While the Town Commissioners incorporated under the Town improvement (Ireland) Act 1854 were more active than their Town Borough predecessors any increased benefit to the townspeople was a matter of dispute. The lighting of the town was one of their more tangible achievements. On 21st January 1858 the town was lit for the first time. The public lamps which were only lit during the winter months were extinguished at 12.30 each night. In later years this was to be brought forward to 10.30 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 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.
The Town Commissioners were less successful in providing the townspeople with a wholesome supply of drinking water. Indeed between 1848 and 1900 the Commissioners provided only one additional public pump in the town to bring their total number to six. There was also a number of private wells in use, but in common with the public pumps the water supplied was generally acknowledged to be unfit for human consumption, and the cause of much illness amongst the townspeople. Despite this the Town fathers did not provide a piped water supply until 1907.
Fire fighting was for a long time a communal activity with townspeople using every available means to preserve life and property. In the early part of the 19th century the Military Barracks housed the only fire engine in Athy. Primarily intended for military use it was made available as required for fire fighting in the town. In June 1846 the Town Commissioners sought permission for the local constabulary to use the fire engine in the absence of the military. The Commissioners later became owners of a fire engine which remained in use until replaced in 1895. In 1881 the Commissioners appointed a committee to form a volunteer Fire Brigade in the town for whom 12 zinc buckets and a barrel and tub were to be provided ‘for the better working of the engine’.
The fire engine purchased from Merryweathers of London in 1895 at a cost of £149=12=8 required 22 men to work its engine and man its pumps. No doubt conscious of the fire hazards posed by the overcrowded hovels of the town there was no shortage of volunteers for this work. In 1907 the secretary of the Athy Voluntary Fire Brigade James Duthie reported a membership of 27 with plans to increase the numbers by an additional 10 men. Following the purchase of the Merryweathers engine Athy’s first fire engine was sold to Duthie Large Limited for £15.
In 1894 the Town Commissioners began a long and unsuccessful campaign to have the local constabulary relocated in the centre of the town. This followed the constabulary’s removal to the Military Barracks in Woodstock Street following a report on the unsanitary condition of the accommodation provided for them in Whites Castle. The military barracks which had been vacant for almost 15 years was renovated at a cost of nearly £500 to accommodate the seven married men and the four single men who were members of the local constabulary. The Police authorities in refusing the Town Commissioners requests were supported by the local Inspector who reported that despite the move to Woodstock Street the peace of the town was well maintained with no inconvenience to the public. Undaunted the Commissioners pressed ahead by calling on the South Kildare members of Parliament the raise the matter in the House of Commons in 1895. Their campaign was unsuccessful but memories in Athy were obviously long as on 3rd June 1907 the Urban Council resolved
‘that a letter be written to Mr Denis Kilbride M.P. requesting him to ask a question in the House of Commons relative to the removal of the Police from the centre of the town to their present out of the way position and to ask the Inspector-General be directed to hold an inquiry in the Town into the matter’.
The Constabulary were to remain in the Military Barracks until the emergence of the Irish Free State.
On 15 September 1890 a special meeting of the Town Commissioners was held at which it was agreed to appoint a committee to consider the submission of an application to the Local Government Board to have the Town Commission constituted the Urban Sanitary Authority for Athy. The Committees report was adopted on 2 February 1891 but nothing further was done about the matter until 14 November 1898 when a resolution was adopted asking the Local Government Board to constitute the Commissioners as an Urban Sanitary Authority. A public inquiry was held in the Town Clerks office on 10 April 1899 presided over by Arthur Bourke Local Government Inspector. Following his report the Local Government Board made an order declaring Athy an Urban District with effect from 1 April 1900.
King Henry VIII had first granted corporate status to the inhabitants of Athy in 1515 when the charter of that year provided for the setting up of a Borough Council and the election of a Provost. A later charter of 1613 confirmed the Town’s Borough status but replaced the Provost with an annually elected Town Sovereign. Athy Borough Council was finally abolished in 1840 and the last Town Sovereign was the Rev Frederick Trench of Kilmoroney, Rector of St Michael’s Athy. It is of interest to note that the first election to a town council in Athy took place on the 5th of July 1847 when both the Parish Priest Rev John Lawler and the local Vicar Rev Henry Bristow stood as candidates. Both were elected.
With the declaration of Athy as an Urban District from the first of April 1900 the Town was about to enter upon its most effective period of municipal government after almost 400 years of local rule.