Thursday, March 20, 2008

The Quakers in Athy

A recent report in the Kildare Nationalist confirmed that what was referred to as the former Quaker Meeting House in Athy was to become a coffee shop/drop in centre for young people. Over 25 years ago I first did some research on the Quakers in Athy and found myself in the Friends Central Library, then housed in Eustace Street in Dublin. Shortly before then I became aware for the very first time of the existence of a Quaker community in Athy, which however had long before died out. The information available on the local members of the Society of Friends, to give them their proper name, was scanty indeed, although I was delighted to come across details of the building of the Quaker Meeting House in Athy in 1780.

The first Quakers in Athy may have been Thomas Weston and his wife who in 1657 ‘received the truth’ from Thomas Loe, an English preacher, who was visiting some friends in County Carlow. They were soon joined by the Bonnett family, the first Quaker family to settle in Carlow. The Bonnetts stayed in Athy for a short while after leaving Carlow before taking up residence at Ardreigh on the banks of the River Barrow. A Quaker meeting was settled in Athy by 1671, the year in which Athy was included in the list of towns where the Leinster Province Meeting was held. The local Quakers met for worship once a week on the 4th day (Wednesday), and every month a district meeting was held in Carlow to transact church business. Athy, as part of the Carlow district, also sent delegates to the Province’s quarterly meetings.

One of the earliest extant records of the Athy Friends relates to a Province Meeting held at Richard Boye’s house in Athy on 20th May 1706. Some of the Quaker families in Athy during the 18th century were the Westons, the Jessops, the Shellys, the Doyles, the Hudsons, the Rushworths, the Bakers, the Thompsons and the Haughtons of Rheban.

A recent book published by the Irish Friends Historical Committee titled ‘The Quaker Meeting Houses of Ireland’ and compiled by David Butler has given us some additional information on the Quakers in Athy. Butler writes:-

‘In 1671 a Province Meeting was held at Athy, at the house of Thomas Weston. The year before, that meeting had encouraged Friends there to build “a convenient meeting house”. Some time later, in 1704, it recorded: “it being under consideration of this meeting that there being a new meeting house built at Athy ..... to pretty general satisfaction, and that it being built at the charge of some particular Friends, and many Friends suggest it better it should be at province charge”. The sum of £50 was raised for it, and the building was conveyed from individual Friends to trustees of Province Meeting. Only four years later it had to be repaired, done at Province expense. The lease of the site was for a very short term, it expired in 1713 and then “as we have two good meetings next it [at Carlow and Castledermot] and that Athy being in a damp place, and not very convenient” it was given up, though not all Friends were happy to let it go. Province Meeting kept a grip on its property: in 1716 “there being several forms that belong to Friends of this Province at Athy Meeting and there being a new Meeting House built at Ballinakill, it is desired that Thomas Weston let Friends have 28 of them”. The Meeting was laid down in 1716 soon, after the lease ended.’

The next reference I found to Quakers in Athy was in an agreement dated December 1732 when Weston undertook to ‘set Friends a large meeting room and a stable for £3 a year and to keep them in repair’. At the Carlow Province quarterly Meeting held on 4th February 1767 it was suggested that ‘Friends of Athy be recommended to conclude among themselves about a convenient place to erect a meeting place.’ An application was subsequently made to the Duke of Leinster for a suitable plot of ground, but nothing further was done to construct a Meeting House. In the meantime the premises rented by the Athy Meeting continued to be used. Compared to the meetings which were then being held at Carlow and Ballitore the Meeting in Athy was quite small. The minutes of the Carlow Province Meeting for 23rd March 1774 noted, ‘Friends of Athy Meeting having for a long time past discontinued collecting with the other Meetings for the relief of the poor on account alleged that they have the rent of their Meeting House annually to pay, it is judged by this Meeting not convenient that said Meeting of Athy should not join in support of that branch or Christian discipline the relief of the poor, therefore this Meeting desires the Friends of Athy will confer among themselves and make report to the next Meeting how much they are willing individually to collect on condition that they be provided with a Meeting place by this Meeting’. The May Meeting recorded that the Athy Friends returned an account of what they were willing to collect monthly for the poor, whereupon the Carlow Province Meeting agreed to provide Athy with a Meeting place at it’s own expense. Thereafter the rent for the Athy Meeting House was paid from Carlow, which by 1776 was £4 per year and in 1778 was payable to John Chandlee of Athy.

In February 1775 Thomas Chandlee who had moved from Dublin to Athy attended his first quarterly Meeting in Athy. A linen draper in Duke Street, Athy, Chandlee prospered in the town and in November 1780 he married Deborah, daughter of Richard and Elizabeth Shackleton of Ballitore.

In 1779 the Duke of Leinster gave a plot of ground to the local Society of Friends in Athy. Steps were immediately taken to erect a Meeting House on the site. Work started in 1779, financed by the Carlow Province, which in turn was funded by the subscriptions of the local Meetings affiliated to the Province. Some concern was expressed at the Province Meeting in December 1779 at the delay in receiving subscriptions for their new building from the Athy Friends. Following further delay the Province Meeting appointed a delegation to visit the Athy Meeting on 13th February 1780. The purpose of the visit was to impress upon the Athy Friends the embarrassing position posed by the local’s failure to respond speedily and adequately to the request for funds for their new Meeting House. The reception received by the delegation was obviously not to their liking for the March 1780 Minutes of the Province Meeting recorded ‘considering their dishonourable dealing (the Meeting) judges it improper to accept of their subscriptions for building the Meeting House there and as the sum of £50 is still wanting towards completing the work, each Meeting is desired to raise such proportion as they can towards it.’ The final cost of the Athy Meeting House completed in 1780 came to £129.5.10 of which the Athy Friends contributed the sum of £52.13.1. A shortfall of £5.2.2 was advanced by the Athy trader Thomas Chandlee and was later repaid to him by the Carlowmen’s Meeting. The breakdown of the final expenditure on the building shows that £56.9.0 was paid to masons for building the Meeting House and the wall around part of the grounds it stood upon. The building had a gallery as the sum of £4.10.0 was paid for timber for the floor and gallery and the same building account mentions three windows, although the present building only has two windows.

The original Quaker Meeting House ran east to west, with an entrance doorway in the west wall approached by a driveway running straight in from the laneway. On the south side of the building was a lawn separating the building from the laneway. Both the lawn and the original entrance are no longer, the former having been lost partially to road widening and partially to the concrete yard which fronts the present entrance. The original building had a gallery and clearly was a higher building than the present structure.

The erection of the Meeting House did not make any appreciable change in the strength of Quakerism in Athy. A public meeting called in 1804 recorded by Mary Dudley found ‘very few of our name in Athy’. Thomas Shillito writing of a visit in 1808 referred to the Athy Quaker Meeting House as ‘the most deplorable Meeting House I have ever sat in, a few months after our sitting with Friends here the whole of the roof fell in’. By 1811 Athy Meeting House was recorded as a very small Meeting and the building itself was in such bad repair that it was considered unsafe to use. The Quaker Meeting House finally ceased to be used as a Meeting House sometime around 1811 but soon thereafter it was taken over by the local Methodists who repaired and re-roofed the building and in doing so possibly reduced the height of the walls.

The last Quaker family in the Athy area were the Hewsons who were shop keepers in the town. Margaret Hewson born in 1838 and Mary Hewson born in 1839 were the last Quaker children born in the town. Nevertheless Alexander Duncan, shop keeper, Methodist and member of the local Town Commissioners writing in 1886 referred to Athy area as having ‘an odd antique of a Quaker’. It is not clear whether the name Meeting House Lane, or as we know it today Meeting Lane, refers to the original Quaker Meeting House or to the Methodist’s use of the building.

Interestingly, Butler in his book refers to the possibility of a burial ground adjoining the Quaker Meeting House, which he thinks might well have been situated in the now empty plot of ground behind the houses lining Meeting Lane. A path apparently formerly led from the Meeting House forecourt past the Meeting House entrance on the west side to a gateway in the wall which enclosed this plot of ground. Quakers usually retained the burial ground when they disposed of a Meeting House but this particular burial ground, if it did exist behind the Athy Meeting House, may have been lost in the absence of an active Meeting or as Butler states ‘by neglect of renewing trustees’.

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