In 1813 a consortium of London book dealers published in two volumes Rev. James Hall’s account of his tour through Ireland which was titled ‘Tour Through Ireland Particularly the Interior and Least Known Parts’. Not satisfied that this conveyed a sufficiently accurate description of what lay between the book covers the title continued ‘Containing an accurate view of the parties, politics and improvements in the different Provinces with reflections and observations on the union of Britain and Ireland, the practicability and advantage of a telegraphic communication between the two countries and other matters of importance’.
The author, Rev. James Hall, according to the ‘Biographical Dictionary of Living Authors of Great Britain and Ireland’ published in 1816 was a native of the county of Clackmannin, Scotland. Educated at the University of St. Andrews he was the sometime assistant at Simpsons Academy in Chelsea and had previously written of his travels in Scotland which was published in 1807.
The 1813 Irish tour publication is of interest, dealing as it did with the ‘least known parts’ or more accurately the ‘least visited parts’ of the Irish countryside. For that reason Athy, which rarely figured in visitors accounts of their travels in 19th century Ireland was included in Hall’s itinerary and his account of Athy at that time is extremely important. He travelled from Monasterevin to Athy by canal boat, less than 20 years after the Grand Canal system had been extended to the South Kildare town. The boat trip prompted some critical remarks regarding the dishonesty of the Irish whom he regarded as a ‘rude people’.
‘It is a proverb in Ireland, “better steal and be hung, than die for want”; but too many have a propensity to steal, though not in want. As a boat, on the canal between Monastereven and Athy, was lying all night in Cluny-bog lately, a bale of goods, worth fifty pounds, was stolen out of it. The boatmen were taken up on suspicion; and these careful protectors of public property, were, I understand, found guilty.
Having arrived at Athy, which is on the river Barrow, about half way between Monastereven and Carlow, 32 miles from Dublin, I went to see the Roman-Catholic Chapel. Near the door on the right hand as you enter, there is written in large capital letters, “Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden; and I will give you rest:” and on the other, “Blessed is he that heareth, and watcheth at the posts of Wisdom’s gates.” When I went in, I found numbers, both men and women, laying flat on their faces, on the floor, repeating certain prayers; and, now and then, with fervent ejaculations, turning up their eyes. I observed one man walk, on his bare knees, from the door up to the altar, though the floor was extremely rough, the chapel being new, and not quite finished. When I mentioned the severity of this punishment, and his bloody knees, to the mistress of the inn (a fine jolly-looking woman, and the mother of seven children, though not about twenty-four years of age), she smiled, as did her husband; and told me that she had often done so herself; but that her knees generally ached some weeks after, till the skin began to grow on again. She mentioned that, on certain occasion, she and several others were obliged to walk six different times, twice every day, on their bare knees around the outside of the chapel; that their chapel, with ease, contains twelve hundred people; that it cost them above 1500l.’ That she never had had a foot in a Protestant church in her life, and trusted in God never would.
People, as a punishment of their sins, are often ordered by the priest to walk six different days, three times a day, round the inside of the chapel on their knees; or round some well; or to go on a pilgrimage, sometimes twenty miles, falling down now and then on their knees on the road, and repeating certain prayers.
Most of the Roman Catholic chapels in Ireland, like the churches in Russia, have neither seats nor pews of any kind. Like the Russians too, on festival days, the clergy are adorned with rich vestments, somewhat resembling those of the Jewish priests, described in the Old Testament. The people know very little of the Bible; nor, notwithstanding the number of schools lately erected, are proper measures taken for the instruction of young people among the vulgar, in the principles of religion.
Learning, in this part of the country, is at a low ebb. Scarcely any of the common people can read. Nor are the schools the Catholics have lately set up, likely to do much good. So bad is the accommodation in these, that the scholars generally have no seats; but sit on stones, and write with the paper on the knee. Though they try to make it appear otherwise, some of the priests discourage learning, and argue that when people are wretchedly poor, learning but serves to make them more unhappy.
The church at Athy is but small, and very ill attended. Indeed, as I afterwards found, the established clergy in this, as well as many other parts of the country, get their money for doing little better than nothing.
There is a coal-work at Athy; and, in the river, they catch a good many salmon. Much to his credit, the Duke of Leinster, lord-paramount of all the lands in the vicinity, admits of no middle-men; but sends an agent, or receiver, yearly for the rent. Land lets here generally at about five pounds per acre. But some of the old leases not being out, the tenants are laying their account at the end of these to pay, at least, twenty times their present rent:
When viewing the lock, on the canal at Athy, the lock-keeper, though he never saw me before, asked me to his house; and, being about to sit down to dinner, which consisted of butter, eggs, potatoes, and milk, begged me to partake with him; which I did: nor would he permit his children to take any thing at parting. The hospitality of the Irish is astonishing, as I afterwards found in almost every part of Ireland. So are most rude nations, a very few excepted.
In some professions, the wages in Ireland do not differ widely from those in England. Boatmen on the canals in England do not, in general, receive above twenty shillings a week, and to find their own victuals. The boatmen on the canal which passes Athy, have generally thirteen-pence a day, and victuals; or a like sum, in addition, in lieu of victuals; which they generally prefer, their usual food being scarcely any thing but potatoes and milk.
The photograph shows the Church where the penitential exercises referred to by Rev. Hall were observed by him on his visit. Built to replace the Church in Chapel Lane which was the subject of an arson attack in 1800, it served as the Parish Church until demolished in 1960. The final Mass in the Church was celebrated by Rev. Laurence Redmond C.C. at 9.00 a.m. on 24th September 1960.