Friday, February 10, 1995

Medieval Grave Slabs in St. Michaels Athy

In 1986 the Athy Museum Society in conjunction with FAS carried out a survey of Old St. Michael's Cemetery. In the course of the work two medieval grave slabs were unearthed. There are few such slabs in Ireland and the discovery in St. Michael's Cemetery was important in terms of the medieval architecture of the town. Their very existence indicates that medieval Athy was a settlement of importance as it is accepted that elaborate commemoration in monumental form was afforded only to people of power and wealth.

The first slab is the upper portion of a trapezoidal shaped slab with bevelled edges fashioned from limestone, decorated with a centrally placed doubly incised fleur-de-lis cross. There is a lozenge centrally placed within the fleur-de-lis. The slab has no inscription.

The second slab is the lower portion of a trapezoidal grave slab with a pointed terminal again fashioned from limestone. It was carved in relief and decorated with a central ridge terminating in a single fleur-de-lis. The edges are raised and concavely chamfered. This slab is also without inscription.

The ruined Church of St. Michael is situated within the graveyard. It consists of a plain rectangular building of uncoursed mixed rubble construction. Internally there is no evidence of the division of the Church into nave and chancel. Much of the structure has been badly damaged with only a few of the original features surviving. The parallel sided medieval doorway lacking its arch which is in the south wall of the Church is not believed to be part of the original St. Michaels.

The earliest reference to the Church dates from 1297 when records disclose that "Thomas Grennam robbed the Church of St. Michael of six pecks of oats". A further reference to the Church in 1311 relates that John Poukoc and Alice Heyne were charged with entering St. Michaels and stealing goods including silver, textiles and foodstuffs from various chests. They were later acquitted of the offences. The Church was described as being in good repair in 1615 and 1630 but by 1657 the Kildare Inquisition found the Church to be "out of repair". Subscriptions for repairing the Church were collected in 1677 and it is assumed that St. Michaels continued to be used until a new Church was built in the town centre in the early 18th century.

The St. Michael's grave slabs have a common trapezoidal form and a similar motif but significantly one slab is incised while the other slab is decorated in relief. The de Keteller grave slab in St. Canice's Cathedral, Kilkenny, is similar in form and decoration to the incised slab in St.Michael's which suggests it may be of late 13th century origin. There are similarities between the second grave slab and the so called Crusader Tomb in St. Nicholas' Church in Galway which might indicate an early 14th century date for this Athy burial monument.

It is assumed that the original location of the grave slabs was within the medieval Church at St. Michael's as burial within a Church was a privilege reserved to the rich and powerful members of society down to the 17th century. The likelihood is that the slabs which do not have an inscription were intended to commemorate leading members of the local community and even perhaps members of the St. Michael family who were the original occupiers of the Castles at Rheban and Woodstock.

Another possibility is that the grave slabs commemorated some of those who fell in the 1315 Battle of Ardscull. Tradition relates that Raymond Le Gros and Sir William Prendergast on the English side and the Scots Sir Fergus Andressan and Sir Walter Murray were buried in St. Michaels.

Are they the grave slabs of unknown warriors or medieval Lords of Athy? We shall never know.

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