Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Dominicans in Athy

In two months time the Dominican Order will leave Athy for the last time.  Their departure, unlike previous such occurrences, is the result of a voluntary decision precipitated by a fall in vocations.  There were times in the distant past when the local Dominican friars were banished from the town as a result of penal legislation.  Their removal from the local area where their ministry commenced in 1257 was however never permanent as the Friars Preachers always sought to return to the South Kildare town.

Robert Woulff was Prior at the time of the Reformation and thereafter for almost 100 years the Dominican Friary on the East bank of the River Barrow in the area now known as The Abbey was vacant and very likely in a state of ruin.  The Protestant Church erected in the Market Square long before the Town Hall was built was believed by an earlier writer on the town’s history to have contained stone taken from the nearby Dominican Friary. 

The Reformation may have condemned the 13th century Dominican Friary to a future devoid of religious ceremonies, but the subsequent Penal Laws failed to deprive the local people in the long term of the Catholic ministry provided by the Friars Preachers.  There was certainly a lull of 100 years before the Dominican Provincial, Ross MacGeoghegan restored the Dominicans to Athy and appointed Thomas Bermingham as the new Prior.  His appointment coincided with the latter years of the Confederate Wars and accounts of sieges of Athy during those wars included a graphic account of an attack on the Dominican Friary.  The exact location of the Dominican Friary from 1648 onwards is not clear, but the Dominicans may have reoccupied their original friary. 

The list of Priors from 1648 to 1697 would appear to indicate a period untroubled by rigorous application of the Penal Laws.  This obviously changed in the last few years of the 17th century when the Dominicans were again forced to leave Athy.  In 1698 all bishops and friars were sent into exile, with the result that Athy was for the next 40 years or so without a Dominican presence.  It was not until the 1740s that the Dominican friars returned to Athy and it was Thomas Cummins who took on the role of Prior.  On their return the Dominicans established a friary in what I believe was Convent Lane, now called Kirwan’s Lane.  Even with the relaxation of the Penal Laws Catholic clergy did not seek to provoke a reaction from reformed Church members by building Catholic churches other than in laneways away from the main street.  It’s for the same reasons that the local Parish Church destroyed by fire in 1800 was built in Church Lane between Leinster Street and Stanhope Place. 

In 1744 Dublin Castle authorities, concerned about the growth of popery, sought reports from the Provinces on the practice of Catholicism.  John Jackson, a local magistrate, reported that he could not find a priest or a friar in Athy.  Clearly the Dominicans who were in the area and the Parish Priest, Fr. Fitzpatrick who lived in Barrowhouse, all kept low profiles.  Ten years or so later the local Parish Church records were left without entries for a number of months due to what was described as the prosecution of the local curate.  Clearly the Penal Laws were still applied even if at times they were ineffective insofar as church practices were concerned.

With the passing of Catholic Emancipation in 1829 a great surge in Catholic Church building took place and some years later the Athy Dominicans acquired property at the end of Tanners Lane (now Church Lane) which was redeveloped as a friary and church.  It has been home to the local Dominican community for the past 175 years or so. 

The first Athy Dominican Prior for which records exist was Philip Pereys who held the position in 1357.  It was Philip Pereys who obtained a pardon from King Edward III for felonies and transgressions committed by him on paying a fine of half a mark and saying 100 masses for the King.  The fine was afterwards remitted on the Prior saying another 100 masses for the same intention.  One wonders what felonies and transgressions were committed by the Rev. Prior!

Dominican martyrs connected with the Athy Friary included Richard Ovington, a former sub Prior of Athy, who was captured and executed by Oliver Cromwell’s troops in Drogheda in 1649.  Cromwell’s men also captured the Athy Prior Thomas Birmingham who after some time in prison was released and exiled to Italy on payment of a fine.  Stories of the local Dominicans fleeing for safety to Derryvullagh Bog ahead of the Cromwellian troops, form a large part of the local folklore.  Records however do note that the Dominican Redmond Moore sought safety in the bog before escaping to the continent.  He later returned to Athy where he was Prior of the local Friary from 1661.

The story of the Dominicans in Athy will soon come to an end.  There remains however more than 750 years of local Dominican history to be studied so that a community served so well for so long can appreciate the enormity of the contribution the Dominican Order made to the people of Athy and district.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Famine and Cholera Deaths

On 10th January 1847 Athy resident Michael Carey wrote in his letter book: ‘The post teems with deaths and our Poorhouse is daily sending out its dead and the poor in the country are bringing their dead coffins through the streets on their little ass carts.  It is equal to the time of the cholera when the deep wailing of the living for the dead woke us from our midnight slumbers.  How awful are the wailings now.’  Michael Carey’s is the only contemporary reference I have found to the awful effects of the Great Famine on the local people of Athy and district.  He was not to know when referring to the cholera outbreak of 1834 that cholera would again revisit the town of Athy in October 1849 just as the worst effects of the Famine were receding. 

The first cholera case of the 1849 outbreak was recorded in Belfast on 2nd December 1848 involving a man who had arrived from Edinburgh where there had been an outbreak the previous October.  On 25th June 1849 the first cholera case was noted in Athy and by 29th December 27 cases were recorded and 11 local cholera victims had died.  A temporary cholera hospital was opened in the town and funds intended for the relief of Famine had to be diverted to deal with the cholera epidemic which remained a threat to public health until the following year. 

Cholera, which thrived in the unhealthy overcrowded conditions to be found in the narrow lanes and courts of the town, had previously arrived in Athy in 1834.  At that time the Treasury had advanced the sum of £20 to the select vestry of the local Church of England which had responsibility under the Vestry Act of 1772 for public health in the town.  The cholera break of 1849 was more serious than the previous occurrence adding fear to the distress of the local people already weakened by years of Famine. 

In the 1851 census details of deaths in hospitals in the period June 1841 to March 1851 were detailed.  For Athy the opening of the Workhouse in January 1844 marks the effective commencement date for the census figures giving a period which, apart from the initial one and a half years, largely coincided with the Famine years.  During that time a total of 1205 men, women and children died in Athy Workhouse and in the adjoining Fever Hospital. 

The town’s population, which in 1841 numbered 4,698, had fallen to 3,873 in 1851, which latter figure excludes the inmates of the local Workhouse.  Between 1831 and 1841 the town’s population had increased by 4.5% and if one assumes even a similar increase for the ten years to 1851 the town population should have reached 4,909 at the end of that period.  The Famine can therefore be seen to have caused a possible fall in the town’s population of upwards of 1,036 persons.  Of course not all of this loss can be related to Famine deaths or disease as undoubtedly emigration to America or England or migration to Dublin city accounted for some of the population decrease.

The decline in the town’s population and the rise in the Workhouse numbers such as to necessitate the opening of two auxiliary workhouses in the town, coupled with the huge numbers fed at the local soup kitchen in Athy, all point to widespread distress in South Kildare during the Famine years.  That there was a Workhouse in place in Athy before the potato blight struck undoubtedly enabled the authorities to respond to the emergency in a manner which helped reduce the number of deaths from disease and starvation in this area.  Despite this we know that 1,205 persons died in the Workhouse and many hundreds of the townspeople died from disease and/or starvation. 

Some weeks ago I referred to the sad sorry state of St. Mary’s Cemetery where the Famine dead from the Workhouse are buried.  That sacred ground was then neglected, overgrown and littered with debris.  Its condition reflected poorly on all of us living here in Athy as St. Mary’s Cemetery represents a bridge to our ancestors who suffered so much during the Great Famine.  To overlook St. Mary’s Cemetery as we have done in the past is to cast aside the memory of those unnamed men, women and children who once walked the streets and laneways of our town.

Thanks to Denis Ryan and the members and friends of Gouleyduff Meggar Club, St. Mary’s has recently been reclaimed from the neglect of the past and today presents as a tranquil and respectable place of repose for our Famine dead.

On Sunday 27th September at 3.00 p.m. St. Mary’s will be the focus of a Famine Commemoration Service as part of the National Famine Commemoration Day ceremonies.  Do attend if you can to show that we have not forgotten those terrible years of the Great Famine or the men, women and children of our town and district who were consigned under terrible conditions to an early grave. 

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Marian Shrine

A few Sunday’s ago I was brought back to a time when as a short trousered youngster I was one of a group of soutaned mass servers who attended the blessing of the Marian shrine at St. Joseph’s Terrace.  The Parish Priest Fr. Steen was the chief celebrant on that day.  The Marian year had passed by the time the shrine was finished and ready for the ceremonial opening.  The delay however was not due to any fault on the part of the local committee of St. Joseph’s Terrace folk who had started the work on the project a year previously.  The committee under the chairmanship of Paddy Doyle known locally as “Chevit” Doyle comprised Jim Fleming, Tony Byrne, Eddie Delahunt and Joe O’Neill.  They were all members of the St. Joseph’s Welfare Club which had been in existence for many years previously. 

A strike in the cement works at Drogheda curtailed work on the site which had commenced in 1953.  The site chosen for the shrine was directly opposite the five terraced houses which once comprised Slatey Row.  These houses were demolished in the early 1930’s prior to the building of St. Joseph’s Terrace. 

The event which I recently attended at St. Joseph’s Terrace was the formal taking in charge by the local branch of the Organisation of National Ex-Service Men and Women of Ireland of the Marian shrine.  The O.N.E. as it is known was founded in 1951 when a number of associations formed by demobbed service personnel following the end of WWII came together.  Its initial purpose was to help maintain the comradeship and companionship fostered while in service but in recent years it has taken on the additional commendable object of providing accommodation for ex-service personnel of the Irish Defence Forces.  Its official name is Oglaigh Naisiúnta na h’Éireann or in English, Organisation of National Ex-Service Men and hence the letters O.N.E. by which it is generally known.  The former army and navy personnel all living in retirement in the Athy area have committed themselves and their organisation to maintaining the Marian shrine.

For the past 60 years this shrine which contains the work of many local craftsmen of 60 years ago has been cared for, initially by the original shrine committee and following their passing by residents of St. Joseph’s Terrace.  The cut stone which adorns the shrine was assembled by John Murphy of St. Michael’s Terrace, a craftsman whose work can also be seen in the beautifully crafted stone wall entrance to the Dominican Church.  McHugh’s Foundry of Meeting Lane made the small gates while the Fleming brothers, Tom and Jim with J. McEvoy were largely responsible for the wall erected around the Marian shrine.

On the same week as the handing over took place our Parish Priest, Fr. Gerard Tanham said his last Sunday morning mass in St. Michael’s Church before leaving Athy for Howth Parish.  In the six years Fr. Tanham had been Parish Priest of St. Michael’s Parish he endeared himself to local parishioners and proved a popular pastor.  As befitting a man related to the Irish patriot Thomas Kettle, Fr. Tanham displayed remarkable appreciation of our community’s responsibility to remember the hitherto forgotten folk from Athy and the surrounding countryside who died in the town’s workhouse during the Great Famine.  When I first approached Fr. Tanham soon after his arrival in Athy to seek his help in holding a service in St. Mary’s Cemetery on National Famine Commemoration Day he readily agreed to participate.  Not only did he do so but he also prepared and printed a service which he made available to those attending the commemoration ceremony.  Incidentally this year’s famine commemorations service will take place on Sunday, 27th of September but more on that next week. Our good wishes goes to Fr. Tanham and a welcome is extended to Fr. Frank McEvoy our new Parish Priest who some years ago served as a curate in St. Michael’s Parish. 

In congratulating the members of the O.N.E., the residents of St. Joseph’s Terrace and our departing and incoming Parish Priests I must not forget to welcome a very important person who joined us just three weeks ago.  Emmet Taaffe Harward, my very first grandson following four lovely granddaughters is the latest addition to the Taaffe extended family.     

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Medieval Athy

When the Anglo Normans settled in the area now known as south County Kildare their early settlements were to be found near to the River Barrow at Ardree, Athy and Rheban with an inland settlement at Ardscull.  These villages, populated by French speaking settlers, in time attracted Gaelic speaking Irish folk who occupied low class positions such as betaghs or villeins who served the manorial lords.  Today three of those once thriving settlements are no more having been consigned to history which describes them as ‘deserted villages’.

The exception is Athy.  Why did the medieval village of Athy prosper and develop into a town when the neighbouring villages died away?  Was it because of its location on an important crossing on the River Barrow and the fact that it was garrisoned as the first line of defence for those living within the Pale?  It was for that reason that the White Castle was built in 1417 to house a garrison to protect the bridge of Athy.

I have come to the conclusion that amongst the many reasons for the continued existence of Athy when other neighbouring villages died away was the part played by the granting of royal charters to Athy.  A charter was a royal writ confirming rights and privileges and the first of several charters granted to Athy was that of King Henry VIII in 1515.  It was granted to the village of Athy at the request of Gerald Fitzgerald, Earl of Kildare ‘for the greatest safety of Athy which lies on the frontiers of the Marches of our Irish enemies’.  Those same Irish usually referred to in medieval texts as ‘the wild Irish’ attacked and burned the village of Athy on four occasions in the 14th century. 

The 1515 Charter allowed the inhabitants of Athy ‘to build and strengthen the town with fosses and walls of stone and lime’.  The work was to be controlled by a Provost elected annually on the feast of St. Michael the Archangel (September 29th) and financed by customs/tolls collected in the market allowed under the Charter to be held each Tuesday in the village.  This was the first reference to the local market which is still held every Tuesday in Emily Square which in times past was known as ‘Market Square’.  While the Charter of 1515 declared the Provost and the inhabitants of Athy to be a body incorporate there is no reference to the appointment or election of borough officials. 

In a letter written in 1552 by Ossory to Cromwell reference is made to ‘the gates of the Earl’s town of Athy’.  Further references in 1598 to Castledermot and Athy ‘as the only important towns of Kildare walled and now ruined’ confirm that the Charter of 1515 did result in the walling of Athy.  The town walls were constructed on the east side of the River Barrow and ran in a semi circular formation from the river across Preston’s Gate (now Offaly Street) across High Street (now Leinster Street) to Chapel Lane and from there via Stanhope Place to the river.  The last visible remains of the medieval walls were removed in 1860 when the gateway known as Preston’s Gate then leading into the street, also called Preston’s Gate, was pulled down.

In 1613 James I in an effort to further the plantation programme and to secure a Protestant Parliamentary majority created 46 new borough Councils in Ireland.  Amongst them was Athy Borough Council.  The 1613 Charter allowed for the appointment of a Sovereign and various borough officials.  It also provided for the appointment of 12 Burgesses who held office for life and who constituted the Borough Council with the right to nominate two Members of Parliament.  Interestingly the Charter also authorised Athy Borough to have a Guild of Merchants ‘to better serve for the success of the Borough’.

Catholics were excluded from membership of the borough, as were Presbyterians until 1780, and the first and only Catholics elected as a Burgess of Athy was Thomas Fitzgerald of Geraldine House who was elected in 1831.  Nine years later Athy Borough Council with a number of other so called ‘rotten Boroughs’ was abolished.

Recently I came across another Athy Charter granted in 1689 by the Catholic King James II.  Apparently it was never accepted by the borough masters of Athy following the defeat of James II two years later by William of Orange at the Battle of the Boyne.  In a report of 1833 by the Commissioners of Municipal Corporations it was claimed that the Charter of 1689 was ‘founded upon a supposed forfeiture by a judgment of the Exchequer and has not been acted upon at least within the memory of any living person and the Charter of 1613 is the governing charter’. 

The charters granted to Athy helped to ensure the survival of the village while other neighbouring villages died.  This despite the undemocratic nature of the Borough Council’s composition which was not addressed until the Borough Council was abolished in 1840 and subsequently replaced by Town Commissioners elected by popular mandate.