Some weeks ago I spent a few days in the Belfast Public Record Office going through the Leinster Papers of which there are 28 volumes with approximately 1,800 documents. They are just a small part of the vast range of material which was accumulated by successive generations of the FitzGerald family. The larger part of the FitzGerald family papers are held in our own National Library in Dublin, while Trinity College also has a substantial holding of those papers.
In the few days available to me I had no more than an opportunity to scan the material, paying as much time as I could to material relating to Athy. Of particular interest was the Athy Borough Council Minute book which was commenced in 1738. It is the oldest extant record of the workings of what was the forerunner of our present Town Council. Some years ago during the Town clerkship of Jimmy O’Higgins I had the opportunity to study in detail the Council Minute Books then held in the local Town Hall. They dated from 1784 and proved to be an interesting insight into the evolution of local Government in Athy over the centuries.
The 1738-1783 Minute Book bore the book plate of Carton Library and began with the record of the election on 24th June 1738 of the Town Sovereign, Arthur Weldon and the Town Bailiffs. The Oaths of the Sovereign, together with the Oaths of Allegiance and Abjuration were also set out in full in the Minute Book. The latter Oath required the Oath taker to deny the Pope’s spiritual and temporal authority and to repudiate Roman Catholic doctrine while acknowledging the English King as the Supreme Head of the Union in Ireland and England. The Sovereign and the other Town Corporation officials were elected by the Town Burgesses who in turn were appointed that position by the head of the FitzGerald family.
The Minute Book records the annual election of the Sovereign which took place as required by the Town Charter on 24th June each year. However, it also records that on 16th October 1738 Graham Bradford was convicted of perjury in the Courts and transported to America. There were quite a few Bradfords named in the Minute Book, apart from the luckless Graham including William Bradford who was elected a Burgess of Athy in 1738 and Alexander Bradford who apparently was Sovereign prior to Weldon’s election.
An entry for 15th November 1746 showed that a Court Leet was held before Ed Harman, Town Sovereign. This was a manorial court which tried petty offences committed in the town and was an addition to the ordinary crown courts. It was a court of privilege which originally would have been granted to the Manor of Woodstock and which apparently continued under the Charter which created the Borough Council. Apart from trying minor criminal offices the Court Leet also performed the important task of ensuring that the quality and quantity of bread and ale produced and sold within the town of Athy was of an acceptable standard.
The Court Leet was a three man court which sat with a jury and the entries in the Borough Minute Book indicate that this Court sat once a year, the last such Court being held so far as the Minute Book records was in 1754.
The free Burgesses of Athy as listed in the Minute Book on 15th May 1746 were William Bradford, Sovereign; Arthur Weldon, John Berry, George Bradford, Nicholas Alyward, Thomas Keating, Rev. Dr. Alex Bradford, Robert Piercy, Boyle Spence, Edward Harman, Thomas Burgh and Robert Downes.
That same year charges were brought against Thomas Keating of acting contrary to the duties of his office insofar as he claimed to act as the Town Sovereign when not elected to do so. Apparently Keating purported to elect Cadogan Keating of Narramore (sic) as a burgess in place of John Jackson deceased. The proceedings against Thomas Keating were initiated by the posting of a notice on the Town Hall door by the Town Clerk, William Willcock, and when Keating failed to respond he was removed as a free burgess of the town. Three of his colleagues, John Berry, Robert Piercy and Nicholas Alyward also lost their place as burgesses of the town.
The shenanigans in the Borough Council must have prompted James, the Earl of Kildare, to take a greater interest in the town affairs for on 24th June 1748 we find him taking up the position as Town Sovereign of Athy.
The Reverend Dr. Dan Letablere first took on the role of Town Sovereign in 1754 and he held the position of the first citizen of Athy on four occasions, the last time in 1765. One of the more important powers exercised by the burgesses of Athy who were appointed by the Earl of Kildare was to elect two Members of Parliament to represent Athy Borough in the Irish House of Parliament. The Earl of course had complete control over the Borough Council and consequently the Members of Parliament returned for Athy were always those of the Earl’s choosing. One such person was William Smith, who the Minute Book records was elected Member of Parliament on 10th January 1762. The following year John Hill is noted as the Town Clerk and he presumably was in office when in 1765 the local Borough Council suffered the embarrassment of their nominee for Town Sovereign effectively ignoring that nomination. The appointee was Colonel Robert Sangford Junior who was elected Sovereign on 24th June 1765 but who was reported three months later not to have attended ‘or offering himself to be sworn in – occasioned by a severe attack of the gout’.
The annual election of the Town Sovereign was also accompanied by the election of bailiffs, recorder and a host of other civic office holders. All office holders had to take in addition to their particular office oath, the earlier mentioned oaths of Adjuration and Allegiance.
1771 saw the election of George Daker as Town Sovereign for the first time. Daker was the proprietor of an extensive tanyard which was located on the west bank of the River Barrow near the end of the present Convent Lane. The lane leading to the tanyard was known as Tanyard Lane, which name changed with the arrival of the Dominicans when they moved from what is now Kirwans Lane, off Leinster Street.
The Athy Borough Council Minute Book for whatever reason was in the possession of the Duke of Leinster when some of his papers were donated to the Northern Ireland Public Records Office. There is no record of the workings of the Council prior to 1738 and the Minute Books from 1783 onwards are, I believe, in the safe keeping of Kildare County Library. They provide a fascinating, if somewhat incomplete record, of local government in this town stretching back almost 300 years.
Last Thursday several local singers and musicians gave freely of their time and talents to entertain a capacity audience in the Dominican Church in aid of the local St. Vincent de Paul conference. By general consensus it was a very enjoyable concert and the artists involved are to be congratulated for so generously sharing their talents to help such a worthy cause. Jacinta O’Donnell, Herbert Ensemble, Karen Plewman, Sullivan Brothers and Jack L all readily agreed to take part in the concert which was organised by Athy Lions Club. The inclusion of Jack L in the programme of course guaranteed a massive boost in ticket sales. Mention must also be made of Jack’s father Sean Loughman who joined his talented son for a couple of numbers which had the audience rising to their feet in appreciation. Thanks to everyone involved on the night.