The Corporation of Athy was established by a charter of 1613; it consisted of a Sovereign, who was a justice of the peace, two bailiffs, twelve burgesses and a recorder. The freemen of the town elected, for life, the burgesses, and from them the sovereign and bailiffs were elected annually. Until the Act of Union the borough returned two members to parliament. Assizes were held in the court house and a Court of Record determined pleas within the borough and its liberties, which extended half a mile in each direction from White Castle.
Within seventy years of the establishment of the corporation a visitor thus described Athy, "another corporate town situate on the river Barrow, very commodious for trade, but no manufacture being driven, poor.....".
The corporation was composed of the neighboring gentry who only appeared "some set days in the year, to receive what their collectors have exacted by the toll and customs for the fairs and markets, so the town seems to be totally neglected, the revenue being never applied. to any public use or general good of the corporation or improvement of the town; no buildings here to be found.....".
But the gentry of the county do not seem to have been always so neglectful; they had responsibility for the Turnpike roads through the county and they were the first in the country, in 1729, to commence this work, for which tolls were collected. From 1756 fairs were held in Athy six times a year. At the end of the l8th century several Volunteer units were based in the town with names such as the Athy Carbiniers and the Athy Rangers; in 1797 the Duke of Leinster was an officer in a yeomanry unit called the Athy Cavalry.
A French traveler in the town in 1790 had "an excellent supper at the inn, two chickens, ham, cabbage and potatoes, for three shillings; no charge for the beds, and half a crown for the horses". He liked the town's people, remarking that "the girls wear very elegant straw hats, unlike anything seen near Dublin". The children greeted the visitor with deep bows and had "very pretty faces with large blue eyes, but were extremely pale and have not the healthy appearance of children in the mountains".
A description of Athy six years later indicates that the town was being improved; the duke of Leinster gave land for the building of a new catholic church, dedicated to St. Michael, while Mr. Keating of Narraghmore subscribed the funds. Sir James Delahunty, Knight of the Trowel, was the contractor for the building of the handsome new bridge across the river, as an inscription on it proves. The cockpit with its octagonal roof and gallery for spectators, which was recently restored, also dates from the l8th century when there was a special rate of six pence half-penny per stage on the canal boats for game cocks. Early in the l9th century an illicit still was operating in Woodstock castle and the story is told that, in a very severe Winter the distiller ran short of fuel; he offered a reward to the first person to reach the castle with a load of fuel and the winner was a man from the bog who brought a creel of turf across the frozen river.
A coloured map of the town, which was entirely owned by the duke of Leinster, dated 1827, shows mills on both sides of the bridge and White Castle in use as a jail; the courthouse fronts on to the market square, with a church behind it and close to Mr. Kennedy's garden which runs to the river.
By 1830 a new jail had been built on the Carlow road, at a cost of £6,000, of which the Duke had given £2,000 and the site; it had a governor's house, matron's room, chapel, exercise yards, work rooms, three solitary and thirty two other cells.
Athy was described as 'pleasantly situated on the river Barrow, on the mail coach road from Dublin to Cork... the surrounding country is remarkably healthy, in 1831. Both the Established Church and the Catholic Church had two parishes, and a new church for the former was about to be built by the duke. There were also Calvinist and Wesleyan Churches, and a Protestant school with 120 pupils in a room behind the courthouse. The Catholics had two school rooms, with 400 boys and 100 girls in attendance.
The Duke of Leinster had given the site and £100 for the schools in 1826 and voluntary subscriptions, including £100 from Mrs. Dooley for the girls, school, completed the task. The Duke, and other gentlemen, also subscribed to a dispensary and a charity for the aged and distressed, while his lordship also built a house which he leased to the parish priest at a nominal rent.
Two Dominicans had returned to the environs of their old friary and lived in a modern building where they had a little chapel. The police barracks was in White Castle and there was a military barrack to hold a troop of cavalry. There were 733 houses in 'one long street divided by the river'. A daily fly- boat for passengers operated on the canal. Fairs and markets were held regularly, the latter on Tuesdays and Saturdays when corn, butter, poultry and meat were the principal produce; turf, from the surrounding bogs, was cheap. There was extensive milling of corn on the Barrow, and grain was sent to Dublin by barge. Altogether the picture of the town painted in these pre-famine years was one of prosperity and progress.
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