Cholera reached Ireland for the first time in February 1832. A cooper, living in a Belfast lodging house by the name of Bernard Murtagh, was the first Irish person to die from the disease. By the following month Dublin had recorded its first cholera death.
In Athy Michael Carey, a member of the local Church of Ireland, kept a journal in which he recorded local and sometimes national events during the cholera outbreak. To Carey we are indebted for learning that in November 1833 a collection was started for a new church which was consecrated on the 15th of September 1841. The church was St. Michael’s Church of Ireland at the top of Offaly Street and Carey’s carefully compiled records show that the church steeple was in the course of construction in August 1856. A bell housed in the newly constructed steeple was first rung for divine service on 22nd March of the following year.
Michael Carey’s journal entries in connection with the outbreak of cholera in Athy are regrettably incomplete. The disease appears to have reached the south Kildare town in May 1832, just a month or so after it had been confirmed in Dublin. Only a few of the local deaths were noted by Carey and the first recorded was that of Thomas Proctor who died on 22nd May, followed by Christy Barrington who died on the 27th of the same month. Carey would later write, ‘cholera raging in Athy from May to November 1832’.
During that period he noted the cholera deaths of a number of other local persons. John Duncan died on 19th November 1832 and is recorded as having been interred the same night. This was in keeping with the measures put in place to stem the spread of cholera. The Central Board of Health had sought support from the Catholic Archbishop of Dublin, Dr. Daniel Murray, for a ban on wakes and the immediate burial of cholera victims. The Archbishop was loud his claims that the cholera outbreak was a sign of God’s displeasure at the sins of the Irish people. The fact that the epidemic had originated in India before transferring via Russia to the European continent and Ireland did little to quench the Archbishop’s claim of the Lord’s wrath on a sinful people.
On the 10th of October John Higginson and his housekeeper were noted by Carey as succumbing to the cholera outbreak. Four days later Carey recorded the death of a Ned Smith. Pat Dunne, a local slater, died of cholera on the 15th of February 1833, just eight days after Carey mentioned in his journal the death of five unnamed people from Barrack Street. The cholera outbreak spread to Ballylinan where Dr. Kysney, a local doctor from Athy, attended cholera cases in the county Laois village in January 1833.
How many died in Athy during the 1832/’33 cholera epidemic is not known, as there was no legal requirement to register deaths at that time. Throughout Ireland over 66,000 cases of the disease were recorded and of these more than 25,000 persons died. Almost 80 per cent of the deaths were in Irish cities or towns and places like Athy where water supplied from public pumps was contaminated by sewerage were particularly vulnerable to the spread of cholera. Athy would have to wait until 1907 to get a piped water supply system for the townspeople. In the meantime cholera would return to Irish towns and cities in the spring of 1849, by which time Athy had a workhouse, but more importantly, a fever hospital.
Within a year of the ending of the first cholera epidemic the economic life of the market town of Athy witnessed a revival with the arrival of the first load of corn into the newly built Barrow Quay. The date recorded by Carey was 20th April 1834. The Quay was built following the filling in of the Mill Race which had separated White’s Castle from the mill in Athy’s High street.
There is an extraordinary amount of interesting detail in Michael Carey’s journal, not least of which is the following puzzling entry:
‘25th December 1843 - Chapel next Convent opened’
The Dominicans purchased Mansergh’s house at the end of Tanyard Lane in August 1845 and moved to the property which is still the site of their friary. Did the entry ‘Chapel next Convent opened’ refer to a chapel opened by the Dominicans at what was then their Convent in Leinster Street or Convent Lane (now Kirwan’s Lane)?
The minutes of Athy Borough Council for 7th November 1830 record the financing of ‘a new pavement and curb(sic) stone upon both sides of the main street from the Rev. Mr. Kennelly’s(sic) convent to the high bridge over the Grand Canal.’ Fr. John Kenneally was the local Dominican Prior from 1824 to 1842 and Carey’s reference to the opening of the chapel would seem to refer to the Dominican Chapel. The Borough minute book entry confirms for me that the Dominican Convent was at that time located on the main street, now Leinster Street. But was it in what is now Fingletons or on the site of Jim McEvoy’s pub?
The history of Athy requires the careful unravelling of layers of fact, fiction and folklore and nowhere is that more apparent than in seeking to understand the journal of Michael Carey who died in 1859.
On Friday at 8.00 p.m. in the Community Arts Centre there will be a celebration in music and words of the literary work of John MacKenna, whose latest book of poetry, ‘Where Sadness Begins’ has just been published. This event showcasing the talents of Castledermot’s award winning writer, John MacKenna, and Athy’s finest musician Brian Hughes promises to be a great night. Admission is free. Do come along.