Tuesday, February 9, 2021

Fundraising for new Convent of Mercy in the 1840s

The Museum Standards Programme for Ireland was established by the Heritage Council some years ago to promote professional standards in the care of collections in Irish museums and galleries. Last week this national organisation announced the names of museums throughout Ireland which had achieved full or partial accreditation, and in the case of four museums, which had maintained their full museum accreditation first achieved some years ago. Amongst these four museums was Athy Shackleton Museum, which shared equal billing with Fota House Museum, Cork; the Hunt Museum, Limerick; and the Medieval Museum in Waterford. Our local museum’s achievement is enormous given the rank and status of the other three museums and the financial resources available to each of them. In terms of available finance, the Shackleton Museum cannot compete with Fota House, the Hunt Museum or the Medieval Museum. However, in terms of the commitment and dedication exhibited by the museum’s staff, volunteers and Board of Directors, the wealth of the Athy museum cannot be overstated. The museum’s manager is Margaret Walshe, assisted by Sinead Cullen and museum volunteer Clem Roche, who have done a wonderful job of helping visitors to enjoy the Shackleton Museum. The museum, which started in a small way in 1983, has helped to create a sense of place for Athy folk and has given us a greater understanding and appreciation of our town’s past. Well done to Margaret Walshe and her team for maintaining such high standards to have merited full museum accreditation for Athy Shackleton Museum. If the museum is an important part of our town’s cultural heritage, so too are the buildings and monuments - some old, many more recent - which form a backdrop to Athy’s townscape. One such monument was removed during the replacement of the 150-year-old Catholic church of St Michael’s in the last months of 1960. The fine Celtic cross which had stood for almost ninety years in front of the main entrance to St Michael’s church was erected in 1873. It was the gift of the people of Athy and neighbourhood in honour of Fr Thomas Greene, a former curate in the parish of St. Michael’s. Fr Greene arrived in Athy on 12 May 1843, just nine days afar his ordination in Maynooth. He would spent the next eighteen years of his priesthood serving the people of Athy before moving in 1862 to become parish priest of Skerries. It was in Skerries that he died in 1871, aged fifty-two years. I have in the past credited Fr Greene as the leader in the movement which led to the arrival of the Sisters of Mercy to open a school in Athy in 1852. From Fr Greene’s own account, as included in the Convent of Mercy annals, the idea of opening a convent in Athy originated with a Miss Goold of Leinster Street. This was some time prior to the Great Famine, and Miss Goold was supported by a Mrs Fitzgerald and her daughter Ann of Geraldine Lodge. Clerical support was afforded by Rev Patrick Byrne, who I understand was a curate in Athy, but unfortunately I have been unable to positively identify him. Fr Byrne’s sudden death, followed soon thereafter by the death of Ann Fitzgerald, interrupted Miss Goold’s plans. However, in her will Ann Fitzgerald left the sum of £100 for the founding of a convent in Athy, in addition to which her father, Colonel Fitzgerald offered £50, as did her sister Elizabeth Fitzgerald. Patrick Maher of Kilrush, who would prove to be the most generous benefactor of the Sisters of Mercy in Athy also pledged a sum of £50. As a result, the local people met in the parish church in the spring of 1843, following which it was agreed to take up weekly collections in the town to finance the building of a convent for the Sisters of Mercy. The general management of what was called ‘the convent collection’ was entrusted to Fr John Gaffney just a few months before he left Athy to join the Jesuit order. With Fr Greene’s arrival in the parish, responsibility for managing the convent collection fell to him. The weekly collection continued during the first two years of the Great Famine but was stopped as the worst effects of Black 47 began to be felt. Collecting resumed in 1848, but the hardships suffered by the local people during the Great Famine were such that Fr Greene and his fellow curate Fr John Harold were obliged to take up collections every Saturday in Leinster Street and Duke Street. The local fundraising proved insufficient, and eventually Archbishop Cullen and the Superioress of the Mercy Convent in Baggot Street, Dublin were obliged to provide funds to allow the convent building to be completed. Fr Greene’s involvement in St Michael’s parish during his eighteen years as a curate was clearing cherished by the local parishioners, for when he died in 1871 the people of Athy and neighbourhood collected funds to erect a Celtic cross in his memory. He was the only curate, or indeed parish priest, of St Michael’s who was honoured in this way. The cross was erected in 1873 and two further priests of the parish were subsequently honoured by having their names inscribed on the base of the Celtic cross. The first was Fr James Doyle, who served as a curate in Athy between 1862 and 1879, and as the parish priest for the following thirteen years. He died aged fifty-eight years in 1892. He was replaced as parish priest by Fr James Germaine, later Canon and Archdeacon, who served as parish priest of St Michael’s for thirteen years, dying in 1905. His name was also inscribed on the base of the Celtic cross. The cross was removed in 1960 and brought to a quarry in Co. Wicklow, where it has been stored ever since. I understand plans are afoot to have the damaged Celtic cross repaired and restored in a prominent position in front of St Michael’s parish church. Its restoration will be a fitting reminder of the huge contribution made not only by Fr Thomas Greene, but by all the other priests who have served in the parish of St Michael’s over the years.

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