With its bustling streets and busy shops, Athy is a classy market town dropped like a berry at the junction of the River Barrow and the Grand Canal. Look closer, and layers of heritage begin to reveal themselves. Developed in the 13th Century when it was fortified by Anglo-Normans to secure a strategic river crossing, Athy is a place with many stories to tell.
Athy has three heritage trails, laid out along green (1.6km), red (1.8km) and blue (3km) routes. At their heart is the splendidly-preserved White’s Castle, a turreted tower squatting on Crom-a-Boo Bridge and dating from 1507. The bridge itself is named after ‘Cromadh Bhú’, the quirky battle cry of the Earls of Desmond, one of whom governed here in 1840.
Other points of interest include the 14th-century St Michael’s Church, the town’s Quaker Meeting House, Preston Gate and Woodstock Castle, a 13th-century riverbank ruin sulking beside a playground. Look out too for the Town Hall and Heritage Centre, which includes an exhibit on Ernest Shackleton, the Antarctic explorer born in nearby Kilkea. Amongst the exhibits is one of Shackleton’s original sledges – an unusual relic in the horsey landscape of Kildare.
Athy was an important military outpost at the fringes of the Pale, and it went on to benefit hugely from the completion of the Grand Canal in 1791, not to mention a railway that arrived in 1846. Commerce flourished in the garrison town and, though less of a business hub today, its history, fishing and lively farmers’ market make a plum spot for a visit.
In 1903, Athy also found itself on the Gordon Bennett Cup route. Daredevils competing in the 104-mile motor race dashed through the town at a time when the speed limit on Irish roads was just 12mph... the historic route is signposted today, although you can follow it at slightly higher speeds!