Tuesday, June 12, 2018

The burning of the Catholic Church in Athy on 8th March 1800

On 25th March 1800 a proclamation issued from Dublin Castle offering a reward for the apprehension of the arsonist who had set fire to the Catholic Church in Athy. ‘Whereas information upon oath has been made before us, that on the night of Friday the 7th or early on the morning of Saturday the 8th day of March inst. the Roman Catholic chapel in the parish of St. Michael, in the town of Athy, and County of Kildare was set fire to and burned by some evil minded person or persons unknown.’ The proclamation went on to offer a reward of one hundred pounds sterling to any person who within the following six months ‘discovered the person or persons concerned in setting fire to the said chapel, so that they may be apprehended and convicted.’ The thatched church, located in Chapel Lane, had served the Catholics of Athy since about 1750. About 30 years ago I discovered what I believe was the remains of the Church which was then incorporated into the extensive garage forming part of the Duthie Large business premises. The building has since been demolished and the church site now forms part of the car park at the rear of Maddens Pharmacy. Shortly after the publication of the Dublin Castle Proclamation Timothy Sullivan, a soldier attached to the South Militia, informed his militia officers, Major Hennis and Captain Langston of an alleged conspiracy which subsequently formed the basis of a deposition he swore before a local magistrate. In that deposition dated 9th April 1800 Sullivan stated he was on guard duty at a gate next to Mrs. Dowley’s house on the night the chapel was burned. He was later approached by James Noud to swear information against John McKeon, a soldier of the South Cork Regiment and two yeomen, John Drill and John Willock claiming that they had set fire to the chapel. He further claimed that Fr. Patrick Kelly and Thomas Fitzpatrick of Geraldine also approached him offering money to swear information against the earlier mentioned soldiers. Fr. Kelly was the same man who in May 1798 accompanied the seven young men who having been imprisoned in Whites Castle jail were taken from there to be hanged in what was later called ‘Croppy’s Acre’ near the Grand Canal. The men were marched over Crom a Boo bridge accompanied by members of the Waterford Militia and as they did so they were required to pass under a triumphal arch erected on the bridge by Athy Loyalists. Patrick O’Kelly in his account of the events of that time described how Fr. Kelly tore down an orange flag which was on the arch but there was no reaction from the militia members whose rank and file members were Catholics. The information sworn two years later by Timothy Sullivan implicated not only Fr. Kelly but also a number of other local men whom it was alleged were ‘actively employed in engaging large numbers to be prepared for a public rising on 27th April, when they expected French assistance.’ Following these allegations local men Patrick Dooley, Joseph Hendrecon and James Noud were arrested and lodged in the Whites Castle jail. On 2nd May an informer swore information implicating more local men in the planning of an uprising. Those named included Terence O’Toole of Fontstown, Cornelius Moore of Gurteen and Thomas Fitzgerald of Geraldine. What eventually happened to the prisoners and those subsequently named is not known. Thomas Fitzgerald later accused Drill, Willock and McKeon of burning the Catholic Church. Drill and Willock were arrested on foot of Fitzgerald’s accusations but were subsequently released when Fitzgerald did not press his claim. Both men then sued Fitzgerald for defamation, the outcome of which is not known. The priest in charge of St. Michaels during this time was Fr. Maurice Keegan who has the distinction of being the longest serving Parish Priest of the parish. He served as the Parish Priest from 1789 to 1825 having earlier served as curate in St. Michaels for 7 years from 1780. Fr. Keegan who was made a Canon in 1821 lodged a compensation claim with Dublin Castle authorities for the loss of the Church. The sum of £300 was awarded but eight years were to pass before the new Church was built on a site donated by the Duke of Leinster. That new Church was built using not only the compensation of £300 but also an additional £1,700 collected locally. Canon Maurice Keegan, who died on 6th October 1825, availed of a neighbouring malt house owned by Mrs. P. Dowley to celebrate Mass until that building was also torched. Thereafter no other suitable building could be obtained in Athy to serve as a church other than a hay barn which served the needs of the local Catholics for a short while. Later a Catholic army officer stationed in the local cavalry barracks arranged for a canopy to be erected on the site of the Town Hall and under that canopy a temporary altar was provided each Sunday. Open air Mass continued to be celebrated there each Sunday until the new Church was opened in 1808.

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