Centuries of history were swept away in a few short hours when the remains of Whitechurch forming part of the mearin ditch between the townlands of Turnerstown and Foxhill were bulldozed some weeks ago. The small oblong building was visible only in the remains of walls which has stood on the site for century's past. In the Ballad "Oonah More the legend of Inch Castle", Oonah retreated to the Whitechurch having been slighted by Ulick O'Kelly the son of the Lord of Inch Castle. The Ballad composed in 1856 and which was the subject of Eye on the Past Number 150 relates how
"For Oonah, life lost happiness, and day by day she stray'd,
To the holy walls of White Church, where the saintly maidens pray'd,
In silent anguish pining, she asked that Heaven above
Forgetting Ulick's baseness, might assoil his guilty love".
White Church approximately half a mile south of Inch Castle adjoins the Athy/Ballytore road which skirts around the Church and the burial ground which once surrounded it. The last resting place of the dead had long been obliterated presumably through the efforts of a farmer of another day reluctant to allow the enriched soil to remain uncultivated. Now the ruins of the old church are gone.
The name White Church is quite a common one to be found as a place name in both Ireland and England. White in the context of White Church is very likely to mean a stone church in the same way as White's Castle was so called because it was built of stone. There is a townland of White Church near to Naas which in the 15th Century formed part of the Manor of White Church belonging to the Viscounts of Gormanstown. A priory of Carmelites was once located there. Counties Cork, Dublin, Kilkenny, Tipperary, Waterford and Wexford all have townlands called White Church but what we had near Athy up to recently was the ruins of a small building known as White Church. How and when the Church came to be built between the townlands of Foxhill and Turnerstown is open to conjecture. The small stone building was obviously of great antiquity as the Ballad of Oonah More refers to the "holy Walls of White Church" an apparent acknowledgement that the building was even then in ruins. As the events related in the Ballad occurred in 1439, it can be assumed that the Church was built long before then.
In an article published in the Kildare Archaeological Society Journal in 1906, there appeared a plan of White Church which showed an oblong building measuring twenty-four and a half feet long by fourteen feet wide with an entrance in the South wall. The walls themselves were two foot four inches thick. The simple building without any apparent division as between Nave and Chancel and oblong in shape is typical of early Irish Churches. An examination of the masonry in the walls of the church could help to determine the period in which it was built but we cannot now do this. From the evidence of the 1906 plan, White Church could possibly have been a 9th or 10th Century building.
It is sad to think that anyone could be so heedless of the history of the building as to destroy it without any thought for the consequences. It requires a quantum leap of generous proportions to forgive the mindless act which has deprived us of the White Church. But maybe its loss will encourage others to realise the importance of the ancient building Heritage of South Kildare. If it results in the saving of Inch Castle to which the White Church was linked in the legend of Oona More, the sacrifice no matter how unintentional might be rendered acceptable. Look around us in South Kildare and see the wealth of the built heritage amongst which we live. Woodstock Castle, White's Castle, St. Michael's Medieval Church, Rheban Castle, the list could go on and on.
An Taisce, the National Trust does what it can to raise peoples awareness of the value of the Heritage of the past. It is currently campaigning to save Woodstock Castle. This ancient keep is owned by Athy Urban District Council whose priorities determined by severe financial constraints do not include the protection or preservation of the Castle. It is quite possible that Woodstock Castle the first building in the future Town of Athy will be lost to future generations if we don't act quickly to counteract the failure of the Council.
A towns history can be measured in stone and our respect for that history can be gauged by how we treat the time soaked stones of another era. We have failed in so far as the White Church is concerned because one amongst us threw caution and respect to the wind and unleashed the hungry jaws of a J.C.B. against the "holy walls of White Church".
We must never forget the lesson which this has taught us. Never again should we impetuously or negligently tear down the helpless stones of history, for if we do, we will destroy ourselves.