After 499 years of municipal government Athy Town Council, successor to Athy Urban District Council, Athy Town Commissioners and Athy Borough Council will shortly be no more. The opportunity to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the granting of Athy’s first Charter has been denied to us. On many levels the disbandment of town councils is a regrettable retrograde step. Even as I pen this article, just two days before our town council goes out of business, there is still huge uncertainty as to how Kildare County Council will deal with the competing needs and aspirations of the different urban centres within the county. The desire for decentralisation, which was a topic of discussion and debate in the 1960s and later, has ended in a move towards centralisation and abandonment of the local government model which saw governments and state departments share authority with local communities.
In recent weeks and at a critical time in the run up to the local elections it was announced that funding was being provided for the Southern Distributor Road, or what we have in the past called the Outer Relief Road. A subsequent press report described how one million euro was being provided to progress the road proposal. The ring fencing of the 30 or 40 million euro necessary to build the road was not apparently on offer so we may have to wait for another election to get the additional funding for the long awaited road works.
The refusal of Athy Urban District Council and its successor, Athy Town Council, to move away from the Inner Relief Road project in favour of the Outer Relief Road was perhaps the greatest mistake made by some of our elected Councillors. Their failure to act on the wishes of the majority of the local people who supported the Outer Relief Road ended in the Planning Appeal Board’s decision to reject the Council’s plan for an Inner Relief Road. Further delay was occasioned by a fruitless and no doubt costly judicial review application by the local authority to the High Court in an attempt to overturn the Planning Appeal Board’s decision.
As time passed the Celtic Tiger disappeared, and so did the money which was once so readily available for major road works. By the time Kildare County Council and Athy Town Council came to realise that the Outer Relief Road was the best option, funding was no longer available. The opportunity had been lost and now we must I presume rely on forthcoming elections to squeeze funding from a shrunken public purse for a road project which is long overdue.
With the abolition of Athy Town Council their minute books will, I understand, be archived in the County Library in Newbridge. The earliest minute book for the years 1738-1783 is in the Public Records Office in Belfast and records the limited work of the Sovereigns of Athy and the 12 town burgesses, all of whom were nominated by the head of the Kildare family. Court Leets, presided over by the town sovereign, a feature of 18th century local government in Athy, were mentioned in the minute book. This was a court which tried petty offences and also regulated the production of bread and ale within the town boundary. It was a function no longer exercised by the town commissioners of the 19th century. In October 1887 the minute book of the town commissioners recorded the appointment of a committee to form a fire brigade in the town. Agreement was reached to purchase 12 zinc buckets and a barrel or tub ‘for the better working of the fire engine’.
When we come to Athy Urban District Council at the start of the 20th century we find the Council after a long period of opposition agreeing to take corrective action in relation to periodic typhoid outbreaks in the town by providing a supply of good water and a sewerage system for the people of Athy.
The Town Council of this century saw many of its functions taken over by Kildare County Council and the emergence of voluntary housing associations. In turn the Council sought to exercise a role in the economic regeneration of the town, complemented by a similar role in the social and cultural life of the town. A limited measure of success in both roles marked the final years of Athy Town Council.
After 499 years of town government we are left with what my late colleague Paddy Wright often described as ‘the fag end of the county’, only now it will be governed from Naas.