Fr. James Harris O.P. was Prior of the Dominicans in Athy from 1981 to 1986. He was a Kildare man, son of the legendary Tom Harris, one time T.D. and former freedom fighter whose involvement in the fight for Irish freedom commenced with the Easter Rebellion of 1916. Fr. James died suddenly two weeks ago.
Prior Harris followed on a long line of Dominican Priors stretching back to 1257, but whose names are only recorded from 100 years later. It was Fr. Jim, as he was known, who replaced the elegant Riversdale House with the new Dominican Priory which was built between 1983 and 1984. The builders were the local firm of D. & J. Carbery who in the past built all of the schools erected in Athy between the 1890s and the 1980s. With the building of the new Priory the ground floor of Rivesdale House was retained and roofed. It was opened as a community hall in May 1985.
Padraig Healy, a Mayo man who came to work in the offices of the Wallboard Factory at Barrowford more than 50 years ago died this week. He was a quiet courteous man, but also a fighter. He stood up with many others to the faceless bureaucrats who some years ago sought to ignore the wishes of the local people who objected to the building of a road through the centre of Emily Square.
Padraig Healy who was 79 years old when he died was for many years connected with the Dominican Church as a member of the Dominican laity. He recognised the importance of the Dominican Order in the historical life of the town of Athy. The Dominicans, who have been with us on and off for over 750 years, today face a crisis in vocations and as a result their future appears uncertain.
Men like Fr. Jim Harris and Padraig Healy contributed in their own way to Athy’s Dominican story. Padraig also played a major part in preserving the centre of his adopted town from the controversial inner relief road by joining many others in supporting the call for an outer relief road. He was also a long time member of Athy Credit Union and worked voluntarily on the Supervisory Committee for several years.
The Dominicans are a unique part of the historical heritage of Athy. Another element of our heritage are the forests which make up over 500,000 hectares of our island land. I read a newspaper report during the week where we lost almost 7½ million trees during the severe storms on February 12th last. Most of the damage occurred in Munster but here in Athy we lost what is claimed was one of the oldest trees in South Kildare. Located in the grounds of Sawyerswood House, once the home of the McCulloch family and now the residence of Mr. and Mrs. Diarmuid Owens and family, was an oak tree believed to be over 400 years old. With a height of 28 metres the mighty oak may have been planted at the end of the 17th century. If so it spanned the late medieval period and perhaps witnessed the Cromwellian campaign and the arrival of the first Quakers in this part of Ireland.
But even that venerable oak tree could not equal the length of time Athy has been honoured by the presence of the Dominican Order. Their presence amongst us is historically the longest period shared with successive generations of Athy people and unequalled by even the oldest building still standing, even if in a ruined state, in Athy. Woodstock Castle, uninhabited since the Confederate Wars of the 1640s, is but a teenager compared to the years the Dominicans have been with us. The crickeen in Old St. Michael’s Cemetery, believed to have been the first Parish Church in the medieval village of Athy, was built many years, even centuries after the Dominicans came to Athy in 1257.
The historical link which the Dominicans give us to a past of which we know so little, is so precious that the passing of a Dominican such as Fr. Jim Harris and the passing of Padraig Healy, a Dominican lay member, are sad reminders of the coming of a time when that link will be lost forever.