Thursday, November 29, 2007

The courthouse and the Duke of Leinster

I was at the last sitting of the District Court in Tullow last week. The town which was the place of execution of Fr John Murphy of Boolavogue in 1798 has lost out in the drive to centralise services, which appears to be motivated by cost cutting than by any desire to better serve the communities of rural Ireland. The courtroom, admittedly Dickensian in appearance and in the facilities it provides, was crowded with litigants, gardaí and others. Not an unusual occurrence ,I was told, confirming (if such confirmation was needed) that there is a need for a local court in the area which from now on will be served by a court sitting in Carlow.

I was reminded of the furore that built up in Athy when plans were put in place to close the jail on the Carlow Road and move the prisoners to Naas. This happened in 1859 and, like many other occasions, when the public are stirred to anger by bureaucracy, the opposition came too late to make any difference to the decision already taken and even then in part implemented. The closure of Athy town jail came one year after the transfer of the summer assizes from Athy to Naas and precisely 29 years after the gaol had been constructed to replace what was regarded as the inhuman conditions of the previous lock-up located in White’s Castle. These conditions were so bad that an inspector of jails was moved to report:

“Athy Gaol is without exception the worst county gaol I have met with, in terms of accommodation, having neither yards, pumps, hospital, Chapel or property day rooms”.

When the jail on the Carlow Road was opened in 1830, it consisted of 30 cells built in a semi-circular form, with five yards and a governor’s house. Subsequent prison reports showed that an average of 48 prisoners, male and female, were detained there, most of them serving prison terms of seven years. This was the period of imprisonment applicable to most crimes of that time, even for what we would now regard as minor offences. The alternative to a seven-year prison term was deportation to Van Diemen’s land, then the principal place of overseas confinement for Irish rebels and those convicted of criminal offences.

The mood of the Athy people in 1859, following the announcement of the closure of the town jail and the earlier loss of the summer assizes, showed a frisson of resistance which had last manifested itself during the 1798 period. The leaders in the local community, by and large local shopkeepers, were to the forefront in lamenting the failure of the Duke of Leinster in pushing the claim of Athy town to retain its own jail and the summer assizes. Whether or not the Duke had any significant say in the matter is debatable but, as the patron of the town and the man who prior to the abolition of the borough council in 1840 held the reins of local power, it was to be expected that he would bear the brunt of local frustration.

Even as the local businessmen criticised the duke for his alleged inaction on the two issues, the town fathers in their role as town commissioners were still operating under a well-established system whereby they acted only if and when the duke had been consulted by them and consented to what they proposed. The previous borough council for Athy had been abolished in 1840, as were many other similar boroughs at that time because they were regarded as ‘rotten’ boroughs whose power was exercised at the behest of their patrons and not the people of the towns which they were presumed to serve.

The Duke of Leinster appointed the members of the borough council and exercised the right, prior to the passing of the Act of Union, to nominate two members of parliament to represent the borough council in the Irish House of Parliament. Despite the appointment of town commissioners in 1842, the Duke of Leinster continued to exercise control over the affairs of the town, but the events of 1859 represented the first ripple of opposition to the man whose family for so long were undisputed lords of Athy.

Reading the minutes of the meetings of the town commissioners in the decades following the closure of the town jail and the loss of the summer assizes, one can see the council gradually moving away from the control hitherto exercised by the Duke of Leinster over the town’s affairs. The break for freedom was finally copper-fastened with the passing of the Local Government Act of 1899, which lead to the setting up of Athy Urban District Council. Control of the town’s affairs now rests, as it has for the last 100 years or more, with local men and women elected by their own townspeople.

The loss of a courthouse, as has now happened in Tullow, is the loss of a vital element of community infrastructure which bodes ill for the future vitality of the local community.

An open invitation to readers

Next Thursday, 6 December, the third volume in the Eye on Athy’s Past series of books, being edited versions of my articles which appeared in the Kildare Nationalist, will be launched in the Town Hall Library at 8pm. The book of 200 pages deals with a wide range of Athy folk and events and documents life in Athy as some of us may have known it, but which is probably unfamiliar, if not unknown, to many. The launch of the book will be performed by Barbara Sheridan, Editor of the Laois Nationalist, who first approached me more than 15 years ago with a request to write a weekly article on local history. Barbara was then the local correspondent for Athy and South Kildare and quite frankly when I was first approached I turned her down. However, she renewed her request and with some reluctance and indeed uncertainty as to what I could pen on a regular basis, I wrote that first article 15 years ago.

Over the years I have met and talked to many locals, both about themselves and local events of the past. It has been a most rewarding, and I may say, at times, a humbling experience, to listen to men and women who have contributed during their lifetime to the well-being of our local community. The interviews have on many occasions complemented my own ongoing research into Athy’s history and helped to give a human touch to the everyday happenings that make up the social history of our place.

I have been helped over the years by many persons who have either given generously of their time for interviews or else directed me to events or people which were later the subject of an Eye on the Past article. Many others have written to me over the years and I especially appreciate those men and women now living in England who put pen to paper to share their knowledge of Athy with me. The history of emigration from Athy remains to be told in detail, but I am pleased that so many of those living abroad have had the opportunity of learning more of their hometown through the medium of the weekly Eye on the Past.

An invitation is extended to all of you to come along to the book launch on Thursday, 6 December at 8pm in the Town Library.

No comments: