An unfinished manuscript compiled by a resident of Athy in 1849 provides an interesting, if somewhat inaccurate account, of the monastic foundations in the town during the 13th century. The following extracts from the 150 year old manuscript, which is now in the National Library, will be of interest to readers of Eye on the Past.
“In a remote period, an Ecclesiastical House was established quite close to the ford, and on the east side of the river. The building appears to have occupied the ground immediately in the rere of the present Courthouse and its boundary walls can be pretty accurately traced from their recent remains assisted by an Inquisition taken in 1152 for Cardinal Paparo’s Synod. The outer wall joined the Barrow at the rere of the now Abbey Garden and ran in nearly a straight line to the southern or Preston’s Gate from thence to the Methodist Meeting House in Meeting House Lane and on to St Michael’s Gate that stood near to the place now called Fogarty’s corner. From this the wall continued to St Mary’s Chapel the ruins of which were lately to be seen about halfway on the west side of Chapel Lane, thence to the black castle on the side of which Stanhope House is now erected, thence to Tubber Muiland Gate and joined the Barrow where the Muiland or Moneen River discharged itself.
The inner court wall was brought from the east side of Preston’s Gate in a curved direction round the present Court House, through the Market Square and joined the river at the rere of the Shambles.
From the arrangement just described the outer Court should be entered before the Ford could be passed from the east side. Travellers were supplied with refreshments and if overtaken by night or by an enemy, or if the Ford was at the time impassible, the protection and hospitality of the Brethern were never begrudgingly bestowed, until those who peaceably claimed either, could safely proceed on their journey, leaving behind them whatever offerings their gratitude and means afforded.
In the outer Court, a Cross was erected and a market established which formed the nucleus of the town. The establishment of the Cross apart from strictly religious considerations, always secured very good privileges to the locality. Neither the King or Lord of the soil could exact taxes fines or services. These great advantages induced the erection of Crosses without lawful authority to prevent which the 13th Edward 1st Chap. 33 enacted “that lands were crosses be put with purpose that the Tenants thereof should defend themselves against the chief lord or lords by the privilege of Templars and Hospitallers shall be forfeited as lands alienated in mortmain”.
Having described the ancient boundary of the Abbey on the eastern bank of the river, it may be mentioned that another Ecclesiastical House was subsequently founded on the opposite side. The success of the one encouraged the establishment of the other, for the same opportunities of hospitality and charity which existed on the east side, should be available in a like proportion on the west. Although the two houses were founded for the one great object, it does appear they regarded each other as rivals and there is evidence that for centuries this feeling was in existence, not only amongst the members of the communities more immediately interested, but amongst the inhabitants on either side of the river.
The graveyard of St. John’s now marks the site of the Priory of St. John’s or St. Thomas as it was indifferently styled; and its precints extended from the river at the southern margin of the Ford, to the old brewery and from thence to Miss Helen’s gateway and by the northern boundary of the graveyard along the rere of Mr John Butler’s premises on the river. The Shrewleen stream ran between the outer and inner courts and fell into the Barrow at St. John’s slip. The cross stood in the open space now at the rere of Mr Henry Hannon’s mill. All the other arrangements were similar to the Abbey on the east side of the river but the latter was always considered the superior and took precedence accordingly.
It has been erroneously stated “That the Priory of St. Thomas on the west bank of the Berba, or Barrow at Ath-righ was founded in 1241 by my Lord Richard de Saint Michael of Righbane for Crouched Friars, and that the Abbey on the east side was founded by the Boswells and Wogans for Dominicans the year before”. From this it would appear that those institutions were then founded, whereas they undoubtedly existed for centuries.
Paparo’s Inquisition found “that the Abbey was encompassed with two substantial walls, that of the base court being 600 paces about. That is had the dignity of a Bishopric and that its domains included the islands of the Barrow and 6 messuages in Le More the present town, with 12 acres of the adjoining land, also 2 fishing weirs on the Barrow, The mill of Tullamore or Tulloghmorra and a piece of heath land at Ardree, that it received annually from the Prior of St. John’s 5 marks for an eel weir. The upper island in the Barrow with a wood on the west margin of the river as far as Biddy’s Ford” (Barrowford).
“That the prior of St. John was indifferently walled, that its domain consisted of certain messuages held from the Abbey and the fields as far as Woodstock together with the Tubberara Well and common, that its wood cutter or park keeper received an allowance of a house - hold loaf, a flaggon of the second best ale and a dish of meat from the Abbey kitchen for every day he sent down the river a sufficiency of firewood and he was also to have half a mark annually for axes. That the prior was to receive from the Abbot on every feast day of St. John a corrody or entertainment for himself one Armiger a Chamberlain, another servant, three boys and three horses. The said Prior to sit on the right hand of the Abbot at his own table thereby to be more conveniently served as well in eating and drinking”.
Few facts therefore can be better established than that those institutions were founded, and held important positions, long before the time of the English settlers, Boswell, Wogan and St. Michael”.
The manuscript from which the above extract is taken has made more intriguing theories in relation to Athy’s medieval history including a claim that the town was once a Bishopric. More about that at a future date.