As this is the centenary year of the passing of the Local Government Act which created County Councils and Urban District Councils it is appropriate to take a look back at the workings of Athy Town Commissioners which held it’s first meeting in Athy on 16th June, 1856. The Town Commissioners were the predecessors of the Urban District Council and it’s first Chairman was Mark Kavanagh, while Henry Sheill was appointed Town Clerk at the salary of ten pounds a year. John Roberts was appointed Inspector of Nuisances at a yearly salary of twelve pounds. John Hayden obtained the lucrative position of weigh master and adjuster of weights and measures for which he was to receive thirty five pounds a year. Patrick Byrne, the public bellman, received a paltry two guineas for his efforts. While the weekly meetings of the Commissioners were held in the Grand Jury room of the Courthouse the Town Clerk’s office was in Mr. Sheill’s house in Leinster Street with hours of attendance from 11.00am to 12noon each day, excluding Sunday. One of the first Acts of the new Town Commissioners was to order a load of lime for distribution “to the poor people for white washing their houses.”
The provision and maintenance of water pumps, the inspection and registration of lodging houses, the paving of footpaths, street cleaning and the provision of a public scales were the principle functions of the Town Commissioners. No evidence can be produced to indicate that Athy had public lighting prior to the lighting of the town by gas in 1858. On 20th October, 1856 a rate of eight pence in the pound was levied on the town to raise a revenue of £120. This enabled the Commissioners to appoint William Langan, Pat Hyland, Michael Moore and James McDonald as porters to attend at the public crane in Emily Square and to assist at all the markets in the town.
Public dissatisfaction with the Town Commissioners may be surmised from an attempt made on 15th October, 1857 to contest five vacancies on the Commission caused by retirements under an agreed rota system. The five outgoing Commissioners were opposed by Luke O’Neal, Patrick Whelan, John P. Meredith, John Diven, Pat Grace and James Lawler who however only received five votes each compared to the 20 cast for the outgoing Commissioners. A poll demanded by Matt Minch was agreed to be fixed for October 22nd. This was subsequently rescinded on a technicality and the five outgoing Commissioners were deemed re-elected. The decision was the cause of frustration for many unhappy ratepayers and was in time to result in a concerted effort to break the existing Town Commissioners’ monopoly of the elected positions in the town.
On 21st January, 1858 the town of Athy was lit by gas for the first time. The public lamps were lit during the winter months only and were extinguished at 12.30 each night. Local businesses were encouraged to sponsor and pay for public lamps but without much success. A notable exception was the Local Loans Fund operating out of premises at Emily Square which paid for six gas lamps in addition to making a substantial donation each year to the Town Commissioners to provide work for the poor men of the town.
On 5th August, 1861 the Town Commissioners had copies of the following Notice printed and posted throughout the town.
“Whereas the public lamps and public pumps of Athy are damaged from time to time by some person or persons the Athy Town Commissioners hereby offer a reward of 2/6 to any person who will give information on any such offence.
Cleary youthful exuberance was not unknown, even in the hungry days immediately following the famine.
In July 1860 the Town Commissioners had the bell removed from the Church of Ireland in Emily Square and put up in the Town Hall. Apparently the Church bell was to replace another bell from the Town Hall which in accordance with the Town Commissioners’ instructions was to be sold. Prior to this a bell had been sited at the Canal Bridge and used as a fire bell, one William Howard being employed to ring it whenever notice of a fire was received. In December 1861 the Commissioners ordered that the ringing of the Canal Bridge bell be discontinued. Instead the former Church bell which still hangs on the Town Hall was to be used to signal the outbreak of a fire in the Town.
As late as the 1920’s successive Town Councils saw fit to obtain the views and recommendations of the Duke of Leinster on many matters of municipal concern. In March 1862 the Town Commissioners wished to re-arrange the monthly fares to accommodate dealers sending cattle to the Dublin markets. Only when the Duke of Leinster gave his approval for the proposal did the elective representatives of the town proceed to change the fair days for pigs, horses and cattle to the first Tuesday and Wednesday of each month respectively.
Between 1862 and 1864 the Town Commissioners were engaged in negotiations with the Electric and International Telegraph Company and the British and Magnetic Telegraph Company regarding the opening of a telegraph office in Athy. The Town Commissioners’ reluctance to guarantee either company against future losses caused a delay in the opening of a telegraph office in the town. Eventually agreement was reached in October 1864 with the British and Irish Magnetic Telegraph Company and Athy’s first Telegraph Office was opened on 19th November, 1864.
In 1862 the Town Commissioners approached the Duke of Leinster to obtain the use of the Record Court previously leased to the County Kildare Grand Jury. This ground floor room located on the East wing of the Town Hall adjoining the junction of Meeting Lane and Emily Row was renovated at the Duke of Leinster’s expense during 1865/1866 and leased to the Town Commissioners for use as their Assembly Rooms. The Commissioners were to remain in this room until 1887 when by agreement with the Athy Mechanics Institute they took over the room which continued to be the Urban Council Offices until the mid-1980’s. This allowed the Mechanics Institute to have use of the larger room adjoining Emily Row which was used as a Billiard Room up to the 1940’s. Both rooms are now incorporated into the Town’s Heritage Centre.