Thursday, June 8, 2000

Athy Borough Council in the 18th century

Athy of the 18th Century was a corporate town governed by an elected Sovereign and Burgesses, as it had been since 1613. The Borough records for 1738 which were transcribed by Sir John Gilbert the noted Historian who prepared the Dublin Corporation Records for publication give an interesting account of the following local cause celebre.

“At an assembly held in Athy in and for the Borough of Athy, on the 16th day of October 1738, before the Sovereign, bailiffs and free burgesses of each barony of said borough; whereas at the said assembly it appeared that Graham Bradford was convicted in his Majesty’s Court of Kings Bench of wilful and corrupt perjury and that he was pilloried and is now transported into some of his Majesty’s plantations in America for the said crime, it is therefore declared at the said assembly that the said Graham Bradford be and is hereby disfranchised and removed from the freedom and all other offices and employments of the said borough of Athy. In confirmation of which the said Sovereign and Burgesses have hereunto set their hands and affirmed the Corporation Seal this 16th day of October 1738.

A. Weldon , Sovereign Boyle Spencer George Bradford
J. St. Leger John Berry William Bradford
John Jackson Alexander Bradford Edward Harman”

One notes the use of the pillory in dealing with the perjurer and while transportation appears a somewhat harsh punishment for the offence, it must be viewed against the then contemporary sentence of death for offences which today would be unlikely to merit even a short term of imprisonment. For instance, on 16th August 1743, Luke Sherlock and his companion in crime, a young man named Donnelly, were hanged in Athy after being convicted of robbery. The Dublin Journal of 19th September 1756 reported that “Tuesday next John Cronin will be executed at Athy for Horse Stealing that fact he committed 4 years ago”. The place of hanging was probably Gallows Hill on the approach road to Athy from Dublin. In medieval times and into the 18th Century every town had its Gallows Hill, located on rising ground on the outskirts of the settlement. Athy’s Gallows Hill survives in name of the locality which witnessed many hangings over centuries of use. Indeed, a few years ago local man, Tommy Keegan drew my attention to the discovery of skeletal remains in a sand pit at Gallows Hill, no doubt those of some hapless individuals who suffered the ultimate penalty for some minor infraction.

In 1746, the normally calm proceedings of the Athy Borough were thrown into disarray by the removal from office as free burgesses of the town of Thomas Keatinge, Robert Percy and Nicholas Aylward. The last two named were removed from office on 25th June 1746 for attending a public meeting convened by Keatinge’s for the purpose of electing a burgess in place of John Jackson deceased. The meeting was called by public notice for a premises known as the Queen’s Head and by so doing, Keatinge was guilty of impersonating the Sovereign of the town.

The names of the Borough officials, Burgesses and Freemen of Athy in 1746 with one or two exceptions, clearly indicate Anglo Norman or English antecedents. It is fitting to note that again with those exceptions, the families which controlled Athy almost 250 years ago, are no longer represented amongst the present population. The names include:-

William Willock, Town Clerk Thomas Rutledge Bailiff
William Bradford, Town Sovereign William Hoysted Bailiff
Thomas Burgh , Burgess John Berry, Burgess
Robert Downes, Burgess Moore Disney, Burgess
George Bradford, Burgess John Browne, Burgess
Edward Harman, Burgess Joshua Johnston, Burgess
Walter Weldon, Freeman Edmund Lewis, Freeman
Edward Wale, Freeman James McRoberts, Freeman
Thomas Weldon, Freeman Robert Fitzgerald, Freeman
Jn. Hoysted, Freeman Richard Nelson, Freeman

It was these men who developed the commercial life of Athy and in some cases, provided the financial backing and expertise for the limited industrial growth which the town experienced after 1700. Michael Devoy who wrote a short history of Athy in Anthologica Hibernica tells us that Athy in the 18th Century had one of the best and most extensive tanyards in Ireland. Rocques map of Athy West of the Barrow prepared in 1768 shows two very large tanyards. Located at Beggar’s End was a 24 pit tannery owned and operated by Geo. King. At the rear of St. John’s Street, now Duke Street, in the area known to this day as the Tanyard, the Daker family had a 41 pit tannery. This latter tannery was to go into decline and eventually close around 1790 following the death of George Daker. King’s tanyard appears to have suffered a similar fate, as no trace of the one extensive tanyard is shown on a town map of 1831. Tanning was not lost completely to Athy, as a number of small tanyards were to be found in the town during the 19th century. In 1842 James Doyle had a small tanning business in St. John’s Lane while Stephen Wilson of William Street had a somewhat larger tanyard. These were the sole remnants of the once extensive industry which provided much needed employment to the men of Athy in the previous century.

My recent reference to J. J. O’Byrne the local School Teacher arrested and imprisoned during the War of Independence resulted in a lot of phone calls and letters. It now appears that his arrest followed an attempted to read the Easter Proclamation in the main street of Athy. More about him at a later date. In the meantime, my thanks to those who contacted me about Mr. O’Byrne.

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