Friday, September 30, 1994

Brother John Murphy Athy CBS

Brother John Murphy, a member of the Congregation of the Christian Brothers and based in Athy since 1960 holds the distinction of being the longest serving Christian Brother in the town in the 133 year history of the Athy Community. On the 23rd of September he celebrated the 70th anniversary of his entry into the Christian Brothers. That day coincided with the townspeoples celebration of the 150th Anniversary of the death of Venerable Edmund Rice, founder of the Christian Brothers.

Brother Murphy was born in Rineen, near Milltown, Co. Clare from where he entered the Christian Brothers Juniorate in Baldoyle, Dublin at seventeen and a half years of age. Ten years later his younger brother Frank followed him into the Christian Brothers and he celebrated his Diamond Jubilee last April. Between the two Clare brothers there is a remarkable 130 years as members of the Christian Brothers in Ireland.

Brother John Murphy after completing his Junior Year in Baldoyle later attended the Teacher Training College. He took final vows in 1932 after spending a short stint as a Novice Brother in North Monastery, Cork. In 1933 he transferred to Gorey where the young Christian Brother took on the responsibilities of Superior of the Christian Brother Monastery and Principal of the Primary School. He was to spend 12 years there before transferring to Greystones where he remained until 1948 when he went to Drogheda as Principal of the Primary School. Four years later he arrived in Dolphins Barn, Dublin, again assuming the dual role of Superior and Principal before coming to Athy as Principal of the Primary School in 1960.

The 1960's witnessed many changes in Irish education. The Donagh O'Malley years, mythologised by many and eulogised by that fine journalist, the late John Healy, was part of the changing pattern of an Irish society then growing to maturity. The State, which up to then had relied on the Christian Brothers and other religious societies to make Secondary education available to all and sundry without charge now began to take on more of the responsibilities it had neglected in the past.

The changing education scene led to an expansion in Secondary School numbers. New schools were needed in Athy and the prospect of a new Secondary School was in 1971 to galvanise the local people into considering the future of second level education in the town. The possibility of amalgamating the three existing local Secondary Schools which was favoured by the Department of Education was the subject of local debate where passions ruled and the future was not accurately anticipated. As a result a Community School for Athy was rejected by the townspeople over twenty years ago.

It was to fall to men like Brother Murphy in the forefront of the education process for many years to continue to meet the educational needs of a young growing population. Before he retired as School Principal in 1974 Brother Murphy had overseen the transformation which gave us the first Parents School Council and a new Primary School in Athy to replace the first school building erected in 1861.

Now twenty years later he celebrates 70 years as a follower of Edmund Rice. Since his arrival in Athy in 1960 he has endeared himself to students and parents alike. After 34 years in Athy the unassuming, courteous man from Clare is the longest serving member of the Christian Brothers in the 133 years of the Institutes association with the town. His unique achievement of service to Athy will never be surpassed, now that we have learnt of the imminent departure of the Christian Brothers from Athy.

The cultural bedrock of education in Athy is firmly in place thanks to the work of the Christian Brothers and the Sisters of Mercy whose future involvement in local Schools is now very uncertain. Maybe the time has come for the townspeople to re-assess the future of our presently fragmented Secondary School system in Athy.

Friday, September 23, 1994

Christian Brothers in Athy

On the weekend of the 23rd of September the people of Athy will come together to pay tribute to the Christian Brothers who will soon be leaving the town after 133 years of service as educators to successive generations of boys from the area.

The first Christian Brothers arrived in Athy on the 8th of August, 1861. Brothers Stanislaus O'Flanagan and Brother Luke Holland with lay Brother Patrick Sheehy occupied Greenhills House which was to remain the Christian Brothers Monastery until 1992. A local Committee with shopkeeper Mark Bealin as Secretary had earlier collected funds to fund the construction of a single storey three roomed schoolhouse alongside the Monastery. It was first opened as a school on the 19th of August, 1861 when 120 boys enrolled.

The success of the Christian Brothers in providing educational opportunities for young boys in those days of non-compulsory school attendance saw enrolment numbers increasing over the following years. A third teaching brother was soon employed with the generous financial help of Patrick Maher of Kilrush. He guaranteed a sum sufficient to provide for the new Brothers’ maintenance for two years. Patrick Maher was also a generous benefactor to the Sisters of Mercy whom he had helped on the establishment of the local Convent in 1852. His contribution to the Brothers was particularly important having regard to the impoverished state of the people of Athy who through their Parish Priest Monsignor Quinn had undertaken to maintain the recently arrived Christian Brothers. Two collections were taken up each year in the Parish Church to meet this commitment but in 1867 the Parish Priest stopped the practice pleading inability to further maintain the Christian Brothers. A public meeting was subsequently held in the town as a result of which the Christian Brothers undertook with the co-operation of the local people to take up the collections themselves.

The single-storey school house was modified somewhat in 1873 to cater for the increasing pupil numbers but no additions were made to the original structure until almost 30 years later. In September 1894 the first lay teacher was employed in the school and in the terminology of the day he was referred to as "Professor" John McNamee who for his labours received a salary of £1 per week. Around the same time the Brothers Monastery was refurbished and part of the work included the removal of the clay floor in the community room and its replacement with timber floorboards. It is difficult for us to imagine nowadays that less than 100 years ago in the Christian Brothers Monastery, one of the principal buildings of the town, such primitive conditions were to be found.

It was not until 1898 that attendance at school was made compulsory for Irish children. However the Act provided an exemption from school attendance for children of not less than 11 years of age who obtained a Certificate from the local School Principal showing "such proficiency in reading, writing and elementary arithmetic as is now presented for fourth class." Three years later with the introduction of technical instruction into the school curriculum the Christian Brothers felt obliged to extend the school building by adding an extra floor to the original structure. It was then that the famous metal stairway was installed.

With the introduction of woodwork in 1931 an extra building had to be provided. Officially called the Sacred Heart Hall but known by pupils and townspeople as the Manual School it gave much needed additional space for pupils and teachers alike. As part of the fundraising activity at the time an annual bazaar was held on behalf of the Christian Brother’s school. The highlight of the October 1931 venture was an aeroplane hired for the day from Iona National Airways to give joyrides over the town of Athy. This must surely have been the first aeroplane seen by many of the locals of the town.

Friday, September 16, 1994

St. Michaels Catholic Church

St. Michael's Parish Church - to our separated brethren the Roman Catholic Church - to some the unreformed Church but to the majority the Parish Church is the focus of our attention this week. Since the early days of the village of Athy there has been an ecclesiastical presence in the area. The Trinitarians or Crouched Friars were the first to establish a monastic settlement in the 13th century in the area now known as St. John's and near to Woodstock Castle. They were to be followed in 1253 by the Dominicans or Friars Preachers who established a monastery on the east bank of the River Barrow in the area between the Barrow and the present Offaly Street.

In those pre-Reformation days the French speaking Anglo Normans who established the village shared a common religion with the native Irish. However it was some time before those same Irish regarded as "the wild Irish" were permitted to join in religious ceremonies with their Anglo-Norman masters. The Trinitarian and Dominican monasteries were at first not accessible to the Irish and so it was that a separate secular Church came to be built outside the town walls to cater for the Irish who were attracted to the new Urban settlement. The medieval Church located in St. Michael's Cemetery on the Dublin road was the first Parish Church in Athy.

It is not known when the Trinitarians who were occasionally in conflict with their near neighbours the Dominicans, left Athy. The suppression of the Dominican Monastery in Athy occurred on the 19th of August, 1539 and when a jury sat at Kilkea on the 27th of November, 1540 to determine the extent of the monastic property in Athy there was no mention of the Trinitarian monastery of St. Johns. It may be presumed that the Trinitarians had already left the area but equally puzzling is the fact that in the Royal Commissioners survey of suppressed religious houses there is no reference to St. Michael's Church. Perhaps the answer lies in the conversion of monastic properties to private use while the Parish Church was retained as such in the immediate aftermath of the Reformation. The only difference being that it was thereafter used for services of the Reformed Church which following the Act of Supremacy had King Henry VIII as it's head.

In the troubled times which followed the actions initiated by King Henry VIII, adherence to a religion other than the state religion was not tolerated. That position was to remain unchanged for many years.

The Dominicans returned to the area soon after the accession of King James to the English throne but were to leave again following the attempted banishment of all Popish clergy from Ireland before the 1st of May, 1698. John Fitzsimons who was the Parish Priest, and living in Athy had registered with Dublin Castle in December 1697 and was accordingly allowed to remain on in the town. Again in July 1704 he appeared before the General Session of the Peace for County Kildare to register and to enter into sureties to be of good behaviour. The records disclose that he was 54 years of age and had been ordained in 1673 by the Primate of Ireland, Oliver Plunkett. He remained as Parish Priest of Athy until his death in 1712.

There is no record of a local Church catering for Catholics at that time. Apparently Mass was said where and whenever it was possible and several years were to pass before laws outlawing Catholic practices were sufficiently relaxed to enable those who had not conformed to the state religion to worship openly and publicly. The return of the Dominicans to Athy after 1731 clearly indicated a relaxation of the Penal Laws in the area and it is around that time that a Parish Church was constructed for Catholic worship. The Church was built as was the custom of the day in a laneway where it was inconspicuous and unlikely to attract attention. The laneway chosen situated off High Street or the present Leinster Street became known as Chapel Lane.

This Church was to be torched and destroyed by fire on the night of 7th March 1800 allegedly in reprisal for the action of a local curate Fr. Patrick Kelly. In Affidavits sworn before the local Town Sovereign it was alleged that the action of Fr. Kelly in attacking a yeoman escorting prisoners about to be executed in Athy in May 1798 led to the destruction of his Church. No one however was charged with the offence and the claims made could not be verified. The Parish Priest Maurice Keegan, submitted a claim for compensation and in this he was supported by Thomas Rawson of Glassealy House as a result of which the sum of £300 was paid to him.

Pending the replacement of their Church the Catholic Parishioners of Athy heard Mass in a large malt house near the Grand Canal owned by P. Dooley. This building was also gutted by fire towards the end of March 1800. No other local buildings could be obtained for use as a temporary Church and it was a Catholic Army Officer stationed in the local barracks who had a canopy erected on the side of the Town Hall under which a temporary altar was positioned every Sunday. The congregation stood or knelt in the public square in a scene reminiscent of the early Christian Church when the Chancel consisting of a low wall with columns supporting an overhead beam afforded protection for the Mass altar.

The Parish Priest, Fr. Maurice Keegan, having obtained £300 compensation for the loss of the Parish Church immediately set about collecting additional funds to build a new Church. At the same time negotiations were opened up with the Duke of Leinster through his local agent to acquire a suitable site. On the 13th of February, 1803 William Robert, Duke of Leinster, signed the Lease of 3 roods and 28 perches of land opposite Rathstewart Bridge in favour of Michael Cahill of Athy, Thomas Fitzgerald of Geraldine and Thomas Dunn of Leinster Lodge in trust for the Roman Catholics of Athy. The Lease which commenced on the 1st of November, 1802 referred to the "new Roman Catholic Chapel" built on the site which prior to the commencement of building works formed part of low-lying grounds liable to flooding adjoining Moneen Commons. The laneway now called Stanhope Place fronting the Parish Priest's house was noted on the Lease map as Chapel Lane while the present Shanhope Street was then called Kildare Street.

Of the Trustees named in the Lease both Thomas Fitzgerald and Thomas Dunn were well known in connection with their involvement with events in Athy during the 1798 Rebellion. Fitzgerald, despite being a Captain of the Athy Loyal Cavalry Corps was suspected of rebel sympathies. As a result Captain Erskine and a troop of the 9th Dragoons with a company of the Cork militia were quartered in Fitzgerald's Geraldine residence for 30 days in April 1798. Fitzgerald himself was kept under house arrest before being imprisoned in Dublin for 91 days when he was eventually released without charge. He was to write to Dublin Castle in December 1802 complaining of the action of the military and was especially critical of Thomas Rawson of Glassealy House. It was Rawson who supported the Parish Priest's claim for compensation following the burning of the local Church.

Troops were also quartered on Thomas Dunn of Leinster Lodge and his brother Patrick of Dollardstown, both of whom were wealthy farmers and who because of their religious affiliations were suspected of being rebels.

In the Irish Magazine of March 1809 Michael Devoy of Kill wrote a short piece on the history of Athy in which he referred to the "new Chapel which is not by any means suitable to the large congregation nor on a plan fit for a country chapel." He then proceeded to outline the measurements of the building as 140 ft. long by 40 ft. broad and 25 ft. in height with a gallery constructed across the middle "by which means from the noise above the people below for about 60 ft. in length cannot hear the Priest's voice."

Rev. James Hall who made a tour through Ireland in 1812 wrote with reference to the practice of hearing confessions in Catholic Churches and mentioned having observed a man in St. Michael's Church, Athy, who for his penance walked on his bare knees across the rough floor of the Church drawing blood in the process. This he was told was quite a common penance imposed by the local clergy.

An important historical association with St. Michael's Church, Athy, was the first Parish Mission in Ireland which was held in the local Church in 1842. Another Mission held in St. Michael's on Sunday evening, the 23rd of October, 1887 was to result in tragedy. One of the Missionaries Fr. Cotter asked that the windows of the Church be opened and as he commenced his sermon the sound of breaking glass was heard followed by a scream. Immediately there was panic and a dash for the doors. Many people jumped from the side gallery under the mistaken belief that the gallery was about to collapse. When order was restored a number of people had suffered injuries and a 60 year old woman, Mary Anthony, later died on her injuries.

The Church building was to remain in service until 1960 when it was demolished and the site cleared for the present Church which was dedicated on the 19th of April, 1964. Having regard to Athy's past history in brickmaking it is fitting that the Church was constructed in brick even if it came from Kingscourt, Co. Cavan and Courtown, Co. Wexford. One of the most striking features of the building which was built by Creedons of Dublin was the use of Portland stone.

St. Michael's was the fourth Parish Church built in the town in almost 600 years. The first Church - the Medieval St. Michael's known locally as "The Crickeen" still stands as a proud reminder of Athy’s past while the relatively new St. Michael's Church occupies a site first dedicated to Church use almost two hundred years ago.

Friday, September 2, 1994

Griffith - Wesley - Kebble in Athy

A few weeks ago I wrote of how seldom Athy had been noticed by travellers to Ireland during the 18th and 19th centuries. Understandably those early travellers had confined themselves to Dublin, Cork and other large centres of population, while Killarney and Connemara were also strongly favoured. Those who passed through Athy and recorded their journeys were usually men of religion who in their evangelising tours through Ireland obviously saw much worthy of their attention in the South Kildare town.

One of the earliest such travellers/evangelists was the English born Quaker John Griffith who visited Ireland for the first time in 1749. He attended Quaker meetings throughout the country during his three month visit including in his itinerary Rathangan, Carlow, Castledermot, Ballytore and Athy. Of Athy he wrote "the meeting was very small and true religion very low". While he does not say so it can reasonably be assumed that the meeting took place in a meeting room which the local Quakers rented from one of their members Thomas Weston. In 1732 Weston had agreed to "set Friends a large meeting room and a stable for £3.00 a year and keep them in repair".

Griffith's comments about the small meeting in Athy confirms our knowledge of the first Quaker community of the town which had established a meeting as early as 1671. Unlike their counterparts in Timahoe who erected a meeting house in 1704 and the Ballytore Quakers who did so four years later the Athy Quakers did not feel it necessary to provide a purpose built meeting house until 1780.

Griffith made a second visit to Ireland in March 1760 and in company with his good friend Abraham Shackleton of Ballytore he again attended Quaker meetings throughout the country until he returned to England on the 20th of May. He wrote in his journal on the 20th of March, 1760:- "I had a good serviceable meeting in Athy and the next day another at Rathangan".

Before the 18th century ended another famous visitor was to pass through Athy. This time it was John Wesley who on Saturday, the 25th of April, 1789 made the journey from Maryborough (Portlaoise) to Carlow via Athy. He did not preach in Athy having risen at 7.30a.m. for prayers before taking the Chaise at 7.45a.m. to arrive in Carlow at 1.30p.m. His journal merely recorded the fact that he passed through our town but regrettably we cannot lay claim to the great John Wesley having preached in Athy.

The next visitor of note was John Kebble, English Poet and Divine, who with his wife were the guests of Rev. Frederick Trench and Lady Helena Trench at Kilmoroney House, Athy, in August 1841. Kebble who had published the "Christian Year" in 1827 is generally acknowledged as the primary author of the Oxford Movement of which Newman was the leader. Appointed Professor of Poetry in Oxford in 1831 Kebble preached a sermon in the University Chapel, Oxford on the 14th of July, 1833 in which he asserted the Church of England's claim to a heavenly origin and opposed the abolition of ten Irish Bishoprics. It was this sermon later published as "National Apostasy" which inspired others in Oxford to seek to revive High Church principles in the Church of England which up to then was regarded as stagnant.

Associated with Kebble and Newman in the Oxford movement was Arthur Perceval, brother of Helena Trench of Kilmorony House. It's interesting to note that Rev. Frederick Trench who was Rector in Athy apparently supported the Oxford movement and for a time sought to observe the Saints Days and Holy Days by holding services in the local Church in Athy. Kebble and his wife stayed a number of days in Kilmorony and one of Kebble's biographers notes that "they seem to have well employed their time for a few days in seeing much that was interesting".

Athy may not have received much attention from early travellers to this country but it can claim that the Quaker John Griffith, the Methodist John Wesley and the Anglican John Kebble crossed paths in the unlikely setting of the South Kildare town.