The dissolution of Athy Town Council which will occur next month might well be seen, in time, as important in terms of the town’s history as the coming of the Grand Canal to Athy or the opening of the railway line over 160 years ago. The Grand Canal brought with it business opportunities with the opening of markets previously unreachable. The rich farmlands in south Kildare benefitted as a result and the subsequent creation of canal related employment gave jobs for many decades to several Athy families. The building of the railway line to Athy and onwards to Carlow took place during the years of the Great Famine. The resultant employment undoubtedly saved many families from the local Workhouse. While the new rail system brought an end to passenger traffic on the Grand Canal it also led to the rapid development of Athy allowing it to become a leading market town in the Irish midlands.
The malting business of the Minch family, later Minch Nortons, is the only present day reminder of that mid 19th century business surge which propelled Athy to the front ranks of Irish provincial towns. The local brick building industry which also benefitted hugely from the transport revolution has long gone, but evidence of its one time importance to the native construction industry can be seen in the many buildings constructed of Athy brick in Dublin and elsewhere throughout the midlands.
Throughout the various stages of developments which brought enormous economic benefits to Athy the town was represented by a municipal authority, firstly by a Borough Council and later by Town Commissioners. The Borough Council was admittedly not truly representative of the local population being comprised of individuals nominated solely by the Duke of Leinster. That situation was remedied with the election of Town Commissioners in the years immediately preceding the Great Famine. The Borough Council and the Town Commissioners with their successors Athy Urban District Council and Athy Town Council were agents for change in the town of Athy which was ever developing and expanding since its foundation over 800 years ago.
The loss of the Town Council means the loss of a unified corporate voice for the town at a time when local businesses require support and action on many fronts. The recent celebration of Athy’s municipal history brought to my attention some interesting documents which I was not aware of when writing some years ago an overview of the first 100 years of Athy Urban District Council. One of those documents was a hand written record of the successful candidates in the local election of the 16th of January, 1899. The fifteen Councillors, all local businessmen, were headed by Matthew J. Minch of Rockfield House who was a Member of Parliament for South Kildare as well as being chairman of the Urban District Council. His fellow Councillors were John A. Duncan, Justice of the Peace of Fortbarrington House, Thomas Plewman, Justice of the Peace of Woodstock House, Michael Doyle, Woodstock Street, Thomas J. Whelan, William Street, Michael Malone, Woodstock Street, Joseph P. Whelan of Offaly Street, Thomas Hickey of Leinster Street, W.P. St. John, Duke Street, Dr. Jeremiah O’Neill, Woodstock Street, John Orford, Leinster Street, Daniel Carbery, St. John’s, Patrick Knowles, Leinster Street, John Joseph McHugh, Duke Street and Michael Murphy, Leinster Street. Theirs was a Council replete with business experience which spoke volumes for the strength of local government in the days before County Managers were appointed.
Vincent Browne, journalist and television presenter, recently wrote of the deepening inadequacy of our democracy claiming that representative democracy is not government by the people. Rather he claimed it was democracy subcontracted to a political class aside from a periodic opportunity to exercise a feeble sovereignty via general elections. I wonder would he have extended that to include local elections which give us an opportunity to participate in the most basic form of government by the people, i.e. local government. Whatever his views we are surely the losers when it comes to the dissolution of the Town Council. Whether the void created after May can be adequately filled by public representatives sitting as a Council in Naas, only time will tell.
The outgoing Town Council consists of Councillors Thomas Redmond, Mark Wall, Aoife Breslin, Richard Daly, Mary O’Sullivan, Mark Dalton, John Lawler, Ger Kelly and James Mahon. They are the last link in a continuous chain extending back 499 years and to them as representatives of Councillors past we must extend our thanks and gratitude for their services to the local community.