It was Francis Bacon who claimed that ‘reading maketh a full man’. At the same time he advised us ‘read not to contradict and confute; nor to believe and take for granted; nor to find talk and discourse; but to weigh and consider.’
Readers living in Athy in the early part of the 19th century were reasonably well served in terms of reading material. In the 1830s Thomas French had a printing office in Market Square, Emily Square, and it was French who embarked on an ambitious scheme of publishing a literary magazine ‘The Athy Literary Magazine’ which first appeared on Tuesday 14th November 1837. It was a small 8 page magazine costing one penny which appeared in the local shops every Tuesday. The last known edition of the magazine was that which came out on 17th April 1838. The magazine was a mixture of local news coupled with extracts from Dickens Pickwick Papers and poetic contributions from local contributors. The Royal Irish Academy have copies of the first 18 issues of ‘The Athy Literary Magazine’ while a full set is I believe to be found in a university in Chicago.
During the period of the Great Famine, Athy had a book shop which was located in Duke Street. The 1846 edition of Slaters Directory gave the name John Lahee, described as a book seller so perhaps his was not a book shop as such but a retail business which included book sales.
Three years later Athy readers for a short period were to have two local newspapers, each published and printed in the South Kildare town. The Kildare and Wicklow Chronicle started by Frederick Kearney, who had previously worked on the Anglo Celt, first appeared on the streets on Saturday 17th February 1849. The Leinster Express which was published in Maryborough (Portlaoise) and had enjoyed wide circulation in Athy, having advance notice of the new newspaper, brought out its own Athy based newspaper which they called ‘The Irish Eastern Counties Herald.’ It appeared on Tuesday 13th February 1849. The editorials in the rival newspapers set the tone for an acrimonious if short lived struggle. Within three weeks the ‘Kildare and Wicklow Chronicle’ ceased publication and in its next edition the ‘Irish Eastern Counties Herald’ claimed ‘the principal object for which the journal was established having been affected, many of our friends very reasonably concluded that upon the demise of the so called Kildare and Wicklow Chronicle its publication would cease. ‘The Irish Eastern Counties Herald’ ceased publication with its 5th edition on 6th March 1849.
In January 1852 Samuel Talbot, a member of the Talbot family of Maryborough who were proprietors of the Leinster Express and the short lived ‘Irish Eastern Counties Herald’, published another Athy based magazine, ‘The Press’. Intended as a monthly magazine consisting of 26 pages it sought to advance ‘science, literature and the industrial arts’. Unfortunately the first issue of ‘The Press’ was the only one to appear in the local shops.
As a reader and an avid book collector I have spent many spare hours in book shops. In my young days there was no book shop in Athy but in recent years ‘The Gem’ and ‘Winkles’ have taken on the role of book selling. The social and cultural life of any provincial town is hugely enriched by the presence of a book shop and I am delighted to see that the Lions Club Book Shop on Duke Street is doing so well. This was started as a fundraising venture by the Lions Club approximately 5 years ago. The Club had traditionally organised a second hand book sale every year, extending over 2 or 3 days. It’s success prompted the setting up of a book shop staffed initially by members of Athy Lions Club. Because of work commitments the shop in its first year was opened on Saturdays only. I remember as I manned the book shop one day being approached by a woman offering to help in the shop. I did not know Alice Rowan at that stage. From Pairc Bhride she emigrated to England in 1966 and returned to Athy on retirement in 2007.
Alice has now been running the Lions Book Shop on a voluntary basis for the last 4 years and the original Saturday opening has now been extended to a 5 day opening. In recognition of her contribution to the running of the book shop the Lions Club some time ago conferred honorary Lions membership on Alice. This is the first occasion such an honour has been awarded.
The famous American book dealer Rosenbbach often claimed that ‘book collecting is the most exhilarating sport of all.’ It is certainly an entertaining and pleasurable hobby and within the confines of the Athy Lions Book Shop are to be found books catering for a wide diversity of tastes. Thanks to Alice Rowan and to the Shaw Group which gave the Lions Club use of a vacant premises in Duke Street where we now have a second hand book shop of which we can be justifiably proud.