The change was made imperceptibly and without fuss or fanfare. It wasn’t just a change of name but it was the name change highlighted on headed notepaper received in correspondence some days later which alerted me to what had happened. It was the first time that illustrious body had changed its name since it was set up in 1898, but even then it had been superimposed on an institution with a history stretching back to the 16th century.
I am referring to Athy Town Council which up to December 31st last was known as Athy Urban District Council but which at midnight that night changed its name. The links with the 16th century are very real as it was Henry VIII, who so far as we can ascertain, granted the first charter to the village of Athy, thereby constituting it a borough. There is the possibility that a previous charter had been in place but research to date has not unearthed any evidence of it.
The charter of 1515 was granted by the English King to the village founded by Anglo Norman’s in the 12th century and peopled by settlers from the English mainland. It established the office of Town Provost, who had overall charge of the town’s affairs and who was elected each year by the Burgesses of the town on the Feast of St. Michael. His modern equivalent would be town Mayor. However, Mayors today share power and authority with administrators and consequently wield less power than their medieval predecessors.
In addition to the Office of Town Provost, Henry VIII’s charter established a borough council comprised of 12 burgesses who were to be elected by the freemen of the village of Athy. In time the appointment of the burgesses of the town was exercised by the head of the House of Leinster, by what authority, if any, we cannot say. The Earl of Kildare whose successor was later to be elevated to the Dukedom of Leinster thereafter nominated his own friends as burgesses of the market town. This situation continued even when the new Charter granted to Athy in 1613 under which a town Sovereign was elected each year to take charge of the town’s affairs. The Borough Council continued in place with powers similar to those provided under the earlier charter.
Athy Borough Council, an unelected body, consisting of members who were by and large non-residents of the town with no apparent proprietary interest in south Kildare continued in existence until the passing of the Municipal Corporations Act, 1840. Up to 1800 Athy Borough Council returned two Members of Parliament to the House of Commons. It was not however active in improving the infrastructure of a town whose population had increased to almost 5,000 by the early decades of the 19th century. The undemocratic nature of the Borough Councils such as Athy and their failure to make proper provision for the development of urban areas signaled the need for the reform of Local Government in Ireland. This culminated in the Municipal Corporations Act, 1840 when a large number of Borough Councils, including Athy, were abolished.
For a short time Athy was without any form of municipal government but in the mid 1840’s the people of the town petitioned the Dublin authorities for Athy to be granted Town Commission status. When granted it lead to the first municipal elections for public representatives on the new body which was named Athy Town Commission. The previous office of Town Sovereign which had replaced the earlier Town Provost was itself replaced by the Office of Chairman of the Town Commissioners. The Commissioners who were elected at regular intervals thereafter set about their task of improving the paving, lighting and cleaning of the streets of the town. With the limited powers available to them the Commissioners continued to develop the towns facilities over the following 60 years. The passing of the Local Government Act, 1898 put County Local Government on a representative basis and at the same time gave Town Commissioners the right to be reconstituted as Urban District Councils.
On 14th November of that year Athy Town Commissioners agreed to submit a petition to the Local Government Board to separate the town of Athy from the rural district and to constitute it an urban district. For some unexplained reason the petition was not submitted and a further petition agreed by the Town Commissioners in February 1899 was sent forward following which a public enquiry was held in the town hall. As a result of this enquiry Athy was constituted an Urban District Council with effect from 1st April, 1900. This was the third time in the form of local government for the town was changed since Henry VIII’s charter of 1515. It would not be the last.
The next 100 years witnessed the most active period in the development of public services in the town under the mandate of the Urban District Council. The Slum Clearance Programme of the 1930’s initiated under the housing programmes of the first De Valera led government together with the provision of a piped water supply system in the second decade of the 20th century were the highlights of the Council’s successes over the years. During the periods when the town was governed by a Borough Council, Town Commissioner or Urban District Council, the chief administrator of the town was the Town Clerk. Initially a part-time job it later required the services of a full-time official who was based in the municipal offices in the Town Hall. The Clerk of the Urban District Council was appointed by the members of the Council on the recommendation of the Local Appointments Commission and as such was an officer of the Council. However, under recent changes in the Local Government structure the recruitment of personnel for the town of Athy is now centralised to Kildare County Council and the Town Clerk of Athy is employed directly by that Council. Athy Urban District Council has also had its title changed to Athy Town Council.
As successors to the Borough Council, the Town Commissioners and the Urban District Council, Athy Town Council continues to serve the local people, even if the changes heralded with the change of name confirm that the roles of town councils are to be reduced in the drive to centralise Local Government in this country.
The photo exhibition presently in the Heritage Centre is to be augmented for the Christian Brothers Class Re-union scheduled for the weekend of 20th September. Photographs relating to Athy and school groups during the 1940’s and later will be on display. The Heritage Centre would like to hear from anyone who has any photographs which could be lent for the period of the exhibition. All photographs will be returned to the owners at the end of September when the exhibition closes. If you have any suitable material for display please contact Margaret O’Riordan at (0507) 33075.