Tuesday, December 18, 2018

St. Michael's Medieval Church

‘St. Michael’s is one of the most ancient of the many ruined churches in the parish of Athy’, so wrote a former Athy curate, Rev. James Carroll, with reference to the church in St. Michael’s cemetery in an article in the second issue of the Kildare Archaeological journal published in 1893. He claimed that the church was built in the 14th century but the Urban Archaeology Survey led by the late John Bradley in the mid-1980s noted ‘the Church of St. Michael’s was in existence by 1297’. Athy was one of many Anglo-Norman settlements in this area and by the mid-13th century had developed into a sizeable settlement as evidenced by the presence of two religious houses. The Crutched Friars, the name commonly given to the Canon Regulars of the Holy Cross, were invited to come to Athy by Richard de St. Michael, Baron of Rheban and Lord of the Manor of Woodstock. They were followed some years later by the Dominicans who chose a site for their priory on the east bank of the river Barrow. The late Dominican historian, Fr. Hugh Fleming, was unable to determine who invited the Dominicans to this part of the country. The most likely candidate he thought was either a member of the St. Michael family or Maurice Fitzgerald who was owner of Kilkea from 1244. The Crutched Friars, unlike the Dominicans, had parish responsibilities for St. Johns. The Dominicans, as was usual for that religious order, built their priory outside the village settlement. What is perhaps even stranger is that the parish church of St. Michaels was built so far away from the Anglo Norman settlement which had developed around a castle at Woodstock. The Anglo Norman settlers, like the native Irish, shared the same catholic faith and while separated by status and nationality they were also separated by language. French was the language of the settlers, Irish the language of the natives. The small church of St. Michaels was, I believe, built for use by the native Irish inhabitants of this area, while the Crutched Friars and the Dominicans, in the early years at least, catered exclusively for the French speaking settlers. Fr. Carroll, who had transferred from Athy to Baldoyle by the time his article appeared in the archaeological journal, noted that ‘the church’s west gable is nearly perfect and the small “light” above with its oaken lintel yet remains ….. some years ago a portion of the side walls disappeared, as did the eastern end and the vestry on the south.’ Unfortunately in the intervening years further damage has occurred to the ancient structure and for safety reasons it has been closed off with metal barriers for the last 3 or 4 years. I have in previous articles noted that the town’s distinctive heritage comprising historical buildings such as St. Michael’s Church, the Town Hall, Woodstock Castle and Whites Castle, to mention just a few, are key resources in promoting our town. As a community we need to take care of these resources for they give Athy with its other historical assets the town’s unique character. The elevated ground in front of St. Michael’s Church is evidence of its use for burials over many centuries. Some years ago the volunteers who comprised Athy’s cemetery committee while cleaning up St. Michael’s cemetery, attempted to recover grave slabs which over the years had disappeared underground. One grave slab recovered was that of the Daker family which records deaths which occurred from 1739 onwards. The Daker family were proprietors of the large tanyard recorded as operating in Athy in the latter half of the 18th century. The town boasted several tanyards, but Daker’s tanyard at the end of Tanyard Lane which later led to the Dominican Church (now Athy’s library), was by far the largest in the area. Unfortunately the volunteers were unable to locate the grave slab of Robert Pearson which was once recorded with the following inscription: ‘In hope of the happy resurrection here lyeth the body of Robert Pearson Esq. Captain of the 10th Regiment of Foot of Ireland who served under the brave Duke of Marlborough’. The damage to the old Church of St. Michael’s was compounded by the even more regrettable removal of what was once described as a fine old arch which was located between the church and Bothar Bui, now the Dublin Road. Its removal some time during the mid 1800s deprived us of an important medieval structure. There is an urgent need to preserve and maintain St. Michael’s Church, which every native of Athy knows as ‘The Crickeen’. Kildare County Council’s Historic Monuments Committee, in cooperation with Athy’s Cemetery’s Committee should, undertake the necessary work to protect St. Michael’s Medieval Church.

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