Tuesday, July 25, 2017

An 18th century gold ring and reflections on Athy of that time

A gentleman’s gold wedding ring was gifted to the local Heritage Centre during the last week by Maisie Sale.  Her late husband Ken was a good friend of the local Museum Society and played a big part in setting up the first museum room, then located in St. Mary’s convent school almost 33 years ago.  Ken found the ring in a field where Mansfield Grove houses were later built.  The ring is inscribed ‘G.S. January 10 1733’.  It comes from a time when following the end of the Williamite wars the developing town of Athy began to attract a fresh influx of English settlers.  Athy was always a settler’s town, but the relative calm and stability which followed the Williamite wars provided the stimulus for growth which was to be a feature of life in Athy in the 18th century.


Commercial activity, rather than manufacture, provided the basis for the town development.  As a market town with a rich agricultural hinterland Athy was ideally located to benefit from road improvements in the first half of the 18th century.  Until 1720 the River Barrow afforded the only link with the sea ports of New Ross and Waterford.  However, that river link was sufficient to establish Athy as an important regional market centre at a time when roads were of the most primitive type.


In 1727 the first Turnpike Road Act was passed.  Turnpike roads were built and maintained by local business people and landlords who derived an income from tolls collected from traffic using the roads.  Athy had a turnpike road running through the town, with three turnpike gates.  One gate was located on the Dublin Road on the town side of St. Michael’s Cemetery, while a second turnpike gate was in a position across St. John’s Street (now Duke Street) at its junction with Green Alley.  The third turnpike gate and the last gate to remain in position was on the Castlecomer Road at Beggar’s End, approximately 700 yards from Whites Castle. 


Athy had been home to settlers from England since its foundation and it continued to attract settlers up to the early part of the 18th century.  They brought with them the expertise which was to provide the foundation for the commercial and later the manufacturing development of the town.  Athy was also home to the native Irish Catholics against whom religious restrictions were enforced up to the middle of the 18th century.  The Dominicans who fled from Athy in 1698 were still absent when the gold ring was inscribed.  Ten years would pass before the Dominicans felt safe to return to the town but even then a local man, John Jackson, could write to Dublin Castle in March 1743 and claim ‘I cannot find that there is or has been any popish priests or regular clergy in this corporation’.  The Parish Priest at the time was Fr. Daniel Fitzpatrick who lived outside the town in County Laois.  Other dissenting groups included the Presbyterians, whose Minister for 31 years from 1720 was Rev. John McGachin.  The Quakers had a relatively strong presence in Athy in 1733, even though a purpose built Quaker meeting house was not constructed until 1780.


Being a self-sufficient community, Athy in 1733 had its own bakers, masons, tailors, shoe makers, nail makers and a host of other craftsmen required to meet local needs, amongst whom was local gunsmith John Davisson.  Athy was also an assizes town where serious crime was tried.  After the assizes held in the town in August 1722 the following proclamation was published and posted in a broadside format throughout the South Kildare area.  ‘The Grand Jury at a general assize and general gaol delivery held at Athy the first day of August 1722 did present Toby Byrne of Narraghmore Yeoman to be a tory robber and rapparee out in arms and on his keeping and not amenable to law.’ 


In 1756 the town population was 1779, almost treble the figure of 100 years previously.  Athy’s transition from village to town was marked by the erection in or about 1720 of a large building in the centre of the town.  It served not only as a town hall, but also as a courthouse and market house.  Around the same time a military barracks was erected on the edge of the town to house the garrison previously billeted in Whites Castle. 


Athy was a corporate town governed by an elected sovereign and burgesses since the granting of its second charter in 1613.  Five years after the date on the wedding ring the local Borough Council held a meeting to disenfranchise Graham Bradford who had been convicted in the local Court of perjury and transported to America.


The gold ring reminds us of a time lost in history and the importance of written records which allow us to look back at times past and people who have gone before us.


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