On the evening of Friday, April 7th 1893 Sir Anthony Weldon travelled by horse and carriage from his home at Kilmoroney House. He was accompanied by his son Captain A. Weldon. Sometime earlier, Lord Mayo had set off from Naas while Canon Bagot journeyed from his home at the Rectory in Fontstown. Their destination was the Town Hall in Athy where they were to meet up with many of the local landed gentry, several Minister’s of the Church of Ireland and a couple of local shop keepers. The Dean of Kildare was there as well as Rev. Mr. Brendar, Rev. Dean Meeke, Rev. R. Meredith, Rev. S. P. Smithwick and Rev. Mr. Follis. They were joined by J. H. Dunne, W. McCulloch, R. McCulloch, Sir. Erasmus Borrowes, R. Anderson, F. Farrell, R. Lumley, W.P. St. John, G. Patterson, W. Dunne, W. Pender, George Gilmore, W. Webber, F.M. Carroll, Captain E. Dease, T. Anderson, T. Greer, A. Harvey, A. Lowes, G. Carroll, R. McMahon, W. A. Cooper and F. Scott amongst others.
The occasion was a meeting of the South Kildare Unionists who came together to protest against the Home Rule Bill which had been introduced in the House of Commons by W. E. Gladstone just three months previously. This was the second time that a Home Rule Bill was brought before the English Parliament. Seven years previously a Bill which proposed a measure of self Government for the Irish was also introduced in the House of Commons by Gladstone where it was defeated. Undaunted, the Liberal Leader re-introduced his second Home Rule Bill in January 1893 with the support of the Irish Parliamentary Party. The Bill proposed that Ireland would have a two tier Legislature with restricted powers to make laws and control of its own taxes, other than Customs and Excise. Strongly resisted in the House of Commons, the proposals caused alarm amongst the Unionist population and the meeting held in the Town Hall, Athy was but one of several meetings throughout the country convened in opposition to Home Rule for Ireland.
The Chairman of the Athy meeting was Sir Anthony Weldon while his son Captain Weldon acted as secretary. At the start of the meeting two letters of support received from Arthur Balfour and Lord Randolf Churchill were read aloud by the meeting’s secretary. Balfour who had been Chief Secretary for Ireland for four years up to 1891 and would later be a Conservative Prime Minister of Britain was known as “Bloody Balfour” after the Mitchelstown massacre of 1887 where Policemen fired on a local meeting. In his letter written from Newtownards on the 5th April 1893, Balfour expressed gratification on hearing of the Unionists meeting in Athy. He continued, “I feel assured that the more the effects of this Bill are realised throughout Ireland, the more clearly it will seen by men of every shade of political and religious conviction that Home Rule in this shape will bring with it nothing but financial and agricultural disaster to every class in Ireland”.(Twenty years later as an elderly member of the British cabinet, Balfour would support Lloyd George’s abortive Home Rule proposals, and in 1921 Balfour supported the Anglo Irish Treaty)
Lord Randolf Churchill who was to die the following year wrote from 40 Grosvenor Square, London apologising for his inability to accept Anthony Weldon’s invitation to the meeting and conveyed his best wishes in bringing home to the agricultural community the importance of “the present crisis”. Churchill who was leader of a radical group within the Tory party was strongly opposed to Irish Home Rule and during the debate on the first Home Rule Bill in 1886 he had encouraged Orange extremists in Ulster with the catch phrase “Ulster will fight and Ulster will be right”. Letters of apology for non attendance were received from the Duke of Leinster, Lord Walter Fitzgerald, Major R. H. Moore, Laurence Dunne, Lord Seaton, the Rector of Athy Rev. E. H. Waller, Major Blacken and William Young.
Captain Dease proposed a Motion “that we desire to express our continued and unswerving loyalty to the throne and thereby pledge ourselves to maintain by every means in our power the legislative union between Great Britain and Ireland”. In support of this motion, Dease said “Home Rule meant Home ruin …., the men who would govern the country if Home Rule were in operation were not men whom they could trust to administer the finances of the country…... The so called patriots have put a check on Irish prosperity. They have set class against class. They have banished forever the old feeling that had existed between Landlord and Tenant….. They have increased ten fold that religious bitterness which had been fast dying out…The Irish Unionists should endeavour by all means to frustrate this Bill which must be dangerous to the interests of religion… and would bring misery to hundreds of happy homes and ruin and disaster to our beloved country”.
Captain Deases contribution was received with loud applause and Captain Weldon who followed him in seconding the motion claimed that “a grave crisis in the history and fortunes of this beloved country are imminent…. Mr. Gladstone claims that if the Bill passes, there will be a plethora of money in Ireland… No doubt there would be a plethora in the pockets of some gentlemen who some time ago had nothing but their wits to depend upon until they were raised metaphorically and literally out of the gutter by the man whom they afterwards hounded to death”. [The reference here was to Parnell and it drew a loud and sustained “here here”].
Mr. T. Anderson, Justice of the Peace moved a second motion “that the financial arrangements proposed in the Bill would lead to commercial insecurity and general withdrawal of capital from Ireland.”. Speaking as a tenant farmer, he felt that the Home Rule Bill if passed would have disastrous consequences for the tenant farmers of Ireland. William Dunne, also a Justice of the Peace seconded Anderson’s motion and claimed that under Home Rule, they would lose all the assistance which England gave to Ireland for Education, for improving the breed of horses and cattle and for the purchase of land etc.
The Earl of Mayo in supporting the motion asked how could “the future Nationalist Demagogue Parliament match the financial assistance which the Imperial Government now gave to farmers in Ireland…. How could they allow the country to be administered by men who had everything to gain and nothing to lose by becoming the Directors of Irish Finances except the coats and breeches that covered their skins”. [This last comment drew loud applause and laughter from his audience].
Canon Bagot moved a third motion “that we cordially approve the action which has been taken by the Irish Unionist Alliance in awakening the country to the gravity of the present crisis…. and we agree to form a branch of the Unionists Alliance in South Kildare”. This motion was seconded by Mr. R. Farrell and supported by Mr. T. W. Carroll and like the previous motions was unanimously passed.
Sir Anthony Weldon was then elected Chairman of the local committee of the South Kildare Unionists Alliance and Mr. Carroll from Moone was elected its secretary. It was agreed that a petition from the Unionists of South Kildare protesting against the Home Rule Bill be presented to the Parliament in London.
The second Home Rule Bill was strongly resisted in the House of Commons and was only forced through after many difficulties. In September, 1893 it came before the House of Lords where it was rejected. A third Home Rule Bill was introduced in the House of Commons by Mr. Asquith in 1912. It again met with strong opposition from the Unionists but eventually got through the Commons in January 1913. It was later defeated in the House of Lords but due to legislative changes made two years previously, the House of Lords could only delay its implementation. The Home Rule Bill was signed into law on the 18th September 1914 but by agreement with the Irish Parliamentary Party, it was suspended for the duration of World War 1. It was later superceded by the Government of Ireland Act, 1920.
The Athy meeting of the 7th April 1893 was attended by a typical cross section of members of Southern Irish Unionism. Farmers and Anglicans formed a majority element of Irish Unionism and while numerically small, nevertheless claimed to represent the majority of the Irish people when putting forward its opposition to Home Rule. The decline in the finances and influence of the landed gentry in Southern Ireland coupled with the development of militant unionism in Northern Ireland led to a decline in the influence and strength of Southern Unionists. The Town Hall in Athy accommodated many protest meetings in its time but the meeting held on Friday, 7th April 1893 was one of the last occasions when the Southern Unionists cause was highlighted locally.