On 3rd November, 1906 Dr. James Kilbride, the Medical Officer of Health reported to Athy Urban Council on the sanitary condition of what he termed “the houses of the working classes in Athy”.
“The floors in many houses are lower that the laneway in front and the fall of the yard is to the back door, consequently the floors are wet and sodden in rainy weather and frequently are flooded. In the yards are underground drains and they are found choked in most recent cases and quite ineffective. In less that a dozen cases was there found any sanitary accommodation ….. in some rooms the only light admitted is through a few [sometimes only one] small pane of glass found in the wall, sufficient light or air cannot find entrance to these rooms ….. there are many houses in more than one lane that if the poor people had other houses to go to should be closed as unfit for human habitation in their present condition ….. there is no main sewer in the west end of the town beyond Keating’s Lane ….. the Order of the Council with regard to the removal of manure heaps is not in force. In some yards there were accumulations for the greater part of the year.”
Having started work on the first water supply scheme for Athy just one month previously the Urban Councillors probably felt justified in leaving Dr. Kilbride’s report aside without taking any action. Instead the Council renewed its efforts to persuade the Inspector General of the R.I.C to have the local Police Barracks restored to the centre of the town as it was felt the old Military Barracks at Barrack Lane to where the R.I.C were re-located was too far away. Their efforts were in vain and the local Police were to continue to occupy the Military Barracks until the emergence of the Irish Free State.
Dr. Kilbride’s concern for the public health of the town found support in Lady Weldon of Kilmoroney who was instrumental in the formation in November 1907 of an Athy Branch of the Women’s Health Association. A Tuberculosis Committee was also formed and a series of health lectures organised for the town. In December 1907 a Tuberculosis Exhibition was held in the Town Hall at which members of the Tuberculosis Committee were on hand to explain the various exhibits to the general public who were summoned to attend by the local bellman. On 24th July, 1908 Lady Aberdeen, the Viceroy’s wife visited Athy to formally launch the newly established Women’s National Health Association in the town. The Leinster Street band met her at the Railway Station and paraded before her to the Town Hall. There she was presented with an address of welcome which referred to the formation of an Association “which is fervently hoped will tend to stem the ravages of a terrible disease that now annually claims such an appalling number of victims”.
The following year the Council appointed a Committee to recommend a scheme of houses under the Housing of the Working Classes Act. This Committee when it met on 26th February split into two groups to select suitable sites for housing in the east and the west urban areas of Athy. Within a month sites had been selected and the Council agreed to build three different classes of houses to be let at rents ranging from two shillings to 3/6 per week. The selected sites were at Matthew’s Lane [off Leinster Street], Meeting Lane and Woodstock Street. Public advertisements for plans suitable for housing in Athy elicited ten submissions and James F. Reade, already well known as the Architect of the towns Water Supply Scheme, won the five guineas prize for his designs.
By July 1910 The Council members were re-thinking their original housing plans and decided to build eleven “better class houses” on the Matthew’s Lane site, as well as five “better class houses” at Woodstock Street with five labourers houses at Meeting Lane. A public enquiry was held in the Town Hall on 15th February, 1911 under the auspices of J.F. MacCabe, a Local Government Inspector to consider the Council’s proposed compulsory purchase of lands for housing in the town. Following the enquiry advertisements were placed inviting tenders for the construction of twenty one houses, ten at Matthew’s Lane, five at Meeting Lane and six at Kelly’s field off Woodstock Street. The successful tender was received from H.A. Hamilton of Thomas St., Waterford, but when it was not acted upon after the elapse of ten months Mr. Hamilton withdrew his tender. The Council re-advertised on 26th of June, 1912, but not before Michael Malone, Secretary of Athy Town Tenants League had written to the Town Council protesting against “it’s inactivity in relation to house building”. Within a month Dr. James Kilbride had resigned as Medical Officer of Health due to health problems. His campaign for better housing for the people of Athy was reaching a successful conclusion as within four days of his resignation three builders submitted tenders for the three small housing schemes. D&J Carbery were to build ten houses at Matthew’s Lane for £2,544.7.11, Michael Sweeney of Portarlington six houses at Woodstock Street for £1,264.2.10 and D. Twomey of Leinster St. five houses at Meeting Lane for £704.10.
Work soon started on the first public housing scheme in Athy with the Council agreeing to build an additional house at Matthew’s Lane. By February 1913 the houses were ready for occupation and the Council members met in February to fix the rents which ranged from three shillings for Meeting Lane, four shillings for Woodstock Street and five shillings for Matthew’s Lane.
The following month the first Council tenants were appointed to the Matthew’s Lane houses which were renamed St. Michael’s Terrace, to the Meeting Lane houses and to the Woodstock Street houses which were renamed St. Martin’s Terrace.
In December 1913 the Town Clerk reported to the Council that 22 houses had been built as part of the towns first housing scheme. Despite the fact that these houses had been provided under the Houses of the Working Classes Act the Town Clerk was moved to say :- “the houses are all occupied principally by artisans. None of the tenants belong to the labouring classes”. Michael Malone at the same meeting acknowledged that the Council’s conscience in the matter of working class housing in Athy “was first awakened by a report by Dr. James Kilbride, late Medical Office of Health in 1906. In consequence of this report the Council took the matter up and appointed a Committee to examine the conditions of the houses and make recommendations. The Committee examined every house in Athy and prepared a lengthy report and recommended to the Council the immediate necessity of issuing notices under the Public Health Act to compel the landlords to deal with their houses properly in the ways recommended by Dr. Kilbride. The great majority ignored the notices and the Council at that time were not courageous enough to tackle the problem in the manner laid down in the Public Health Act. The Council were deterred by the threats of a few landlords that if they were compelled to spend money on the houses they would evict the tenants and close up the houses ….. private enterprise in house building has long since ceased in Athy …..”
The local people living in the unsanitary conditions outlined by Dr. Kilbride in his 1906 report had to wait for the housing initiative and Slum Clearance Programme which followed the general election of 1932 before they were re-housed out of the unhealthy slums which made up most of the town’s housing accommodation at the turn of the century. Dr. James Kilbride, for so long Medical Officer of Health for Athy and the man who spearheaded the drive to improve the sanitary conditions of Athy, died in 1925. He lived to see the town’s first piped water supply scheme and the construction of the first local authority houses in Athy.