I got a phone call last week from a person who remembered reading an article I wrote some years ago following my visit to the Texas town of San Antonio. While there I came across the Athy Mace which is now on display in San Antonio’s Museum of Art. My caller was flying out to the same Texas city and wanted to check the Museum details so that he could himself inspect the Mace.
Around the same time I received in the post a copy of the programme planned for the Carlow 800 Festival to celebrate the 800th anniversary of the building of Carlow Castle. What a pity I thought as we approach the 500th anniversary of the granting of Borough status for Athy that the successors to the medieval Borough, Athy Town Council, is about to be abolished.
We are now into the final year of the Town Council’s life and it’s last ever chairman, Councillor Thomas Redmond, was elected just two months ago. The loss of the Town Council will be a matter of huge importance in the history of the town, even if many might dispute the Council’s relevance or usefulness in today’s world.
Undoubtedly the Town Commissioners, the Urban District Council and the Town Council, all of whom in their time were successors to the original 16th century Borough Council, could point to many useful and worthwhile services provided in the town during their respective terms of office. The first piped water supply system came in 1907 at a time when unemployment, poverty and disease were the hallmark of life in Athy. Despite this the then Urban District Council members, by a majority vote, resisted the provision of a piped water supply system and delayed it’s implementation for several years ‘for fear of the cost to the local ratepayer.’
The delay in replacing the existing public pump water system resulted in several more deaths from sewerage contaminated water before the Council members reluctantly agreed to proceed with the piped water system from Modubeagh.
The next most valuable contribution by the Urban District Council to the development of the town was the provision of a sewerage system in the town. These two public utility services were undoubtedly the most important contribution to the wellbeing of the townspeople by any of the governing bodies of the town, extending back as far as the year of the first Charter granted to Athy in 1515.
The drive towards centralisation, so beloved of central authority, will deprive Athy and its people of an important element of self government which for all its faults had the merit of letting the local people have some say in their own destiny. You may well complain that the local Councils have consistently failed to exercise wisely whatever powers they possessed and that by default, if nothing else, local Councils have fallen into disrepute. Whatever your views on the effectiveness or otherwise of Athy Town Council the loss of municipal self governance after almost 500 years is unquestionably a sad loss for local democracy.
The chequered history of local government in Athy did not always represent a glorious chapter in the history of the town. The Borough Council of Athy, whose Mace is now in San Antonio, existed from 1515 to 1840. During that time successive Dukes of Leinster exercised complete control over those appointed to the Council. The electoral deficit resulted from the Duke’s manipulation of the powers granted in the town’s Charter which saw Dukes of Leinster nominating the members of the Borough Council. No elections were held and the powers of the Borough Council, including the power to return two Members of Parliament to represent Athy Borough, were exercised by the Council members at the behest of the Duke.
The undemocratic nature of the Borough Council’s operations were further signalled by the refusal to allow any member of the majority religion become a Borough Council member. It was not until the passing of the Emancipation Act that Colonel Thomas Fitzgerald of Geraldine House was nominated as the first ever Catholic member of Athy Borough Council. Indeed he was the only Catholic ever appointed to that body prior to its abolition in 1840.
Following the abolition of the Borough Council there was no municipal body in the town for a few years. A petition by the local people led to the establishment of Town Commissioners and the holding for the very first time of local elections for membership of the Town Commissioners. Thereafter elections were held on a regular basis for membership of the Commissioners, later the Urban District Council and more recently the Town Council. From next year the local people of Athy will vote to elect six Councillors from an area extending from Castledermot to Monasterevin to represent that area, including Athy, in the County Council which will sit in Naas.
For the first time in 499 years Athy will then no longer have its own Town Council.