Smallpox in Athenry 1875

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This article restricts its study exclusively to the chronology of the smallpox epidemic in Athenry from its outbreak in March 1875 through to its cessation in October of the same year.  In order to carry out this research the principal contemporary sources include the Minute Books of the Loughrea Board of Guardians available in the Galway Count Library and the Chief Secretary’s Office Registered Papers in the National Archives of Ireland.  The bulk of the records relating to the epidemic centre on communication with Dr. Brodie, the Local Government Board Inspector and Dr Leonard, the medical officer for Athenry.  The surviving files from the Chief Secretary’s Papers provide a wealth of detail and portray a vivid picture of local happenings.  The national and local newspapers of the period also recorded the events of the community and of the activities of both official and voluntary agencies.  Reports from the national papers were generally more sensational and alarmist and generated lively responses in local papers which repudiated the exaggerated nature of their reporting techniques. (1)


The origins of the outbreak of the disease in Athenry can be traced to Saturday 17th. February 1875 when William Burke, in his late teens or early twenties (2) and a native of Tiaquin about six miles from Athenry, contracted smallpox at Tuam where he was employed as a baker’s assistant. The following Monday he was visited by Dr. Turner who ordered his immediate removal to hospital and instructed that his bed and blanket should be either disinfected or destroyed.  The medical officer’s instructions were disregarded and instead his employer, Patrick Corcoran, accompanied the patient to the railway station and hurried him into a carriage thus evading the notice of the railway officials.  Corcoran subsequently bought a ticket for Burke and returned home.

William Burke arrived at Athenry by mid-day train on 1st March where he remained for some hours before travelling the six miles by car to his father’s house in Tiaquin.  Nine o’clock that evening Dr. Leonard visited the patient and “gave full instructions to his friends”. (3)

The Galway Express was the first local newspaper to prophetically mention the threat of smallpox in an article entitled ‘an imminent danger’:

…The latest intelligence is that the disease has actually appeared at Tuam … It is to be remembered that one case surrounded by encouraging conditions is sufficient to give the first impulse to what may prove to be a wide spread and total epidemic… (4)

Within three weeks William Burke was dead and his father who assisted in carrying his remains to the grave was also attacked but subsequently recovered from the illness. The Roman catholic curate, Fr. Walsh who attended the  deceased in his last illness contracted the disease, and was treated at his residence in Kinneen’s Hotel.  However the ordinary business of the hotel had not in consequence been suspended.  Dr. Leonard, in his capacity as the Athenry medical and sanitary officer, was advised to serve a notice upon Mr. Kinneen, the proprietor of the hotel, calling his attention to the provisions of the thirty-ninth section of the Sanitary Act, 1866 and warning him against letting rooms or beds so long as the disease was present.

In this case of Mr. Kinneen, a wealthy man appears wilfully to ignore the law against the spread of infection and if the Local Government Board consider it of sufficient importance to vindicate the law, I would respectfully suggest as the most efficient means, that the Inspector General be requested to direct the constabulary, whose barrack is immediately opposite the hotel, to take cognisance of the facts with a view to ulterior proceedings.  The transmission of persons suffering from small-pox, and the conditions under which they are lodged and cured, and the facilities of inter-communication, all combine to limit or extend the disease, and I think it is necessary to fix public attention in a marked manner upon cases such as the removal of the deceased man “William Burke”, and the treatment of the Rev. Mr. Walsh in a public hotel frequented by persons who are wholly ignorant of the presence of such dangerous contagious disease. (5)

By 28th March 1875 the hotel was closed to guests in accordance with the notice served on Mr. Kinneen.  The following morning Fr. Walsh, the second casualty of the disease, died.  Dr. Leonard fearing the result of prolonging interment, gave orders for the priest to be buried on the evening of his death.

His death, no doubt created a sensation that might well be called painful and profound. The whole town was moved to grief – many to tears – at the death of the gentle and youthful priest, whose last words, spoken to the worthy Parish of Athenry were “tell the people of Athenry how much I love them” (6)

A small graveyard beside the Roman Catholic Church in Athenry contains the grave of the Rev. John Walsh.  The monument was erected by the parishioners and the inscription mentions smallpox as the cause of death (7) (Fig. 1).  Mr Kinneen, the proprietor of the hotel promised to have the bed, bedding, and every article of furniture in the room in which the priest died, burned, the paper removed from the wall, and the wall well lime washed.

On 30th March a boy aged twelve who lived in Newcastle, (not far from where William Burke died), was infected.  The father, mother, niece, five children, a cow and a horse all shared the same house. (8) An analysis of housing conditions can be made by measuring the proportion of families inhabiting each of the four types of dwellings as classified by the census commissioners.  In 1861, for example, 14% of the families in the Parish of Athenry resided in fourth class houses defined as one-room hovels by the census commissioners. 48% resided in third class houses, defined as dwellings consisting of two to four rooms. 32% resided in second class houses defined as dwellings with five to nine rooms, and 6% resided in first class houses with ten or more rooms. (9)

There were particularly acute difficulties associated with caring for the very poor members of the community afflicted with the disease.  The dilemma posed by the case of the twelve year old boy centred on fears that the removal of the patient to the Loughrea workhouse hospital, a distance of about nine miles would be attended with serious danger.  In addition there was no outhouse in the neighbourhood to which the poor could be removed and consequently the infected boy had no option but to remain at home.  On 5th April a sister-in-law of Dr Leonard who resided with him contracted the disease, followed by the parish clerk on 12 inst.  Two days later Catherine Cannon residing in a lodging-house kept by her aunt in Athenry became the next smallpox victim.  The Cannon family consisted of eight members who shared the same house, part of which was a baker’s shop.  This case was quickly followed by another poverty stricken patient, Mary Gallagher, who lived in a one-roomed house in Larkin’s Lane shared by six inhabitants.  It is hardly surprising that on 15th April, Dr. Leonard exclaimed in desperation “I fear unless some prompt measures are taken that this dreadful disease will spread beyond control.” (10)

On 15th April Dr. Leonard removed Catherine Cannon labouring under the disease to the Loughrea workhouse hospital for treatment.  The transfer caused great consternation in Loughrea when the patient was driven through the crowded streets of a town unaffected by the disease.  The members of the Loughrea Board of Guardians severely criticised and censured Dr. Leonard for having caused the removal of a smallpox patient to hospital at their meeting 17th April. (11) The Board also agreed to take immediate, steps towards providing hospital accommodation for patients labouring under the disease.
They were however, blocked in their endeavours by the locals, who objects to several proposed sites for the iron hospital ordered from London. Subsequently the Board of Guardians were unable to induce any of the tradesmen of Athenry to venture on the hospital grounds for the purpose of getting one of the out-offices fitted up as an auxiliary.  Until the arrival of the iron hospital an effort was made by Dr Donoghue, the Loughrea Dispensary doctor and Relieving Officer Reckham, to locate a house to be used as temporary hospital.

… they searched, but could get no person to consent to let a house, or a field or paddock, for a site for the hospital. (12)

At the meeting of the Board of Guardians on 24th April the clerk produced letters and telegrams received from Mr. Goodbody of Clare, relating to the site for the iron hospital on one of his farms near Athenry, the result being that he regrets he could not comply with the request of the Board, on the grounds that his people object to have smallpox patients in their neighbourhood. (13)

The Athenry Dispensary Committee met on 3rd  May and unanimously agreed to a site for the erection of the hospital, namely the waste plot of ground near the old barrack, and close to the river.  The proposed new site was promptly opposed by the inhabitants of the town, and a petition of protest was signed by thirty-seven of the parishioners including John O’Grady, the Parish priest and Fr. James Ronayne, the Curate.  The opposition lodged by the protesters asserted that the selected location was commonage, and furthermore, that “every means will be adopted to prevent its erection, and that should it be peristed in, violence will be resorted to by the people.”  (14)

A site was eventually agreed upon through the intervention of Mr. Lambert and Mr. Irvine, his occupying tenant.  A part of his field in the neighbourhood of the town was chosen as a site for the hospital.  To avoid further delay in persuading tradesmen to carry out construction work, Mr. Irvine made an offer of the house in which he resided which could be made available for the reception of smallpox patients within days.  Dr. Brodie (15)  subsequently visited the house about a quarter of a mile from the town, and declared it to be suitable in every way for the purpose.  His Report to the Local Government Board on 2nd May (16)  appended a useful summary listing the smallpox patients in the Athenry Dispensary District from 1st March to 30th April 1875 as follows:


William Burke – 1 x Died – Sent from Tuam to Athenry per railway

William Burke, Sen  – 1 x Recovered – Father to William Burke

Rev. Walsh R.C.C – 1 x Died – Administered the last rites of the Church to Burke

Four Coppinger  – 2 x Recovered – 2 Under Treatment – Reside at Newcastle four
miles from Athenry – 1 x Recovered – Sister-in-law to Dr. Leonard

Two Dooleys – 2 x Under Treatment

J. Boyle – 1 x Under Treatment – A Galway militiaman

Two Kennys – 1 x Died – 1 Under Treatment – Children of the waiter at Kinneenn’s hotel

T. Gallagher – 1 x Recovered

Two Conneellys – 2 x Under Treatment

Two Coens – 2 x Under Treatment

P. Mahon – 1 x Under Treatment

Rev. A. Blake – 1 x Under Treatment – Resides at Esker, two miles from Athenry


3 x Died

5 x Recovered

12 x Under Treatment

Of the twelve under treatment four are convalescing

Dr. Brodie reported nine fresh cases of smallpox in the town of Athenry on 5th May, four members of one family, three of another, and one of each of two others.  The following day two further cases of the disease in Athenry we reported. By 12th May the running total of smallpox cases in the town and neighbourhood totalled forty, of whom eight died, nine recovered and twenty three remained under treatment. (17) With the exception of Athenry, the disease had assumed no formidable proportions in the county.  Three cases occurred in Dunmore (Tuam Union), two at Abbey (Tuam Union), one in the Galway Union and five or six at Rosmuck in the Oughterard Union.  However, these official figures may not represent a true reflection of the smallpox cases. Correspondence from Dr. French, the Abbey Dispensary District medical officer cites three particular cases that were not reported.

… I discovered a case today from the unusual number that came to be vaccinated, they having stated a case of smallpox existed in the village, a very populous and poor one (Feigh).  I went there, and found a boy named Murphy eleven days lying ill from the disease, which was not reported to me; in fact they had three labouring under the disease, from the dread of having them removed to the workhouse. (18)

Dr. Brodie now considered that smallpox was increasing in virulence and fatal results (19) and during the week of 17th May he reported six fresh cases and four deaths in Athenry town.  By the end of May the total number of smallpox cases in the three month period since 1st March reached seventy-five comprising sixteen deaths, twenty recoveries and thirty-nine under treatment.  On 24th June six locals were infected, three from the town and three from the rural district.  (20) However, by this time the disease appeared to have assumed a mild form and a marked decline in the number of cases was evident.  Dr. Brodie announced on 28th inst.

I have much pleasure in reporting that there has been no fresh case of smallpox in the Athenry district during the the past three days, and that a considerable number of the patients now in hospital are convalescing favourably. 21

smallpox 1001Pl. 1: Fr. John Walsh’s grave stone in the cemetery adjoining the Athenry R.C. Church.

On 13th July Dr. Leonard confirmed that every house in Athenry where smallpox appeared had been thoroughly disinfected and concluded his report to Dr. Brodie on an optimistic note: “It is a salutary change and leaves me to hope that smallpox has run its course in my afflicted district.” 22 The hint of optimism turned to jubilation when Dr. Brodie reported

It is a cheering fact that in the town of Athenry, the hot-bed and focus of disease, a single individual has not been attacked with smallpox during the twenty two days previous to this date, and that the patients from Athenry in hospital, four in number, will be discharged on Monday perfectly cured, leaving four members of one family, from the neighbourhood of Moyode, distant three miles from Athenry, under treatment.  The outbreak in this locality need not be viewed with much dread as it is not likely to spread there, the houses being isolated, well ventilated.- and the resident proprietor, Mr. Burton Persse, taking much interest in the cleanliness, order and satisfactory (in a sanitary point of view) manner in which they are kept. 23

On 1st October Dr Leonard stated that all patients had been discharged from he smallpox hospital” 24 and the clothing and bedding were burned in accordance the order of the Board.  On 21st October the horse which had been employed at the smallpox hospital was sold by auction and realised a sum of £5:10:0. It is significant that within three weeks of the last smallpox patient being realised from the hospital it was considered safe to purchase the hospital horse. This reflects a revival of confidence in the community and the first indication of recovery of normal trading practices.
During the epidemic in Athenry one hundred and seventy-one people were infected by the smallpox disease and forty-nine cases proved fatal. 25 The population of the Athenry Dispensary District at this period was 7,693.


The study of the smallpox epidemic in Athenry in the 1870s highlights the vulnerability of all classes to the disease harboured by the poor and raises questions as to 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.

parish marriagesIn 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.

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.

parish marriagesNOTES

This article is adapted from a thesis submitted in 1994 in partial fulfillment of the requirement for the degree of MA from St. Patrick’s College  Maynooth.
According to The Sanitary Record, July 10th 1875, p. 19, William Burke was aged eighteen. However Dr. Leonard’s correspondence to the Local Government Board on 2nd March 1875 considered him to be “aged” about 22 years” Smallpox (Athenry) H.C. 1875 (422), 1x, p. 1.
Smallpox (Athenry) 1875 p. 1.
The Galway Express, Saturday, February 27th 1875, p. 4.
Report from Dr. Brodie, medical inspector for the Loughrea Local Government Board, to the Local Government Board, 25th March 1875.  Smallpox (Athenry) 1875, p. 5.
Galway Vindicator, April 7th 1875.
According to the gravestone inscription.  Fr Walsh died on 28th  March.  However the local newspaper accounts (eg The Galway Vindicator, Wednesday March 31st 1875, p. 3), and the correspondence between the Dispensary Doctor and the Local Government Board report his death to Monday 29th March.
National Archives of Ireland, Chief Secretary’s Office Registered Papers 1875, no.12512.  Report from Dr. Brodie to the Local Government Board, 30th March 1875, p. 6.
Census of Ireland for 1861, H.C. 1863, LV, i, 247.
Letter from Dr. Leonard to Dr. Brodie.  Smallpox (Athenry) 1875, p. 9.
Extract from the Minutes of Proceedings of the Board of Guardians of Loughrea Union Smallpox (Athenry) 1875, p. 1 1,
Report from Dr. Brodie to Local Government Board, 24th April 1875, Smallpox (Athenry) 1875 P. 15.
Ibid., p. 17.
Chief Secretary’s Office Registered Papers 1875, no. 12512.
Dr. Brodie was the Local Government Board Medical Inspector responsible for supervising the Poor Law Unions in Counties Galway and Roscommon.
Chief Secretary’s Office Registered Papers 1875, no. 12512.
Dr Brodie’s report to the Local Government Board, 12th May 1875, Smallpox (Athenry) 1875. p27
Correspondence from Dr. French to Dr. Brodie, 25th June 1875, Smallpox (Athenry) 1875 p. 36.
Smallpox (Athenry) 1875, p. 36.
The number of cases from 1st March to 24th June 1875 totaled 147.  Smallpox (Athenry) 1875 pp 36 & 37.
Smallpox (Athenry) 1875, p. 35
Secretary’s Office Registered Papers 1873, no. 12512. (14th July).
Ibid., no. 12512 (1st August).
Galway County Library, Letter from Dr. Leonard to Local Government Board, Minute Book Loughrea Union vol. 43.
4th Annual Report of the local Government Board for Ireland [C.1493] H.C. xxxi, 1876. p. 562.

Editor’s note: This article, published in “The Journal of the Galway Archaeological & Historical Society” Vol. 48: 1996  was reproduced in “The Athenry Journal” Spring 1996 with the kind permission of the Author – Anne Walsh whose mother was Patricia Murphy, Clarke St., Athenry.

See also: The social impact of the smallpox epidemic in Athenry, Co Galway, 1875

Also – How Athenry recovered from its smallpox epidemic!

Editor’s note: Read here the story of Edward Jenner, the country doctor who pioneered vaccination. The legend usually repeated is that Jenner, a family doctor from Gloucestershire, had observed that milkmaids working in the countryside around his hometown of Berkeley had remarkably clear complexions and were never afflicted by the scars of the feared disease smallpox. When he asked about this, he was told that they had all contracted cowpox in the course of their work and it was this that protected them from smallpox.

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About this record

Written by Anne Walsh

Published here 09 Feb 2021 and originally published Spring 1996

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