So here we arrive at the last site of my recent exploration of the town of Athy in Kildare, The ruined Church of St. Michael or Teampall Mhichil as it is known in Gaelic, The church is situated within the grounds of a ruined medieval graveyard. St. Michaels is without doubt one of the oldest ruins I have had the privilege to explore and photograph. Although it is believed to have been built in the 14th century, I am without doubt that some form of ecclesiastical settlement existed on this site prior to this.
The early settlement of Athy by those Norman invaders is noted as having not one but two monasteries, soon after the Anglo-Norman invasion, One was established on the west bank of the river Barrow, by Richard de St. Michael, Lord of Rheban, in 1253, for the order of Crouched friars, whom I have never heard of before and unfortunately cannot find any information on. The second settlement on the east bank, which was established by the families of Boisle or Boyle and Hogan, sometime in the 13th century, for the Dominican order or the Preaching friars as they were also known. The earliest mention of the site at St. Michaels I could find dates back to 1297 when a Thomas Grennam allegedly stole oats from St. Michaels. By 1657 the church was found to be in a poor state of repair by the Kildare Inquisition; however it would appear that the town continued to use the church until a new one was built in the town centre in the early 18th century.
The remaining ruins of the church are almost a pile of rubble with only the bare four walls partially standing. Much of the structure has been badly damaged and eroded, with very few of its original features surviving. The parallel sided medieval doorway which is missing its arch is located in the south wall of the Church but is not believed to be part of the original structure. It is believed that the churches dedication to St. Michael may have come from the St. Michael family, whom were the Anglo-Norman Barons of Rheban and Lords of the Manor of Woodstock at the time and it is quite probable that it was this family who were the founders of the church.
Another theory suggests that the name could also possibly be a dedication to St. Michael who is usually portrayed as a dragon slayer and whose protection was often sought especially when Churches were being built on sites which had previous pagan associations. Research has shown that the medieval Church located in St. Michael’s Cemetery on the Dublin road was the first Parish Church in Athy. St. Michael’s Cemetery, it seems has been the main burial ground for the people of Athy for hundreds of years. As the church was built outside the confines of the town walls it is most likely that the church was built to serve the native Irish people of the town.
The cemetery I found to be of more visual interest with a fine collection of various grave markers from elaborate crosses, Table tombs to broken grave slabs. There are some really beautifully crafted headstones to be found. Surrounding the cemetery are a number of Irish Yew trees, regarded as a symbol of immortality, (hence the legend associated with Vampires, ‘Only a stake made from the Yew branch would truly kill the un-dead). It is believed that King Edward I whom ordered Yew trees be planted around religious sites due to the protection given to church buildings by their tight knitted growth. It is interesting to note that the ground level on the south side of the church is much higher than the North-side which suggests that the South-side was a more popular place for burials to take place. On a final note if you observe the layout of how the graves are positioned, you will see that the corpses are facing the sun rising in the east, Now I don’t know if this was some form of medieval tradition or was done by complete coincidence but the newer cemetery from the 1960’s does not appear to have followed suit.