The earliest record of corporate governance of Athy is the charter granted by Henry VIII in 1515. Granted at the request of Gerald, 7th Earl of Kildare, the charter entitled the inhabitants of Athy to erect walls around their settlement, the cost of which was to be financed by customs collected on goods sold in Athy. Provision was also made for the election on the 29th of September each year of a town Provost who had overall responsibility for regulating activity within the boundaries of the Borough. An important privilege granted by King Henry to the people of Athy was the right to hold a market “in a place deputed or ordained by Gerald, Earl of Kildare”. To this day the market continues to be held each Tuesday in the area originally called “Market Square” but which is now known as “Emily Square”. The “Emily” commemorated in the name of the town’s fine public open space is Lady Emily Lennox, Duchess of Leinster and wife of the first Duke of Leinster.
The 1515 charter may not be the first formal incorporation of the medieval settlement of Athy, but it remains, pending further research, the earliest known charter. A further charter was granted by King James I in 1613 and this was to remain in place until the disbandment of the Borough of Athy in 1840. The passing of the Act of Union some 40 years earlier had deprived the twelve members of Athy Corporation, who were appointed by the Duke of Leinster and held office for life, from nominating two members to represent Athy in Parliament. For the loss of this privilege the Duke of Leinster, and not Athy Corporation, was compensated with the payment of £13,800, with a further £1,200 going to Lord Ennismore who as William Hare of Tivoli in Cork had purchased the Athy Parliamentary seats from the Duke three years previously.
With the abolition of Athy’s Borough the local people who had never before been able to participate in local government were able to elect Town Commissioners to regulate the town’s affairs. A total of 21 Commissioners could be elected for that purpose and in 1842 the first Town Commissioners took office. No election was required as the number of available seats equalled the numbers nominated. Amongst those deemed elected was the local Parish Priest, Fr. John Lawler and the local Church of Ireland Rector, Rev. Frederick Trench. Two local doctors also sat as the first Town Commissioners. Dr. Thomas Kynsey was subsequently elected the first Chairman of the Commissioners while his colleague Dr. Thomas Ferris was also a Town Commissioner.
One of the first acts of the new Commission was to agree valuations for properties in the town, which valuations were to be the basis of raising rates to finance its operations. A perusal of the very first list of road works authorised by the new Town Commissioners gives an interesting insight into local placenames no longer in use today. Tea Lane, the Turnpike, Tan Yard Lane and Higginsons Lane, are some of those place names which apart from Higginsons Lane have long passed from local memory.
At the second meeting of the new Town Commissioners it was agreed to provide a bell for the new clock donated by Lord Downes of Bert House. The clock was installed in the Town Hall and soon thereafter the bell which had been used in St. Michael’s Church in Emily Square then under demolition was purchased by the Commissioners. Both the clock and the bell today grace the north face of the Town Hall. Another early decision taken by the Commissioners was the retention of the services of the town bellman at a wage of 2 guineas a year and the appointment of Thomas Sheill who was himself one of the 21 Commissioners to hold the position of Town Clerk.
It’s worthy of note that in the first ten years of its working life Athy Town Commissioners found it necessary to raise finance by way of imposing rates on only two occasions. The first time was in 1842 when a total of £30.15.6 was levied on the town and again in 1851 when the sum of £50 was required to be collected in rates. A large proportion of the Commissioners revenue came from payments for the weighing of farm produce at the public weighing scales in Emily Square. The Commissioners had a weigh bridge for weighing straw and a beam scales for weighing other farm produce. Everything sold in the market had to be weighed on the Town Commissioners scales and the weight registered on an official ticket issued by the Weighmaster.
Another source of revenue for the Town Commissioners was the monthly auction of manure which the Commissioners had the right to collect from the streets of Athy. Road cleaning was of a most rudimentary kind and was primarily concerned with the collection of manure which was kept between auctions at Green Alley and in the Potato Market at Emily Square. Manure collecting was carried out all year around, but during the summer months the Town Commissioners provided a watering cart which sprinkled water around the streets in order to keep down the dust.
The Commissioners were in office for six years before the issue of cleaning the streets of the town in addition to collecting manure was first considered. The cost conscious Commissioners appointed a three man deputation to consult with the Board of Guardians who had responsibility for the recently opened local Workhouse. Their purpose was to enquire on what terms the paupers in the Workhouse would sweep the streets of Athy from 10 o’clock each morning. That time was chosen so as not to interfere with the ancient right of householders to gather up manure in front of their premises - an important concession at a time when gardens were cultivated on a regular basis.
The Board of Guardians were apparently less than sympathetic to the Town Commissioners requests and in January 1849 the Town Commissioners agreed to employ two men to keep the streets clean. The men who were provided with wheelbarrows were the first outdoor staff employed by the Commissioners but soon thereafter the range of services provided in the town developed to include the laying of sewers and the paving of streets.
The first ever election to the Town Commission was held in July 1847 when 28 candidates contested the 21 seats. Only occupiers of property rated at £5 or upwards were entitled to vote and candidates had to be occupiers of premises rated at £20 or more. These requirements gave a very limited franchise but at least they represented a vast improvement on the non elective system which operated prior to the abolition of the previous Borough Council.
The poll toppers in 1847 with 105 votes each were local mill owner Henry Hannon and the Parish Priest, Fr. John Lawler. It is interesting to note that voting took place in the Courtroom of the Town Hall, with each voter announcing in public the candidates he wished to vote for. The secret ballot would not come until the passing of the Ballot Act of 1872.