Our former Dominican Church has been in the news recently. Under the front page banner headline “For Whom Will The Bell Toll”, this newspaper recounted the story of Kildare County Council’s efforts to restore the church bell which the Dominican Fathers had removed some months ago. They did so in the expectation that the bell would find a home in another church and continue to be used to summon worshipers to church services. It was not to be. What one Council official described as ‘an important part of our heritage’ had to be returned to the belfry from which it was removed.
The bell was cast by M. Byrne of Fountain Head Foundry, James’s Street, Dublin and his name also appears on the rotary mountings from which the bell hung. The bell was inscribed ‘Presented to the Dominican Church, Bridgeview, Athy – Rosary Confraternity and other kind friends A.D. 1898.’ The account books of Athy’s Dominican Priory, which are held in the Dominican archives in Tallaght, indicate that the bell weighing 21cwt was brought to Athy from the foundry in Dublin by canal boat. It was blessed in July 1898 and christened by the local Dominicans as ‘Dominick’.
The Kildare Nationalist in the same issue which reported the supposed tug of war over the church bell carried an advertisement concerning Kildare County Council’s proposed conversion of St. Dominic’s Church to a public library. The public are asked to submit comments or observations on the proposed development to the County Librarian before 4p.m. on Monday 19th September. The proposed change of use will undoubtedly be welcomed locally, even if some may quibble over the Council’s failure/refusal to countenance the occasional use of the building for the holding of concerts. I believe this was the original suggestion made in the expectation that modern mobile library furniture would allow such usage, with little inconvenience or difficulty. It’s a pity the idea was not followed through as the Dominican Church has proved over the years to be a wonderful venue for the occasional concerts which were held there. Would it be possible, I wonder, for the County Council to revise its plans for the former church to allow its usage as a library as well as an occasional concert venue?
While the Dominican Church was in the course of construction the members of Athy Urban District Council at its meeting in June 1964 decided to honour the Dominican Order. Tom Carbery in proposing that the new 42 house scheme off Woodstock Street be named ‘St. Dominic’s Park’ said that it was a fitting way of showing the public’s appreciation of and gratitude for the great work of the Dominican fathers over the previous 700 years. Joe Deegan in seconding the motion said the church under construction was the wonder and admiration of people not only in different parts of Ireland but in other countries as well. M.G. Nolan and the Councils Chairman Michael Cunningham also spoke in favour of the motion as did Jim Fleming who however asked that the Council’s next housing scheme be named after the late Deputy William Norton ‘in recognition of the outstanding work he has done for the working classes.’
Reading press reports in the aftermath of the opening of the church in March 1965 I am not at all sure if we locals fully appreciated how important the church was in terms of its architectural style. Headlined as a church of the 21st century it attracted thousands of visitors in the months after its dedication. The church was designed by 39 year old French born architect Adrien Pache who incorporated a number of Continental ideas into his design. Speaking at a news conference while the church was still in the course of construction he said ‘the Church will be the first of its kind in Ireland. Nothing like it has been attempted before and the fact that it is completely different in design to all other Irish churches makes it somewhat revolutionary.’
The modern design of the Dominican Church would no doubt have found favour with James Johnson who writing from 1055 Manhattan Ave., Brooklyn following the opening of Athy’s Parish Church in 1964 claimed that the dedication of the Parish Church pointed to a regrettable and avoidable failure to join the movement towards contemporary forms in ecclesiastical architecture. He regarded the Lombardy style of St. Michael’s Church as a tragic anachronism.
Unlike the Parish Church the former Dominican Church, soon to be the town library, is truly a magnificent example of contemporary architecture. It will make a first class library, with or without the ancient church bell but imagine what a huge additional contribution it could make to the cultural and musical heritage of the town if its use for occasional concerts was also allowed.