This year marks the 750th anniversary of the coming of the Order of St. Dominic to Athy. One of the four main orders of friars, the Dominican’s were founded in 1205 by St. Dominic, an Augustinian Canon. Known as the Order of Preachers (OP) the Dominican’s wore a black mantel over a white habit which earned them the name of the Black Friars. The Dominican’s first arrived in Ireland in 1224 and established a foundation in Dublin. The Order spread out southwards from the capital with a foundation in Kilkenny the following year and another in Waterford in 1226.
Athy, a late 12th century Anglo Norman settlement, was unusual but not unique because of the two monastic foundations which were located there following the arrivals of the Dominican’s. Before the Dominican’s came in 1253, the developing medieval village of Athy already had a monastery established by the Friars of the Holy Cross in the area now known as St. John’s. The Dominican foundation was known as a priory, indicating that it was governed by a prior. Amongst monasteries a priory was generally a smaller foundation than an abbey and was in many cases a monastery of monks subordinate to an abbey.
Little is known of the early years of the Athy Priory except that Provincial Chapters of the Dominican’s were held there in 1288, 1295 and again in 1305. This might indicate that Athy Priory was a substantial place of some importance. Athy at that period was a dangerous place in which to live with regular attacks from the “wild” Irish who lived in the woods beyond the west bank of the River Barrow. The town was attacked and burned on several occasions and on the 26th January 1316 nearby Ardscull was the scene of a battle when the Scottish army of Edward Bruce fought and defeated the Anglo Irish. The Scottish dead were buried in the graveyard attached to the Dominican Priory in Athy which occupied the area on the east bank of the River Barrow known today as “The Abbey”. Amongst those buried were two Scottish chiefs, Lord Fergus Andressan and Lord Walter de Morrey.
The Reformation saw the suppression of the religious houses of Ireland and the Dominican Priory was seized and appropriated in December 1543. An inventory of the property taken at the time recorded a church with a bell tower and a chapter house which was a room or building usually attached to a church and used for meetings. A dormitory and large hall completed the buildings and there was also a cemetery with an orchard and a garden together with several other holdings some distance from the priory. Even though the mendicant preachers of Athy’s Priory were dependent on the generosity of the local people the Priory nevertheless seemed to be a substantial establishment. Unfortunately we have no idea of how many Dominican monks were to be found there. Indeed the early records relating to the Athy Priory are few and far between and we have no knowledge of the local Priors until 1347 when Philip Perreys was in charge.
With the coming of the Reformation the Dominican’s not only in Athy but elsewhere throughout Ireland were forced to leave their priories. Almost another 100 years were to pass before Fr. Ross Mageoghegan returned to Ireland in 1615 and during the next 15 years he revitalised the dormant Dominican foundations throughout the country. Athy Priory was one of those early foundations which was revived again and in 1648 Fr. Thomas Bermingham was recorded as the local Prior. This was a period of some turmoil in Irish history and in the following year Athy’s sub-prior Fr. Richard Overton was beheaded by Cromwellian troops in Drogheda. Fr. Bermingham was replaced as prior by Fr. Raymond Moore in 1651 and he was to die in a Dublin jail in 1665 following his arrest.
Despite the loss of two members of the local Dominican Community, Athy Priory continued in existence up to 1697 at least. King William’s victory at the Battle of the Boyne and the subsequent success of the Williamites, culminated in the flight of the “Wild Geese” and the strict enforcement of the penal laws against the Catholic Irish. Amongst one of the lesser known anti-Catholic laws which some of my readers might rejoice in reading was passed in January 1699. Catholics were forbidden to work as Solicitors! The Dominican’s were forced to leave Athy for the second time and they would remain out of the district for upwards of 40 years. Thomas de Burgo who wrote the primary source book of Irish Dominican history which was published in Kilkenny in 1762 reported of his visit to Athy in 1756. He found that the Dominican’s under their prior Fr. Dominic Dillon occupied a small house in the town which some more recent commentators believed was the two story house adjoining the former Grove Cinema. However the existing Dominican Priory of 1756 was more than likely to have occupied a side lane off the main street and indeed the existence of one such lane known at that time as Convent Lane (now Kirwan’s Lane) would support that theory. Lewis’s Topographical Dictionary of Ireland published in 1837 states, “near the entrance from the Dublin Road is a modern building occupied by two Dominican friars with a small domestic chapel near which is the ancient burial ground of St. Michael’s.” This information raises the possibility, indeed the probability, of the Dominican’s having moved from Convent Lane (Kirwan’s Lane) to a more prominent building on the main street following the granting of Catholic Emancipation in 1829, or perhaps even earlier. However the two story building believed to have been the Dominican Priory was more than likely built after the Dublin Road was realigned as part of the construction of the railway bridge in 1847/48. If so, the “modern building” referred to in the 1837 publication is unlikely to have survived.
In 1846 Fr. Laurence Cremmin, the local prior, purchased from Joseph Lapham and others a large residence built 50 years or so earlier by George Mansergh. Riversdale House was to become the Dominican Priory and the adjoining outoffices were fitted out as a chapel and opened in 1847. Both the chapel and the house are now gone, replaced by the modern church which was blessed and opened on St. Patrick’s Day 1965. Fr. William Pollock who served in Athy over a 16 year period was the person responsible for the building of that new church which was constructed in a style unique in its day. The church and present priory are located directly opposite the 13th century site of the original priory of the Black Friars.
The Dominicans are our most enduring link with the town’s past. The history of the Priory mirrors the social, cultural and economic life of the early medieval village of Athy and the town which developed over the centuries. The 750th anniversary of the coming of the Dominicans to Athy is an important anniversary and one which we should not allow to pass without some form of appropriate celebration. In making this suggestion I am conscious that the 700th anniversary was celebrated in 1957 but even then it was acknowledged that the foundations date was either 1253 or 1257, the discrepancy arising from an error in transcribing old records. The celebrations of 1957 were I believe a grand affair. It would seem appropriate that the present generation of Athy people should acknowledge the Dominicans 750th anniversary, not only on their own behalf but also on behalf of all those who benefited from the Dominicans presence in Athy over the centuries.