It was a sobering sight to see so many gathered together in what was once a playground for youngsters in the 1950s and earlier still part of the town’s fair green. The occasion was the annual cemetery Mass in what we call new St. Michael’s and the grounds which once echoed to the delightful cries of youngsters in the 1950s and the bellowing of cows and calves now holds memories of lives lost within living memory.
As a new graveyard the names on the gravestones are names we recognise and can relate to, bringing memories of times not so long ago when those named shared experiences with us. As I waited for the Mass to start I walked through the newest part of the cemetery and there recognised name after name of people I knew well, some not so well, but all sharing a common connection as members of our local community. It’s sad to think of so many friends and acquaintances that have died since the new cemetery was opened in or about 1964. The gravestones of memories are very real and the last resting place of the Dominican Fathers, the Christian Brothers and the Sisters of Mercy reinforce the feeling of history which pervades St. Michael’s Cemetery.
As I walked between the cemetery plots family members and friends were to be seen sitting or standing alongside the graves of loved ones. Everywhere I looked I was reminded of persons I once knew and of times which I had shared with them. A line in Ronald Fletcher’s interesting and poignant book ‘In a Country Churchyard’ published 30 or so years ago came to mind.
‘A country churchyard is more than just a burial place for the dead. It is a place which reminds us of a living tradition, the people and community of the past which made us what we are.’
New St. Michael’s is not yet of an age to allow us to describe it as part of our historical and cultural heritage. While it offers us opportunities to re-visit our recent social history, only with time can it be expected to become a place of pilgrimage for those interested in our history. Whenever that occurs I wonder what the visitor will think of the grandiose monuments to be found in a small section of the cemetery. The Victorians spent large sums of monies on grave monuments and fine examples of the 19th century masons art are to be found scattered around cemeteries in Ireland and England. Those who today seek to make a cult of death unfortunately tend to be responsible for the production of monuments which are quite simply inappropriate. The cemetery of St. Michael’s belongs to the whole local community and our generation will be judged by the way in which we care for the religious landscape which is the local cemetery. Some control should have been exercised over the installation of extensively grandiose monuments in new St. Michael’s. They present a bizarre scene in a country graveyard.
If new St. Michael’s cemetery is yet to come of age in terms of its historical value, the same cannot be said of St. Johns in the oldest part of Athy. Situated on the site of the 12th century priory of St. Thomas the Martyr and the Hospital of St. Johns, this small cemetery has possibly been in use for over 700 years. The Urban Archaeological Survey of County Kildare conducted by John Bradley and others in 1986 reported that ‘the north wall of the graveyard preserves a portion of the wall 12 metres long which may be part of the original priory or hospital’. The graveyard contains many ancient gravestones marking the graves of local residents and military men who were based in Athy’s Cavalry Barracks during the 19th century. In 1998 the members of Athy’s Alternative Project produced a small booklet outlining the history of the graveyard and the results of a survey of the gravestones. Copies should be in the local library and could usefully be read before a visit to St. Johns. Honor McCulloch has single handed over many months carried out a major cleanup of St. Johns and it will be opened each Wednesday and Sunday from 2.00 p.m. to 4 p.m. for the summer months. Do visit St. John’s for a glimpse into our medieval past and the centuries which followed, bearing in mind the lines from Grays’ ‘Elegy in a Country Churchyard’ – ‘The paths of glory lead but to the grave’.