Thursday, October 17, 2002

Letters to Duke of Leinster concerning 1798 activities in Athy

Athy Urban District Council, as it was then called, commissioned a sculpture to be erected at Woodstock Street to commemorate the townspeople’s involvement in the 1798 Rebellion. I gather this sculpture has been completed but there is still no sign of it being displayed near to where a number of local men were hanged over 200 years ago.

During the 200th anniversary commemoration of the 1798 Rebellion many books were published in the North and South of this island, outlining the part played by local communities in the events of that period. The interest generated by these publications was gratifying and this has led to an amount of new information coming into the public domain for the first time.

An interesting cache of letters belonging to William the 2nd Duke of Leinster were acquired by the National Library about two years ago and amongst them were a number relating to Athy. Several local men wrote to the Duke at different times during 1798 and amongst them were Nicholas Ashe, Sovereign of Athy and the infamous Thomas J. Rawson of Glassealy, Athy.

Nicholas Ashe was an interesting character who operated a classical school for boarders in the town. By all accounts, he appears to have been a fair minded individual and a man who did his utmost to maintain peace in Athy. As the Sovereign he exercised some judicial functions but in doing so he fell foul of a number of his fellow loyalists as the following letter which he wrote to the Duke of Leinster on 17th April 1798 explains.

“The indictment of the solder against Conolon and Malone one of your Graces yeomen was quashed. This prevented the exposition of a wretch - who strove to take away the lives of two innocent men - for five guinea’s Blood Money.

I am sorry to add - a Clergyman - was averse to bailing them - tho’ every shadow of imputed guilt was cleared by the inconsistency and prevarication of the Soldiers’ testimony - the bills were thrown out by a shameful interference - had they been found I would have proved a perjury of a most dangerous and bloody tendency ……… I have since been very anxious to get the Soldiers off the town. An opportunity occurred on the Cork being removed by the Kings county. The Capt. expressed a wish to have his men in barracks - I immediately filled up the under part of the Session House - and in five days had an excellent barrack for one hundred men - which took off the town a tax of five hundred and brought in an advantage of three thousand expenditure. This A. Weldon himself cou’d not dispute the advantage, both to town and army - yet he and his party opposed it to the utmost and I with difficulty established it ……… The inhabitants offered to repay my expenses. To this I cou’d not submit to secure the barrack I offered to erect four large sheds and finished one - together with some paling to enclose a yard. But the interference of the party saved me the experience. One hundred and sixteen men are already accommodated. But have this instant received a note from Col. Campbell to provide Quarters for two hundred additional men to come in next Friday. Rawson has been addressed by a party calling themselves the Loyal Protestant Corporation of Athy to memorial Government for a Corps of Infantry. In consequence a number of Protestant boys came headed by Redshaw, to demand their freedom. They knew I refused Weldon Molony - therefore it was more impertinence. They were clamorous and your Grace may suppose I was resolute - Rawson wished to get my signature - and insinuated that it wou’d be dangerous to wait ‘til your Grace cou’d be consulted - It was extreme impudence to expect, I wou’d sign a Corporation Memorial without your advice or that I wou’d sanction the formation of a Corps to exclude our Catholic Brethern. I left them to themselves yesterday, Rawson show’d me the Memorial - it is sufficient to say, he drew it up himself - I saw a curious list of names annexed - I asked Capt. Thomas James Rawson who wou’d be Lieutenants. He cou’d not tell but I hear Ben Braddell first on the List. I hope the second contest shall be between Ben Willcock and Ben Redshaw. At my last Court I proved by testimony of both that Redshaw pointing at me, declared I was a papist at heart, and shou’d soon be counted out - I thought the expression deserved reprehension particularly as some people suspect an Orange Lodge in the town.”

Ashe’s letter gives an interesting insight into the local politics of the time.

The prime mover in the formation of a Loyalist Militia in the town was Thomas Rawson who was himself apparently in a spot of bother as indicated in his letter to the Duke of Leinster of 13 April 1799. The letter written by Rawson when forwarding the Grand Jury Presentments mentioned that the Duke had expressed doubts of some of the town Burgesses and had called on Rawson to resign. This undoubtedly resulted from complaints from the likes of Thomas Fitzgerald of Geraldine, a relation of the Duke who referred to Rawson as the “offal of a dunghill”. Rawson in defending himself to the Duke against the charge of seeking Grand Jury funds to build a house on the bridge of Athy gave the following account.

“The history of any and every barrier in the town of Athy is simply this and the truth can be proved by thousands. When Campbell commanded this garrison he caused barriers of hogsheads, sods and earth to be made on the different approaches and on the centre of the bridge - he was ordered to evacuate the town and it was left for a long time to the sole protection of the yeomanry - weak and threatened as the town then was a large body of rebels having the next night approached within 100 perches of it, I considered it absolutely necessary to put up temporary gates and a paling, at an expense of upwards of £50 out of my pocket - the town was protected. In November last Capt. Nicholson and a company of the Cork City Militia were sent here, he saw the sod work going to decay, he applied to General Dundas, and by the Generals special directions [the inhabitants at large having subscribed a larger sum] strong walls of lime and stone were added to my gates - two large piers and a strong wall and platform were erected on the centre of the bridge under the direction of Capt. Nicholson. In the beginning of May last Gen. Dundas inspected the Athy Inf. New made pikes had been recently found in the back house of a rebel Capt. of the town, several new schemes of insurrection were discovered, for which many have been since convicted by Court Martial - the large house in the Market Square was occupied by a noted rebel from the county of Carlow, and it appearing to the General that the Barrier on the bridge could be commanded from the house, he was pleased to approve of the building a second wall to cover the men - I neglected it for some time - on the account arriving, that a French fleet was out, and destined for this country, I concluded that the town, would as before, be left to the yeomanry. In a hurry I had temporary walls ran up, merely doubling the former barrier, and recollecting that for four months last summer we had lain on the flag way on the bridge, in the open air with stones for our pillows - I covered the walls with a temporary skid of boards which are not even nailed on .

His detailed explanation gives us, for the first time, a sense of the danger and anxiety experienced by the townspeople during the 1798 Rebellion and the measures which were taken to protect the town.

I started off this article by referring to the 1798 memorial which remains to be erected in Athy, even though it has been ready for some years. Perhaps the Town Council will ensure that the Memorial is in place before the national commemoration for Emmet’s Rising of 1803 comes around.

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