It’s not unusual for me to attend two funerals in the one week. It’s a common enough occurrence in a town where births and deaths have been recorded for almost 800 years. What was unusual last week was the age span which separated a 91 year old whose remains were brought in procession for burial in St. Michael’s Cemetery and the tiny one month old baby who followed a few days later.
Those who turned out for the funeral Mass for the nonagenarian Charlie Prendergast did so as a mark of respect for the man who was, for as long as many of us can remember, a well known and widely popular member of Athy’s community. My earliest memories of Charlie Prendergast was in Offaly Street where he called on a few occasions to do some electrical repairs for my parents. He was an extremely likeable man with a quiet air of authority, skilled at his job, who could always be relied upon to come whenever required to sort out any electrical emergencies that arose. He passed away just a few weeks after his younger brother Ger and is survived by his sons Michael and John and daughter Philomena.
Looking around me at the funeral I was struck by the realisation that almost all those in attendance represented what I could recognise as families with ties extending back at least two generations in the town. As the older people such as Charlie pass on, they do so largely unnoticed by the new arrivals in the town. The newcomers are destined not to know the Charlie Prendergast’s of our town and those of his generation who in their younger days created and sustained the social, sporting and cultural life of Athy.
If you are regular readers you may remember that I wrote an Eye on the Past on Charlie Prendergast some time ago. There I extolled his qualities as a singer whose wonderful tenor voice for many years was heard to great effect in the local Church. In later years, Charlie who had spent a lifetime in the electrical business, took to golf as a recreational sport and was a much valued and beloved member of the Geraldine Golf Club. His contribution to the local community made over many decades in his middle years and later is known and acknowledged by those of us whose memories of Athy extend back a few decades.
Even as the population figures released today confirm a substantial increase in the population of county Kildare there is a realisation that Athy is changing. The old order passes on and those who replaced them, sometimes with no previous links with the town, have little or no appreciation of those whose lives were spent in the vale of the Barrow near to the Ford of Ae. Charlie Prendergast was one whose adult life was spent in Athy and his passing severs another link with the story of the town stretching back to the 1940’s and beyond.
The tiny baby whose remains were conveyed to St. Michael’s Cemetery just days after those of Charlie Prendergast has now joined the nonagenarian in the anonymity of death. The short service in St. Michael’s Church immediately before the burial was a poignant reminder of the sadness which flows from the loss of a human life which had not the opportunity to stretch to childhood and beyond. Its a particularly sad time for parents and grand-parents alike and the sight of the tiny white coffin carried in the arms of the father and mother is surely one of the saddest funeral images imaginable. The first funeral, that of 91 year old Charlie Prendergast was attended by friends and community members who wanted to pay their respects to a man who richly deserved their tributes. The infant’s funeral was more a family gathering with neighbours and friends who came to sympathise and show their support for the grieving parents.
How many times have you walked behind a hearse making the short journey to St. Michael’s Cemetery? It’s a journey that is made every week, sometimes as last week more than once. The same journey has been repeated thousands of times, ever since St. Michael’s Cemetery was first used as a burial place for the people of the town. The now familiar funeral procession first started when the Church of St. Michael’s was built on the outskirts of the medieval town sometime in the 14th century. The Church, the remains of which still stand in the cemetery and known today as the “Crickeen” was the first Parish Church for the Parish of St. Michael’s. It followed on the siting of two monasteries in the then village of Athy. The first monastery was that of the Trinitarians near to the Castle of Woodstock on the West bank of the River Barrow. The second monastery founded by the Dominican’s in 1253 was in the area recently in the news following the burning of the Abbey House at the rear of Emily Square. It’s strange that in a town with a history stretching back 800 years that there are but two town cemetery’s - St. John’s and St. Michael’s. They do not seem capable of holding the remains of all those who died and were buried in Athy since the 12th century so the question arises in what other locations were the local people buried?
Perhaps many locals were buried in and around the grounds of the original Dominican Monastery located at the rear of Emily Square. It is almost certain that members of the local Dominican Order found a final resting place in a community cemetery which would have been attached to the Monastery founded in the 13th century. If and when work commences on the development planned for the Abbey site it will inevitably be preceded by an archaeological excavation of the site which should reveal for us heretofore unknown details of the Dominicans and their medieval monastery in Athy.
Burial grounds are sacred places and in our small provincial town we have old St. Michael’s Cemetery on the Dublin Road and it’s more recent replacement new St. Michael’s across from it in what was once part of the town’s Fair green. In addition there is St. John’s Cemetery, a direct link with the Monastery of St. John’s which existed in the area between Duke Street and Woodstock Castle in the 13th and 14th century. Within the town’s boundaries there is also the small cemetery within the grounds of the former Convent of Mercy and the earlier mentioned but as yet unconfirmed Dominican Monastery Cemetery at the rear of Emily Square. Just outside the town are to be found Ardreigh Cemetery on the Carlow Road, Geraldine Cemetery on the Kildare Road and Tubberara Cemetery between the Monasterevin Road and the Milltown Road. Just opposite St. Vincent’s Hospital which started out as the town Workhouse is St. Mary’s Cemetery where the famine dead were laid to rest. They were to be joined by those poor unfortunate people who impoverished and diseased died in the Workhouse in the 19th century or in the County Home as it was designated in the following century.
In the mid-1980’s AnCO - The Industrial Training Authority, since re-named FAS, funded a youth training project during which the gravestones in Old St. Michael’s Cemetery were recorded and mapped. A similar project was undertaken in relation to St. John’s Cemetery a few years ago as a Probation Services Project. In both instances much useful information was collected and collated to give those involved in family research another means of verifying family details.
History is recorded on the gravestones in our local cemeteries and last week two additional names were added to the long list of those who have already passed through life to become part of our communities history.