Friday, September 18, 2020


By Frank Taaffe

THE  Leinster Express reported in September 1861 that Athy had 44 public houses. The town population that year was 4,113 housed in 745 houses which gave a ratio of a public house for every 17 private homes. Little wonder that the Temperance campaigner, Fr Matthew, visited Athy in 1840 and again in 1842. A total Abstinence Society was formed in the town in May 1861 and was reported as progressing favourably some months later.

Earlier that same year the newspaper reported that due to the bad weather a large number of unemployed men gathered at the local workhouse during the course of a meeting of the Board of Guardians. They petitioned the board members for some measure of relief for themselves and their families. The Guardians agreed to employ 30 men with dependent families to work on the workhouse farm and pay 1/= per day per man. The employment offered was of benefit for within a few weeks the local press reported:- In Athy large bodies of labourers were saved from starvation or the poorhouse by work at a low rate of wage provided for them.’

Local employment in the 1860s was largely confined to seasonal work on neighbouring farms. The local workhouse employed a master tailor and a master shoemaker to train inmates, especially young boys. Many of those trained would in time leave the workhouse. The number involved is not known but Athy’s Town Commissioners were moved in November 1861 to direct the Town Inspector to remove cobblers who were working on the streets. Three years later the Commissioners refused an application from a local cobbler anxious to resume work in some public part of the town. Apparently he had worked in the doorway of the courthouse for upwards of 20 years before the 1861 Order was implemented.

In January 1862 the Town Commissioners felt it necessary to convene a public meeting in the courthouse to consider adopting measures to relieve distress amongst the ‘labouring classes’ and the families who suffered from recent flooding of the Barrow at Rathstewart. It was agreed to make a collection in the town and on the following Saturday, 17 women from Rathstewart were given three shillings and six pence, while over 80 labourers were employed breaking stones and cleaning the streets at a daily cost of £8. It was claimed that local distress was a perennial issue, only that year it was aggravated by the unusually wet weather.

But amidst the hunger and the poverty there were occasional glimpses of people enjoying life if sometimes it prompted critical letters in the local press. On 30 July 1859 an anonymous letter of complaint to the Leinster Express read:- Nuisance of a most dangerous character carried on every Sabbath day on the road from Kilberry to Dunrally Bridge, that of throwing large metal balls. A number of men and boys regularly spent the whole of the Lords Day at that disgraceful and dangerous amusement, almost in sight of a police station.’

More local excitement was generated when in the summer of 1861 two local men held a race on the main street of the town of Athy. Michael Melay, a gunsmith and William Cullen, also a gunsmith, were summonsed under the Town Improvement Act arising out of a race between them in Duke Street. Cullen, riding his own invention, a hand driven machine which he called ‘The Patent Ziranza’ raced against Mealy who was riding a Velocipede. This early example of a cycle race did not find favour with the Town Commissioners who prosecuted both men. The case against them was dismissed.

1860 saw the opening of the Provincial Agricultural Implement Depository in Leinster Street by William O’Neill who four years later would open an iron foundry on the premises. It would later become O’Neill Telford and subsequently Duthie Larges. This was also the year the first steam powered boat passed down the Canal, watched by a large crowd of onlookers at Athy.

The death of the local rector Rev. Frederick S. Trench following an accident at Preston’s Gate was perhaps the most noteworthy item of the year. The press reported on 28 December 1861 that ‘a beautiful stone pulpit was erected in the Athy Church as testimonial to memory of the late Rev. F.S. Trench’ and that the Duke of Leinster had built a handsome enclosure wall and improved the Church grounds.

Four years earlier the press claimed that the Duke had built ‘a mansion for the Roman Catholic clergy’. The year concluded with the holding of the Kildare Queens County and Carlow Horticultural Association Show in the People’s Park after a lapse of seven-eight years. In the following year the Horticultural Show was held in Athy’s Corn Exchange which is now the Courthouse.

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