Last week our community was attacked in a most mindless and vicious way when attempts were made to burn down St. Michael’s Parish Church. The culprit, and I suspect it was someone acting alone as it was highly unlikely that the criminal stupidity extended to more than one person, failed in his/her attempt to destroy what the people of Athy had worked so hard for over many years. It was Fr. John McLaughlin, the senior curate, who in the early 1950s first announced plans to replace the existing Church building erected almost 150 years previously. That Church which had served generations of Athy folk was built in 1808 on what was described at the time as ‘swampy ground’. It had formed part of the commons of Clonmullin which from medieval times had been the local commonage enjoyed by the people of Athy for grazing animals. The present Church was opened on 19th April 1964.
The first Catholic Church erected in the town following the Reformation was located in Chapel Lane on the left hand side as one approached from Leinster Street. It was built at a time when the main street of Athy was still called High Street, having acquired that name hundreds of years previously. The Duke of Leinster’s family who were the largest property owners in the town would give their names to the streets of our ancient town following the extension of the Grand Canal to Athy in 1791.
I believe the Parish Church in Chapel Lane to have been built about 1720 as the Penal Laws began to be relaxed. The date of its erection is not noted anywhere that I can find and I give the year 1720 as official reports for 1731 noted that two priests had charge of Athy Chapel. The Dominicans, who had been banished from Athy over 30 years previously, would appear to have returned to the town in 1735 when records show that a Prior had been appointed to head up the Athy Friary.
Unlike the Church building programme which followed the granting of Catholic Emancipation in 1829, Church buildings of the early 18th century were not ostentatious buildings and were for the most part confined to side streets and out of the way places so as not to draw adverse attention to Catholic worship. Chapel Lane presumably acquired its name from the siting there of the Parish Church and the name remained long after the Church itself was no more.
Athy’s Parish Church in Chapel Lane, unlike many of its counterparts throughout the country, survived the civil unrest of 1798. However, two years later it was torched and burned to the ground in an arson attack on the night of 7th March 1800.
Three local men were arrested and lodged in White’s Castle Gaol on the following 14th April. Their imprisonment was not due to any involvement in the burning of the Church but arose from their alleged attempt to implicate a soldier of the South Cork Militia and two local yeomen in the attack on St. Michael’s Church. Timothy Sullivan, a member of the South Cork Militia which was then stationed in Athy, had sworn information against them. He claimed that he was on security duty ‘at the gate next to Mrs. Dooley’s house on the night the Chapel of Athy was burned.’ Continuing he swore that he was solicited by James Noud and later by Fr. Patrick Kelly and Thomas Fitzgerald of Geraldine to swear against John McKeon of the Cork Militia and two local men John Drill and John Willock. Sullivan’s sworn Affidavit led to the arrest and imprisonment of Noud and two other local men Patrick Dooley and Joseph Hendrecan. What eventually happened to them I cannot say.
The Parish Priest, Fr. Maurice Keegan, filed a compensation claim and received a payment of £300 from the British government. Collections were taken up for several years in the town of Athy and realised the sum of £7,100 which with the compensation already paid financed the building of a new Church on a swampy site believed to have been donated by the Duke of Leinster. It was built in 1808 and remained in continuous use until 1960.
The events of March 1800 were fortunately not repeated in May 2010 and the second St. Michael’s Parish Church on the same site at the edge of Clonmullin Commons will hopefully continue for quite a long time yet to serve as our Parish Church.
Two weeks ago I posed the question as to the name of the Athy man who held the position of Provost of Trinity College long before the late Bill Watts, formerly of Barrack Yard. The correct answer was Richard Baldwin and it came from a reader in Australia. Mike Robinson, an old school friend of mine, contacted me by email with the answer. I will hopefully write of Provost Baldwin in a future article.