St. Michael's Cemetery has been the principal burial ground for Athy people for hundreds of years. The signpost outside the Cemetery on the Dublin Road reads "St. Michael's Medieval Church". It appears to be a 14th Century Church built when the still young settlement of Athy already had two Monasteries. The Crouched Friars had a Monastery at St. John's while the Friars Preachers had theirs in an area to the south of the present Emily Square. Both Monasteries were manned by French speaking clerics who had come to the area at the invitation of the Anglo Norman settlers.
St. Michael's Church was built outside the town walls and leads me to believe that it was a Parish Church to serve the native Irish. The name St. Michael could be a reference to the St. Michael family who were Barons of Rheban and Lords of the Manor of Woodstock. It could also be a dedication to St. Michael who is usually portrayed as a dragon slayer and whose protection was often sought especially when Churches were being built on sites which had previous pagan associations.
The grounds around the Church were used for Christian burials from an early time. The antiquity of the site can be readily ascertained from the high ground on the south side of the church. This was the favourite place for burials because the north side of the Church was in shadow and where it was believed the devil lurked. Consequently the north side was reserved for criminals and unbaptised babies while corpses were piled on top of each other on the south side, gradually leading to a substantial increase in the ground level at that point.
Around the Cemetery we can see Irish Yew trees of uncertain age. Regarded as symbols of immortality it was Edward I who ordered Yew trees to be planted in graveyards because of the protection their close growth afforded Church buildings from storms. The Yew is also poisonous to animals and so acts as a deterrent to unscrupulous persons who might otherwise let their animals loose in a cemetery.
During the middle ages and up to the 18th century corpses were buried in linen shrouds rather than coffins. An Act of 1678 required woollen shrouds to be used so that the ailing woollen trade could be promoted. The rich were understandably the first to use coffins and the practice developed in time to include the less well off in society.
Inevitably the level of poverty which prevailed throughout the 18th and 19th centuries required the town Council to provide a parish coffin in which the unfortunate was brought to the gate of the cemetery. The lych gate at the entrance to the cemetery (which no longer exists) was a covered gateway where the coffin was rested on a table while the body was removed, placed in a shroud or sheet for burial and the Parish coffin returned ready for the next funeral.
Immediately adjoining the front wall of the cemetery and to the right of the gateway is the last resting place of possibly the only man in Ireland legitimately buried in his own back yard. Paddy Johnson lived in one of the small cottages which fronted onto the Dublin Road and behind which lay St. Michael's Cemetery. The Town Council extended the cemetery by taking over the ground occupied by the cottages and when Paddy died he was buried in what was previously his own back yard.
Around the Medieval Church can be seen a rich green and glossy plant which flowers every two years between April and June. Alexanders is a plant similar to the wild carrot and was grown in medieval times. It is not a plant native to Ireland and it's presence in the cemetery might indicate a medieval settlement on the site either before or after the Church was erected. Apparently the entire plant was edible, the stem like asparagus, the root like a parsnip while the flower buds were used in salads.
Walk around St. Michael's and look at the history to be found among the headstones. Look at the table tombs within and without the Church, look at the beautifully crafted headstones and the imaginative epitaphs to be found. And as you walk through the old cemetery note how the graves are orientated so that the corpses face the sun rising in the east. When the new St. Michael's Cemetery was opened in 1965 this tradition was overlooked so that when our time comes, unlike our forefathers, we will not face the rising sun. I wonder!