St. Dominic's Church, nestling on the western bank of the River Barrow almost within a stones throw of St. Michael's Church of Ireland, encompasses within its modernistic architectural features a history stretching back over 700 years.
Since the foundation of the original Dominican Monastery in 1253 by French speaking members of the Black Friars, the Dominicans have retained a presence amongst the people of Athy and district. This has been achieved despite a few enforced flights from the area during the time of the Penal Laws.
Occupying at different times a site on the East Bank of the Barrow near to the present Emily Square and a site on the then Convent Lane, now Kirwan’s Lane, the Dominicans are our most important link with the early years of the medieval village of Athy.
The history of the Dominicans in Athy mirrors the social, cultural and ecclesiastical history of the early village and subsequent town. The vicissitudes and hardships visited upon the Dominican Friars were the result of either the extreme poverty of the people they served or alternatively the result of punitive measures imposed nationally and executed locally by men whose religious allegiances differed from those of the Black Friars.
The suppression of the Monastery in 1539 secured the first breach in the Dominicans link with Athy. Not until 1603 did the Dominicans return to the market town on the River Barrow where it is believed they re-occupied their former Monastery. The Confederate wars of 1641-49 saw General Preston directing his canon against the Monastery levelling a substantial portion of the buildings before taking possession of what remained. The Prior, Thomas Bermingham and his colleagues however escaped capture.
The Cromwellian era of Thomas Cromwell followed and with it Athy's designation as one of fourteen Revenue Precincts in Ireland, each controlled by a Military Governor. This was to usher in a time of change and prosperity for the town as overseas settlers came to occupy local lands forfeited to the Crown.
It is from this period of conflict that Athy Dominicans gave two of its members to Ireland's martyrology. Fr. Raymond Moore, Prior of Athy at two different periods in the 17th century, was arrested and imprisoned in Dublin where he died in 1665. Earlier in 1649 the sub-Prior of Athy, Fr. Richard Overton, was seized and murdered by Cromwell's soldiers in Drogheda. The difficulties facing the members of the Dominican Order were accentuated by the State's Decree to banish all regular and secular clergy from Ireland by the 20th of November, 1678. However the local Friars stayed in the vicinity of Athy but fled the area during the Jacobite War of 1689/’91. They were to remain out of the area for almost 40 years. We know that in 1735 a solitary Dominican Fr. Christopher Coonan lived in the Athy area where he was in time to be joined by other members of the Order. By 1756 three Dominicans were living in a small Monastery which they had built in the area now known as Kirwan's Lane off Leinster Street.
The Dominicans later acquired Riversdale House, a private residence formerly owned by George Mansergh, located directly opposite the site of the original Monastery of the Black Friars. They have remained ever since. The original 18th century house was replaced in recent years by a modern building which adjoins and complements the modern Church built in 1965. Located at the end of what was Tan Yard Lane, now Convent Lane, the Dominican Church is an important example of modern ecclesiastical architecture housing works by such noted artists as George Campbell and Brid ni Rinn. With what was a revolutionary Church style for the 1960's which ignored the traditional cruciformed style, the Dominicans or Order of Friars Preachers, anciently referred to as the Black Friars, signalled their continuing missionary commitment as evangelists and preachers to the town of Athy.