St. Michael's Parish Church - to our separated brethren the Roman Catholic Church - to some the unreformed Church but to the majority the Parish Church is the focus of our attention this week. Since the early days of the village of Athy there has been an ecclesiastical presence in the area. The Trinitarians or Crouched Friars were the first to establish a monastic settlement in the 13th century in the area now known as St. John's and near to Woodstock Castle. They were to be followed in 1253 by the Dominicans or Friars Preachers who established a monastery on the east bank of the River Barrow in the area between the Barrow and the present Offaly Street.
In those pre-Reformation days the French speaking Anglo Normans who established the village shared a common religion with the native Irish. However it was some time before those same Irish regarded as "the wild Irish" were permitted to join in religious ceremonies with their Anglo-Norman masters. The Trinitarian and Dominican monasteries were at first not accessible to the Irish and so it was that a separate secular Church came to be built outside the town walls to cater for the Irish who were attracted to the new Urban settlement. The medieval Church located in St. Michael's Cemetery on the Dublin road was the first Parish Church in Athy.
It is not known when the Trinitarians who were occasionally in conflict with their near neighbours the Dominicans, left Athy. The suppression of the Dominican Monastery in Athy occurred on the 19th of August, 1539 and when a jury sat at Kilkea on the 27th of November, 1540 to determine the extent of the monastic property in Athy there was no mention of the Trinitarian monastery of St. Johns. It may be presumed that the Trinitarians had already left the area but equally puzzling is the fact that in the Royal Commissioners survey of suppressed religious houses there is no reference to St. Michael's Church. Perhaps the answer lies in the conversion of monastic properties to private use while the Parish Church was retained as such in the immediate aftermath of the Reformation. The only difference being that it was thereafter used for services of the Reformed Church which following the Act of Supremacy had King Henry VIII as it's head.
In the troubled times which followed the actions initiated by King Henry VIII, adherence to a religion other than the state religion was not tolerated. That position was to remain unchanged for many years.
The Dominicans returned to the area soon after the accession of King James to the English throne but were to leave again following the attempted banishment of all Popish clergy from Ireland before the 1st of May, 1698. John Fitzsimons who was the Parish Priest, and living in Athy had registered with Dublin Castle in December 1697 and was accordingly allowed to remain on in the town. Again in July 1704 he appeared before the General Session of the Peace for County Kildare to register and to enter into sureties to be of good behaviour. The records disclose that he was 54 years of age and had been ordained in 1673 by the Primate of Ireland, Oliver Plunkett. He remained as Parish Priest of Athy until his death in 1712.
There is no record of a local Church catering for Catholics at that time. Apparently Mass was said where and whenever it was possible and several years were to pass before laws outlawing Catholic practices were sufficiently relaxed to enable those who had not conformed to the state religion to worship openly and publicly. The return of the Dominicans to Athy after 1731 clearly indicated a relaxation of the Penal Laws in the area and it is around that time that a Parish Church was constructed for Catholic worship. The Church was built as was the custom of the day in a laneway where it was inconspicuous and unlikely to attract attention. The laneway chosen situated off High Street or the present Leinster Street became known as Chapel Lane.
This Church was to be torched and destroyed by fire on the night of 7th March 1800 allegedly in reprisal for the action of a local curate Fr. Patrick Kelly. In Affidavits sworn before the local Town Sovereign it was alleged that the action of Fr. Kelly in attacking a yeoman escorting prisoners about to be executed in Athy in May 1798 led to the destruction of his Church. No one however was charged with the offence and the claims made could not be verified. The Parish Priest Maurice Keegan, submitted a claim for compensation and in this he was supported by Thomas Rawson of Glassealy House as a result of which the sum of £300 was paid to him.
Pending the replacement of their Church the Catholic Parishioners of Athy heard Mass in a large malt house near the Grand Canal owned by P. Dooley. This building was also gutted by fire towards the end of March 1800. No other local buildings could be obtained for use as a temporary Church and it was a Catholic Army Officer stationed in the local barracks who had a canopy erected on the side of the Town Hall under which a temporary altar was positioned every Sunday. The congregation stood or knelt in the public square in a scene reminiscent of the early Christian Church when the Chancel consisting of a low wall with columns supporting an overhead beam afforded protection for the Mass altar.
The Parish Priest, Fr. Maurice Keegan, having obtained £300 compensation for the loss of the Parish Church immediately set about collecting additional funds to build a new Church. At the same time negotiations were opened up with the Duke of Leinster through his local agent to acquire a suitable site. On the 13th of February, 1803 William Robert, Duke of Leinster, signed the Lease of 3 roods and 28 perches of land opposite Rathstewart Bridge in favour of Michael Cahill of Athy, Thomas Fitzgerald of Geraldine and Thomas Dunn of Leinster Lodge in trust for the Roman Catholics of Athy. The Lease which commenced on the 1st of November, 1802 referred to the "new Roman Catholic Chapel" built on the site which prior to the commencement of building works formed part of low-lying grounds liable to flooding adjoining Moneen Commons. The laneway now called Stanhope Place fronting the Parish Priest's house was noted on the Lease map as Chapel Lane while the present Shanhope Street was then called Kildare Street.
Of the Trustees named in the Lease both Thomas Fitzgerald and Thomas Dunn were well known in connection with their involvement with events in Athy during the 1798 Rebellion. Fitzgerald, despite being a Captain of the Athy Loyal Cavalry Corps was suspected of rebel sympathies. As a result Captain Erskine and a troop of the 9th Dragoons with a company of the Cork militia were quartered in Fitzgerald's Geraldine residence for 30 days in April 1798. Fitzgerald himself was kept under house arrest before being imprisoned in Dublin for 91 days when he was eventually released without charge. He was to write to Dublin Castle in December 1802 complaining of the action of the military and was especially critical of Thomas Rawson of Glassealy House. It was Rawson who supported the Parish Priest's claim for compensation following the burning of the local Church.
Troops were also quartered on Thomas Dunn of Leinster Lodge and his brother Patrick of Dollardstown, both of whom were wealthy farmers and who because of their religious affiliations were suspected of being rebels.
In the Irish Magazine of March 1809 Michael Devoy of Kill wrote a short piece on the history of Athy in which he referred to the "new Chapel which is not by any means suitable to the large congregation nor on a plan fit for a country chapel." He then proceeded to outline the measurements of the building as 140 ft. long by 40 ft. broad and 25 ft. in height with a gallery constructed across the middle "by which means from the noise above the people below for about 60 ft. in length cannot hear the Priest's voice."
Rev. James Hall who made a tour through Ireland in 1812 wrote with reference to the practice of hearing confessions in Catholic Churches and mentioned having observed a man in St. Michael's Church, Athy, who for his penance walked on his bare knees across the rough floor of the Church drawing blood in the process. This he was told was quite a common penance imposed by the local clergy.
An important historical association with St. Michael's Church, Athy, was the first Parish Mission in Ireland which was held in the local Church in 1842. Another Mission held in St. Michael's on Sunday evening, the 23rd of October, 1887 was to result in tragedy. One of the Missionaries Fr. Cotter asked that the windows of the Church be opened and as he commenced his sermon the sound of breaking glass was heard followed by a scream. Immediately there was panic and a dash for the doors. Many people jumped from the side gallery under the mistaken belief that the gallery was about to collapse. When order was restored a number of people had suffered injuries and a 60 year old woman, Mary Anthony, later died on her injuries.
The Church building was to remain in service until 1960 when it was demolished and the site cleared for the present Church which was dedicated on the 19th of April, 1964. Having regard to Athy's past history in brickmaking it is fitting that the Church was constructed in brick even if it came from Kingscourt, Co. Cavan and Courtown, Co. Wexford. One of the most striking features of the building which was built by Creedons of Dublin was the use of Portland stone.
St. Michael's was the fourth Parish Church built in the town in almost 600 years. The first Church - the Medieval St. Michael's known locally as "The Crickeen" still stands as a proud reminder of Athy’s past while the relatively new St. Michael's Church occupies a site first dedicated to Church use almost two hundred years ago.