Five years ago Athy Town Council established a sub-committee to harness the good will and abilities of volunteers willing and able to help in improving the appearance of local cemeteries which over the years had fallen into disrepair. The sub-committee has been very busy since it was established and St. Michael’s Cemetery on the Dublin road has benefited enormously from the volunteers work.
The remains of what is believed to have been the first Parish Church in Athy lies in the centre of St. Michael’s Cemetery. Known locally as “The Crickeen” it represents an unusual feature for an anglo norman town as it was located outside the walls of the medieval town of Athy. Why this was so is not clear but the Dominican friary and St. Thomas’s monastery both within the town walls may well hold the answer. Was it a case of French speaking clerics serving the Anglo Norman settlers to the exclusion of gaelic speaking native Irish? The answer still eludes us today.
Burials are likely to have taken place while the church of St. Michael’ was still in everyday use. As such, it was properly known as St. Michael’s graveyard but now that the Church is derelict, St. Michael’s is today described as a cemetery. Burials have take place there for hundreds of years and the work done by the cemetery sub-committee in clearing and conserving the plots has added enormously to our understanding of the number and range of burials there.
One of the major undertakings by the sub-committee was the development of the underpass which linked the cemetery with the Fairgreen on the opposite side of the railway bridge. Engraved panels were fitted to the walls and granite slabs were laid to create a space suitable for services.
A number of grave markers which had been lost due to ground erosion were recovered and replaced while some grave slabs long buried were brought back into view. Amongst those grave slabs was one commemorating the Daker family, members of which were owners in the late 18th century of the tanyard located at Tan yard lane off St. John’s street. Part of that area is now given over to the Dominican friary and Tanyard lane is now called Convent lane.
St. John’s cemetery which once formed part of the Monastery of St. Thomas and the Hospital of St. John has had a makeover in the last two years. Honor McCulloch, working largely on her own has recovered St. John’s from the wilderness which had enveloped it since the project undertaken some years ago by the Athy Alternative Project Team. St. John’s is surely the oldest cemetery still identifiable as such in Athy. The north wall of the cemetery includes a portion of a wall which may have been part of the original 13th century monastery or hospital. St. John’s is now under the remit of the cemetery sub-committee and its town central location coupled with its historical connections makes it an important part of our local heritage.
Just across from where I am writing this article lies Ardreigh Cemetery where we can find the remains of an ancient church amongst collapsed masonry in the centre of the cemetery. The recent archaeological excavation in Ardreigh unearthed the remains of the medieval village which was served by the Church and the surrounding graveyard. The cemetery has recently been cleared by members of the Kilmead Community Scheme in conjunction with the cemetery sub-committee.
The huge task undertaken by the cemetery sub-committee with regard to the opening up and conservation of the cemeteries in and around Athy is beginning to show results. The sub committee is grant aided by Athy Town Council but I suspect that like all voluntary groups, it would benefit hugely if more volunteers came forward to help in its work.
In last week’s Eye on the Past, I mentioned medieval burials in the Dominican friary then located on the east bank of the River Barrow. Until recent years, the friary site was occupied by a large house now demolished, known as the Abbey. The Abbey site is now lying somewhat derelict and unlikely to be developed for some time to come. This presents an opportunity for this important historical site to be investigated archaeologically before it is given over to development. Any such investigation would add enormously to our understanding of the early years of the Anglo Norman village of Athy and especially the religious house of the Friar’s preachers.
It is a topic I hope to return to again but in the meantime, the members of the cemetery sub committee are to be congratulated on their wonderful work over the past five years in restoring and conserving one important element of our past heritage.