Last Sunday I attended Mass in the Dominican Church, Athy. An unusual occurrence for me as I normally attend what we all refer to as "the Parish". As I glanced around George Campbell's multi-coloured stained glass windows and focused on the crucifix by Brid ni Rinn my thoughts were of times long past when other generations of Athy men and women long dead worshipped in their local Dominican Church. For I realised I was participating with everyone else in St. Dominic's that Sunday in a celebration with echoes going back centuries into the history of Athy.
The Dominican Order first came to Athy in 1253 when the then developing village was but 60 or 70 years old. Invited to set up a monastery on the east bank of the River Barrow by the Boswell and Wogan families the Dominicans were to have the second Monastery in the area. The Crouched Friars or Trinitarians were already established on the west bank of the River in the shadow of Woodstock Castle.
We know little of the Dominicans in the early years of their life in Athy. We all know the oft repeated reference to the dispute between the two monasteries when the Crouched Friars were convicted of stealing eels from the eel weir belonging to the Dominicans. Less well known is the reference in the Plea Rolls for 1374 which lists the Dominicans in Athy as Henry Mody, Prior, William Durant, Thomas Scryueyn and William Roche. Not an Irish name amongst them but this is not surprising given that the early Dominicans were French speaking Anglo-Normans.
Times changed and by the end of the 15th century the Friars were English speaking and catering for the needs of the English settlers and the native Irish who had begun to populate the growing village of Athy. The Reformation of 1540 put a temporary halt to the Dominican presence in Athy but by 1630 or thereabouts they had returned to the town. Meantime the Trinitarians who had already abandoned their Monastery in St. John's were never to return.
During the Confederate Wars of 1640 the Dominican Prior was Fr. Thomas Bermingham who was captured by Cromwell's troops and later went to Spain. Two Athy Dominicans were martyred during the civil unrest of the 17th century. Fr. Richard Overton, sub-Prior was captured and killed when Drogheda was taken by Cromwellian soldiers in 1649. Fr. Raymond Moore, Prior of Athy in 1651 and 1652 was exiled to the continent towards the end of the latter year. He returned following the accession of Charles II to the throne and was again Prior in Athy in 1661 and 1662. He was later arrested and imprisoned in Dublin where he died in 1665.
Prior from 1691 to 1698 was Fr. Richard Cuddy when the Monastery was closed due to the Penal Laws. It was not until 1730 or thereabouts that the Dominicans felt free to return to Athy. When they did return they chose a laneway off the Dublin Road, now called Kirwan's Lane, as the location of their Monastery and Church. In 1846 the Dominicans moved to Riversdale House located on the west bank of the River Barrow directly opposite their original Monastery site.
The Dominicans are our most cherished link with the medieval past of Athy. Unusual then to find that this ancient association is represented by a Church described in 1965 as of a "revolutionary style" and "unique in Ireland". However, the Dominican Church because of it's ultra modern appearance is a fitting symbolic representation of a proud tradition and association between the Dominican Order and Athy going back 740 years. Theirs is a unique record of dedication to the people of Athy and district which all of us must cherish and honour with each passing day.