Thursday, July 25, 1996

First Citizens of Athy

There has been a Town Council in Athy since at least 1515. In that year King Henry VIII granted a Charter to the town empowering the election of a town Provost "to guard and govern the said town". Unfortunately the municipal records of the 16th century are not available so little is known of the persons who held the position of Provost in Athy during that time. Only two are known to us - Richard Cossen who took up office on the Feast Day of St. Michael the Archangel in 1575 and Mr. Smith referred to as Sovereign of Athye in 1598.

The Provost elected annually was responsible for governing the town in addition to acting as Coroner, Justice of the Peace, Weights and Measure Inspector and Clerk of the Town Market. These were all important functions especially so when considered that the office holder exercised his authority in a developing market town.

In 1613 King James I created more Borough Councils throughout Ireland and in some instances as in Athy granted new Charters. The effect of his new Charter for Athy was to limit the right to elect the first citizen of the town to a small number of townspeople where before that right was exercised by the entire population. The holder of the office formerly referred to as the Town Provost was thereafter to be known as the Town Sovereign. The Town Sovereign was elected annually on the Feast of St. Michael by the twelve Burgesses of the town, all of whom had been nominated to their position by the Duke of Leinster. The office was an unpaid position and remained so until 1824 when salaries were fixed for all town officials in Athy.

The earliest municipal records relating to Athy go back to the middle of the 18th century and they show that many interesting people have held the rank of First Citizen. The Earl of Kildare was Sovereign in 1750 while his successor Frederick Augustus the Duke of Leinster was Sovereign on four occasions between 1814 and 1826. George Daker, the owner of an extensive tannery near the banks of the River Barrow and to the rear of the present Convent Lane, was Sovereign of Athy in 1778, 1783 and again in 1789. After his death the tannery closed down resulting in substantial loss of employment in Athy.

John Stoyte who was the Duke of Leinster's agent in Athy was Sovereign during the year of rebellion in 1798 and again in 1802. He had lived in Maynooth and his house there now forms part of the Maynooth College complex. Members of the Weldon family of St. John's and later of Kilmoroney House were Sovereigns of Athy during various periods in the 18th and last century. Arthur Weldon occupied the position in 1751 and Rev. Anthony Weldon was Sovereign on four occasions between 1781 and 1800. Indeed he died in office and was replaced by Lewis Mansergh for whom Riversdale House was built in 1780. This magnificent house was later acquired by the Dominican Order and remained an important part of the building heritage of the town until all but its ground floor was demolished in 1965 or thereabouts.

A man often mentioned in relation to Athy and the 1798 Rebellion was Sovereign of the town in 1807 and again in 1816. Glassealy resident Thomas James Rawson was once described by Thomas Fitzgerald of Geraldine House as "a man of the lowest order, the offal of a dunghill". Rawson was intensely disliked because of his involvement in the public floggings in Athy during the 1798 Rebellion in which he took a prominent part. Indeed Fitzgerald claimed that Rawson "would seat himself in a chair in the centre of a ring formed around the triangles, the miserable victims kneeling under the triangles until they would be spotted with the blood of the others". Rawson died while holding the office of Town Sovereign in 1816.

Rev. Frederick Trench was Sovereign of Athy when the office was abolished with the passing of the Municipal Corporation Act of 1840. Trench who was Rector of St. Michael's Church of Ireland, Athy served four terms in that position and is remembered by a handsome marble pulpit in St. Michael's Church erected after his death in 1860. Trench's death at Prestons Gate in Offaly Street, when he was thrown from his horse and trap, led to the immediately removal of the last portion of the medieval walls of Athy.

Following the abolition of the Borough of Athy established by King James I Charter of 1613 Town Commissioners were elected for the first time. Amongst those elected to the first Town Commissioners was the local Rector Rev. F.S. Trench and the local Parish Priest. Henry Hannon of the malting family was Chairman of the Commissioners as the first citizen was then known, firstly in the year of the Famine 1848 and for the fourth and last time in 1873. Alexander Duncan, draper of Duke Street and resident of Tonlegee House was Chairman on three occasions between 1852 and 1879. To commemorate his final term of office he donated a beautiful carved oak chair to the Town Council. It can be seen today in the Museum Room in the Town Hall. Interestingly enough his son John A. Duncan was Chairman in 1906, a feat also achieved by Dr. Jeremiah O'Neill, Chairman from 1912 to 1914 and his son P.J. O'Neill, Solicitor, who was Chairman in 1954.

Closer to our time the position of first citizen was held by men such as Patrick Dooley of Leinster Street from 1929 to 1936, M.G. Nolan of Duke Street and Paddy Dooley former T.D. for Co. Kildare. Mrs. Megan Maguire who was Chairperson in 1975 was the first woman to be elected to that office. Ms. Bridget Darby, Principal teacher in Churchtown National School and resident of Leinster Street held the honour of being the first woman elected to the local Urban District Council.

Chairing meetings of the Borough Council, Town Commissioners or Urban Councils seems to have been a relatively straightforward function in the years past. However times have changed and accounts of Thomas J. Rawson sitting amongst the triangle while Rebels were flogged bear more than a passing resemblance to the present debating forays experienced in Athy Urban District Council.

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