Thursday, May 29, 1997

Refuse collection in 19th century Athy

Much of life in Athy is carried on in a seamless and carefree manner. We have the amenities of modern society to thank for this, whether it be the water in our taps, the heat from our radiators or the weekly collection of rubbish from our doors. This was brought home to me most acutely while I perused notes I had taken many years ago from back issues of the Nationalist Newspapers dating as far back as the turn of the century. What struck me was the very same facilities that we take for granted were in their absence the source of many problems in the town. In an era before internal plumbing in houses was commonplace, the inhabitants of the town had to concern themselves with the disposal of all forms of domestic waste and refuse. This gave rise to a particular problem which was reported in the paper on the 13th February 1904.

“At the Athy Petty Session on Tuesday a larger number of parties were at the behest 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 out door 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. It’s failure to remove it resulted in the unfortunate woman who sold it being punished in a manner almost beyond bearing. Neglect of this description is certainly a crime.”

The principal complaint of the writer was what he perceived as the inequitable treatment of a poor, old woman. Of interest to the social historian is the detail the report provides regarding the living conditions of the period.

Towns varied in their tolerance towards the keeping of dunghills outside private 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.’ 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.

Up to the last century Athy Council had a centre at Green Alley and another in the back Square for the accumulation of manure collected from the streets which was then auctioned off every few months to local farmers.

Refuse collection was as you would expect not a service provided in mediaeval towns. Squalor and filth was an integral part of street life of that time. Householders disposed of their rubbish by dumping it outside the town walls or into the river which ran through or around the town. An Act of 1388 prohibited the pollution of rivers and ordered that refuse be carted away. It was around this time that towns such as Athy began to formalise arrangements for disposal of refuse and designated specific areas as dumping sites. The modern system of refuse collection began with the Public Health Ireland Act 1875 which required local Councils to provide for the collection of refuse from private houses on appointed days during the week.

The writer, Theo Richmond, in his book ‘Konin’ dealing with his mothers home town in Poland noted the arrangements the townspeople had for the disposal of waste in the 1920’s -

‘We shared our toilet with two other families. When it came to cleaning, every family had to do it - wipe the wooden seat and so on. The seat was on top of a kind of wooden box. Underneath was a deep hole in the ground. Everything from the seven toilets went into the same hole. Late on Friday night a Polish peasant with a horse and cart came along. There was an opening in the ground outside the shed. They used a long pole with a bucket on the end to get everything out. They poured it into a tank on the back of the cart and took it to the farmers who used it as manure, so they took it away for nothing’.

A memoir of the mid-19th century recalls the individual known as the nightsoil man :-

‘There was the man who came, mysteriously, in the night, every month or so, to empty the earth closet, the little shed screened by bushes, which stood in the corner of the tiny yard by the side of the house. No one ever talked about him, the nightsoil man with his horse and creaking cart. He came when we were all supposed to be asleep and it was proper to behave as though he did not exist’.

Life today is made relatively easy by the public utilities available to us. The nightsoil man, the public lamp lighter and the “scavenger” are no more and in their place are the highly trained technicians who monitor gauges in specially equipped stations such as the modern filtration and pumping system recently installed by Athy UDC at Ardrew.

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