Thursday, July 25, 1996

First Citizens of Athy

There has been a Town Council in Athy since at least 1515. In that year King Henry VIII granted a Charter to the town empowering the election of a town Provost "to guard and govern the said town". Unfortunately the municipal records of the 16th century are not available so little is known of the persons who held the position of Provost in Athy during that time. Only two are known to us - Richard Cossen who took up office on the Feast Day of St. Michael the Archangel in 1575 and Mr. Smith referred to as Sovereign of Athye in 1598.

The Provost elected annually was responsible for governing the town in addition to acting as Coroner, Justice of the Peace, Weights and Measure Inspector and Clerk of the Town Market. These were all important functions especially so when considered that the office holder exercised his authority in a developing market town.

In 1613 King James I created more Borough Councils throughout Ireland and in some instances as in Athy granted new Charters. The effect of his new Charter for Athy was to limit the right to elect the first citizen of the town to a small number of townspeople where before that right was exercised by the entire population. The holder of the office formerly referred to as the Town Provost was thereafter to be known as the Town Sovereign. The Town Sovereign was elected annually on the Feast of St. Michael by the twelve Burgesses of the town, all of whom had been nominated to their position by the Duke of Leinster. The office was an unpaid position and remained so until 1824 when salaries were fixed for all town officials in Athy.

The earliest municipal records relating to Athy go back to the middle of the 18th century and they show that many interesting people have held the rank of First Citizen. The Earl of Kildare was Sovereign in 1750 while his successor Frederick Augustus the Duke of Leinster was Sovereign on four occasions between 1814 and 1826. George Daker, the owner of an extensive tannery near the banks of the River Barrow and to the rear of the present Convent Lane, was Sovereign of Athy in 1778, 1783 and again in 1789. After his death the tannery closed down resulting in substantial loss of employment in Athy.

John Stoyte who was the Duke of Leinster's agent in Athy was Sovereign during the year of rebellion in 1798 and again in 1802. He had lived in Maynooth and his house there now forms part of the Maynooth College complex. Members of the Weldon family of St. John's and later of Kilmoroney House were Sovereigns of Athy during various periods in the 18th and last century. Arthur Weldon occupied the position in 1751 and Rev. Anthony Weldon was Sovereign on four occasions between 1781 and 1800. Indeed he died in office and was replaced by Lewis Mansergh for whom Riversdale House was built in 1780. This magnificent house was later acquired by the Dominican Order and remained an important part of the building heritage of the town until all but its ground floor was demolished in 1965 or thereabouts.

A man often mentioned in relation to Athy and the 1798 Rebellion was Sovereign of the town in 1807 and again in 1816. Glassealy resident Thomas James Rawson was once described by Thomas Fitzgerald of Geraldine House as "a man of the lowest order, the offal of a dunghill". Rawson was intensely disliked because of his involvement in the public floggings in Athy during the 1798 Rebellion in which he took a prominent part. Indeed Fitzgerald claimed that Rawson "would seat himself in a chair in the centre of a ring formed around the triangles, the miserable victims kneeling under the triangles until they would be spotted with the blood of the others". Rawson died while holding the office of Town Sovereign in 1816.

Rev. Frederick Trench was Sovereign of Athy when the office was abolished with the passing of the Municipal Corporation Act of 1840. Trench who was Rector of St. Michael's Church of Ireland, Athy served four terms in that position and is remembered by a handsome marble pulpit in St. Michael's Church erected after his death in 1860. Trench's death at Prestons Gate in Offaly Street, when he was thrown from his horse and trap, led to the immediately removal of the last portion of the medieval walls of Athy.

Following the abolition of the Borough of Athy established by King James I Charter of 1613 Town Commissioners were elected for the first time. Amongst those elected to the first Town Commissioners was the local Rector Rev. F.S. Trench and the local Parish Priest. Henry Hannon of the malting family was Chairman of the Commissioners as the first citizen was then known, firstly in the year of the Famine 1848 and for the fourth and last time in 1873. Alexander Duncan, draper of Duke Street and resident of Tonlegee House was Chairman on three occasions between 1852 and 1879. To commemorate his final term of office he donated a beautiful carved oak chair to the Town Council. It can be seen today in the Museum Room in the Town Hall. Interestingly enough his son John A. Duncan was Chairman in 1906, a feat also achieved by Dr. Jeremiah O'Neill, Chairman from 1912 to 1914 and his son P.J. O'Neill, Solicitor, who was Chairman in 1954.

Closer to our time the position of first citizen was held by men such as Patrick Dooley of Leinster Street from 1929 to 1936, M.G. Nolan of Duke Street and Paddy Dooley former T.D. for Co. Kildare. Mrs. Megan Maguire who was Chairperson in 1975 was the first woman to be elected to that office. Ms. Bridget Darby, Principal teacher in Churchtown National School and resident of Leinster Street held the honour of being the first woman elected to the local Urban District Council.

Chairing meetings of the Borough Council, Town Commissioners or Urban Councils seems to have been a relatively straightforward function in the years past. However times have changed and accounts of Thomas J. Rawson sitting amongst the triangle while Rebels were flogged bear more than a passing resemblance to the present debating forays experienced in Athy Urban District Council.

Thursday, July 11, 1996

Quakers Records Relating to Famine Relief in County Kildare

I attended a very pleasant function last week in the Quaker Meeting House, Ballytore which now doubles as the Village Library. Hosted by the County Kildare Famine Commemoration Committee the occasion was the opening of an exhibition on Quaker Famine Relief in County Kildare and the publication of a very limited edition of a two volume work of the same title.

Rob Goodbody of the Rathmichael Historical Society did the honours on the night, officially opening the exhibition and giving his listeners an interesting insight into Quaker Relief in the County. With the name Goodbody it comes as no surprise that he himself is a member of the Society of Friends and is therefore well placed to deal with the Society's contribution during the famine years. Indeed he has published two booklets on the topic entitled "A Suitable Channel" and "On The Borders of the Pale". I had not met Rob Goodbody until that evening but I was familiar with his published works and knew of his involvement with the Rathmichael Historical Society. Married to a granddaughter of Rex Hannon, formerly of Ardreigh, Athy, you can well imagine my interest in his talk given that a Hannon once sat in the very room in which I am presently penning this piece.

The exhibition itself was a delightful if somewhat eclectic insight into the social life of the Quaker community in Ballytore in South Kildare with particular emphasis on their involvement in local famine relief work. The printed volumes prepared by FAS trainees under the direction of Mary Carroll and Karl Kiely contain all the County Kildare correspondence extracted from the Society of Friends Relief of Distress papers which are stored in the National Archives, Dublin. They have reproduced the originals of these letters and prepared transcripts for ease of use. The letters cover the entire County but of particular interest to us are the letters and returns relating to Athy and South Kildare. For instance on the 16th January 1847 the local Relief Committee for Athy forwarded an application for assistance addressed to the Central Relief Committee of the Society of Friends. Its signatories included Thomas Jameson, Clerk of the Workhouse, Rev. Thomas Greene, C.C., Hon. Sec. of the Relief Committee and Mark Cross described as Chairman of the Sub-Committee of whom I wrote recently as the builder of houses in Janeville and Connolly Lane in 1872. Other signatories were Sam Eves, Robert Molloy and Patrick Commins.

The application indicated that 2,000 persons in 450 families in the Athy area were in need of public relief. Only one third of the able bodied labourers in the area were employed at an average wage of one shilling per day. The other two thirds, or 5,000, men were employed on Public Works. Despite this all the men employed were barely able in most cases to provide one meal a day for their families. The lack of food gave rise to numerous cases of dysentery in the area as did the use of turnips for human consumption.

As at January 1847 the sum of £320 had been raised by way of private subscriptions towards relief of distress in the area. However no Government grants had been received nor had any relief agency offered help to the Athy people. Of the sum collected locally a total of £12 had been donated by absentee land owners from South Kildare. The monies collected had been used to purchase Indian cornmeal, rice and straw for bedding.

A soup kitchen was set up in the town on 6th June 1847 but just before that on the 28th of May, Fr. Thomas Greene, C.C., submitted another application to the Central Relief Committee of the Society of Friends on behalf of the Athy area. He confirmed that the Public Works which had given employment in the area had been suspended two weeks previously. The local Relief Committees weekly expenses had increased from £40 to £110 as a result. He also advised that the British Relief Association had opened a store in the town supplying Relief Committees within a twenty mile radius of the town with Indian meal at £17 per tonne. There was approximately 600 tonnes of meal available for sale with the price to Relief Committees pitched at about 6% below the normal market price. At the same time the price of rice had rocketed to £30 per tonne and had ceased to be supplied.

A meeting of all land owners was arranged for the beginning of June 1847 to encourage them to give employment to local men as by now it was estimated that almost 3,000 persons were in need of help from the Relief Committee. Fr. Greene referred to the lack of employment in the area and pointed out that the only work available was in the local brickyards. "The vast majority of the men are idle, wandering around in search of relief", he wrote.

Copies of the Volumes from which I have extracted the above information will be available in all Libraries in the County. They offer a rare insight into the misery and hardship of the famine times and offer a poignant reminder of a past which up to now had been lost to us.

Thursday, July 4, 1996

Gaelic League Athy

I am often asked from where and how I get the information for the weekly Eye on the Past. Much of it I have to confess comes from years of accumulating apparently useless bits and pieces about Athy. On their own they gave little insight into the secrets of our past but occasionally the jig-saw falls into place and what were once individual scraps of information, mesh together to provide a chronological or thematic story.

Such happened this week when I was given a small black notebook, the inside cover of which bore in copperplate handwriting the words "Athy Branch of Gaelic League - Minutes of Meetings". In perusing the Minute Books of the local Urban District Council and reading back issues of local newspapers I have come across several references to the Gaelic League in Athy. With the Minute Book I could now hope to put some resemblance of order on the various pieces of information I had gleaned over the years. expect

The first meeting of the local branch was held on 31st January 1919 in the Technical School. Strictly speaking the Minute Book records that the meeting was called "to revive the local branch of the Gaelic League" clearly indicating that the League had an earlier existence in Athy. But when, I do not know. Incidentally the Technical School which was the venue of that meeting was located in Stanhope Place and had been built in 1907 next to the C.Y.M.S. building which occupied a former school building at the corner of Stanhope Street and Stanhope Place.

Using the Technical School for the meeting was surprising given that on the 2nd of December 1918 the Urban District Council had passed a Motion which demonstrated that at least one member of the Technical Committee was not in agreement with the promotion of the Irish language. That Resolution condemned Mr. T. Hickey, J.P. a member of the Council's Technical Committee for imposing a fine at the local petty sessions on the Irish teacher in the local Technical School who signed his named in Irish.

That "revival" meeting of the Gaelic League was attended by Miss Bridget Darby, Miss O'Loughlin, Miss Kealy, Miss Timmons, Tadgh O'Shea, Michael Dooley, John Bradley, James Kealy and John Gibbons. Michael Dooley of Duke Street was elected President, Miss Darby Treasurer and James Kealy Secretary. Not at that meeting but appointed to a sub-committee were Brothers Hoctor and Egan of the local Christian Brothers Schools.

Subsequent meetings of the Gaelic League were attended by Joe May, Patrick McEvoy, William Mahon, J. Whelan, J.J. O'Byrne, Ed Nolan, J. Hickey, John Hayden, Dick Candy, P. Doyle and Mr. Scully. After a number of meetings held in the Technical School the League moved to the Ancient Order of Hibernian Rooms in Duke Street. The Branch members were greatly concerned with finances during the early months and a concert in the Town Hall on the 17th of March 1919 realised £60.00 profit while a flag day raised a further £9.00. An application from the newly formed Gaelic League branch in Barrowhouse for some funding from their Athy colleagues was rebuffed but later on it was agreed to share with them the proceeds of a Ceile in the Town Hall provided that it was well supported by the Barrowhouse people.

In early April 1919 the Gaelic League sent a deputation consisting of Rev. Fr. Sheridan C.C., Castledermot, Michael Dooley, Athy, and Mr. Price, Language Organiser, Carlow to a local Urban District Council meeting. Following this the Council agreed to have all Council cheques signed in the Irish language and all "printing on the official notepaper and bill heads and the names of the streets printed in the Irish language as well as in English". It is no surprise to find that the Gaelic League had to write to the Council one year later asking when the Irish notepaper and the name of the streets in Irish would be provided. The present Urban District Council has Irish headed notepaper but to my knowledge Athy has never had Irish street names.

Miss Darby, as Treasurer of the local branch, was consistently reminding the members of their impending bankruptcy. It seemed never to have happened but equally a shortage of funds restricted their activities in relation to the promotion of the Irish language. A Feis Committee was established in Athy early in 1919 in connection with a Feis or an aeriocht planned for the local football pitch on the Dublin Road in July. There were disturbances in the town during that Feis which were still talked about over 70 years later by men and women who knew of what had occurred. In its aftermath the local Urban District Council met on the 24th of July 1919 to consider what steps should be taken to preserve the peace and to protect property in the town. The District Inspector of the R.I.C. in a letter to the Council referred to the disgraceful conduct of the demobbed soldiers who during the Feis attacked a shop in Duke Street and destroyed stock without provocation.

The shop referred to was that of "Bapty" Maher who had a bicycle shop in Duke Street opposite the present O'Dohertys. "Bapty" was a member of the I.R.A. and was imprisoned during the Black and Tan period. Damage was also caused to the confectionary shop of Miss Darby's mother in Leinster Street. This was where Conroy's premises is now located. Apparently bunting and decoration erected by the Darbys on their premises for the Feis included the Sacred Heart emblem and its destruction with the rest of the bunting was regarded as sacrilegious and a source of great scandal at the time. The ex-British soldiers involved in the disturbance were all natives of Athy and I can recall an old resident of the town in 1984 recounting how each of the men named as being involved in that disturbance subsequently met horrible death. It is often difficult to distinguish history from myth and folklore.

To return to the Gaelic Leaguers they continued to meet in various locations throughout the town including the office of local Solicitor Mr. Tristan who had offices in Duke Street. Meetings were also held in the Urban Council offices in the Town Hall and in Miss Darby's sitting room in Leinster Street. Mr. Tristan also apparently made available a room for the Irish class provided by the Gaelic League on Thursdays between 7.00 p.m. and 9.00 p.m. I understand that Tristan with whom Mrs. Hester May, daughter of Michael Dooley worked for a while in 1919 had his offices in what was later the Garda Barracks in Duke Street. This was also the location of the A.O.H. Rooms. The room used for the Irish class was commonly known by the locals as the Gaelic League room.

The last entry in the Minute Book is dated the 13th of December 1921 when Mr. Tierney, Irish teacher, was let go and his Irish classes were discontinued. What happened to the Gaelic League in Athy thereafter I cannot yet say.