The last meeting of Athy Borough Corporation was held on 29th September, 1841 when the Reverend F.S. Trench of Kilmoroney was sworn in as the Town Sovereign. Within six months the Borough Corporation which had been in existence since 1515 was replaced by elected town commissioners. The new body had 21 members all of whom were elected for three year terms unlike their predecessors who as members of the Borough Corporation held office for life on the nomination of the Duke of Leinster.
The first Town Commissioners for Athy, elected just three years before the Great Famine, were :-
John Lawler, P.P. R.W. Maxwell
Thomas Ferris Thomas B. Kynsey
Rev. Frederick F.J. Trench A.G. Judge
John Peppard Mathew Lawler
Robert Molloy Henry Hannons
Thomas O’Connor Dan Grady
Thomas Peppard John D. Waters
Mark Cross Thomas Shiell
John Lord Michael Lawler
James Irving Thomas Plewman
Ferris, Kynsey and Matthew Lawler were local doctors. Rev. Trench was the local Church of Ireland Rector, while John Lawler was the Parish Priest of Athy. While Church of Ireland Ministers had sat on the former Corporation the Catholic clergy were present on the Town Council for the first time in 1842. The involvement of the Parish Priest is indicative of the prominent role played by the clergy in civic matters in the years immediately following the granting of Catholic Emancipation. Under the Lighting of Towns Act, 1828 candidates for the position of town commissioner had to be occupiers of houses rated at £20.00 or more. Only occupiers of property rated at £5 or upwards were entitled to vote at the triennial election for town commissioners. In 1842 and again in 1844 elections were unnecessary in Athy as the candidates nominated did not exceed the number of seats available on the Town Commission.
Its first Chairman was Doctor Thomas Kynsey and immediately the new Commissioners set to work with an energy unknown to the former Borough Corporation. The town bellman was retained at a wage of 2 guineas a year while Thomas Shiell, one of the newly elected commissioners, resigned on the 7th March to take up the position of Clerk to the Commissioners and Billet Master at the yearly salary of £10. An Ouncil was purchased for the weighing of hay and straw while at their second meeting on the 4th April, 1842 the Commissioners agreed to provide a bell for the new clock donated by Lord Downes for the Town Hall and to put up under the clock a marble tablet commemorating the fact.
The Town Commissioners immediately accepted a number of presentments under which public works were to be undertaken by private individuals at the expense of the Town Commissioners. Included amongst those presentments approved on 18th April, 1842 were the following :-
£. S. P.
To John O’Neill for making a pair of Scale Boards
and adjusting the Beams 2. 2. 0.
To Michael Hylahaw for making a proper footpath from
Baileys corner to Dr. Lawlers and widening it 6 inches 5. 0. 0.
To John McManus, 40 Tons Gravel on Mt. Hawkins 1. 17. 6.
To John McManus, 40 Tons Gravel on Meeting Lane
and breaking the high stones 2. 2. 2.
To John McManus for sinking a Castledermot stone
at Mr. Judge’s small gate 0. 7. 6.
At it’s meeting on 6th June, 1842 the Town Commissioners agreed valuations which were to be placed on local properties and which were to form the basis of the rates imposed and collected within the town area to finance the work of the Town Commissioners. The list of valuations showed that there 857 houses in the town, of which 380 were slated and 477 thatched.
It is interesting to note that between 1842 and 1851 the only rates struck by the Commissioners were £30.15.6 in the first year of its operation and £50 in 1851. A large portion of the Commissioners’ revenue came from payments at the public weighing scales in the Market Square. Since the time of the former Corporation a salaried weighmaster was in office but he was pensioned off in 1848. Subsequently the public scales was let on a yearly basis until in August 1852 it was again taken in charge by a full time official of the Town Commissioners. The weighmaster generally employed clerks whose job it was to note the weight registered on an official ticket. Free lance porters, supplied with a distinctive arm band by the Commissioners were available in the Market Square to assist in lifting and loading sacks for which they were paid ½d. per sack by each farmer or merchant availing of their services.
Another source of revenue was the monthly auction of manure collected from the streets of the town. The cleaning of the streets was of a most rudimentary kind, but most important, particularly in summer, was the use of a watering cart, designed to keep down the dust.
It wasn’t until December 1848 that the Commissioners gave active consideration to the need for street sweeping. In that month a committee of three was appointed to wait on the Board of Guardians to enquire on what terms the paupers in the poor house would sweep streets from 10 o’clock each day. The time was carefully chosen so as not to interfere with the right of householders to gather up the manure in front of their own doors - an important concession at a time when artificial fertilisers were unknown.
The Board of Guardians were less than sympathetic to the Town Commissioners’ delegation and on the 6th January, 1849 the Commissioners agreed “that two men be appointed as scavengers to keep the town clean and that two wheelbarrows be provided for them”.
In this the centenary year of the Urban District Council it’s heartening to remind ourselves of the many advances made by our Town Council since the appointment of the two men with wheelbarrows 150 years ago.