The recent ceremonies in Rome for the Beatification of Edmund Rice, Founder of the Irish Christian Brothers and the Presentation Brothers brought over 5,000 pilgrims from Ireland, some of whom were from Athy. The splendour of that most historic city, founded nearly 2,700 years ago, readily confirms its right to be referred to as the Eternal City. Visitors to a foreign country always welcome the opportunity to discover some association with their homeland but I wonder how many of the Athy pilgrims realised the quite extraordinary links which Athy shared with Rome during this century.
Monsignor William Murphy of Athy was Rector of the Irish College in Rome between 1901 and 1905. The College was then attached to the Church of Saint Agata Dei Goti where it had been since 1837 and where it was to remain until 1926 when it transferred to its present location near to Lateran Square. Fr. Murphy had been a curate in Harrington Street, Dublin before transferring to Rome where as Rector of the Irish College he was appointed a Monsignor. He was brother of ‘Pip’ Murphy who had a butcher’s shop in what is now Café Noir which was recently opened in Emily Square. ‘Pip’ lived with his sisters Nan, Zilla and the well-remembered Gypsy whom I recall was the last of the Murphy family to live in the Square.
Monsignor Murphy died unexpectedly on the 7th of July, 1905 and on the occasion of an exhibition in the Technical School during the Marian Year celebrations I remember seeing a letter from Pope Pius X, now a Saint of the Catholic Church, which he had written to the Murphy family in Athy expressing sympathy on the death of their brother.
In the Church of Sant Agata Dei Goti with its beautiful granite columns dating from the fifth century is to be found a marble tablet on the wall of the Nave erected by the Murphy family of Athy which reads :-
“Sacred to the memory of the Right Rev. Mgr. W.H. Murphy D.D., Protonary Apostolic, Priest of the Diocese of Dublin and Rector of the Irish College, Rome, where he died on the 7th day of July, 1905 in the 49th year of his age and the 25th of his priesthood.
A warm friend,
A true Priest,
A kindly Superior,
His loss was mourned by many,
And sorely felt by the students
Over whom during four years
He did well and wisely ruled.”
Monsignor Murphy is buried in the Campo Verano Cemetery which is the main cemetery for the city of Rome.
In an entirely different setting in Rome is to be found the likeness of another man with an Athy connection. In the Cafe Greco, on the Via Condetti, famous as the haunt of writers, artists and intellectuals since it was opened in 1760, is to be found the portrait of a young man wearing the Roman collar of a cleric. The name given is that of R.M. Dowdall, O.P., a Dominican Priest but the portrait by H. Carlandi gives no further details. It is amongst portraits and photographs of the famous stretching back to the last century and is in fact a portrait of a young Fr. Raymond Dowdall, Dominican Priest, who spent his latter years in Athy and today lies buried in St. Michael’s Cemetery.
But why does his portrait hang on the walls of one of the most famous coffee houses in the world? A native of Newry Fr. Dowdall spent 29 years in Rome between 1921 and 1950. For six years he was Prior of San Clemente, one of three Irish Colleges founded in Rome in the 17th century. The Basilica of San Clemente, a few hundred yards up the road leading from the Colosseum to the Lateran is dedicated to St. Clement, the fourth Pope who was exiled to Drimea and martyred by being tied to an anchor and drowned. The Irish Dominicans have been in occupation since the 17th century of the Basilica which is now world famous because of the archaeological excavations carried out there since 1857. Those excavations, continued during Fr. Dowdall’s period as Prior, having unearthed below street level a 4th century Basilica of which the present 12th century building is a replica. Below that again are ancient Roman buildings which are being excavated to this day.
During the second World War Fr. Dowdall was a friend of Monsignor O’Flaherty, another Irish man commonly known as the Scarlet Pimpernel of the Vatican. Both priests worked together harbouring Jews and allied soldiers and Fr. Dowdall or O’Dowdall as he called himself while in Rome accommodated many escapees overnight in San Clemente. He never spoke of his wartime involvement in sheltering allied soldiers and air men and even in his book “Memories of Italy” he failed to make any mention of his courageous role. I believe his behind-the-scenes role in wartime Rome is the reason why his portrait today hangs in Café Greco, just yards from the Spanish Steps and the nearby house where the young English poet John Keats died in 1821.
Fr. Dowdall on leaving Rome in 1950 went to Lisbon where he was Prior of the Dominican House Corpo Santo which had been founded by another Irishman Fr. Damien O’Daly in 1639. On returning to Ireland he was elected Prior of the Dominican Convent in Limerick before coming to Athy where he spent the last ten years of his life. Fr. Dowdall died in 1980 and is buried in St. Michael’s cemetery.
We can find links and connections in the most unlikely places but few would have expected that the Eternal City and the small town of Athy would be inextricably linked by two clerics, one of whom lies in St. Michael’s cemetery, Athy, the other in the Roman Cemetery of Campo Verano.