The forthcoming celebration of the 50th anniversary of the opening of St. Michael’s Parish Church by Dr. John Charles McQuaid on Sunday, 19th April 1964 prompted me to look back over some elements of our Parish Church history.
Was the ‘crickeen’ in Old St. Michael’s Cemetery the first Parish Church for the parish of St. Michael’s? There is no agreement on the age of that small deserted church. Some claim it is of the 14th century, which makes it perhaps somewhat late for the first parish church in this area. Significantly it was built well outside the walls of medieval Athy and prompts the question as to whether it indicated a native Irish settlement at a time when the Irish were not welcome to live within the Anglo Norman village of Athy.
The Reformation brought with it enormous changes in religious practices for the native Irish. The Dominicans who were forced to leave Athy during the Reformation returned to the village in or around 1630. They had been absent for almost 90 years, but within six or seven decades of returning to Athy they were obliged to leave again.
The year 1696 witnessed the passing of an Act banishing ‘all papists exercising any ecclesiastical jurisdiction and all Regulars of the Popish clergy out of the kingdom.’ They were required to leave the country by 1st May 1698. Following the passing of the Act the government authorities compiled a list of the ‘Popish Parish Priests throughout the several counties of the Kingdom of Ireland’. In that list we find the first mention of a Parish Priest for the parish of St. Michael’s of Athy. He was Fr. John Fitzsimons who had been ordained by Archbishop (now Saint) Oliver Plunkett in 1673 when he was just 23 years of age. 24 years later he was recorded as the Parish Priest of Athy and in 1704 as Parish Priest not only of St. Michael’s but also of St. John’s, Churchtown, Kilberry and Nicholastown.
The early part of the 18th century witnessed the worst excesses of the penal laws and the anti-Catholic measures were strictly enforced against the Catholics of Athy. For a number of years they had no regular religious services, and not until the 1750’s did they have their own place of worship. In 1743 the Dominicans returned to Athy. By that time religious intolerance was on the wane but even so, in a letter from Athy dated 6th March 1743, J. Jackson reported to Dublin Castle:-
“I cannot find there is or has been any popish priests
or regular clergy in this corporation. The priest lives
in the Queen’s county about 2 miles from the town.”
The priest referred to was Daniel Fitzpatrick, Parish Priest of Athy for 46 years until his death in 1758 at the age of 80 years.
With the relaxation of the penal laws towards the middle of the 18th century, the Catholics of Athy felt secure enough to begin once again to practice their religion in a public, if somewhat cautious manner. The former parish Church of St. Michael’s had been appropiated during the Reformation and it was not until about 1750 that a Catholic Church was built in the town. With the relaxation of the penal laws a modest Church was built in a side lane leading off High Street (now Leinster Street) which is known today as Chapel Lane. The simple thatched structure, built without a steeple or a bell tower, served as the Parish Church until it was destroyed by fire on the night of 7th March 1800. The then Parish Priest, Fr. Maurice Keegan, filed a claim for compensation with the Dublin Castle authorities and in due course he received £300.00 compensation.
Following the burning of the Church in Chapel Lane a large malt house near the Canal owned by a Mrs. Dowley was used as a temporary Church. However it too was destroyed by fire and the local people had to use a local hay barn to hear Mass before a Catholic Officer in the local cavalry barracks at Woodstock made alternative arrangements. He arranged for a canopy to be erected at the side of the Town Hall and under it a temporary altar was provided every Sunday for mass to be said.
Clonmullin Commons, or more particularly a portion of the commonage near to the River Barrow known as the ‘Slough of Athy’, was allowed to the Parish Priest as a site on which to build a new church. The Duke of Leinster was named as the Grantor in the Lease dated 17 February 1803 which granted the site to Thomas Fitzgerald of Geraldine Lodge, Thomas Dunn of Leinster Lodge and Michael Cahill of Athy as trustees on behalf of the Parish of St. Michaels. Construction work began some time thereafter and the sum of £2,000 was expended on building the church, £300 of which represented the government compensation paid for the loss of the previous church in Chapel Lane. The new Church is believed to have been completed in 1808. It was built in traditional cruciform style and had three galleries, one on either side of the transepts with the largest gallery over the entrance to the nave. Those of us old enough to remember the Church which were demolished in 1960 will recall the silver collection at the door to that gallery while a copper donation was sufficient for those entering through any of the other doors of the church.
This was the church demolished in 1960 to allow the construction of the present day St. Michael’s Church.