Association football, soccer to you and me, Gaelic football, rugby and tennis, all played within the confines of a unique sporting complex, gives Athy a remarkable place in the annals of Irish provincial sport. Is there anywhere in this small island of ours a comparable sporting facility as is to be found in the South Kildare town of Athy? I was prompted to ask that question when last week I happened to be in Athy’s tennis club marvelling at the wonderful club facilities which include six all weather courts and a fine clubhouse.
By all accounts Athy has a rich sporting heritage extending back as far as the early part of the 19th century. Looking back over newspaper reports of the past I can find accounts of the revival of Athy boat races in August 1855 after a lapse of twenty years. The races which attracted an attendance of between 4,000 and 5,000 people were held on a stretch of the River Barrow with the main event for a silver challenge cup confined to local boats crewed by local men. One of the organising committee was Mark Cross who the previous July had commenced work on building the corn exchange which 150 years later is now the local Courthouse.
Two years later on 9th May 1857 the Kildare Observer carried the following report on Athy’s horseracing meeting. ‘Such a sensation was never yet seen in the quiet and unexcitable district of Athy and its vicinity as the dawning of this eventful day created ..... the roads leading to the racecourse were speedily thronged with a motley crew of thimble ringers, card setters, trick o’loop men, followed by no less accomplished creed of roulette and shooting gallery proprietors, musicians and all those who imbued with a mercantile and enterprising spirit sought the most eligible positions for the forthcoming avocations ..... the proceedings and amusements of the day came off satisfactorily ..... the racing was throughout contested with the greatest spirit’. There were four races in all, three of which were contested by five horses, with four horses in the last race.
Two months later the foundation stone of the town’s gas works was laid by Martin Kavanagh, Chairman of the Town Commissioners. Gas lighting was introduced into some of the principal shops in Athy the following December. Local sporting events were not confined to those organised by local committees as evidenced by the following report in August 1857. ‘On Thursday last a philanthropic pedestrian volunteered for the public amusement to walk within an hour the distance of eight miles backwards and forwards through the town of Athy. He accomplished the feat with five minutes to spare.’ Regrettably the newspaper report omitted to give us the name of the hardy individual involved.
The Athy Regatta for 1857 was reported ‘not as good as in past years’ despite the attendance of crews from Brunswick and Dublin rowing clubs and Carlow. The horse race meeting was advertised to be held over two days in May 1858 on the Bray course and prompted the following letter to the editor of the Kildare Observer, ‘Athy races once bid fair for celebrating, that was in 1843 when 14 first rate horses from the Curragh ran for the Athy stakes ..... but in those days the right men were in the right place.
The following reply appeared on the 17th of April, ‘he lauds the meeting of 1843 when the Athy Cup was limited to a radius of one mile – in 1857 and in 1858 it is extended to eight miles radius – the other races of the meeting are open to the world ..... I suspect his aim is to try and establish the more suitable game of “flat racing” at which the “weeds” would have a better chance of winning with four stone seven pound over one mile than the floundering “garrons” as he designates them, that carry twelve stone over three miles .....’
Athy Regatta was held in August 1858 with the first race at 1.00 p.m. The local newspaper reported ‘the embankments presented a thronged and animated appearance. A police force under the command of Constable Dobbs was in attendance and preserved order throughout the day.’
The Athy Regatta Ball was advertised to be held on 10th August 1859 and the Kildare Observer was moved to claim ‘there is not in Ireland an inland town that can boast of more public spirit than Athy or among whose inhabitants so many friendly and social reunions are reciprocated.’
That public spirit was not in evidence when a letter appeared in the newspaper on 30th July 1859 complaining of ‘nuisance of a most dangerous character carried on every Sabbath day on the road from Kilberry to Dunrally Bridge, that of throwing large metal balls - a number of men and boys regularly spend the whole of the Lord’s Day at that disgraceful and dangerous amusement almost in sight of a police station.’
Further displacement of Athy’s public spirit was recorded when there were disturbances at the 1858 Athy horserace meeting involving one of the stewards who was subsequently prosecuted and convicted. The affair led to the discontinuance of the race at the Bray course. Incidentally can anyone pinpoint where the Bray course was located?