St. John's Cemetery located just a few yards away from the newly opened Ulster Bank in Edmund Rice Square is unknown to most people in Athy. I passed by it everyday of my school days which I spend in the Christian Brothers and its only within recent times that I have been able to acquaint myself with the history of this most ancient site. The Monastery of St. John's founded by the Order of the Holy Cross in the early Thirteenth Century gave its name to the locality where the Monastery was once located. Over 750 years have passed since the Monks first came to the West of the River Barrow where within sight and easy reach of the stout wall of Woodstock Castle, they founded a Monastery. They were to depart the area before the Reformation in 1540 leaving St. John's as the name of the Main Street on the West Side of Athy and the laneway which ran in a semi-circular route from one end of that street to the other. The Street is now called Duke Street but the laneway or more correctly what remains of it is to this day known as St. John's Lane.
The only possible remains of the Thirteenth Century Monastery is the Cemetery of St. John which from the raised ground which presents itself as you enter through the small gateway is clearly of great antiquity. The explanation is straight forward enough. The accumulation of burials over the Centuries in the confined space which is St. John's Cemetery resulted in an increase in the ground level. The same effect is to be noticed on the South side of the Medieval Church in St. Michael's Cemetery a place much favoured for burials because people associated the darkened North side of the Church with the devil.
The Cemetery of St. John's now in the control and ownership of Athy Urban District Council has been a burial ground for Members of the Protestant Faith since the Reformation. The oldest Memorial Stone was noted in the Kildare Archaeological Society Journal in 1891 as that of William Watson and it bore the date 1635. The last burial in St. John's Cemetery was in 1979 when Sir Anthony Weldon of Donegal, a Member of the Weldon Family of Kilmoroney was buried in the Weldon Family Vault.
Recent work in the Cemetery has seen the removal of years of overgrown grass and bushes and yew trees planted, as was traditional in Cemetery's of old have been trimmed back. The Ancient Cemetery has begun to reveal its secrets which years of neglect had contrived to hide from the General Public. A recent visit by me during the course of Youth Training Project has prompted this article.
Two headstones first noticed in the centre of the Cemetery mark the graves of soldiers, one of whom died in 1791. The second commemorates a sergeant of the 8th Light Dragoons who died in Athy in 1799. The Military Barracks where these soldiers were based was located off Barrack Street (Now Woodstock Street) in the area now occupied by part of the Greenhills Housing Estate. The Cavalry Sergeant who died in 1799 was probably one of Colonel Campbell's troops who were let loose in South Kildare on the 20th April 1798, after the locals had failed to respond to demands to hand up all arms and pikes. He may indeed have had charge of the soldiers who stripped the thatch off a number of cottages adjoining the army barracks in the early months of 1798 in case any difficulty was caused to the Garrison by Rebels setting fire to the straw.
Near to the soldiers headstones is the grave of Captain D.L. Lefroy of the Royal artillery who died in 1820. He must be the man referred to in the Affidavit of Patrick Brady which was forwarded by James Butler, Sovereign of Athy to Dublin Castle concerning the activities of the Ribbon men in Athy in 1820. Brady stated that William Murphy a Publican of Athy had Sworn James Hutchinson, Thomas Ging, Michael Ryder, James Anderson, Daniel Bryan and Terry Niel to murder Captain LeFroy and destroy his property. Lefroy's offence was apparently his refusal to allow pigs on the streets of Athy because they "annoyed the neighbourhood and destroyed the path". The men Sworn to do this dastardly later met in Murphy's Pub for the purposes of agreeing the plan to shoot Lefroy with a gun to be supplied by the Publican. The Records do not disclose if Lefroy was shot but he died in 1820 whether of natural causes or otherwise I have yet to determine.
Another soldiers grave is that of Sir Anthony Weldon of Kilmoroney House whose remains with that of all the Weldon's are buried in the Family Vault. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission have erected a gravestone over the vault honouring the man who as Lieutenant Colonel of the Prince of Wales Regiment served for a brief period in France during World War 1. He returned from there to a Dublin Hospital where he died on the 29th June 1917. The local Sinn Feiners attempted to put a Nationalist Banner across the main Street of Athy on the night before Weldon's Funeral but failed in their attempt. The next morning the Coffin of Sr. Anthony who had commanded the British Troops in Limerick during 1916 was brought by train from Dublin and then on a gun carriage from the railway station to St. Michael's Church. It was preceeded by the Band of the Lancers and 120 men of the Leinster Regiment. Offaly Street was lined by the 4th Leinsters and after the service in St. Michael's the cortege moved to St. John's Cemetery where the coffin was placed in the Family Vault as the Firing party fired three Volleys and the last post was sounded on the bugles.
The Cemetery of St. John's has many interesting reminders of Athys past and those I have mentioned reflect but a few of its Military connections. St. John's is a subject I hope to return to again.