Thursday, March 2, 2000

Female Councillors and Athy U.D.C.

The first woman elected as a member of Athy Urban District Council was Miss Brigid Darby of Leinster Street, a National School teacher. Her name first appeared in the Minute Book of the Town Council when in November 1918 the Council passed a vote of thanks to Miss Darby and her colleague Miss Murphy “for their unselfish attention bestowed without hope of monetary reward and irrespective of class or creed on our afflicted townspeople during the present terrible influenza epidemic.” This was typical of the woman, of whom it was said when the unemployment money for Athy failed to arrive on one occasion and the poor of the town were left to face the following week without the means of buying food, went down to the office and paid in the amount required for the towns weekly dole payout.

Brigid Darby was an active secretary of the Gaelic League in Athy up to the mid-1920’s and almost inevitably found herself allied with the Fianna Fail party for whom she stood as a candidate in the Urban Council elections of 1928. She was duly elected and holds the distinction of being the first woman to sit on any of the corporate bodies having charge of the towns affairs since Athy was first chartered in 1515. She paid a very active part in the affairs of the town during her term of office as an Urban Councillor and she was re-elected for a further term of office in 1936. On that latter Council she was joined by Mrs. S. Doyle of The Bleach and when Miss Darby stood down at the August 1942 Election Mrs. Doyle was re-elected and also elected for the first time on that occasion was the third ever woman Councillor, Mrs. B. Whelan of Holmcroft.

Brigid Darby was also a member of Kildare County Council and many of it’s subsidiary bodies such as the County Board of Health, the Vocational Education Committee and the County Committee of Agriculture. She became a Director of the Tourist Development Association and was elected in the late 1930’s to the governing body of the National University of Ireland. She stood for the Dail in three occasions, each time failing to secure election. However, the 4,000 preference votes she obtained on her last attempt was sufficient to secure two Dail seats in County Kildare for the Fianna Fail party.

A firm believer in womens rights she was a prominent voice on the Urban Council during her period of office and the minutes of the Council meetings record her concern for the poor and underprivileged of Athy. Brigid Darby after her retirement as principal of Churchtown National School continued to live in Leinster Street until her death in April 1958.

The Urban Council elected in 1948 consisted of males only and so it remained in the elections of 1950, 1955, 1960 and 1967. It was not until 1974 that Mrs. Megan Maguire, wife of the local G.P., Dr. Brian Maguire was first elected to the Urban Council. Born in Manchester of Welsh parents, Megan a graduate of London University and a qualified social worker came to Athy with her husband in 1958. She was very involved in a number of community projects in the town and in 1966 she one of those responsible for the formation of the Care of the Elderly Committee. On the basis of her involvement in community matters Megan offered herself as an independent candidate in the local elections of 1974. She topped the poll and in June 1975 was elected by the members of the Urban Council as their Chairperson. To Megan Maguire fell the honour of being the first woman Chairperson of Athy Urban District Council and the first woman to be elected first citizen of the town since the town was incorporated by Henry VIII in 1515. Megan received the “Person of the Year Award” in 1976 for her voluntary services to Athy community and to the travelling people. Re-elected to the Council in 1979 she served from 1975 to 1985 and was joined for that second term by Mrs. Lenore O’Rourke-Glynn who was herself re-elected in 1985. Lenore served as Chairperson of the Urban District Council in 1986 but did not seek re-election in 1992. She is now an Assistant Secretary of the Irish Nursing Organisation and a Member of a number of important government agencies.

On Saturday 1st April, Athy Urban District Council will celebrate its centenary. The Urban Council was not of course the first Town Council but rather a refinement of what had gone before. The first Council for the town of Athy was established in 1515 by Henry VIII whose charter authorised the appointment of a Town Provost. Elected annually on the feast of St. Michael, the Arch angel, the Town Provost was to utilise the tolls collected on goods sold within the town boundaries for the purpose of building and maintaining the town walls. Incidentally, that same charter of 1515 gave to the townspeople the right to hold a town market every Tuesday, a right which is still exercised, but now by traders none of whom are residents of the town. A further Charter granted in 1613 by King James replaced the Provost with a Town Sovereign, although with somewhat similar powers. He was to head up a Borough Council consisting of twelve Burgesses all of whom were nominated for life by the town’s Landlord, the Duke of Leinster. It was not until the abolition of the Borough Council in 1840 and its replacement a few years later by a popularly elected Town Commissioner that Local Government as we know it today first emerged.

The function and role of the Town Commissioners were very limited and it was not until the setting up of the Urban District Council with extensive powers in 1900 that a potentially powerful tool of Local Government was first put in place. The Council’s affairs are managed by nine elected councillors with an executive headed up by the County Manager. The powers and functions of the councillors are reserved functions which only they can exercise while the County Manager has executive functions, the exercise of which is his perogative, by and large, free of the councillors control. The respective roles of the elected members and the County Manager can be broadly related to that of a Board of Directors and a Chief Executive. The elected Members determine policy and the level of funding while the County Manager deals with the day to day functions of the Council.

Local Government as an expression of the right of local people to have a say in how they are governed is only as good as those elected to safeguard the publics interest. Local Government in Athy has by and large being well served over the last 100 years even if the Council’s decisions or lack of them has at times created the illusion rather than the reality of Local Government.

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