The General Election has been contested on a number of issues and the one issue which had never previously received much national attention was that of social housing. Of course that issue has come to the fore because of the plight of the homeless and the growing number of families, almost invariably young couples or single parents with young children forced to live in one roomed hotel accommodation. The problem is one which will grow over the next few years as the banks and the building societies take legal action to get possession of family homes where mortgages are in arrears. Our only hope is that the long heralded recovery reaches provincial Ireland and/or the financial institutions adopt a more socially responsible attitude to the problems facing families who were badly hit during the recession.
When we had Town Councils in Athy the provision of local authority housing was their main contribution to the development of the town. Of course the provision and maintenance of the town’s infrastructural facilities such as roads, water and sewerage schemes were also important, but the provision of housing was generally regarded by Councillors as the Council’s key contribution to the local community.
Interestingly it was the Labouring Classes Lodging Housing Act of 1851 which first empowered Town Councils, in Athy’s case the Town Commissioners, to build houses for workers. It was a role which the Town Commissioners never took up, despite the fact that Town Commissioners continued in charge of the town’s affairs until 1899. Private individuals met the housing needs of what those of us writing of the 19th century refer to as the ‘poorer classes’. The small terraced houses built in laneways and alleyways in the town reveal to us in the names of those now lost laneways the landlord/owner in each case.
Kirwan’s Lane, Kelly’s Lane, Butler’s Row, Barker’s Row, Matthew’s Lane, Higginson’s Lane and Connolly’s Lane are just some of those rows of terraced houses which were part of the town’s built landscape up to the 1930s. The failure of Athy Town Commissioners to build any houses for the labouring classes under the 1851 Act was presumably because the landlord class represented on the Town Commissioners did not want interference with the private housing market. Another reason was awareness by private landlords who were generally business people in the town that the provision of any local authority houses had to be financed from local rates which they were obliged to pay.
The role of local authorities in the provision of housing was reaffirmed in the Housing of the Labouring Classes Act of 1890. Again the financing of any Council housing development had to rely on rates imposed on businesses in the town. The Town Commission was replaced by the Urban District Council in 1900, but the public representatives by and large remained the same. Eight years after the Urban Council was established a central housing fund was set up by the Local Government Department to assist Councils in providing housing for those in need.
The local medical officer, Dr. James Kilbride, was a critic of the Urban District Council’s failure to meet the basic needs of Athy’s ‘poorer classes’ for water supply and housing. The water from the public pumps in the town was frequently contaminated by sewerage and caused several deaths, but still the Urban District Council refused to burden the ratepayers with the cost of providing a piped water scheme for the town. The Council’s refusal to act even in the face of several deaths resulted in the Local Government Board insisting that the Urban District Council ‘procure a supply of pure water for the town of Athy.’ Work on the town’s water supply scheme eventually started on 27th April 1907 and was completed in June of the following year.
Dr. Kilbride then turned his attention to the unsanitary housing conditions to be found in the laneways and alleyways of the town and it was his efforts which led to the first local authority scheme in the town which was completed in 1913 just a year before the outbreak of World War I with houses built in Meeting Lane, St. Michael’s Terrace and St. Martin’s Terrace. Although built under the Housing of the Working Classes Act Athy Urban District Council decided that the houses in St. Michael’s Terrace and St. Martin’s Terrace were ‘better class houses’, while ‘labourer’s houses’ were provided in Meeting Lane. The Town Clerk would report after tenants had been appointed that the Council houses ‘were all occupied principally by artisans. None of the tenants belonged to the labouring classes.’
The poor people living in the unsanitary conditions highlighted in Dr. Kilbride’s reports to the Urban District Council would have to await the Slum Clearance Programmes of the early 1930s before they could be re-housed out of the unhealthy slums rented out by private landlords.