Wrong doers making an appearance before Courts today are faced with a range of punishments from fines to imprisonment to community services orders. The latter requires the convicted person to provide a specified number of hours of labour on a community project in his own locality. In this way he repays his debt to society and more specifically the community in which the offence occurred.
An offender would have faced almost certain death for many of the offence which today are treated quite lightly. At one time up to 500 criminal offences ranging from the stealing of a chicken to murder merited the death penalty. Every town had its Gallows and up to the beginning of the last century every traveller approaching Athy from the Kilcullen direction passed by the Gallows which was sited on rising ground just outside Athy. It was in this area, now known as Gallowshill, that the unfortunates were hanged and their bodies summarily disposed of in a nearby field. During the 17th and 18th centuries gibbeting or hanging the body of an executed criminal in chains on the approach to the town was the accepted practice. It acted as a permanent reminder to would be criminals and vagrants of the fate that awaited them should they step out of line in Athy.
Records of those hanged at Gallowshill are not available but we do know that on the 16th of August 1743 Luke Sherlock and his companion named Donnelly were hanged in Athy for robbery. The Dublin Journal of the 19th of September, 1756 reported that on the following Tuesday John Cronin was to be hanged in Athy for horse stealing, an offence committed four years previously. A note in the Irish Magazine of 1809 referred to a recent arrangement whereby Athy prisoners were transferred to Naas for execution. The writer regarded this as a breach of the privileges of the town of Athy! The change of execution place was of little consequence to those facing the ultimate penalty such as the four people sentenced to death at Athy assizes in July 1817 for stealing potatoes. Their six accomplices were deported for seven years.
During the months of May and June of 1798 several men from Athy and the surrounding countryside were arrested and lodged in Athy jail. Located in Whites Castle the jail was commonly regarded as the worst of its type in Ireland. Seven of those men, six of whom were from Narraghmore, were tried convicted and sentenced to be hanged. They were marched from the jail to an area close to the present dry dock and opposite the Military Barracks, where a Gallows had been erected. After the hangings two of the seven were beheaded and their severed heads were placed on Whites Castle as a warning to the local people not to get involved in rebellious activity.
Frequently criminals were brought back to the scene of their crime and hanged from the nearest tree. Such a fate befell John Whelan, known locally as "Black Top" who was involved in an attack on Glassealy House, the home of Thomas J. Rawson in 1798. Rawson, who later wrote the “Statistical Survey of County Kildare”, was leader of the Athy Loyalists and a member of the local Borough Council. 'Black Top' and his accomplices burned Rawson's house on the same day that they had fired the home of Mrs. Hannah Manders of Glassealy resulting in the death of four women and Mrs. Manders' nephew.
In 1799 Rawson captured 'Black Top' in Monavullagh bog and he was tried before a Court Martial, convicted and sentenced to death by hanging. An eye witness account of 'Black Top's' journey to the place of execution in Glassealy was written by Mary Leadbetter of Ballitore. She referred to
"two men yet living but in the same car were their coffins. One had been convicted of burning the Courthouse in Narraghmore, the other for the murder of Hannah Manders and they were to suffer death at the places where their crimes had been committed. One of the men hung his head weeping, the other looked about as if stupefied by terror. The march of the soldiers was slow and solemn and the people in the market seemed afraid to notice the prisoners."
Two years ago, during clearance work on a field, Gallowshill began to give up its deadly secrets as several skeletal remains were recovered. Work was temporarily stopped while the authorities satisfied themselves as to the nature of the findings but work soon re-commenced as the bulldozers buried centuries of history and death beneath clay ready to give up new life to 20th century crops.
Luckily enough for some hanging was not the only form of punishment in bygone days. In addition to a prison sentence the criminal might expect to spend some time in the town stocks or in the town pillory or alternatively to be subjected to the whip.
Imprisonment was of course the primary form of punishment and still is to this day. To be deprived of your personal freedom was always an unpleasant experience but particularly so where the prison to which you were sentenced was regarded as the worst of its kind in Ireland. Such was the description accorded in 1824 to Athy jail, then located in Whites Castle by the Inspector of Jails. The prison had nine cells and the diet of the prisoners was bread and water only. Matters improved somewhat when the new jail was built on the Carlow Road in 1830. Consisting of five day rooms and thirty cells built in a semi-circular form around the Governors house, it replaced the much criticised Whites Castle jail. Prisoners were employed in stone breaking, mat making and oakum picking.
While the prison was designed to accommodate each prisoner in a separate cell the level of drunkenness and lawlessness in Athy soon lead to overcrowding. In 1854 the average daily number in the jail was 48, and in 1856 was 47. The severity with which offenders were treated by the law can be gleaned from an examination of the prison sentences imposed on local people in Athy Courts in 1837. Six prisoners were sentenced to life imprisonment for cattle and sheep stealing while one unfortunate man got seven years for stealing a pig. Two offenders were whipped for simple larceny while 103 men and women were sent to prison for drunkenness.
In earlier years the drunk would probably have served time in the town's stocks. An Act of 1405 required every town and village to have stocks which were two stout boards with holes through which the legs of the offender were placed while he was sitting, and then padlocked together. The object was to humiliate or shame the offender who was padlocked in the stocks for a prescribed period. The local stocks and the pillory were in all probability located in the Market Square in Athy.
The use of the pillory was another way of publicly humiliating any offender who was required by the local Court to be pilloried. Made of wood, the pillory was a frame with holes through which the head and hands of the offender were placed while he was in a standing position. When the offender was placed in the stocks or in the pillory, he was at the mercy of the locals who could jeer him or if he was particularly offensive or disliked throw rubbish at him. The records of the Borough Council show that on the 16th of October, 1738 the members of the Corporation noted the conviction of Graham Bradford, a freeman of Athy, for "wilful and corrupt perjury" following which he was pilloried and subsequently transported to America.
Reference was earlier made to offenders sentenced to whipping in Athy Courts in 1837. Whipping was a common form of punishment following the Whipping Act of 1530. Initially it was reserved for vagrants who were to be whipped until blood was drawn and who were then required to take an oath to leave town and return to their own area. In time whipping became a more common place punishment for petty offenders. A whipping post was normally provided alongside the town's stocks and used as required.
In 1798 a large wooden triangle was erected opposite the Military Barracks in Barrack Street and used in an attempt to obtain information from uncooperative local people. Men thought to be involved in rebellious activity were tied to the triangle and flogged. The man in charge was Thomas Rawson of Glassealy. Thomas Fitzgerald of Geraldine writing of his experiences in December 1802 described Rawson as having
"every person tortured and stripped as his cannibal will directed. He would seat himself in a chair in the centre of a ring formed around the triangle, the miserable victims kneeling under the triangle until they would be spotted over with the blood of the others".
If the pillory and the stocks were normally reserved for men a peculiarly female form of punishment was the ducking stool. Consisting of a chair at the end of a long pole or beam which could be swivelled and lowered into the River Barrow, the ducking chair was particularly effective in dampening the spirits of quarrelsome women. It was a form of punishment first used in the 15th century but which fell out of favour much to the dismay of many a hen-pecked husband, long before its usefulness could be fully exploited!