The present parish of Newbridge is made up of six ancient parishes and portions of others. These are Ballymany, Carnalway, Great Connell, Killashee, Morristown Billar and Old Connell.
Great Connell was the site of an Augustinian Priory dedicated to Our lady and St. David, founded in 1202 by Myler Fitzhenry, a grandson of Henry I. In 1205 King John confirmed the grant made by Fitzhenry to the Abbey of Connell, a sister house of the monastery of Lathony in Wales, from whence monks came to Great Connell. This tradition became law in 1380 by an act of Richard II, when like all monasteries in the Pale, it was forbidden " to admit mere Irishmen to profession. " However, this rule was not always adhered to, as Gaelic names can be found amongst the canons of the 15th century.
Great Connell emerged as one of the most important Anglo-Norman monasteries and its wealth was increased when, in 1455, the King granted the Prior the power to acquire lands to a yearly value of £10. Consequently, the priory's possessions were quite extensive and included "the value of 6 parish churc hes, over 1,260 acres of land, a mill, 5 castles, a demesne of 131 acres, and many dwellings and out-buildings." The Prior was also made a member of the Privy Council.
Great Connell's most renowned Prior was Walter Wellesley, who was also Bishop of Kildare, having been appointed to the See in 1529. He held these two positions up to the time of his death in 1539. The monastery survived the Act of Confiscation in 1537, when Wellesley asked that it not be suppressed, as it was united to the Bishopric of Kildare. He also wrote to the Lord Privy Seal "that to this day and hour, is no brother elected in the monastery unless he be of a veray English nation." In addition the Lord Deputy and Council petitioned the King to have Great Connell and fifty other monasteries exempted "for in these homes … in default of common inns, which are not in this island, the King's Deputy and all his Grace's Council and officers … have been most commonly lodged at the cost of the said Houses. " They also stressed the importance of the monasteries' educational role.
However, Great Connell was eventually closed in April 1541, when the then Prior, Robert Wesley "surrendered voluntarily and with the consent of the community," thus allowing the order to make terms and receive pensions. The priory was then granted to Edward Randolph and later to Sir Edward Butler. According to the Civil Survey of 1654, the parish of Great Connell was divided between two men, Sir Nicholas White of Leixlip, and Sir Robert Meredith.
In the 18th century the monastery, according to a description by Archdall, who visited it in 1781, was "so decayed that scarcely any descriptive account can be given of its remaining ruins," though he did mention "two Gothic windows and some pillars with curious capitals," and " the remains of some stalls in the choir. "
The Capella of Ballymany
Evidence that a church existed here at one time was re-inforced by the Kildare Archaeological Society's findings, which discovered evidence of a site at Murphy's farm at Ballymany. An article in their Journal of 1905 described the existing ruins as " consisting of a foundation of an ancient edifice which shows it to be 25ft. in length, 18ft. broad and the walls are 3ft. thick. " The article also reported that older people living in the area remembered the ruins of an old church being in existence up to 50 years earlier (1855). No remains of the walls or foundations are now visible, though the location of the church corresponds roughly with the Ballymany church site referred to in Taylor's Map of 1783, between the main Newbridge-Kildare Road and the Green Road. However, this is now though to have been a Protestant Church, which was adjacent to the Catholic Chapel at the time the map was drawn.
This Protestant church may have originally been a Catholic Church as each of Newbridge's six ancient parochial districts would have had its own church; that of Ballymany may have been abandoned during the confiscations of the 15th century, or even during the Cromwellian or penal times. It was also not unusual for abandoned Catholic churches to be converted for use as Protestant churches.
Further evidence of a Catholic church at Ballymany is also supported by John Spring in a "Report on Popery in Ireland" anno 1731: "There is also a mass-house in the former parish (Great Connell), erected near a year since, instead of the one I had pulled down. This new one adjoins Newbridge and I believe hath been built larger." This would suggest a church at Great Connell prior to 1730, presumably built by Fr. James Eustace, parish priest of Old Connell, Killashee, Ladytown and Morristown Billar during the early 18th century.
The Military Barracks
In the 17th century a bridge was built near Old Connell but this was destroyed in 1798 by a flood. A new bridge was built in its place. The military barracks was constructed over a number of years, on land purchased in 1822 by a Major General, John Freeman. Completed in 1816, the site of the Barracks extended from the present site of the Irish Ropes factory, to the site of the present Garda Station, and as far back as the Athgarvan Road.
The barracks was occupied by the British Army until 1922. Many famous cavalry regiments were stationed here and one of its most famous soldiers was Lord Cardigan, who was stationed with the 15th Hussars in 1832. He later led the charge of the Light Brigade in the Crimean War in October 1854. A description of the town in 1837 said it " consisted of only one street, with a constabulary police station, a dispensary, and an R.C. chapel with a friary, but it is yet in its infancy and there is every prospect of its increase. " The arrival of the barracks heralded the growth and development of Newbridge. The demand for labour during its construction led to population growth, while the maintenance of both the barracks and its occupants ensured the prosperity of the townspeople.
Its importance in economic terms can be gauged from the following description in Porter's Post Office Guide & Directory for Counties Kildare and Carlow in 1910: "The artillery barracks at Newbridge had a garrison of about 800 and stabling for 536 horses. Supplies for the men and their mounts were purchased locally, while hundreds found work in the army installations. In 1922 following the Anglo-Irish Treaty, the British Army evacuated the barracks in Newbridge, resulting in a decline in trade.
The Town Commissioners, anticipating an economic depression, petitioned the Provisional Government for special consideration for the town. In 1923, they approached the Minister for Defence for help, stating that the town's population of 3,000 was almost entirely dependent on the military, with " the army being its sole means of subsistence ". However, they met with little success. The barracks was used as an internment camp by the national army during the Civil War, and the damage done to the building by the internees was one of the reasons given for it not being used by the Free State Army.
In 1925 it was handed over to the Board of Works, and in the following years most of the buildings were demolished to make way for new factories such as Irish Ropes. The church was maintained and was used as a library and then a Town Hall. It now houses a FÁS Training Workshop. Part of the old wall of the barracks can still be seen at the Athgarvan Road. The present town was built in 1934 and was named Newbridge (Droichead Nua).
1933 saw a revival in the town of Newbridge following the foundation of the Irish Ropes factory on part of the site of the former cavalry barracks. It was established by an Englishman, Eric Rigby Jones, whose family had traditionally been involved in rope manufacture. It was founded primarily to manufacture ropes, twines and harvest twines using such materials as sisal, manila and polypropylene fibres for the home market, and in 1937 it extended its range of products to include floor coverings made from sisal.
During the years of the Emergency, 1939-1945, the factory prospered as extra tillage farming was undertaken during this period, leading to an increased demand for its main product, binder twine. In 1946 the company had a workforce of 300 and in the same year it entered the export market. By 1953 the workforce had increased to 400 workers and an export market had been established in 24 countries.
The 1960s saw the company again extend its range of products to include synthetic and wool carpets, bearing such well-known brand names as Tintawn, Cushlawn and Curragh carpets. The workforce continued to rise and in 1969 it reached a peak of 1035. However, the economic recession of the seventies took its toll and by 1975 the workforce had been substantially reduced.