Fr. James Doyle, Parish Priest of Athy, is buried in St. Michael’s Cemetery where his gravestone records that he was 64 years old when he passed away on 10th November 1892. He had served as a curate in Athy for 17 years and Parish Priest for 13 years. I have been unable to locate the graves of six of his predecessors as Parish Priest of Athy, the seventh, Monsignor Andrew Quinn having died some time after he transferred to Dun Laoghaire. The clerical career of his successor, Archdeacon Germaine, is recorded on the latter’s gravestone in St. Michael’s Cemetery as, ‘1 year a curate in Dunlavin, 23 years a curate in Castledermot, 15 years D.D. in Avoca’ before becoming Parish Priest of Athy where he served for 12 years and where he died on 18th April 1905 aged 78 years.
Canon Edward Mackey was the next Parish Priest to die in office and his gravestone simply records ‘Edward Canon Mackey, In days gone by, P.P. Athy 1909 – 1928’. Incidentally he died on 31st March and not 21st March as mentioned in last week’s article. The whereabouts of the last resting place of Fr. Fintan Carroll who succeeded Canon Mackey is not known to me. Fr. Carroll who transferred from Castledermot to take over responsibility for the Parish of St. Michaels died unexpectedly in May, just a few weeks after coming to Athy. His was the shortest period as Parish Priest of any of the office holders stretching back to 1670, while the distinction of having the longest service belongs to Fr. Daniel Fitzpatrick, who, if records are accurate, served as Parish Priest for 46 years.
Fr. Patrick McDonnell replaced the late Fr. Carroll on 11th June 1928 and he remained as Parish Priest of St. Michaels until his death, aged 84 years on 1st March 1956. It is as Archdeacon McDonnell that he is remembered today by the older residents. During the early part of his ministry in Athy he had a disagreement with the members of Athy Urban District Council over a remark made at a meeting of the Council when the Parish Priest and one of his curates, Fr. Maurice Brown, were nominated to the Council’s Library Committee. The remark was not reported in the local press but nevertheless word got back to the Parish Priest who refused to take up the Council’s nomination. The curate Fr. Brown who would later write a number of highly regarded books while he was Parish Priest of Ballymore Eustace felt compelled to follow the lead of his Parish Priest and so for a while the town’s Library Committee operated without the services of the local clergy. Relationships between the local Church and civic leaders were obviously fully restored by 1952 when on the proposal of M.G. Nolan, seconded by P.L. Doyle, the Council agreed that its new housing estate at Holland’s Field should be named McDonnell Drive ‘to mark the deep appreciation of the people of Athy of the invaluable services rendered to the Parish by our beloved Parish Priest.’ It was a significant honour in view of the fact that Archdeacon McDonnell had still another four years to live. When he died on 11th March 1956 the Archdeacon was remembered as ‘gentle, unobtrusive, vain but not proud, easy of access and approach and very devoted to the confessional and Mass.’
My own memories of the old priest, for whom I often served Mass on one of the side altars, are coloured by my earliest contact with him. As a 7 or 8 year old I was in a class brought by Sister Brendan to confessions at St. Michaels where one of the confessors that school morning and occupying a temporary confessional specially fitted up for him, was Archdeacon McDonnell. At one stage during the confessions I forgot what I had to say, much to the annoyance of the elderly cleric who pushed his walking stick around the barrier between us and prodded me out of the confession box. I never forgot or forgave and was always conscious of the disagreeable and grumpy cleric whenever I had to serve his Mass in later years.
Parish Priests in the 1950s and earlier seemed to have been fashioned from the same block, as his successor Fr. Vincent Steen who was Parish Priest for 11 years until 1967 was to my young eyes another stern authoritarian. By the time he left for a Dublin parish on 26th January 1967 I had been out of Athy for six years and another 15 years would pass before I returned.
In the meantime Fr. John Gunning replaced Fr. Steen and after four years it was the turn of Fr. William Rogan to take over as Parish Priest. Fr. Gunning had transferred to St. Anthony’s Clontarf and references to his time in Athy describe him as a priest ‘who endeared himself to the people he served.’ Fr. Rogan remained in Athy for nine years before transferring to another parish and he was replaced as Parish Priest by Fr. Owen Sweeney who had been President of Clonliffe College. His brief five years in charge of St. Michael’s Parish was marked by an energy and a commitment to religious and social development within the parish which made Fr. Sweeney one of the most popular men to have held the position of Parish Priest in recent years.
Fr. Philip Dennehy, happily still with us, arrived in Athy as our Parish Priest in June 1985 having previously served in the town as a curate for ten years from 1963. He proved to be a dedicated and inspiring Parish Priest, who having retired from the position remains on in St. Michael’s to help out in the parish.
Monsignor John Wilson came to us in 2006 and transferred last month to the Parish of Ballymore Eustace. His replacement, Fr. Michael Murtagh, on his first Sunday introduced himself as a Mayo man, a priest for 33 years whose first Parish was on the island of Inis Meáin where he spent three years followed by a similar period in Letterfrack. Two years were next spent in Mulranny, another Parish in the Tuam dioceses before he transferred to the concrete jungle of city parishes in our capital city. One of these Parishes was Killester, not too far from the Dublin Parish where I lived for 12 years and stories of the Mayo football enthusiast and priest have circulated far beyond the boundaries of Killester.
Fr. Michael played minor football for his native county and the depth of his support for what in recent times has been the GAA’s most persistently luckless All-Ireland finalists is understandable. The green and red of Mayo have featured on a few occasions on the morning of All-Irelands at services in Killester Church, while Fr. Michael officiated. I particularly liked the story (believe me its true) where the Mayo curate happily indulged by his Kerry-born Parish Priest bedecked a baby pram in the Mayo colours on the morning of an All-Ireland final and pushed it up the aisle, parking it to the side of the altar. At an appropriate time during the sermon he called upon a parishioner to approach the pram and open a large card which held up to the congregation read ‘Expecting SAM’. Unfortunately even the prayers and support of the Killester parishioners were not sufficient to secure a Mayo victory over Meath so that on the Sunday after Mayo was defeated the pram again made its appearance, still bedecked in the Mayo colours and pushed up the aisle yet again by Fr. Michael. This time when the card was removed from the pram and held up it read, ‘miscarried’.
When I heard the story and some of the other escapades involving our new Parish Priest I laughed heartily. Fr. Michael Murtagh is as far removed from the stern authoritarian Parish Priest of the past as is possible to imagine. The clerical austerity of 50 years ago and more is hopefully about to give way to a happy and inclusive relationship between parishioners and their Parish Priest. Long may it be so.