Thursday, March 18, 1999

Athy Town Commissioners (2)

August 1870 witnessed something of an upheaval in the smooth functioning of Athy’s Town Commissioners with the resignation of the Town Clerk Henry Sheill and of the Inspector of Nuisances John Roberts. Both resignations apparently arose because of a proposal to amalgamate the offices of Town Clerk, Inspector of Nuisances and Town Scavenger. This motion was eventually not proceeded with, no doubt to the regret of those who warmed to the prospect of a Town Clerk toiling with brush and shovel on the local streets. With the retirement of Henry Sheill, the position of Town Clerk passed through many hands, including one man who defaulted with some of the Towns Finances. In 1890 Joseph Lawler was appointed Town Clerk which position he was to hold for many years.

On 5 September 1873 the Town Commissioners held a special meeting to consider the report of Dr. Ferris - Medical Officer of the Athy Dispensary. The report stated;
“In a sanitary point of view the dwellings of the labouring population of this town and still more the yards attached to them are for the most part in a very bad state. The Local Authorities here whose business it is to have this state of things rectified are very inactive and remiss, they need some pressure from the local Government Board to induce them to act in time. There are a couple of public pumps much resorted to by the inhabitants (the poorer especially) which are of a very unfit description. I could give evidence of this from the prevalence of the localization of enteric fever in the immediate vicinity of one of them and otherwise. By the reason of the inactivity of the sanitary and nuisance Authorities here there is a complete want of prearrangements as to action to be taken in the event of an epidemic breaking. We have some cases of enteric fever in town at present. By reason of extensive good traffic to this town by boat on the Grand Canal there is an exceptional liability to importation of contagious disease by the boatmen. In the event such accruing there is a complete want of any settled legal plan of action to prevent the spread of it. The want of such plan was much felt when last year a case of small pox was imported in the person of a boatman.

The spread of the epidemic was prevented only by the voluntary and as I believe illegal action of a few inhabitants who joined to reimburse the owner for the burying of body clothes and bed clothes and forcing of the man into the Fever Hospital”.

No action was taken by the Commissioners following the Doctors report.

In 1877 Athy Town Commissioners convened a meeting in the Hibernian Hotel, Dublin of all Commissioners of towns under 6,000 inhabitants in the country. The purpose of the meeting was to prepare representations for submission to the Chief Secretary on the advisability of such towns obtaining jurisdiction for sanitary services. At that meeting held on 19 January representatives from Athy, Killiney, Wicklow, Fethard, Cashel, Newbridge, Tuam and Trim passed a number of resolutions including one expressing the opinion that the Public Health (Ireland) Act 1874 would be more satisfactorily administered for towns by Town Commissioners rather than by Boards of Guardians. Messrs M. Lawler, J. Leahy, E. Lord and A. Duncan of Athy together with Patrick Doyle of Newbridge were appointed to wait on the Chief Secretary of Ireland to present the resolutions. The deputation met the Chief Secretary on 10th April 1877 and its Secretary, local shopkeeper, Alexander Duncan was later to report:
“it appears that the Chief Secretary would allow towns below 6,000 population to become the Sanitary Authority, if so disposed, with the consent of the Local Government Board”.

Athy Town Commissioners in August 1879 passed a resolution that they become the Urban Sanitary Authority. The matter was quickly dropped when it was pointed out to the Commissioners that the entire Sanitary rate would thereupon fall on the occupiers of houses in the town of Athy.

In the 1880’s Athy Town Commissioners became politically active in sympathy with the national mood of the day. In January 1881 they passed a resolution urging the “creation of a peasant proprietory” and laws “to protect the tenant cultivators of the soil” to be followed in June by a resolution “that the provisions of the Land Bill be extended to lease-holders as well as yearly tenants”. In March 1885 a motion “that all former resolutions, compacts or agreements relative to the election of Chairman of Commissioners be rescinded and that in future the Chairman be elected on his merits by a majority of the Board” was dropped on the grounds that there was no need for its adoption. The significance of the motion can be understood on reading a letter written by Michael Lawler of Athy Town Commissioners to the Leinster Express in October 1854. Lawler wrote:

“(Athy Town Commissioners) then entered into a mutual agreement to keep all political feeling out of our meetings and to have as near as possible half Roman Catholic and half Protestant, also to select the Chairman alternatively from each side”.

Clearly the increasing desire of some of the Town Commissioners to support political movements of the day heralded a change in the composition and political independence of the Town Commission. Within four months the Athy Commissioners were to present an address of welcome to Michael Davitt Founder of the Land League on the occasion of this visit to Athy on Sunday 5 July 1885. Towards the end of the year the Duke of Leinster’s agent wrote to the Commissioners drawing their attention;
“to the fact that his Grace gave a room in the Town Hall for the purpose of transacting Municipal business but not for holding Political meetings”.

Clearly the long standing cordiality between the Duke and his submissive subjects was coming to an end! During the remaining years of its life the Athy Town Commissioners showed its political leanings in condemning the Luggacurran Evictions of 1887/1889 and by passing a resolution on 6 January 1890 confirming its “most implicit confidence” in Charles Stewart Parnell.

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