Housing is viewed by the general public as the Urban Council’s main contribution to the development of the town. This is despite the importance of roads, water supply and sewerage systems to sustaining adequate infrastructures for the towns population.
The role of local authorities in public housing was re-affirmed and promulgated, if not for the first time, in the Housing of the Working Classes Act of 1890. An earlier Act, The Labouring Classes Lodging Houses Act, 1851 which empowered Town Commissioners to build houses for workers was a failure as it depended as did the 1890 Act on local rates to finance house building. A central housing fund was first established in 1908 to assist Urban Councils in providing houses for those in need. Athy Urban District Council completed it’s first housing scheme consisting of twenty-two houses one year before the outbreak of World War I. The houses were at Meeting Lane, St. Michael’s Terrace and St. Martin’s Terrace and the tenants appointed were described by the Town Clerk as “artisans rather than members of the labouring classes”.
The first World War and the Irish War of Independence delayed the Urban Council’s plans for further housing schemes in the town. These difficulties however were cleared when in 1923 the Council advertised for tenders for six houses at the Bleach. P.J. Watchorn & Sons of Dublin quoted £2,898.9s.0d. which was accepted and they were asked to build an extra house at the same rate. When Watchorns later increased their tender, D. & J. Carbery of Athy submitted a revised tender for eight houses at £450 each. These houses were completed by the local firm before the end of March 1924 when nine applications were received by the Urban Council for the eight new houses known as Bleach Cottages.
In October 1929 the Urban Council under the Chairmanship of Patrick Dooley of Leinster Street sought to further it’s plans for Council housing with the appointment of Mr. D. Heaney as Consulting Architect. The Council’s Housing Committee which had been asked to inspect the areas of the town suitable for housing brought to a meeting of the Council on 16th October his recommendations. They were advised to acquire the Gaol field on the Carlow Road of about 2 acres 26 perches owned by Miss Kilbride, together with Peter P. Doyle’s field near the County Home and Dr. Jeremiah O’Neill’s field on the Carlow Road. This latter field was in excess of 6 ½ acres. The Housing Committee agreed to review it’s recommendations and a week later it’s Members, accompanied by Mr. Heaney Architect, the Town Clerk John W. Lawler(?) and the Town Overseer Bland Bramley, inspected nine possible housing sites around the town. Apart from the three sites already mentioned others visited were Hollands field at Geraldine and another field owned by the same family adjoining the Showgrounds on the Dublin Road. The ruined and vacant malthouse at Woodstock Street owned by the McHugh family was also inspected, as were ruins at St. James Place, Rigney’s field at Blackparks and Sylvesters field at the Bleach.
At a subsequent meeting on 4th November, 1929 the Council agreed to acquire the following :-
1. The Gaol Field on the Carlow Road.
2. Dr. J. O’Neill’s field on the Carlow Road.
3. McHugh’s Malt store on Woodstock Street.
4. P.P. Doyle’s field in Barrack Street.
Councillors P. Dooley, F.R. Jackson, Tom Carbery and Bridget Darby were appointed to interview the various owners and negotiate the purchase of the relevant sites.
The following January Mr. Strahan, a housing inspector with the Department of Local Government, visited Athy and accompanied by the Town Clerk did a house to house inspection and found 316 houses in the town unfit for human habitation and 27 houses considerably below normal standards but which might be made fit. Soon thereafter the house plans prepared by D. Heaney, Architect for the various sites already ear marked but not yet acquired by the Council were approved by the Urban Council. At the same time Messrs Stanton Limited advised the Council that following their Engineer’s evaluation of the town’s water supply scheme it was clear that “the present supply is totally inadequate to meet the demands of businesses in Athy.” Undaunted the Council pressed ahead with it’s housing plans and on 2nd March, 1930 passed a Motion proposed by Michael Malone and seconded by Tom Carbery :-
“When advertising for the building of houses in Athy that local labour be employed and local housing labours wages be paid and also that all doors, windows and window frames and cement blocks be made in Athy.”
In April 1930 Athy Urban District Council advertised for tenders to build 36 houses in the Gaol field on the Carlow Road, 14 houses in Rigney’s field at Blackparks and 9 houses on McHugh’s site at Woodstock Street. The tender of D. & J. Carbery of Athy was accepted for all of the houses and duly approved by the Department of Local Government which agreed to pay a Grant of £72.00 to the Urban District Council for each of the 59 houses. The Council’s third housing scheme commenced on June 30th with Captain H.B. Foy of 7 Percy Place, Dublin as Clerk of Works at a salary of five guineas a week. Legal problems were encountered with the McHughs and Rigneys sites and Carberys Building Contractors continued only with the building work on the Gaol field house site. On 29th July the Rigneys site was abandoned due to the title problems and a decision was made to acquire McHugh’s site by compulsory Purchase Order.
By October 1930 the Council Minute Book records the Architect’s Report on the progress of the houses under construction in “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 Council’s decision to use that name. While the houses were still in the course of construction the Council agreed to have electric lights and liffey ranges installed. The local electrician, J. Hutchinson of Leinster Street, successfully tendered to install electric lights in the 36 houses for which he was to receive £175. 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.