The Parishes of Athy, Castledermot, Moone and Narraghmore have been grouped together in a cooperative cluster intended to foster cooperation between these neighbouring parishes. It is possibly a recognition of the increasing difficulties facing the Catholic Church as vocations fall off and Mass attendance dips to a new low.
My attention was drawn to the new grouping in a notice in the Church missalette last Sunday which advised of a Route 44 Pilgrimage to nine churches in the aforementioned parishes. My interest was immediately aroused but despite my best efforts I could only bring to mind eight Catholic churches in the area. The church which eluded me was the Church of St. Joseph’s in Ballymount, a familiar landmark to travellers on the old Kilcullen to Carlow Road.
I understand the Route 44 Pilgrimage gets its name from the number allocated to the south Kildare cluster of parishes by the authorities in Archbishops house. The purpose of the pilgrimage is to visit all nine churches in the area on the last two Saturdays and Sundays of June making what is described as a social, learning and prayerful short visit to each. Pilgrims will have available to them a passport which will be stamped in each of the nine churches to be kept as a memento of a unique pilgrimage.
Of the nine churches, the oldest would appear to be St. Ita’s Church in Kilmead reputably built in 1798, surprisingly at a time when the catholic churches in Athy and Castledermot were destroyed by fire. It’s construction came soon after the passing of the Relief Act which allowed the performance of priestly duties by Catholic clergy then resident in Ireland provided such duties were not exercised within a church with a bell or a steeple. St. Ita’s was built on a site donated by the Kenna family who were ancestors of the first Irish Cardinal, Paul Cullen of Ballytore.
The church of the Most Holy Trinity at Moone is almost 200 years old and serves the area where St. Colmcille founded his monastery in the 6th century. Like its Kilmead neighbour, this pre emancipation church does not have a steeple. The Church of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Castledermot was built just four years before the passing of Catholic Emancipation. Like its near neighbour, St. Michael’s Parish Church in Athy, it was a replacement for a church burnt in the aftermath of the 1798 rebellion.
Athy’s post reformation Parish Church, built in the mid 1700’s following the relaxation of the Penal Laws, was located in a side lane which thereafter was known as Chapel Lane. The thatched church was burnt to the ground on 7th March 1800, allegedly by a member of the Cork Militia but no one was ever charged or convicted of the arson attack. The then Parish Priest, Fr. Maurice Keegan, filed a compensation claim with Dublin Castle and was awarded the sum of £300. A replacement church was built in 1808 in what was described as marshy ground, which once formed part of the commons of Clonmullin. This is the church in which we all worshiped up to 1964 when it was demolished to make way for the present St. Michael’s. Our former County Architect, Denis Cogan, once described the present St. Michael’s Parish Church as ‘unnecessarily large and lacking in human scale.’
Athy’s Dominican Church which was opened in 1965 replaced a smaller church which had been in use since 1847. During the second year of the Great Famine the Dominican Prior, Fr. John Kenealy, purchased Riversdale House and converted outoffices for use as a church. The present St. Dominic’s is a fine example of modern Irish architecture, with a design inspired by the church at Ronchamp and the monastery of La Tourette, both located in France. The church contains work by important Irish artists including George Campbell and Bríd Ní Rinn. In contrast the simple design of St. Mary’s chapel of ease in Barrowhouse which was built in the 1820s is indicative of the involvement of a local builder, Peter McEvoy, who built the church assisted by local volunteers. In the nearby graveyard lie the remains of many Athy folk including Eamon Malone who was for a time Commander of the Carlow/Kildare Brigade during the War of Independence. St. Mary’s and the nearby school are celebrated in the poetry of Rev. J.J. Malone, a native of Barrowhouse whose clerical life was spent in Australia where he died in 1948.
Crookstown Church, like Levitstown Church and that of Ballymount were built in the mid to late 1800s as part of the church dominated architectural activity of post emancipation Ireland. In the church grounds of Crookstown is buried a former Parish Priest, Fr. Laurence Stafford, who served as Chaplain during the First World War.
The pilgrimage on Saturday 22nd and Sunday 23rd June and the following Saturday and Sunday takes in nine churches spread over four local parishes. The churches will be open between 11.00 a.m. and 7.00 p.m. and the pilgrims are asked to spend some time in quiet prayer on each visit. Visits will be recorded on the Pilgrim’s passport which will be available in all the churches and the passport carries a very brief history of each church.
The Route 44 Pilgrimage presents a wonderful opportunity to become familiar with some elements of the ecclesiastical history of this area, linking as it does the pre Catholic Emancipation churches in Kilmead and Moone with examples of church buildings, some simple and vernacular in form, which were part of the expansive Catholic Church building programme of the 19th century. Those churches can in turn be contrasted with the more modern architecture of the mid 19th century as found in our own parish church of St. Michael’s and its near neighbour, St. Dominic’s.