An Irish Village

Saturday, June 03, 2006

A Vignette of Dunlavin in 1902

THIS ARTICLE concerns some events that took place in our village exactly one hundred years ago. In 1902, the village of Dunlavin was administered as part of Baltinglass Number One District and meetings of the council were reported in an in-depth way, often verbatim, in the local newspapers. This article contains two extracts from the 'Kildare Observer' (a Unionist newspaper and a rival to the Nationalist 'Leinster Leader' at the time, although the 'Observer' was later bought out by the 'Leader') and both articles refer to an episode in the everyday life of the village. To fully understand the newspaper articles and to place them in their proper context, we must know that Fr Maxwell, the parish priest of Dunlavin, had written to the council expressing concern at the general state of cleanliness (or, rather, uncleanliness) in the village. Maxwell had succeeded Canon Frederick Donovan as parish priest of Dunlavin in 1896 and perhaps may have been something of a perfectionist, as he told parishioners in 1898 that he "was surprised and grieved when he came to Dunlavin and saw such a miserable, poor and dangerous church. It was nothing short of a disgrace to religion and altogether unfit for divine worship". Maxwell was obviously not a man to mince his words! The main thrust of Maxwell's letter was the poor and dirty condition of the village and he homed in on a number of areas to confirm his claims. These areas included:

· The condition of the village slaughterhouses.
· The disposal of many types of waste, notably manure and offal.
· The keeping of pigs in back yards.
· The lack of adequate toilet facilities.
· The scarcity and poor quality of drinking water.
· The open cesspools in parts of the village.
· The overcrowding of many of the village houses.
· The unhealthy conditions caused by all of the above.

Maxwell's letter to the council obviously caused a stir in the area and one man who was affected perhaps more than most by Maxwell's allegations was Dr Edward Lyons. In addition to being Dunlavin's medical doctor, Lyons was also the 'medical officer' for the area and, as such, it was within his remit to report to the council regarding the 'sanitary condition' of the village. Lyons composed a letter which refuted some of Maxwell's claims, defended his own record as medical officer, made recommendations for improvements in the village and pointed out the healthy state of Dunlavin's inhabitants. Lyons sent his letter to the local council and it was published, along with a brief report of the meeting, in the Kildare Observer of 12 July 1902. The newspaper article read thus:

Mr James H. Coleman J.P. (chairman) presided.
The Local Government Board, writing with reference to the sanitary state of Dunlavin, asked the council to be good enough to furnish them with the report of Dr Lyons of the unsanitary condition of the piggeries in the Dunlavin Dispensary district. The Local Government Board also enclosed the following report from their medical inspector, Dr Edgar Flynn, who recently visited Dunlavin. The following is his report:

'I visited Dunlavin recently and in the course of my inspections of the town with the medical officer of health, I visited several localities where pigs were kept in the immediate vicinity of the dwelling house. In fact, adjoining the houses and in many back yards, there were also accumulated organic and vegetable dirt and filth, which had evidently not been removed for a long time, and these conditions constitute a grave danger to the public health of any town, and the council should take steps to improve the sanitary condition of the town in reference to these two important matters. Pigs should not, in any circumstances, be kept in places that adjoin a dwelling house'.
With reference to the above, the board desire to draw attention to section 108 of the Public Health (Ireland) Act 1878, the provisions of which are mandatory and to state that they trust the council will take prompt steps to carry out the necessary improvements. The following report was read from Dr Lyons:

'Dear Sir, I have made careful enquiries into the subject of the letter sent by Fr Maxwell to your board on the occasion of its last meeting. The letter came on me as a surprise as for the past three years I have heard no complaints from the Rev. gentleman about the sanitary condition of Dunlavin. There are certainly some few instances of overcrowding in the town, due to the scarcity of house accommodation. On one occasion I spoke to the landlord's agent about the advantage financially as well as morally of building a few extra houses in Dunlavin, and also mentioned that a rent of 2s or 2s 6d a week could be secured from thoroughly reliable tenants; but it was useless, as he would not entertain the proposal at all. In the few instances where "married and single people, grown up boys and girls etc., are huddled together", they are all members of the same family and not strangers, as one might be inclined to infer from the Rev. gentleman's letter. So limited is the house accommodation that I have once known three sound and reliable applicants to interview the landlord to obtain a house within one hour after the occupier's death. The next point dealt with in the letter is the want of proper sanitary accommodation in a great many of the houses. I enclose a report of the houses without such, and also of two where a privy has been provided and not used. I think each house should have a closet of some sort, preferably an earth closet, as the old fashioned privy and cesspool attached requires very careful attention and cleaning, so that it may not become a plague spot instead of a boon. Where the houses have proper yards they are, as a rule, kept very clean, but along the green there are a row of houses with no back yards attached. At the rear of these houses there is a kind of common, which has to serve as a back yard and a passage to the ball-alley. This passage has been lately kept very dirtily, there being manure strewn here and there carelessly, giving the whole place a very dirty appearance. The local government board inspector found fault with this on the occasion of his last visit. It would be very easy to provide yards for these houses, and also form a special passage for those frequenting the ball alley. There ought to be more labourers' cottages in the vicinity of the town. Undoubtedly, the labourers are to a certain extent to blame for this dearth of cottages, as it is almost impossible to persuade them that all that is required for an inquiry under the Labourers ' Cottage Act is to have a certain number of applications before the board. I have many times called the attention of the board to the scarcity of the supply of drinking water for the upper half of the town. The work of erecting the new pump is proceeding very slowly, but I understand the contractor has until November to finish the job, and declares he will have it completed within the time. This is urgently needed, as there are about one hundred and sixty children attending the Roman Catholic school close by daily.

The slaughterhouses are described by Fr Maxwell as being "filthy". The three butchers declare to me that the Rev. gentleman has never been inside their slaughterhouses. I am of opinion that the latter are kept clean, but I am not altogether satisfied with the disposal of the offal. I think this should be either burned or sent to some kennel. I am sure in a country like this, where there are packs of hounds kept, the owners of such would be glad to get the offal for the feeding of hounds. Perhaps Fr Maxwell means the disposal of offal when he speaks of 'filthy slaughterhouses'. The inspector found fault with a few places where piggeries were up against the back wall of dwelling houses. I reported these two to your board at their last meeting and the resolution I see is "No Order". In the interests of the inhabitants themselves, as well as the community at large, these piggeries should be removed from their present position. The "filthy cesspool" complained of is caused by the outflow from the closets attached to the Roman Catholic school being stopped, in a place called the 'Grove', by the tenant thereof. The exit from the 'Grove' is not sufficiently large to carry off the flow quickly. As a result of this, there is sometimes backward leakage towards the tenant's house, and it is to prevent this that he occasionally stops the outflow. Of course, he only does this occasionally. In fact, on the occasion of a previous visit, there was no pool at all. I recommend that the exit from the 'Grove' be at once enlarged and repaired so as to ensure a rapid discharge of the sewerage from the 'Grove'. This can be easily done. For the past year the health of Dunlavin has been exceedingly good. During that time I cannot recall an infectious case having occurred within the town. I think we may justly feel proud of this, at all events, as such a condition is very satisfactory. I may add that Dr Edgar Flynn, the local government board inspector, examined the town on the occasion of his last visit.
Your obedient servant, Edward Lyons, Medical Officer.
Mr Rochford: Regarding these reports, I have to say that Fr Maxwell was in the
slaughterhouses. This whole question wants to be thrashed out. It is proved that there is not proper house accommodation and if there was proper sewerage accommodation there would be no complaint about outflow or anything else. The landlords who are drawing rent for these holdings should be made remedy those defects, and this would meet the requirements of the case both from a moral and sanitary point of view. It is in the power of the council to compel landlords to provide proper sanitary accommodation.
Chairman: Have we that power, Mr Dagg?
Clerk: We have power to compel the landlord. He must provide proper sanitary accommodation for his tenants. I have been preaching that to you since I came here.
Mr Rochford: There are other matters to which your attention might be drawn. Some of those people who have no back yard throw slops into the cesspits and an offensive smell arises from them in the summer time. Would it not be better to have them closed up?
The clerk quoted section 178 of the Public Health (Ireland) Act to show that the council had power to compel landlords to provide proper sanitary accommodation.

The council meeting ended on this note and, no doubt, the councillors - including Rochford, who lived in Dunlavin - returned to their various homes. However, the matter did not end there. If Maxwell's original letter had rankled Lyons, there is no doubt that Lyons’ letter had now set the cat among the pigeons! Maxwell saw the doctor's letter as a personal attack and the priest would not take this lying down. Moves were evidently made within village circles and, following the next council meeting a month later, the Kildare Observer's report included two letters - one from a severely chastened Dr Lyons, who obviously had to eat humble pie and one from a triumphant Fr Maxwell, who definitely saw himself as vindicated and whose letter was just a little patronising and perhaps even bordering on smugness; readers may judge for themselves! The article, from the Kildare Observer of 9 August 1902 read thus:


Mr James H. Coleman J.P. (chairman) presided.
Following the appointment of Mr Timothy O'Toole as cottage rent collector in the district [The procedure of this election is described in great detail in the extract, but I have omitted it as irrelevant to the substance of this article] the meeting went on to discuss "the sanitary state of Dunlavin".

Dr Lyons, Dunlavin, wrote:
In my letter to the board on the occasion of its last meeting, I mentioned that the butchers of Dunlavin declared to me that Fr Maxwell was never in their slaughterhouses. What I meant to convey was that the butchers were not aware of his visit, but this, of course, does not mean that the Rev. gentleman did not visit them. I did not understand from his first letter that he had visited any of them. I visited him lately, on which occasion he told me he had been in Mr Fay's slaughterhouse. The local government board inspector, Dr Flynn, visited the latter place also and made no complaint. The date of his visit was 9 May 1902. I regret very much any annoyance that Fr Maxwell has been caused. I had no intention of making little of his letter in any way. I would respectfully suggest that the board appoint six or more of its members to meet in Dunlavin and examine the yards, and confer with me as to the best means of disposal of manure, so as to prevent its accumulation to any extent in the yards of the town, and also on the removal of the piggeries, which are too close to dwelling houses. These are two difficult problems to solve. The labourer says he must keep a pig to live, and wishes to accumulate manure to sow potatoes in the spring. Some of them even say that they could not get on without keeping pigs. A carman, too, must necessarily have manure accumulated within his yard, as at times of the year it is not easy to dispose of it. I will meet any gentlemen the board will appoint at their convenience in Dunlavin.

Rev. T. Maxwell P.P., Dunlavin also wrote:
Dr Lyons' report on my letter of 7 June ult. contained several erroneous and misleading statements which demand notice, as my character for truthfulness is questioned. The doctor asserts that for the past three years he heard no complaints from me about the sanitary condition of Dunlavin. I can candidly declare I rarely allowed a favourable opportunity to pass without directing attention to the filthy surroundings of the church, schools and presbytery -to the foul condition of the channels and catch drains in the street. Above all, to the inhuman manner in which many families were housed and deprived of decent sanitary accommodation. On one or two occasions his reply implied that if he reported these nuisances he might leave the town, as his private practice would be destroyed. I answered that being the case, the dispensary and sanitary duties ought not to be entrusted to the one person. He added that it would be greatly to his benefit were they separated. This may account for the modus operandi of the doctor as sanitary officer. In the second paragraph of his report, the doctor writes, partly quoting my words:

'In the few instances where "married and single people, grown up boys and girls etc., are huddled together", they are all members of the same family and not strangers, as one might be inclined to infer from the rev. gentleman's letter'.

Strangers were not before my mind when I penned these words. There was no need to mention them, for surely is it not bad enough, degrading and revolting to morality to have members of the same family, single and married, grown up brothers and sisters, indecently huddled together for want of proper home accommodation! "To err is human". However, this is too delicate a subject to dilate on minutely and profusely. The lack of house accommodation in Dunlavin is truly lamentable. Last week I was called to attend a dying man living with his father on the green. The fetid hole the agonising creature lay in was so small that I had to administer the last rites of our Church on my knees. When he expired, for want of space for a coffin a kind neighbour gave the use of a room. A scene like that does not redound to the credit of the much-vaunted refinement of the present day. Notwithstanding the assurances which the butchers gave Dr Lyons that I had never been inside of their slaughterhouses, I could bring forward many witnesses to testify that I have inspected them very frequently. These buildings could not be kept clean, owing to their enclosed position, and the difficulty experienced in the disposal of the offal. No wonder that the stench is often times fearful, and that the neighbours suffered in health. This nuisance will account for the town being infested with rats. Church, schools and presbytery suffer very much from these rodents. Slaughterhouses should be located far away from dwelling houses and then the offal could be more easily got rid of. I am pleased to learn that Dr Lyons has reported a number of houses destitute of proper sanitary accommodation, which by law they are bound to have, and which could be supplied by a small outlay. Mothers, with tears, have frequently pointed out to me the gross insult offered to themselves and their modest daughters by their deprived of decent conveniences and sanitary requirements, and so reducing them to the level of savages and the brute creation.
Not to prolong this letter, I will conclude with begging to be allowed to bear testimony to the very efficient and charitable manner in which Dr Lyons has discharged his duties as a dispensary doctor, and to his much valued skill in private practice. We both, I am sure, have the same objective in view -the welfare of those committed to our charge. Misunderstandings will sometimes arise, which ultimately will not lessen mutual friendship. I hope that our labour for the good of the community will meet the sanction and co-operation of your respected board and shield us from the opprobrious and disheartening decision of "No Order".
{Following the reading of these letters] Mr Rochford stated in the course of a long address that both Fr Maxwell and Dr Lyons were eager to have the town in a proper sanitary state. He (speaker) could say that Dunlavin was the cleanest little town in all Leinster. If they (the council) were to do away with the poor man's pigs, they might go and condemn all the farmers' houses in the whole country. He knew Dr Lyons to have to take his luncheon in a farmer's house in the same room as was the sow and a litter of bonhams. Dr Howes was also attending a woman in a house where there was another pig, who, Dr Howes stated, was far better covered and more comfortable than the patient herself. To his own knowledge, all the piggeries into Dunlavin were kept clean, and he himself had piggeries which were also kept clean.
Both letters were marked "Read".

Dr Edward Lyons, Dunlavin, also wrote calling attention to the difficulty of getting urgent cases removed from Dunlavin district to the union infirmary:
Not long ago I was called to see a man who was homeless, and in a dying condition in a shed in Dunlavin. I forget the date, but it was on a Saturday night at about 8.30 p.m. I had the greatest difficulty in getting him removed, owing to the fact that all the carmen had been busy in the early part of the day. Eventually a car was procured and the patient set off. There should be a covered ambulance, in which a patient could be put lying down, accessible for Dunlavin district, at any time of day or night.
Your obedient servant,
Dr. Edward Lyons, Medical Officer.

The reading of this letter was the last business of the meeting and once again, no doubt, the worthy councillors returned to their respective homes. I did not find any further mention of the matter in subsequent issues of the Kildare Observer and it would appear that the uneasy truce between the medic and the cleric continued to hold. This clash of two of the leading citizens of the village was over. Nonetheless, the clash and the very public way that it was reported in the newspapers throws some interesting light on life within Dunlavin in 1902. The letters written by Lyons and Maxwell during this unsavoury little incident provide some evidence of how things stood in the village a hundred years ago. They allude to a number of significant matters and give us some indication of what people in the Dunlavin area saw as important in 1902. Some of these things were probably unique to the Dunlavin area at the time and some were manifestations at village level of wider problems. We must remember that the village existed within a wider framework of the county, the nation and the United Kingdom. The list of issues perceived as important, raised (directly or indirectly) by these letters, does not make pretty reading and it includes the following:

· Concern regarding the disposal of certain types of waste.
· The keeping of pigs within the village proper.
· The dirty image of the village gained by tourists and travellers.
· Concern regarding sewerage disposal within the village.
· A reference to possible incest within the village
· The disproportionate power of the landlord and his agent.
· Public feuding between leading citizens of the village
· The lack of affordable housing in the area.
· Concern regarding the village water supply.
· Inaction by the local council in addressing a wide variety of issues.
· A patronising attitude from the village priest.
· Concern regarding the poor state of the parish school.
· A two-tiered health system, with the doctor's private practice uppermost.
· An extremely heavy workload for the doctor, who had various duties.
· A stench pervading the village, with possible health risks.
· Destitute houses within the village.
· Landlords flouting the laws regarding the entitlements of their tenants.
· A very large gap between the rich and poor of the area.

The list above, as I have stated, does not make pretty reading. Some historians and sociologists believe that village life is a microcosm of the larger society of which it forms a part. Indeed, Agatha Christie used just this hypothesis when she created the character of Miss Jane Marple and set her to work in the fictitious village of Saint Mary Mead. Like Miss Marple, the local historian is also a detective of sorts. The pages of the hundred year old local newspaper provide the data, and by reading between the lines, we begin to get some idea, not only of the everyday conditions in the village at the time, but also of some of the complex and, at times, nasty issues which were pertinent to the village back then. Rochford may have attempted to paper over the cracks with his address, in which he claimed that "Dunlavin is the cleanest little town in all Leinster", but the letters published in the Kildare Observer one hundred years ago tell a different story. Reviewing the above list once again, one can see just how much progress the Dunlavin area has made in the past century!