St. Michael’s Parish Athy has had 20 parish priests since 1670, including several clerics who have been Archdeacons, Canons or Monsignors. Church records indicate that Fr. John Fitzsimons was the local Parish Priest in 1670 at the height of the Penal Laws. It was around the same time that a local Dominican Friar, Fr. Joseph Carroll, was imprisoned in Dublin. The accession of the Catholic James II to the English throne in 1685 brought a brief respite for the Irish Catholics but following his defeat at the Battle of the Boyne the Penal Laws were again strictly enforced. The Dominicans who had returned to Athy in 1630 after an enforced absence of almost 90 years were again forced to flee.
Fr. Fitzsimons’s successor as Parish Priest was Fr. Daniel Fitzpatrick who ministered to his parishioners in Athy for 46 years from 1712. During that time he lived outside the town and said Mass whenever and wherever he could. The Dominicans returned to Athy around 1743 at a time when religious intolerance was on the wane. That same year John Jackson, a member of Athy Borough Council, informed Dublin Castle ‘I cannot find there is or has been any popish priests or regular clergy in this corporation. The priest lives in the Queens County about two miles from the town.’ The priest in question was Fr. Daniel Fitzpatrick, who in 1758 was succeeded by Canon James Nell.
Interestingly the last entry in the Parish Baptismal records for 1758 was made on 24th January of that year and was followed by a note explaining that the absence of records for the succeeding 10 months ‘was occasioned by the prosecution against the Rev. Mr. Callaghan.’ What was the nature of this prosecution I can’t say but it may well have been related to the Penal legislation then in place.
Canon James Nell, following his appointment of Parish Priest of St. Michaels, remained in that position for 31 years. His name appears in the list of those who at the Assizes in Athy on 16th February 1793 took an oath denying the Pope’s temporal powers and subscribed to the Oath of Abjuration. This was a requirement under a series of legislative enactments which reduced the penal restrictions on Dissenters and Catholics alike. One such concession allowed priests, then resident in the country, to perform their clerical duties provided those duties were not carried out within a church with a steeple or a bell.
Canon Maurice Keegan, appointed P.P. in 1789, had as his Parish Church a small thatched building located in Chapel Lane, just off the High Street, now Leinster Street. This is believed to have been erected in the middle of the 18th century as the Penal Laws were relaxed. It was to fall victim to an arson attack on the night of the 7th of March 1800. By all accounts it appears to have been a deliberate act of reprisal linked to ’98 rebellion activities in this area. A malicious damage claim lodged by the Parish Priest resulted in the payment of £300 from government funds and this with €1,700 collected in the town financed the building of St. Michael’s Parish Church which was built in 1808 on marshy grounds between Clonmullin Commons and the River Barrow.
Patrick Kelly, originally from Kilcoo, wrote a history of the ’98 Rebellion which was published in 1842 and the book contained a letter from Rev. John Lalor (sic) P.P. Athy dated 16th September 1841 which was authenticated by the Parish Priest of Westland Row Dublin. This was the same Fr. John Lawler who was elected a Town Commissioner in 1842 following the abolition of Athy Borough Corporation the previous year. The 21 elected Commissioners included not only the Parish Priest but also the Church of Ireland Rector, Rev. Frederick Trench.
John Lawler was succeeded in 1853 by Andrew Quinn, the eldest of three brothers from Rathbane near the village of Kilteel, about six miles from Naas. All of them were ordained priests for the Dublin Dioceses and the two younger brothers later became Bishops in Australia. Andrew Quinn was one of the first students of the Irish College in Rome at a time when Ballitore-born Paul Cullen was Rector of that College. Quinn was ordained in 1842. Cullen would later be the Archbishop of Dublin and Ireland’s first Cardinal at a time when his former pupil was Parish Priest of St. Michael’s Athy. Six years after Andrew Quinn became Parish Priest of Athy his brother Matthew was consecrated Bishop of Brisbane, Australia. In 1865 the other brother Matthew Quinn was appointed as the first Bishop of Bathurst, Australia.
Bishop James Quinn was to the forefront in establishing Catholic schools run by religious orders in his Brisbane Dioceses and soon after his arrival in Brisbane in March 1861 he contacted his brother Fr. Andrew in Athy for help. The Parish Priest approached Mother Mary Teresa Maher, Superior of the local Convent of Mercy and the Sisters of Mercy agreed to open a novitiate to receive and train postulants for the Brisbane Dioceses. The first young girl to join the newly opened novitiate was Catherine Flanagan and others soon entered the Athy Convent to train for the Australian Mission. The last of the postulants to enter the Athy Convent for the Brisbane Mission left Ireland on 24th February 1868 following which the Athy novitiate closed. Bishop James Quinn had an uneasy relationship with the Sisters of Mercy in Australia and history has not been kind to the County Kildare born Bishop who it is claimed exercised his Episcopal authority on monarchical lines. His older brother Andrew seemed to have had his own problems in St. Michaels as evidenced by his announcement in 1867 that the biannual collections for the Christian Brothers Schools in the town could no longer be taken up in the parish. ‘After five years of sad experiences I find myself unable to meet the necessary expenses.’ Fourteen years earlier he had withdrawn, amidst great controversy, similar collections for the local Dominican community.
Fr. Andrew Quinn left Athy in 1879 to become Parish Priest of Kingstown, as Dun Laoghaire was then called, and he was replaced by Fr. James Doyle who had been a curate in Athy for many years. He died in 1892 after a long illness, the local press reporting ‘though stern and reserved in appearance he was beloved by the poor who always called him Fr. James.’
Canon, later Archdeacon Germaine, was the next Parish Priest and the Golden Jubilee of his ordination was marked on 16th April 1904 with the blessing of a marble pulpit which is still in use in the new St. Michael’s Church. He died the following year and in his place arrived Canon Joseph Keeffe who before he transferred to Rathfarnham in 1909 improved and beautified the Parish Church.
Canon Edward Mackey was the next Parish Priest and he would preside over St. Michael’s Parish for the following 19 years. During the First World War he joined local business and civic leaders on recruiting platforms in Emily Square to urge the men of Athy and district to enlist. When he died on 21st March 1928 the annalist for the local Sisters of Mercy Convent noted ‘Canon Mackey was a man of noble ideals and sound common sense and an eminent theologian. Though adults might find his manner somewhat repelling, little children loved him. While he laid dying, during the whole of the night, the Parochial house was surrounded by sorrowing parishioners reciting Rosaries.’
......TO BE CONTINUED NEXT WEEK......