History has a habit of repeating itself. This is a truism which is easily accepted when one considers the old saying “study the past for we are heirs to the wisdom of the past”. That we do not always benefit from the events of the past is clearly shown by the headlong rush by Government into World War II twenty-one years after the end of the “war to end all wars”. Up to 1858, Athy, once the principal town of Co. Kildare, shared the Summer Assizes with Naas, then emerging as an urban settlement rival to its south Kildare neighbour. In that year however a decision was taken by the Chancellor’s Office to transfer all sittings of the Summer Assizes to Naas to the total exclusion of Athy.
The consternation felt by the Athy residents and business folk found a ready target in the person of the Duke of Leinster whom it was felt had not done enough to ensure Athy’s continuation as an Assize town. The efforts of the locals however were in vain and no further change was made in the revamped court system. Within a few years Athy was to suffer another body blow when the relatively new town jail opened on the Carlow Road in 1830 was closed and all its inmates transferred to Naas jail. This form of mid-19th century centralisation had a dramatic effect on the respective county towns of Naas and Athy. Thereafter Naas was to be the favourite location for all new county agencies formed during the remainder of the century. Kildare Co. Council, founded in 1898, was to locate its administrative headquarters in Naas while the county hospital was also to be found there. No doubt there were logical geographical reasons why so much authority was centred in Naas. But whether it should have been done to the exclusion of other urban areas in the county is questionable.
What is even more questionable is the current proposal of the Circuit Court Review Group to discontinue sittings of the Circuit Court in Athy. This is where history may be repeating itself, replicating the decision of 1859 relating to the Summer Assizes. The Circuit Court, which is the court of First Instance for serious crime and substantial compensation claims sits in Athy on four occasions each year. This conforms to the old Circuit practice of the last century when barristers went out on circuit around the country to deal with cases in various provincial towns.
Of course the District Court, which deals with minor crime and smaller compensation claims, will continue to be held in Athy Courthouse every two weeks but what guarantee can we have that even this facility will be allowed to remain in Athy given that the offices of the District Court Clerk serving Athy District Court were moved to Carlow some years ago. Older readers will recall when Fintan Brennan was the resident District Court Clerk with offices on the top floor of the courthouse building. I remember him for the good reason that I spent a lot of time staying out of his sight after I had etched my name on the granite plinths of the courthouse door in 1955. The name and the accompanying date are in view every time I step into the court to remind me of a summer’s day 40 years ago when it was obviously too wet to set out on an orchard robbing expedition. But to return to the proposal to transfer the Circuit Court from Athy to Naas one wonders for whose benefit such a move is suggested. Obviously litigants and witnesses from the south of the county will be considerably inconvenienced if they have to travel to Naas for court sittings. I can find no discernible benefit likely to flow from the implementation of the proposal.
Its a matter of civic pride that Athy retains its status as a Circuit Court venue. After all the courts are part of the fabric of any large provincial town and to remove this important strand could start an unravelling process, the end result of which would be diminution of services available to the people of Athy.