In October 1929 Athy Urban District Council under the Chairmanship of Patrick Dooley, Proprietor of a bakery in Leinster Street, sought to advance it’s plans for additional Council housing in the town with the appointment of Mr. D. Heaney of Thurles as it’s Architect. At the same time the Council’s Housing Committee consisting of Patrick Dooley, Francis Jackson, Tom Carbery and Brigid Darby were asked to carry out an inspection of the town and to report back to a full meeting of the Council with recommendations regarding suitable housing sites. They subsequently advised the Council to acquire what was known as the Gaol field on the Carlow Road consisting of approximately 2 acres and 26 perches then owned by Miss Kilbride. The site was subsequently purchased by the Council and in January 1930 Mr. Strahan, Housing Inspector with the Department of Local Government visited Athy and accompanied by the Town Clerk John W. Lawler did a house to house inspection of the town and found 316 houses unfit for habitation and 72 houses considerably below normal standards but which could be made fit.
Despite receiving a report that the towns water supply scheme was inadequate to meet the demands of businesses in Athy the Council pressed ahead with it’s housing Plans and on 2nd March passed a Motion proposed by Michael Malone, Publican of Woodstock Street, Athy and seconded by Tom Carbery, Carpenter of St. Martin’s Terrace :- “When advertising for the building of houses in Athy that local labour be employed and local housing labour wages be paid and also that all doors, windows and window frames and cement blocks be made in Athy.”
The following month Athy Urban District Council advertised for tenders to build 36 houses in the Gaol field and local firm D. & J. Carbery of St. John’s, Athy were employed. Work on what was the Council’s third housing scheme commenced on 30th June with Captain H.B. Foy of 7 Percy Place, Dublin employed as Clerk of Works at a salary of 5 guineas a week. In October 1930 the Council Minute Book recorded the Architect’s Report on the progress of the houses under construction in what was referred to as “St. Patrick’s Avenue, Carlow Road”. Strangely this was the first and only reference to the naming of the Gaol field housing site after the country’s patron saint and no record exists of the Councils decision to use that name. While the houses were still in the course of construction the Council agreed to have electricity and Liffey ranges installed. The local electrician J. Hutchinson of Leinster Street was employed to put electric lights in the 36 houses for which he was to receive £175.00. The possible installation of baths in 12 of the houses was also considered but deferred until tenants were appointed and their views canvassed on the issue. Subsequently the provision of “flush lavatories” in all of the new houses was agreed and this work was completed in September 1931 some months after the tenants had gone into occupation.
In January 1931 the Clerk of Works reported that 10 plasterers, 10 carpenters and 16 labourers were employed on the building works. The final cost for the 36 houses amounted to £11,366.10 or £315 per house. A.L. Spiers of Burtown was subsequently engaged by the Council to provide lime and plane trees for the Avenue, and at the same time similar trees were to be planted by him at Rathstewart, Woodstock Street and St. Michael’s Terrace.
The day before St. Patrick’s Day 1931 the Urban Councillors meeting in their Chamber in the Town Hall considered the Applications received for tenancies of the newly built houses in St. Patrick’s Avenue. Reviewing the names and addresses of those allocated houses on the Avenue it is noteworthy that 17 of the original tenants were not from Athy. One of the successful Applicants was from Blackpool, England, another from Enniskillen in Northern Ireland while no less than four Dublin residents were successful in their Applications to be re-housed in Athy. The geographical spread of the remaining non-Athy applicants showed addresses in Kildare Town, Ballinamore, Co. Leitrim, Leixlip, Newbridge, Portarlington, Clonmel, Cobh, Birr, Ballinasloe, Maryborough and Ballickmoyler, Co. Carlow.
It is little wonder that the following July the Department of Local Government was moved to write to Athy Urban District Council suggesting that :- “You should endeavour to let the Council houses in the best interests of the public health of the District as they do not seem to have been let to families living in unsanitary districts.” It must be said in defence of the local Council that the people of Athy living in what the Department described as “unsanitary conditions” did not apply for the vacant tenancies, presumably because they would not have been able to afford the rent. The Council had decided on the sum of 6/3 per week as the minimum rent necessary to repay the monies borrowed from the Local Loans Fund.
The Urban Council itself recognised the impoverished conditions of the time when on 30th November, 1931 it passed a Motion calling on the Government for “payment of a special Grant for Athy out of the £250,000 fund for the relief of unemployment, as there is no part of County Kildare suffering so much on account of the grave unemployment due to the beet collapse year and the serious agricultural depression prevailing”.
The Motion referred to local workers depending mainly on agriculture for employment and that “an abnormally large number of workers and their families are congregated in the Athy Urban District.” The unemployed Barrow workers of Athy sent a deputation to a Council meeting complaining that undue preference was given to Laois men for employment on the Barrow Drainage Scheme. Further deputations were later received from the unemployed of the town regarding the inadequacy of home help which was given in the form of tickets and vouchers rather than cash.
Just before the St. Patrick’s Avenue houses were completed two local men were believed to have died of starvation and the Local Council called upon the Minister for Local Government to hold a sworn enquiry “in the interests of the poor of the town” into the cause of their deaths and the manner in which home help was administered in the area. The events leading up to that enquiry and it’s outcome will be dealt with in a future Eye on the Past.
Whatever the difficulties of 70 years ago in Athy they have now passed out a memory and the future of the town is one of great expectation. The future development of Athy and an assessment of what lies ahead will be addressed in a lecture by Ian Lumley to be held in the Town Hall on Thursday, 27th April at 8.00pm. Mr. Lumley has made a study of Irish Towns for a forthcoming book and his illustrated talk will surely be of interest to everyone living in South Kildare.
The financial difficulties faced by many people at that time was reflected in the number of tenants who after a short time in the new houses gave up their tenancies.