When war was declared in 1914 Major Henry Lefroy, a relation of the Lefroys of Cardenton, Athy, was given command of a recruiting area of the Munster Fusiliers and the Royal Irish Regiment. He was later to report that recruits coming forward invariably said "Leave out the cry 'come and fight for our home' we have none, our homes are not fit for animals". Lefroy suggested to his superiors that an Act similar to the Labourers Act under which Boards of Guardians provided houses for agricultural workers should be brought in to provide houses for soldiers on their return from the war.
A Parliamentary Bill was eventually brought forward and all recruiting officers were instructed to tell recruits that approximately 40,000 houses would be provided for Irish ex-soldiers at the end of the Great War. The Bill became law in 1919.
On the passing of the Irish Treaty in December 1921 the British Government reduced the number of houses to be provided to 3,600 for the entire 32 counties. At the same time a Trust was established and provided with £1.3 million to complete the building programme at a maximum cost of £500 per house. Difficulties between the Trustees delayed the implementation of the scheme. It was not until 1925 that the Trustees sanctioned a scheme of six cottages for ex-soldiers in Athy.
In a letter dated the 6th of May, 1925 Major Lefroy confirmed that
"the Trustees agreed to commence building six houses at Athy ......the estimate for the scheme being £545.00 per house ......... each with a floor area of 542 sq. ft." Expressing regret that the Trustees financial position did not allow them to erect houses of a class to which they believe the ex-service men to be entitled, Major Lefroy considered that the promises made to the ex-service men were not kept even though "this small and inferior (house) type exceeds the available amount per house".
The six houses were erected on lands formerly known as the Bleach Yard, an area in which flax was laid out for drying and bleaching in the 18th century. The cottages are known to this day as The Bleach Cottages, although older residents often refer to them as Sydney Terrace after Sydney Minch of Rockfield House who was the local representative of the British Legion for many years.
In 1983 I interviewed the late Mrs. Cathy Kelly who for many years was housekeeper to the Dominicans and who lived in the area. She recalled the original tenants appointed to the Bleach Cottages in 1926. Tom Aldridge was in No. 1 and next door was Mrs. Casey, later Mrs. Archie Sullivan, whose first husband died from wounds inflicted in World War I. Pat or "Sixty" Kelly lived in No. 3. He was Caretaker in the Town Hall for many years and sported a waxed moustache and a nickname which was reputed to be his Army number. The last of the original tenants according to Mrs. Kelly was Mick Dunphy who lived in the corner house at No. 6.
The fallibility of memory no doubt led my informant to give me four additional names as original tenants of what was a six house scheme. Those named were Messrs. Houlihan, Corcoran, Donnelly, and Mrs. Crampton formerly Youell. The origin of the Bleach Cottages is undoubtedly known to many. What is not known are the untold stories which each of those original tenants could tell of the horrors of War and the pain and suffering of those who lost loved ones.