Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Anthony Prendergast / Published Histories of Aontas Ogra / Athy Dominicans

We sat three abreast in the Church pew in much the same order as we had sat on the school benches in our old alma mater in St. John’s Lane over 50 years ago.  We were in Crecora in County Limerick, a place never before known to us but where our school pal Tony Prendergast was now lying coffined before the altar in the small country church. 

The strains of the hymn ‘Hail Queen of Heaven’ stirred memories of youthful days spent in our own Parish Church and perhaps more evocatively of choir practice in the primary school of the local Christian Brothers.  These were scenes which would have been once familiar to Tony Prendergast who passed away last week after a very short illness.  Like all his school pals Tony had a nick-name, for nick-names were the currency of youth.  However, at times like this full recognition was given to the name which his parents had bestowed on the youngster who had grown up to tower over his classmates.  Tony was tall, thin but tall, an attribute which stood him in good stead on the football field.

Gaelic football was our favoured sport in the 1950’s and beyond and Tony with Pat Timpson and Ted Wynne came to the notice of the selectors for the County Minor team resulting in Newbridge based County team trials for all three.  They did not reach the dizzy heights of minor team selection, but nevertheless the cache of being on the fringes of selection was sufficient in its day to give satisfaction and memories which lasted to this day.

Gaelic football would also provide another talking point, even in the Limerick heartland of Gaelic hurling, for as the officiating priest admitted, Tony once earned the distinction of being banned for six months from playing his favourite sport.  It was surely a distinction, worn almost like a badge of honour, something to be brought up whenever old friends got together to reminisce of times past.  Tony, whose mother was a Lawler from Barrowhouse, was a club player for Athy Gaelic Football Club.  He succumbed to the blandishments of a now unidentified official from the Laois club to turn out for Barrowhouse Club.  Not only did Tony do so but was joined by Jimmy Malone  whose father was a Barrowhouse man and Ted Wynne whose own father was from Ballylinan.  The problem was that all three were team members of Athy Football Club and inevitably word of their indiscretion came to the attention of club official Matt Murray.  The result was a six month suspension for Tony and Ted Wynne, but whether Jim Malone, who is now living in California, escaped censure I cannot say.  The suspension was initially regarded as harsh and unwarranted, as is almost everything suffered or sustained in the throes of youth, but in more mature years it came to be regarded as a badge of distinction.

Teddy Kelly, Ted Wynne and myself travelled to Crecora on Saturday to pay respects to our school pal, conscious of the advancing years which although clearly marked in our physical condition yet seemed to have  left untouched a mindset which has not kept pace with the passing years.  It was a journey of memory in which we trawled back through the years shared with Tony Prendergast and our other class mates.

The recent 50th celebration for Aontas Ogra saw the publication of a book which included a photograph of Tony Prendergast with Michael O’Neill, George Robinson, Ted Wynne and Ted Kelly, all togged out for football with Tony clearly giving instructions to his team mates as to what was required of them.  It is the only photo I have seen in recent times of a young Tony Prendergast.  Tony worked for some years in Bord na Mona in Newbridge but in latter years worked and lived in Cork where he died last week.  Originally from St. Patrick’s Avenue where his younger brother Aidan still lives, Tony is survived by his wife Joan, three sons Colm, Niall and Shane, his daughter Ciara, as well as his sister Breda and brothers Billy, Joe and Aidan.  May he rest in peace.

‘The Dominicans of Athy 1257 – 2007’ is the title of a new booklet written by Fr. Hugh Fenning O.P. to commemorate the 750th anniversary of the coming of the Friars Preachers to the Anglo Norman village of Áth Ae on the banks of the River Barrow.  The Order first came to Ireland 53 years previously settling immediately in five major ports, as well as in the city of Kilkenny.  Fr. Fenning’s research adds to that of Daphne Pochin Mould who produced a much smaller publication 50 years ago when Fr. Colgan was prior.

The original friary was located on the east bank of the River Barrow in the area known to this day as ‘the Abbey’, which I believe is soon to be the site of a major commercial development.  During the Reformation the Dominican Friary was suppressed and the buildings which had been developed over almost 300 years of monastery life passed into the hands of Martin Pelles who was constable of the Castle of Athy.  Nothing remains overground of the Church, the Chapter House, the Bell Tower, the Dormitory or the other buildings which were part of the Dominican Friary of Athy.  Indeed the cemetery attached to the friary has long been obliterated but undoubtedly the Abbey grounds hold beneath its surface the foundations of the ancient Dominican Friary.  I presume that before any development takes place, a comprehensive archaeological survey will be carried out on the site to record and preserve, where possible, whatever medieval material of historical interest is found.

The suppression of the Dominican Friary saw the preachers leave Athy for almost 90 years but apart from that enforced absence the Dominican’s have been part and parcel of Athy community life for the remaining 750 years.  The 750th anniversary of the arrival of the Dominican Fathers to Athy will be celebrated on Saturday, 6th October with a special mass to be said in the church which was opened 42 years ago, just two years after the Ecumenical Council of 1963.  Described at the time as ‘revolutionary in design’ its vibrant interior aroused great interest with works of art by Brid ni Rinn and George Campbell.  It was however the exterior of the new Dominican Church with its curved concrete roof spanning 147 feet between abutments which excited most comment.  The church of the Athy Dominicans was perhaps the forerunner of emerging Irish Church architecture of the 1960’s and represented what has been called a ‘liturgy conscious design’ as opposed to the antiquarianism of church design of the past.

Fr. Patrick Deegan of Raphoe, an Athy man who was invited to preach the sermon at the opening ceremony on 17th March 1965 said during the course of his sermon :-

            ‘There must have been some great heart searching and much discussion before the momentous decision was taken to build a church in a modern style ....., he continued, ‘we are now in the process of changing from traditional styles of church building to radically new ones.’ 

Fr. Deegan in concluding referred to St. Dominic’s Athy as ‘a building of our time’.  This was re-affirmed by the Irish Press in its report of the opening of the new church which it carried the headline, ‘Church in revolutionary style displays spirit of Council’.

Tony Prendergast as a young man attended mass in the old Dominican Church now long demolished but a photograph of which is in Fr. Fenning’s booklet.  He was just one of the many thousands from Athy who over the centuries was part of the communities served by the Dominican Friars.  During that time, as Fr. Fenning wrote in his booklet, ‘the Dominicans of Athy have seen every shade of fortune and have had their share of hunger, fire and sword ..... since 1754 they have been able to maintain an unbroken presence in Athy, offering mass, preaching the word and giving the daily witness of their religious lives.  But what of tomorrow?’.

What the future holds for the Dominicans in Athy we cannot foretell.  Neither can we
quantify the magnitude of their contribution to the religious wellbeing of our townspeople over the centuries.  The  upcoming  750th  anniversary gives all of us an opportunity to show our appreciation of what the order founded by St. Dominics means to our historic town.

In next weeks “Eye” I hope to be able to give details of a programme of events planned to take place in early October to celebrate the 750th Dominican Anniversary. If you would like to be involved in helping to organise any of these events, why not contact me    

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