Friday, July 22, 1994

The Presbyterian Church

I recently received a very pleasant letter from a lady in Buckinghamshire, England, in which she related her links with Athy where she spent her summer holidays as a young girl. With a number of copy photographs of Athy scenes she also enclosed a copy of the report printed in 1856 by Athy printer M. Carey of Barrow Quay giving an account of monies received for the building of Athy's Presbyterian Church. The total donations came to £1,076.18.3 with £150 donated by the Belfast Church and Manse Fund. An interesting reference was to the sum of £70 collected by the Rev. Mr. Hall while in Scotland. The Minister in question was John Hall appointed to the newly established Presbyterian Ministry in Athy in September 1852.

The earliest reference to Presbyterianism in Athy referred to a grant to Rev. Dr. Thralkield for ministering in the town in April 1717 out of a special fund established seven years earlier by some wealthy Dubliners. The Ministry continued until 1798 when Rev. Nicholas Ashe was forced to leave the town because of his alleged personal links with those involved in the 1798 Rebellion. What happened to his congregation we cannot say but we do know that the Presbyterian Church was not again to have a presence in Athy until 1851.

It was the Duke of Leinster's anxiety to people his rich south Kildare farmlands with Scottish farm stewards which led to the resurgence of Presbyterianism in the area. Advertising in Scottish newspapers he offered farms and farmhouses to such Scottish families as would settle in Ireland. Throughout the early months of 1851 the last group of settlers to come to the area arrived in Athy which in previous centuries had witnessed similar arrivals from across the Irish Sea. By June of the same year several Scottish families had settled in the area including the Andersons, Campbells, Duncans, Duthies, Dicks, Frazers, Hosies, Roudens, Macks, Walls, Pennycooks, Simpsons and Weirs. All came from Pertshire and Eastern Scotland and brought with them the Presbyterian religion of their forefathers.

The earlier mentioned John Hall was appointed Minister and when the need arose in 1855 to build a Church he travelled to Scotland to seek donations. The Church was built by Mr. Gough, Contractor, under the supervision of David Taylor, Architect. The foundation stone was laid on Friday the 21st of September, 1855 by James Gibson Q.C., a Presbyterian Church Elder who was also Chairman of County Laois then called Queens County. On the same day John Chapperton, Robert Anderson, Benjemin Thompson and James Alexander were appointed as the Church Elders.

Of the sum of £1,076.18.3 collected £600 was paid to the Contractor for building the Church. An interesting reference shows the sum of £60 paid to Mr. Patrick Callaghan for 60 yew trees in the church yard. Some of these are still standing in the area reserved for Presbyterian burials in St. Michael's Cemetery.

Extra seating was provided in the Church in 1866 to accommodate the average Sunday attendance of upwards of 200 persons and within six years Athy had the second largest Presbyterian congregation in Southern Ireland. That same year the Manse which had previously been a herdsman cottage occupied by Benjamin Norman was re-built at a cost of £400. Rev. John Clarke was appointed Minister in 1874 and he was responsible for building a Lecture Hall in 1889 at the rere of the Church which cost £320. Rev. Clarke died in 1899 and his portrait presented by his widow to the local Church now stands in the Lecture Hall.

In 1946 extensive refurbishment of the interior of the Presbyterian Church was carried out by local Contractors Frank and Jim Brady. The Gallery at the back of the Church was removed and because of wartime shortage of timber the bench ends were cast in cement as was the pulpit. These surely represent a unique feature in an Irish Church today.

The Presbyterian congregation today is very much reduced with the descendants of some of the Scottish farming settlers of almost 150 years ago still providing the nucleus of its membership.

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