Some weeks ago I wrote of the gravestones and grave slabs which fill the cemetery of Old St. Michael’s on the Dublin Road. I was struck as I walked around the cemetery by the paucity of pre-1800 memorials. The reason for this is of course easily understandable. Memorials in stone today as in the past are expensive. In the years gone by few of the town’s inhabitants could have afforded the cost of erecting memorials in stone to their dead. The earliest reference I have found to a headstone in any of the local cemeteries was that of William Watson who was buried in St. John’s in November 1635. Unfortunately the headstone which was noted in the Kildare Archaeological Society Journal at the turn of the century has since disappeared and the earliest dated inscription surviving today in St. John’s is from 1721. The oldest dated memorial in St. Michael’s Cemetery would appear to be that of Mary Pearson who died at the age of 71 on 24th January, 1717. Her grave is one of only a handful of marked graves from the 18th century.
Wealth or the lack of it was not always the only deterrent when it came to the marking of the burial places of the dead. The Quaker Community which had a following in Athy from 1765 onwards did not mark the burial places of their deceased members. The writer Mary Leadbetter, the Quaker Diarist, a resident of the village of Ballytore recorded an incident where this Quaker practice was misunderstood. Abel Strettel died in the village in 1784 and his relatives erected a gravestone to his memory. A visiting Quaker who was a zealous adherent to the traditional practice took great offence and had the gravestone buried. This action greatly offended the grandson of the dead man. Mary Leadbetter described how he scaled the walls of the cemetery in Ballytore “armed with guns and attended by men with digging implements uncovered the stone and replaced it in it’s original position.” One wonders if any other local burials since then were attended by so much controversy.
Perhaps the saddest aspect of any old cemetery is the frequency of headstones to the young. Sometimes a visitors’ melancholy can be leavened by the unconscious humour of some of the inscriptions. I was drawn to an early 19th century headstone to the memory of a young man of 20 whose inscription recalled that he was a youth “of exemplary virtues and transcendent genius”. One wonders as to the nature of his genius! Another headstone recording a young death was that of the quaintly named Agnes Minnis Frame. Agnes was the young headmistress of a Model School in Ballymoney, Co. Antrim. She died at her father’s residence at the Model School, Athy on 15th January, 1892 at the age of 28. The Model School was also the place of death of 20 year old Maggie Harvey, the eldest daughter of Mary Harvey, the headmistress of the Model School, Athy in June 1886.
St. Michael’s Cemetery is replete not only with the names of the dead but also placenames in our town which have now passed from memory. I stopped awhile at the headstone of James Kenna, an Octogenarian and resident of Preston’s Gate, Athy who died on 28th May, 1839. Preston’s Gate, the last surviving remains of Athy’s mediaeval town walls, was demolished in 1860. It was located where Offaly Street narrows before entering into Emily Row at the Credit Union Offices. The medieval gate was removed by the Town Commissioners after the Rev. Frederick Trench’s carriage crashed into it resulting in the Rectors death. Rev. Trench himself lies in St. Michael’s Cemetery.
On the majority of the headstones there are few clues to the lives lived by those departed but here and there the occasional headstone give us some additional insight. In a quiet corner of the graveyard lies Mary Ann Manders who died on 28th September, 1911. Her simple epitaph reads “the faithful servant of the Sherlock family”. Not far from Mary Ann Manders lies Rev. John Kennelly, a Dominican Friar who died on Christmas Day 1842 at the age of 78 years. His was a colourful life. As his headstone records he took the habit of his Order at Louvain in Flanders, Belgium at a time when the Catholic Church sent it’s young men abroad to be trained for the Priesthood. As the Penal Laws of the late 18th century relaxed he returned to Ireland where in 1787 he was elected Provincial of the Order. His character and example must have been profound as his tombstone solemnly records how five of his relatives followed him into the Orders including his brother and four of his nephews.
As I journeyed through the forgotten past of Athy my eye alighted upon the simple headstone of Concrad Peterson. I’m sure many of the townspeople recall Peterson, a civil engineer who worked for many years as Manager in Bord na Mona, Kilberry. A native of Riga the capital of Latvia he died in Athy on 16th January, 1981 at the advanced age of 93. A long life brought him from the Port of Riga on the Baltic Sea to a medieval cemetery in the town of Athy .
Emigration is something familiar to most Irish families and several headstones in St. Michael’s Cemetery reflect the strong family ties which can never be sundered, no matter how many miles separate family members. John O’Neill of Chicago had a headstone erected to the memory of his mother Ann O’Neill who died on 29th January, 1892 aged 76 years. James Hyland who also emigrated to America similarly honoured the memory of his father James who died on 17th June, 1937 aged 82 years and his mother Ellen. The Slater family were remembered by Edward Slater of Brooklyn, New York. His parents John and Elizabeth died in 1884 and 1868, while his sister Catherine passed away some years earlier.
Two clergymen who gave long service to the people of Athy are buried in St. Michael’s. Archdeacon McDonnell, P.P. of Athy for 28 years died on 1 March, 1950 aged 84 years. A year later a new housing scheme built on Hollands lands at Geraldine was named in his honour, McDonnell Drive. Not too afar away is the grave of Rev. Henry Francis McDonald, Curate of St. Michael’s from 1848 to 1860 and Rector following Rev. Trench’s death in 1860 until he himself died on 9 May, 1891. His must be the longest ever record of service in the Church in Athy.
The mediaeval Church of St. Michael’s stands sentinel like over the crowded graves in the cemetery. As I passed by it’s crumbling walls I wondered for how long more it will remain standing. The ruined Church is in need of urgent restoration work to protect and preserve what remains of this 13th century structure.