Journal Volume 5 2006

A Church for Rathdrum (continued/3)

A Visitor in 1834

Let us examine a description of those times, written by a priest who hid his name under the pen-name of ‘John O’Toole’, and who subsequently wrote a history of the Clan O’Byrne as memoirs. We will split up the thread of his story to serve our purposes.

‘Mr. O’Toole’ in the preface to his book recalls the way in which he left his College in 1834, and said that having received a note from the Parish Priest of Rathdrum – one of his deceased father’s earliest and most steadfast friends – inviting him to spend a weekend with him, he, instead of answering the invitation, determined to proceed to him at once – ‘and oh, the delight of that day’s journey on the top of a coach, through Little Bray, over the Dargle Bridge, through the Glen of the Downs, the wooded ravine of Dunran, and up the steep hill that rises above the valley of Avonmore.’ ‘Where,’ he asked one of the loungers standing at the stage, ‘does Father D ------ (whom we can identify as Father Doyle) live?’ Surprisingly enough, he says that, having crossed a little bridge his guide preceded him through Rathdrum, and then turning to the left, pursued his way up a road so straight that ‘Mr. O’Toole’ could not lose sight of him.

‘Instead of keeping pace with him, I halted as if spellbound, by the exceeding beauty of the landscape … mountains of gracefully undulating outline, dense woods almost concealing from view the Vale of Clara with its flashing river, and terminating all, at the bridge-foot of the mill, the clank of those wheels, softened by the foaming race, was distinctly audible in the slumberous stillness of that hot August day. Here for me was a vision of beauty in all its freshness. It is, said I to myself, one of nature’s masterpieces. I will hang it up for ever in memory’s best gallery.’ A couple of minutes brought him to his friend’s door, where he awaited the visitor.

On his first evening with Fr. Doyle, he tells us he was formally presented to two friends – an aged priest, Pastor of a neighbouring parish, whose name was (as he put these things) Fr. G ------ . We can identify Fr. Grant of Wicklow, who was a native of Rathdrum parish. The other was Mr. C ------ , ‘who, I thought, from his general bearing must be fond of field sports. He had come from another county (Kilkenny) and settled in Rathdrum … .’ This we can safely assume was Mr. James Comerford, who built the Rathdrum flower mills after purchasing the existing buildings from a Dr. Tomlinson around 1830. The last Comerford associated with the mills was Mr. Edwin Comerford, and following his demise the mills were closed for about three years in the 1950s and later were sold. In the 1960s they were the property of the Wicklow Co-Operative Agricultural Society, with headquarters in Ashford. The milling of animal feeding stuffs took place at Rathdrum mills, as well as drying and storing of wheat. About the same time the Comerford’s beautiful residence, Ard Avon, built in 1863, was sold to the Co. Wicklow Vocational Education Committee and was one of the country’s most commodious and beautifully situated technical schools.

In the course of the first evening’s conversation, mention having been made of the Flannel Hall ‘Mr. O’Toole’ asked what it was?

‘The hall,’ replied Fr. Doyle, ‘was built by one of the Fitzwilliam family long ago, and was once a famous mart for the sale of flannel. That branch of the trade failing, the hall was turned into a prison during the troubles of ’98, and you may still see over the parapet, the spikes on which the heads of the unfortunate rebels, as they called them, were impaled. It is a grim Golgotha to look at, but my predecessor, Fr. Kavanagh, induced the Earl Fitzwilliam to lend us the corridor, which we use for sacred purposes. Some short time ago, while the Protestant Church was undergoing repairs, the Episcopalians had their heels upon our heads, for they occupied a small room above us, and a sect, which I believe originated with an obscure fanatic in the town, assembled two or three dozen of them next door to ourselves – in fact, it was and is a sort of Noah’s Ark. We have, however, three edifices in the parish which have pretensions to be called churches – Clara, Macreddin and Greenane. The latter was burned in ’98, but was rebuilt by my worthy predecessor. You must see them before you leave, and Greenane especially which stands at the head of historic Glenmalure.’

‘Mr. O’Toole’ visited Glendalough, and returning, he thought over the memoirs written by Fr. Kavanagh which had been given to him by Fr. Doyle, He regretted that they were confined completely to his experiences while serving as a chaplain in the Navy, and did not cover his experiences around the ’98 period at home. Fr. Kavanagh had been ordained in the Irish College, Nantes, France, and came to Rathdrum shortly after 1783 when he had been visiting Spain, and had he continued his memoirs on shore ‘he would have told us much of far greater moment than his adventures afloat … . Living during ’98 he had ample opportunity to jot down what he saw, and if he had done so, we would now possess a narrative of unequalled importance on the religious and political conditions of Wicklow at that momentous period.’


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