Thursday, September 26, 2002

Athy 150 Years Ago and the Coming of the Sisters of Mercy

One hundred and fifty years ago Athy was noted as having made a decided improvement in its appearance compared to ten years previously. New houses had been built and several old ones renovated while the streets were well paved and kept in good order. However, the townspeople were still relying on public water pumps for water which was untreated and quite often unfit for consumption. An outbreak of cholera had occurred in 1832 and 17 years later just as the worst excesses of the Famine were abating, cholera hit again. The first cholera case was diagnosed in Athy on 25th June 1849 and between then and 29th September of the same year 27 cholera sufferers were reported resulting in the death of 11 locals.

Prostitution flourished on the streets of Athy of 150 years ago, prompting the Town Commissioners to post a notice warning that “persons keeping places of public resort for the sale of refreshment of any kind who knowingly supply any common prostitute or allow them to assemble on his premises will be prosecuted according to the Law”. Thomas Roberts was appointed by the Council to apprehend and prosecute prostitutes and beggars for which he was paid 4/= per week with an additional 2/6 for each conviction of a prostitute. The cases summarily disposed of by the local magistrates confirmed that Mr. Roberts was quite successful in apprehending the “ladies of the night” who were generally fined £1 for each offence, or one month in default of payment.

One hundred and fifty years ago the first Presbyterian settlers who had arrived from Pershire in Scotland in response to the Duke of Leinster’s offer of land in South Kildare were settling into their new homes. On 17th August 1851 a meeting of the Scottish families presided over by Rev. Patterson of Bray and Rev. Powell of Carlow agreed to establish a Presbyterian ministry in Athy. Within five years the “Scot’s” Church was built on a site on the Dublin Road. Nearby and just across the main Athy / Dublin road was the newly opened Model School where boys and girls of all denominations attended school.

In January 1852 Samuel Talbot published from Athy the first edition of what was intended to be a monthly magazine devoted “to the advancement of Science, Literature and the Industrial Arts”. It was the only edition ever published. Consisting of 36 pages it included a report of the lecture given the previous November at a meeting of Athy Mechanics Institute by its secretary Thomas Cross. The Mechanics Institute was part of a countrywide movement which had originated in England intended for the instructions of artisans or mechanics as they were then known, in scientific principals underlying their trade. The local institute was formed from the nucleus of the Athy Literary and Scientific Institute which had been founded in Athy in 1849. Athy’s Mechanic Institute, although intended for skilled workers, was largely dependent for its membership on the middle class elements of the town who made use of its reading room where newspapers and magazines were available.

Just two years previously and despite the ending of the four year long Famine the local Workhouse, then but ten years old, and built to accommodate 600 persons was still experiencing overcrowding. An Orphan Emigration Scheme initiated in March 1848 and intended to rid the Irish workhouses of teenage girls by sending them to Australia met with the approval of the local Board of Guardians. When the last boat sailed in April 1850 as part of the Orphan Emigration Scheme, 42 teenage girls who had been inmates in Athy’s Workhouse had emigrated to start new lives on the other side of the world.

Prior to the opening of the Model School in 1852 the children of the town, or rather those whose parents wished them to be educated, attended the local Poor School. The school building had been provided by Colonel Fitzgerald of Geraldine House on ground which at one time formed part of the commonage of Clonmullion. The teachers Patrick O’Rourke and Ann Doogan catered for 150 or so boys and approximately 40 girls who attended classes regularly. In the spring of 1843 the local Catholic clergy called a meeting of their parishioners to promote the idea of establishing in the town a school to be run by nuns. Arrangements were made to take up a weekly collection and in August 1844 the Parish Priest of Castledermot laid the first stone of the new convent building. The weekly collection continued for a few years but stopped in 1847 because of the difficulties experienced during the Famine. Fr. Thomas Greene and his colleague Fr. John Harold, both of whom were curates of St. Michael’s Parish, resumed the weekly collection in 1849 but despite their best efforts the funds necessary to complete work on the convent and school were not forthcoming. Eventually the sum of £300 was advanced by the Superioress of the Convent of Mercy, Baggot Street, Dublin to enable the building work to be completed.

Nine years after the first public meeting held to discuss the school project the Sisters of Mercy were ready to take over the newly built convent and school. On 10th October 1852 Sr. Mary Gabrielle Sherlock and Sr. Mary Angela Rowland left the Baggot Street Convent of the Sisters of Mercy and travelled by horsedrawn carriage to Kingsbridge Railway Station. On arrival they bought tickets to convey themselves and their luggage to Athy on the Great Southern Western Railway line which had been extended only six years previously to Athy and Carlow. On arrival in Athy the nuns were met by the local clergy and brought to the newly built convent building.

In August 1854 the Athy Convent was adopted as a branch house of the earlier established Carlow Convent of Mercy and two sisters were sent from Carlow to replace the Dublin nuns. Sr. Mary Teresa Maher and Sr. Mary Xavier Downey arrived in Athy on 2nd February 1855 and were jointed by two novices from Dublin, Sr. Mary Joseph Leader and Sr. Mary Magdaline. A description of the convent at that time reads :-

“A three storey house of hammered lime stone 95ft. by 20. The Hall, Parlours, Community Room, Corridors and Cells well lighted and ventilated. The hall door is very fine, having outer casings and massive pillars supporting an ornamental canopy all of cut stone. The community rooms a beautiful spacious room has its cornice elegantly designed in stonework and the door ornamented in woodwork. The hall and reception room with ceilings suitably designed in stonework and doors correspond with those of the community room. The oratory is small. It is specially ornamented with stonework on the ceiling and cornice. The vine leaf and grape are most artistically carried through the design.”

One hundred and fifty years later what was once the Convent of Mercy no longer echoes to the sound of prayer or the patter of feet hurrying to or from Chapel or classroom. The last Sister of Mercy to teach in the local Convent National School was Sr. Teresa Ann Nagle who retired on 11th June 2001. The Sisters of Mercy who took vows of poverty, chastity and obedience as well as a vow to serve the poor, sick and those lacking education are now facing new and different challenges posed by an Irish society which is everchanging. Whatever the future may hold for the Sisters of Mercy the rich heritage of Mercy education which they developed in Athy and district over the past 150 years will continue to live on. On Thursday, October 10th a special service will take place in St. Michael’s Parish Church at 12noon to celebrate the sequicentenary of the arrival of the Sisters of Mercy in Athy. Its an occasion which deserves to be supported in great numbers by the people of Athy and district.

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