Monasterevin, for many the name evokes an image of a gray town where delays have to be endured when traveling to or from Dublin. To many new arrivals it is a dormitory town well served by road and rail to take skilled workers to jobs in Dublin and North Kildare.
However it may surprise the reader to hear the area described as a Neolithic Crossroads, a place of Political Intrigue, a stronghold of Orangism, and a center of Industrial Innovation, but these are all historically accurate. There’s much more to Monasterevin than meets the eye.
Monasterevin is situated on the border of Counties Kildare and Laois. The towns and districts of Rathangan, Kildare, Portarlington and Athy surround the parish. The main geographical features of the countryside are the Barrow River, its tributaries, the extensive bogland and the limestone outcrop of Moore Abbey Hill. More than anything else, it is location that has shaped the history of Monasterevin.
In prehistoric times glacial activity shaped the landscape. The melt water from the retreating ice-sheet formed outwash plains of gravel to the east and west. These are of course the Curragh and Heath. The land between is mainly limestone and proved an ideal path for the River Barrow, fed by its tributaries the Black and the Figile.
Evidence of the early Stone Age is sketchy but traces of Neolithic man in the area are more plentiful. A dolmen, now collapsed, once marked the burial of some important tribal potentate in a local townland. During the Barrow drainage hundreds of stone axe heads were found on the riverbed at each of the three major crossing points that occur within the town. Their presence may indicate the importance of Monasterevin as a fording point on the mystical Baru. Neolithic travelers may have sacrificed the valuable axe heads to the spirit of the Barrow or Baru. Or they may have been placed in the shallow water to mark the significance of crossing the boundary between two peoples.
The importance of Monasterevin as a boundary or interface between “them and us” is a recurring theme throughout history.
The Bronze Age in Monasterevin was the age of the small farmer as evidenced by several earthwork enclosures. One such is the earthwork enclosure just above the town referred to as the Aquafort, resting as it does on the spit of land where the River Figile joins the River Barrow. At the time it would have been in use the water level was much higher meaning that approaching the defenses was more difficult.
This was also the heroic age of ancient Ireland when the sagas of Fionn and the Fianna were being laid down.
The pattern of fortified settlement continues into the Iron Age. We also know that by this time the bogland around Monasterevin was fully formed. Traversing these areas would have been difficult but the importance of the fords on the Barrow meant that some solution had to be found. The equivalent of the M7 motorway was needed and indeed it was provided by what is known as “The Danes Road”. It was built by laying large rough-hewn planks and a foundation of brushwood on boggy ground. This base spread the weight of the gravel layer on top allowing the roads to be used by chariots St. Brigid is said to have ordered the construction of such a road.
The establishment of Christianity in Ireland happened in a gradual way culminating with the arrival of St. Patrick in the 6th century. Contemporary with St. Patrick was St. Abban of New Ross . He established a monastic settlement by the banks of the River Barrow at Rosglas and gave it into the charge of his protégé Evin.
St. Evin brought a number of monks with him from his native Munster. This gained the settlement the name Rosglos-na-Moinneach (the green wood of the Munstermen). Saint Evin was politically astute; today he would be called a spin-doctor. He secured special status for the Monasterevin area placing it outside the common law, making it a sanctuary. His famous bell was used for swearing oaths and was much in demand by tribes of the region for guaranteeing peace treaties. St. Evin also co-authored the “Tripartite life of St. Patrick”. Other writing by Evin survives including the “Cain Emhin”.
St. Evin’s monastery died out about the time of the Viking raids in Ireland. Its importance continued. In 903 AD the battle of Ballaghmoon was fought for the ownership of the church.
The next religious establishment on the site was in the 12th century when the Cistercian Abbey was founded under the patronage of Dermot O’Dempsey. This began a long connection with Mellifont in Co. Louth the Cistercian motherhouse overall Ireland and Baltinglass in Co.Wiclow the motherhouse of Monasterevin. At this time the O’Dempsey’s were the rulers of the area, which was part of the territory of Clanmaliere. The O’Dempsey’s remained involved with the Abbey providing the last abbot in Monasterevin Hugh O’Dempsey.
Once again the importance of Monasterevin as a crossing point on the Barrow asserted itself and the town came under the opposing influences of the O’Mores of Laois, the Hiberno Norman Earls of Kildare and the English Pale. Abbots of Monasterevin therefore had to inherit St. Evin’s talent for politics. Abbots of Monasterevin held a seat in the Irish Parliament while assisting outlaws and rebels against the crown of England.
By 1427 Rosglas had fallen on hard times and in 1541 the Abbey was handed over to Henry the VIII of England as part of his reformation. He in turn leased it to his nobles. During the Elizabethan period there were several occupants including Sir Robert Devereaux, Earl of Essex after whom Essex Bridge is named (commonly called the Pass Bridge because he passed over it on his way to his disastrous campaign against the native Irish in Munster. It is not recorded whether he passed that way again on his way to the headsman block in the Tower of London.
King James I granted the Abbey and demesne of Rosglas at Monasterevin to Sir Adam Loftus in 1613. The Earls of Drogheda married into the Loftus family. Charles Lord Moore Earl of Drogheda married Jane Loftus in 1699. Their son Edward became the Forth Earl who sold the Mellifont estates and transferred the family seat to Monasterevin.
The coming of the Moores marks an important point in the history of Monasterevin. It’s rise as the “Venice of Ireland” was encouraged by the many improvement works undertaken by the family and the influx of a mixed Protestant and Catholic merchant class. The First Earl had laid out the streets at the center of Dublin, Drogheda ( O’Connell) Street Moore Street, Henry Street and Mary Street. His descendents continued this tradition of town planning by laying out the grid-pattern of the town with the parallel Main Street and Drogheda Street which were connected by several crossing streets and lanes some of which have disappeared.
Monasterevin has an unusual number of Bridges giving rise to the appellation the Venice of Ireland. Arriving in 1786 the Grand Canal lends support to this name. Originally the spur connecting the main line the Barrow in Athy was carried down the bank by locks in to Barrow and up the other side.
The Grand Canal allowed the local distilling industry to flourish. The captains of this industry were the Cassidy Family who’s whisky and their St. Patrick Cross Pale Ale became world famous. The wealth they acquired gave them considerable influence in the locality. In 1798 Cassidy was the local magistrate.
On the 25th of May 1798 insurgents from the surrounding countryside marched on the town of Monasterevin in an attempt to capture it. The Battle of Monasterevin took place in the Main Street opposite St. John’s church, which had been fortified by local yeomanry and militiamen. A charge by the Monasterevin Yeomanry Cavalry routed the insurgents.
Later in the year Fr. Edward Prendergast was arrested and condemned to death for administering to the insurgent in their camp in Iron Hill near Nurney. He was hanged in the garden of Monasterevin House and buried there. Captain Padraig O’Bierne and a group of Derryoughter boatmen stole into the town under cover of darkness and removed the body to his home place of Harristown.
The 19th century was marked by further improvements to the town infrastructure including the building of a new Town Bridge in 1832 and the arrival of the railway. The area was largely unaffected by the widespread mass evictions of the era, the Drogheda’s being generally account good landlords. The Great Famines of the 1840’s also left the area relatively un-ravaged.
The poet Gerard Manley Hopkins visited the town on seven occasions.
The rise of Nationalism at the turn of the 20th century was well supported in the area. In 1900 the Monument to Fr. Prendergast was erected by popular subscription of the Nationalists of the town and surrounding districts.
The Gordon Bennet Motor Race 1903, the first of its kind takes place Monasterevin hosts a stage of the high-speed race.
During the Great War Many young men from the town and surrounding areas joined the Leinster Regiment and Connaght Rangers. Many died on the Western Front and of those that returned many were physically or physiological scarred.
During the War of Independence the rail lines around Monasterevin and Kildangan were the chief targets of IRA action. The population suffered the attentions of the Black and Tans on their way down the country.
From 1925 Count John McCormack was the tenant of Moore Abbey. The world famous tenor entertained many famous guests during his years in the house. As well as recording his albums in the Great Hall one of the scenes from his film Song of My Heart was filmed in the grounds.
During the Emergency of 1939-45 Monasterevin prepared to defend itself against any aggressor by raising its own Local Defense Force, preparing its famous bridges for demolition, and building a pillbox to defend the town. The engineering works of Samuel E. Holmes produced grenades for the army.
In 1975 Monasterevin made international headlines. On the morning of the 21st of October Gardai surrounded a house in St. Evin’s Park. Inside were the kidnappers of Dr. Tiede Herrema The “Siege at Monasterevin” lasted seventeen days ending on the 7th of November with the surrender of the kidnappers and the freedom of Dr. Herrema.
This brings us to the modern era and recent history such as the reopening of the Railway Station and the bypassing of the town by the M7 Motorway.