The passing of the 1870 Land Act gave Irish tenant farmers the right to compensation on quitting their lands and for improvements carried out during their occupancy. However, the Act was flawed as it allowed Landlords to contract out of its provisions. The Duke of Leinster was amongst the first of the Irish Landlords to do so. The Leinster Lease as it became known was a model of legal ingenuity drafted by the Duke's agents and the tenants of South Kildare were compelled to accept its terms.
Local opposition to the Leinster Lease saw the formation of a Tenants Defence Association in Athy. This was the first such Association formed in Ireland following the decline of Isaac Butt's Tenants League. The Tenants Association held its first meeting in Athy on Tuesday the 19th of November, 1872 with Captain Morgan of Rahinderry in the Chair. Thomas P. Kynsey J.P. acted as Secretary and following the formal passing of a resolution establishing the Tenants Association those in attendance passed a resolution on the proposal of Canon Quinn P.P., Athy, seconded by Robert Anderson, Castlemitchell -
"That the objects of the Association be to unite the tenants against any encroachment on their rights and to promote by every legal and constitutional means the social interests and independence of the tenant class."
Despite the Association's best efforts the Duke of Leinster succeeded in overcoming local opposition to the terms of the Leinster Lease. Some of the Association's leaders were themselves to accept the Leinster Lease undoubtedly under the threat of eviction. One such signatory was James Leahy, Chairman of Athy Town Commissioners. The local Board of Guardians was made of sterner stuff for it refused to execute a Lease under the terms proposed by the Duke in respect of land held by it as tenant of the Leinster Estate.
James Leahy, farmer, of Ardscull and one time Chairman of Athy Town Commissioners was to represent South Kildare in the English House of Commons from 1880 until 1895. His initial nomination as a candidate for the Irish Parliamentary Party was the occasion of Charles Stewart Parnell's first visit to Athy in 1880. Andrew Kettle in his memoirs "Material for Victory" wrote of the nomination convention held in the Town Hall, Athy.
“Apparently Parnell expressed dissatisfaction with Leahy, whom Fr. Farrelly and some local men were putting forward for nomination -"This fat man will be no use, he will fall asleep in the House" said Parnell when he was acquainted with Leahy's intentions. Having cross-examined the prospective candidate Parnell was apparently satisfied and allowed the nomination to go ahead.”
Leahy was to have a constant if unspectacular presence in the House of Commons until 1895.
The Tenants Defence Association proved unsuccessful in its attempts to defeat the Leinster Lease but the spirit of opposition which it nurtured was to come alive with the Land League Campaign of later years.