Two years ago the Irish Times carried a letter from a Dublin man who chastised those responsible for the neglected state of Athy Courthouse. The fine Jacobean style building was indeed in a sad state, and remains so to this day but not for much longer. The Department of Justice is now about to loosen the purse strings to rescue what is an important part of the architectural heritage of our town.
The building now known as the Courthouse was originally the towns Corn Exchange. The first reference I found to it was in the Leinster Express of 25th April, 1857 when that newspaper then published in Naas and Maryboro carried a report of a banquet in the Leinster Arms Hotel. The occasion was a celebration for the newly elected Member of Parliament, W.H.F. Cogan and the following weeks headlines noted that one guest refused to stand for the customary toast to the Duke of Leinster. As Landlord for the town of Athy the Duke was accustomed to receiving unsolicited and uncritical allegiance from the subservient townsfolk and the action of the unnamed man was the first occasion such a public act of defiance was noted. The reason was the Dukes family’s involvement in the proposed closure of the town jail on the Carlow Road. It eventually closed in 1859 when all the prisoners were transferred to the new jail in Naas.
At the same time the Duke of Leinster received the gratitude of all those assembled in the Leinster Arms Hotel for the new Corn Exchange, then under construction in the Square of Athy. Newspaper reports claimed that the Duke was providing for the town of Athy “as pretty a building as any in Ireland” to be used as a Corn Exchange. It was opened for business on Tuesday, 6th October 1857 but before long the same newspapers carried reports that “the ventilation of the building was very defective and the manner in which it is lighted was also objected to”.
The criticism was surprising given that the Architect employed by the Duke of Leinster was none other than Frederick Darley, one of Ireland’s foremost Architects. Darley is best known for designing the Kings Inn Library in Henrietta Street, Dublin as well as a number of buildings in Trinity College and the wrought iron conservatories in the Botanical Gardens, Glasnevin. He was at different times Ecclesiastical Commissioners Architect for the Archdioceses of Dublin, and Architect to the Board of National Education. While Architect for the Archdioceses he designed St. Michael’s Church which was built on the Carlow Road and dedicated in September 1841. It is highly likely that Athy’s Model School on the Dublin Road opened in 1850 was also the work of Darley who was Architect to the National Board of Education at the time.
Whether the ventilation and lighting problems was the cause of the subsequent closure of the Corn Exchange we cannot say but certainly within five years the building was lying idle. A letter in the Leinster Express of 14th November, 1863 referred to the “large swamp around the ruins of the lamented Exchange”. To add to the woes of the locals the Summer Assizes hitherto held alternatively between Athy and Naas were transferred on a permanent basis out of Athy in the summer of 1858. Up to then the Court was located on the first floor of the Town Hall which had been built by the County Kildare Grand Jury in the early part of the 18th century. The Courts held there included the quarterly Assizes, the Petty Sessions which dealt with minor crimes and the Town Commissioners Court at which matters arising under the Town Improvement Act were heard.
When the former Corn Exchange was adopted for use as the Towns Courthouse I cannot yet confirm, but it would seem to have been utilised for that purpose before the end of the 19th century. The Assizes eventually returned to Athy but during the War of Independence the fine stone building with its flamboyant curved gables, dramatic tall granite chimney stacks and elliptical arched colonnades was burnt to the ground. The local IRA who were attached to the Carlow/Kildare brigade were believed to be responsible. It was felt to be an act of reprisal for the death of John Byrne of Gracefield, Ballylinan who died during the burning of the Luggacurran RIC Barracks. However, the truth which was known to a few was perhaps less heroic. One of the local volunteers acting on his own initiative and without the approval of his superiors torched the Court building on 15th July, 1921. The man responsible was Bill Nolan of St. Michael’s Terrace and he was subsequently court martialled by the IRA for his youthful indiscretion. The Court Martial Report prepared by John Hayden and Michael Dunne recommended his suspension from the Brigade. The suspension was soon thereafter lifted and Bill returned as an active member of the local volunteers.
The Duke of Leinster subsequently lodged a claim for compensation with the Urban Council and was awarded £1,455. The Clerk of the Petty Sessions Thomas J. Bodley lodged a similar claim for the loss of books, stationery and office furniture and received the sum of £30. Kildare County Council also applied for compensation indicating on 7th January, 1924 that the delay in paying the award made to it in Court was holding up the rebuilding of the Courthouse. The Urban District Councillors at their monthly meetings made regular reference to what they described as “the unsanitary state of the ruined interior of the Courthouse” and at one such meeting directed the town surveyor to “have a proper barbed wire fence erected to enclose the ruins”. The earlier arrival in the town of the first contingent of the newly established Garda Station prompted the same Councillors to request Kildare County Council to erect a Barracks for the Civic Guards in the vicinity of the Courthouse when it was being reinstated. The request obviously fell on deaf ears!
The rebuilding of the Courthouse was apparently completed sometime in 1928 under the supervision of Foley and O’Sullivan Architects. For whatever reason the building contractor delayed in handing over the building to Kildare County Council, a matter regarded by the local Urban Council as “a cause of inconsiderable inconvenience”. When the Courthouse was eventually reopened it continued to house the District Court and the quarterly sessions of the Circuit Courts. The offices of the District Court Office were located on the first floor and the last person to hold that office in Athy was Fintan Brennan. Rather strangely the local Garda Sergeant acted as the District Court Officer during the occasional absence of Fintan Brennan and I recall my own father doing short stints of duty in the District Court Office. The Irish penchant for centralisation resulted in the loss of the local District Court Office and for a while threatened the very future of Circuit Court sittings in Athy. Circuit Court Criminal Trials are no longer held in Athy, locals being required to travel to Naas for such hearings. Maybe with the refurbishment of the Courthouse we can look forward to the return of many of the lost elements of Court life in Athy.
Last week in what could have been the last Court sitting in the old building a fine tribute was paid to Bill Delahunty, Courthouse Caretaker who died recently. Billy, a member of an old Athy family will be sadly missed. Another recent death which was that of Michael Drennan, with whom I shared many happy schooldays in the local Christian Brothers. Hilary, as he was known, died just a few days after his mother passed away. May they rest in peace.