Tuesday, July 17, 2018

The Quakers of Meeting House Lane

As a youngster growing up in Offaly Street I knew nothing of the background to the naming of Meeting Lane which was just a short distance from where I lived. It was many years later while doing some research in the Valuation Office, Dublin that I discovered it’s correct name was Meeting House Lane. In much the same way as Michael Dooley’s Terrace has over the years shortened to Dooley’s Terrace the Meeting House name has been abbreviated. The laneway which in the 18th century connected Market Square and the town’s High Street was not, as many have speculated, laid down on the line of the medieval town walls. Preston’s Gate, the last remains of the town’s medieval fortifications was located in what is now Offaly Street but in the 1800’s that part of the street was called Preston’s Gate. The gate itself was situated next to the south wall of the present Credit Union office and was demolished in 1860 following an accident which resulted in the death of the local rector Rev. Frederick Trench. The position of Preston’s Gate would indicate that Meeting House Lane followed the line of the town wall but was several metres inside the wall which extended in a half circle crossing the High Street to reach the River Barrow almost opposite the Parish Church. That lane now known locally as Meeting Lane got it’s full name Meeting House Lane from the meeting house built on a corner site in 1780 for the local Quaker community. The Society of Friends or Quakers as they are generally known had a presence in Athy very soon after that religious group was first established in the north of Ireland by William Edmundson. He established the first Irish Quaker meeting in 1654 and three years later Athy residents Thomas Weston and his wife became the first members of the Society of Friends in this area. A Quaker meeting was established in Athy by 1671 but presumably because the membership was small in numbers those meetings were held in members houses and later in rented premises. This was a position which remained for over 100 years, even though in nearby Ballytore where a Quaker settlement was established later than Athy, the Ballytore folk had their own purpose built meeting house from 1708. The Athy Quakers had to wait until 1780 for their meeting house to be built on a site donated by the Duke of Leinster at the corner of the laneway, just off the towns main street. Thomas Chandlee, a Quaker who had moved from Dublin to Athy to set up a linen drapers business in Duke Street, was the principal promotor of the Athy Quaker Meeting House. He was married to Deborah, a daughter of Richard and Elizabeth Shackleton of Ballytore and his wife was a sister of Mary Leadbetter. The new meeting house built of stone with a slated roof cost 129 pounds 5 shillings and 10 pence to build. The building which many will remember as a dispensary is now used as a youth centre. The original entrance to the meeting house was at the western gable end while the substantial iron railings which still surround the buildings are believed to have been part of the original building. A Quaker burial ground may have been located behind the meeting house but no record remains to confirm this. Strangely, having waited so long for their own purpose built meeting house the local Quaker community seemed to have disappeared from Athy in the early part of the 1800’s. The local Methodists took over the building and remained there until 1872 when a new Methodist church was opened in Woodstock Street. I believe Meeting House Lane was first so called because of the Quaker meeting house located there although it has been suggested that it may well have owed its name to the subsequent Methodist meeting house. I doubt the latter claim as Methodist religious practices are generally referred to as occurring in chapels rather than meeting houses. The last Quakers I have come across in Athy were the Hewson family who in the pre famine years had a shop in Athy. Margaret Hewson born in 1838 and Mary Hewson born in 1839 were the last Quaker children born in Athy. I leave the last word to Alexander Duncan – shopkeeper, member of Athy Town Commissioners and a leading member of the local Methodist community who in 1886 referred to Athy as still “having an odd antique of a Quaker”. I haven’t discovered who they were but the Quakers of Athy will not be forgotten as we recall their part in the naming of Meeting House Lane.

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