Tuesday, August 18, 2020

Dominicans in Athy

The ceremony of thanksgiving held in the Church of the Priory of St. Dominic’s on Sunday, 22nd November 2015 was the last Mass celebrated by a Dominican priest in the town of Athy. The first Mass by the newly arrived Dominicans in the medieval village of Athy took place just thirty-three years after the Dominicans came to Ireland. Those first Dominicans were Normans and spoke Norman French. We know little or nothing about the early years of the Dominicans in Athy except that their first church and all subsequent Dominican churches in the town were dedicated to St. Peter, Martyr of Verona, one of the earliest saints of the Dominican order. The Dominican Provincial, Fr. Gregory Carroll, issued a statement on 27th October 2015 announcing the Order’s long association with Athy was about to close. He continued:- ‘The Irish Dominicans are saddened that declining numbers have forced them to recognise that they cannot remain in all the centres in which they have been serving. The purpose of the reorganisation now under way in the Irish Province is to concentrate in fewer locations so as to make the work of the Dominicans more effective in the core ministries of preaching, primary pastoral care and youth formation, while providing for the formation of those joining the Order, and at the same time respecting traditional postulates’. He expressed gratitude that the church which represented a significant development in church architecture in Ireland and was opened on St. Patrick’s Day 1965, would be available as a public amenity for the people of Athy. Speaking at the final Mass the former prior of Athy, Fr. John Harris, explained that the Dominican friars had made the decision to close the Athy priory with ‘heavy hearts, and we can’t blame Henry VIII or Cromwell this time’. His reference was to the suppression of the Dominican Priory in Athy in 1539 and the subsequent withdrawal of the prior, Fr. Robert Woulff and his small community of Friars from the town. Oliver Cromwell invaded in Ireland in August 1649 and gaining his first military victory against the Catholic Confederates in Drogheda had the entire garrison slaughtered, amongst their numbers being six priests, one of whom was Fr. Richard Ovington, sub prior of Athy. Other members of the Athy Dominican community were subsequently imprisoned including Fr. Redmond Moore, prior in 1661/’62 and Fr. Joseph Carroll, prior of Athy in 1664. When the Dominicans left Athy almost five years ago they left us with a beautiful building which has since been adapted for use as our town library. Within the former church the Dominicans also left a church organ which had been installed in the 1980s. It was intended that it would remain in the building, but Kildare County Council had the organ removed and I understand it has been donated to another church. The bell tower attached to the previous small T shaped Dominican church was built in 1898 and it remains part of the building landscape of the new town library. The small church was erected in 1850 and the bell tower housed the bell presented to the Athy Dominicans 48 years later. The inscription on the bell records that it was presented by ‘the Rosary Confraternity and other kind friends’. It was cast by M. Byrne of the Fountain Head Bell Foundry, James Street, Dublin and brought to Athy by canal boat. The Dominican bell on the west side of the River Barrow has an older church bell companion on the opposite side of the river. This latter bell can be seen high up on the front of the Town Hall. It came from the Anglican church which was once located at the rear of the Town Hall. When the new church at the top of Offaly Street was consecrated in September 1841 the old church was demolished and the church bell which bears the date 1682 was removed and was later placed on what was then the Courthouse in July 1860. Perhaps the most important legacy of the Athy Dominicans is the Lay Dominicans who meet on a regular basis for prayer and study in groups which are called Chapters. The Dominican laity were involved with the local priests in saying the divine office in the Dominican church from about 1992. This coincided with the opening of a novitiate in the Athy priory but unfortunately the Athy novitiate did not last for very long. One of the few visible reminders of the Dominican Order’s long association with Athy is the plaque which was unveiled by Sean Cunnane, Chairman of Athy U.D.C. on Sunday, 7th October 2007. It is located on the small wall at the entrance to the present town library and reads:- ‘This plaque is dedicated by a grateful townspeople to the memory of the friars of the Order of Friar Preachers who since 1257 have faithfully served the people of this town and district’.

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