The feast of St. Michael or Michaelmas falls on the 29th of September. Traditionally St. Michael is known as Judge of the Dead on Judgment Day and he is usually depicted with flaming wings symbolising his status as Archangel, carrying a sword representing his power over evil.
For the Anglo Norman settlers of the 12th and 13th Century both Michaelmas and Easter marked important periods in the yearly calender. Athy in common with other Irish and English towns regarded September 29th as a day for settling rent accounts, hiring labourers and the beginning of Autumn. It was a day marked with celebration, the centre piece of which was the Michaelmas goose, geese generally being in plentiful supply at that time of year. Michaelmas was the day when tradition decreed that a farmer should kill an animal and give meat to the poor. The custom, according to Keating in his History of Ireland, arose when Aongus, wife of King Leary, in thanksgiving for her son's restoration to health killed one sheep out of every flock she owned. It was decreed that all Christians should follow the custom on Michaelmas Day and give a portion to the poor.
The Hiring Fairs were another Irish tradition centred around Michaelmas Day. Those seeking employment came to town on September 29th, stood in the Hiring Fair wearing the recognised sign of their skill. Once agreement had been reached with a farmer the hired hand received a coin as an earnest of his future wages. He was free for the rest of the day until the evening when he left the fair with the farmer for the farm which was to be his home for the next six to nine months.
The Charter of Athy granted by Henry VIII in 1515 provided for the election of a Town Provost on the feast of St. Michael. The later Charter of 1613 granted by James I stipulated that the town's sovereign elected annually on the 24th of June was to be sworn into office on Michaelmas Day. In 1746 Athy Borough was rocked by a scandal when Thomas Keating, one of the twelve Burgesses of the town, was charged by the Corporation with impersonating the Sovereign and while doing so calling a meeting for the Queen's Head in the town to elect a Burgess in place of John Jackson who had died. Keating who had not been sworn into office on Michaelmas Day as required by the town Charter was removed from his office as a Burgess of the town as were Robert Percy and Nicholas Aylward, both of whom attended the meeting called by Keating. The tradition of swearing in the Sovereign on the 29th of September survived until 1840 when the Borough was dissolved. The tradition of killing an animal to share with the poor and the Hiring Fair survived for a few more years but they too have long gone the way of other old Irish traditions.
Part time amateur enthusiastic students of local history have never been as numerous as they are today. Their work has spawned a multiplicity of publications ranging from substantial academic texts to the numerous books and pamphlets published by individual local historians and Historical Societies.
Genealogical research into ones own family is generally an initial step into a field of study which is both varied and extensive. The next step is inevitably the study of the history of a particular locality. However one enters into local history studies one thing is certain; the student will go to his local Library, look at what is available in the reference section or local archive material section and embark on a life long study which will never lose its interest.
The growing interest in local history and the awakening of interest in their own place amongst school children has created a huge demand for research material in our local libraries. Our national archives are not always readily accessible to the country based researchers but unfortunately our local libraries do not seem to be able to keep pace with the needs for basic research material even of a secondary nature.
The recent opening of the new vastly improved library service in the Town Hall under the guidance of the dynamic and resourceful County Librarian Breda Gleeson will hopefully lead to a dramatic improvement in the availability of research material in Athy. Success in local history work requires active co-operation between local libraries and national archives, local History Societies and the schools. Never before has there been such a need for all these bodies to collaborate more and more with each other to meet the every growing and popular demands of local history studies.
Eye on the Past will each week deal with a topic of interest from the History of South Kildare when we will delve into the rich vein of local History which remains to be discovered and related in future articles.