The month of April 1798 was an eventful one in the history of Athy and South Kildare. Early that month Colonel Campbell who was in charge of the Cavalry Barracks in the town issued a directive requiring passengers on the Grand Canal to and from Athy to have a pass signed by a magistrate. Similar passes were later required by all residents of the town who wanted to go outside the town limits.
Campbell had earlier failed to recover arms stolen in a raid on a boat docked at the Canal Harbour in Athy the previous December. He was satisfied that the raid had been planned and executed by locals with the active co-operation of boatmen on the Canal. Without any proof of complicity on the part of the locals he was nevertheless determined to make matters unpleasant for the disloyal subjects of Athy and South Kildare.
On 3 April 1798 Dublin Castle issued an order requiring all weapons to be handed in within 10 days. An insufficient response to this demand would result in the troops being sent to live at free quarters amongst the local population. Col. Campbell had notices distributed throughout Athy and South Kildare informing all and sundry of the military ultimatum. The threat of having soldiers living in local houses at the expenses of the local residents did not have the desired effect as little or no arms were turned over to the authorities.
On 20 April the soldiers were let loose to live at free quarters in South Kildare. At the same time Col. Campbell had all liquor in the town seized and destroyed. A number of thatched cottages adjourning the Cavalry Barracks in Barrack Lane were stripped of their thatch "less upon any attack that might be made thereafter inconvenience should arise from the setting fire thereto." The hardship caused to publicans and townspeople alike was but the beginning of months of terror and torture for the people of South Kildare.
Campbell sent a troop of the 9th Dragoons and a Company of the Cork Militia totalling 200 men and 80 horses to Kilkea Castle where Thomas Reynolds later identified as a traitor to the cause of the United Irishmen was living. Commanded by Captain Erskine, the soldiers arrived on 20 April where they remained for 8 days. Reynolds son later recorded that "the friends and acquaintances of the officers their wives and children and those of the soldiers came daily from Athy to see the Castle and feast" at his father's expense.
Erskine and his troops left Kilkea Castle on 28th April and moved to the Geraldine residence of Thomas Fitzgerald where they remained for the next 30 days. Fitzgerald, although Captain of the Athy Loyal Cavalry Corps was suspected of rebel sympathies. Everything of value was removed from his house while his stock was depleted in feeding the soldiers during their 30 day stay.
Others to be visited by the troops were Thomas Dunne of Leinster Lodge and Patrick Dunne of Dollardstown as well as Dan Caulfied of Levitstown. Both Thomas Fitzgerald and Dan Caulfield were arrested and brought to Dublin where they were imprisoned in a house in Smithfield used as a temporary prison. Fitzgerald was released after 91 days.
April 1798 witnessed the start of a vicious and prolonged campaign against those perceived as disloyal to the Crown. History records only the names of the well known and the leaders who suffered in this way. The ordinary people of Athy and South Kildare, although used to daily hardship and suffering, were once again to bear the brunt of the military excesses. Their story remains to be told.