Tuesday, August 25, 2020

The old laneways, alleyways and courtyards of Athy

It all started with a query concerning Carrs Court, a small courtyard of houses at the back of Leinster Street with an entrance off Mount Hawkins. Who was Carr was the question which prompted me to consider the number of laneways, alleyways and courtyards in Athy named after landlords of previous generations? Athy, long a garrison town but soon to lose whatever economic advantage accrued from having a cavalry barracks in the town, was in the early decades of the 19th century a typical poor Irish provincial town. Unemployment and poverty went hand in hand and a countryside reeling from the devastation of the Great Famine held few opportunities for its people. The medical officer of the Athy dispensary, Dr. Edward Ferris, reported to the Town Commissioners in September 1873 that ‘the dwellings of the labouring population of this town and still more the yards attached to them are for the most part in a very bad state.’ Another 40 years were to pass before the first local authority houses were built in Athy. Prior to that housing for what was always referred to as the poorer classes was provided by private individuals. Houses of the most basic type were built to rent to local families. Those same houses were the subject of a report submitted to the local Town Council in 1932 by Dr. J.L. Kilbride in which he claimed that 1,292 persons were living in 323 houses containing ‘no more than two rooms and devoid of any sanitary accommodation whatsoever.’ In Barrack Street he found 11 people including married couples living in a two roomed house. On Canal Side there were four houses with no yard and in one lived ten people and another house had six occupants. This state of affairs, he claimed, was a strong indictment against the landlords even though he acknowledged the rents charged were as small as 10 pence a week, but generally ranged from one shilling to one shilling and six pence a week. The local Urban District Council which succeeded the Town Commissioners and the much earlier Borough Council were the first local authority for the town of Athy to provide local authority homes. The first housing scheme was completed in 1913 and comprised eleven houses in Mathews Lane, later renamed St. Michael’s Terrace, five houses in Meeting Lane and six houses in St. Martin’s Terrace. Although the houses were built following the Council’s adoption of the Housing of Working Classes Act of 1890 the Town Clerk reported that while there were 33 applicants for the 22 new houses ‘the houses are occupied principally by artisans. None of the tenants belong to the working class.’ No doubt the rents changed, ranging from 2/6 to 5/= per week were too expensive for the largely unemployed families whose men folk would enlist in large numbers during the first world war. The Urban Council would continue with its house building programme and gradually removed from the town landscape the privately rented houses which for so long accommodated many local families in unfit and unsanitary conditions. The local Slum Clearance Programmes of the 1930s saw the demolition of these small unfit houses built in the previous century by private landlords. With their removal was lost also the local names of laneways, alleyways and courtyards first noted on maps of Athy prepared by Clarges Greene in 1825 and later by the Ordnance Survey Office of Ireland. Carrs Court, Kellys Lane, Butlers Row, Baxters Lane, Higginsons Lane, Connollys Lane, James Place, Meirs Lane, Coopers Lane and Plewmans Row were all reminders of the landlords of another era about whom we now know nothing. They were probably men or women of wealth and importance in Athy of their time, but now in 2020 their names and the houses they built have disappeared. Some Athy local authority housing schemes bear the name of locals honoured for their involvement in public affairs. Michael Dooley’s Terrace, opened in 1934, was named in honour of a former member of the Town Council and the one time Chairman of the local Sinn Fein Club. Carbery Park was named to honour Tom Carbery, a town and county Councillor who died in May 1974, while Plewman’s Terrace honours Thomas Plewman, a former Chairman of the Town Council. Malone Place remembers Eamon Malone, local Old I.R.A. leader during the War of Independence, while Minches Terrace was so called in tribute to the local firm ‘so long connected with the public and industrial life of the town.’ Contrary to some peoples belief Pairc Bhride was not named after Bridget Darby, Cumann na mBan member and Gaelic League Secretary as well as town and county Councillor but like St. Patrick’s Terrace and St. Patrick’s Avenue, was named after the Irish saint. Bridget Darby it must be said was deserving of the honour and perhaps she will be suitably honoured in the future.

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