Thursday, January 8, 1998

Lawlers of Athy and the Town Chairmanship of Athy

The Lawler Family of Athy have a remarkable record of public service in the town which is unlikely ever to be repeated. Three brothers served as Town Clerks in the town between 1889 and 1942. They were sons of Andrew Lawler and the former Margaret Prendergast of Park House. Matthew Lawler was first appointed Town Clerk on 4th March, 1889 at the annual salary of £13.00 following the earlier resignation of the previous office holder James Muldowney. Athy Town Commissioners was the name of the local authority in those years and it’s Chairman that year was M.J. Minch of Rockfield House.

On 3rd February, 1890 Joseph A. Lawler was appointed Town Clerk at a salary of £12.00 per year. He oversaw the transition in 1900 from Town Commission to Urban Council status and was to remain as Town Clerk until his death on 4th June, 1927. The members of the Town Commission in 1891 were Matthew J. Minch, M.P., Thomas Plewman, Christopher Timmons, Stephen Telford, W.W. Baldwin, Matthew Minch, Michael Anthony, Joseph P. Whelan, Thomas J. Whelan, Peter J. Murphy, Michael Doyle, Michael Lawler, James Nugent, Mark Heffernan and Francis Minchin. This was the era of gas lit streets and in May each year the town’s 47 gas lamps were taken down and packed away until the following winter. The Town Commissioners still operated the Borough Court, a throwback to the days of the Borough Council of Athy which had been abolished in 1840. The Court survived and operated on market and fair days to adjudicate on disputes between traders and customers.

The Commissioners were also responsible for cleaning what was referred to as the Police Barracks lock-up, then located in Whites Castle. Other duties which fell to the Town Clerk and the staff included the prevention of obstructions at the pig fairs and sheep fairs in the town. The Pig Fair was held in Barrack Street, with the Sheep and Cattle Fairs in the Fair Green. The Horse Fair was held on the first Wednesday of each month at Bothar Bui and the upper part of Leinster Street.

One of the interesting responsibilities taken on by the Town Commissioners was their adoption of the Compulsory Education Act in 1898, almost six years after it had been enacted by Parliament. This required compulsory attendance at school by young boys and girls and the Town Commissioners appointed a School Attendance Committee to monitor compliance with the law. It is interesting to note the multi denominational mix in those nominated to the Committee. Heading the list was Mr. M.J. Minch, M.P. and described as a Catholic, followed by Stephen Telford, Presbyterian and John A. Duncan, Methodist. One of the last acts of the Town Commissioners was to pass a resolution in September 1899 protesting against the “unjustifiable war waged against the Boers” and tendering their moral support to “President Kruger and his race in their stand against intrusion”.

On 1st April, 1900 the former Town Commissioner was re-constituted as an Urban District Council and the new body held it’s first meeting on 2nd April with Joseph A. Lawler continuing as Town Clerk. The range of responsibilities of the Urban Council were substantially greater than those of the old Town Commission and the workload of the Town Clerk increased accordingly. Particular attention was paid to public health and in May 1903 the Town Surveyor John Coleman was able to report that since a new system of scavenging was put in place “we have had scarcely a death in Athy”.

John Coleman’s daughter Bridget was to marry Michael Lawler, a brother of the Town Clerk and proprietor of the Hibernian Hotel in Leinster Street. I am reminded of a query from John Perry some months ago regarding a John Coleman of William Street and wonder whether the Town Surveyor who lived in Upper William Street was the person mentioned by John. Mr. Coleman died in May 1910 and was replaced as Town Surveyor by Michael Bradley of Offaly Street whose son John was a local newspaper reporter up to the 1970’s.

During Joseph A. Lawler’s time as Town Clerk the local Council provided the towns first water supply scheme and constructed the first local authority houses in Athy. In 1921 the Town Clerk was receiving a yearly salary of £100 which it was claimed was the smallest such salary in Ireland. The local Council, not anxious to appear parsimonious immediately increased his salary to £300 a year. A married man Joseph continued to live in Park House in the People’s Park where his parents had originally lived. He died on 4th June, 1927 and his widow continued to live in the Park House until her death in the late 1950’s or early 1960’s. I remember “Mrs. Lawler” as she was known to us youngsters in Offaly Street who was always attended by her faithful maid Jenny.

On the death of Joseph A. Lawler his brother James W. was appointed Town Clerk in June 1927. The Minister for Local Government wrote to the Council suggesting that the affairs of Athy could be adequately dealt with by a part-time Town Clerk. In deference to his wishes the Council initially appointed Joseph Lawler as a part-time clerk with a salary of £208.00 per year. By now the position was officially titled Town Clerk, Executive Sanitary Officer and Clerk of the Burial Board. Later appointed to the full-time position Joseph A or “Jimmy” as he was known continued as Town Clerk until November 1942 when he retired. His retirement coincided with the appointment of the first County Manager for Counties Kildare and Carlow under the new County Management Act. Jimmy like his late brother was a great GAA fan and was one of the founders of the Young Emmett’s Gaelic Football Club in the town. This Club for young players was started in a successful attempt to revive gaelic football in Athy when an earlier club in the town had faded after some initial success. Jimmy married Essie Cummings of Naas and lived in a fine newly built two story house named “St. Anne’s” in Church Road. They had no children and when Jimmy retired as Town Clerk in 1942 he took up a position as agent for the Duke of Leinster. As the Duke’s employee he lived in 82 Leinster Street which in most recent years was home to the Old Folks Committee. He died in St. Patrick Dunne’s Hospital in Dublin on 13th April, 1957 at the age of 82 years.

Another brother was Michael Lawler, owner of the Hibernian Hotel, now the Oasis Public House. His son Michael who was later employed in Bradbury’s of Leinster Street married Kathleen Watchorn who continues to live in St. Patrick’s Avenue. A daughter of the Hibernian Hotel proprietor married John Watchorn of Crumlin in Dublin in 1933 and it is their daughter Celia Watchorn McDonald who gave me many of the family details for this article.

Don’t forget the Lecture in the Town Hall on Thursday, 5th February at 8.00 p.m. on “Athy and the 1798 Rebellion”.

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