• Morgan Fagg

The Church That Never Said Mass

Updated: Jul 13, 2018

Published in the Athlone Voice

300-year-old Athlone Abbey celebrates first mass

MASS was celebrated for the first time in the ruins of an Athlone church abandoned during the epic battle of 1691.The mass was said within the Franciscans Abbey to mark the conclusion of the recent restoration project undertaken by Athlone Tidy Towns Committee on Wednesday, August 27th 2009.

Over 300 years, the weeds grew tall around the Abbey and the face of ancient Athlone began to change, new roads were laid, a dual carriageway was added and more recently a motorway was built. Along by the river of the ruins, a stone bridge replaced the original wooden structure and a twin-track railway bridge was established in 1840 but along this passage of time, the small church lay unused and unfinished, forgotten by all until now.

Inspired by the vision of Saint Francis of Assisi, the Franciscans came to Athlone around 1230 and are considered Athlone’s oldest family. They built their first church near the grounds of the Radisson Hotel but following a period of prosecution in the 16th century, the friars moved from the area to Friars Island.

The arrival of King James II on the English throne in 1685 gave the Franciscans confidence to rebuild a church within the walls of Athlone. The war of the two kings brought devastation to Ireland and Athlone in particular. The building was interrupted by the fighting and English troops used the abbey for protection during the siege.

Unfortunately, legislation was passed in 1697 banishing all religious orders from Ireland. With the coming of the Penal laws, the friars were forced to fade into the background. The Friars went into hiding and continued in the town registered as parish clergy.

The unroofed church soon after became the main graveyard for Athlone and was used until 1871 with occasional burials taking place up to 1940.

The most intriguing facet about the graveyard is that it may have been the site of an early Irish monastery which could even be the origin of the town itself with several grave slabs from the early Christian period discovered on the site.

Restoration work was carried out on the cemetery in the late 80s and the recent opening of the church to the public and first ever mass, mark a sign of respect and progress for the beautiful old Abbey and according to Councilor John Butler, chairman of the Tidy Towns Committee, the area will now be maintained on a regular basis and it is hoped a mass said annually.

PICTURES: Through the window of time: Gemma Connor looks out the abbey window as Senator Nicky McFadden and Cllr John Butler enjoy the first ever mass said within the 300-year-old church.

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