Evening dusk was fast falling as the procession lead by a colour party of retired soldiers preceded by a local pipe band started out from Tanyard Lane. The dark cloaked members of the Order of Preachers followed behind their colleague bearing a crucifix and flanked by lantern bearers. In keeping with the Dominican tradition Christ’s image faced the members of the Order as they walked in procession. They were walking away from a history accumulated over 758 years, a history marked by persecution, expulsion, imprisonment, torture, death and in latter years by peaceful adherence to a ministry of fellowship.
The evening shadows darkened as the Friars, walking three abreast, turned into High Street and approached the bridge across the River Barrow. That same bridge in darker days witnessed six young local men escorted by militia men as they marched to their place of execution in the Canal docks. It was then a time of political turmoil, even as the religious restrictions imposed on the Dominican friars and their fellow Catholics had begun to relax. It would take another 31 years before the passing of the Catholic Emancipation Act. Only then would the Athy Friars consider it prudent to move from their small priory in Convent Lane on the Dublin side of the town to a larger building which could accommodate a modest chapel in which the local people worshipped.
Pipers’ music filled the air as the procession reached the Market Square, passing by the town’s Shambles where for centuries meat was exposed for sale. Turning into Kildare Street the Friars steady march brought them near to the Clonmullin marshlands. There in pre-emancipation days a large church was built with the benefit of State compensation paid for a maliciously burnt church of smaller proportions which had been hidden away in one of the town’s laneways.
The arrival at St. Michael’s Church was the beginning of the final act in the assimilation of the ‘Dominican Catholics’ of Athy as ‘Parish Catholics’. The difference was one of allegiance, one of custom and tradition perhaps and one evolved over the years as the Friars and the Diocesan clergy kept their separate places of worship.
Seven hundred and fifty eight years of history was about to be absorbed as we participated in a service of welcome and thanksgiving for the Dominicans of Athy. Earlier in the acoustically splendid St. Dominic’s Church we were encouraged while looking forward to remember those good friars who ministered to us and our predecessors. Their names were not always recorded and living memory extending back two or three generations at most brings to mind only some of those fine men whose ministry overseas and laterally in Athy brought comfort and peace to so many.
One part of the life of Athy died that Sunday afternoon as the Dominican friars took leave of their priory and for the last time closed the doors of the Dominican Church. Four hundred and seventy five years ago the friars left Athy for the first time as King Henry VIII suppressed the local priory. Then Prior Robert Woulff withdrew his small community of friars without ceremony. The Dominicans would later return to Athy, even if a second withdrawal was necessary before they could return in peace and without harassment in the mid 18th century. For the next 265 years the Dominican Friars of Athy continued their ministry amongst the people of Athy which their predecessors had first started as French speaking friars amongst the Anglo Norman settlers of the 13th century. Their Athy ministry is now finished and as the last prior of Athy, Fr. John Walsh, lead his fellow friars augmented by Dominican friars from other Dominican houses in Ireland in procession through the streets of our town the people of Athy came out in their hundreds to show their gratitude.
The entire occasion was full of emotion and the sight of the friars walking away from their church which was closed for the last time was a particularly telling moment. The hundreds who attended the ceremonies included members of our separated church brethren which was wonderful to see. Many Dominican Mass servers of old were to be seen in the congregation and I was particularly delighted to see that the three sons of my old teacher Bill Ryan had travelled from Cork, Limerick and Maynooth to participate in last Sunday’s farewell.
The Dominicans have left us a huge legacy of which they can be justifiably proud. They have also left us a history which we should never ever forget. They were part of our community life for centuries and indeed they were our most enduring link with a history stretching back to within a few decades of the foundation of Athy as a settlement.
The loss of the Dominicans to Athy will be measured as the years gather pace but even now we know that the departure of the Friars Preachers from the town founded on the Ford of Ae has left a void in all our lives.
PS: I have given the street names as they were when the Dominicans returned to Athy in the early part of the 18th century.