This coming weekend the Lions Club Christmas Food Appeal will take place in Athy’s local supermarkets. Members of the local Lions Club, helped by friends and family members, will man the collection boxes on Thursday, Friday and Saturday next to receive donations so that local families in need can be helped over the festive season. It is called the Food Appeal as the charitable intervention started many years ago with a call for the donation of non-perishable food items for distribution at Christmas time. A few years ago, because of the logistical difficulties of handling and distributing donated food stuffs, it was decided to seek cash donations instead. The net effect is the same as all the monies collected are used entirely and solely for the purchase of necessary food stuffs for local families in need.
At a time when we have a well-developed welfare system it is regrettably true that many needy families, either in temporary distress or experiencing long term difficulties, can be left isolated and in desperate need. There are not however, within our community at least, the awful tragedies recorded in the minute book of Athy Urban District Council on 5th January 1931. The Council at its meeting was compelled to pass a motion in the following terms. ‘That in view of the statements made and beliefs held by the people of Athy, that two recent deaths in the town were the result of starvation, we beg to point out to the Department of Local Government in the interests of truth and of the poor of the town and in the interests of the Home Help Officer that a sworn enquiry into the deaths of Denis K……of Woodstock Street and Thomas G….. of Meeting Lane, Athy is desirable and generally into the way the Home Help is administered.’
Reading that motion, even 86 years after the death of these two local men, is a chilling reminder of the hardships experienced at that time by some members of the local community. As far back as March 1907 Thomas Plewman, a member of the Urban District Council, drew his fellow Councillors attention to the ‘want of employment and consequent distress amongst the labouring classes in the town of Athy.’ Following a subsequent Council meeting to consider the matter the Councillors agreed to hire extra men for street cleaning for a couple of weeks.
Seven years later the Council decided to appoint a representative committee for the purpose of dealing with ‘any distress that might arise in the urban district in consequence of the war’. The 1914-’18 war is generally believed to have resulted in greater financial benefits for the families of men who enlisted but nevertheless the Council in January 1915 felt it necessary to direct the relieving officer to ‘the dire distress at present prevailing amongst the poor people in Rathstewart and to ask her to distribute some coal amongst the families for the purpose of airing their houses’. The same Council noted that ‘about 60 children attending National Schools in Athy are unable by reason of lack of food to take full advantage of the education provided.’
The difficulties posed for the poor of the town were again referenced in the Council minute book of September 1922 when the Kildare County Board of Health appointed the Council and the local Trade Union organiser Christy Supple to deal with all applications for home help in the Athy urban area. The poor economic circumstances of those years were surprisingly not helped by the failure of local people to take up the Council’s offers of allotments. The first time allotments were offered was during the Food Production Programme of 1917. Council land at Gallowshill was on offer for ‘wage earners to till’ but there were no applications in January. Readvertised in March there were only two applications and the Town Councillors decided not to proceed with the scheme for workers allotments.
A School Meals Committee was established for Athy in 1929, following which breakfasts were provided for necessitous children attending the local Sisters of Mercy School during the winter months. This was the same year the Council again agreed to employ extra men in the week before Christmas in what was a distress relief measure. Twenty men were employed to work on the roads and in the local gravel pit at five shillings per day, with three extra carters employed at seven shillings per day.
Reading of the measures taken by the local Council to relieve stress and hardship amongst the poor of Athy reminds us that poverty is everywhere to be found in every year of our lives. Despite the measures put in place by State agencies to help those in need there are many families who this Christmas and throughout the year need the help of members of the local community. The Lions Club Christmas Food Appeal is your opportunity to give that help.