Thursday, February 12, 1998

Medieval Crime in Athy

Athy over the years has suffered the reputation of being a town with particular social problems and a very high rate of criminal offences. It was therefore heartening to read in the local Press just after Christmas that there had been a considerable drop in the crime rate during that period. It is not unusual when considering the social ills of our day to look back to a time when we were not so burdened with the worries of modern day life. We are at our most reflective when considering the impact of crime in our community. A common refrain which is often heard on such occasions is that the traditional practice of leaving a key in the front door is no longer possible. However, these memories can be misleading. We should always remember that in the past history of the town there were periods when it appeared to be almost over run by those with criminal leanings. The year 1297 was once such year when the Court records which survive recall a wide variety of crimes from murder to arson. At the beginning of the year the unfortunate Walter Le Wylde was killed outside the town by a number of men who included an individual called Lucas who was son of “Joseph the Chaplain”. The perpetrators of this crime were successful in evading the reach of justice but were outlawed for their act, which at the time was akin to a death sentence. Sometimes, however, detention at the behest of the Court was deemed to be sufficient punishment as in the case of David Fitz Le Feure who was ordered to be held in the ward of Athy by the town Sergeant, for what offence the records are silent. A more serious offence in the eyes of the Court was the theft of 60 cows from the town of Ardreigh by a Richard Manellan and others for which they were outlawed. It seems that criminal acts were not the sole preserve of men. The wife of John Le Lowe while she was staying in the town directed her husband’s servants to steal from a farm of Thomas Moynath, hay, to use for her horses. Having accomplished this act they fled from the town and were later outlawed by the Court. It was a time when anything capable of theft would and could be taken, the Court described Simon Le Monaer as a common thief of salts and corn after he broke into a container which held salts on a merchant’s premises in the town. William De Athy one of the more prosperous and prominent merchants, was a particularly attractive target for the villains of the day and in the course of the year had taken from him everything from corn and iron from his household to the very apples from his trees at Ardreigh. His appearances in Court were almost as frequent as those of the wrongdoers.

The continual harassment suffered by William De Athy was at its peak in June 1306 when he complained that William De Poer pulled up all the apple trees in his garden at Ardreigh, pulled down his house, carried the timber from his house back to De Poer’s home at Dunlost and burned it. When De Poer appeared before the Court he admitted his guilt and was sentenced to jail and ordered to pay damages of six marks.

The criminals of the day had few if any moral scruples and were as content to steal from the Church as from the laity. Thomas Moynagh was charged on July 21st with stealing a millstone from the Prior of Athy. The same luckless Prior was again robbed on April 14th. While later in 1298 Thomas Brennan was convicted of a robbery of jewellery and other valuables from chests kept in the Church of St. Michael on the Dublin Road. However, it would seem at the time that the clergy themselves were not immune from lawless acts. In 1347 a dispute arose between the Dominicans (whose Abbey lay on the East side of the River Barrow) and the Crouched Friars whose Abbey lay on the West side of the River Barrow when several members of the Crouched Friars were indicted for the theft of nets with fish by force or arms from a fishing weir belonging to the Dominicans. The law at the time as today extended not only to those who committed outright criminal acts and dispossessed their fellows of property but also to civil matters. Merchants also found themselves on the wrong side of the law when failing to obey the edicts of the Court. John son of Richard De Athy was reprimanded for selling wine in the town of Lea Co. Laois contrary to the law. While the frequency of civil litigation is often remarked upon today our ancestors could be equally litigious.

In July 1308 a case appeared before the Court in Castledermot with regard to an injury received when playing football in the main street at Castledermot. A participant had been wearing his dagger at the time and in tackling a fellow player he fell and the point of his dagger pierced the leg of his opponent. The opponent appeared before the Court seeking damages presumably on the basis of the affect that it would have on his future football career.

The majority of these references are taken from the Calender of Judiciary Rolls of Ireland which survive for the years 1297 to 1314. Unfortunately the vast majority of the judicial records were destroyed in the Custom House fire of 1921. What does survive gives us some insight into the day to day lives of the medieval community of Athy some 700 years ago. Though we are separated by so many centuries the concerns and worries of the townspeople today are similar to those of the townspeople of the past.

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