The Churches of Athy was the topic chosen for my walkabout on Heritage Sunday. Not many braved the sunshine that afternoon so I feel it appropriate to put on paper the reason why so many Churches are to be found in our small country town. To do so I must unravel the religious diversity which has formed an important element of life in Athy over the last 500 years or so.
That religious diversity is in itself an overlay on the social diversity which existed from the very foundation of the village in the latter part of the 12th century. The original Anglo Norman settlement was founded by French speaking settlers who were Catholics as were the Irish speaking natives of the area. As part of their self sufficiency regime the settlers encouraged the establishment of monasteries in the village to cater for their own needs. Like the Anglo Normans the Monks within the Monasteries of St. John of the Crouched Friars and the Friars Preachers were French speakers. The native Irish who gradually began to converge on the developing village were initially at least not catered for by the local monasteries. The social diversity which resulted may explain why a secular Church was built outside the walls of the village to cater for the native Irish. The remains of that small Church are to be found today in the grounds of St. Michael’s cemetery.
In time the social diversity as between Anglo Normans and Irish became somewhat blurred and the descendants of the original settlers became more Irish that the Irish themselves. This was to change with the Reformation of 1540. The Catholic Institutions were suppressed at that time and in Athy the Dominicans had to leave the town where they had ministered for almost 300 years. The Monastery of St. John’s which had been founded before the Dominicans arrived in Athy in 1253 had gone out of existence sometime prior to the Reformation. With the Reformation started the religious diversity which became a hallmark of life in Athy and the town, perhaps more than many other towns still bears witness to that diversity in the different Churches to be found here.
On the four approach roads to Athy can be found Churches representing the four main Christian Churches in Ireland today. On the Dublin Road is sited the Presbyterian Church, on the Carlow Road the Church of Ireland, the Monasterevin Road has the Catholic Church while a little licence allows us to point to the Methodist Church on our left and the Dominican Church on our right as we enter Athy from the Kilkenny Road.
St. Michael’s Church of Ireland on the Carlow Road was designed by Frederick Darley who was Ecclesiastical Commissioners Architect for the Archdioceses of Dublin for ten years up to 1843, as well as Architect to Trinity College and Architect to the Board of National Education. Some of the buildings designed by him include The Kings Inn Library at Henrietta Street, Dublin, The Great Southern Hotel in Killarney, Barrington’s Hospital in Limerick and a number of Model Schools throughout Ireland including Athy’s Model School. The Church which is one of simple design replaced an earlier Church in Emily Square and fund raising for it’s construction started in November 1833. Dedicated on 15th September, 1841 the Church has a handsome Church steeple which was added on at a later date and completed in time to allow the new Church bell to be rung for divine service for the first time on 22nd March, 1857.
The early forms of the religious diversity which evolved after the Reformation centred on the reformed Church represented by the Church of England and the so called unreformed or Catholic Church. Soon however further fragmentation occurred within the Church of England with the formation of the Society of Friends or Quakers and the development of Presbyterianism. Both these dissenting groups had a presence in Athy, the Quakers from 1671 and the Presbyterians from 1717 at least. The Quakers had a Meeting house built at the corner of Meeting House Lane in 1780 many years after a Quaker meeting had first been established in the town. Their strict code of conduct which forbade the bearing of arms, attendance at races, the payment of tithes, the taking of oaths, the removal of hats in Court and marriage outside the sect marked the Quakers apart from the other Christian groups in the local society. While the nearby Ballitore Quaker Community prospered and continued well into the 19th century the Athy Quakers appeared to have disappeared as a group as early as 1812.
The other early dissenting Group, the Presbyterians, had a Minister in Athy in 1717 and for some years thereafter but nothing is known of them after 1725 until the revival of Presbyterianism in South Kildare from 1851 onwards. In the first six months of that year 17 Scottish Presbyterian families settled in the area on the invitation of the local landlord, the Duke of Leinster. A Presbyterian Minister Rev. John Hall was appointed to Athy the following year and in 1855 work started on the building of the Presbyterian Church on the Dublin Road. The Architect was David Taylor and by the 1870’s the Athy Presbyterian congregation was the second largest in Ireland outside of the Northern counties.
Another group to break away from the Church of England were the Methodists, originally an evangelising group within the State Church. A Methodist Minister was first appointed to Athy one year after John Wesley passed through the town on the 25th of April, 1789. It was the death of Wesley in 1791 which prompted the Methodists to withdraw from the Church of England and call themselves “The Society of People called Methodists”. Itinerant Methodist preachers including Gideon Ousley and Charles Graham visited Athy early in the 19th century and preached in the Square on several occasions prompting Graham to note in his diary “multitudes of Catholics as well as others attended our Ministry in the streets and markets of Athy.” In 1832 Moses Rowe of Wexford reported a high level of participation in Methodist services in Athy and fifteen years later itinerant Preachers Henderson and Huston noted “fifteen conversions and seventeen back sliders restored in Athy”.
Quite obviously Methodism continued to develop as a warrant of approval for the building of a Methodist Chapel in Athy issued in 1813. However, instead of erecting a new building the local Methodists took a lease on the former Quaker Meeting House in Meeting Lane which they continued to use until their own purpose built Church was opened in Woodstock Street in 1872. That Church was built at the cost of £2,200 on a site purchased sometime earlier by Alexander Duncan, a Merchant of Duke Street, Athy. Like the Presbyterian Church on the Dublin Road the Methodist Chapel in Woodstock Street now caters for a much smaller congregation than in former years.