The upcoming parliamentary elections give every Irish citizen on the Register of Electors the opportunity to participate in the democratic appointment of representatives to Dáil Eireann. It is a privilege which has been enjoyed by many for decades but for a time in our history the right to vote for our parliamentarians was restricted to very few.
When Athy was granted Borough status by Henry VIII it brought with it the right of the Borough Council to nominate two members of parliament. Despite the intention of those who drafted the charter the nomination rights were exercised exclusively by the members of Athy Borough Council acting on the instructions of the Earl of Kildare, later the Duke of Leinster. It was the same Earl or Duke who assumed to himself the exclusive right to nominate members of the Borough Council. Those nominated generally knew little about the town but nevertheless they held their positions for life.
Athy’s parliamentary representation came long after the Irish Parliament had ceased to sit in Castledermot where up to the time of King Henry VII it had met on at least 16 occasions. Naas and Kildare were other County Kildare venues in which 13th, 14th and 15th century parliaments also met.
The earliest extant records of MP’s for Athy are for the 1559 parliament when the local Borough was represented by Richard Mothill and Roland Cussyn. We know nothing of the first named but Cussyn was probably a relation of Richard Cussyn, Governor of Athy in 1575, whose name is inscribed on one of the sculptured stones set into the wall of Whites Castle.
A name once familiar to Athy people was that of the Weldon family of Kilmoroney. The first member of that family to represent Athy borough in parliament was Walter Weldon who in 1624 resided in St. Johns and was High Sheriff of the county. The Weldons had settled in Ireland at the end of the 16th century and Walter who died in 1634 was married to Jane, daughter of Reverend John Ryder, Bishop of Kildare. The Weldon family would again be represented in the list of parliamentarians for Athy Borough by William Weldon in 1661 and by 21 year old Walter Weldon in 1745.
The first Fitzgerald to represent Athy borough in parliament was William who lived in Athy and was appointed Deputy Lieutenant of the county by King James II. The next Fitzgerald to accept the nomination of the Borough Council was James, son of the 19th Earl of Kildare, who was only 19 years old when appointed in 1741. He resigned three years later on succeeding to the Earldom of Kildare. The Irish patriot, Lord Edward Fitzgerald, was the next member of the Duke of Leinster’s family to represent Athy borough. He was just 20 years old when nominated in 1783. He was followed 7 years later by Lord Henry Fitzgerald, son of James who was himself MP for Athy in 1741.
Another family whose members served on several occasions as MPs for Athy were the Burghs of Bert House and Oldtown, Naas. Thomas Burgh was MP in 1776, as was his cousin Thomas of Oldtown, Naas. Thomas served a second term as MP for Athy borough in the Parliament of 1783.
The last MPs for Athy were William Hare and his son Richard Hare, both from Cork. They were nominated for the 1797 Parliament after the Duke of Leinster disposed of his parliamentary nomination rights to the Hare family. Both of the Hares while representing Athy Borough supported the Act of Union, following which William Hare was granted the title of Baron of Ennismore. The Duke of Leinster also received financial compensation following the passing of the Act of Union in respect of his long standing right to nominate Members of Parliament for Athy Borough Council.
With the passing of the Act of Union the Irish Parliament was abolished and a reduced number of MPs represented the Irish counties at Westminster, London. For the next 26 years there was no parliamentary election in Kildare as only two nominations were received during that time for the two county seats. The Duke of Leinster’s family members, together with Robert La Touche of Harristown, were deemed elected to the seven parliaments held between 1801 and 1826.
It was the introduction of the secret Ballot Act of 1872 which changed the face of parliamentary representation in Ireland. The first Home Ruler, Charles Meldon, was elected for County Kildare in February 1874 and six years later James Leahy of Moate Lodge, Athy, another Home Ruler, joined him in parliament. Leahy was replaced by Matthew Minch of Athy in 1892 who contested that election as an anti Parnellite. Minch resigned in 1903 to be replaced by Denis Kilbride, formerly of Luggacurran who had previously sat as an MP for Kerry. Kilbride was returned uncontested at each subsequent election until 1918 when he was defeated by the Sinn Fein candidate Arthur O’Connor.
History informs us that the Parliamentary elections, whether to the Dáil or Westminster, gave the Irish people a limited say in the running of the country’s affairs, but nevertheless the right to vote is a precious part of our democracy and one which every right thinking person should exercise on election day.