Athy was re-constituted as an Urban District Council under the Local Government Act, 1898 with effect from 1st April, 1900. The Members of the Town Commissioners, fifteen in all, remained on as Urban District Councillors under the Chairmanship of Matthew J. Minch M.P. Dr. James Kilbride as Medical Officer of Health for the area had consistently warned the Town Council of the need for a wholesome supply of water for the people of the town. On 20th October he wrote to the new Urban Council regarding the epidemic of gastro-enteritic in Athy which he felt was due to the impure water supply. At that time there were eight public wells to meet the needs of the locals and several of these were polluted. Dr. Kilbride who took samples of the local water and sent them to Sir Charles Cameron of Dublin for analysis could claim that “of the seventeen samples sent, not one could be classed as good potable water”.
The Local Government Board which had responsibility for all Local Authorities in Ireland at the time sent it’s Medical Inspector Dr. Edgar Flinn to Athy on 7th December, 1900 to report on the sanitary conditions of the town. What he found should have been a source of concern to the town fathers. “The present system of water supply to Athy cannot be regarded by any means as satisfactory. The main sources of supply are derived from pump wells situated within closely inhabited areas and from their filthy construction are liable to contamination ….. Athy has a population of about 5,000 people and the question of providing a supply of pure water for this large community is of most vital importance and should engage the serious and sustained attention of the Council”.
The Councillors subsequently received a proposal from Mr. James F. Reade, an Engineer from Kilkenny to take a water supply for the town from Modubeagh, but before proceeding decided to hold a referendum of the ratepayers on the issue. Ballot papers were distributed on Friday, 29th March 1901 and collected on the following Monday in which the following questions were put to the people.
1. Are you in favour of a water scheme for the town of Athy?
2. If you are, do you approve of Mr. Reade’s Modubeagh water scheme?
The ballot papers when counted proved a disappointment for Dr. Kilbride and the Local Government Board for while 190 ratepayers approved of the water scheme, 371 disapproved. The following May two deaths occurred due to typhoid fever, caused it was believed by the town’s contaminated water pumps. Dr. Kilbride was moved to castigate the Councillors for “neglecting their duty in not providing the people with pure water” after further cases of typhoid fever were later reported.
Some concerned ratepayers now petitioned the Local Government Board in relation to a water scheme and sewerage scheme for Athy. In reply the Urban Councillors responded that owing to the “adverse vote of the ratepayers nothing definite had been done towards providing a general water scheme, but that the Council had temporarily closed two of the eight sources of public water supply owing to their being unfit for drinking purposes”.
Again the Local Government Board sent down it’s Medical Officer, Dr. Edgar Flinn to Athy to hold another enquiry into the sanitary condition of the Town. As a result in November 1901 the Local Councillors agreed to adopt Mr. Reade’s Modubeagh Water Scheme, subject to Mr. Reade guaranteeing “it will not cost more than £7,000 when completed and fully equipped”. Mr. Reade confirmed his figure at £6,414.9.4.
In October 1902 plans for the proposed water scheme were received by the Urban Council. Councillor Michael Malone who was vehemently opposed to the water scheme sought to have the Council’s Application for Loan Approval rejected by the Local Government Board. Notwithstanding this a Bill to confirm the Provisional Order for Athy’s Water Works was read for the first time in the House of Commons in London on 6th May, 1903. There was no further development during 1903 and 1904 and two years were to pass before the Council passed a further Resolution “that the carrying out of the water scheme be deferred for the present owing to the unsatisfactory financial position of the Council”. Mr. Reade’s plans were returned to him and the disappointed man sued the Council for monies which were then due. He later withdrew the legal proceedings after receiving £48.17 shillings of the local ratepayers money. While protesting its inability to finance the water scheme the Council agreed to seek the views of the Local Ratepayers Protection Association on the water supply system for the town. The Association promptly replied that since the scheme was shelved “it was not necessary to offer any Opinion”.
The Local Government Board, frustrated at the failure of Athy Urban District Council to deal with the water supply crisis then wrote to the Town Clerk requiring his Council “to procure a supply of pure water for the town.” The letter received in August 1905 was not dealt with until 16th October when a Resolution was passed in line with the Board’s letter despite the opposition of Michael Malone and a few others.
Mr. Reade was again appointed as Engineer for the Scheme and tenders were invited for the construction of a service reservoir and the laying of 10 ¾ miles of 6inch to 3inch cast iron pipes, together with all ancillary works. Jeremiah Fitzpatrick and the Stanton Iron Works Company were the successful Contractors. Work on the Scheme commenced in October 1906 and was completed in April 1907.
Following the successful completion of Athy’s first piped water scheme the Metropolitan Drinking Fountain and Cattle Trough Association presented two troughs to the town in 1907, one to be erected in Woodstock Street opposite Higginsons’ Lane, the other in Leinster Street. At the same time the Duke of Leinster presented a fountain for the use of the people of Athy which was positioned to the front of Emily Square. On 20th July, 1908 the Council recorded its satisfaction with the services of James F. Reade, the Author and Engineer of the Athy Waterworks Scheme. “His work has given constant satisfaction and are of great benefit.”
Dr. Kilbride noted with quiet satisfaction that the provisions of a piped water supply from Modubeagh had a beneficial effect on the public health of the town. Nevertheless, he was not about to embark on the second leg of his social crusade, the provision of adequate housing for the “working classes” of the town.