The Society of Friends whose members are commonly referred to as Quakers was founded in England in 1647 by George Fox. First established in Ireland in 1654 by William Edmundson the Society grew to prominence with the visit to this country in 1669 of its founder. The Society's structure was based on weekly local meetings of which one was founded in Athy in 1672, predating the better known Ballitore meeting by 35 years. Little is known of Quakerism in Athy until the latter part of the 18th century. The earliest extant record is of a Quaker provincial meeting held in Richard Boyes house in Athy on the 20th May, 1706. Some of the Quaker families of that time were the Jessops, the Skellys, the Hudsons, the Rushworths and the Haughtons of Rheban.
Quakers were generally merchants, a commercial activity favoured by Dissenters and Catholics alike who were denied access to the professions and State employment. Thomas Rushworth, a Quaker merchant of Athy who died in 1675 was perhaps typical of his time. He owned three tenements in the town and when he died he left in addition to shop goods, 36 barrels of malt, 19 dozen tanned calf skins, goat skins and pelts. Another local quaker was Thomas Weston who died in 1709 leaving a mill and millhouse in Athy to his son Thomas, together with "a field called Moneene near Athy". Graham Bradford was another Quaker resident of Athy whose name is recorded for posterity in the records of the Borough Council of Athy. He was a Freeman of the town who was deprived of his office in 1738 for committing perjury. He was pilloried and subsequently transported to the American colonies. The pillory was an instrument of punishment consisting of a wooden frame with holes through which the head and hands of the offender were placed. The culprit had to stand up while in the pillory where he was at the mercy of the local people who could throw rubbish at him or otherwise ridicule him. It was generally used as a punishment for such offenses as forgery, perjury or cornering the market and putting up the price of goods.
Although established in Athy since 1672 the Society of Friends did not have a permanent meeting house until 1780 when one was built on the site of the present Dispensary in Meeting Lane. Thomas Chandlee, whose wife Deborah was a sister of Mary Ledbetter of Ballitore literary fame, was the prime mover in the building of the Athy meeting house. Having moved to Athy from Dublin in 1775 to establish a linen drapery business in Duke Street he encouraged his fellow Quakers to provide a permanent meeting place in the town which was completed in 1778 at a cost of £129=5=10.
The erection of the meeting house did not make any appreciable difference to the continued development of Quakerism in Athy. Indeed the Quaker community was soon to go into decline and in 1812 the last annual collection for Quaker purposes was taken up in the town. It amounted to a mere 15/2 while a similar collection in Ballitore Village where there was a vibrant Quaker community amounted to £9.17.0. Quaker records make no reference to Athy after that date. The legacy of the Quaker community has long vanished from the area but in nearby Ballitore the Society of Friends have recently re-commenced its meeting which is held on the first and third Sunday of every month.