The following is the text of a lecture delivered by Rev. John Brady, Meath Diocesan Historian, in Athboy in March 1950. This was just one of a series of lectures delivered around Co. Meath at that time by Fr. Brady. The lecture was held, under the auspices of Meath Vocational Education Committee, in the Vocational School on the Kells Road, Athboy and the large classroom was packed to capacity.
The origin of Athboy is lost in antiquity. Its Irish name Ath Buidhe Tlachta, the Yellow Ford of Tlachta, suggests that it came into existence as a ford on the route to Tlachta, which was one of the pagan sanctuaries of ancient Ireland. In Christian times it was the scene of a battle in 1022 when Maelseachlainn, King of Meath, defeated the Norsemen of Dublin, and in 1167 it was the meeting place of a synod, which was attended by Gelasius, Archbishop of Armagh; St. Laurence O’Toole, Archbishop of Dublin; Roderic O’Connor, the High King, and many other dignitaries of Church and State. Five years later a meeting took place at Tlachta, or The Hill of Ward, between O’Rourke, Prince of Breffni, and Hugh de Lacy, who had become Lord of Meath. What took place is not clear, but O’Rourke was assassinated by the foreigners and his head impaled at Dublin.
As Lord of Meath, de Lacy granted the ancient territory of Lune to one of his followers, Peter Messet, who in 1213 died as Baron of Lune – hence the present division, the Barony of Lune. Messett had no male heirs and his inheritance passed to his three daughters one of whom, Nicola, married a Tuite, one of the de Lacy entourage, who had settled on the present Westmeath – Longford border. After his death she married John de Loundres, a nephew of John de Loundres, the English Archbishop of Dublin (1213-1228). He became Lord of Athboy and their descendants were settled at Athboy for several centuries and it became an Anglo-Irish town of some importance.
Being on the fringe of the Pale, Athboy was subject to sudden incursions of the Irish and the necessity of the place being properly enclosed in walls was urgent. Consequently several grants were made by successive Kings of England whereby customs were levied on certain goods being brought to Athboy for sale. These customs were known as murage and pavage, i.e. used for building and repairing the town walls and for the construction and maintenance of roads. In 1447, Peter Grant, late Provost of Athboy, and John Watchull and Thomas Orell, burgesses of the town, were prosecuted because they had received £20 of the customs of murage and pavage from Michaelmas, 1442, which they did not expend on the walling and paving of the town. In 1508, William More, late Provost, was fined for taking toll “of divers (sic) persons unknown” without authority when he was in office. The gates giving entry to the town were Wray’s Gate, Five Mile Gate and the Westgate, and the thoroughfares were Wray’s Street or High Street, East Street, West Street, Trim Street and Connaught Street. It is likely that some of these were alternative names.
During the middle ages Athboy was a place of considerable trade and the names of some of the merchants have survived. In 1522 the export of Irish wool except under licence was prohibited. Eight years later we find Martin Blake, John Browne, William Canley and Patrick Mawerle, merchants of Athboy, exporting wool to Liverpool by way of Drogheda. There is reason for believing that the Blakes had connections with Galway and this may account for giving Connaught Street its name. Other merchants trading extensively with England at this time were Stephen Dowdall, Thomas Corbett, Patrick Browne, James Dermott and Thomas Casey. Several generations of Caseys were prominent in the commercial life of Athboy. Michael Casey, merchant, died in 1591. His son, Thomas, died in 1619 and his son, Michael, was outlawed in 1642. Other Athboy merchants also outlawed at this time were Richard Browne, James Fagan, Robert Plunkett and James Talbot. A contemporary record tells that James Dowdall, a member of the Corporation of Athboy, was frequently imprisoned under James I (1603-1625) for harbouring Priests. In 1588 he had been fined £40 for not going to the State Church and receiving communion according to the Protestant rite.
Like many other trading centres in the Pale, Athboy was a borough town from at least 1330. This meant that the land on which the town was built, together with adjacent territory, was conferred by Royal Charter upon the citizens at an annual rent. It also conferred on them the rite of self-government. The chief citizen, known as the Provost or Portreeve, was elected annually by his fellow citizens and he was the chief magistrate, possessing wide powers of jurisdiction over his fellow townsmen in the management of local affairs and in the control of industry. In times of danger he was also the leader of the armed forces in the town. The burgesses were the joint owners of the townlands and it could be disposed of only with their common consent. In addition to having the right of electing the Provost, the Burgesses had the right of making laws for the good government of the town. The original burgesses were the owners of houses, shops and gardens. But in time their numbers were increased by admission of freemen.
Being a burgess or freeman carried exemption from various tolls and customs which were paid by strangers and others trading with the town. Thus, the townsmen were secured in the enjoyment of profits of trade by various restrictions imposed on merchant strangers. It is interesting to find several Athboy merchants in 1535 accused of forestalling by going outside the confines of the town and purchasing cattle which were being brought to the Athboy market and afterwards selling them to a Dublin butcher.
A renewal of the Charter of 1408 states that “the town had been from time immemorial an ancient borough situated near the Marches, but was now depopulated, in resisting the English rebels and Irish enemies, by calamities and plagues for many years”, and that the Provost and Commonality of the town claimed the privilege of electing a Provost annually from among themselves and of presenting him before the Lord of Athboy, in his castle, every year on the Feast of St Michael. They also claimed the right of electing an officer called a Serjeant “to perform the duties appertaining to the pleas and execution of judgements, according to the customs of the town”, and of having a weekly market on Wednesday and Thursday from nine o’clock until evening. The Charter also provided that no foreign merchant should sell cloth in the town by retail, or remain in the town with his goods for more than 40 days without licence of the Provost and burgesses and that they might have an annual fair to be held during 15 days, namely, on the eve, the feast of SS Philip and James, and for 13 days following. In addition it granted that all foreign merchants should pay in aid and defence of the town, for every 12 pieces of English cloth sold, 1d: for every piece of Irish cloth, 3d; for every horse load of salt or iron, 1d; for every horse load of corn, ¼ d ; for every heifer and every cow, 1d. No foreign merchant might sell his wares by retail in the town under pain of forfeiture and all strangers selling goods were bound to contribute to all tollages and other things, for the support of the town, according to the quantity of the wares bought and sold.
For more than a century before its abolition in 1840 the Corporation of Athboy had ceased to function; but it was kept in existence solely for the purpose of returning two members to Parliament and to enable the Darnley family to collect the tolls and customs as their private property, which they did until 1828 when the people refused to pay. It ceased to be a parliamentary borough with the passing of the Union in 1801 and the Darnley family received the handsome compensation of £15,000 for the extinction of the borough and as a reward for voting for the Union.
Who were the Darnleys? William Bligh, a merchant of Plymouth, became agent for the Adventurers, as those who subscribed money from 1642 onwards for the conduct of the war against the Irish, were called. In 1654 his son, John, received extensive lands in Meath, in particular in the Barony of Lune. He became M.P. for Athboy in 1660 and died 16 years later. His son, Thomas, married a daughter of James Naper of Loughcrew, another Cromwellian, and their son, John, was the first of the family to be raised to the Peerage. Through marriage with Lady Theodosia Hyde, who was Baroness Clifton in her own right, he became Baron Clifton of Rathmore in 1721. Two years later he was created Viscount of Darnley of Athboy and in 1725 Earl of Darnley
For many years travel by road was the only means of communication between Athboy and the outside world. Then came the postal service and, later on, the railway. A coach road from Dublin to Navan was constructed in 1729 and was extended to Kells in 1733. This road was made with a parliamentary grant. On 26th February 1731, a private bill for repairing the road from The Black Bull Inn to Athboy received its first reading in the Irish Parliament. It passed all stages three days later and received the Royal assent on 10th March 1731. The text of the bill declared that the section of road “by reason of several hollow ways and of the many and heavy carriages frequently passing through the same, is become so ruinous and bad that in the winter season many parts thereof are impassible for waggons, carts, cars and carriages and is very dangerous for travellers”. The Act directed the erection of one or more turnpike or turnpikes and set out the scale of charges which were to be collected over a period of fifteen years. They are worth reciting for the varied list of vehicles they mention:
“For every coach, berlin, chariot, calash, chaise or chair, drawn by any less number of horses than six and greater than one, the sum of 6d.; for every wain, cart or carriage, with two wheels, having more than one horse, mare, gelding or mule, the sum of 3d.; for every carriage commonly called a chair or chaise, with one horse, mare or gelding, the sum of 2d.; for every cart or other carriage having but one horse, 1d. ; for every horse, mare, gelding mule or ass laden or unladen and not drawing, ½ d. ; for every drove of oxen or cattle, the sum of 10d. per score; and for every drove of calves, hogs, sheep or lambs, 5d. per score.”
After eight years it was found that the income raised by the turnpikes was insufficient to repair the road and advertisements appeared in the Dublin newspapers from a number of private individuals planning a lottery. They proposed the raising of £18,000 by 72,000 tickets at a crown each and that a third of each prize should be sunk for repairing the road. The proposed prizes were 1 at £500; 10 at £100; 10 at £50; 20 at £25; 40 at £10; 60 at £5; 7380 at £2; £20 for the first ticket drawn and £20 for the last ticket. I cannot say with what success it met.
The renovation of the road suggests the existence of a coach service. In 1792 Laurence Monaghan of Delvin, the owner of the coach plying between Castlepollard and Dublin, announced his intention of retiring from business. This service left Castlepollard on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday mornings at 8am and arrived at Dublin at 4pm on the same day. It returned on Wednesday, Friday and Sunday, leaving Dublin at 8am. Another service, the Killeshandra Day Coach, passed through Athboy on Monday, Wednesday and Friday en route for Dublin. It left Killeshandra at 5 a.m. and arrived at Moira Hotel, Lower Sackville Street, at 5pm. The returning cars left Dublin at 6am. on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday and reached their terminus twelve hours later. A later service, the Trim and Athboy Day Coach, travelled every day except Sunday. It left Athboy at 6am. and arrived at its terminus, 14 Stoneybatter, four and a half hours later. The return journey, which took five hours, began at 2.30pm. A car travelled to Oldcastle each day, except Sunday leaving Athboy at 8.30am. and from 1847 a car left each evening at 5pm. for Ferns Lock railway station. During the summer of 1853 the Great Northern Railway line to Kells was completed, thus bringing the railway nearer to Athboy. Nine years later the Dublin and Meath Railway (later The Midland Great Western Railway) also linked up Kells; but it was not until 25th of February 1864, that the first train steamed into Athboy.
Prior to the arrival of the railway all merchandise from Dublin was transported on the Granard Caravan which left Dublin each day at 1.30. Giving evidence at a Royal Commission in 1830, a Director of the Royal Canal mentioned that his company had contemplated an extension from Blackshade, near Longwood, to Athboy and Kells “passing through an amazingly fine country, a great part of which is bog, and which would afford a large supply of fuel to the Dublin market, where it is much desired. The length is 28 English miles and the estimate is £79,000 for its completion”. Like an earlier scheme which proposed extending the Boyne Canal, which linked Drogheda with Navan, to Trim and Athboy, it came to nothing. Prior to 1799, Trim was the post town for Athboy, but in that year a Post Office was opened in Athboy, probably in the Inn which had been erected by Earl Darnley. In 1821, John Askin was combined Post Master, Inn Keeper and Baker. From 1st of April to the 30th of September the Dublin mail arrived at 7.30am and dispatched at 6pm. From the 1st of October to 31st March the corresponding hours were 9am and 4pm.
Combined dispensaries were opened at Athboy and Ballivor in 1819. They were established by Earl Darnley and were managed by a committee of seven of the local landowners. They were financed by local subscriptions augmented by a grant from the Grand Jury. Prior to this there was a Doctor in private practice and it is interesting to note that in 1817 the future Doctor R. R. Madden, the distinguished historian of the United Irishmen, was serving his apprenticeship to the resident doctor.
In 1773 there was a distillery in Athboy owned by James Weldon and three years later James Gaughran was a distiller and Roger Maguire a brewer. Philip Maguire, a distiller, died in 1770. But the only permanent industry in Athboy, if that term can be applied to it, was a flour mill. During the latter half of the 18th century tillage received a fillip from the bounties on flour granted by the Irish parliament, and in 1796 James Gaughran milled 1281cwt. He became bankrupt in 1807 and in 1821 the mill was owned by a Mr. Leech. Twenty years later it was worked by Messrs. John Webb & Co.
The absence of industries meant that a considerable section of the population was obliged to look to the land for employment and from statements submitted by Father Rickard, P.P. (1830-1848) it is possible to give a comprehensive picture of how many inhabitants of Athboy and its neighbourhood subsisted at the era of the famine, when the population of Ireland was approaching its peak.
The parish of Athboy contained 6,765 acres 27 perch, and 357 acres 17 perch of bog. Rathmore, including Moyagher, contained 2,863a 1r. 38p besides a large tract of bog containing about 300 acres plantation measure. There was no public common land, although formerly, when Athboy was a corporate town, it had more than 1,000 acres of commons. Of the land in the parish, a few acres were given over to plantation, about 6,000 were in pasture 3,000 acres were under tillage. The pasture lands were of the best description and, while fit for tillage, were under sheep and cows. The average rent for arable land was from 30/- to £3-10-0 and the town parks were let at £3-10-0. The conacre system prevailed to a great extent. For potato land the tenant paid £7 or £8 and for oat land £4 to £8 per acre. Father Rickard did not consider the conacre crop of oats at the prevailing rate of corn to be a remunerative crop and added that no other consideration than that of actual value induced the tenants to take conacre.
The land was owned by the Earl of Darnley, who occasionally resided; by Sir Francis Hopkins, an absentee; by General Bligh, an absentee; by Lord Trimbleston, an absentee and Sir Thomas Chapman, and was held for the most part by tenants, whom Father Rickard divided in four classes. The 1st class were eight in number and held from 500 to 800 acres each; the 2nd class, ten in number, held 100 acres each; the 3rd class, 26 in number, held from 20 to 60 acres each; and the 4th class, the most numerous, held from 2 to 12 acres each.
In the mid thirties of the last century, the population of Athboy parish was 6,952 (sic) and of this number about 900 were labourers, 250 of then being in constant employment and the rest seeking casual work. The only employment then available was on the land; but it was not sufficient to absorb all the workers. The food of the labouring man consisted of potatoes and he endeavoured to plant a sufficient quantity on which he existed when out of work. When food became short Father Rickard appealed to the rich for contributions on behalf of the poor. Their clothing was generally wretched and ragged, and they could hardly be otherwise in view of the prevailing rates of wages. In summer a labourer was generally paid 8d and in winter 10d a day, without food. For planting and digging potatoes and for harvesting he got a shilling or even more. Women and children were occasionally employed during the harvest and other seasons at 1d. a day. Father Rickard estimated that the average labourer earned in a year, including harvest work and all other advantages and means of living, between £10 and £11.
The cabins in which the majority of the poor lived were rented at from £1-10-0 to £3 a year and some had from about 3 to 5 perches attached to them. Occasionally the tenant paid his rent partly by labour. These hovels were made of mud and were often without chimneys or windows. The furniture consisted of a few stools and a few trifling articles. The bedding for the most part was straw strewn on the ground or laid on a few sticks raised somewhat from the ground. In about 50 or 60 instances two families inhabited the same cabin. Father Rickard was of the opinion that conditions had not improved during the twenty years following the end of the Napoleonic war, which brought about a sharp decline in tillage, and he added that the population was rapidly increasing. There were 19 public houses in Athboy itself and one in the country besides a number of unlicensed houses.
There were about 80 widows and children in the parish, some of them supported by their own industry, others dependent on the alms they received from the people. There were also about 100 people, who from old age or infirmity were incapable of work. They were supported by their children and the bounty of the people. Nearly 200 others subsisted by begging. While no one had died from actual destitution, from time to time, Father Rickard had known many to be in great want of subsistence.
The sick of the parish could attend the dispensary from 1819 and those who were unable to attend were visited by the doctor on the recommendation of any subscriber. A report on the state of health in his district in 1836, submitted by the doctor, stated that in the previous two years there had been freedom from fever; but when it did exist as an epidemic the cause might be attributed to the want of common necessities of life amongst the poor. He frequently found instances where actual disease was brought on by want of wholesome food. Their food consisted chiefly of potatoes and they were destitute of almost every comfort, having bad beds and clothing. Drinking was increasing to an alarming extent.
Elsewhere I have dealt with the churches and schools of the parish. But, in brief, Athboy has been a parish since the 12th century and the parish church of medieval times stood on the site of the present Protestant church, the bell tower of which probably dates from pre-reformation days. From the 14th century the Archbishop of Armagh was the patron of the parish. That is to say, he had the right to nominate the future parish priest whenever the parish became vacant.
In addition to the parish church there was also a Carmelite Friary in the town from about the 14th century. It was suppressed in 1539 and its property passed into the hands of Thomas Casey, an Athboy merchant, whom we have met already. Some time after 1625 the Carmelites returned to Athboy; but the outbreak of war some sixteen years later and the consequent Cromwellian persecution drove them forth to return no more. Meanwhile the Catholics of Athboy continued to hear Mass, sometimes in the open air or in a succession of wretched Mass-houses; and it was not until the middle thirties of the last century that the present church was built. It was completed in 1845.
Transcribed by Bernard Walsh.