Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Athy's Mace

Just a few months before I returned to Athy in 1982 the then Urban District Council was engaged in a lively debate on the merits or otherwise of acquiring the mace of Athy Borough which was to be auctioned in Sotheby’s of London on 18th March of that year.  The Councillors were, with one exception, in favour of purchasing the silver mace, the only dissenting voice being that of Councillor Paddy Wright who described the item as “a relic of British imperialism”. 

The County Manager, Gerry Ward, agreed to pursue the matter and he authorised Seamus O’Conchubhair, the County Librarian, to bid up to £10,000 at the auction for the mace.  The estimate given by Sotheby’s was in the region of £5,000 and £9,000 and the Council was to be assisted by the Bank of Ireland who agreed to donate £2,500 towards the purchase price.  The mace which was made by Dublin silversmith, John Williamson, in 1746 weighed 187 ounces and stood 46 ½ inches high.  Originally it had been presented by James Earl of Kildare on the 29th of September 1746 to the Borough of Athy.  James had been a Member of Parliament for Athy Borough from 1741 to 1744.  His father, the 19th Earl of Kildare, died in 1744 and James succeeded to the Earldom.  He was later created Earl of Offaly and Marquess of Kildare and finally Duke of Leinster in 1766.  James was father to Lord Edward Fitzgerald, the 1798 patriot, and to William Robert Fitzgerald who would succeed his father as the second Duke of Leinster.  Athy’s main streets were renamed William Street, Duke Street and Leinster Street after the second Duke when he officially opened Augustus Bridge over the newly built Grand Canal, which bridge was named for his surviving eldest son, Augustus Frederick, who would in time become the third Duke.  The second Duke’s eldest daughter Emily gave her name to what was previously known as Market Square in the centre of the town. 

The mace was intended to be carried by the Sergeant of Mace in front of the Town Sovereign as he and the other Borough officials paraded to and from Borough meetings.  A mace was originally a heavy metal club for battering in chain mail.  Later, because of its resemblance to a sceptre, it was used to symbolize high rank and was generally ornamented with an arched crown at its head and often made of precious metal.  The officers of Athy Borough Council in the 18th century were the Sovereign, two bailiffs, twelve burgesses, a recorder, three Sergeants of Mace, a Town Clerk, a Treasurer, a Bellman, a Weighmaster and an Inspector of Coals and Culm.

The Borough of Athy was abolished in 1840 being one of the many “rotten” Boroughs where the twelve Burgesses who comprised the Borough Council were elected for life by the Duke of Leinster.  Inevitably the Burgesses acted in accordance with the Duke’s instructions and as such did not represent the democratic will of the local people.  Athy Borough, with a number of similar  Boroughs in Ireland, were consequently abolished to be replaced by democratically elected Town Commissioners.  The last Sovereign of the town of Athy was John Butler whom I believe lived in St. John’s House in what is now Edmund Rice Square.  An inscription on the mace reads: “This mace, presented to John Butler by the Corporation of Athy, November 1841”.  The only other inscription found on the silver mace reads: “The gift of the Rt. Honble. James Earl of Kildare to ye Borough of Athy September 29th 1746.”

It is believed that Thomas Butler, son of the man who was gifted the mace in 1841, sold it to the Duke of Leinster in January 1876.  The Irish newspapers of February 1982 carried details of the Sotheby’s auction in which the Athy mace was to feature as one of the more interesting and historical items for sale.  Apparently it had formed part of the estate of the Duke of Leinster whom the Evening Herald of the 27th of February 1982 claimed had “died in poverty in London a few years ago.”

Sotheby’s Auction took place in London on 18th March and Seamus O’Conchubhair, acting on behalf of Athy U.D.C., was unsuccessful in his attempt to have the ancient mace returned to its original home.  A London silversmith by name Richard Vander bought the mace for £15,000 Stg., buying it he said “on a whim because I liked it.  It is one of the finest specimens of a mace for this period and is in remarkable condition”.  He did not rule out the possibility of it finding its way back to Ireland: “If the interest is there, it might end up in a museum in Ireland”.

The exquisitely carved silver mace did not come back to Ireland.  Indeed I remember writing to Mr. Vander at the time to clarify his plans for the mace but there was a deafening silence from across the Irish Sea.  I never knew where the mace was located until recently when on a trip to the Texas University town of Austin I journeyed to San Antonio, home of the famous Alamo.  With a population of something over one million, the former Spanish settlement has a large number of museums, including a Museum of Art which was opened in 1981 in a former brewery.  The museum is home to an array of Greek and Roman antiquities, Asian art, Latin American art and holds a small Irish silver collection, amongst which is to be found the Athy Borough mace.

It was quite an extraordinary feeling to see for the very first time the mace which for almost 100 years symbolised the power and majesty of the corporation of the Anglo Norman town on the River Barrow.  I had previously seen the Naas and Carlow maces in the National Museum in Dublin, but both are quite small compared to the almost majestic 46 ½ inches of exquisitely worked silver which makes up the Athy mace.  Photographs of the mace which I had seen did not do it justice and I had not realised what a truly splendid piece it was until I saw it on exhibition in the San Antonio museum.  I returned a second day to take some photographs of the mace and accompanying this article is one of the many photos taken on that occasion showing the former District Council Chairman who was a successor to the Town Sovereigns of an earlier century standing alongside the Athy mace. 

The description given on the exhibition case reads “Mace of the Borough of Athy, John Williamson, Dublin 1746-1747 chased with the arms of George II and of Fitzgerald and the emblems of Great Britain, France and Ireland.  Presented by James Fitzgerald (1722-1773) 20th Earl of Kildare”.

The mace was included in an exhibition of Irish silver at the De Witt Wallace Decorative Arts Gallery in Williamsburgh, Virginia in 1992 and in the San Antonio Museum of Art in 1993-’94 where it still remains.  The catalogue for that exhibition entitled “The Genius of Irish Silver – a Texas private collection” includes a photograph of the Athy mace. 

The Athy mace now shares, for me at least, pride of place with the legendary Alamo as the star attraction in the Texan town of San Antonio.

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