A town steeped in history!
While the town as we know it today was established by Quakers in the mid-18th century, there is evidence of community habitation for some time. Situated on the Esker Riada, the ancient thoroughfare which connected the east and west coasts of Ireland, numerous ring forts are to be found in the countryside surrounding the town suggesting that the early settlement may have been an important staging post for traveller’s. Just outside the town in Kilbride, the remnants of a 12th century monastery testify to the existence of a vibrant religious presence. According to tradition this monastery was founded by St Brigid of Kildare (d.c 525 AD) and is linked by an ancient road to Durrow Abbey founded by St Colm Cille (St Columba). St Brigid’s original monastery, founded shortly after her religious profession – her first foundation, would have been constructed in wood consisted of a number of buildings surrounding a central church. These buildings were replaced by stone structures in the 12th century. The original parish was named after St Brigid: Kilbride (from Cill Bhride: the Church of Brigid). The ruins of an ancient church are to be found not far from the monastery at the foot of a hill (Chapel Hill) and this may have been the original parish church.
Politically the family which had a dominion over the area was the Sinnach O’Catharniagh (Fox O’Carney) clan; they were referred to as the Muinter Tadgain (people of Tadgain). The O’Catharniagh were princess of Teffia (an area in County Westmeath). The ruins of their castle, Lehinch Castle, are to be found on a hill in Kilcoursey, less than a mile from the town centre. The McAuley family are also associated with the Barony of Kilcoursey. Mass rocks are also to be found in the hills outside the town, having provided secret places for Catholics to worship during the persecution which followed the Reformation.
The Fox family owned much of the district up until the 1650’s. Following the involvement of the Chieftain, Hubert Fox in a rebellion in the 1640’s – he was defending Catholic interests against the Puritan Oliver Cromwell who came to Ireland to suppress uprisings against English rule. Ironically, in 1599, Fox’s father, also Hubert, had signed an agreement of “surrender and regrant” with the English crown to avoid the complete destruction of his estates following the Nine Years’ War: the lands were returned to Fox senior in recognition of his fealty. Hubert junior, however, was not so inclined, preferring to stand by the family’s traditional allegiance. Cromwell proved victorious and Fox lost his lands which were given to Samuel Rust, a Cromwellian Soldier. He in turn sold the district to two families – the Armstrong’s and the Bagot’s. The Armstrong’s settled in the town and would eventually establish industries, notably a Linen factory which proved quite lucrative. Andrew Armstrong (1727-1802) built Clara House on the west side of the town in the 1770’s – a fine neo-classic building. Andrew Armstrong died in 1802 and the estates were sold to a Cox family, another family with notable connections.
In 1825, the Goodbody family moved to Clara from Mountmellick and introduced industry into the town, trading under the name of J&LF Goodbody. Buying flour mills at Erry and Charlestown, they developed the river Brosna and used it to harness power for their factories. In 1864 the Goodbody’s started a jute factory at Clashawaun. The jute was imported from India and the resulting bags were exported worldwide. In the last decades of the 20th century the factories declined and the last Goodbody’s factory closed in 1984. The family had provided the people of Clara with employment in a number of areas: factory work, domestic service and farming. Other industries in the town included flour mills, distilleries, a brewery, manufacturers of tobacco, soap, candles and clothes together with food processing companies.
As the town entered a heyday at the end of the 19th and for much of the 20th centuries, its prosperity led to a number of building projects. Stately houses litter the town and surrounding countryside as the various members of the Goodbody family set up their households. Thanks to Catholic Emancipation in 1829 a more prominent Catholic church was built on the outskirts of the town in Charlestown, but this proved too small and in the 1880’s the parish, now St Brigid’s Parish, built a fine neo-gothic church in the centre of the town. To cater for the needs of the townspeople, two religious orders founded communities and schools: the Franciscan Brothers arrived in 1821 and the Sisters of Mercy some years later. Other religious buildings in the town consist of St Brigid’s parish church for the Church of Ireland Community (Anglican Communion) looking down over the Fair Green and Friends’ Meeting Hall (Quaker) which is no longer in use. As the town prospered so did social Life. Numerous cultural and sporting associations flourished in the town and continue to do so to this day.