‘This altar rail was erected and the sanctuary adorned by Count Thomas J. O’Loughlin, Melbourne to the memory of his beloved wife Kathleen’. So read the opening lines of the inscription on the plaque which graced the sanctuary of St. Michael’s Church which was demolished following the last mass celebrated there on 24th September 1960. Who was Thomas O’Loughlin and what connection, if any, did he or his wife Kathleen have with Athy?
Thomas O’Loughlin was born Thomas Laughlin in Castlewarren a few miles on the Carlow side of Kilkenny city in 1869. His uncle Martin who emigrated to Australia following the Great Famine and made his fortune in the goal mines of Ballarat died in 1894. His nephews Thomas and Martin Laughlin were appointed executors of his Will and both went down under four years later to administer their uncle’s vast estate. Under the terms of the Will funds were to be made available to build a church in memory of the O’Loughlin family in either Australia or Ireland.
The Parish Priest of the rural parish of Castlewarren did not accept the offer of a new church and eventually fortune favoured the Kilkenny city parish of St. Johns where the O’Loughlin family had acquired a substantial property. The O’Loughlin Memorial Church of St. John the Evangelist, built in the Gothic style, was completed in 1908 after 9 years work at a cost of approximately £40,000.00. The church was consecrated on 28th June 1908 and in the following month word came from Rome that Pope Pius X had conferred the title of Knight of St. Gregory the Great on Thomas O’Loughlin.
On returning to Australia Thomas Laughlin, now known as O’Loughlin, made the acquaintance of a Kilkenny born nun in a Melbourne convent. On a subsequent visit to Ireland he visited the family of Nicholas Murphy of Ballybur, brother of that nun and met Murphy’s daughter Kathleen whom he was to marry in 1911. The wedding ceremony took place on 27th September 1911, presided over by Bishop Brownrigg of Kilkenny, assisted by a number of clerics including Canon Mackey P.P. who was described as ‘an uncle of the bride’. This then was the Athy connection with Count Thomas O’Loughlin as Canon Mackey had been appointed Parish Priest of Athy just two years previously.
Five daughters were born to Thomas O’Loughlin and his wife Kathleen who had returned to live in the vast O’Loughlin estate in Australia. Tragically on 1st August 1925 following the birth of their first son Kathleen O’Loughlin died, as did the baby boy. She was just 44 years of age. Count O’Loughlin died four years later, aged 63.
Subsequent court proceedings delayed administration of Count O’Loughlin’s Will. It was not until 1936 that a Melbourne court ruled on the disputed Will and a subsequent appeal to the Australian High Court found in favour of the Count’s last Will and Testament.
I have not seen the Count’s Will but clearly he had decided to donate funds to his late wife’s uncle, Canon Mackey, ‘to erect altar rails and decorate the sanctuary of St. Michael’s Athy.’ What form the sanctuary decorations took I cannot say. Canon Mackey had in the meantime died on 31st March 1928 but the installation of the altar rails went ahead in 1937.
The photograph shows the installation of the altar rails. They complemented the marble pulpit which had been presented in 1904 by the local people of Athy to mark the jubilee of the ordination of their then Parish Priest Canon Germaine. The pulpit still adorns our present Parish Church and a somewhat truncated version of the original marble railings are to be found beside the side altars. I don’t know where the rest of the railings can be found.
In recent weeks both Tom Byrne of St. Joseph’s Terrace and Esther Owens of The Bleach passed away. I had the pleasure of interviewing Tom in the company of his friend Paddy Walsh several years ago but unfortunately I have temporarily mislaid my notes of that interview. Tom had a long and interesting life and his passing and that of Esther removes yet another valuable source of interesting knowledge and rich experience with which I always associate the older generation amongst our local community.