Next year will mark the 200th anniversary of the 1798 rebellion. This was a period of great turmoil in Ireland and particularly in the county of Kildare and the town of Athy. How we commemorate what has been called the year of liberty will be indicative of our views concerning the murderous events that unfolded two centuries ago. A previous commemoration in 1898 was marked by an upsurge in nationalism with a particular idolisation of those men and women involved in the rebellion. It was however a different age. Parnell was not long dead and the nationalist movement that would soon sweep the country was only then in the early stages of a development which would see it replace the Irish Home Rule party in Westminster.
However, this was all in the future when the assizes opened in the Town Hall, Athy on the 3rd August 1790. Among the barristers robing in the bar room that day was a young newly qualified member of the legal profession. Theobald Wolfe Tone was then struggling to support his young family while at the same time developing his political outlook. What would Tone have made of the town of Athy as it was in 1790. He could hardly have foreseen that he would be one of those responsible for the events that would divide the townspeople eight years later. Our knowledge of the town in this period comes from contemporary writings of the time. The French traveller De Latocnaye who journeyed from Carlow to Athy in 1796 in order to catch the ‘service of public boats to Dublin’ described Athy as a ‘village’. On entering it he was ‘stopped by four or five persons who asked for charity - they explained that it was to be used to give decent burial to a poor wretch who had died of hunger’. Dear Latocnayes response was quite cynical - ‘I replied that since he was dead he wanted nothing. This answer did not appear to satisfy them, and so I contributed to the funereal pomp, the occasion being, perhaps, the only one in which the poor fellow’s friends were interested in his concerns’.
Chevalier De Latocnaye was an exiled French royalist whose lifestyle in his homeland would have been a world apart from the rather bleak small midland towns he found himself while travelling through Ireland. For example, his single observation regarding Carlow was that a seminary for catholic priests had recently been established there. Although in the case of Athy one must conclude that the Frenchman’s view was a fair refection of the town as it then was.
Not many years earlier the antiquarian Austin Cooper visited the town and his description of the town in 1782 suggests a quiet, sleepy backwater, the town being ‘a small town situated on the river Barrow over which is a plain bridge of arches with a low square castle adjoining on the east side. Here is a market house, church and county courthouse, nothing remarkable in elegance of building. On the north west side of the town is a plain horse barracks and near it another old castle’.
The year before Wolfe Tone attended the court at Athy, Deborah Chandlee, a member of the local Quaker community (whose husband Thomas was a linen draper in Duke Street), wrote to her sister Sarah Shackleton in Ballitore that ‘Athy affords nothing worth sending (newswise) it being dead in every sense of the word’.
Thomas Rawson, one time Sovereign of the town, and the man who would play a prominent part in the events of 1798 on the government side wrote in 1807 that ‘in the midst of a populous charming country with water carriage to all the world Athy is neglected, is in poverty and has not any one manufacture carried on’. He felt that the position of the town on the river Barrow and with its junction with the grand canal held out ‘much invitation to English capital and English Industry’. He further noted that ‘its vicinity abounds with mill sites yet it is full of unemployed inhabitants’. A colourful account survives of one individuals impressions of the towns market in 1837 which would not have been vastly different from the market scene at the end of the 18th century - ‘just take a walk to Cobb’s Corner and proceed from thence around the market square. On your left is a row of decent looking housewives, clean aprons, clean faces, with “I assure you it is as sweet and clean butter as any in Ireland, and those eggs were laid this blessed good morning.” Don’t be surprised if the butter and eggs get together. Go on a little further through the corn sacks, and it is a chance if you don’t stumble over the new crocks and dishes prepared to pack the butter or hold the milk in, with now and then a sort of jingling knell, sounding in the midst of those self same crocks”.
So we might picture Athy on the eve of the rebellion as typical market town somewhat stagnant and yet to experience the growth which would come in the first half of the nineteenth century. The rebellion would have many participants, some willing, many others unavoidably and reluctantly dragged into the horror and grief which marked those times. Some locals would play a more prominent part than others. Thomas Rawson of Glassealy House who later wrote of the town in his book ‘Survey of Kildare’, would be blamed for the repressive government action in the locality in the months leading to and after the rebellion itself. Mary Leadbetter, a resident of Ballitore, would write eloquently and with great compassion in the Annals of Ballitore of the excesses on both sides. A member of the Fitzgerald family would enter the pantheon of nationalist heroes before the rebellion had ended. Lord Edward Fitzgerald, who had once been a member of parliament for the Borough of Athy was to be captured due in no small measure to the treachery of another local, Thomas Reynolds, who lived in Kilkea Castle. But more important than all those individuals were the people of Athy who suffered and endured the most terrible hardships during and after the rebellion.
Next year we will have an opportunity to both remember and commemorate this significant period in our town’s history. Whether we view these events with misty eyed romanticism as did those who celebrated the centenary in 1898 remains to be seen. Perhaps these events and their participants deserve a more realistic appraisal and assessment in the context of the national and local history of the day.