Thursday, February 20, 1997

Medieval Athy

Two weeks ago in the Town Hall the local branch of An Taisce hosted a lecture given by Mr. John Bradley, a lecturer in medieval history at Maynooth College. The title of the lecture was the ‘Medieval town in Ireland’ with particular reference to the towns of County Kildare. Those who braved the elements on that wintry night enjoyed a comprehensive treatment of the origins, nature and form of the urban settlement in Ireland. It prompted me to reflect on Athy in the medieval period, as to the type of communal facilities or arrangements which existed in the town. Squalor and filth was an integral part of the street life of that period. Towns varied in their tolerance towards the keeping of dunghills outside houses. One writer noted -
‘Every house had a heap of refuse outside it, partly because many horses and pigs were kept in the towns, and partly because destruction of refuse by burning was not considered safe’.

Athy’s charter of 1515 is silent on such matters but it may be assumed that there existed some system for disposal of waste. One author writes of the period -
‘Street cleaning defeated the authorities of every medieval town. Despite regulations often repeated, householders persisted in dumping refuse and sewage in the streets, and allowing their animals and poultry to foul public thoroughfares at will. Few people concerned themselves if dead animals lay about unburied for days, and butchers who commonly did their slaughtering in the streets, allowed the blood and offal to drain away as best they could. The channel which ran down the middle of most streets became an open sewer, and on hot and humid days, it must have stunk abominably’.

In English towns for this period there survive some references to the disposal of refuse. In Cambridge in 1402 dung and filth was allowed to accumulate in heaps for up to seven days while in York in the late fourteenth century any accumulation that could be called a heap was prohibited. It is likely that in these English towns as in Athy there would have existed ‘carters’ or scavengers’ who would have removed such materials for a small sum. In the 12th of July, 1890 issue of the Kildare Observer it was reported that at the meeting of the Town Commissioners, the ‘scavenger’ who was normally required to be in attendance to preserve order in the town fair was not noticed. The reason apparently was the latest suit of clothes, paid for him by the Commissioners, was of a brown colour rather than the traditional red which had made it easy to distinguish him from other people at the fair. It was suggested and agreed, that the colour be altered and that a green suit would be used instead. The job of the scavenger was to keep the marketplace and the fair clean and free of all dirt or obstructions. His appointment might have been a consequence of the Town Commissioners meeting in September 1886 ‘when the dirty conditions of the streets of the town were once more discussed. It is really time that something should be done to remedy this crying evil.’

It would appear that the ‘scavenger’ was unable to perform his role adequately as the sheer volume of his work overwhelmed him. One anonymous writer, more cynical than most, was inspired to pen a piece entitled ‘Sweet Athy’ which he stated was inspired by the ‘present superfluity of mud and gas in Athy’.
“Sweet Athy! Loveliest village in Kildare,
Where muddy streets appear with mud so fair,
How often I wandered down thy street,
While lovely clinging slush adorned my feet.
Here nature holds her own with regal sway,
No wandering scavenger e’er mars the day,
And if per chance he comes to ply his art,
With shovel, brush and corporation cart.
Poetic soul he takes not all the dirt,
Fearing dame nature he per chance might hurt,
The better part he leaves upon the ground,
To be by passing footsteps spread around.”

But the Towns administration was not always dilatory in its treatment of such matters and where required reverted to law. From time to time the courts had to intervene in such matters. The Leinster Leader for the 13th February, 1904 reported that -
“At the Athy Petty Session on Tuesday a large number of parties were at the incidence of the Urban Council fined for creating obstructions by allowing heaps of manure to accumulate outside the doors on the streets at their residences. At this time the occupants of small houses sell whatever manure is accumulating in their back premises to the local shopkeepers and farmers. The manure has of course to be transferred to the streets where it is sometimes allowed to remain for days, constituting a source of danger and presenting a most unsightly appearance. It is a pity however that the real culprits, the purchasers, can apparently escape scot free. In one case disposed of on Tuesday the defendant, a delicate, sickly and indeed hungry-looking old woman who was in receipt of 1 shilling and 6 pence a week outdoor relief was ordered to pay in fines and costs exactly what she received for the manure, 2 shillings. Yet in the case it was shown that the purchaser had bought the manure fully a week before it was transferred to the street. Its failure to remove it resulting in the unfortunate woman who sold it being punished in a manner almost beyond bearing. Neglect of this description is certainly a crime.”

Today happily such problems are a thing of the past.

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