Walton Empey Archbishop of Dublin and Primate of Ireland returned to Athy on Sunday, 2nd March to confirm a number of young people in St. Michael's Church, Athy. It was an important day for the youngsters involved and no less important for Athy, the onetime town on the borders of the English Pale. The occasion was marked by the Town Council with a civic reception for Archbishop Empey the first such so far as I am aware for any Church of Ireland Archbishop of this Diocese.
In a very pleasant speech after the formal presentation in the Council Chamber, Archbishop Empey regaled the audience with memories of both his parents family links with Athy. The Empey's of Leinster Street and the Cox's of Duke Street are still remembered in the Town. Newcome Empey Painting and Decorating Contractor carried on business in what is now O'Sullivan's Video Shop while the Cox's lived in Number 27 Duke Street.
For the Archbishop, the visit was a welcome return to the town where he spent many happy holidays with his grandmother. Indeed, as he told the congregation in St. Michael's Church on Sunday morning as a young boy, he had pumped the Church organ on many an occasion during Sunday service in the 1940's. The Organist was his Granny, Mrs. Cox whose devotion to her duties as Church Organist extended over three decades.
The Members of the Town Council attended the Confirmation Service in St. Michael's again possibly another first for the elected representatives of Athy. I was reminded of a recently published book of memoirs by Tim Leahy, a retired Garda Superintendent who recalled Confirmation Day in Buncranna, Co. Donegal in the 1970's where the local F.C.A. provided a Guard of Honour for the Bishop while the Urban Councillors attended at the Church with the Chairman wearing his chain of office. The writer noted "Bishop Farren it would appear was partial to this ostentatious pomposity".
No such ostentatious display for Archbishop Empey, however as he reciprocated the Councillors Civic Reception with an invitation to the Confirmation Ceremony. He spoke during the Confirmation Ceremony addressing his words to the youngsters who were to receive Confirmation. As I sat there listening to him, I was conscious that St. Michael's was the oldest Church in Athy still in use. The doors of St. Michael's were first opened in 1840, five years before the advent of the Great Famine. The Rector at the time was Frederick Trench then living in Kilmoroney House who was to tragically die following an accident at Preston's Gate in Offaly Street in November 1860. His Parishioners erected a beautiful marble pulpit in St. Michael's in his memory which is still standing and in use.
But to return to Archbishop Empey, he was generous of his time that Sunday and welcomed the opportunity to meet the public representatives from his parents home town. Indeed there was a delightful moment in the Council Chamber when Tom "Tanner" Bracken met Archbishop Empey and the two reminisced of the days when the Brackens and Newcombe Empey worked together. Born in 1934 in Dublin, Archbishop Empey was ordained 25 years later and spent the next 22 years in various Parishes in Ireland and Canada. He was the Bishop's curate in Grand Falls New Brunswick Canada for three years from 1960 and Incumbent of Madawaska in Canada for another three years. Returning to Ireland he spent five years in Stradbally the nearest Parish to Ballintubbert where another prominent churchman but from a different century was born. That was Thomas Kelly, the man who often preached in St. Michael's, Athy and who established the Kellyites in Athy and in Blackrock, Co. Dublin at the beginning of the last Century.
Walton Empey was first elected Bishop for Limerick, Ardfert, Aghadoe, Killaloe, Kilfenora, Clonfert, Kilmadugh and Emly in 1981. The amalgamation of the ancient Dioceses enumerated in this title is a clear indication of the falling numbers then and now being experienced by the Church of Ireland. Today there are approximately 100,000 members of what I always refer to as the reformed Catholic Church in the Republic of Ireland. Bishop Empey was elected Bishop of Meath and Kildare in 1985 before becoming Archbishop of Dublin and Primate of Ireland last year. Although he was not born in Athy, we can justifiably claim him as our own, and take pride in his appointment as Primate of Ireland.
A number of people have written to me recently with various queries and from that correspondence, I take one letter which questioned whether I was right in claiming that Pairc Bhride was named after St. Brigid, the Patron Saint of Kildare. The writer thought that Miss. Brigid Darby former member of Athy Urban District Council and Headmistress of Churchtown National School was the person honoured in the name of the early 1950 housing estate. I wonder can any of my readers throw light on the subject.