The first public housing scheme in Athy followed the adoption by Athy Urban District Council on 15th February 1909 of the Housing of the Working Classes Act of 1890. The first houses built under that Act were completed and ready for occupation in February 1913. The houses on the Matthew Lane site, now St. Michael’s Terrace, were built by local firm D. & J. Carbery, while the houses in Meeting Lane were the works of D. Twomey of Leinster Street. The Woodstock Street site, formerly known as Kelly’s Field, was the location of 6 new houses which were subsequently known as St. Martin’s Terrace.
The First World War and the subsequent Irish War of Independence delayed the Council’s plans for further housing schemes in the town. In 1923 the Council advertised for builders to tender for constructing eight houses at The Bleach. Local firm D. & J. Carbery were again the successful tenders and the houses were completed before the end of March 1924.
Six years later the Council sought to increase its housing stock and the local Councillors under the chairmanship of Patrick Dooley of Leinster Street accompanied the Town Clerk, John Lawler and the town overseer Bland Bramley on an inspection of possible suitable housing sites in the town. The inspection brought them to the gaol field on the Carlow Road, P.P. Doyle’s field near the County Home and Dr. O’Neill’s field on the Carlow Road. The ruined and vacant malt house site at Woodstock Street owned by the McHugh family was also inspected, as were the ruins at St. James’s Place, Rigney’s field at Blackparks and Sylvester’s field at The Bleach. The Council decided to purchase the gaol field on the Carlow Road as well as Rigney’s Field and McHugh’s malt house site.
D. & J. Carbery were once again employed to build 36 houses in the gaol field, now St. Patrick’s Avenue, and nine houses on the McHugh site, now Minch’s Terrace. The houses at St. Patrick’s Avenue were completed and occupied by the summer of 1931 but completion of the houses in Minch’s Terrace took a little longer, while the Council awaited the adoption of the 1932 Housing Act and the availability of augmented grant aid.
Despite the Council’s efforts to provide social housing Dr. John Kilbride, whose father Dr. James Kilbride played a major part in improving the sanitary conditions in Athy in the first decade of the century, felt it necessary to report on the town’s unsatisfactory housing situation. He reported:-
‘a full exhaustive enquiry into the housing question has been made in the past week. From this enquiry there is made manifest the appalling fact that in Athy urban area there are 1,292 people living in 323 houses – these houses all containing not more than two apartments, all devoid of any sanitary accommodation whatsoever nearly all in a poor state of repair and many situated in closed off air and sun starved slums.’
There is no vacant house of this class in the town, directly one is vacated there are several applications for it and it is straight away re-occupied – and under these wretched conditions families are being started and children reared. How we must ask ourselves can children be brought up properly under these conditions?
The housing therefore must be held responsible for all moral shortcomings and the physical ill health that is at present existent in the town. To emphasise this point in Barrack Street there are 11 people, including married persons, living in a house of two apartments. On Canal Side there are four houses with no yard at all and in one live 10 people and another shelters 6 people. In New Row there are 4 houses that serve 1 for 10 people, 1 for 9 people and 2 for 8 people each. In Rathstewart there are two houses that have only one room and no yard.’
He concluded his report with the following:-
‘It is I consider fundamentally faulty to be building houses leaving the existing hovels still open for occupation. For every house built let a house be levelled – I would suggest to the Council that in any future scheme they consider desirability of getting the houses built in open avenues off the main roads where children can play about without being in danger of the fast moving motor traffic that daily more and more is found in main streets and thoroughfares.’
The roles played by Dr. James Kilbride and his son Dr. John Kilbride in improving the living conditions of the people of Athy has not been adequately acknowledged. Both doctors in their time played significant parts in motivating the local Urban District Council to act, somewhat belatedly, in improving living conditions in the South Kildare town.