Many generous people have in the past contributed handsomely to the maintenance of the social and religious fabric of our ancient town. Some are remembered, even if only by dint of research into long forgotten archives and minutiae of the previous century. Many however, are the acts of generosity which were never recorded, or if so have since languished in the forgotten layers of our local history.
Who for instance was Ann Fitzgerald of Geraldine who played a major part in establishing a Mercy Convent in Athy in 1852? She was probably a daughter of Colonel Fitzgerald of Geraldine House, who some decades previously had built the first school premises for the poor children of Athy on part of what was commonage of Clonmullin. Other generous benefactors, particularly of religious institutions in Athy, were Mrs. Goold and her daughter of Leinster Street. Indeed, if memory serves me right, the present Parish Priest’s house was gifted to the church authorities by Miss Goold. She also donated sufficient funds in 1877 to guarantee the employment of a fourth teacher in the local Christian Brothers School and to ensure that the classics continued to be taught in the school.
Patrick Commins is recorded as having given significant financial help to the Catholic Church in Athy in the middle of the 19th century. He was originally a clerk in Minch’s and in 1841 he married Mary Moran of Leighlinbridge, Carlow. She was a sister of Patrick Francis Moran who was created a Cardinal of the Catholic Church in 1885.
Commins had a farm out the Ballylinan road and is noted as having a connection with the canal company, but in what capacity I cannot say. His relationship with Cardinal Moran is of interest because Moran was in turn the nephew of Cardinal Paul Cullen who was from Ballitore. Commins father Hugh was married twice. The first time to Elizabeth Murphy and they had one daughter, Alicia, who was to be the mother of a future Cardinal, Patrick Moran. Commins second wife was Mary Maher of Donore and Paul Cullen, the first Cardinal in the Irish Church, was one of their 15 children.
Mary Maher was the brother of Patrick Maher of Kilrush and William Maher of Burtown, or Birtown as it was known in the 19th century. The Kilrush farmer, Patrick Maher, was perhaps Athy’s greatest ever benefactor insofar as he made many donations over many years to the local Catholic Church as well as to the Sisters of Mercy Convent and the Christian Brothers School in Athy. One of his daughters was Sister Teresa Maher who was appointed first Superior of the Athy Convent in 1855. Patrick Maher’s wife was Louise Dillon, whose sister Mary Dillon was married to Pat Lalor of Tenakill. Pat and Mary Lalor had 11 children, the eldest of which was James Fintan Lalor. Pat Lalor was elected as an M.P. for Queens county, as Laois was then called, in 1832 and he supported Daniel O’Connell during the repeal of the Union Campaign. However, Pat Lalor’s fame was eclipsed by that of his eldest son James Fintan Lalor and a younger son, Peter Lalor, both of whom achieved national recognition which has endured to this day.
James Fintan Lalor who died in 1849, aged 42 years, is remembered in Irish history as a land agitator who was much influenced by William Conner of Inch, Athy. Both were deeply involved in seeking land reform and Lalor’s influence in particular had a profound effect on the Young Ireland movement and later still on Michael Davitt and the Land League Movement. His brother Peter Lalor emigrated to Australia and there he lead the insurgent miners at the Eureka stockade in December 1854 which precipitated the Victorian Constitutional Reforms of the following year.
The ties between the Lalors of Tenakill and the Mahers of Kilrush extended beyond the Dillon sisters who had married into both households. Pat Lalor, M.P. for Queens County and Daniel O’Connell’s faithful supporter shared with Patrick Maher an unswerving refusal to pay tithes for the support of the established church. On several occasions the Maher’s cattle were seized from his Kilrush fields and driven to markets where they were sold to satisfy the unpaid tithes. We are told that on one such occasion when 25 of Lalor’s sheep were seized, bailiffs drove them all the way to Dublin as no one would deal with them in Laois or Kildare. In Dublin they fared little better and the sheep were eventually shipped to Liverpool. There one of the leading livestock firms was Vendon and Cullen, the Cullen being a nephew of Patrick Maher of Kilrush so that the bailiff’s plans to sell the sheep were again thwarted.
Patrick Maher was a man with great personal connections, not only in terms of Irish national politics but also as regards the 19th century Catholic church. His nephew was the Archbishop of Dublin and Irelands’ first Cardinal, while another relation was Cardinal Moran of Sydney. Three of his daughters were members of the Sisters of Mercy, while his brother in law was the famous Fr. James Maher, Parish Priest of Carlow Graigue.
Patrick Maher, Miss Goold, Ann Fitzgerald and Patrick Commins are just some of those who in the 19th century proved themselves generous benefactors of Athy and many of its Catholic institutions. One would like to know more of these men and women who for the most part are forgotten by those who live in Athy today.