. You have until 24th April to make your submissions.

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Jim Flack Artist

Through his paintings he brought to us a keen awareness of the Irish countryside. Whether it was the weather-beaten landscape of the west of Ireland or the more benign landscape of his adopted County Kildare Jim Flack’s water colours captured the everchanging mood of the Irish countryside. His recent death has deprived us of a wonderful artist whose sensitive interpretation of water colours proved itself time and time again. Sadly, Jim’s brushes had been set aside for the past eight years following an illness which rendered him bedridden. His loss to Irish art will be keenly felt by his colleagues in the Water Colour Society of Ireland and by the many people who over the years recognised and acknowledged the importance of his artistic work. It was Jim himself who speaking of his work referred to the Irish countryside as a painter’s paradise and claimed, ‘when I paint I hope to share with the viewers the emotions I experience as I gaze at this rich countryside which provides me with my raw material.’ He enjoyed painting trees which he felt symbolised and reflected the ambience of the different regions of our islands from the bent twisted trees of the West of Ireland shaped by Atlantic gales to the lofty noble trees of the midlands. Jim and his wife Marlynne came to Athy in 1972 when Jim was appointed Minister to the Presbyterian communities of Athy and Naas and took up residence in the Manse on the Dublin Road. A native of Co. Armagh Jim from an early age was engaged in painting and at 10 years of age was one of the youngsters whose paintings were chosen for display in the children’s exhibition which was a feature of the 1951 Festival of Britain. Jim retired from his ministry in the Presbyterian Church in or about 1990 and thereafter devoted himself full time to painting and to teaching art. He was for a time art teacher in the local Vocational school on the Carlow Road and on giving up that post in 1981 was replaced by another highly rated artist, Mary Cunningham. I believe I first came across Jim’s work at Athy’s annual art exhibition at a time when Mark O’Neill, Elizabeth Cope, Senan O’Brien and the earlier mentioned Mary Cunningham were regular exhibitors. Jim’s first solo exhibition took place in 1971 in Fermoy where he was then living. A few years were to pass before he embarked on a breath-taking exhibition journey which over the years saw solo exhibitions in Belfast, Dublin, Kilkenny, Kilcock, Carlow, Killarney, Newry, Mullingar, Athy and Mount Morris, Co. Armagh. To those Irish venues were to be added solo exhibitions as far away as Washington D.C., San Antonio, Texas and Canadian venues in Montreal, Winnipeg and London Ontario. Jim’s talent was acknowledged and recognised with showings in the Royal Irish Academy and the annual exhibition of the Water Colour Society of Ireland as well as that of the Ulster Water Colour Society. The inspiration he drew from the scenic beauty of the West of Ireland inevitably made him a regular solo exhibitor in Kenny’s Art Gallery in Galway and from 1982 onwards his Galway exhibition was one of the highlights of the art scene in that region. I knew Jim Flack as an artist and as a member of our local community and it was in that latter role that he showed his kind, gentle and ever courteous self. These were traits which he displayed in abundance and were complemented by similar qualities in his wife Marlynne whom he met when he was ministering in Fermoy, Co. Cork. Marlynne, who before her marriage to Jim was a nurse, was loyally devoted to him and during his prolonged illness provided loving and constant attention for her life’s companion. The Presbyterian Church was full to capacity for Tuesday’s funeral service for Jim Flack and the short journey was made afterwards to St. Michael’s Cemetery for the burial of a man who has left us with a wonderful artistic legacy. Our sympathies are extended to Jim’s wife Marlynne, their son Stephen and extended family.