Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Dominicans in Athy and Fr. Ross McCauley

Fr. Ross McCauley O.P. over the years gave comfort and solace to the dying and consoled the bereaved, all the time giving witness to his religious life as a Dominican priest.  Now Fr. McCauley has gone to join his maker and he who was born in Athy now rests in the Dominican plot in the town of his birth. 

How many other Athy men over the centuries left behind the lives of laymen to join the Order of Friars Preachers founded by St. Dominic in 1215?  I don’t know the answer to my own question and a definitive answer is unlikely ever to be furnished since it would require a check back over 852 years of the Dominican Foundation’s existence in our town.

The Dominicans in Athy are our link with a past which in truth is sometimes very difficult to appreciate and understand.  They arrived in the small medieval village located on the Marches of Kildare in 1257, just 50 years or so after the first French speaking Normans had settled in the area.  The  black cloaked Dominicans often referred to as Black Friars on account of their garb, were mendicant friars who depended on the generosity of the local people for their food and sustenance.

The first stone built priory was located on the east bank of the River Barrow in the area known to this day as ‘the Abbey’.  The Athy Priory must have been a substantial one, for within 30 years of the Dominicans coming to Athy the first of a number of Dominican Provincial Chapters were held here.  The initial land granted to the Dominicans for the siting of their Priory was followed by further land grants by several local benefactors, all of which added to the prestige of the local priory.  How many Dominican Friars or Brothers were based in the Priory in the early years we cannot say.  However, we can safely surmise that their numbers probably those to be found in today’s Priory.

We can also assume that none of those early Friars were Irish as the warlike Irish attacked the Norman settlers, including their priests, and many decades would pass before peaceful relationships were established and maintained.  In the meantime the Statutes of Kilkenny passed in 1366 as a result of growing concern at the apparent Gaelicisation of the Anglo Normans included amongst its provisions a prohibition on Irish men joining Orders such as the Dominicans.  Fr. Hugh Fenning O.P. in his recent publication on the Dominicans of Athy relates that it was at least a century later before two Athy Dominicans were noted as having Irish names. 

King Henry VIII granted a Charter to the inhabitants of Athy in 1515, thereby incorporating the medieval village as a Borough with an elected Sovereign and a Borough Council.  Little did anyone realise that within 30 years the same King Henry would suppress the Dominican Priory in the Borough of Athy.  An examination of the property belonging to the Dominicans of Athy at that time which passed to Martin Pelles, Constable of the Castle of Athy, included a church with a bell tower, a chapter house with a dormitory, kitchens, etc. and a garden over a half acre in size, as well as 25 acres on the outskirts of the medieval town.  We know that there was also a cemetery attached to the Priory, for several of those killed at the Battle of Ardscull in 1316 where Edward Bruce’s army fought the Anglo Normans were recorded as being buried in the Dominican Priory. The Friars’ ownership of an eel weir on the River Barrow was also the subject of a contemporary account in 1309 when several of the priests and brothers from the neighbouring Monastery of St. Johns were found guilty of stealing from the Dominican weir net.  Clearly the Dominican Priory in medieval Athy was a substantial complex and the Friars themselves were men who feared no-one, including the Kavanagh clan who attacked and burned their monastery just a year before Henry VIII decided to take possession of the religious houses of England and Ireland. 

The dispossessed Dominicans of 1540 were like the local people they served, subjected to the rigours of the Penal Laws and the expulsion of the Dominicans from Athy following the suppression of the Irish Monasteries lasted for 85 years or so.  The Dominicans were back in the town by the third decade of the 17th century and their Priory figured prominently in the Confederate Wars fought in and around Athy during the 8 years to 1649.  Legend has it that General Preston after attacking Woodstock Castle subsequently set his guns against the Dominican Priory which was saved after an apparition was seen over the Priory.  However, its destruction soon followed at the hands of Lord Castlehaven, one of the Confederate leaders.  In the subsequent Cromwellian invasion a Dominican Priest, Richard Ovington, Sub Prior of Athy, was captured by Cromwell’s troops in Drogheda and put to the sword.  16 years later Fr. Raymond Moore, Prior of Athy, died in a Dublin prison where he was imprisoned as a result of religious prosecution.  A further period of religious prosecution, this time lasting 50 years or so, was to follow the Battle of the Boyne during which the Priory of Athy was without a Dominican presence.

Around 1730 or thereabouts the enforcement of the Penal Laws became somewhat lax and the Domincans were encouraged once again to return to Athy.  This time they based their Priory in a lane off Athy’s High Street, later called Leinster Street.  This lane, leading to the Commons of Clonmullin, was later named Chapel Lane, an obvious indication of the location of the Dominican Church in what was a back street of the town.

The history of the Dominicans in Athy continued thereafter without disturbance or interruption.  Today the Dominican Priory is to be found on the west bank of the River Barrow, almost directly opposite the original foundation site of the 13th century.

Fr. Ross McCauley was part of a proud tradition of Dominican service stretching back over 750 years and his death reduces the number of elderly and not so young friars who now comprise the members of the Dominican Priory of Athy.  As the Friars grow old and as vocations to the priesthood remain at a low level the future of Athy’s oldest link with its historic past becomes more doubtful.  The Order of Friars Preachers, commonly called in the past the Black Friars, are part of our community’s history and the passing of a well loved Friar who first saw the light of day in our own town is a sad but timely reminder of the difficult future facing the Dominicans in Athy.

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