Rathdowney is mentioned in historical writings as early as 874 A.D. and 909 A.D., but there is no doubt the area was inhabited as far back as 3,500 B.C. The name Rathdowney appears to have been derived from a Rath that once stood near the site of the present Protestant Church at the top of the Square.

This Rath was levelled in 1820 and found to contain thousands of human bones (but curiously no human skulls). The Domhnaig part of Rathdowney refers either to a green meadow, Tamhnaig, or to the Church, Domhnaig. There appears to be strong links between Donaghmore and St. Patrick, who passed through that village regularly. St. Brigid has links with the ancient ruined church at Ballybuggy, St. Colmcille has links with the one-time parish of Rathsaren and St. Kieran with Errill.

Rathdowney never had a church from the time of the Reformation to 1820 when the old Catholic Church (which occupied the present shrine in the centre of town) was built. This was replaced in 1950 by the present Catholic Church. The Rathdowney Protestant Church was also built in around 1820 near the famous Rath.

There were many fine castles in the area. There was a magnificent castle at Clonburren in the 17th century, the residence of Fitzpatrick, Lord of Upper Ossory. Ballagh Castle still remains for all to see. Harristown had a castle and Donaghmore Castle was well-known around 1570. Castletown and Kilbreedy had almost identical castles, but Cullohill Castle was easily the finest in these parts and much of it still proudly stands to this day. It was not until the arrival of the Brewery in the early-1800s that changes started happening and Rathdowney really became a boom town.

Prior to the Brewery, the only industries were two large corn mills at Donaghmore and the Convent Mill, plus a tanyard and some small clothing industries. There was a Protestant School in 1800 but no Catholics were educated locally until the St. John of God Sisters arrived in around 1903. The Convent School was built in 1910. The Boys School was opened in 1903. Before that time Catholics who wished to be educated attended fee-paying "Hedge Schools." These were not literally classes held in the open air, but a collection of pupils and a teacher in any private house. By 1831 the Brewery boom had increased the population of the parish to 6,664, with 1,224 living in the town itself.


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