Adding to the problems of the people of Athy who had already endured four years of famine was an outbreak of cholera in the town in June 1849. By the 29th of September of that year twenty seven cholera cases were recorded and eleven local cholera victims had died. A temporary cholera hospital was opened in the town and funds intended for the relief of famine had to be diverted to deal with the cholera epidemic which would remain a threat to public health until the following year.
Not every town in County Kildare was affected by the cholera epidemic. Naas for instance remained free of the dreaded disease. From the 7th of June until the 3rd of October 1849, 141 cholera cases occurred in Maynooth with 47 deaths but not a single case was recorded in Kilcock, only four miles away.
Cholera, which thrived in the unhealthy overcrowded conditions to be found in the narrow lanes and courts of urban settlements, had previously occurred in Athy in 1834. At that time the treasury had advanced the sum of twenty pounds to the Select Vestry of the local Church of Ireland which had responsibility under the Vestry Act of 1772 for public health in the town of Athy. The cholera outbreak in 1849 was more serious that the previous occurrence adding fear to the distress and hunger of the local people. While many cholera deaths were recorded one wonders how accurately deaths caused by the cholera outbreak and those occasioned by malnutrition or other disease were distinguished. In the 1851 census details of deaths in hospital and sanitary institutions in the period of the 6th of June 1941 to the 31st of March 1851 were detailed. For Athy the opening of the local workhouse in January 1844 marked the effective commencement date for the census figures given a period which apart from the initial one and a half years largely coincided with the famine years. During that time a total of 1,205 paupers died in Athy workhouse and the local fever hospital.
Athy’s population which in 1841 numbered 4,698 had fallen to 3,873 in 1851, which latter figure excluded the inmates of the workhouse. This represented a loss of 825 persons or a 17.5% decrease. Between 1831 and 1841 Athy’s population had increased by 4.5% and if one assumes a similar increase for the 10 years to 1851 the town’s projected population would have been 4,909 at the end of that period. The famine can therefore be seen to have caused a fall in Athy’s population of upwards of 1,036 persons, or a 22.5% decrease. Of course not all of these losses resulted from famine deaths or cholera deaths. Emigration to America and England and migration to Dublin city where the population increased during the famine years no doubt accounted for some of the decrease in the town’s population. Consequently the exact losses attributed to the different factors which contributed to the reduction in the town’s population can now be accurately determined.
An examination of the minute books of Athy Town Commissioners for the years of the Great Famine shows no reference whatsoever to distress, disease or famine in the town of Athy. This might suggest that for whatever reason the plight of the poor people did not figure prominently on the political agendas of the day even during the local elections of August 1847. It might also indicate the possibility that local distress was on a scale no worse than that experienced in the past.
The absence of any famine related references in the town commissioners minute book coupled with the holding of a Town Council election during ‘Black 47’ may not be especially significant given the fact that the Board of Guardians were charged with responsibility for the workhouse and for the provision of outdoor relief. The decline in the population, the rise in the workhouse numbers such as to necessitate the opening of two auxiliary workhouses in Athy during the famine and the huge numbers fed at the local soup kitchens all point to widespread distress in South Kildare during the years 1845-1849.
That there was a workhouse in place in Athy before the potato blight struck undoubtedly served to enable the civil authorities and others to respond to the emergency in a manner which helped minimise the number of deaths in South Kildare from disease and starvation. Another important factor was Athy’s location among the richest arable lands in Ireland and the existence of a local landlord class sufficiently well off to fund the activities of the local Board of Guardians as first they provided relief in the local workhouse and later outdoor relief for those in need.
The Famine National Commemoration Day took place on Sunday 11th May with ceremonies centred in Strokestown, Co. Roscommon. On the same day members of Athy’s community led by clergy from the local churches gathered in St. Mary’s cemetery to remember the local victims of the Great Famine. The lonely graveyard of St. Mary’s where the workhouse dead were buried in unmarked graves was for a short time on Sunday afternoon a place of prayer and remembrance for those unknown men, women and children who succumbed to hunger and disease over 160 years ago. They should never be forgotten.