Thursday, February 25, 1999

Athy Tenants Defence Association

The Passing of the Land Act in 1870 was the first success of the Irish tenant farmers in their long struggle against Irish landlordism. This Gladstonian enactment gave the tenant farmers the right to be compensated in the event of eviction and for improvements carried out during their tenancy. However it did not secure for these hard pressed people the security of tenure which they had so long sought. Moreover the much heralded Land Act enabled Landlords to contract out of its provisions, thereby leaving their tenants without even the limited benefits of Gladstones measure.

The Athy and County Kildare landlord The Duke of Leinster was amongst the first of the Irish landlords to attempt to defeat his tenants’ rights under the 1870 Act. The Leinster Lease, as it became known, a model of legal ingenuity was presented by the Duke’s agents to his various tenants. Prepared with the Duke’s interest in mind, it totally and cruelly side-stepped the 1870 Act which the tenant farmers had so recently welcomed. Local opposition to the terms of the Leinster Lease saw the foundation of the Tenants’ Defence Association in Athy. This was the first such association formed in Ireland after the decline following the passing of the 1870 Land Act of Isaac Butt’s Tenant League of 1868.

The Athy Tenants’ Association held its first meeting on Tuesday, 19 November 1872 with Captain Morgan of Rahinderry in the chair. Local man Thomas P. Kynsey J.P. acted as Secretary to the meeting which passed the following resolutions.

“Moved by MR. THOMAS ROBERTSON, Narraghmore -
Seconded by MR. THOS. P. KYNSEY, J.P. Athy -

I - That, a Tenants’ Defence Association be established, consisting of a Chairman, Secretary, Treasurer, and Committee of Twelve Members. The Subscription of each Member to be FIVE SHILLINGS, per annum.’

Seconded by MR. ROBERT ANDERSON, Castlemitchell -

II - `That, the objects of the Association be to unite the Tenants against any encroachment on their rights, and to promote by every legal and Constitutional means, the social interests and Independence of the Tenant Class.’

Moved by MR. WILLIAM DAVIDSON, Esker -
Seconded by P. CAHILL, ESQ., L.L.D. -
III - `That, as an attempt has been made on the LEINSTER ESTATES to deprive the Tenants of all the advantages conferred on them by the `LAND ACT’, the attempt in question should receive the instant and most determined opposition from the Association.”

In the years immediately following the foundation of the Tenants’ Defence Association in Athy, the Duke of Leinster succeeded in overcoming local opposition to the terms of the Leinster Lease. Some of the Association’s leaders were themselves to accept the terms of the lease, undoubtedly under the threat of eviction. One such signatory was James Leahy, Chairman of Athy Town Commissioners, who admitted signing the Leinster Lease for his farm at Ardscull. In 1878 the Duke submitted the lease to Athy Board of Guardians in respect of some land held by them as tenants of the Leinster Estate. At a special Board meeting on 1 January 1879, the Guardians declined to execute the Lease indicating “that this Board, as the representatives of the people decline to give their signatories to a document directly opposed to the provisions of the Land Act of 1870.”

The 1880 Parliamentary Elections brought Charles Stewart Parnell to Athy for perhaps the first time. Andrew Kettle in his memoirs “Material for Victory” wrote of the nomination convention held in the Town Hall, Athy which he attended with Parnell.

“We went to Kildare on a midday train, and had a rare scene with Alderman Harris in the carriage going down. The Alderman was one of the candidates for Kildare, and he begged and prayed Mr. Parnell to get him adopted with a fanatical fervour I shall never forget. When we got to Athy, which was the nomination place, we found that Father Farrelly and young Kavanagh had a candidate ready in the person of Mr. James Leahy who represented it for years afterwards. Mr. Parnell turned to me and said: `This fat man will be no use. He will fall asleep in the House. I must propose you.’ I never meant to go to Parliament if I could help it, and said: `He will do very well. You may want me somewhere else.` He was not half satisfied, and he cross-examined Mr. Leahy as to how he would be able to attend and sit up at night, but the candidate said `Yes’ to everything. So, as his friends were insistent, he had to take him. Father Nolan of Kildare Town was holding a Harris Meldon meeting at the Market House when he came out, but Mike Boyton moved somebody else to another chair and started a Leahy meeting on the same platform, so after a little Father Nolan said he would not play second fiddle to anyone, so he bid us good-bye and left.”

This was the same James Leahy who had served as Chairman of Athy Town Commissioners and who was to represent South Kildare in the House of Commons until 1895.

Opposition to the Leinster Lease was maintained at a low key throughout 1879 and 1880 but evictions in September 1880 of tenants of the Verschoyle Estate prompted the formation of a local branch of the Land League. Public agitation in Athy took on a new and more fervent pitch under the guidance of local land league organiser Michael Boyton. On Sunday, 10 October 1880, the first Land League meeting was held in Athy. Addressed by Michael Boyton, the assembled crowd was told that he had come to Athy “commissioned by Charles Stewart Parnell to establish the Athy branch of the Land League.”


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