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LOOKING INTO LOCAL HISTORY

Excerpt from a series of articles by Patrick C. Power
published in The Nationalist in 1985

The Fethard Story
Part 3

The 19th century opened for Fethard with the loss of its two members of Parliament. This meant nothing for any Catholic in the town and for most Protestants either. The Borough of Fethard was what we call a pocket- borough. It was in the gift of Lord Lismore of Shanbally near Clogheen.

Fethard was a garrison town. A map in Dublin castle drawn by a British army officer in 1814 shows that there were forty two cavalry in the town and forty six infantry. This was small compared to Clonmel where 194 cavalry were stationed in that year and as many as 987 infantry.
In 1815 a Travellers Guide to Ireland has this to say about Fethard town at that time: “….formerly a walled town and deemed a place of considerable importance, it now exhibits a ruinous decayed and impoverished aspect, destitute of all kinds of traffic, but the vending of liquors….” Very sad. However, with the fertility of the surrounding countryside for flour mills flourished, although the continued prosperity of Clonmel progressed without interruption throughout the century. It cannot be stressed enough that Fethard’s one time importance is an odd phenomenon which seems to defy the laws of medieval urban development. All that can be said is that the burgesses and people of the town were extraordinarily successful in these olden days and had drive and initiative to an unusual degree.

Religious tensions
A rather curious and odd note about Fethard may be made on a letter sent to Dublin Castle in January 1814. It illustrates the religious tensions of the time which are nowadays scarcely credible. The letter was from John Pallister to Bagwell of Marlfield, who sent it to Dublin. The Protestants of the town, we hear, were afraid that catholic Emancipation might be granted and organised an anti-Catholic petition in the town and district. The list of those who had signed it was posted up in Fethard and Catholics were urged not to have any business dealings with any of the signatories.
A war of nerves was started with shots being fired in the “suburbs of the town”, as the writer says, each night to frighten the Protestants and make them fear that a massacre was on the way. The magistrates of the neighbouring areas met in the town to consider the matter and the best they could recommend was “to disperse them (the Catholics) at their dancing and their hurling.” This silly recommendation was eventually dismissed by someone who pointed out that the people could assemble elsewhere if they were dispersed. We must remember that the Catholics were in the majority even then in the town and district.

Strolling players
In 1829 Catholic Emancipation was eventually granted. The good magistrates of the town were so nervous when dealing with the large Catholic proletariat in that year that they acted strangely when a group of actors and entertainers visited the town. People of evil disposition, said one gentleman, might use the occasion for riot and disorder because the show was to be produced in the open air. When it was suggested by the strolling players that the show could be produced indoors, there were similar objections. The poor players left without earning a penny, but the establishment which controlled the local press in the county praised the players for their loyal co-operation when they could have been more difficult to deal with.
In spite of all the anti-Catholic feelings and manifestations, the year 1820 was marked by the virtual resurrection of the old abbey from its death at the Reformation. Father Thomas Condon of the Order of St. Augustine secured the remains of the old abbey from its owners and fitted it out once more for services. The ancient tower of the medieval church was taken down. It stood where the street passes in front of the church nowadays. A new facade was then erected where the tower had been taken away. The final work of restoration was not completed until the 1830s when Dr. John Lonergan, successor of Father Condon, as Prior, saw the work through. Fethard Abbey is one of a small number of medieval churches that have been returned to their old use after some centuries of ruination.


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