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.