Friday, April 29, 1994

Dominican Church

St. Dominic's Church, nestling on the western bank of the River Barrow almost within a stones throw of St. Michael's Church of Ireland, encompasses within its modernistic architectural features a history stretching back over 700 years.

Since the foundation of the original Dominican Monastery in 1253 by French speaking members of the Black Friars, the Dominicans have retained a presence amongst the people of Athy and district. This has been achieved despite a few enforced flights from the area during the time of the Penal Laws.

Occupying at different times a site on the East Bank of the Barrow near to the present Emily Square and a site on the then Convent Lane, now Kirwan’s Lane, the Dominicans are our most important link with the early years of the medieval village of Athy.

The history of the Dominicans in Athy mirrors the social, cultural and ecclesiastical history of the early village and subsequent town. The vicissitudes and hardships visited upon the Dominican Friars were the result of either the extreme poverty of the people they served or alternatively the result of punitive measures imposed nationally and executed locally by men whose religious allegiances differed from those of the Black Friars.

The suppression of the Monastery in 1539 secured the first breach in the Dominicans link with Athy. Not until 1603 did the Dominicans return to the market town on the River Barrow where it is believed they re-occupied their former Monastery. The Confederate wars of 1641-49 saw General Preston directing his canon against the Monastery levelling a substantial portion of the buildings before taking possession of what remained. The Prior, Thomas Bermingham and his colleagues however escaped capture.

The Cromwellian era of Thomas Cromwell followed and with it Athy's designation as one of fourteen Revenue Precincts in Ireland, each controlled by a Military Governor. This was to usher in a time of change and prosperity for the town as overseas settlers came to occupy local lands forfeited to the Crown.

It is from this period of conflict that Athy Dominicans gave two of its members to Ireland's martyrology. Fr. Raymond Moore, Prior of Athy at two different periods in the 17th century, was arrested and imprisoned in Dublin where he died in 1665. Earlier in 1649 the sub-Prior of Athy, Fr. Richard Overton, was seized and murdered by Cromwell's soldiers in Drogheda. The difficulties facing the members of the Dominican Order were accentuated by the State's Decree to banish all regular and secular clergy from Ireland by the 20th of November, 1678. However the local Friars stayed in the vicinity of Athy but fled the area during the Jacobite War of 1689/’91. They were to remain out of the area for almost 40 years. We know that in 1735 a solitary Dominican Fr. Christopher Coonan lived in the Athy area where he was in time to be joined by other members of the Order. By 1756 three Dominicans were living in a small Monastery which they had built in the area now known as Kirwan's Lane off Leinster Street.

The Dominicans later acquired Riversdale House, a private residence formerly owned by George Mansergh, located directly opposite the site of the original Monastery of the Black Friars. They have remained ever since. The original 18th century house was replaced in recent years by a modern building which adjoins and complements the modern Church built in 1965. Located at the end of what was Tan Yard Lane, now Convent Lane, the Dominican Church is an important example of modern ecclesiastical architecture housing works by such noted artists as George Campbell and Brid ni Rinn. With what was a revolutionary Church style for the 1960's which ignored the traditional cruciformed style, the Dominicans or Order of Friars Preachers, anciently referred to as the Black Friars, signalled their continuing missionary commitment as evangelists and preachers to the town of Athy.

Friday, April 22, 1994

St. Michaels Church of Ireland

For a provincial town of just over 5,000 souls Athy is well provided with Churches. On each of the four roads leading into the town Church spires are to be seen. The oldest is that of St. Michaels Church of Ireland on the Carlow Road built in 1840 to replace an earlier Church in Emily Square. Tradition has it that stone from the 13th century Dominican Monastery located on the west bank of the River Barrow was used in the building of the spire of St. Michaels. However it would seem on the evidence of the stonework that tradition once again is less than accurate.

The original Church located in the open area behind the Town Hall may have been erected in or around 1682, which date is to be found on the Church Bell now located on the Town Hall. Unfortunately while this gives us the date of the casting of the bell it does not necessarily allow us to assume that the Church building was erected that same year. If the Emily Square Church was in fact built in 1682 it raises the question as to where the Reformed Church Services were held following the suppression of the Dominican Monastery in 1539. An inventory of the Dominican properties in Athy in 1541 disclosed that their Church was in a ruined or despoiled state. It is unlikely therefore to have been used by the adherents of the Reformed Church unless of course it was put into repair.

The building of St. Michaels, then Church of England, on the Carlow Road, extended over a number of years in the period immediately prior to the Great Famine. The Rector at that time was Rev. Frederick Trench, remembered also as the last Sovereign of the old Borough of Athy which was abolished in 1840. A one time resident of Kilmoroney House Trench was to die tragically in 1860 when his coach collided with Prestons Gate, the last remains of the medieval town wall which stood at the end of Offaly Street. The death of the highly respected Rector resulted in the immediate demolition of Prestons Gate, an action which archaeologists and historians today regret. Interestingly enough in his Will Rev. Frederick Trench left money to fund a yearly donation of bread to the poor of Athy. Nowadays instead of bread, money is received from the fund each year for distribution to the poor of the town. A very fine marble pulpit in St. Michaels Church was erected in memory of Rev. Trench.

It would seem that the site of the Carlow Road Church was chosen because of its proximity to the town and its prominent position on one of the approach roads to Athy. The Church building itself was so positioned so as to present an avenue-like approach from the newly named Church Road. The Rector's Manse and the Park Keepers house were probably built at the same time. The stone wall around the People's Park with these buildings and the new Church represented a harmonious combination of stone and architecture which even after more than 150 years remains pleasing to the eye.

If St. Michaels Church of Ireland is the oldest Church in Athy its near neighbour, the Dominican Church, is the youngest.

Both St. Michaels and the Dominican Church face each other across the River Barrow, a constant reminder of the religious differences which in previous generations made strangers of our neighbours. Nowadays the "dumb waters" of the Barrow flow between both Churches, separating yet linking in almost silent prayer an urban community which has been home to Catholic, Reformed Church and Dissenter for centuries past.

Friday, April 15, 1994

American Civil War Letters - Margaret Prendergast

In 1986 Fordham University Press of New York city published the civil war letters of Peter Welsh, a Sergeant of the 28th Regiment Massachusetts Volunteers under the title "Irish Green and Union Blue".

Welsh who was born in America of Irish parents in 1830 enlisted in the Massachusetts Volunteers in September 1862, almost five years after he had married an Irish girl Margaret Prendergast. Margaret was born in Athy in 1835 to Michael Prendergast and Mary Prendergast nee O'Toole. The Prendergast parents had seven children in all and Margaret emigrated from Athy in her teens to seek her future in the new world. Her sister Sarah, who married Michael Hoey of Bagenalstown, in St. Michael's Church, Athy, on the 6th of July, 1865 was also to emigrate to American after the birth of her first daughter Margaret. Her brother Francis had earlier gone to America in 1864. Two other sons of Michael and Mary Prendergast were James, of whom nothing is known and Patrick who married Catherine Lawler in Athy where they continued to live.

When her husband signed up to fight in the American Civil War Margaret went to live with her uncle James Gleeson in New York. During his time in the 4th Regiment of the Irish Brigade Peter wrote letters to his young wife which were preserved and handed down until eventually published in book form in 1986. The original letters were carefully preserved by Margaret in a Victorian red writing case and are today kept in the archives of the New York Historical Society.

Peter Welsh, who before enlisting was a carpenter, was wounded at Spotsylvania Courthouse on the 12th of May, 1864. He was brought to Carver Hospital in Washington where his wife Margaret immediately visited him. The Doctors advised that his injured arm should be amputated but Peter would not agree to a handicap which he felt would prevent him from ever working again as a carpenter. After surgery was performed to remove the bullet and some shattered bones, blood poisoning set in and Peter Welsh died on the 28th of May, 1864. Margaret immediately telegraphed her Uncle James Gleeson in New York with the said news "He is dead and will be in New York in morning". On the 1st of June, 1864 Peter Welsh was buried in Calvary Cemetery, Queens County, New York in the area now known to thousands of Irish emigrants as Woodside. A fine memorial was erected over his grave.

His wife Margaret who had no children survived him by 28 years. She never remarried and continued to draw the small pension to which she was entitled as a widow of a civil war soldier. It is believed that Margaret Welsh, nee Prendergast, made a number of trips to Athy after 1864 and we know that she was a sponsor at the baptism on the 6th of June, 1875 in St. Michael's Church, Athy, of Mary, daughter of her brother Patrick and his wife Catherine.

The letters which the Athy born woman carefully preserved provided the first published contemporary account of the American Civil War by an enlisted man of the Irish Brigade.

The name Prendergast is relatively common in the Athy area. The first of that name was Maurice de Prendergast, one of the leading Anglo Norman invaders to accompany Strongbow to Ireland who obtained extensive grants of land in the south and west of Ireland. The name which is often corrupted to Pender is derived from Prendergast a Parish in Premrokeshire, Wales, from where Maurice came.

Margaret Prendergast of Athy lies buried with her husband in Calvary Cemetery, Queens, New York.

Friday, April 8, 1994

Moroccan - Irish Rural Life

It is only when you visit foreign countries that you realise country life and living knows no boundaries. Last week I spent a few days travelling through Morocco in North West Africa. It was when I journeyed into the High Atlas mountains on the road to Marrakech and later to Essequire that I saw the similarities between rural life in Morocco today and what I have read of Irish rural life of another century. A region that got only three days rainfull last year is dry and barren but up in the hills can be seen small tilled areas with stalks of wheat standing starkly proud of its neighbour, each clearly defined in its own ground. As I journeyed inland I could see up to five or six men working in a field of not more than two acres, one using a reaping hook while others pulled the wheat stalks with their hands. In another small patch of ground torn from the rocks the solitary ploughman is tilling the soil using a wooden plough pulled by two donkeys.

Elsewhere on the road I see farm animals grazing on the untilled land which while untilled is regarded as commonage. Small herds of goat and sheep never more than perhaps 15 or so and occasionally two or three cows are constantly herded from sunrise to sunset by the children, the women or the old men. The animals scavenge among the rocks and sparse vegetation for anything edible while the patient herd sits almost motionless to protect the animals against wolves and to ensure that a neighbour's small strip of wheat or barley is not plundered. Later in the afternoon the womenfolk and the children are to be seen out in the cornfields weeding out the corn poppy and other weeds which are carefully gathered and brought home at the end of the day. The weeds and grasses culled from the cornfields form the stable diet of the animals, especially the donkeys and mules.

Donkeys can be seen untroubled by passing cars or buses walking on the road edge with their minders sitting side saddle, although there is no saddle, their two heels beating a rhythmic beat on the underbelly of the animals. On the road to Marrakech I passed through small market villages where the Moroccans come each week on market day to sell their farm produce. Many of the small shops which line the single street of each village are open only on that market day. To here the small farmer will travel with his produce carried in baskets on either side of the donkey, much like the Connemara man who up to a few years ago used the same mode of transport to bring home turf from the bog. The donkeys having been unburdened of their loads are put in a large walled area alongside the market place to patiently await their master's return. In one small village there were more than 600 donkeys to be seen standing motionless in the hot sun.

A Moroccan market is a glittering array of everything that man and nature can produce. One can almost visualise the market of Athy in the last century as the large baskets laden with eggs stand side by side with vegetables and other root crops. Bargaining goes on all day and as every tourist to Morocco has learned to his cost bargaining or more properly haggling is the life blood of the average Moroccan.

The colourful scenes of the Moroccan market and Moroccan rural life gave a hint of what life was like in rural Ireland in the last century. The wider community coming together on market day bring life and vibrancy to the otherwise quiet town or village. The market square takes on a buzz and a life which will not be recaptured for another week. The merchants are busy as the men and women from the outlying districts stock up with shop goods, having earlier disposed of their own produce, either in the market or to the same merchant in whose shop they now stand. The village or town market was once as equally important to the commercial and social life of rural Ireland. It was here that the town and country met, here on the days before mass media communication news was passed around. Above all market day was a day to buy and sell, the link in the chain of local economic life which had lasted for hundreds of years. In Morocco today the market is still important in the lives of the rural communities. In that respect it differs from Ireland.

Country life in Morocco mirrors in so many ways life in rural Ireland in the early part of the 19th century. The small holdings of the Irish of that day gave little opportunity for other than subsistence living. The cow and the pig were reared on the scraps and edible weeds of the day and sold in time to pay the rent. The children of the Irish cottagers, like their Moroccan counterparts today, herded their few animals during the day. The older members of the extended family gave a hand in herding or butter making. The harshness of life was tempered by the knowledge that everybody shared the same burdens, everyone lived in communities where to be poor was a pledge of honour, especially when one fulfilled his or her obligations to ones extended family.

Friday, April 1, 1994

Brother Seamus Glespen

The future Cardinal and Primate of all Ireland, Tomas O'Fiaich, writing in Irish in Christus Rex in 1958 noted
"ever since Leon O'Broin published his biography of Parnell much of the most effective historical writing in this country is being done through Irish. To support this view Art O'Griofa by Sean O'Luing and Emmet by Leon O'Broin have been published and now we have Br. MacGiolla Easpaig's book as incomparable evidence. Not only does he write well and even better than those who write in English but he breaks new ground that they had never ever reached".

His reference was to Athy man Seamus Glespen, in religion Brother James Norbert Glespen, a member of the Irish Christian Brothers. Glespen's book which drew such high praise was a biography of Thomas Russell of 1798 fame which he had written and published in Irish under the title "Tomas Ruiseil".

Seamus Glespen was born in Athy on the 30th of January, 1920. His father John Glespen was a coachbuilder whose premises were located at Duke Street in the premises now occupied by the Golden Grill. His mother was once a well known singer who had performed in operatic roles with the Dublin Operatic Society and the D'Olyly Carte Company in London. Seamus attended the local Christian Brothers Primary School and later transferred to the O'Brien Institute in Marino for his Secondary education. From there he entered the Brothers Juniorate in Baldoyle in 1936 and on Christmas Day 1937 he made his first profession of vows. After a period in Marino, Dublin, he transferred to Portlaoise in 1943 where he stayed for two years before moving to Drogheda where he was appointed Principal of the Primary School. At Christmas 1945 he made his final profession.

It was while in Drogheda that he began his University studies which he was to complete in University College Galway. Having obtained a First Class Honours Degree he was again on the move to Belfast where he taught in St. James's Grammer School in Barrack Street.

He was to spend 16 years in Belfast during which time he served as Secretary to the Ulster Colleges G.A.A. Council. A fluent Irish speaker he spent some time each year in Ranafest, an Irish speaking area in North West Donegal.

While in Belfast he wrote and had published a booklet "Grattan and his Times" for A level students. He also started his research on the United Irishman Thomas Russell as part of his M.A. studies. Awarded an M.A. First Class Honours in 1955 for his treatise on Russell he continued to work on the extended biography which was published in 1957.

This was the only biography published on Russell who was born in Mallow, Co. Cork and served as an Officer in the British Army in India. Later appointed Librarian to the Linenhall Library in Belfast Russell was captured and hanged in 1803. It was of Russell that Florence Wilson wrote the immortal lines

"For the man that they hanged at Downpatrick Jail,
Was the man from God knows where".

Tomas O'Fiaich in his review of Glespen's book remarked
"It is a long time since a historical work gave me as much satisfaction as this book. If the author had the opportunity now to undertake the story of 1798 in the North he should not be reluctant to attempt it. He is the most able man for the job and there is a great need for this book".

Brother Glespen transferred to Stoke-on-Trent in 1968 and one year later to Blackpool College where he remained for six years. Following the withdrawal of the Christian Brothers from Blackpool he went to St. Anselus College, Birkenhead in 1975. Within a year he was struck down with leukaemia but he continued his school work until 1980 when he was hospitalised for the last time. He died on the 28th of July, 1980.

His sister Carmel who married Jim Flaherty, an official in the local Post Office, now lives in Greystones.