Thursday, October 24, 1996

Poverty in 19th century Athy

During the 1860's widespread poverty and the precarious state of public health in Athy were constant sources of concern and worry. In January 1863 the local Medical Officer reported that the mortality rate in Athy was unusually high. He claimed that "six persons died on Old Christmas Day, two of them of the Low Fever alarmingly prevalent. The extensive use by the poor and the labouring classes of a cheap American bacon, which judging from appearance and smell hardly seemed fit for human food, is considered by many to predispose delicate or enfeeble constitutions to the attacks of disease".

On the 7th of March of the same year the Athy Town Commissioners decided not to illuminate the town on the occasion of the wedding of the Prince of Wales, on the grounds of "the extreme poverty at present existing in the town". For all the concern expressed by the Towns Commissioners their principal contribution to the eradication of disease in the town consisted of the periodic purchase of a load of lime to be given to the poor for whitewashing their houses. Street cleaning was still of the most rudimentary type and complaints of unsightly heaps of manure on the public roads in the town were common. The extent of the public health problem in Athy was obvious to all when the returns for the local Fever Hospital for the first three months of 1863 showed 107 new cases of fever.

At around midnight on Saturday 5th November 1864 a thatched cottage on the outskirts of Athy was burnt to the ground. Patrick Roche, a farm labourer, his wife Mary and two of their teenage children John and Bridget died in the fire. Following an inquest in the Workhouse on the following Monday the bodies were immediately brought to St. Michael's Cemetery where they were buried by candle light. The Medical Officer had refused to allow the friends of the Roche family to wake the bodies overnight.

An Editorial in the following week's local newspaper read "In the small hovel seven adults slept - four in one bed and three in the other. There was not a back door through which effectual or timely aid might have been extended. No back yard and but one small window. Their pig was a constant resident day and night in close proximity to the very bed where slept Roche, his wife and their son and daughter. If such is the true picture of the state of cabins on the outskirts of Athy, what must be expected from a close examination of the abodes of want in the courts and lanes in the heart of the town?"

The question went unanswered in an age when disease and poverty stood side by side with wealth and rank. The welfare state was to await another age.

The poverty on the streets and lanes of Athy of the 1860's was readily traceable to the bad employment situation then prevailing in the market town. Such jobs as were available tended to offer seasonal employment only at low rates of pay. For many family men the employment situation was never to improve even if jobs in the local mills were occasionally available. When the oat mill at Clonmullin owned by Michael Keating was burnt to the ground in March 1864 several local men were thrown out of work. The large four storey building was the victim of an arson attack by a disgruntled former worker.

Unemployed labourers in Athy saw their only possible hope in joining the ranks of the English army which for so long had a small detachment in the town. The Crimean War of 1853/1856 saw the first large scale influx of recruits from Athy, creating a tradition which was to be followed during the Boer War and the First World War. For those who remained at home the prospects were not encouraging. Shortly before Christmas 1864 the local builder W. Crampton found a family of four living in a twelve foot square, four foot high space dug out of a rick of straw on his land at the Carlow Road. The resulting publicity in the local newspaper prompted a meeting in the Town Hall on December 27th. It was there decided to raise funds to relieve "the distressing labouring poor by employing them in works of improvements in the town."

This showed a new social awareness for the problems of the poor of Athy. Despite this the townspeople's uphill struggle against hunger and disease took on an even greater urgency with the outbreak of cholera in the winter of 1866. The Fever Hospital was filled to overflowing and many deaths occurred.

The Town Commissioners response to the situation was the appointment in August 1868 of a man responsible for ensuring that all vagrants and beggars were kept out of Athy. Dressed in the overcoat and top hat supplied by the Town Commissioner Pat Walker was soon active in arresting vagrants, beggars and prostitutes whom he brought before the local Magistrates Court every day.

Throughout the 1870's the town’s only Medical Officer was constantly reporting to the Towns Commissioners on the unsanitary state of the town and the resulting dangers to public health. Time and again he reported in adverse terms on the state of the town and in 1873 complained directly to the local Government Board in Dublin. Accusing the Town Commissioners of Athy of being inactive and remiss in their duties the Medical Officer suggested that the local Government Board needed to pressurize the Towns Commissioners into taking necessary action to improve the sanitary state of the town. His efforts were in vain as by 1872 the "principal inhabitants" were more concerned with land tenure than they were with the unsanitary state of Athy.

Many more years were to pass before the necessary improvements were noted in the living conditions in Athy.

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