The past is slipping away with a quickening pace which increases as the years pass. My thoughts as I attended the funeral of Sr. Cecelia Hall, a Sister of Mercy, who entered the convent in Athy almost 77 years ago. A native of Killenaule, Co. Tipperary, she joined the Sisters of Mercy with her own sister, later Sr. Claude, on 8th September 1940. Sister Cecelia and Sr. Claude were just two of the many young female siblings who over the years entered the Convent of Mercy here in Athy. Families as far afield as the counties on the Western seaboard gave us young girls who devoted their lives as Sisters of Mercy to education, patient care in the County Home, later St. Vincent’s Hospital, and social work among the poor of Athy.
Just eleven days before Sr. Cecilia’s funeral another funeral journey to St. Michael’s Cemetery saw the removal of the remains of Sr. Immaculata to the Sisters of Mercy section of the local cemetery. The death of these two elderly nuns represents another breach in the extraordinary line up of religious whose lives were committed over a period of almost 165 years to service within our community here in Athy.
I have always been intrigued as to how young girls from counties as far apart as Kerry and Mayo and so distant from the Lily White county came to the convent in Athy. Was it due to the encouragement of religious in their own parishes to join the Sisters of Mercy and the subsequent distribution by higher authority of postulants to various Mercy houses throughout Ireland? I gather that those wishing to join the Sisters of Mercy were not encouraged to enter convents in their own area and so movement throughout the country was an inevitable consequence. Even though local girls were generally encouraged to enter convents some distance from their native towns there are several instances where a number of local girls had joined the local convent. Amongst these were a sister of Dan Carbery of St. John’s who was professed as Sr. Frances de Sales and Sr. Michael, one-time superioress of the convent who was a Hickey from Kilberry.
The enormous contribution which the Sisters of Mercy made to education and the welfare of our local community can never be adequately measured. However, as I wrote at the top of this piece the past is slipping fast. As each member of the Sisters of Mercy pass away their legacy recedes further and further. Not too many years ago the extensive building known as the Convent of Mercy housed a full complement of nuns and postulants. The convent closed in May 2000 and the aging Sisters of Mercy left behind in the grounds of their old convent the small cemetery which held the remains of the nuns who died over the years. The first death was recorded on 29th April 1866 with the passing of a young postulant, Mary Ryan. She was one of three Ryan sisters who entered the convent in Athy less than 20 years after the Great Famine.
The new St. Michaels Cemetery now has a section reserved for the Sisters of Mercy as it has for the Christian Brothers and members of the clergy who died in recent years. Sadly the Sisters of Mercy who died during the currency of the Mercy convent remain in the small cemetery which was attached to that convent. The subsequent development of apartments in the vicinity of the cemetery has consigned that sacred space to virtual obscurity which given the proud history of the Sisters of Mercy in Athy is a sad reflection on our passing history.
The past is slipping away, especially that past which was inhabited by religious sisters and brothers. They came to Athy just a few years after the Great Famine to provide badly needed education for young boys and girls of the area who up to then lived without much hope of improving their lives. The Sisters of Mercy and the Christian Brothers gave you, me and many others the opportunities which come with education. Their value to our community and Irish society in general cannot and should never be understated.
As the past slips away there is always a danger that even people and events of recent times will be overlooked, misunderstood or incorrectly described. I came across recently in our local newspapers two references to ‘McDonald Drive’ and in conversation with a few people it would seem that many do not know that the correct name of the estate is ‘McDonnell Drive’. The estate was built by Athy U.D.C. and opened by the th
[en Minister for Local Government on 24th September 1953. It was named after Archdeacon Patrick McDonnell, Parish Priest of St. Michael’s for 28 years who died on 1st March 1956.
We have a proud history here in Athy, but pride must always be accompanied by accuracy if we are not to confirm Henry Ford’s claim that ‘history is bunk’.