The light reflected in the window of the parochial house in Stanhope Place which I noticed earlier in the week had all the significance of a beacon of revival. Sadly the parochial house, once one of the focal points for the parish of St. Michael’s, had been unoccupied in recent years while the Parish Priest who also had responsibility for Narraghmore and Moone parishes, resided in the rural tranquillity of Crookstown. Our new Parish Priest has now occupied the early 19th century stone fronted parochial house and by this very act has reaffirmed the importance of the Parish Priest living amongst the people he serves. This is not to say that the parishioners of Narraghmore and Moone. deserve any less consideration but in terms of population numbers the parish of St. Michael’s must be seen as the first amongst equals in this part of the diocese.
The parish of St. Michael’s was established I am told in 1670 and the only extant records relating to the priests in the parish record Fr. John Fitzsimons who was ordained a priest in 1673 at 23 years of age. He had the distinction of being ordained by the then Archbishop of Dublin Oliver Plunkett and was appointed Parish Priest of St. Michael’s 24 years later. It is interesting to note that his designation as Parish Priest referred to St. Michael’s, St. John’s, Churchtown, Kilberry and Nicholastown. He was shown in government records as residing in Athy in 1704.
The next recorded Parish Priest was Fr. Daniel Fitzpatrick who was in charge of the parish in 1744 while living over the border in Queens County [now County Laois]. Fr. James Neill or Nele, was Parish Priest of St. Michael’s from 1771 until his death on 28th October 1789. Fr. Maurice Keegan was a curate in Athy for 7 years from 1780 and transferred to nearby Castledermot as Parish Priest where he remained until 1789. He returned that year to St. Michael’s as the Parish Priest and served in that capacity until 26th October 1825. It was during his stewardship of the parish that the Parish Church, then located in Chapel Lane, was torched and burned to the ground. It happened on the night of 7th March, 1800 and was one of a number of Catholic churches in this area and throughout Ireland which were similarly burned out following the 1798 Rebellion. Fr. Fitzpatrick lodged a claim for compensation with the Dublin Castle authorities and those proceeds and presumably further local funding financed the building of St. Michael’s Church, familiar to older residents of the parish which was demolished in 1960.
Following Fr. Fitzpatrick’s death in 1825 I have counted 18 Parish Priests who succeeded him, including the recently appointed Fr. Liam Rigney. Amongst them was Fr. Andrew Quinn who was Parish Priest from 1853-1879. A native of Eadestown, Naas, his brothers were Bishop James Quinn of Brisbane and Bishop Matthew Quinn of Bathurst. Two other Parish Priests who in my young days were remembered in Athy were Canon James Germaine who presided over the parish for 13 years up to 1905. Canon Mackey was another well remembered holder of the office from 1909-1928. Both died in office and both are buried in St. Michael’s Cemetery.
Canon Patrick McDonnell, after whom McDonnell Drive was named, was Parish Priest from 1928-1956. He was the old-style leader of his parish who to a youngster like me attending confessions in the early 1950s was a cross, contrary individual who was unable to deal kindly with the awkward silences of a dumb struck youngster. My tale of woe has been told in a previous Eye, however now that I am approaching Canon McDonnell’s age I can understand and forgive him.
Amongst the Parish Priests of the past we have had a number of priests with interesting backgrounds. Canon Owen Sweeney, who was a dynamic Parish Priest for 5 years from 1980, was the former president of Clonliffe College. Fr. Gerard Tanham, Parish Priest from 2010, was director of the Dublin Institute of Adult Education for 10 years from 1981. Both left their mark on the parish of St. Michael’s and are remembered with great fondness.
In any lookback at the Parish Priests of our parish it would be remiss of me not to mention Fr. Philip Dennehy who first came to Athy as a curate in 1963. He served for 10 years before returning as a Parish Priest in 1985, retiring 21 years later. Now aged 86 years he remains in the parish as Parish Priest Emeritus, a much-loved pastor who has devoted the majority of his ordained life to the parishioners of the Parish of St. Michael’s.
The parish has gone through difficult times since the departure of Monsignor John Wilson in 2009 and the widening of the pastoral responsibility of the Parish Priest for the outlying parishes has increased the difficulties facing the present incumbent. His decision to occupy the Parochial House in Stanhope Place goes a long way to reassuring his parishioners that the regeneration of St. Michael’s parish as a relevant and important part of community life in the area can be expected.