Friday, April 23, 1993

The Mace of Athy

On the 12th May, 1888 the Nationalist and Leinster Times carried a report that the Duke of Leinster had forwarded to Mr. Edward Johnson of Grafton Street, Dublin, "a magnificent piece of old silver for exhibition in his antique collection for Olympia". The piece of old silver was in fact the Mace of the old Corporation of Athy which the report indicated had been purchased by the Duke of Leinster when the Corporation was abolished. The Duke, continued the report, presented the Mace to John Butler Esq. described as the last Sovereign of Athy in November 1841. His son, Thomas Butler, later sold the same Mace to the Duke of Leinster in 1876.

That newspaper report was the first public confirmation that the Mace of Athy had passed out of the possession of the Athy Town Commissioners who were the successors to the Borough Council of Athy. The Borough Council first incorporated by Charter granted by Henry VIII in 1515 was abolished by the Municipal Corporation Act 1840 as it was deemed to be undemocratic and unrepresentative. The members of the Borough Council were appointed on the nomination of the Duke of Leinster and those appointed were generally non residents of Athy and always of a particular religious persuasion.

Interestingly enough, the newspaper report of 1888 refers to the Duke purchasing the Mace, presenting it to John Butler "the last Sovereign of Athy" and later repurchasing it from his son. John Butler who resided at St. John's, Athy, was not the last Sovereign, a distinction which fell to Rev. F.S. Trench of Kilmoroney. Equally strange is the absence of any reference in the Minute Books of the Borough Council or its successor Athy Town Commissioners to the sale of the Town Mace. The suspicion is that the Mace was not purchased but rather passed into the possession of the Duke of Leinster at a time when public accountability was of little importance. Perhaps it was fair enough that it did return to the Duke as his predecessor had presented it to the Borough of Athy on September 29th, 1746.

Ceremonial Civic Maces first appeared in the 13th century and by tradition these highly ornamental objects were carried by specially appointed Sergeants at Mace. The Sergeant carried the Mace in procession before the Mayor or Sovereign of the town. It was also carried into the Borough Chambers before the announcement of meetings, similar to the ceremony surrounding the Mace currently used in the English House of Commons.

The Great Mace of Athy was last to come before the public when it was offered for sale by auction at Sotheby's, London, on 18th March, 1982. Described as a George II large ceremonial Mace 46¼ inches high it had been made by John Williamson of Dublin in 1746. The exquisitely crafted Mace, one of a small number of such Maces still in existence was for sale with an estimate in the region of £9,000.00 sterling. Athy Urban District Council decided to purchase the Mace but in so doing the Council representative at the Auction, the late Seamus O'Conchubhair, County Librarian, was authorised to bid up to £9,000.00. The Mace was purchased by a London dealer for £15,000.00.

The present whereabouts of the Great Mace of Athy is unknown. It is a reasonable assumption that another chance to purchase a priceless element of our past history may never again present itself.

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