The public sanitary conditions in Athenry, were regarded as a disgrace, and not conducive to a healthy environment when an epidemic of smallpox erupted there in the spring of 1875.
Once smallpox was cited, Dr Leonard complained at the ‘inefficiency’ of the sanitary authority, lamenting that Athenry continued ‘to be a filthy place; for its size it is populous, and by the conveyance of railway tracks is a large centre of communication.’
Dr Brodie, the Galway local government inspector, had worked ceaselessly with the Athenry dispensary doctor Dr Leonard, in his efforts to contain the outbreak which, between the months of March and July, had affected more than 140 people. From June onwards, in a series of long and detailed reports to the Local Government Board in Dublin, Brodie endeavoured to reassure it that the crisis was passing, and that newspapers had exaggerated the state of civic unrest.
He is effusive in his compliments to Dr Leonard: who ‘performed his onerous and responsible duties during this trying ordeal with care and attention to the sick poor under his charge, and a self-denial of comfort, or any sort of pleasure or relaxation on his own part, joined to the fact that Dr Leonard, in his domestic affairs, had endured his own share of trouble and loss in the case of a member of his family who had been for weeks suffering from the disease contracted, as is supposed, through the agency of the doctor attending smallpox cases outside, and bringing the disease into his own household.’
The extent to which smallpox was feared by the populace, prompted The Irish Times to report that the people of Athenry were so gripped by panic and terror that the town was left without trade, commerce, or industry.
It reported that ‘the well-to-do inhabitants fleeing out of it (Athenry ) as if from a plague-stricken spot; and where they chanced to take up their temporary abode, but on the fact of it becoming known where they came from, the residents of those places driving them back again. Moreover that fear had established a cordon as effective as a blockade around the town…’
Whether to reassure his board that there never was such alarming behaviour (Brodie was always careful to play down extreme behaviour such as the riot in Loughrea and the burning of the hospital van ), he denied that Athenry was ever in such desperate straits. He claimed that such ‘sensational news which have been from time to time sent to the public papers in the form of letters from known and unknown correspondents ….exaggerate or distort the facts to suit their own purposes’.
‘The result causes unnecessary alarm and terror in the minds of people at a distance and affecting the trade of the town’.
As regards the alleged distress reported among the labouring classes, Brodie agreed that farmers had objected to hire labourers from Athenry, but had no hesitation in hiring from their own immediate neighbourhood where employment was not restricted. ‘In a short time it is expected the the Board of Guardians will commence sewerage works in Athenry, and this will give some local employment’.
Moreover the relieving officer had been instructed to fully and amply exercise his powers by issuing provisional relief in every case of sudden and urgent necessity. ‘At a meeting of the Board of Guardians last Saturday 159 individuals appeared in his books as having been relieved’.
‘A fund has been formed by some charitable ladies in the locality and already over £100. has been received by them.’
Dr Brodie felt that there was little if any truth in the rumour that poor people would resort to the extreme measures hinted at by the special correspondent. He did not elaborate what the extreme measures were, or who had threatened them. But obviously some threats were made, and the authorities were concerned.
‘Feared and dreaded’
‘In conclusion I may be permitted to observe that smallpox, even in its mildest form, is a disease to be feared and dreaded, and in this instance, coming as it did suddenly and unexpectedly, and to a great extent unprepared for the effects of its visitation, still, that no time was lost in taking measures to combat its ravages and use all legitimate means to isolate the cases’.
Writing this on June 14 1875, Brodie hoped that the worst was over; and that in the future he would be sending ‘more cheering and satisfactory reports’, and that he would soon be able to announce that the present epidemic, ‘like other epidemics, will have disappeared altogether from Athenry and its neighbourhood’.
However, Brodie could not resist a dig at the Board’s oftentimes censorious messages, when he concluded that the mortality rate in Athenry, ‘has not been greater on this occasion than in Dublin’, where, he intimated, throughout the 19th century, a succession of appalling epidemics of typhus, cholera and smallpox had wiped out thousands of her deserted poor.
In her study of the outbreak of smallpox in Athenry, Ann Walsh * questions why, up to the outbreak of smallpox, pressure was not brought to bear on the authorities to ensure that Athenry did not lag to the point of disaster in providing cleansing, drainage and other health services.
Despite the devastating effect of the smallpox epidemic on the Athenry community life returned to normal soon after the disease had passed. The epidemic, though violent, occurred only once and produced a single shock which apparently was quickly forgotten. Families in the parish rallied around each other and operated as a powerful support mechanism in the community. The Roman Catholic marriages in Athenry Parish dropped significantly in 1875 indicating a lack of confidence in the community associated with a fear of planning ahead in an uncertain future. The already declining baptism numbers also decreased in 1875. However the following year the marriage figures rose dramatically indicating confidence was restored in the community and the baptism numbers correspondingly recovered in 1877.
In the short term the outbreak of smallpox drew attention to the overcrowded and insanitary living conditions and produced a campaign of cleaning and disinfecting infected premises and their surrounds. Dr. Leonard, the dispensary medical officer, emerges as the hero during the epidemic. The evidence portrays the doctor as devoted and capable of working day and night, not concerned about material gain and capable of dealing with any emergency. He was the friend of all classes, ready to provide treatment and advice on medical and personal problems.
In her conclusion Ann Walsh believed that It is more difficult to ascertain the impact of the epidemic in the long term. The medical system in force did not improve or alter to any measurable extent and the sanitary system was not expedited in the district as a result of the outbreak. The power and efficiency of the Board of Guardians must be questioned especially with regard to their handling of the iron hospital contract and the proposed sewerage system. In 1876 the Board of Guardians of the Loughrea Union only succeeded in securing a loan of £200 from the Commissioners of Public Works to sink a well in the town of Athenry.
However the disease in the community was successfully contained within a relatively short period of time. After four months the worst of the epidemic had passed and by late June 1875 the disease assumed a mild form. A marked decline in the number of cases was evident and by 1st October all patients had been discharged from hospital. The combined efforts of the medical officer, the Board of Guardians and the local community ensured that the epidemic did not continue to rage out of control and ceased without recurrence.
NOTES: * Smallpox in Athenry, by Ann Walsh, published in the Athenry Journal (1995-2004 ), and previously in the Journal of the Archaeological and Historical Society Volume 48 1996.
Other sources include House of Commons Report Smallpox (Athenry ) August 13 1875.