I recently attended a seminar in St. Werburgh Church in Dublin, a Church dating in part from the end of the 12th century. It also has many links with Athy and particularly with two members of Anglo-Norman families with connections to the town. In 1715-1719 the Church was rebuilt to the design of Colonel Thomas Burgh who also designed Bert House, Athy for his brother. Burgh also designed Trinity Library and Dr. Steven’s Hospital which can now be seen at its most splendid following its refurbishment as the headquarters of the Eastern Health Board.
In the vaults beneath the Church lie the remains of Lord Edward Fitzgerald, a member of the United Irishmen and for a period a member of Parliament for the Borough of Athy. By a strange coincidence the man who captured him, Major Sirr, lies in the Church Yard of St. Werburghs.
It was during the morning break in the Seminar that I was told of the recent tragic death of what was claimed to be the last direct descendent of the Dukes of Leinster. Thomas Fitzgerald who as Lord Offaly would have succeeded in time to the premier title in Ireland, died at the young age of 23 years in a car accident in the Midlands. He was the only son of the Marquis and Marchioness of Kildare and Grand-son of the present Duke and Duchess of Leinster.
The Fitzgerald family have lived in England for the last 40 years or so, following the sale of their ancient seat of Kilkea Castle. Their connection with the town of Athy lives on in the Street names of our town. William Street, Duke Street, Leinster Street, Offaly Street, Stanhope Street and Emily Square all commemorate members of the Leinster family. Strangely enough Lord Edward Fitzgerald fondly remembered as the Irish Patriot who took a leading part in the planning of the 1798 Rebellion has not given his name to any street in the town which he represented as a Member of Parliament. Maybe in the 1798 bicentenary which will be celebrated next year this omission can be corrected and due honour paid to the man whose family has such long links with Athy.
The family’s association with County Kildare began in 12th century. The Geraldine family of which the Kildare’s were a branch were prominent in the early stages of the Anglo-Norman conquest of Ireland. Their kinsmen, the annalist and cleric, Gerald of Wales writing in the twelfth century eulogised the power and influence the family had in the settlement of Ireland. He noted that they were the most successful in subjugating the native Irish.
By the close of the 13th century the Kildare’s owned large tracts of County Kildare with important castles at Kildare, Maynooth and Woodstock in Athy. In 1316 John Fitzthomas, Lord of Offaly, was made Earl of Kildare as reward for service to the crown during the invasion of Bruce, the Scottish King’s brother. By the early 16th century the Fitzgeralds had consolidated their power to such an extent that they effectively were the most powerful family in Ireland.
The Kildare Rental book of 1518 shows that they held extensive lands in Kildare, Carlow, Cork, Limerick, Tipperary, Kilkenny, Wexford and Dublin. Until the mid-sixteenth century they virtually monopolised the office of Lord Deputy, the Kings representative in Ireland. One Tudor official complained that the deputyship was regarded as the inheritance of the Earls of Kildare. The revolt of Silken Thomas, son of the 12th Earl saw the confiscation of much of their property. Although they never were to attain the same power they had before the revolt of 1534 their influence was still significant. In 1598 Sir Henry Yallop noted that there was “hardly a native of the Kingdom who is not dependent on either the Earl of Ormond or the Earl of Kildare”.
Thereafter the family although extensive landowners did not involve themselves to the same degree in intrigue for power, though within the county of Kildare they effectively controlled the nomination and election of MP’s from the Athy borough up to the early 19th century. As a the primary owners of property in the town their influence on its development in the 18th and 19th centuries was profound. Many of the principal public building are attributable to the interest of the various Duke’s in the town. The construction of the town hall is believed to have been financed by the Leinster family as was the corn exchange, now the courthouse. The layout of Emily square is also a product of their influence.
The market rights granted to Athy by King Henry VIII under the Charter of 1515 was for a Tuesday Market “in a place deputed or ordained therefor by Gerald, Earl of Kildare.” The Market Place chosen was the open ground near the River Barrow on it’s East Bank, now known as Emily Square. In 1669 the King of England was petitioned to grant leave to hold two additional Fairs in Athy. Up to then the town had only one Fair on Michaelmas Day and it was felt that “an ancient and loyal corporation seated in the heart of a plentiful country for both corn and cattle” should also have Fairs of three days duration in May and November. The petition supported by the Fitzgeralds as Landlords of Athy was successful.
The presence of a Presbyterian Community in the town is the result of a migration scheme initiated by the Duke of Leinster following the Great Famine to introduce Scottish cottiers to his estates around Athy. Those who accepted the Duke’s offer of lands and houses in South Kildare mainly came from Perthshire and Eastern Scotland. As Scottish settlers they brought with them the industry and energy of the native Scot, together with their religion, Presbyterianism. Throughout the early months of 1851 the settlers arrived in Athy, a town which in centuries past had witnessed similar arrivals from across the Irish Sea. By June of that year 17 Presbyterian families had settled in the area. In February 1852 a site for a Presbyterian Church had been acquired from the Duke of Leinster on the Dublin Road. A foundation stone for the Church was laid in September 1855 and the Church, known locally as the Scotch Church was opened in 1856. Another member of the Fitzgerald Family who is still remembered today is Lord Walter Fitzgerald, historian and antiquarian who was responsible for the formation of Kildare Archaeological Society in the last decade of the 19th century. He was responsible for collecting an enormous amount of local history material and for encouraging an awareness and an appreciation of the wealth of local historical material and the built heritage of County Kildare.
If the death of Lord Offaly is in fact the end of the direct line of the Fitzgerald Family, it marks a sad end to what was once the most powerful family in this Island. The legacy of the Fitzgerald Family to the town of Athy is a proud one and is best exemplified in that important urban space, an architectural composition occupying a central position in Athy - Emily Square. How strange it is that the Fitzgerald Family should suffer such a tragic loss at a time when plans are afoot to put a new road through the centre of Athy and to deprive us of one of the most important elements which makes Athy such an attractive town.