Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Athy in the early decades of the 19th century

Sporadic outbursts of ribbonmen activity in and around the south Kildare area was a common enough feature of life in the early part of the 19th century.  The burning of the Athy residence of Chief Constable Dolman in 1825 was however regarded as an isolated incident for which two local men, Ging and Hutchinson, were arrested.  Conditions in the area continued to improve to the extent that the local Yeomanry were disbanded just 30 years after the ’98 Rebellion.  The Duke of Leinster was sufficiently encouraged to embark on a building project in Athy.  In July 1825 Michael Carey, a local man, noted that the Duke had laid out “Coffey’s ground for his lodge”.  The lodge built on the Carlow Road site was a hunting and fishing lodge which to this day is known as Dukes Lodge.


Despite the earlier confidence which led to the disbandment of the local Yeomanry the British Prime Minister Wellington, felt it necessary to advise the King that Ireland was on the verge of rebellion which could only be resolved by the granting of Catholic Emancipation.  Sir Robert Peel, who succeeded Wellington as Prime Minister, introduced in the House of Commons the Catholic Relief Bill which was enacted in August 1829 as an “Act for the Relief of His Majesty’s Roman Catholic Subjects”.


Whether in celebration of Catholic Emancipation or a simple act of defiance a green flag with white ribbons at the top was erected on a pole in the centre of Athy.  If it was an act of defiance it was the only apparent evidence of anti-Government activity in Athy about that time.  The countryside had become even more peaceful than before no doubt due to the setting up of the County Constabulary.  Col. Fitzgerald of Geraldine House, who had been the subject of complaints by Thomas Rawson during the ’98 Rebellion, had been stood down as a Magistrate.  As a Catholic Fitzgerald, while not involved in rebellious activity, was nevertheless suspected of sympathising with the leaders of the United Irishmen.  With the passing of Catholic Emancipation, a measure deemed necessary to forestall another rebellion, the way was open for Catholic gentry at least to be accommodated amongst the ruling classes.  Col. Fitzgerald was elected a Burgess of Athy Borough Council in 1832 and elected Town Sovereign the same year.  The following year he was reinstated to his position as a Magistrate.


1832 was also the year that cholera was reported, firstly in Belfast on the 15th of March and ten days later in Dublin.  By the middle of the year cholera had struck Athy and would remain a threat to the townspeople for many months.  The earlier mentioned Michael Carey noted that cholera “raged in Athy from May to November 1832”.  He was later to report that five residents of Barrack Street died of cholera on the 7th of February 1833.


Despite the difficulties of that time local man Mark Cross who lived in Emily Square was busily engaged in several building projects in the town.  He built small houses in Janeville Lane and Connolly’s Lane which was located off Meeting Lane.  These houses almost 100 years after they were built would be declared unfit for human habitation during the slum clearance programmes of the 1930’s.  Mark Cross was also recorded as building the Freemasons Hall in January 1842.  I have never come across any other reference to this building and wonder where it was located.


Perhaps the most important building projects in Athy at that time were the construction of the Fever Hospital, the new Town Jail and the Workhouse.  The building of the Fever Hospital was financed by a Mr. Keating who following the burning of his house in Market Square was the recipient of a public subscription totalling £300.  Mr. Kavanagh generously donated the money so that a local Fever Hospital could be built.  The new Town Jail, replacing the prison quarters in Whites Castle, was opened in 1830 and 14 years later Athy’s Workhouse was opened.


1832 was also the year of Reform which for Ireland saw the passing of the Representation Of The People (Ireland) Act.  This Act increased Irish representation in the House of Commons from 100 to 105 members of Parliament while the introduction of the £10 franchise in Irish Boroughs increased the numbers of those entitled to vote.  Athy Borough Council, which had existed from 1515 and which was represented in Parliament by two Members of Parliament from 1613, was abolished in 1840.  The Town Commissioners elections, which were held in Athy soon thereafter, gave local business people their first opportunity to participate in a local election process.  That exercise kindled a spirit of independence which developed over the years and ultimately led to the formation of the Irish Free State.

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