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DOMINICAN ORDER IN ATHY - SEVEN CENTURIES OF SERVICE

Seven centuries of service
on the banks of the Barrow in south Kildare
by
LIAM KENNY
 
 
Before 2007 disappears into the rear view mirror of history it is worth recalling one of the more prominent anniversaries which was marked towards the end of the old year. The presence of the Dominican order of priests in Athy for seven and a half centuries was commemorated in the Barrowside town last November. Accompanying the commemorative events was the publication of a booklet entitled ‘Dominicans of Athy 1257-2007’ by Fr. Hugh Fenning OP, learned member and historian of the order’s heritage.   Of course the Dominican presence in county Kildare was not confined to Athy. The college at Newbridge is well known in the present day and it, in turn, traces its roots to a mediaeval Dominican foundation in Naas. Indeed a Naas Dominican Fr. Peter Higgins, OP, is commemorated as one of the Irish martyrs who suffered in the 17th century onslaught on the Catholic church and a portrait-likeness of him is exhibited in Naas parish church.
 
However Hugh Fenning’s  publication concentrates on the Athy Dominicans  and the lengthy story of the Dominicans who occupied several locations in and around south Kildare since the the 13th century. In his eloquent summary he says that the Dominicans of Athy have seen ‘ every shade of fortune and have had their share of hunger, fire and sword’. Their presence in Athy was not one of  uninterrupted continuity – Henry the VIII’s henchmen confiscated their old abbey and forced them out of the town for some ninety years. In the following decades a priest of the Athy friary, Fr. Richard Ovington, was caught up in the siege of Drogheda and killed by Cromwell’s forces in 1649.
 
In a later decade the sub-prior of Athy, Redmund Moore, became enmeshed in the religious wars and died in a dungeon in Dublin in 1669. He had refused to fall for the persuasion of another Kildare cleric one Peter Walsh, a Castledermot-born Franciscan, who was attempting to divert the loyalties of the Catholic orders from their allegiance to the pope. In the midst of all of this harassment the remaining members of the Athy community were forced into hiding in rural locations in south Kildare such as Belan near Moone, Cloney near Monasterevin and in the remote hideouts of Derryvullagh bog. There was a further black period from 1698 which saw all clergy including the Dominicans banished from Ireland for half a century.
 
It was not until 1754 that hostility to Catholic practices had relaxed to a degree and the friars were able to resume their life of prayer and service in Athy. It is from this year that their unbroken presence in the south Kildare town begins.
 
While conditions became more amenable for religious orders there were still practical problems to be surmounted not least the sustenance of the friary from the charity of the local people. One of the customs was the ‘quest’ which saw the friars embark on missions to the neighbouring countryside bringing prayers and pastoral support to local people while also collecting alms for their friary in Athy. Accounts kept by a Fr. Kenneally who was prior for almost three decades in the early 1800s reveal an annual circuit which saw the friars travel on horseback ‘ by Cloney to Monasterevin, by Crookstown, Narraghmore and Dunlavin to Kilcullen. Eastward they followed the line of the Wicklow mountains, riding to Castledermot, Baltinglass, Rathvilly, Hacketstown, Rathdrum, Redcross and even to Glendalough.’ Working south from Athy the friars also sought food and money on a route which took in ‘ Ballyadams, Ballylynan, Wolfhill, Kilabban, Levitstown and Clonegall.’ These customary fund raising circuits were jealously guarded by the respective friaries with the Athy friars making  sure not to intrude on the fund-raising terrain of their confreres in Newbridge and Kilkenny.
 
Fast forward to the early twenty-first century and the biggest challenge facing the Dominicans in Athy is not so much one of funds as of manpower. As Fr. Fenning remarks in the concluding lines of his booklet ‘ All seems tranquil now for the Dominicans in Athy, but what of tomorrow? New dangers loom as the friars grow old and numbers drop not only in Athy, but across the western world … one can only pray to the Lord of the harvest to send labourers into his vineyard.’
 
It would be ironic indeed if the Dominicans in Athy, and indeed all other religious congregations and diocesan clergies, having survived seven centuries and more of repression, harassment and hardship were to fade from view in our modern era of relative peace and plenty.
 
Reference: ‘ Dominicans of Athy 1257-2007’ by Hugh Fenning, OP, available from St. Dominic’s, Athy, tel 059 8631573.
 
Series no 49

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