The announcement of the intended departure of the Dominicans from Athy fills me with sadness. Although a ‘Parish man’ I am conscious and highly appreciative of what the Dominican Order means to the South Kildare town which has been my home town since 1945. The Dominicans are an intrinsic part of the fabric of Athy, the town where successive generations of Dominican Friars have ministered since 1257.
Fr. Ambrose Coleman in his work ‘The Ancient Dominican Foundations of Ireland’ published in 1902, as an appendix to O’Heynes’ earlier work on the Dominicans, noted that the Athy Abbey (as he described it) was founded in 1257 and that provincial chapters were held here in 1288, 1295 and 1305. He related how in 1315 following the battle of Ardscull several of the Scottish Chiefs were buried in the Dominican Abbey.
The dissolution of the Abbey in 1539 lead to the departure from the area of the Prior, Robert Woulff and his small community of friars. The Dominicans never abandoned hope of returning to Athy and early in the 17th century when their provincial Ross Mac Geoghegan set about reviving the Dominican Order in Ireland, Athy was once again chosen as the location of a Dominican Abbey or Friary.
Athy featured prominently during the Confederate Wars of the 1640s which ended with the arrival of Cromwell in 1649. The Dominican Abbey was attacked and damaged by anti-Confederate troops lead by Preston, while a later attack, this time by Confederate troops resulted in the destruction of the Abbey. Cromwell, following the siege of Drogheda, executed amongst many others Fr. Richard Ovington who was then the sub-Prior of Athy. Rev. Thomas Bermingham who was Prior of Athy during the Confederate Wars was also captured by Cromwell’s troops and imprisoned in Dublin before being exiled to the Continent where he died in 1655. Local tradition relates that the Dominicans from Athy sheltered in Derryvullagh Bog, known locally as the Derries, in the aftermath of the Cromwellian invasion. The Dominicans faced persecution during the remainder of the 17th century and Fr. Redmond Moore, another Prior of the Athy Abbey, was imprisoned in Dublin in 1666 where he died three years later.
When James II, the Catholic King, came to the throne in 1685 the Dominican Friars returned to Athy. However, following the Battle of the Boyne and the enactment of laws compelling the Friars to leave Ireland the local Abbey was again abandoned. Another 35 years or so were to pass before the Dominicans were to return to Athy. In 1754 the Dominicans built or acquired a house in a laneway off Bothar Bui on the east side of Athy which was to serve as the Dominican Friary for almost 100 years. That laneway, now known as Kirwan’s Lane, was known as Convent Lane following the opening of the Dominican Friary. It is believed that Fr. Thomas Cummins was the first Prior following the return of the Dominicans in 1754. He died in 1788 aged 88 years and is buried in St. Michael’s Cemetery.
Fr. John Kenealy, the Prior during the Famine years, purchased a large house on the west bank of the River Barrow from Mr. Laphen in 1846. A year later the Dominicans moved into Riversdale House having refurbished adjoining out offices as a chapel. Relationships between the Dominicans and the local Parish Priest were not always the best as evidenced by events in 1853. The then Parish Priest, Monsignor Quinn, withdrew the two annual collections which for many years had been taken up in the Parish Church for the Dominican Fathers. Monsignor Quinn, whose two brothers were Bishops in Australia, was moved to withdraw permission for the collections because he claimed a third Dominican priest had been stationed in Athy without his knowledge and consent.
The subsequent history of the Athy Dominicans has been documented by others including Fr. Raymond Dowdall who over several years wrote and compiled memoirs of Irish Dominicans who died between 1930 and 1980. We in Athy have been privileged to have the Dominicans working amongst us over the past 750 years. Since 1754 the Dominicans have maintained a continuous presence in Athy but now sadly as the crisis in vocations deepens they will leave us for the last time.
The Dominicans and the people of Athy have a shared history which has brought both through religious persecutions, war, rebellion and famine. We must now face into a future without the friar preachers who are our links with the founding of the early settlement on the banks of the River Barrow. The departure of the Dominicans will be our loss, bringing to an end an association which has enriched a local community as the riverside settlement grew from village to town over the centuries.