A few weeks ago I wrote of how seldom Athy had been noticed by travellers to Ireland during the 18th and 19th centuries. Understandably those early travellers had confined themselves to Dublin, Cork and other large centres of population, while Killarney and Connemara were also strongly favoured. Those who passed through Athy and recorded their journeys were usually men of religion who in their evangelising tours through Ireland obviously saw much worthy of their attention in the South Kildare town.
One of the earliest such travellers/evangelists was the English born Quaker John Griffith who visited Ireland for the first time in 1749. He attended Quaker meetings throughout the country during his three month visit including in his itinerary Rathangan, Carlow, Castledermot, Ballytore and Athy. Of Athy he wrote "the meeting was very small and true religion very low". While he does not say so it can reasonably be assumed that the meeting took place in a meeting room which the local Quakers rented from one of their members Thomas Weston. In 1732 Weston had agreed to "set Friends a large meeting room and a stable for £3.00 a year and keep them in repair".
Griffith's comments about the small meeting in Athy confirms our knowledge of the first Quaker community of the town which had established a meeting as early as 1671. Unlike their counterparts in Timahoe who erected a meeting house in 1704 and the Ballytore Quakers who did so four years later the Athy Quakers did not feel it necessary to provide a purpose built meeting house until 1780.
Griffith made a second visit to Ireland in March 1760 and in company with his good friend Abraham Shackleton of Ballytore he again attended Quaker meetings throughout the country until he returned to England on the 20th of May. He wrote in his journal on the 20th of March, 1760:- "I had a good serviceable meeting in Athy and the next day another at Rathangan".
Before the 18th century ended another famous visitor was to pass through Athy. This time it was John Wesley who on Saturday, the 25th of April, 1789 made the journey from Maryborough (Portlaoise) to Carlow via Athy. He did not preach in Athy having risen at 7.30a.m. for prayers before taking the Chaise at 7.45a.m. to arrive in Carlow at 1.30p.m. His journal merely recorded the fact that he passed through our town but regrettably we cannot lay claim to the great John Wesley having preached in Athy.
The next visitor of note was John Kebble, English Poet and Divine, who with his wife were the guests of Rev. Frederick Trench and Lady Helena Trench at Kilmoroney House, Athy, in August 1841. Kebble who had published the "Christian Year" in 1827 is generally acknowledged as the primary author of the Oxford Movement of which Newman was the leader. Appointed Professor of Poetry in Oxford in 1831 Kebble preached a sermon in the University Chapel, Oxford on the 14th of July, 1833 in which he asserted the Church of England's claim to a heavenly origin and opposed the abolition of ten Irish Bishoprics. It was this sermon later published as "National Apostasy" which inspired others in Oxford to seek to revive High Church principles in the Church of England which up to then was regarded as stagnant.
Associated with Kebble and Newman in the Oxford movement was Arthur Perceval, brother of Helena Trench of Kilmorony House. It's interesting to note that Rev. Frederick Trench who was Rector in Athy apparently supported the Oxford movement and for a time sought to observe the Saints Days and Holy Days by holding services in the local Church in Athy. Kebble and his wife stayed a number of days in Kilmorony and one of Kebble's biographers notes that "they seem to have well employed their time for a few days in seeing much that was interesting".
Athy may not have received much attention from early travellers to this country but it can claim that the Quaker John Griffith, the Methodist John Wesley and the Anglican John Kebble crossed paths in the unlikely setting of the South Kildare town.