St. Mary's parish, Athlone, in the county of Westmeath, occupies the North Eastern corner of the Diocese of Clonmacnois and touches on one side the Diocese of Meath, and on the other the Diocese of Elphin. The parish is co-extensive with the barony of Brawney, the district in Westmeath ruled over by the ancient family of the O'Briens, descendants of Niall of the Nine Hostages.
For a long time the name was preserved only in the townland of Carrick O'Brien, but more recently a new estate has been built in the parish with the name Brawney.The parish itself only came into existence in its present form in the mid-1400s, with the division of the previous parish of Ballyloughloe into the parishes of Athlone, Kilcleagh and Ballyloghloe.
St. Mary's parish takes up an area of some 10,070 acres on the east bank of the Shannon, and the 1986 diocesan census recorded a population of 13,273 Catholics, and some 357 non-Catholics (The population of the parish in 1950 was 5,896, which had risen in 1955 to 6,297).
Given that the population of Westmeath increased by 10% between 2002 and 2006, and observing the amount of building in the area, it is probable that the present population of the parish is considerably larger.
It is hard to extrapolate anything close to exact figures, however, and it is important to remember that the population of Athlone town is split between this parish and that of St. Peter and Paul, on the western side of the Shannon.
Tradition has it that there has been a church dedicated to Our Lady in the parish as far back as the beginning of the 12th century. The Franciscans arrived in 1235 and did have a church called St. Mary's, possibly on the site what is now the Radisson Hotel. Later on, in pre-Reformation times, the parish church was on the site of the present St. Mary's Church of Ireland. In 1603, the Catholics briefly repossessed their church here, but then a new church was built, of which the tower still remains.
In 1651 the Puritans (Cromwell's forces) occupied the town and Catholics were expelled, though gradually allowed to return as labour. The priests were outlawed, with a price of £5 on their head.
After the Reformation, the next site we know of was in Irishtown (at the present day western end St Patrick's Terrace), which served as the parish church until 1795. In that year, a new church was built in Mardyke Street, on the site of what was the Royal Hoey carpark, and is now part of the new Gallico development, and served until the present St. Mary's was completed in 1861.
The foundation stone of St. Mary's was laid by Bishop Kilduff, a native of the parish, on 29th June 1857., in the presence of several thousand people. The architect was John Bourke (who had worked on the design of St. Mel's Cathedral), though the commonly held belief of the people was that Fr. Kieran Kilroe, the parish priest, was himself the contractor. Fr. Kilroe definitely involved a lot of voluntary labour in the construction of the church, and many people can tell of the work that their forebears performed, giving freely of their services, often after a day's work.
The church was opened in October 1861, after an estimated cost of £14,000, and "from every part of the surrounding country crowds flocked in… and gave it the appearance of a continental church on a great festival". Also present were Dr. Cullen, Archbishop of Dublin, the Archbishop of Clonfert, and the Bishops of Meath, Galway and Limerick.
Within 4 years, both priests of the parish--Fr. Kilroe, P.P, and Fr. Dardis, C.C, - had died (16th and 12th July, respectively), to the grief of the parishioners. It was generally considered that the health of both had suffered much during the construction of the church. There is a fine marble memorial to Fr. Kilroe inside the porch on the right hand side, showing him presenting the church to Our Lady, with Jesus on her knee.
The tower and spire are 180ft high, surmounted by an ornamental cross, and still commands the skyline of Athlone, despite the frenetic building of recent years. St. Mary's is built in the style termed 'Early English', and is a fine example of Gothic architecture, built with locally quarried limestone.
It was said to be "one of the best proportioned in the British Isles". The tower has ornamental designs from bottom to top, and much craftsmanship was needed to execute the outer stonework of the church, such as the Corinthian type pillars framing the gallery windows.
Cardinal Wiseman regarded the church as being "unsurpassed in the picturesque gracefulness of its exterior, and pleasing general effect of its interior". Inside, the massive granite cylindrical pillars support ten pointed arches, five each side of the nave.
The nave has an elaborate cross-braced timber roof with decorative openwork hammerbeams, a remarkable architectural achievement. In Stained glass, four nationalities are involved. The main East window behind the altar depicts the Resurrection, was designed at Amiens, and purchased at the Paris Exhibition of 1878.
The large window in the North transept is by Meyres of Munich showing the Sacred Heart, and the corresponding one in the South transept depicting the Assumption, is by Hardman of Birmingham. The windows in the aisles and clerestory are by Earley of Dublin, and were presented by Dr. Curley, Archbishop of Baltimore, a native of the parish.
The windows of the mortuary chapel (built in 1939), now the sacristy (since 1974), were by Harry Clarke Studios, Dublin. A fine organ was purchased from John Whyte, Dublin in 1869, and was extensively renovated in 1946. Some of our oldest parishioners can remember hearing Count John McCormack singing to its accompaniment.
To coincide with the centenary of the church in 1957, the present Stations of the Cross, by George Collie, RHA, were put in place. The centenary was marked by the consecration of St. Mary's.
Following the Second Vatican Council, the church was modernised and re-dedicated in 1974. Many consider that the church was thereby stripped of its internal identity. They lament the removal of the lavishly carved High altar, by Leonardi, purchased in Rome, "containing specimens of the rarest of marbles", of "the highest art.
"The canopy, in perfect harmony with the rest of the building". Also removed was a fine octagonal pulpit, designed by J.J. McCarthy, architect of Maynooth College Chapel, and carved by James Pearse, father of the famed Padraig
"The body of the pulpit, composed mainly of Caen stone, was supported on a central shaft of Green Galway marble, with foliate capitlas and richly moulded bases. This shaft was surrounded by eight smaller ones in Cork red marble. In panels on six sides of the pulpit were groups carved in full relief representing the principal events in Our Lady's life.
The pulpit stood nine foot above floor level and was reached by stone steps in a marble casing."
In 2003, St. Mary's roof had to be replaced, after many leaks had developed. The heating system was also found to be in serious need of repair.
The church was closed in May to allow for this work; also to replace the floor torn up by removal of pipes; to repaint it completely; to replace the porch, including two sets of doors, and stained glass; to rewire and move the light switching to the sacristy; to build on new toilets; and to remove and renovate the seating in the church, some of which is Austrian oak, donated in 1936.
The result was a great success, resulting in a much brighter and warmer place of worship for the community. A new tabernacle was purchased, as well as the large crucifix on the right of the sanctuary.
'Cuasan' is the Irish for cave, of which there are remains between Coosan N.S. and Coosan Point. Folklore tells us that St Ciaran established a monastery on Hare Island c. 540AD, but when the Coosan people stole his only cow, he was forced to depart.
By the late 60s, it became apparent that a new church would be required for Athlone in the not too distant future. A survey with a projection for the next 20 years showed that most development was happening in the Retreat area, but more was to follow in what is now the Willow Park area, out the Ballymahon road, and from Beechpark to the Lower Coosan road.
It was felt that this broad sweep of houses would need two small churches to accommodate approx. 800 worshippers each. The site chosen for the church in the townland of Clonbrusk was 'obvious': "The new church is sited on a hill where it will quietly dominate its surroundings and be seen from a large portion of the area it will serve" (architect Noel Heavey).
Meanwhile, the site for the second proposed church at Bliary was found to be unnecessary and was sold. At the time there was some disagreement with the choice of the Clonbrusk site which, it was said, was far from populous and never likely to be.
We can see today that Fr McKeown, Adm., was indeed far-sighted.
Coosan lies on the line of the Esker Riada, a band of sand, gravel and rock deposited in an East/West line across the centre of the country during the melting of the ice-age glaciers. The church site, in a field known as 'The Bleach' (flax was grown in the area, and the name indicates a linen bleaching green), was typical of this terrain. Under the topsoil lies almost total rock, which was used as a solid foundation, thus saving enormously on the cost of building. (The final cost of £116,000 confirms this - including furniture, Tabernacle, screens etc.).
Fundraising took place by 'planned giving', whereby householders/earners were invited to donate regularly via an envelope system. These weekly amounts varied for people between one shilling to two shillings sixpence. The fundraising was a great success, beginning in 1969, and by the dedication of the church, almost £64,000 had been raised.
The first sod was turned by Bishop Cahal B. Daly in August 1971, in the presence of Fr McKeown, Fr Pat Earley and some hundred parishioners. The church was dedicated by Bishop Daly on Sunday, 12th August, 1973.
The sermon was preached by the Bishop of Elphin, Dr. Dominic Conway. Among others present were Canon McKeown, and three natives of the parish, Fr Brendan Hynds, Fr Micheal Ryan and Fr Michael Scanlon.
The Bishop prayed, 'May this daughter church of Clonbrusk reflect from this Coosan hill-top the light of faith, the warmth of loyalt and love and family spirit, which since 1861 has radiated from St Mary's on its answering height'. It is worth quoting some of the now Cardinal Daly's foreword to the souvenir booklet. 'To build a new church today is an act of courage and even defiance.
It is a protest against a materialistic society and against an economy governed by profit and pleasure. In economic terms, a church building is non-productive and non-profit-making… Communism and capitalism are agreed that … for both of them, a church is useless, it is no earthly use….
But we know that the things that are of earthly use are of no eternal value. This is one of the most fundamental messages of the Gospel… What a church stands for and this alone will outlast time and stand secure for ever…
The worship of God cannot be separated from concern for the welfare of the people. The Word of God which we hear at Mass is the Word which sends us out to 'love one another as He has loved us'
A church which is a living God-centre, where a community of people learn to live with God in the midst of them, is the best guarantee that that community will know how to live with one another in peace and security…
We need this new church in Coosan if we are to succeed in building a new human community around it… if we can develop here even a share of the spirit of St Mary's Parish, then this building will have brought treasure on earth as well as in heaven. The dedication to Mary, Queen of Peace is fitting… her existence was totally yes to God's will and love... Her intercession and her example will bring it about that at last the barriers between Irishmen will be broken down and all will come to see that they are brothers.'
The following is taken from an article by the architect, Noel Heavey, also in the booklet. "The pyramid shaped roof has its spire-like apex off-centre directly over the sanctuary and is clad in a relatively inexpensive aluminium-coated felt which will mellow into its surroundings and blend with the neutral grey domestic brickwork on the walls of the building.
The church is planned as a square 94' x 94' to seat approx. 800m people. Modern methods of steel roof construction allow this space to be simply and economically roofed without pillars or physical barriers to participation in the liturgy.
The square shape with the sanctuary in one corner on the diagonal axis allows the natural and fluid gathering of the congregation around and close to the altar, making the individual aware that they form a community with the Spirit and with the other members of the congregation.
This natural grouping of the congregation is reflected in the circular form of the predella. A see-through timber screen forms a Blessed Sacrament chapel, while at the same time allowing the Tabernacle to be part of the church proper. The Tabernacle is on a granite pillar, matching the altar and the ambo. The Baptistry is located close to the sanctuary, where the community can see, hear and take an active part in the celebration of the sacrament.
The sacristy is at the main entrance to facilitate the formal procession at the beginning and end of the ceremonies. The corner position of the sanctuary allows focus on the altar by the sharp convergence of the planes of wall, floor and roof.
This emphasis is highlighted by the concentration of natural light from the coloured glass in the pyramid spire overhead. The internal planes of the ceiling are divided into triangular shaped coffers. Each is a small spiral pyramid with a coloured glass roof light at the apex giving a spread of quiet light throughout the building.
The walls and ceilings are finished in plain unpainted tyrolean plaster. The floors are mipolam vinyl tiles." As can be seen, parts of this are quite different to what we see in Our Lady Queen of Peace church today. To sum up briefly, in 1991 Fr Sean Casey had to deal with the leaks in the roof.
The leaks were caused by 'thermal shock' to the original roofing material (Verel) much used in the 1970s, but which later was found to be unsatisfactory at dealing with extremes of heat and cold. A decision was taken to replace the roof with blue Bangor natural slate. This massive extra roof weight necessitated required considerable internal structural modifications. The skylights were gone, and with them the multicoloured shafts of light from the ceiling.
To compensate somewhat, more glass was included in the spire. The predella was widened, raised and brought much further forward, with an extra step.
The Tabernacle came forward some 6 feet, a screen put behind it, the wooden screens removed and replaced by the present plasterboard wings. Artificial lighting was replaced with the present up/down-lighters.
The sacristy area was changed, wheelchair access was improved, public toilets were installed and altar servers' room added. With the new roof, new guttering had to be installed, and the profile of the canopy around the building and doors was reduced.
To mark the 30th anniversary of the church, a Grotto of Our Lady was constructed and was dedicated and blessed by Bishop Colm O'Reilly on 31st August 2003.
In 1241, only 15 years after the death of St Francis, the first Franciscans were already in Athlone. They had a convent near the North Gate of the town, probably on or near the site of the Radisson Hotel. This house survived many ups and downs until the mid-sixteenth century, when it was repressed by the Tudors.
The Franciscans survived around Athlone, with many willing to befriend them. By 1618 their friary was a ruin, but by 1626 they had established a new house at Killinure. By 1651 they were living on an island in Lough Ree.
When James II came to the throne in 1685, Catholic hopes were raised, and in Athlone the friars set about building a new church. But James was defeated at the Boyne and fled. The church remained unfinished. Soon followed a wave of penal enactments to destroy the hopes of a restoration.
An Act of 1697 decreed that all Popish clergy be banished. One of the first to suffer was Fr Francis Dillon, for 20 years the guardian of the Athlone friars, who was arrested and deported in 1698. The same happened to Fr Luke Tyrell in 1742. In 1744 a priest-hunter reported that there had been 14 friars around Athlone, but that they had all scattered before he could lay hands on them.
But the Friars still had a friary in Athlone, and Provincial Chapters were held there from 1751 to 1836.