Friday, April 22, 1994

St. Michaels Church of Ireland

For a provincial town of just over 5,000 souls Athy is well provided with Churches. On each of the four roads leading into the town Church spires are to be seen. The oldest is that of St. Michaels Church of Ireland on the Carlow Road built in 1840 to replace an earlier Church in Emily Square. Tradition has it that stone from the 13th century Dominican Monastery located on the west bank of the River Barrow was used in the building of the spire of St. Michaels. However it would seem on the evidence of the stonework that tradition once again is less than accurate.

The original Church located in the open area behind the Town Hall may have been erected in or around 1682, which date is to be found on the Church Bell now located on the Town Hall. Unfortunately while this gives us the date of the casting of the bell it does not necessarily allow us to assume that the Church building was erected that same year. If the Emily Square Church was in fact built in 1682 it raises the question as to where the Reformed Church Services were held following the suppression of the Dominican Monastery in 1539. An inventory of the Dominican properties in Athy in 1541 disclosed that their Church was in a ruined or despoiled state. It is unlikely therefore to have been used by the adherents of the Reformed Church unless of course it was put into repair.

The building of St. Michaels, then Church of England, on the Carlow Road, extended over a number of years in the period immediately prior to the Great Famine. The Rector at that time was Rev. Frederick Trench, remembered also as the last Sovereign of the old Borough of Athy which was abolished in 1840. A one time resident of Kilmoroney House Trench was to die tragically in 1860 when his coach collided with Prestons Gate, the last remains of the medieval town wall which stood at the end of Offaly Street. The death of the highly respected Rector resulted in the immediate demolition of Prestons Gate, an action which archaeologists and historians today regret. Interestingly enough in his Will Rev. Frederick Trench left money to fund a yearly donation of bread to the poor of Athy. Nowadays instead of bread, money is received from the fund each year for distribution to the poor of the town. A very fine marble pulpit in St. Michaels Church was erected in memory of Rev. Trench.

It would seem that the site of the Carlow Road Church was chosen because of its proximity to the town and its prominent position on one of the approach roads to Athy. The Church building itself was so positioned so as to present an avenue-like approach from the newly named Church Road. The Rector's Manse and the Park Keepers house were probably built at the same time. The stone wall around the People's Park with these buildings and the new Church represented a harmonious combination of stone and architecture which even after more than 150 years remains pleasing to the eye.

If St. Michaels Church of Ireland is the oldest Church in Athy its near neighbour, the Dominican Church, is the youngest.

Both St. Michaels and the Dominican Church face each other across the River Barrow, a constant reminder of the religious differences which in previous generations made strangers of our neighbours. Nowadays the "dumb waters" of the Barrow flow between both Churches, separating yet linking in almost silent prayer an urban community which has been home to Catholic, Reformed Church and Dissenter for centuries past.

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