Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Athy's Charters of 1515 and 1613

A recent letter to the Kildare Nationalist from the President of the local Chamber of Commerce regarding the Tuesday market in Athy came to mind when a few days ago I came across a translation of Athy’s Charter of 1515.  It was extracted from a manuscript volume of the Leinster family over 171 years ago by a person who signed his name at the end of the copperplate writing of the translation as M.J. McInerney.  The manuscript volume from which it was extracted contained details of the estates of the Earls of Kildare and the Charter was one of two such documents still in existence. 

Henry VIII granted the Charter in 1515 and it represents the first such Charter granted to Athy which is still available to historians.  However, it is believed that a Murage Charter may have issued previously permitting the town’s inhabitants to levy taxes to fund the building of the towns defensive walls but no record of that Charter has been found.  Henry’s Charter was followed 98 years later by the granting of another Charter by King James I, under which the borough of Athy was incorporated.  Another Charter was subsequently granted by James II, but it was founded on a supposed forfeiture by a judgment of the Exchequer and as far as is known was not acted upon. 

The Charter granted by Henry VIII created the office of Provost who was to be elected annually ‘on the feast of St. Michaels, the Archangel’ from amongst the local people.  Significantly the opening lines of the Charter indicate that it was granted by the King at the ‘special request of our well beloved cousin Gerald Fitz, Earl of Kildare, in consideration of his agreeable and fruitful service to us exhibited.’  The people of Athy were also given licence to erect ‘walls of stone and lime’ and later in the Charter it is stated ‘we do give and grant to the aforesaid provost and his successors forever for enclosing and paving the aforesaid town in opposition to the malice of our Irish enemies that they by themselves or their deputies may take and receive all the customs herein under written.’  There then follows a list of the customs payable within the town, for instance one penny for every horse or cow sold, one penny for every horse load of board sold and half a penny for every sack of corn sold.  The Provost was also empowered to levy such other levies or customs as were required, but in all instances was to account each year for the monies collected and spent to Gerald, Earl of Kildare, his heirs and successors.  Thus on the one hand, while the inhabitants elected the Provost to look after the towns affairs, he was accountable to the Earl of Kildare.  Was this, I wonder, an early example of the modern day county management versus elected representative scenario found today in Irish local government?

In terms of the market right, the Charter contains the following provisions ‘and also that the aforesaid Provost and his successors for the time being and the inhabitants of the said town may have one market weekly within the town aforesaid in a place deputed or ordained thereof by the aforesaid Gerald, Earl of Kildare Videlict (namely) on or throughout Tuesday.’  The Provost and his successors were also given the right of monitoring ‘all kinds of weights and measures within the town’ which gave the Provost control not only over the market traders, but also the shopkeepers of the town. 

The second Charter of 1613 replaced the Provost with an annually elected sovereign for which the electorate was confined to the burgesses of Athy.  This group of men (for no women ever held the position) were nominated by the Earl of Kildare (later the Duke of Leinster) and those nominated held the position for life or presumably until removed by the Earl.  The ‘rotten borough’ thus created and so called because it was controlled not by the townspeople but by the local landlord, the Earl of Kildare, would continue to administer the towns affairs until it was abolished in 1840.

Tolls or customs were collected on goods sold in the market and the level of those charges were reviewed each year by the members of the Borough Council.  That part of the report of the Commissioners on Municipal Corporations in Ireland relating to Athy and based on a public enquiry held in the town on the 3rd and 4th of October 1833 claimed ‘Tuesday and Saturday in each week are now market days.’  It did not give the authority for claiming Saturday as a second market day, but recent research confirms that Athy Town Commissioners at it’s meeting on the 2nd of August 1852 agreed that ‘a second market be established in Athy on every Saturday to commence on the first Saturday of September 1852.’

As early as 1813 Athy Borough Council was concerned at the falloff in market business and proposed to the Duke of Leinster the abolition of market tolls, other than for fair days, of which six were held every year in the town.  The Duke appears to have acceded to the Corporation’s request as by 1833 the earlier mentioned report confirmed that market tolls were imposed on fair days only.  The reason for the Corporation’s concern was that farmers who normally came to Athy market travelled to the nearby Carlow market to avoid turnpike charges which were payable at the entrance to the town of Athy.  While turnpike charges (an example of early 19th century road tolls!) existed in addition to market tolls, Athy’s market was in serious difficulty.  The market tolls were first to go, other than fair days, and some years later the turnpike tolls were also abolished.

Interestingly, in the light of the Chamber of Commerce letter calling on the Town Council to  make byelaws regulating the market, it seems that the local Council has forgotten that it’s predecessors made market byelaws in 1907 for this very purpose.  These byelaws were published in local newspapers on 1st July 1907 and in addition to setting out regulations for the operation of the market they also reimposed market tolls on goods sold in the market and reaffirmed Tuesday as the towns market day.  There was no mention of the Saturday market. 

The history of Athy market goes back to 1515 and the market tradition continues to this day 493 years after the youthful King Henry VIII first granted the market right to the people of Athy at the request of Gerald Earl of Kildare. 

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