Preparing to conduct a tour through some parts of the history of Athy for Heritage Week I re-read some of the notes I wrote over the years to remind myself of people and events which have long gone from memory. When reading those notes I was reminded of the impact that the Oxford Movement of the 1830s had on the Established Church in Ireland. Here in Athy the local rector was Rev. Frederick Trench, whose wife was Lady Helena Perceval, daughter of the first Lord Arden, an older brother of Spencer Perceval, the British Prime Minister who was assassinated in the lobby of the House of Commons in 1812.
The Trench’s lived in Kilmoroney House from 1834. Rev. Frederick was described in H. Montgomery’s biography of George Alfred Lefroy, Bishop of Calcutta, as one of the old fashioned evangelical clergy deeply versed in bible and prayer book. A frequent visitor to Kilmoroney House was Sir William Heathcote who was married to Lady Caroline Perceval, sister of Helena Trench. Sir William was a friend and a patron of clergyman and poet John Keble, one of the leaders of the Oxford Movement and through him Rev. Trench met John Keble and later Edward Pusey, the clergyman and Oxford professor who with John Henry Newman, later a cardinal of the Catholic church, were the acknowledged leaders of that high church movement. Rev. Trench’s high church practices as a supporter of the Oxford Movement was not to the liking of at least one of his parishioners. Michael Carey wrote in October 1851: ‘The Rev. Trench has taken down all the emblems from his popish window and made an apology to his congregation ….. he stated to the congregation that he had not the slightest notion of Puseyism or popery’.
Rev. Trench died tragically in 1860 after his carriage careered down Offaly Street, struck the medieval gate known as Preston’s Gate, turned over and tossed both himself and his driver to the ground. The rector died of his injuries on 23rd November aged 74 years. The medieval gate which had been the scene of many previous accidents was immediately removed by the Town Commissioners workmen. Rev. Trench’s parishioners subsequently donated a fine marble pulpit in memory of their rector which is to be found in St. Michael’s Church of Ireland at the top of Offaly Street.
Crom a Boo bridge, built in 1796, provides with nearby Whites Castle the iconic image of our town which is recognised far and wide. Over its arched pathways passed the prisoners who in 1798 were hanged in the ‘croppy acre’ alongside the Grand Canal basin. It was in June 1798 that seven young local men were tried by Court martial, convicted and hanged for alleged involvement in the killing of John Jeffries of Narraghmore. Jeffries who with his family had fled to Athy for safety later returned to his burnt-out home in Narraghmore to retrieve some personal belongings. While there he was killed. The seven young men convicted of his murder were marched from the prison cells in Whites Castle over Crom a Boo bridge, accompanied by members of the Waterford Militia. We are told in Patrick O’Kelly’s account of the 1798 Rebellion that two of the seven were beheaded and their heads placed on Whites Castle as a deterrent to would be insurgents. As you pass Whites Castle look at the Geraldine family coat of arms embedded in the Castle wall which in 1798 was deliberately damaged by a yeoman in revenge for Lord Edward Fitzgerald’s participation in the Rising.
St. Michael’s Catholic Church, consecrated in 1964, replaced an earlier church built in 1808. The site for that church described as ‘marshy ground’ was donated by the Duke of Leinster. It replaced an earlier thatched church located in Chapel Lane which was torched and burned to the ground on 7th March 1800 in the aftermath of the 1798 Rebellion.
Rev. James Hall, an English cleric who travelled through what he described as the ‘interior and least known parts’ of Ireland published his book of travels in 1813. He visited the Roman Catholic Church in Athy where near the door on the right hand as he entered there was written in large capitals, ‘COME UNTO ME, ALL YE THAT LABOUR AND ARE HEAVILY LADEN, AND I WILL GIVE YOU REST’. On the other ‘BLESSED IS HE THAT HEARETH, AND WATCHETH AT THE POST OF WISDOM’S GATES’. When he entered the church he found both men and women lying 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.’ Rev. Hall noted that Roman Catholic chapels in Ireland ‘like the churches in Russia have neither seats nor pews of any kind’.