Thursday, May 14, 2015

Athy's charters

One of the greatest links with our historic past was lost when Athy Town Council was abolished two years ago.  As successor to Athy Urban District Council and the earlier Town Commissioners it was in direct line to the Corporation established by Henry VIII’s Charter of 1515. 

That first regal Charter incorporated the inhabitants of Athy as a body corporate and provided for the election of a Provost with wide ranging powers which he was free to exercise without interference from ‘sheriff or other minister’.  Amongst the many powers granted to the Provost was ‘cognisance and pleas of infangthief and outfangthief’.  Infangthief meant literally the right to seize and prosecute a thief caught within the town’s boundaries, while outfangthief extended those powers to pursue thieves outside the town’s jurisdiction and if caught, the right to try the thief before the Provost.  Perhaps the most important provision of that Charter when viewed in 2015 was the right of the Provost and his successors to hold a weekly market in Athy.  That Charter was granted by King Henry VIII at the express request of Gerald Fitzgerald, Earl of Kildare.

Fast forward almost 100 years to 1611 when King James I, son of Mary Queen of Scots at the request of Sir Robert Digby, a member of the Irish Privy Council, granted a further Charter to the ‘village of Athy’, the area of which was to measured one half mile in each direction from ‘the White Castle’ in the village.  Rigby was a Member of Parliament for Athy in 1613 and had married Lettice, daughter of Gerald Fitzgerald.  His fellow M.P. was Walter Weldon of St. Johns. 

The importance of James’ Charter lay in the provision for the Borough of Athy to be governed by burgesses elected to the Council and the election of two burgesses of Athy as Members of Parliament.  The first citizen heretofore known as the Provost of Athy was thereafter to be called the Sovereign of Athy.  His duties and responsibilities largely coincided with that of his predecessor, the Provost, and successive Sovereigns would control the affairs of the Borough Council until the abolition of that body in 1840. 

Interestingly I have come across another and later Charter apparently granted by the Catholic king, James II, in 1689.  The grant recites that Athy was of old a borough but that by judgment of the Court Exchequer in Ireland its privileges had been seized by the King.  The Charter appointed Robert Fitzgerald as Sovereign of the Borough, James Fitzgerald and John Hoey as bailiffs as well as twenty Burgesses, amongst whom were Sir Maurice Eustace and Sir Gregory Byrne.   However, in the report of the Commission of Municipal Corporations on the Borough of Athy dated October 1833 it is stated that the 1689 Charter ‘was founded on a supposed forfeiture by a Judgment of the Exchequer and had not been acted upon at least within the memory of any living person and accordingly the Charter of 1613 is the governing Charter for Athy.’

Kildare County Council are now the successors to the old Borough of Athy and in turn successors to those bodies which came after the abolition of the borough in 1840.  The line of succession thus comes directly from the Borough of Athy, extending through the Town Commission, the Urban District Council and the Town Council. 

I have only been able to identify two of the Athy Provosts elected before that office was replaced by the Sovereign in 1613.  Richard Cossen was elected in 1575 (this date recorded on a sculptured stone inset into the wall of White’s Castle) and in 1598 a Mr. Smith was identified in the Statute of Ireland 1598 as the Provost for that year.  The first Sovereign elected under the 1613 Charter was Richard Walker and the last to hold that position on the abolition of the office in 1840 was Reverend Frederick Trench, the local Church of England Minister.  When Athy Town Commissioners were established in 1842 its first chairman was local general practitioner, Dr. Thomas Kynsey.  Its last chairman at the time the Town Commissioners were replaced by the Urban District Council was Matthew J. Minch of Rockfield House.  He went on to become first chairman of Athy Urban District Council established in 1900.  The last chairman of Athy Council, abolished in 2013, was Thomas Redmond.

During the week a Christian Brothers school colleague of mine died.  Martin Townsend, formerly of Duke Street, died tragically and regrettably I was away from Athy and unable to attend his funeral.  I remember with fondness the Martin of my school going days and extend my sympathy to his sisters on his passing.

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