Thursday, December 16, 1999

Athy at the Turn of the 20th Century

One hundred years ago Athy Town Commissioners, soon to give way to the newly established Urban District Council, passed a resolution protesting against “the unjustifiable war waged against the Boers” and tendered their sympathy to the Boer President Kruger. As the new century arrived the Boer flag was hoisted over the Town Hall in Athy, much to the annoyance of the towns’ Police. A local newspaper reporting the incident claimed that “the Athy Boys have not lost their originality and keen sense of humour”.

The winter of 1899/1900 showed up the unhealthy condition of the town and it’s unsanitary undrained state. Thomas Plewman, Chairman of the Town Commissioners, was moved to complain of the dirty streets of Athy during Christmas 1899. During the first week of the New Year there was a measles epidemic in the town. Doctors P.J. O’Neill and J. Kilbride were reported as having been run off their feet but despite their efforts there were a number of deaths amongst local children. At a subsequent meeting of Athy Board of Guardians Mr. Plewman again spoke of the measles epidemic in Athy, claiming that

“there are many houses where people have not a bed to lie in. It was a scandal in a Christian country that men and children should be found to lie like pigs in damp cottages. They would require the constitution of elephants to bring them through and from what he heard it was not the measles that were hitting the children but colds after the epidemic.”

The measles epidemic in the winter of 1899/1900 caused the postponement of the Christmas celebrations planned for the children of Athy by the local Catholic Young Mens Society. It was eventually held in the last week in January under the guidance of Mrs. Noud who was assisted by Agnes O’Brien, Millie O’Brien, Gipsy Murphy, Rose Heffernan, Miss McHugh, Miss Cantwell and many other ladies. A report of the delayed Christmas feast noted that the C.Y.M.S. rooms in Stanhope Place were “prettily decorated and appropriately draped and hung down with greenery”. Over 500 poor children of the town attended to partake of tea and sweet cake, followed by oranges and confectionery.

Dr. James Kilbride, local Medical Officer of Health, was happy to announce on 14th March that measles had practically disappeared from his District. His report continued:-

“Large numbers of children contracted the disease. The mortality was high among children. Croup and broncho pneumonia were the principal complications and were the cause of death in most cases. The deaths have not yet been registered in many cases and so the number of fatal cases cannot be given. The flooding condition of some of the houses, the weather been very wet during part of the epidemic, the damp or wet clay floors, the wretched dwellings with broken windows, doors and roofs and in many cases scanty bed and personal clothing, sometimes no beds, the children lie and huddle together on the floor and the general state of health of children caused partially by poverty and partially by the bad sanitary conditions of the houses and lanes account for the high mortality”.

Dr. Kilbride pointed out that the unsanitary conditions had been reported by him on several occasions and he concluded with the claim that “there has been no move ever made to remedy the defects of the public sewers or to procure a water supply for the town”.

Far away from the squalor of Athy were local men Paddy Connors and Patrick Kelly, both of whom were enlisted soldiers of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers fighting in the Boer War. In January 1900 Connors wrote to his brother in Athy of the heavy losses suffered by his battalion during the Battle of Colenso.

“Three companies got cut up and the Connaught Rangers lost a lot. Murphy, Flynn and Kenny got dangerously wounded. Poor Sergeant O’Flynn got killed with a shell through the head. Twenty-five Sergeants got killed and wounded with 250 of the rank and file ….. thank God I’m very lucky. My helmet was knocked off by a bit of shell when I was carrying a wounded Corporal and he got shot in my arms.” Connors finished with the plaintive request “Brother, mind the birds and feed them well. Don’t fret for me for God will save me now”.

Kelly in his letter also refers to the killing of local men Flynn and Murphy. “Murphy got five bullets and Flynn four. Campion is also dead. There must be someone praying for the Athy boys afterall, as we nearly all escaped.” Not all of the Athy boys were not to escape as many more were to die during the Boer War which continued on into the new century.

Back home in Athy the death of Brother Holland, one of the first Christian Brothers to come to Athy in 1862 was announced in Marino, Dublin. J.J. Byrne, Barrow Bridge, Athy placed a large advertisement in the local newspapers offering corn drills, seed ploughs, cultivators and harrows at cheap rates for cash. The same paper carried an advertisement for Mr. Davies, Dental Surgeon of Lower Sackville Street, Dublin who attended at Miss Molloy’s of Duke Street on the first and third Tuesday of each month. At the start of the twentieth century life in Athy went on as before.

The last century of the second Millennium was to bring many changes to the town which had first grown to prominence as an adjunct to the Manor of Woodstock. The public water supply suggested by Dr. Kilbride in his many reports to the local Council was eventually provided in 1907. The first Council houses built in Athy were let to tenants in March 1913 but these houses in Meeting Lane, St. Martin’s Terrace and St. Michael’s Terrace were to be occupied by families other than those who lived in the unsanitary hovels condemned by Dr. Kilbride. Families most in need of re-housing would have to wait for the slum clearance schemes of the 1930’s.

Some of those men who survived the Boer War were later to re-join the ranks of the Dublin Fusiliers during the First World War. Their colleagues at the front included young men who had survived the measles epidemic in Athy in January 1900 and who later endured deprivation and unsanitary conditions in their home town.

For them, the wet clay floors of houses in Athy were but a prelude to their final resting places in watery muddy graves of France and Flanders.

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