Priory of St. Dominic, Athy, Co. Kildare
St Dominic’s Priory, situated on the banks of the River Barrow in the centre of Athy, is home to a medium sized community of Dominican friars in what is becoming a satellite town of Dublin.
The traditional church apostolate of liturgical preaching and sacramental ministry is combined by the members of the community with chaplaincy work locally, ecumenical dialogue and the preaching of retreats.
The community in Athy facilitates a lively Dominican laity movement, whose members meet regularly and have a local missionary outreach.
History of Priory of St. Dominic, Athy, Co. Kildare
The Dominicans arrived in Athy in 1253 or 1257 (the date is in some doubt). They settled on the eastern bank of the Barrow, first in thatched huts of wood and clay, later in a stone priory and church dedicated to St Peter Martyr, one of the earliest saints of the Order. Till the end of the century they were able to lead a fairly normal life in Athy for it was the golden age of Norman Ireland.
In the new century the local Irish clans began to press more strongly against this outpost on the very edges of Anglo-Norman settlement. There were plans to build a small fortress in Athy, but perhaps this was never done. Athy was burned in 1305 and again four times before the end of the century. The area became a sort of battlefield. The lord deputy himself came along in 1314 and killed about 800 of the O’Mores and their allies. Two years later, “in a cold year of famine and plague,” Edward Bruce with his Scottish invaders pillaged Castledermot, Athy and Reban. At Castledermot the Franciscans saw their friary destroyed, their vestments, books and furniture carried away by the Scots. The Anglo-Normans opposed this mighty army near Ardscull but failed to defeat them. Although Bruce held the field there were severe losses on both sides. Bruce, the self-styled king of Ireland, then crossed the ford into Laois and Offaly before turning north for Ulster and an early death at Faughart near Dundalk. He was the brother of the great Robert Bruce, king of Scotland.
The 14th century was a disastrous time for the Anglo-Normans. The Black Death or bubonic plague, brought to Ireland by rats in 1347, carried off a quarter of the population in cities and towns. There were six outbreaks of the disease in the space of 40 years. By 1382, half the Anglo-Norman population had been carried off by pestilence and their hold over the countryside had greatly weakened. Few details about the Dominicans survive the wreck of time. At this time the Dominicans in Ireland were eager for independence from the English province. This reflected a national feeling shared by many Anglo-Norman leaders who were famously becoming more Irish than the Irish themselves. The Dominicans may have had Norman names, but their work was among the ‘mere Irish’: they had a foot in both camps. Meanwhile the military struggle between the Norman colonists and the dispossessed Irish went on. O’More and O’Dempsey were defeated near Kilkea Castle in 1414. Soon after, the lord lieutenant repaired the bridge at Athy and put a new tower on it, and a “great fortification.” Yet the Irish encroached again until 1420 when the viceroy came to the Red Ford in Athy where he slew “many of the kin and terrible army of O’More; and the sun stood still for three hours until the English had destroyed the Irish.”
During the 1300s there were many among the colonists who claimed it was no sin to kill and Irishman. In 1366, one of the many Statutes of Kilkenny forbade friars to admit Irish novices. Even if some within the Pale followed this ruling, there had been a change of heart a century later when two Dominicans of Athy had definitely Irish names.
So far as the Dominicans were concerned, the Observant Reform in Ireland was almost entirely confined to Connacht where it began in 1426 with the foundation of a new priory at Portumna.Granted, the movement started at Longford in precisely the same year, but it never flourished in Leinster as it did beyond the Shannon. So far as Athy is concerned there is little more than a suggestion that they were interested.
When the colonists drew the line of their famous Pale, a double-ditch, in 1495 it came no further south than Kilcullen, leaving Athy to fend for itself. Fitzgerald, Earl of Kildare, then built another castle to defend the bridge, a little upstream and on the same side as the Dominican priory. White Castle, as it is called, still stands there today. This was one of six castles in which Silken Thomas Fitzgerald maintained a garrison during his rash rebellion (1534-35). After his execution at Tyburn another band of marauders under Donald McCare Kavanagh attached Athy in 1539, burning ‘all the buildings’ of the Dominican priory. This combination of rebellion in Kildare and attack from Laois played into the hands of Henry VIII, who wanted secure borders guaranteed by loyal men. He would reward their loyalty, as he had done already in England, with the land and property of suppressed religious houses. The few who stood up to that brutal despot paid for it with their blood. During 1539 Kavanagh had simply attacked the priory at Athy in June. King Henry, being more thorough, just took it ‘into his own hands’ in August. Robert Woulff, the last prior, withdrew with his small community, to find employment as curates in the neighbourhood or simply to move on towards Connacht to take refuge in communities which Henry VIII was unable to ‘take into his hands’. It was the end of an era, for the same monarch now styled himself ‘the only Supreme Head on Earth of the whole Church of Ireland.’
While the Irish Dominicans went into almost total eclipse, they never forgot their claim to a house in Athy. Thanks to a new policy of sending young men to Spain and Flanders for education, their numbers grew during the 1620s and their reforming leader, Ross MacGeoghegan of Westmeath, put his mind to the restoration of the Order in Leinster.
By 1627, when MacGeoghegan went out of office as provincial, there were sizeable Dominican communities once more at Dublin, Kilkenny and Mullingar. Athy too was re-established in his time.
At the time of the Confederation of Kilkenny (1641-1649) the town of Athy, because of its strategic importance, was besieged, captured and recaptured by the various forces in the field. Some Dominicans at least, under their prior Thomas Bermingham, moved into their former priory in Athy.General Preston, fighting against the Confederation, after first severely damaging Woodstock Castle in 1648, next trained his guns on the priory which was garrisoned by Confederate soldiers from Ulster. The prior set a large wooden cross on the belfry and rallied both friars and soldiers, assuring them of God's help. One year later Fr Bermingham and his community were still at Athy when Lord Castlehaven arrived with yet another army. When the prior with some friars went out to his camp to plead for the preservation of the priory they were arrested at once. After taking Athy ‘in a few moments’, Castlehaven proceeded to burn, plunder and pillage the whole place. Then he was called away urgently to Dublin, leaving the actual demolition of the Dominican priory to others.
The arrival of Oliver Cromwell in September 1649 ushered in a decade of severe religious persecution. At Drogheda, the scene of his first military success against the Confederates, he slaughtered the entire garrison and about six priests. One of them, an army chaplain, was Richard Ovington, subprior of Ahty, who was captured after the famous siege and executed out of hand.Cromwell, the Lord Protector, may have spent only eight months in Ireland, but he has never been forgotten. Within three years his Model Army put an end to the Confederate forces forever.
The prior, Thomas Bermingham, having already survived so much, was captured soon after by Cromwellian forces and imprisoned in Dublin. He was exiled, and died at Anagni in Italy in 1655. It was time for friars to leave the country or at least to lie low. Bermingham’s successor was also forced into exile, along with many others.
After Cromwell’s death and the restoration of the monarchy in England, one of the exiles, Redmund Moore, returned and became prior of Athy in 1661. However he was imprisoned in Proudfoot Castle, a prison on the Liffey, and because of the terrible conditions, he died there in 1669. Others too suffered imprisonment at the time, since the Restoration did not bring persecution to an end.
After so much turmoil there came a break in the clouds when James II, a Catholic, succeeded to the throne in 1685. Churches and priories opened again, even in Dublin. Bishops appeared in public once again, if only for five years, because these glory days ended in 1690, at least in Leinster, with the Battle of the Boyne. The final blow was in 1698 when all bishops and friars were ordered into exile, with severe penalties for those who stayed or tried to come back. Another thirty years and more would pass before any Dominican saw Athy again.
Within fifteen years of the general exile the friars opened small chapels once again in cities like Dublin or Galway where there was safety in numbers, but in small towns like Athy it was impossible to pass unnoticed. In 1743 two young priests, both from the neighbourhood of Athy, returned to Ireland from the College of San Clemente in Rome. That college was to send many another Dominican to Athy throughout the century. Where they lived does not appear. In 1754 , after an absence of sixty years, the Dominicans returned quietly to Athy itself. Scarcely a trace of the old priory was to be seen, for a Protestant church stood on the site. Three of them lived in a thatched house in a laneway which came to be called Convent Lane in token of their presence. But once again they were routed, this time by the Catholic archbishop of Dublin, Richard Lincoln, ‘neither a man of peace nor a friend of friars.’ Still, the community survived, in twos and threes. After 1750 friars were forbidden by Rome to accept novices in Ireland itself and were put more strictly under episcopal control. By 1780 the Dominican house in Athy was the only friary of any Order in the diocese of Dublin apart from those in the capital itself. Until 1794 the Irish Dominicans still had three foreign colleges for the training of recruits, and of the three it was San Clemente in Rome that enabled the Dominican community of Athy to carry on.
The house, probably only a single-storey building, slated and whitewashed, was held on lease from the Duke of Leinster and Anthony Reeves, perhaps an estate-agent. There was also a farm, exchanged in 1806 for another at Gallows Hill which they improved with a stone-wall and gateposts.They grew their own barley, potatoes and oats, and had meadow enough for a cow, with a pig, hens and beehives for good measure. Even so, the end of each year left them with only a shilling or two to spare.
One has to wait until 1835 before the account-books first note the regular purchase of ‘wine and wafers for the altar’. Before this they did not have a chapel of their own. In 1837 they had moved into what was described in that year as ‘a modern building... with a small domestic chapel, near the entrance to Athy from the Dublin road.’ This too was a single-storey building.
In 1846 they bought a fine house called Riversdale a little downstream from the bridge on the western side of the Barrow. Little did they know what disasters were about to strike. Between 1846 and 1847 the Great Famine led to the death of more than a thousand people in the workhouse at Athy. Another thousand and more left the town for a better life in England or America. It was not till 1850 that the Dominicans took possession of their new premises. They immediately began to adapt some of the outhouses and stables for use as a church. They also hoped to have a small school there for boys, inspired perhaps by the recent success in that line of their confrères in Newbridge.
For the Irish Dominicans as a whole, the 1850s was a time of reform and revival marked by the establishment of a central novitiate at Tallaght and a new emphasis on the essentials of conventual life. In Athy they set about the enlargement and improvement of the chapel between 1864 and 1867.
It is hard to visualise now what came to be called ‘the old church’, demolished in 1973. By 1959 it was past repair. Fr Philip Pollock, prior of Athy from 1961 to 1967 travelled much of post-war Europe, with the architect James Thompson, to see the latest church architecture. They were particularly struck by two churches in France, one at Ronchamp and the other at the monastery of La Tourette. They returned with plans that would revolutionise church building in Ireland. The new St Dominic’s was opened on 17 March 1965.