Thursday, February 24, 2000

Dr. Kilbrides Campaign for Better Class Housing in Athy

On 3rd November, 1906 Dr. James Kilbride, the Medical Officer of Health reported to Athy Urban Council on the sanitary condition of what he termed “the houses of the working classes in Athy”.

“The floors in many houses are lower that the laneway in front and the fall of the yard is to the back door, consequently the floors are wet and sodden in rainy weather and frequently are flooded. In the yards are underground drains and they are found choked in most recent cases and quite ineffective. In less that a dozen cases was there found any sanitary accommodation ….. in some rooms the only light admitted is through a few [sometimes only one] small pane of glass found in the wall, sufficient light or air cannot find entrance to these rooms ….. there are many houses in more than one lane that if the poor people had other houses to go to should be closed as unfit for human habitation in their present condition ….. there is no main sewer in the west end of the town beyond Keating’s Lane ….. the Order of the Council with regard to the removal of manure heaps is not in force. In some yards there were accumulations for the greater part of the year.”

Having started work on the first water supply scheme for Athy just one month previously the Urban Councillors probably felt justified in leaving Dr. Kilbride’s report aside without taking any action. Instead the Council renewed its efforts to persuade the Inspector General of the R.I.C to have the local Police Barracks restored to the centre of the town as it was felt the old Military Barracks at Barrack Lane to where the R.I.C were re-located was too far away. Their efforts were in vain and the local Police were to continue to occupy the Military Barracks until the emergence of the Irish Free State.

Dr. Kilbride’s concern for the public health of the town found support in Lady Weldon of Kilmoroney who was instrumental in the formation in November 1907 of an Athy Branch of the Women’s Health Association. A Tuberculosis Committee was also formed and a series of health lectures organised for the town. In December 1907 a Tuberculosis Exhibition was held in the Town Hall at which members of the Tuberculosis Committee were on hand to explain the various exhibits to the general public who were summoned to attend by the local bellman. On 24th July, 1908 Lady Aberdeen, the Viceroy’s wife visited Athy to formally launch the newly established Women’s National Health Association in the town. The Leinster Street band met her at the Railway Station and paraded before her to the Town Hall. There she was presented with an address of welcome which referred to the formation of an Association “which is fervently hoped will tend to stem the ravages of a terrible disease that now annually claims such an appalling number of victims”.

The following year the Council appointed a Committee to recommend a scheme of houses under the Housing of the Working Classes Act. This Committee when it met on 26th February split into two groups to select suitable sites for housing in the east and the west urban areas of Athy. Within a month sites had been selected and the Council agreed to build three different classes of houses to be let at rents ranging from two shillings to 3/6 per week. The selected sites were at Matthew’s Lane [off Leinster Street], Meeting Lane and Woodstock Street. Public advertisements for plans suitable for housing in Athy elicited ten submissions and James F. Reade, already well known as the Architect of the towns Water Supply Scheme, won the five guineas prize for his designs.

By July 1910 The Council members were re-thinking their original housing plans and decided to build eleven “better class houses” on the Matthew’s Lane site, as well as five “better class houses” at Woodstock Street with five labourers houses at Meeting Lane. A public enquiry was held in the Town Hall on 15th February, 1911 under the auspices of J.F. MacCabe, a Local Government Inspector to consider the Council’s proposed compulsory purchase of lands for housing in the town. Following the enquiry advertisements were placed inviting tenders for the construction of twenty one houses, ten at Matthew’s Lane, five at Meeting Lane and six at Kelly’s field off Woodstock Street. The successful tender was received from H.A. Hamilton of Thomas St., Waterford, but when it was not acted upon after the elapse of ten months Mr. Hamilton withdrew his tender. The Council re-advertised on 26th of June, 1912, but not before Michael Malone, Secretary of Athy Town Tenants League had written to the Town Council protesting against “it’s inactivity in relation to house building”. Within a month Dr. James Kilbride had resigned as Medical Officer of Health due to health problems. His campaign for better housing for the people of Athy was reaching a successful conclusion as within four days of his resignation three builders submitted tenders for the three small housing schemes. D&J Carbery were to build ten houses at Matthew’s Lane for £2,544.7.11, Michael Sweeney of Portarlington six houses at Woodstock Street for £1,264.2.10 and D. Twomey of Leinster St. five houses at Meeting Lane for £704.10.
Work soon started on the first public housing scheme in Athy with the Council agreeing to build an additional house at Matthew’s Lane. By February 1913 the houses were ready for occupation and the Council members met in February to fix the rents which ranged from three shillings for Meeting Lane, four shillings for Woodstock Street and five shillings for Matthew’s Lane.

The following month the first Council tenants were appointed to the Matthew’s Lane houses which were renamed St. Michael’s Terrace, to the Meeting Lane houses and to the Woodstock Street houses which were renamed St. Martin’s Terrace.

In December 1913 the Town Clerk reported to the Council that 22 houses had been built as part of the towns first housing scheme. Despite the fact that these houses had been provided under the Houses of the Working Classes Act the Town Clerk was moved to say :- “the houses are all occupied principally by artisans. None of the tenants belong to the labouring classes”. Michael Malone at the same meeting acknowledged that the Council’s conscience in the matter of working class housing in Athy “was first awakened by a report by Dr. James Kilbride, late Medical Office of Health in 1906. In consequence of this report the Council took the matter up and appointed a Committee to examine the conditions of the houses and make recommendations. The Committee examined every house in Athy and prepared a lengthy report and recommended to the Council the immediate necessity of issuing notices under the Public Health Act to compel the landlords to deal with their houses properly in the ways recommended by Dr. Kilbride. The great majority ignored the notices and the Council at that time were not courageous enough to tackle the problem in the manner laid down in the Public Health Act. The Council were deterred by the threats of a few landlords that if they were compelled to spend money on the houses they would evict the tenants and close up the houses ….. private enterprise in house building has long since ceased in Athy …..”

The local people living in the unsanitary conditions outlined by Dr. Kilbride in his 1906 report had to wait for the housing initiative and Slum Clearance Programme which followed the general election of 1932 before they were re-housed out of the unhealthy slums which made up most of the town’s housing accommodation at the turn of the century. Dr. James Kilbride, for so long Medical Officer of Health for Athy and the man who spearheaded the drive to improve the sanitary conditions of Athy, died in 1925. He lived to see the town’s first piped water supply scheme and the construction of the first local authority houses in Athy.

Thursday, February 17, 2000

Athy First Water Supply Scheme

Athy was re-constituted as an Urban District Council under the Local Government Act, 1898 with effect from 1st April, 1900. The Members of the Town Commissioners, fifteen in all, remained on as Urban District Councillors under the Chairmanship of Matthew J. Minch M.P. Dr. James Kilbride as Medical Officer of Health for the area had consistently warned the Town Council of the need for a wholesome supply of water for the people of the town. On 20th October he wrote to the new Urban Council regarding the epidemic of gastro-enteritic in Athy which he felt was due to the impure water supply. At that time there were eight public wells to meet the needs of the locals and several of these were polluted. Dr. Kilbride who took samples of the local water and sent them to Sir Charles Cameron of Dublin for analysis could claim that “of the seventeen samples sent, not one could be classed as good potable water”.

The Local Government Board which had responsibility for all Local Authorities in Ireland at the time sent it’s Medical Inspector Dr. Edgar Flinn to Athy on 7th December, 1900 to report on the sanitary conditions of the town. What he found should have been a source of concern to the town fathers. “The present system of water supply to Athy cannot be regarded by any means as satisfactory. The main sources of supply are derived from pump wells situated within closely inhabited areas and from their filthy construction are liable to contamination ….. Athy has a population of about 5,000 people and the question of providing a supply of pure water for this large community is of most vital importance and should engage the serious and sustained attention of the Council”.

The Councillors subsequently received a proposal from Mr. James F. Reade, an Engineer from Kilkenny to take a water supply for the town from Modubeagh, but before proceeding decided to hold a referendum of the ratepayers on the issue. Ballot papers were distributed on Friday, 29th March 1901 and collected on the following Monday in which the following questions were put to the people.

1. Are you in favour of a water scheme for the town of Athy?
2. If you are, do you approve of Mr. Reade’s Modubeagh water scheme?

The ballot papers when counted proved a disappointment for Dr. Kilbride and the Local Government Board for while 190 ratepayers approved of the water scheme, 371 disapproved. The following May two deaths occurred due to typhoid fever, caused it was believed by the town’s contaminated water pumps. Dr. Kilbride was moved to castigate the Councillors for “neglecting their duty in not providing the people with pure water” after further cases of typhoid fever were later reported.

Some concerned ratepayers now petitioned the Local Government Board in relation to a water scheme and sewerage scheme for Athy. In reply the Urban Councillors responded that owing to the “adverse vote of the ratepayers nothing definite had been done towards providing a general water scheme, but that the Council had temporarily closed two of the eight sources of public water supply owing to their being unfit for drinking purposes”.

Again the Local Government Board sent down it’s Medical Officer, Dr. Edgar Flinn to Athy to hold another enquiry into the sanitary condition of the Town. As a result in November 1901 the Local Councillors agreed to adopt Mr. Reade’s Modubeagh Water Scheme, subject to Mr. Reade guaranteeing “it will not cost more than £7,000 when completed and fully equipped”. Mr. Reade confirmed his figure at £6,414.9.4.

In October 1902 plans for the proposed water scheme were received by the Urban Council. Councillor Michael Malone who was vehemently opposed to the water scheme sought to have the Council’s Application for Loan Approval rejected by the Local Government Board. Notwithstanding this a Bill to confirm the Provisional Order for Athy’s Water Works was read for the first time in the House of Commons in London on 6th May, 1903. There was no further development during 1903 and 1904 and two years were to pass before the Council passed a further Resolution “that the carrying out of the water scheme be deferred for the present owing to the unsatisfactory financial position of the Council”. Mr. Reade’s plans were returned to him and the disappointed man sued the Council for monies which were then due. He later withdrew the legal proceedings after receiving £48.17 shillings of the local ratepayers money. While protesting its inability to finance the water scheme the Council agreed to seek the views of the Local Ratepayers Protection Association on the water supply system for the town. The Association promptly replied that since the scheme was shelved “it was not necessary to offer any Opinion”.

The Local Government Board, frustrated at the failure of Athy Urban District Council to deal with the water supply crisis then wrote to the Town Clerk requiring his Council “to procure a supply of pure water for the town.” The letter received in August 1905 was not dealt with until 16th October when a Resolution was passed in line with the Board’s letter despite the opposition of Michael Malone and a few others.

Mr. Reade was again appointed as Engineer for the Scheme and tenders were invited for the construction of a service reservoir and the laying of 10 ¾ miles of 6inch to 3inch cast iron pipes, together with all ancillary works. Jeremiah Fitzpatrick and the Stanton Iron Works Company were the successful Contractors. Work on the Scheme commenced in October 1906 and was completed in April 1907.

Following the successful completion of Athy’s first piped water scheme the Metropolitan Drinking Fountain and Cattle Trough Association presented two troughs to the town in 1907, one to be erected in Woodstock Street opposite Higginsons’ Lane, the other in Leinster Street. At the same time the Duke of Leinster presented a fountain for the use of the people of Athy which was positioned to the front of Emily Square. On 20th July, 1908 the Council recorded its satisfaction with the services of James F. Reade, the Author and Engineer of the Athy Waterworks Scheme. “His work has given constant satisfaction and are of great benefit.”

Dr. Kilbride noted with quiet satisfaction that the provisions of a piped water supply from Modubeagh had a beneficial effect on the public health of the town. Nevertheless, he was not about to embark on the second leg of his social crusade, the provision of adequate housing for the “working classes” of the town.

Thursday, February 10, 2000

Judge Seamus Mahon

I can still vividly remember the first time I made an appearance as a Solicitor before a Judge in the local Courthouse. The avuncular sociable gentleman who presided over Athy District Court in those days was Judge Seamus Mahon who before his appointment to the Bench was a Solicitor in Tullamore. I was somewhat anxious despite the fact that I had spent my youth in Athy, perhaps because the setting was an unusual one for a local lad. I had spent twenty years out of Athy, the place where as a young fellow I had gone to school, played my football and did my courting, not necessarily in that order, before decamping for the inner regions of County Kildare, specifically Naas of the Kings.

For some people a Courtroom conjures up images of a world inhabited by Perry Mason and his ilk, complete with suave talk and witty repostes, which are so much a part of the American legal dramas. The reality of the Irish Court could not be further removed from the TV depiction of the American Courtroom scene. In the District Court the average Solicitor is burdened with nothing more lethal than a traffic violation or perhaps a public order offence. Not much scope in either for the devastating cross-examination or the telling aside with which TV legal dramas seem so handsomely endowed. Real life is always so much more mundane than anything ever subjected to the scrutiny of the camera, but nevertheless there is always the expectation and perhaps in some, the hope, that some scintilla of excitement might be instilled into the sparse legal proceedings of the Irish Courtroom.

To return to my first day in the Courtroom in Athy. I stood before Judge Seamus Mahon, who was an experienced and humane lawyer and the essence of kindness to the apologetic bumbling Solicitor who contrived on his debut to make his client not only feel guilty of the charge against him, but deserving also of the full measure of punishment which the law might impose. Judge Mahon however made allowances for the self conscious young Solicitor and contrived to save him and his bemused client from such an undeserving fate.

Seamus Mahon died recently, long after he had retired from the Bench. He was District Justice for Athy for approximately 14 years, during which time the Hole in the Wall gang and their younger compatriots the Crack in the Wall were alive and kicking in every sense of the word. The social problems posed by the members of these gangs were clearly identified, but somehow or other the authorities were not geared to dealing with them. It fell to the legal system to provide a deterrent against the continuation of anti social behaviour, and in the front line of that fight against crime was the local District Justice Seamus Mahon.

His understanding of the difficulties posed for victims of crime pre-dated the development of victim support groups, while those who stood charged with offences against persons or property were always assured of a fair hearing. This is as one would expect from a Judge of an Irish Court but somehow or other there always seemed to be an abundance of “fairness” when one argued or presented a case to the pleasant and even tempered man from the Midlands. Maybe it was his sociable qualities which made Seamus Mahon so willing to see the good in everyone, no matter in what circumstances they came before him. Such is the starkness of the Irish Legal System that those who appear before the Courts at the suit of the public prosecutor always seem stripped of their dignity and pride. Not so where those brought before Athy District Court were concerned for Judge Mahon had a convincingly pleasant manner which put litigants and witnesses alike at ease, thereby contributing hugely to the publics perception of the fairness and even handiness of the procedures at the local District Court.

Following Seamus Mahon’s recent passing fulsome and well deserved tributes were paid to his memory by Cyril Osborne on behalf of the local Solicitors, also by Superintendent Maurice Regan, the District Court Clerk and the presiding Judge Mary Martin. All acknowledged the generous spirit of the man whose demeanour on and off the bench endeared him to all with whom he came in contact.

I attended the removal of the remains to the Church of the Assumption in Tullamore and was charmed with the delightful interior features of the Church which was rebuilt following a fire some years ago. This was my first visit to Tullamore’s Parish Church and little did I know that within another few weeks I would return to it for yet another funeral. On the second occasion the funeral was for Peter Clancy Boyd, like Seamus Mahon a Tullamore man with links to the town of Athy. In Clancy’s case the connection went back forty years and first arose when his building company was employed to build a 36 house scheme for the local Urban District Council at Woodstock Street. This was the first of many building contracts which Clancy’s firm was to have with both Athy Urban District Council and Kildare County Council. The first contract was for the building of St. Dominic’s Park, one of the best housing schemes ever financed by the local Council. Peter Clancy or Clancy as he was known far and wide, was one of lifes gentlemen whose honesty and geniality belied a sharp business brain. He retired some years ago from the business he had founded and passed the reins of authority to his son Pat.

Mention of the Urban Council brings to mind that the centenary of the first meeting of the then newly constituted Urban District Council occurs on 2nd April next. The Chairman of the Council in 1900 was Matthew J. Minch M.P. who had occupied the same position on the Town Commissioners which preceded the Urban Council. One hundred years ago the town fathers were concerned with such “weighty” matters as the sale of unsalted butter in Athy’s butter market and the abatement of nuisances at the railway wall at the top of Leinster Street. The nature of the nuisance was not identified but the 15 members of the Council felt that the only solution was the removal of the wall with the two streets being brought to the same level. The wall remains in situ while the Councillors have long passed on. Over the next few weeks I will take a look back at the early years of the Urban Council and some of the controversies which engaged local politicians of a hundred years ago.

Thursday, February 3, 2000

Jack L.

The past week has left its mark in so many different ways on the community of Athy. On Friday night we tuned into the Late Late Show on RTE to eye with the rest of Ireland the glamorous world of fashion as the supermodels paraded up and down the catwalk at The Point in Dublin. Amongst them was a local girl, Jane Bradbury, daughter of Jimmy and Kay Bradbury of Ardreigh. She has carved a niche for herself in the high-flying world of fashion. Good to see a local girl do so well.

On the following night quite a lot of Athy folk decamped to the same venue in the docklands of Dublin to attend a concert by the singer known as Jack L. The “L” hides the surname Loughman, Jack being the son of Sean and Rose Loughman of Bennetsbridge. Athy folk gave him great support for what was the biggest concert date of his career to date and how well he responded to the adulation and applause which greeted him as he came out on the stage. His was a virtuoso performance, at times teasing his audience while all the time holding them spellbound with the depth and range of his singing. I have to admit to feeling somewhat out of place when I encountered the first young feathered boa wearer in the foyer of The Point prior to the concert. Apparently, this was an artful take-off of the artist himself who, towards the end of his performance, brought his own feathered boa into use much to the delight of his audience.

I was seated about six rows from the front where apparently the really serious Jack L. aficionados were to be found. The serious looking female civil service type of indeterminate age who sat to my left was a model of discretion prior to Jack’s appearance on stage. Upon his arrival, her overcoat came off, her hands were thrust up in the air and kept there throughout the performance, clapping to the beat while her normally staid body swayed and bobbed to the music. To my right were two younger females, obviously from the northern part of the island, whose accents recognised no borders where good music was concerned. They too took to the restricted space between the seats with an abandon bordering on the reckless as they swayed this way and that, oblivious to the bemused look on the face of the “middle-aged” man who demurely kept his posterior on the seat he had secured for the night at no little expense.

No doubt about it, Jack L is good. The CDs released by him to date easily confirm that fact. What the CDs cannot however capture, is the verve and the gutsy performance which is all part of the live gig. He strutted, he grinned, he teased, he postured and then he exploded in a cacophony of sound with a performance which, from first to last, was a pleasure to see and later to remember. It was a truly great performance from the former Scoil Eoin student who, as far as I can recall, once filled the ranks of the chorus in a musical put on in the local school.

It was also great to see so many from Athy amongst the appreciative audience. Not many of us elder citizenry would normally have the opportunity to mingle among the hallowed portals of The Point and so the chance to cheer on Sean and Rose Loughman’s son on his big night out was not an opportunity to be missed.

A few days later, we had occasion as a local community to share again, this time in grief, the sad news which came to us from across the world. Four young men, who had earlier in the day, set off no doubt in good spirits to start a well earned break from peace-keeping duties in the Lebanon were to die tragically before the day was out. As the news filtered back, first to Dublin, and then to the local community in South Kildare there was a palpable sense of loss that ones so young should be cut down so tragically in their prime.

Not for the first time the entire area was plunged into sadness by the uncomprehending, yet fateful turn of events which left local families without loved ones. Athy, over the years has borne the scars of many unhappy such occurrences and only two weeks ago I recounted the dreadful accidents on the Monasterevin Road and Gallowshill which resulted in the loss of so many lives. To lose a family member is always a terrible experience but to lose a loved one unexpectedly and without warning is a particularly hard loss to bear. The entire community of Athy, so willing to share in the successes of others amongst them, share also in the sorrowful times when the strength of family and friends provide a buffer and comfort against the ravages of the unexpected.

The tragic deaths of Declan Deere, John Murphy, Mathew Lawlor and Brendan Fitzpatrick brought to mind the tradition of military service with which our town is long associated. It is a tradition which is continued to this day with so many local families having members serving in our National Army. The proximity of The Curragh Camp inevitably has played its part in promoting army recruitment in South Kildare but equally important is the tradition built over past generations which recognises Athy and South Kildare as important centres for army recruits. Sons and fathers have often taken the same career as did their grandfathers who during the 1914-1918 War enlisted in huge numbers. It is an honourable tradition which finds its full expression in the willingness of so many young men, and now women, from this area to dedicate their careers to military life.

As I wrote at the beginning of this piece, it has been a strange week for our community. From the dizzy heights of success on the fashion catwalk and the music stage at the start of the week, we soon descended into the depths of collective sorrow as the bodies of the four young soldiers were returned home for burial. Life goes on even if never quite as before but somehow as a community we move on with our lives tempered by the shared successes and the sorrows of community life.

On Thursday the 24th February, the South Kildare association of An Taisce will hold a meeting in the Community Services Centre, Stanhope Street, commencing at 8pm. An Taisce fulfils an important role in our community and anyone interested in protecting the environment and the building heritage of our area is welcome to attend.