This short article takes a brief look at some elements of Athboy in the 1820-30s: the proliferation of publicans in the town and the presence of a seemingly controversial preacher.
When you walk down the main street through Athboy (by which I mean that one street which has four different names depending on where you are), you walk by a whole lot of different businesses – most notably, public houses. If there is anything Athboy is not short of it is pubs and this has always been the case, at least as far back as 1824. That was the year that New Holland became Australia and in the United States of America, the Presidential election was decided by the House of Representatives after none of the four candidates received the required majority of votes. 1824 also saw the publication of Pigot’s Commercial Directory of Ireland, essentially a guide to tell you who what the local businesses in each town in Ireland were, and who owned them, it also included local gentry and clergymen too. Think of it as a nineteenth century Yellow pages.
If you are to look up Athboy in Pigot you will find the local gentry, nobility and clergy, as well as the local merchants. Eight of Athboy’s merchants at the time are listed as publicans and there was one innkeeper. Of these number only five had publican down as their their sole occupation, they were Thomas Askin, Thomas Conlon, George Murphy, Edward Norris and James Ward. Whereas the rest ran their public houses alongside grocery businesses. The towns innkeeper John Askin, was also a baker. A possible reason to suggest the reason why Athboy required so many pubs could be because it was a market town, these kinds of public houses were known as spirit groceries. Pigot notes their was a corn market each Thursday and four fairs held each year.
However, the numbers that Pigot gives us for publicans in Athboy does not match with a later account given to the Poor Inquiry by Rev. James Rickard (who would later go on to build St. James’ R.C. Church) in 1836. Rickard told the inquiry, which was set up to examine the condition of Ireland’s poor, that he knew of nineteen public houses in the area. Whether he meant in the town itself or just in the Athboy-Rathmore parish is not clear, but one thing is for certain, Athboy has never been short of pubs.
On the subject of priests and the 1830s in Athboy – in 1835 Rev. Lawerence Nolan, once the Catholic curate in Collinstown became Church of Ireland curate in Athboy. Nolan was a controversial figure having been suspended from the Catholic church in 1834, seemingly converted to the Church of Ireland, and then found himself banned from preaching in the Dublin diocese by the Church of Ireland Archbishop Richard Whatley. In Whatley’s memoirs Nolan is referred to as having been found by the Archbishop to have been ‘miserably ignorant’ scripture, nevertheless Nolan continued to preach, finding himself in Athboy where he gained the nickname of ‘Larry O’Gaff’.
There is one notable incident involving Nolan that occurred some time in August 1835. Nolan held a meeting in Athboy, which The Evening Mail recorded as having been attended by one-hundred Catholics and a priest who had traveled twelve miles to hear Nolan preach. Then goes on to state how Nolan had been greeted in a packed vestry room by well wishers who told him:
“thank God, and thank you sir, I will never enter a mass house again.”
A letter to Nolan from John Simmonds was published in the 2nd December 1835 Freemans Journal refuting this statement saying: “[I]f you had been so great a favorite with the Roman Catholics, whose faith you abandoned, why, I ask, should all the police in the surrounding district have been called into Athboy on that occasion?”
Simmonds goes on to explain Nolan did indeed have a small audience which he describes as “two females, of doubtful character and one or two interested creatures”. Then goes on to recount how it has become “notorious” among the laymen of Athboy that Nolan challenged members of the Catholic clergy to meet him ‘in controversy’ and when his challenge was answered, Nolan backed down. Simmonds’ letter also alleges that Nolan had threatened to have his own mother arrested when she came to visit him.
Nolan remained in Athboy until 1837, he seems to have been a figure of much controversy around the town and further afield. While Simmonds’ letter is clearly very biased against Nolan and his preaching, the fact he was problem enough to be criticized by the protestant Archbishop of Dublin shows that this was a man who stirred up trouble wherever he went.