Under the headline “Athy Anti Tithe Meeting”, the Leinster Express of the 20th May 1836 reported. “For several days in the town of Athy and surrounding country, unusual exertions were made to assemble the people for the double purpose of extinguished the tithe and obtaining corporate reform. Every little politician might be seen running about looking brim-full of something important while the following proclamation looked down from every wall and signpost in the town”.
“NOTICE – There will be a meeting held in this town on Tuesday, 24th May in the market square at two o’clock to petition parliament for corporate reform and the speedy and total extinction of the tithe”.
Tithe was a payment due to the church, nominally one tenth of ones earnings, which after the Reformation proved unpopular with Catholic’s as the tithe was paid solely for the benefit of the Anglican church. Daniel O’Connell supported by the catholic clergy campaigned for its abolition. O’Connell’s successful campaign for Catholic Emancipation encouraged the local people to seek changes in the tithe system while municipal reform and the appointment of Catholics to public office was another long term complaint of the catholic population. Under the Reform Act of 1793, membership of local authorities such as Athy Borough Council were nominally open to Catholics but none of the many borough councils in Ireland had chosen to enlarge the franchise.
The push for reform with regard to tithe’s and municipal corporations started with what is called the tithe war which erupted in Graiguenamanagh in County Kilkenny in November 1830. There the Tithe Proctor distrained the cattle of the local priest who with the approval of his bishop organised a resistance movement which soon spread throughout the midlands. There were several violent incidents involving tithe protestors and British soldiers which resulted in deaths and injuries. The most infamous incident occurred in Rathcormack when the Archdeacon of Cloyne attempted to collect a £2 tithe from a local widow. The Archdeacon accompanied by soldiers entered the widow’s cottage by a back window and in the resulting conflict 19 locals were killed and 35 injured.
Events in Athy by all accounts were less troublesome. The Leinster Express Report continued “Tuesday, 24th was market day – and the first indication of the great meeting was Mr. Holmes Biggam accompanied by a dozen urchins ……labouring hard to roll together some logs to form a rostrum in the potato and pig market …….on the logs was placed a solitary chair….. behind rolled the river barrow and before stood the church. Although it was announced, the people should meet at 2 o’clock, 3 came on and no appearance except Pat Doran of Castlemitchell House…. At last the committee issued from the Inn and took possession of the platform. On it we noticed Rev. John Lawler Parish Priest, Messrs. Biggam, G. Evans, James Perrin, S. Eves Miller, T. Dunne farmer, T. Peppard, T. Connors shop keeper, Mr. Keating publican, M. Commons corn buyer, J. Kelly Nicholastown horse dealer and Matthew Lawler with a few others. Mr. Eves took the chair and referring to a previous meeting regretted that nothing had been done for them since. They would now he claimed teach the Lords a lesson and that the abominable tithe should be totally abolished”.
The widespread opposition to tithes eventually secured the passage of the Tithe Rentcharge of 1838 which satisfied those opposed to tithes as it became a charge on rent payable by the head landlord.
Municipal Reform was already in hand when the Athy meeting took place in March 1838. The previous year a Bill was introduced in the House of Commons and enacted five years later following an enquiry into the conduct of municipal corporations in Ireland. It found, as in Athy, that the existing Borough Councils were corrupt bastions of Protestantism and so fifty eight of those boroughs including Athy’s Borough Council, were abolished in 1840. The enquiry reported in relation to Athy that while the town charter provided for all the inhabitants of the town to be the commonality of the borough, the local people were excluded from the corporation and that no evidence could be found of any application for the freedom of the corporation to which every person born in the town was entitled. It also reported “there is not or has been in modern times any Roman Catholic a freeman except Colonel Fitzgerald who was admitted to his freedom in 1831”.
The Parish Priest who joined the anti tithe platform in May 1936 would later stand for election to the Town Commissioners which replaced the Borough Council in 1842. Elected with the Parish Priest at that first ever Council election was the local Rector Rev. Frederick Trench. Neither clergymen stood for election after their initial foray into local politics.