Jane Austen, born at the Rectory in Steventon, Hampshire in 1775 never visited Athy on the River Barrow but her name is linked with the town through her youthful association with one Thomas Lefroy.
Lefroy with his younger brother, Ben, were boarders in a school operated by a Mr. Ashe in Athy in 1791. Thomas was to enter Trinity College the following year from where he graduated with a B.A. degree in 1795. That same year he spent the summer months in Hampshire, England and became friendly with Jane Austen, daughter of Rev. George Austen. It was during that time that Jane began work on the major novel later published as “Pride and Prejudice” but which she completed in 1797 under the title “First Impressions”.
Thomas Lefroy paid court to Jane Austen but the strength of their romantic attachment did not survive the difficulties likely to be encountered by a marriage between the wealthy Lefroy heir and the Rector’s daughter with no fortune. Lefroy returned to Ireland where he was called to the Bar in Easter term 1797 but did not commence practice as a lawyer until 1800. In the meantime he managed to improve his financial situation by marrying Jane, only daughter and heiress of Jeffrey Paul of Silver Spring, Co. Wexford in 1791 at Abergavenny, Wales.
“Pride and Prejudice” which was eventually published in 1831 was Jane Austen’s outstanding literary success. It is a story of foolish and disagreeable people seen through the eyes of Elizabeth Bennett who is in fact Jane herself. The character Fitzwilliam Darcy is reputably modelled on that of Thomas Lefroy with whom she fell in love during the summer of 1795. While the characters in the book do eventually marry, Jane Austen herself remained unmarried and she died in Winchester in 1817 at the early age of 42 years.
Lefroy meanwhile had embarked on a very lucrative practise at the Irish Bar, receiving the year before Jane Austen’s death the Silk Gown of King’s Counsel and two years later attained the office of King’s Sergeant. Refusing many offers of judicial appointment he was elected an M.P. for Trinity College in 1830.
In 1837 Lefroy commenced the building of a mansion at Carriglas, Co. Longford which still remains in the Lefroy family. In 1842 he accepted a judicial appointment and the most famous trial in which he was subsequently involved was that of John Mitchell, the Young Irelander held in Green Street Courthouse, Dublin in May 1848. Mitchell was sentenced to 14 years transportation.
In 1852 Thomas Lefroy, former pupil of Ashe’s school in Athy, was appointed Lord Chief Justice of Ireland. Already 76 years of age at the time of his appointment he continued to sit on the bench until he was 90 years old. In 1856 an attempt was made in the House of Commons to retire Lefroy and other elderly Judges whom it was alleged were “incompetent through age and infirmity from discharging their duties”.
Many more years were to elapse before Lefroy left the bench. He survived another attempt to have his appointment terminated when it was pointed out in the House of Commons that he had not missed a single court sitting in 25 years except in 1847 when he was struck down by low fever. Political change in England in 1866 prompted Lefroy’s resignation at the age of 90 years when he retired to Bray, Co. Wicklow, retaining at the same time his country seat at Carriglas, Co. Longford and his townhouse in Leeson Street, Dublin.
On the 4th of May, 1869 Thomas Lefroy died, 52 years after Jane Austen had passed away and 78 years after he had left the boarding school in Athy. His brother Ben Lefroy who also attended school in Athy married and settled in Cardenton House, Athy which remained in the Lefroy family until 1946.
When next you read Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice” remember Thomas Lefroy, who as a teenager walked the streets of our town long before he became Lord Chief Justice of Ireland, but just a few short years before he met Jane Austen and became the character Fitzwilliam Darcy in one of English literature’s greatest masterpieces.