Thursday, March 25, 1999

Athy Town Commissioners (3)

While the Town Commissioners incorporated under the Town improvement (Ireland) Act 1854 were more active than their Town Borough predecessors any increased benefit to the townspeople was a matter of dispute. The lighting of the town was one of their more tangible achievements. On 21st January 1858 the town was lit for the first time. The public lamps which were only lit during the winter months were extinguished at 12.30 each night. In later years this was to be brought forward to 10.30 each night. Local businesses were encouraged to sponsor and pay for public lamps but without much success. A notable exception was the Local Loans Fund operating out of Emily Square which paid for six gas lamps in addition to making a substantial donation each year to the town Commissioners to provide work for the poor men of the town.

The Town Commissioners were less successful in providing the townspeople with a wholesome supply of drinking water. Indeed between 1848 and 1900 the Commissioners provided only one additional public pump in the town to bring their total number to six. There was also a number of private wells in use, but in common with the public pumps the water supplied was generally acknowledged to be unfit for human consumption, and the cause of much illness amongst the townspeople. Despite this the Town fathers did not provide a piped water supply until 1907.

Fire fighting was for a long time a communal activity with townspeople using every available means to preserve life and property. In the early part of the 19th century the Military Barracks housed the only fire engine in Athy. Primarily intended for military use it was made available as required for fire fighting in the town. In June 1846 the Town Commissioners sought permission for the local constabulary to use the fire engine in the absence of the military. The Commissioners later became owners of a fire engine which remained in use until replaced in 1895. In 1881 the Commissioners appointed a committee to form a volunteer Fire Brigade in the town for whom 12 zinc buckets and a barrel and tub were to be provided ‘for the better working of the engine’.

The fire engine purchased from Merryweathers of London in 1895 at a cost of £149=12=8 required 22 men to work its engine and man its pumps. No doubt conscious of the fire hazards posed by the overcrowded hovels of the town there was no shortage of volunteers for this work. In 1907 the secretary of the Athy Voluntary Fire Brigade James Duthie reported a membership of 27 with plans to increase the numbers by an additional 10 men. Following the purchase of the Merryweathers engine Athy’s first fire engine was sold to Duthie Large Limited for £15.

In 1894 the Town Commissioners began a long and unsuccessful campaign to have the local constabulary relocated in the centre of the town. This followed the constabulary’s removal to the Military Barracks in Woodstock Street following a report on the unsanitary condition of the accommodation provided for them in Whites Castle. The military barracks which had been vacant for almost 15 years was renovated at a cost of nearly £500 to accommodate the seven married men and the four single men who were members of the local constabulary. The Police authorities in refusing the Town Commissioners requests were supported by the local Inspector who reported that despite the move to Woodstock Street the peace of the town was well maintained with no inconvenience to the public. Undaunted the Commissioners pressed ahead by calling on the South Kildare members of Parliament the raise the matter in the House of Commons in 1895. Their campaign was unsuccessful but memories in Athy were obviously long as on 3rd June 1907 the Urban Council resolved
‘that a letter be written to Mr Denis Kilbride M.P. requesting him to ask a question in the House of Commons relative to the removal of the Police from the centre of the town to their present out of the way position and to ask the Inspector-General be directed to hold an inquiry in the Town into the matter’.

The Constabulary were to remain in the Military Barracks until the emergence of the Irish Free State.

On 15 September 1890 a special meeting of the Town Commissioners was held at which it was agreed to appoint a committee to consider the submission of an application to the Local Government Board to have the Town Commission constituted the Urban Sanitary Authority for Athy. The Committees report was adopted on 2 February 1891 but nothing further was done about the matter until 14 November 1898 when a resolution was adopted asking the Local Government Board to constitute the Commissioners as an Urban Sanitary Authority. A public inquiry was held in the Town Clerks office on 10 April 1899 presided over by Arthur Bourke Local Government Inspector. Following his report the Local Government Board made an order declaring Athy an Urban District with effect from 1 April 1900.

King Henry VIII had first granted corporate status to the inhabitants of Athy in 1515 when the charter of that year provided for the setting up of a Borough Council and the election of a Provost. A later charter of 1613 confirmed the Town’s Borough status but replaced the Provost with an annually elected Town Sovereign. Athy Borough Council was finally abolished in 1840 and the last Town Sovereign was the Rev Frederick Trench of Kilmoroney, Rector of St Michael’s Athy. It is of interest to note that the first election to a town council in Athy took place on the 5th of July 1847 when both the Parish Priest Rev John Lawler and the local Vicar Rev Henry Bristow stood as candidates. Both were elected.

With the declaration of Athy as an Urban District from the first of April 1900 the Town was about to enter upon its most effective period of municipal government after almost 400 years of local rule.

Thursday, March 18, 1999

Athy Town Commissioners (2)

August 1870 witnessed something of an upheaval in the smooth functioning of Athy’s Town Commissioners with the resignation of the Town Clerk Henry Sheill and of the Inspector of Nuisances John Roberts. Both resignations apparently arose because of a proposal to amalgamate the offices of Town Clerk, Inspector of Nuisances and Town Scavenger. This motion was eventually not proceeded with, no doubt to the regret of those who warmed to the prospect of a Town Clerk toiling with brush and shovel on the local streets. With the retirement of Henry Sheill, the position of Town Clerk passed through many hands, including one man who defaulted with some of the Towns Finances. In 1890 Joseph Lawler was appointed Town Clerk which position he was to hold for many years.

On 5 September 1873 the Town Commissioners held a special meeting to consider the report of Dr. Ferris - Medical Officer of the Athy Dispensary. The report stated;
“In a sanitary point of view the dwellings of the labouring population of this town and still more the yards attached to them are for the most part in a very bad state. The Local Authorities here whose business it is to have this state of things rectified are very inactive and remiss, they need some pressure from the local Government Board to induce them to act in time. There are a couple of public pumps much resorted to by the inhabitants (the poorer especially) which are of a very unfit description. I could give evidence of this from the prevalence of the localization of enteric fever in the immediate vicinity of one of them and otherwise. By the reason of the inactivity of the sanitary and nuisance Authorities here there is a complete want of prearrangements as to action to be taken in the event of an epidemic breaking. We have some cases of enteric fever in town at present. By reason of extensive good traffic to this town by boat on the Grand Canal there is an exceptional liability to importation of contagious disease by the boatmen. In the event such accruing there is a complete want of any settled legal plan of action to prevent the spread of it. The want of such plan was much felt when last year a case of small pox was imported in the person of a boatman.

The spread of the epidemic was prevented only by the voluntary and as I believe illegal action of a few inhabitants who joined to reimburse the owner for the burying of body clothes and bed clothes and forcing of the man into the Fever Hospital”.

No action was taken by the Commissioners following the Doctors report.

In 1877 Athy Town Commissioners convened a meeting in the Hibernian Hotel, Dublin of all Commissioners of towns under 6,000 inhabitants in the country. The purpose of the meeting was to prepare representations for submission to the Chief Secretary on the advisability of such towns obtaining jurisdiction for sanitary services. At that meeting held on 19 January representatives from Athy, Killiney, Wicklow, Fethard, Cashel, Newbridge, Tuam and Trim passed a number of resolutions including one expressing the opinion that the Public Health (Ireland) Act 1874 would be more satisfactorily administered for towns by Town Commissioners rather than by Boards of Guardians. Messrs M. Lawler, J. Leahy, E. Lord and A. Duncan of Athy together with Patrick Doyle of Newbridge were appointed to wait on the Chief Secretary of Ireland to present the resolutions. The deputation met the Chief Secretary on 10th April 1877 and its Secretary, local shopkeeper, Alexander Duncan was later to report:
“it appears that the Chief Secretary would allow towns below 6,000 population to become the Sanitary Authority, if so disposed, with the consent of the Local Government Board”.

Athy Town Commissioners in August 1879 passed a resolution that they become the Urban Sanitary Authority. The matter was quickly dropped when it was pointed out to the Commissioners that the entire Sanitary rate would thereupon fall on the occupiers of houses in the town of Athy.

In the 1880’s Athy Town Commissioners became politically active in sympathy with the national mood of the day. In January 1881 they passed a resolution urging the “creation of a peasant proprietory” and laws “to protect the tenant cultivators of the soil” to be followed in June by a resolution “that the provisions of the Land Bill be extended to lease-holders as well as yearly tenants”. In March 1885 a motion “that all former resolutions, compacts or agreements relative to the election of Chairman of Commissioners be rescinded and that in future the Chairman be elected on his merits by a majority of the Board” was dropped on the grounds that there was no need for its adoption. The significance of the motion can be understood on reading a letter written by Michael Lawler of Athy Town Commissioners to the Leinster Express in October 1854. Lawler wrote:

“(Athy Town Commissioners) then entered into a mutual agreement to keep all political feeling out of our meetings and to have as near as possible half Roman Catholic and half Protestant, also to select the Chairman alternatively from each side”.

Clearly the increasing desire of some of the Town Commissioners to support political movements of the day heralded a change in the composition and political independence of the Town Commission. Within four months the Athy Commissioners were to present an address of welcome to Michael Davitt Founder of the Land League on the occasion of this visit to Athy on Sunday 5 July 1885. Towards the end of the year the Duke of Leinster’s agent wrote to the Commissioners drawing their attention;
“to the fact that his Grace gave a room in the Town Hall for the purpose of transacting Municipal business but not for holding Political meetings”.

Clearly the long standing cordiality between the Duke and his submissive subjects was coming to an end! During the remaining years of its life the Athy Town Commissioners showed its political leanings in condemning the Luggacurran Evictions of 1887/1889 and by passing a resolution on 6 January 1890 confirming its “most implicit confidence” in Charles Stewart Parnell.

Thursday, March 11, 1999

Athy Town Commissioners (1)

As this is the centenary year of the passing of the Local Government Act which created County Councils and Urban District Councils it is appropriate to take a look back at the workings of Athy Town Commissioners which held it’s first meeting in Athy on 16th June, 1856. The Town Commissioners were the predecessors of the Urban District Council and it’s first Chairman was Mark Kavanagh, while Henry Sheill was appointed Town Clerk at the salary of ten pounds a year. John Roberts was appointed Inspector of Nuisances at a yearly salary of twelve pounds. John Hayden obtained the lucrative position of weigh master and adjuster of weights and measures for which he was to receive thirty five pounds a year. Patrick Byrne, the public bellman, received a paltry two guineas for his efforts. While the weekly meetings of the Commissioners were held in the Grand Jury room of the Courthouse the Town Clerk’s office was in Mr. Sheill’s house in Leinster Street with hours of attendance from 11.00am to 12noon each day, excluding Sunday. One of the first Acts of the new Town Commissioners was to order a load of lime for distribution “to the poor people for white washing their houses.”

The provision and maintenance of water pumps, the inspection and registration of lodging houses, the paving of footpaths, street cleaning and the provision of a public scales were the principle functions of the Town Commissioners. No evidence can be produced to indicate that Athy had public lighting prior to the lighting of the town by gas in 1858. On 20th October, 1856 a rate of eight pence in the pound was levied on the town to raise a revenue of £120. This enabled the Commissioners to appoint William Langan, Pat Hyland, Michael Moore and James McDonald as porters to attend at the public crane in Emily Square and to assist at all the markets in the town.

Public dissatisfaction with the Town Commissioners may be surmised from an attempt made on 15th October, 1857 to contest five vacancies on the Commission caused by retirements under an agreed rota system. The five outgoing Commissioners were opposed by Luke O’Neal, Patrick Whelan, John P. Meredith, John Diven, Pat Grace and James Lawler who however only received five votes each compared to the 20 cast for the outgoing Commissioners. A poll demanded by Matt Minch was agreed to be fixed for October 22nd. This was subsequently rescinded on a technicality and the five outgoing Commissioners were deemed re-elected. The decision was the cause of frustration for many unhappy ratepayers and was in time to result in a concerted effort to break the existing Town Commissioners’ monopoly of the elected positions in the town.

On 21st January, 1858 the town of Athy was lit by gas for the first time. The public lamps were lit during the winter months only and were extinguished at 12.30 each night. Local businesses were encouraged to sponsor and pay for public lamps but without much success. A notable exception was the Local Loans Fund operating out of premises at Emily Square which paid for six gas lamps in addition to making a substantial donation each year to the Town Commissioners to provide work for the poor men of the town.

On 5th August, 1861 the Town Commissioners had copies of the following Notice printed and posted throughout the town.


“Whereas the public lamps and public pumps of Athy are damaged from time to time by some person or persons the Athy Town Commissioners hereby offer a reward of 2/6 to any person who will give information on any such offence.

Cleary youthful exuberance was not unknown, even in the hungry days immediately following the famine.

In July 1860 the Town Commissioners had the bell removed from the Church of Ireland in Emily Square and put up in the Town Hall. Apparently the Church bell was to replace another bell from the Town Hall which in accordance with the Town Commissioners’ instructions was to be sold. Prior to this a bell had been sited at the Canal Bridge and used as a fire bell, one William Howard being employed to ring it whenever notice of a fire was received. In December 1861 the Commissioners ordered that the ringing of the Canal Bridge bell be discontinued. Instead the former Church bell which still hangs on the Town Hall was to be used to signal the outbreak of a fire in the Town.

As late as the 1920’s successive Town Councils saw fit to obtain the views and recommendations of the Duke of Leinster on many matters of municipal concern. In March 1862 the Town Commissioners wished to re-arrange the monthly fares to accommodate dealers sending cattle to the Dublin markets. Only when the Duke of Leinster gave his approval for the proposal did the elective representatives of the town proceed to change the fair days for pigs, horses and cattle to the first Tuesday and Wednesday of each month respectively.

Between 1862 and 1864 the Town Commissioners were engaged in negotiations with the Electric and International Telegraph Company and the British and Magnetic Telegraph Company regarding the opening of a telegraph office in Athy. The Town Commissioners’ reluctance to guarantee either company against future losses caused a delay in the opening of a telegraph office in the town. Eventually agreement was reached in October 1864 with the British and Irish Magnetic Telegraph Company and Athy’s first Telegraph Office was opened on 19th November, 1864.

In 1862 the Town Commissioners approached the Duke of Leinster to obtain the use of the Record Court previously leased to the County Kildare Grand Jury. This ground floor room located on the East wing of the Town Hall adjoining the junction of Meeting Lane and Emily Row was renovated at the Duke of Leinster’s expense during 1865/1866 and leased to the Town Commissioners for use as their Assembly Rooms. The Commissioners were to remain in this room until 1887 when by agreement with the Athy Mechanics Institute they took over the room which continued to be the Urban Council Offices until the mid-1980’s. This allowed the Mechanics Institute to have use of the larger room adjoining Emily Row which was used as a Billiard Room up to the 1940’s. Both rooms are now incorporated into the Town’s Heritage Centre.