Athy in the 1670’s was apparently a distressful place in which to live as evidenced by Dalton in his History of Drogheda in which he wrote that two aldermen
“were appointed to receive the benevolence of the inhabitants of the town for the relief of those of Athy who had suffered greatly in the late wars, and the major and aldermen were empowered to add what they thought fit out of the town purse, to make the sum of value”.
After the first years of the Cromwellian plantation, the Irish and the descendants of Anglo Norman settlers began to move back into the towns and to regain some of their previous prominence. Alarmed at this development the Protestant settlers demanded new tougher measures to curtail the Catholics. Under the Test Act passed in 1673, Catholics were barred from all civil, judicial and military offices. In 1678 there arose the “Popish Plot” following which it was decided to banish all regular and secular clergy from Ireland by November 20th.
On 2nd December 1678 the Council of State wrote as follows to the Sovereign of Athy:-
“We have received information that on Sunday the 24th of November last there was a great concourse of people in and near Athy and there were about 1300 persons assembled there to hear Mass. We require you to inform yourself of the number so assembled and their condition and qualities and the names of some few of the principals”.
The Sovereign in his reply stated that only 300 persons were present, mostly parishioners, including Edmund Dunn, Priest, William Smith, Michael Smith, Richard Hoey and another member of the Corporation. It was further reported that the size of the congregation was due to the fear that Mass would become scarce “and so nobody would omit it while it was to be had”.
The Council wrote again on 9th December 1678:-
“We find by your letters of the 5th inst. an account of the late concourse of people in which letters you mention that you heard that the Parish Priest there hath displast priests and divided parishes thereabout. We require you to inform yourself of that matter and discover the names of the priests removed and the names of the priests who were put in their places and whether the Parish Priest hath any authority and from whom, upon all which you will make return to us”.
The Parish Priest referred to was in fact Dr. Mark Forrestal, Bishop of Kildare who was captured in February 1681 and imprisoned until his death in 1683.
As is evidenced by the clerical activity in Athy during November and December 1678, few clergy obeyed the order of banishment and on 4 April 1679 we find the Council writing to the Mayors and Sovereigns of all cities and towns:-
“We are informed that contrary to the Proclamation of 20 November 1678 great and unusual number of the Popish religion do meet and assemble themselves within divers of the cities and towns corporate of this Kingdom, to exercise their religion, we require you to take care that such meetings within the walls and liberties thereof be dispersed and dissolved and that you do not permit any popish services to be publicly celebrated within the said towns, cities or liberties or suburbs thereof.”
In 1680 James Geoghegan, a defrocked Franciscan was instructed to proceed to Ireland for the purpose of searching out priests. On December 12th of that year he came to the house of James FitzGerald of Maddenstown after arriving from Athy with a priest Thomas Archbold under arrest. Having enquired if FitzGerald would enter into bonds for the priest, Archbold was released on paying 32/6 to Geoghegan. It was also reported by the same FitzGerald that Geoghegan took a horse, with saddle and bridle on December 16th and sold them to a horseman in Athy for one guinea.
The Protestant settlers alarmed at the Catholic resurgence under Charles II were further alarmed by the accession of James II in 1685 and by his subsequent appointment of the Catholic Richard Talbot in charge of Ireland. That year witnessed an exodus of Protestant merchants from Ireland in the face of the readmission of Catholics into military and judicial office. Cities and towns were required to surrender their charters and accept new ones granted by the King under which Catholics were not to be excluded. Athy was granted a new charter by James II on 4 July 1688, which owing to subsequent events was never acted upon.
The result of King James’ attempt to bring the Catholics back into positions of power culminated in the Battle of the Boyne, after which Protestant rule of a Catholic majority was assured. The position of the Protestant minority was reinforced by the application of an English Act of 1691 which required members of both houses of the Irish Parliament to subscribe to a declaration against Catholic doctrine. The Parliament summoned for 1692 in which Athy Borough was represented by Richard Locke and Raphael Hunt, pressed for measures against the Catholics. So began the penal laws which were to remain in force for many years to the detriment of the native Catholics.
One of the first victims in the Athy area was the Titular Archbishop of Dublin Dr. Patrick Russell who with two priests sought refuge in a cave near Ardreigh in 1692. It is said that their hiding place was known only to a man named Bailey and his immediate family, all members of the established church, but who nevertheless daily supplied the fugitives with food and drink. A Catholic servant woman named Devoy was entrusted to carry provisions to the cave. Questioned by the Authorities she was induced to pinpoint the hiding place which she did by leaving a trail of seed in her wake on her next visit to the cave. When she had returned to her masters house the Authorities had no difficulty in arresting the Archbishop and his companions. Sent as a prisoner to Dublin Bishop Russell appears to have suffered the ultimate penalty as his Bishopric was vacant within 6 months.
Local tradition translates the story to Derryvullagh Bog where a small piece of arable land in the middle of the bog approached only by a narrow path is supposed to be the place where Dominican Fathers from Athy Friary hid from Cromwells soldiers. A local man who supplied the soldiers with flour, marked the pathway to the Friars hiding place with flour. Captured by the soldiers the priests, according to tradition, were executed.
In 1697 the Irish Parliament passed an act banishing all “papists exercising any ecclesiastical jurisdiction and all regulars of the popish clergy” from Ireland before 1 May 1698. Punishment for failure to leave was imprisonment and transportation. Persons sheltering priests were liable to a £20 fine for the first offence, £40 for the second offence and liable to forfeit their entire property for a third offence. The second dissolution of the Dominican Monastery in Athy dates from this time, and a further 30 years were to pass before the Dominicans returned to Athy. Official reports furnished to Rome in 1736 indicated that all Dominican houses except Naas, Aghaboe and Youghal had priors, thereby indicating the revival of the Athy monastery sometime after 1730 when the state of Popery Returns show no friars for Athy.