There has been a Christian presence in the area around Newbridge for over 1500 years, even before St. Patrick came to Ireland. According to tradition, St. Conleth, the first Bishop of the Diocese of Kildare, came from a monastery in the district of Connell. A pre-Norman monastery located at Old Connell formed the nucleus of a medieval parish. The site of the parochial church can still be seen in the burial grounds beside Old Connell House. Some of the priests who served in the area in theeighteenth century were buried there and it is likely that their predecessors were also laid to rest there. The other medieval parishes which make up the modern parish of Newbridge were Great Connell, Morristown Billar and Ballymany. It also takes in parts of the old parishes of Pollardstown and Ladytown.
At Great Connell, a Norman priory was established, which became one of the largest and wealthiest monasteries in Ireland. It was also one of the most important parts of the Norman defence of the Pale. The ruins of Great Connell once included the tomb of Walter Wellesley, one of the last priors of Great Connell and Bishop of Kildare. The tomb, which is now in St. Brigid’s Cathedral in Kildare, is one of the finest surviving Irish tomb chests of the sixteenth century. Great Connell Abbey was suppressed in 1541 and gradually fell into ruins.
As a result of the reformation all Church buildings became the property of the Established Church. The Mass continued to be said in the homes of wealthy Catholics or at other sites such as Holy Wells. At the end of the seventeenth century the penal laws came into force. They were designed to deny all wealth and power to Catholics. A number of priests were allowed to remain in Ireland, but Bishops and members of religious orders were expelled. In the area around Newbridge, the Catholic Eustace family managed to hold onto their estates and they provided support and shelter for Catholic priests during this period. They harboured a number of Dominican Friars from the former friary in Naas, on their lands at Yeomanstown, and also provided important support to the Parish of Old Connell. Fr James Eustace, who was probably a member of the extended Eustace family was Parish Priest of what is now the Parish of Newbridge at the beginning of the eighteenth century. A description of the area in 1698 gives a picture of Fr. Eustace living in relative comfort, despite his precarious position as a Catholic priest. He seems also to have been a gregarious character. By 1714 Fr. Eustace had been arrested and confined to Naas gaol under sentence of transportation. His subsequent fate is unknown.
In 1730 a ‘mass house’ was built near Newbridge, on the bank of the Liffey. Newbridge was at that time a rural place consisting of an inn beside the bridge. The site for the chapel was probably donated by the Lattin family of Morristown Lattin, who were descended from the Eustace family. It was located on what was then the main road between Naas and Newbridge but when a new bridge was built downstream at the end of the eighteenth century, the road was realigned, leaving the chapel at the end of a lane, which became known as Chapel Lane. The oldest surviving artifact in the posession of the Parish of Newbridge is a chalice, which was donated to the Parish of Old Connell in 1764 by George Lattin. By the middle of the eighteenth century the parish system was being re-established in Ireland. In Newbridge, by 1790, there were at least two schools, which had been built by the parish, and whose teachers were appointed by the parish priest.
Until the early nineteenth century Newbridge was a rural parish. This changed with the decision taken by the British Army, to construct a cavalry barracks there. This led to the emergence of an urban area. The construction of the barracks brought employment and money to the area. The local landlord built houses opposite the Barracks, which were led to various traders. The agricultural economy also benefited as food and other supplies for soldiers and horses had to be provided. The chapel was also enlarged. By 1837 there were two markets held in the town every week and it also boasted a constabulary police station, a dispensary and a school with 70 pupils.
The growth of population of the town of Newbridge led to a decision to replace the chapel. The new site was on the main road, at the top of Chapel Lane, on land belonging to the Mansfield family, who were descended from the Eustaces. The foundation stone of the new church was laid in 1847 but a lack of funds due to the poverty prevailing at the time, meant that it was not opened for worship until 1852. It is dedicated to St. Conleth and one hundred and fifty years later it continues as the Parish Church of Newbridge.
In 1875 the Holy Family Sisters came to Newbridge and took charge of the religious education of the local catholic children. Eventually they took over a Female and Infants National School in the town and in 1948 they opened a Secondary school for girls. In 1939 the Boys National School was taken over by the Patrician Brothers and in 1958 they opened a Boys secondary school.
By Mary Connolly