Thursday, March 1, 2012

History of Athy in 25 objects (3)

Continuing the list of 25 objects illustrative of Athy’s history I put forward as the fifth object a book whose rarity suggests that it is probably known to very few people.  The 1798 Rebellion is now recalled in Athy since the official unveiling of the ’98 monument a year ago.  Much of our knowledge of those troubled days comes from the pen of Patrick O’Kelly who in 1842 published his ‘General History of the Rebellion of 1798’.  Kelly, being a local man, recounted in some detail the events of that year in Athy and so his small volume must be the fifth object in our list of twenty five.

I have previously mentioned the single page document recently found in Australia and copied to the local Heritage Centre which issued on the occasion of the laying of the cornerstone of Athy’s gaol by the Duke of Leinster on 20th June 1826.  The gaol opened in 1830 and housed many prisoners, both male and female, before its closure on the centralisation of prison services on a county basis in the mid 19th century.  The punishment accorded in that time to what we would regard now as minor offences was extremely severe and many local men and women were held in the Carlow Road Prison prior to being transported to Van Diemen’s land.  The Athy Gaol Certificate must be our sixth object.

The Great Famine which erupted on the Irish countryside in 1845 left its mark even here amongst the rich farmlands of South Kildare.  Athy was the location of a Workhouse opened a short time before the potato crop first failed and consequently many hundreds came from the neighbouring countryside into the town of Athy during the period of the famine.  When I was asked some years ago by the then Eastern Health Board to write a history of St. Vincent’s Hospital I was disappointed to find that the records of its predecessor, the Workhouse, had been destroyed just a few years previously.  When I had completed my work I was contacted by a local man who gave me the first Minute Book used by the Workhouse Board of Guardians when the Workhouse opened in 1841.  That Minute Book must then be included as one of the 25 objects as it more than anything else opens up for us the dark years of the Great Famine which took so many Irish lives in the 1840s.

The next object chosen is a Quaker bonnet now somewhat fragile which I came across many years ago.  It was the headdress of a Quaker woman who professed the religious beliefs first expounded by George Fox in the 17th century.  Not so many years after the Society of Friends was founded a small Quaker settlement was set up in Athy.  1671 was the year a Quaker meeting was first noted in Athy.  The Quakers are now long gone from the town but they left us their Meeting House and the lane where it was located, now known as Meeting Lane. 

A small 17th century Athy trade token is the item chosen by me to illustrate the development of the settlers town on the southern border of Kildare County in the 17th century and later.  The Confederate Wars of the 1640s which brought the English Civil War to these shores was played out in many parts of Ireland.  Athy town figured quite prominently in that war and was attacked, taken and re-taken by the different warring factions over the eight years of that conflict.  When the war ended it brought with it a measure of prolonged peace which the Irish countryside had not previously enjoyed.  The development of the town of Athy as an important market town was a result of those relatively peaceful times and the influx of further settlers to the town which had been a settler’s town for nearly 500 years.  The trade token which was issued in 1659 is evidence of the town’s commercial importance in the 17th century and beyond.

The commercial success of the settlers town was in part dependent on maintaining a municipal corporation which ensured order within the town’s boundaries.  Athy’s Borough Council, first chartered by Henry VIII, was one of Ireland’s infamous ‘rotten Boroughs’ whose members were appointed by the town landlord, the Earl of Kildare, without any reference to the wishes of the local people.  Nevertheless the Corporation provided a stable enough social and political environment for the development of commerce, thereby allowing the urban settlement to grow throughout the 17th and 18th century.  The Minute Books of the Borough Council going back to the mid 1700s are extant, with the oldest Minute Book now reposing in the Archives Office in Belfast.  For me the Minute Book chosen to represent the Municipal history of Athy must be that which records the appointment in 1783 of Lord Edward Fitzgerald as Member of Parliament to represent the Borough Council and the people of Athy.

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