Thursday, July 26, 2012

Athy Town Council - Do we get value for our money?

Our Town Council is an example of the practical application of the working of Local Government in Ireland.  Within the Town Council structure are exercised local rights and responsibilities which central government authorities left at local level.  This was done in order to maintain the very essence of Local Government, which is the territorial distribution of power. 

The all embracing control of central authority was however felt in 1978 when domestic rates were abolished, thereby throwing Councils throughout the country on the mercy of central government.  This was followed in more recent years by various Local Government Acts, the effect of which was to transfer from Town Councils to County Councils a whole range of public services which once fell under the exclusive control of the Town Councils.  What Town Councils like Athy Town Council are left with today in terms of statutory functions are a hotch potch of public utility services which are of ever decreasing worth to John and Mary Citizen. 

Now Minister Hogan proposes to bring in legislation which, if we are to believe the press reports, is likely to abolish Town Councils and transfer whatever few functions they still possess to County Councils.  Local elections would still be held every five years or so to elect County Councillors to sit on an area committee whose functional area would include Athy and a large chunk of South Kildare.

If this happens would it, I wonder, make any difference to the citizenry of Athy?  Would the loss of municipal status result in the lessening of the quality of services we presently enjoy courtesy of our Town Council?

I suppose to consider this question one must first ask what Councils do for its town, for its people and for the social and commercial development of the area.  Not a lot I hear you say, but then much criticism of local Councillors is not always well informed.  Councillors can and do give advice on the needs of the local population, but only so in terms of the limited range of functions and services still reposing in the Town Council.  Roads, water and sanitary services have gone back in recent years to the County Council, leaving the provision of houses for those in need of housing together with town planning as the key functions of the Town Council.  But even here nothing is as it seems for the planning function, which originated with the 1963 Planning Act, and was intended to preserve and improve the amenities of town and countryside has effectively been passed to the County Council.  It is Kildare County Council which exercises this most important function in the name of Athy Town Council, even if every five years the local Councillors have the opportunity to prepare and adopt a development plan for the town.  That development plan provides the framework within which decisions are taken by the Planning Authority on development projects for Athy but in reality the plan is the creature of County Council officials with minimal input by local Councillors.

Added to this is the real division between the powers of the executive, who in the person of the County Manager has executive functions which only he can exercise, and the reserved functions of the Councillors.  The reserved functions of the Councillors constitute a substantial body of power and include the raising of finances, the approval of expenditure and a diverse list of powers which are seldom known to or exercised by, elected members of the Council.  The recent failure of the Town Council to follow up on its well publicised desire to acquire Whites Castle is an example of the failure of Councillors to utilise the powers given to them in Local Government legislation.

Town Councillors can compel the County Manager to do any particular act within the Council’s competence for which money is available.  If, as was indicated, the Councillors wanted to acquire the Castle, they had the power to raise the necessary funds by way of borrowing, or otherwise, and require the County Manager to proceed with its purchase.  However, apart from expressing a strong wish to acquire the Castle, nothing further was done by the Councillors to progress the matter.

The loss of an ineffective Town Council is not to be regretted.  However, I would not wish Irish towns to lose their municipal status or the office of a Town Mayor.  If Minister Hogan proceeds with his plans for radically changing Local Government in Ireland I would hope he would extend to townspeople the right to elect annually their own Town Mayor.  Speaking with a local Town Councillor and former Council Chairman during the week I was surprised to be told that each town Councillor receives  an allowance of €80 per week and an additional €4,500 per year in unvouched expenses.  This gives a total of almost €9,000 for each Town Councillor or over €80,000 for the full Town Council.  Do we in turn get value for our money?

In terms of the development of the business and social lives of the community they serve I have to register my feelings that Councillors do not add much to the general wellbeing of the local community.  Maybe it is time to radically review the entire Local Government structure, looking afresh not just at Town Councils but also County Councils to see how more efficient and effective services can be provided by and for local communities.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Kildare County Football and 'Boiler' White

The recent death of ‘Boiler’ White brought back memories of a time when our heroes were more home grown than the celebrities of today.  My youthful memories extend back to the 1950s, a time before television engulfed the countryside in a bewildering maze of individuals accorded instant unearned celebrity status.  Those entrusted with that status never come near to equalling, in my eyes at least, the greatness of my youthful sporting heroes.  Men like ‘Boiler’ White whose prowess on the football field I sought to emulate but could never hope to match.  As a Gaelic footballer in the early 1950s ‘Boiler’ was a legend in his own time, such that when referring to him his name was invariably prefaced with the prefix ‘the’.   ‘The Boiler’ White was my generations Roy of the Rovers, the peerless footballer whose strength and skill seemed limitless.

Gaelic football was in my teens a sport ingrained in the parish with offshoots which involved the Kildare county team.  With my friends I played football every day and the long hot summers of my youth (always remembered as such) afforded every encouragement for playing out our roles as county players of the future.  We imagined ourselves striding out onto the playing pitch at Geraldine Park to represent the Lilywhites in a contest almost invariably opposing our neighbouring county folk of either Carlow or Laois.  We had no desire to go any further in our imaginations than the neighbouring counties which we could always feel confident of beating.  At least our confidence in successfully overcoming Carlow was seldom wide of the mark, even if the plantation county of Laois did not always play true to our belief of being less than equal to the short grass county. 

As youngsters in the 1950s our football was played out in the reflective glory of Gaelic football players such as ‘Boiler’ White, Paddy Gibbons, Larry McCormack and Toss McCarthy.  Men whom we saw play on our home pitch at Geraldine Park at a time when issues of public health and safety did not concern the authorities and attendances on the terraces were limited only by the ground’s capacity.

There was no television in those days and so our enjoyment of Gaelic football was wholehearted and untainted by comparisons with games played in places as far apart as Anfield and Old Trafford.  Our sporting heroes were the men who played Gaelic football for our county of Kildare and the mighty ‘Boiler’ White was a special favourite.

In 1956 Kildare won the Leinster Championship Final and two men who played on that team had by then assumed the mantle of sporting heroes which once graced the broad shoulders of ‘Boiler’ White and his colleagues of the early 1950s.  Danny Flood was of course from Athy and had first played as full back for the county senior team in 1954 and would continue to do so for ten more years.  The big strong man from the south of the county easily filled the bill as a sporting hero of my youth, as did the smaller but graceful footballer from Monasterevin, Seamie Harrison.  Danny Flood would continue to play for Kildare seniors during the years Mick Carolan and Kieran O’Malley came to prominence.  O’Malley was a stylish player whose free taking and ability to chip the ball from the ground into his hands without bending or stooping down were marvels to behold.  With Mick Carolan he joined the pantheon of sporting heroes who over the years graced the football field wearing the colours of the Lilywhite County.

But for me at least the one name which stands about above all others is that of ‘The Boiler’ White.  Maybe it was because ‘Boiler’ was in his prime as a player when I first became aware of the greatness which attaches to sportsmen who excel at their sport.  For whatever reason ‘Boiler’ White was my first sporting hero, the man whose name was heard when in imaginative mood I realised the dream of bringing the Sam Maguire Cup to Kildare as I bore down on the goal mouth in a practice match with my friends.  It is now over 50 years since those days and the recent passing of ‘Boiler’ White has brought a curtain down on memories of sporting times past. 

Strangely I never met ‘Boiler’ White but his name was with me for over five decades.  He was a sporting legend and my first sporting hero.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Early Motoring in Athy

For many local people living in and around Athy the Gordon Bennett Race of 1903 provided the first opportunity of seeing a motor car at close quarters.  The motorised vehicle had arrived just a decade or so earlier to a world which was not quite ready for it.  The roads which traversed the Irish countryside were adequate for horse and carriage, but were in no way ready for the motor car.  Despite the development of the railway communities were still largely isolated and the development of the motor car was regarded with some misgivings in much the same way as the early years of the bicycle just a few decades earlier.  No wonder then that the Gordon Bennett Race created such extraordinary interest, not only internationally but also amongst the Irish people.

Did the race bring cars for the first time onto the streets of Athy?  I am unable to definitely answer that question, although I feel safe in asserting that even if there was not a local car owner in the town it is more than likely that visiting motorists had passed through Athy before June 1903.

The first reference I found in the minutes of meetings of Athy Urban District Council concerning motor traffic was an entry dated 18th March 1903 relating to applications from Duthie Large & Co. and J.J. Bergin’s Ironworks, Athy for licences to store and retail petrol and motor spirits.  A later reference dated 2nd May 1910 was a resolution of the Council calling on the Irish Automobile Club to have warning posts erected at the main entrances to the town cautioning motorists to drive slowly through Athy, the speed not to exceed 7 miles per hour.

Recently I came across a 1911-1912 Irish Motor Directory which gave details of cars and motor cycles registered in County Kildare.  There were 173 motorbikes or cycles in the county, with 316 registered motor cars.  The first vehicle which was allocated registration no. IO 1 was a car owned by Rev. P.T.S. Large of Carnalway, Kilcullen.  Rev. J. O’Gorman, a Catholic Curate in Kildare, was the registered owner of car IO 2.  Dan Carbery of Athy, whom I presume to be the building contractor of St. Johns, Athy had a car with the registration no. IO 3. 

Other Athy vehicle owners listed in the 1911-12 Directory were Daniel Carbery, this time registered as owner of a motorised bicycle registration no. IO 36.  J.J. O’Gorman of Ballitore was the owner of a bicycle, reg. no. IO 46, while Richard Alvey of Rock House, Fontstown had a bicycle, reg. no. IO 53, as did George Nash of Narraghmore with registration no. IO 63.

Bike reg. no. IO 71 was registered to Henry S. Large of Rheban Castle.  Hugh Hurley of Duke Street had a bike reg. no. IO 83.  Francis R. Jackson of Leinster Street was another with a motor bike reg. no. IO 91.  Who was F.R. White of Athy who was allocated IO 105 for his bike?  S.M. Telford residing at The Abbey Athy came of a well known Athy family and his ownership of a car was noted in the Directory with the reg. no. IO 135.  Reg. no. IO 189 was allocated to a car owned by John A. Butler of Emily Square, while Henry Hosie of Coursetown was the owner of a bike, reg. no. IO 210.

Strangely amongst the 489 registered vehicle owners listed in the 1911/12 Irish Motor Directory were a considerable number of English folk with addresses overseas.  More than 50% of the entries in the Directory bore English addresses for vehicle owners whose cars or bicycles were registered in County Kildare.  What was the explanation for this?

James Duthie, The Foundry, Athy was, as expected of a garage man, the registered owner of a motor car reg. no. IO 280.  Duthie Large & Co. Ltd. were included in the Directory as a garage and petrol vendors with the Foundry Company as the only other such establishment in Athy.  Was the Foundry referred to J.J. Bergin’s iron works which was licensed by the local Urban Council in 1903?  Interestingly only two hotels were given for Athy in the 1911/12 Directory – the Leinster Arms and Hamilton Arms (now Bradburys).

W.B. Jackson of Leinster Street was the registered owner of a bike IO 303 and at the same address William B. Jackson had another bike reg. no. IO 351.  Car reg. no. IO 367 was registered to J.S. Maxwell, 50 Duke Street, while another car, reg. no. IO 394 was in the ownership of T.G. Lumley, Holmcroft, Athy.

Matthew J. Minch of Rockfield House, Athy took his time in changing from horse and carriage to the motor car as evidenced by the registration of his car with the registration no. IO 458.  The three hundred and thirteen motor car to be registered in the County of Kildare was owned by James Duthie of 50 Leinster Street whose car carried the registration number IO 495.

The record shows that there were a total of eight cars registered to Athy owners in 1911.  Carbery, Telford, Butler, Duthie, Maxwell, Lumley, Minch were proud owners of the new fangled and expensive motor cars of the period.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Chairpersons of Athy Councils

I happened to be in the Town Council Chamber last week when my attention was drawn to a number of boards on which the names of past Chairmen of that august body and its predecessor, Athy Urban District Council, were displayed.  The first Chairman in 1900 was Matthew J. Minch who had served for several years previously as a member of Athy Town Commissioners.  That body was the first elected municipal authority for the town of Athy and had been established in 1842 following the abolition of Athy Borough Council two years previously.  The Borough Council, which could trace its history back to 1515 when Henry VIII granted a charter to the village of Athy, was comprised of eleven individuals who owed their position as members of the corporation to the town’s landlord, the Duke of Leinster. 

On 16th February 1842 a meeting was held in Athy before two Commissioners appointed by the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland at which 21 local men were elected as Athy’s first Town Commissioners.  It is interesting to note that amongst those elected were the Parish Priest, Fr. John Lawler and Reverend Frederick Trench, the local Anglican rector.  The Town Commissioners first Chairman was Dr. Thomas Kynsey, one of Athy’s local general practitioners. 

With the election of Councillor Mark Wall as the current Chairman of Athy Town Council, one of the local newspapers speculated that he was one of only two father/son combinations who ever held that position.  Mark’s father Jack held the Chairmanship prior to his election to the Dáil, while Kieran Dooley and his father Paddy were in their time Chairmen of Athy Urban District Council.

I had to go back over the Council records to see if any other local family could emulate the records of the Wall and Dooley families in terms of chairmanship of the local authority.  A cursory search of the 20th century records showed that Dr. Jeremiah O’Neill was Chairman between 1912 and 1914, while his son Paddy, a local Solicitor, held that position in 1954. 

Going back over the records of the previous century I found that Matthew Minch was Chairman of Athy’s Town Commissioners in 1866 and 1880, while eight years later his son M.J. Minch occupied the same position.  Indeed M.J. was Chairman of the Town Commissioners in 1899 and 1900 and of the newly established Urban District Council in 1900 and again in 1905. 

Another family record was established by the Mahon family when current Town Councillor James Mahon was elected Chairman of the Council in recent years.  His grandfather William Mahon had been Chairman of the Urban District Council in 1938 and 1939. 

For some unexplained reason one of the earlier mentioned name boards on the wall of the Council Chamber had omitted to show any details for the years 1933 to 1936.  The man in possession of the chair during all of those years was Patrick Dooley who held the position of Chairman of Athy Urban District Council continuously from 1929 to 1936 inclusive.  He was a member of the extended Dooley family and was an uncle of the earlier mentioned Paddy Dooley.

One particular record which I thought I had secured for myself was mercifully shown by the records to be one I shared with a Martin Kavanagh.  Was he, I wonder, the man of the same name who was proprietor of the Leinster Arms Hotel?  In any event Martin, for reasons not recorded, resigned as Chairman of Athy Town Commissioners in 1857.  Only one other person has ever stood down from Chairmanship of the Urban District Council.  That was myself in 1991.  At least both Martin Kavanagh and myself escaped the fate of one previous corporation member, Graham Bradford who in 1738 was put in the local pillory and was subsequently transported to America for committing ‘corrupt perjury’ in connection with corporation business. 

Trawling through the incomplete records of Athy’s Town Provost and Town Sovereigns (who were the equivalent of today’s Council Chairman but with much wider powers) one comes across many family names which over the years had several members appointed to head up the local municipal authority.

Arthur Weldon, Rev. Anthony Weldon and Rev. Arthur Weldon were Sovereigns of Athy at different times between 1738 and 1822.  The Burgh family vied with the Butlers for the honour of providing most family members for chairmanship of the Borough Council at a time when the ‘rotten borough’ of Athy was comprised solely of individuals appointed by the Duke of Leinster.  It was in those days not just a useless body, but also an undemocratic one.  Nowadays the needs of democracy are fully satisfied with five yearly elections to the Town Council.