Founded in 1215 by St. Dominic the Dominicans or Black Friars within a few years spread rapidly throughout the European continent. In England the Dominicans first settled at Oxford in 1221 and two years later at London. In 1224 a number of Dominicans crossed to Ireland and founded Dominican convents in Dublin and Drogheda. Another twelve convents were founded in the following 28 years and in 1253 or 1257 a convent was established in Athy. The first date has been generally given by the many writers on Dominican foundations in Ireland, but according to a manuscript in Trinity College the foundation year was 1257 and indeed the Order chose to celebrate the 700th anniversary of the Athy convent 50 years ago.
Before the Dominicans came to Athy the Order of the Most Holy Trinity had accepted the invitation of Richard de St. Michael, Baron of Rheban to establish a monastery on the west bank of the River Barrow close to Woodstock Castle and the new village of Athy. There is some question as to whether the Monastery of St. Thomas was in fact a Trinitarian foundation, some believing that the only Trinitarian monastery in Ireland was located in Adare, County Limerick. Many of the foundations believed to be Trinitarians were dedicated to St. John the Baptist and indeed the name St. John’s has come down to us over the centuries as the area in which the first monastic settlement in Athy was located.
Fr. Thomas Flynn O.P. who wrote a brief history of the Dominican foundation at Aghaboe answered for me in his booklet on Aghaboe a question which has long troubled me. I could not understand why two religious orders should establish foundations in such close proximity to each other as they did in 13th century Athy, which was a small inland settlement established around Woodstock Castle located on the river crossing known as the Ford of Ae. Fr. Flynn claimed that Dominican foundations of the 13th and 14th century frequently co-existed with previously established religious houses in the same locality, with the Dominicans or friars preachers undertaking the specific task of preaching and teaching. The members of the other foundations were generally contemplative or as in the case of the Athy Trinitarians providing shelter and a hospital for pilgrims and travellers generally.
It is remarkable to realise that the Dominican Foundation in Athy extends back 750 years, fully 235 years before Christopher Columbus discovered the new world. Who invited the Dominicans to Athy is not known. Previous writers on the subject have given the credit to the Boswells and the Wogan families, but Daphne Pochin Mould in a pamphlet produced 50 years ago and Fr. Hugh Fenning in his history of the local Dominican foundation published earlier this year felt that it was likely to have been a member of the St. Michael family of Rheban, or alternatively Maurice Fitzgerald who was owner of Kilkea from 1244.
The Dominican convent endured, while the Trinitarian Monastery on the opposite side of the River Barrow had closed down before the Reformation. Indeed the Athy Dominicans hosted Provincial Chapters of the Order in 1288, 1295 and 1305, a clear indication of the importance of the local convent or perhaps its strategic geographical location in relation to other Irish Dominican Convents. Unfortunately 1305 was also the year the native Irish from the neighbouring county of Laois attacked and burned the Anglo Norman settlement of Athy, no doubt prompting those in authority over Dominican affairs to write Athy off its list of suitable venues for future Provincial Chapter meetings.
Ten years later the Dominican Convent cemetery received the bodies of those killed during the Battle of Ardscull, including two of Bruce’s army chiefs, Lord Fergus Andressan and Lord Walter De Morrey. As I mentioned last week there is now no trace overground of the original Dominican Convent or its cemetery, but presumably somewhere in the area of the Abbey in Emily Square or the adjoining field stretching back towards the Horse Bridge lie the remains of those killed in the Ardscull Battle, not to mention the Friars who for nearly 300 years prior to the Reformation were part of the Dominican community in the Athy Friary.
An interesting entry in the State papers for 1347 show that Philip Pereys, the Prior of the Dominican Friary in Athy, obtained the pardon of King Edward III for all felonies and transgressions committed by him on paying a fine of half a mark and saying 100 masses for His Majesty, the fine being afterwards remitted on saying another 100 masses for the same intention. What I wonder was the felonies and transgressions committed by Fr. Pereys?
Athy Dominican Friary was suppressed by Henry VIII in 1539 and uncertainty surrounds the date of the Friar’s return to South Kildare. Certainly the Dominicans had re-established a presence in Athy by 1649, the date when Richard Ovington, sub-Prior of Athy, was seized by Cromwell’s men during the Siege of Drogheda and summarily executed. Around the same time Thomas Birmingham who was Prior of Athy in 1648 was imprisoned by Cromwell’s troops and sentenced to transportation to Barbados. He was eventually exiled to the Continent and died a few years later in Italy. Fr. Raymond Moore who replaced Fr. Birmingham as Prior fled with some other priests to Derryvullagh in the middle of nearby Mullavullagh Bog to escape prosecution and he eventually escaped to the continent. Following the restoration of the English monarchy Fr. Moore returned to Athy to resume as Prior in 1661.
The 16th and 17th centuries were extraordinarily difficult times for the Dominicans in Ireland but despite those difficulties which were the direct result of the Penal Laws, the Friars Preachers continued, despite enforced breaks, their long association with our town. That connection has now reached the 750th year and in the first weekend of October the town of Athy will celebrate what is a unique partnership between the Dominican Order founded by St. Dominic and the people of Athy.
The programme of events will commence with what I understand will be a reception for the Dominicans to be given by Athy Town Council on Friday, 5th October followed on the next day by a series of events culminating that Saturday evening with a Mass in St. Dominic’s Church and a reception in the G.A.A. centre. On Sunday, 7th October, a lecture is planned for the afternoon, with a concert in St. Dominic’s Church that evening showcasing local artists and musicians, all coming together to commemorate and celebrate the history of the Dominican connection with Athy.