One of the prime movers in establishing a Convent of Mercy in Athy was Patrick Maher who lived at Kilrush House, a few miles on the Dublin side of Athy. Maher, with Miss Anna Goold of Stanhope Place, and the Fitzgerald family of Geraldine House, provided substantial financial backing to support the weekly collection made in the town for the proposed convent. Miss Goold was later to donate to the Diocese the house now occupied by the Parish Priest, while Colonel Fitzgerald of Geraldine at his own expense had built in 1824 a schoolhouse for the children of Athy at the north east corner of the present parish church.
Patrick Maher was the son of Patrick and Catherine Maher, who had moved to Kilrush, Co. Kildare from Donore, Co. Carlow in the last decade of the eighteenth century. As wealthy Catholic farmers, the Mahers were subjected, as were their neighbours, to harassment and threats during the period of the 1798 rebellion. When martial law was declared, little protection was afforded to local Catholic farmers against the excesses of the military and yeomanry, who under the pretext of searching for arms, looted whatever they could seize and carry away. On several occasions, the entire Maher family were obliged to leave their home at night and shelter in a nearby sand-pit, where they believed themselves safe from the marauding yeomanry.
Patrick Maher Senior died in 1808, following a horse riding accident while travelling to the fair in Kilcullen. That same year his son James, who had been attending the Quaker school in Ballytore, entered Carlow College. He later travelled to Rome, where he studied for a number of years. In a letter to his brother William, then living at Burtown, Co. Kildare, James, writing from London on the 1st of July 1817 recalled how he had called into a shop in London and “the shopkeeper civilly asked me how I was……. He made me dine with him, he is a son to Dan Moore of Athy”.
Fr. James Maher was later to return to Ireland, where he acted as secretary to that most famous of Irish Bishops, Dr. James Doyle, Bishop of Kildare and Leighlin, commonly known as J.K.L. Fr. Maher, who ended his days as Parish Priest of Carlow Graigue, was a popular orator, believed to be second only to the great Daniel O’Connell, and as a controversialist was said to have no equal in the Irish Church of his day. His sister married Hugh Cullen who lived in Prospect, Co. Kildare and their son Paul was destined to become the first Cardinal of the Irish Church. Like his cousins, the Mahers of Kilrush, Paul Cullen also attended the Quaker school in Ballytore, before embarking on his religious studies.
Patrick Maher succeeded his father and namesake as owner of the lands at Kilrush, and proved over the years to be a generous benefactor of the Catholic Church in South Kildare. Apart from his involvement in financing the construction of the Convent of Mercy, he also donated substantial sums of money, when in 1859, Greenhills House, Athy was handed over by the Sisters of Mercy for use as a monastery by the Christian Brothers. He remained throughout his lifetime, generous to both the Convent of Mercy and the Christian Brothers in Athy, and in 1861, he agreed to pay £30 annually for a period of two years towards the maintenance of a third teaching Christian Brother in the local school. As a result Hugh Francis Sweeney, a novice, joined the Monastery in Athy, some months after the school had opened on the 19th of August 1861, to augment the staff, which had difficulty in coping with the ever increasing pupil numbers.
The Convent of Mercy, which opened in Athy in 1851, was initially a branch house of Baggot Street Convent of Mercy, Dublin, which was the headquarters of the Sisters of Mercy. Some years later, Athy Convent became a branch house of Carlow, it being geographically more convenient for that purpose. As a result, Sr. Mary Zavier and Sr. Mary Teresa Maher who was a daughter of Patrick Maher of Kilrush were sent to Athy from Carlow Convent. On the 26th of July 1858 Athy Convent became a foundation in its own right, and the first Superioress appointed was Sr. Mary Teresa Maher, formerly of Kilrush, and first cousin of the then Archbishop of Dublin, Dr. Paul Cullen. Sr. Mary Teresa had initially entered the Convent of Mercy in Carlow with two other members of her family, who when professed, took the name Sr. Cecilia and Sr. Michael. Sr. Cecilia remained in Carlow while Sr. Michael later transferred to the Sisters of Mercy Convent in Callan.
Patrick Maher and his brother Rev. James Maher, were bitterly opposed to the tithe system, which required all farming households to make an annual contribution to the upkeep of the Church of England. When examined before a Parliamentary Committee set up by the House of Commons, Rev. James Maher vigorously justified the cause of passive resistance which local farmers had resolved to pursue in opposition to the tithing system. Indeed Fr. Maher was one of the strongest voices raised in protest when the “Tithe War”, as it was known, first broke out in Graiguenamangh, following the seizure by tithe proctors of cattle owned by a local priest, Fr. Martin Doyle. Patrick Maher of Kilrush consistently refused to pay tithes, and consequently was thrown into prison on no less than four occasions for non-payment. On each occasion his property was seized by the local Sheriff and his goods and chattels auctioned off to ensure payment. The Tithe War eventually ended in 1838 with the passing of the Tithe Commutation Act which made the head landlord responsible for tithes, which then became a rent charge payable twice yearly.
A plaque testifying to the generosity of Patrick Maher of Kilrush House, who died in 1863, is to be found in the small chapel attached to the Convent of Mercy, Athy but apart from that, and the many references to his generosity noted in the Annals of the Sisters of Mercy, Patrick Maher and the Maher family of Kilrush, have been largely overlooked by history.