Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Municipal Government in Athy

In four months time Athy Town Council will hold it’s Annual General Meeting when the incoming chairman of the Council and first citizen of Athy will be elected for the following year.  If Minister Hogan’s proposals for the reorganisation of local government goes ahead as planned it will be the last A.G.M. of the Town Council.  It will also mark the end of an annual election procedure which dates back to 1515. 

It was Henry VIII, the man who gave himself many wives and gave us the Reformation, who in happier times, at the request of Gerald Fitzgerald, the Earl of Kildare, granted a Charter to the inhabitants of Athy.  It was due to the Earl of Kildare’s ‘agreeable and fruitful service’ and for the greater safety and security of the town which was positioned on the ‘frontier of the March of our Irish enemies’ that the grant was made.  On the same day an almost identical charter was granted to the town of Kildare, another Fitzgerald stronghold.

The primary purpose of the charter was to licence the inhabitants of Athy to ‘erect, construct, build and strengthen the same town with fosses and walls of stone and lime’.  It also entitled the locals of Athy each year on the feast of St. Michael, the Archangel to ‘elect and make among themselves one Provost to guard and govern the said town.’

It is from that charter of almost 500 years ago that we date the start of municipal government in Athy.  During those five centuries the form of local government has been altered several times.  The original borough council headed up by an elected Provost was replaced by a Borough Council and an elected Sovereign following a further Charter granted by James I in 1611.  At the same time King James granted borough status to an additional 46 other Irish towns and villages, bringing to 101 the number of borough Councils in Ireland.  His action was prompted by the desire to further the plantation of Ireland and to secure a Protestant majority in parliament.  This was achieved by empowering borough Councils to elect members of parliament and Athy Borough Council returned two members of parliament until 1800 when the Act of Union was passed.

Athy Borough Council was itself abolished following the passing of the Municipal Corporation Reform Act of 1840.  That first reform of Local Government in Ireland resulted from the undemocratic nature of the borough Councils such as Athy where the franchise was vested solely in 11 members of the Council, all of whom were nominated by the Duke of Leinster.  The Duke effectively controlled the borough council and few, if any, of the local residents were ever nominated/elected to it.  Indeed Catholics were excluded from membership of the borough council from 1691 and even Dissenters were excluded from membership, because of the Test Act, until 1780.  The first and only Catholic elected/nominated to sit on Athy Borough Council during the years following 1691 was Thomas Fitzgerald of Geraldine House who was a member from the early part of the 1800s.

The abolition of Athy Borough Council left the town without municipal government for a few years until the local residents petitioned Dublin Castle to adopt the status of Town Commissioners.  This resulted in the first ever democratic election even if the electorate was restricted and thereafter there developed a party political system which many will feel has weakened local government in this town ever since.  The Town Commissioners were in turn replaced by an Urban District Council in 1900 and a few years ago the name was changed back to Athy Town Council.

Common to all these bodies extending back to 1550 was the right of their members to elect a leader, initially a Provost, later a Sovereign and then from the 1840s a Chairman.  As first citizen of the town the Provost and later the Sovereign had extraordinary wide powers, including the raising of tolls and the holding of Municipal Courts.  The present chairman of Athy Town Council has none of these powers but he still occupies a key role in the municipal affairs of the town which for right or wrong will no longer be the case following the implementation of Minister Hogan’s local government reforms.

The pity is that the Minister feels it necessary or desirable to put his reforms in place.  It is not clear whether this is for financial reasons or because of dissatisfaction with the present Local Government structure and its apparent inability to deal effectively and efficiently with the needs of modern day living.  Whatever the reason the loss of municipal self governance enjoyed by the town of Athy for almost 500 years will be a sad blow for the town.

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