Thursday, August 30, 2007

Something rotten in the borough of Athy

An enquiry concerning the first Catholic to be appointed town clerk of Athy sent me revisiting material I extracted from the minute books of Athy Borough Council, Athy Town Commissioners and Athy Urban District Council almost 30 years ago. Jimmy O’ Higgins was the acting town clerk who facilitated my research at a time when I was still living in Dublin by permitting me generous access to the council records. I remember trawling through those leather-bound minute books for months on end, deciphering as best I could the handwriting of the many clerks who over the centuries had the duty of keeping the council records. It was an extremely difficult task but nevertheless a rewarding one for the wealth of information obtained which helped to put flesh on the skeleton which up to then made up my knowledge of Athy, its people and their common history.

The lady who called to me during the week had a grandmother whose only brother she claimed was the first Catholic town clerk of Athy. His name was Patrick Hickey. The years he held the position were not known, but perhaps uniquely he subsequently became a Christian Brother.

Patrick Hickey, she said, was later viceprovincial of the Christian Brothers order in Australia and died in Bath, England, where he is buried. By strange coincidence, I had been visiting Bath just two days previously so on a number of fronts my interest was aroused by the enquiry.

The first local authority for the town of Athy was that established under Henry VIII’s charter of 1515 and revamped as Athy Borough Council by virtue of King James’s charter 98 years later. Controlled by successive earls of Kildare and later on their elevation to the dukedom of Leinster by the premier duke in Ireland, Athy Borough Council was what was known as “a rotten borough”. It was so termed because the franchise was vested in 12 burgesses nominated by the head of the Leinster family and seldom, if ever, did any of these burgess office holders reside in the town over which they exercised completed control. The borough council was abolished with many other Irish “rotten boroughs” in 1840.

The first elected Athy local authority was comprised of 21 locals sworn in as town commissioners in July 1847. I never fail to be surprised when reading through the list of the first town commissioners to find the names of the parish priest and the Church of Ireland rector amongst the commission members, as well as no less than three local doctors. The first town clerk appointed was Henry Sheill and the commissioners retained an office in his house at Leinster Street for several years until the Duke of Leinster made available what was the old Record Court as offices for the town commissioners. This he did in 1865 and the room given to the council was located on the south-east wing of the town hall at ground floor level. The commissioners swapped rooms with the Mechanics Institute 22 years later and so ended up in the small room in the south west side of the town hall directly opposite the caretaker’s apartment, where the council offices remained until new offices were provided at Rathstewart.

Reading through the extracts I took from the council minute books, I was pleasantly surprised to find how strong were the elected members when dealing with perceived inefficiencies on the part of council officials. Henry Sheill resigned after 23 years service, as did John Roberts, the town inspector of nuisances, when the commissioners resolved “that in future should the public pumps not be kept in proper order the month’s salary of the town clerk and the inspector of nuisances be stopped”. Following Sheills’s departure, the town clerkship became vacant on three occasions over the following nine years, ending with the appointment of Patrick Hickey as town clerk on the 5 May 1879 at a salary of £20 a year. Given the information I received last week, this is undoubtedly the man described to me as the first Catholic appointed as town clerk of Athy.
Given the text of the following resolution passed by Athy town commissioners in April 1865, it is quite likely that all the previous holders of the offices were non- Catholics. After all, were they likely to be otherwise if the elected members were moved to send this motion to the House of Commons in London:

“We, the town commissioners of the ancient and loyal town of Athy, feeling in common with our fellow countrymen the insulting and degrading tendencies of the obnoxious oaths and declarations which are still required to be taken by Catholics and Protestants in order to qualify them for the acceptance of municipal office, most earnestly pray that your Honourable house will take into consideration that such oaths had their origin in a period of gross bigotry and persecution. In an age of enlightenment like the present and now more than 30 years after Catholic Emancipation, your petitioners earnestly entreat that these obnoxious oaths may be erased from the statute books”.

Patrick Hickey, whom I believe lived in Emily Square, resigned as town clerk in 1882 presumably to enter the Christian Brothers. His subsequent career is not known to me but hopefully some more research will help to complete the story of the man who, it is claimed, was the first catholic to occupy the town clerkship of Athy town.

A number of intriguing entries in the council minute books make interesting reading and gives some flavour of life and conditions in Athy of 150 years ago. In August 1856, two commissioners, Mark Cross and Henry Hannon, were asked to wait on the magistrates “relative to the scandal of public prostitution” in the town. The problems caused by the ladies of the night was still exercising the minds of the town commissioners two years later when they caused to have public notices posted throughout the town with the following warning:

“Caution to persons keeping any place of public resort within the town for the sale of refreshments of any kind who knowingly supplies any common prostitute or resorting therein to assemble and continue in his premises after this notice will be prosecuted according to law”.

Nine months later, Thomas Roberts was appointed assistant to John Roberts for the purpose of prosecuting public prostitutes and street beggars at a salary of four shillings per week with a bounty of two shillings and six pence for each prostitute convicted. I am afraid the unfortunate Mr Roberts was unable to collect many half crowns after the local magistrates stated “that in prosecuting a prostitute, a man should also charge them with an offence to him rather than to summons her alone as it requires his evidence with that of Mr Roberts to ensure a conviction”.

In August 1868, Pat Walker, who had previously worked for the town commissioners as a road sweeper (officially called a “scavenger”), was appointed to a position, the title which was not given but which merited him being provided with a coat and a hat. He was “to remove off the streets, and when necessary bring them before the magistrates, all vagrants, beggars and prostitutes, to ring the bell whenever required, to keep order in the market and to assist the bailiff in hindering forestalling in the purchase of fowl”, all of which he undertook to do for the wage of six shillings a week.

Business obviously was not sufficient to keep him in his new position as within 12 months he was back to his old job as “town scavenger” earning four shillings a week. However, this job merited in addition to the coat and hat already supplied to him a new pair of trousers and a waist coat all courtesy of the Town Commissioners.

From town clerks to Christian Brothers, scavengers, vagrants and prostitutes, it’s amazing what can turn up amongst the dusty records of Irish municipal government.

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