Early 19th century Kildare towns

In 1845 it was estimated that the population of the country was over eight and a half million; a decade later it was reduced to six and a half million as a result of the Great Famine.

If the disaster of those years was less felt in the eastern side of the country it is interesting nevertheless to note the population changes, and the status the main towns, of that period in this county.

Naas and Athy were the two principal towns, both having court houses, jails and market houses. The jail at Naas, built in 1833 at a cost of £14,000, was a “substantial and well built edifice of hewn limestone, on the radiating principle, consisting of four detached ranges of building, one of which contained rooms for debtors, and a hospital. The other three wings had sixty cells and seven day rooms, ten airing-yards, and a neat chapel.”

It was further described as being “well adapted for classification; the entrance is between two semicircular bastions.”

The Naas court house was “a neat building consisting of a centre and two wings faced with granite, and having a receding portico of four columns, supporting a cornice and pediment.”

The population of Naas in 1837 was 3808, and by 1920 it was very similar, at 3860 which included a staff of twelve and 300 inmates in the workhouse.

The entry in a Directory of 1910 which claimed that in Athy “from 1810 to 1890 White’s Castle was used as a gaol,” is clearly wrong.

In 1824 the jail in the castle was described as “the worst of its kind in Ireland,” and it was replaced by a new jail in 1830.

It had cost $6,000, of which £2,000 was given by the Duke of Leinster, who had also donated the site. The country paid the balance of the cost.

It was “a well arranged building on the radiating principle, the governor’s house being in the centre, and comprises six airing yards, six day rooms, two work rooms, and thirty two sleeping and two solitary cells, with a matron’s room, two hospitals and a chapel.”

Athy had two chapels, one in St. Michael’s and the other in Tankardstown.

The former was “a handsome spacious edifice built in 1796 on Land given by the duke Leinster, and with a donation by Maurice Keating of Narraghmore. The Duke had also built a house for the parish priest in 1826.”

The town had a population of 4,494 in 1837, and of 3,600 in 1901.

Maynooth had also traditionally benefited from the benevolence of the Duke of Leinster, whose main seat was approached through an entrance at the end of the town. He had encouraged the establishment of a seminary for students studying for the priesthood in Stoyte House, at the other end of the town, in 1795.

At that time the parish chapel was described as “very plain”, but a new chapel on a larger scale has commenced, which when completed will be a handsome structure.”

The Christmas and Midsummer quarter sessions for the eastern division of the county were “held in the neat court house” at Maynooth. In 1837 the population was recorded at 2053, but by 1920 it was just 900, a remarkable decline.

The chapel at Leixlip in 1837 was “a small edifice, situated on the banks of the Rye Water, and is about to be replaced by a handsome structure of larger dimensions.” Then the population was 1159, but it also dropped substantially to 650 by 1920, possibly due to the closure of a distillery there.
At Celbridge there were 2421 inhabitants in 1837, of which about 600 were employed in “the woollen manufacture buildings” which had been established in 1805. There was a chapel, and a fever hospital with six wards and a dispensary, in 1813. by 1920 the population of Celbridge had fallen to 850, mainly due to the closure of a paper mill.

Newbridge, with a population of 577, was described in 1837 as being “of very recent origin, and appears to have arisen since the creation of extensive barracks for cavalry in 1816. There is an RC chapel and a friary.”

By 1920 the town had developed into an important commercial centre accommodating not only the large floating military population there, but also serving as the main social and shopping catering for the army personnel and families from the Curragh Camp which, since its establishment in 1858, had transformed the character of not only Newbridge, but also the other towns within reach, from dull provincial places into vibrant multi-cultural recreational centres for the gentlemen and their ladies, and the other ranks of the British army.

Courtesy of the Leinster Leader
March 2003