When the Anglo Normans settled in the area now known as south County Kildare their early settlements were to be found near to the River Barrow at Ardree, Athy and Rheban with an inland settlement at Ardscull. These villages, populated by French speaking settlers, in time attracted Gaelic speaking Irish folk who occupied low class positions such as betaghs or villeins who served the manorial lords. Today three of those once thriving settlements are no more having been consigned to history which describes them as ‘deserted villages’.
The exception is Athy. Why did the medieval village of Athy prosper and develop into a town when the neighbouring villages died away? Was it because of its location on an important crossing on the River Barrow and the fact that it was garrisoned as the first line of defence for those living within the Pale? It was for that reason that the White Castle was built in 1417 to house a garrison to protect the bridge of Athy.
I have come to the conclusion that amongst the many reasons for the continued existence of Athy when other neighbouring villages died away was the part played by the granting of royal charters to Athy. A charter was a royal writ confirming rights and privileges and the first of several charters granted to Athy was that of King Henry VIII in 1515. It was granted to the village of Athy at the request of Gerald Fitzgerald, Earl of Kildare ‘for the greatest safety of Athy which lies on the frontiers of the Marches of our Irish enemies’. Those same Irish usually referred to in medieval texts as ‘the wild Irish’ attacked and burned the village of Athy on four occasions in the 14th century.
The 1515 Charter allowed the inhabitants of Athy ‘to build and strengthen the town with fosses and walls of stone and lime’. The work was to be controlled by a Provost elected annually on the feast of St. Michael the Archangel (September 29th) and financed by customs/tolls collected in the market allowed under the Charter to be held each Tuesday in the village. This was the first reference to the local market which is still held every Tuesday in Emily Square which in times past was known as ‘Market Square’. While the Charter of 1515 declared the Provost and the inhabitants of Athy to be a body incorporate there is no reference to the appointment or election of borough officials.
In a letter written in 1552 by Ossory to Cromwell reference is made to ‘the gates of the Earl’s town of Athy’. Further references in 1598 to Castledermot and Athy ‘as the only important towns of Kildare walled and now ruined’ confirm that the Charter of 1515 did result in the walling of Athy. The town walls were constructed on the east side of the River Barrow and ran in a semi circular formation from the river across Preston’s Gate (now Offaly Street) across High Street (now Leinster Street) to Chapel Lane and from there via Stanhope Place to the river. The last visible remains of the medieval walls were removed in 1860 when the gateway known as Preston’s Gate then leading into the street, also called Preston’s Gate, was pulled down.
In 1613 James I in an effort to further the plantation programme and to secure a Protestant Parliamentary majority created 46 new borough Councils in Ireland. Amongst them was Athy Borough Council. The 1613 Charter allowed for the appointment of a Sovereign and various borough officials. It also provided for the appointment of 12 Burgesses who held office for life and who constituted the Borough Council with the right to nominate two Members of Parliament. Interestingly the Charter also authorised Athy Borough to have a Guild of Merchants ‘to better serve for the success of the Borough’.
Catholics were excluded from membership of the borough, as were Presbyterians until 1780, and the first and only Catholics elected as a Burgess of Athy was Thomas Fitzgerald of Geraldine House who was elected in 1831. Nine years later Athy Borough Council with a number of other so called ‘rotten Boroughs’ was abolished.
Recently I came across another Athy Charter granted in 1689 by the Catholic King James II. Apparently it was never accepted by the borough masters of Athy following the defeat of James II two years later by William of Orange at the Battle of the Boyne. In a report of 1833 by the Commissioners of Municipal Corporations it was claimed that the Charter of 1689 was ‘founded upon a supposed forfeiture by a judgment of the Exchequer and has not been acted upon at least within the memory of any living person and the Charter of 1613 is the governing charter’.
The charters granted to Athy helped to ensure the survival of the village while other neighbouring villages died. This despite the undemocratic nature of the Borough Council’s composition which was not addressed until the Borough Council was abolished in 1840 and subsequently replaced by Town Commissioners elected by popular mandate.