Athenry: A Brief History

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Athenry – 24km east of Galway City – has a past that goes back several millennia as can be seen from the Stone Age axes and Bronze Age spear heads and shields found in the area.  The region also featured prominently in the early Christian history of Tysaxon – the house of the Saxon – a monastic settlement founded by Balan who came to Ireland with St. Coleman after the Synod of Whitby (664) – having direct links with the monastic settlements in Iona, Lindisfarne, Boffin, Mayo-Abbey and Tullylease.  The area played an important part in Irish history.  The river ford which gives Athenry its name – Baile Atha ‘n Ri – (Ri meaning river) is where the east west route along the Esker Riada crosses the most westerly direct route north south.  It played a similar role in more recent times when Athenry became the main east west, north south junction in the railway network.

However it is only with the coming of the Anglo Normans in the late 12th century that medieval Athenry really began to exist as a town.  In1178 the title Baron of Athenry was created for Piers de Bermingham making it the primary Baronacy of Ireland well before 1235 when Richard de Burgoof Connacht granted a charter to Meiler de Bermingham, 2nd Baron of Athenry, who founded the actual town.  Meiler de Bermingham builtthe Castle overlooking the ford, a fine town with a market square, a parish church and a few years later the Dominican Priory of SS.  Peter and Paul.  That the ford was important to the Irish also was perhaps to be seen from what is the earliest historyreference to the town – namely the attack by the O’Connors in 1249 when the Irish were beaten by the Norman cavalry.

Lady WellA holy well known as Our Lady’s Well just over l km south cast of the town is supposed to have been associated with this battle and is still a major place of pilgrimage on the 15th of August each year. More about Lady Well.

Because of its strategic position Athenry has a very eventful history.  It was raided many times by the Irish and in August 1316 it was the scene of a major battle between the newcomers under Richard de Burgo and Richard de Bermingham and the Irish under Felim O’Connor, King of Connacht. Victory went to the townspeople and its result so severely affected Edward Bruce’s Irish campaign that it changed the course of Irish history.  In the1570’s the sons of the Earl of Clanricard twice attacked the town and so damaged it that it was not repaired for some time afterwards according to the Annals of the Four Masters.  The Lord Deputy Henry Sydney began repairs about 1576 and decided to reduce the town in size by half a task which was not completed however.  Then as is now the majority of its inhabitants tended to live in the northern portion of the town.  The Clanricards again attacked in 1577 setting the new gate on fire and driving off the masons who were working on the wall. In 1597 Athenry was again sacked, this time by Red Hugh O’Donnell, and it was so severely damaged it never really recovered.

Athenry CastleThe town became fossilised with the result that Athenry today is the classic example of a medieval town.  It retains not only its medieval castle, its parish church, Dominican Priory, Market Cross and its typically medieval street plan all within its medieval town walls but also has the base of a bargaining cross in the fair green,two medieval bridges across its river – the Clarin – and remnants of a pre-reformation church dedicated to St. Bridget all immediately outside its town walls.

For nearly five centuries Athenry Castle was left abandoned, roofless and in a ruinous state until 1991, when the national monuments Branch of the Office of Public Works started renovations and it is now re-roofed and open to visitors and looks much like what it must have been when the de Berminghams abandoned it for more comfortable dwellings in the town square in the late 15th or 16th centuries. More about Athenry Castle.

Athenry Town WallsAthenry Town Walls are easily the finest medieval town walls surviving in Ireland.  They enclose 28 hectares (69 acres) thus putting Medieval Athenry into the top group of Irish walled towns regarding size.  Six of its wall towers and one of its five main gates also survive. More about the Town Walls.

Normally in Ireland Dominican Priories were built just outside the town wall but the Athenry Priory while on the opposite side of the river from the rest of the town was encompassed by the walls. The native Irish co-operated with the Normans in its construction.  It was raised to the stature of University in 1644 about the time of the confederation of Kilkenny.

The Dominican PrioryDisaster befell when in 1652 Cromwell’s soldiers wrecked the building. In 1698 it was formally closed by the Penal Laws.  In the mid 18th century the cloister buildings were demolished and it was turned into a barracks for a regiment of English soldiers and was occupied by troops or militia until the R.I.C. Barracks were built in Cross Street. In 1892 it was taken into state care as National Monument No. 164. More about the Priory.

In a recent lecture entitled “Unique Athenry”, Professor Etienne Rynne, Professor of Archaeology in University College Galway said: “People ought to come to visit Athenry because of the features that make the town not interesting or important but in various ways absolutely unique”.

The whole town was unique he said.  It is a medieval town, almost totally within its own walls.  It has a Castle, a Dominican Priory, an ancient Parish Church, a Market Cross on the square and Town Walls all dating back to medieval times and, in fact, dating back mostly to the 14th century,what was most obvious to those coming into the town, was the spire of the marvellous St. Mary’s Church – one of the finest spires in Ireland in many ways.  The walls were unique in that they covered a larger area than any other town walls in Ireland and that there were more of them surviving. Certain details within the castle were unique especially features of the door and two windows which were not to be found in any other castle in Ireland.  Details of the town gate including an opening for a portcullis and a “murder hole” were unique. In the Dominican Priory was the greatest collection of medieval grave slabs in Ireland and the only tomb of its type in Ireland over the probable grave of Meiler de Berrningham.

Market CrossThe Market Cross is unique in that it is the last remnants of a fine late medieval Gothic Cross of tabernacle or lantern type in Ireland and is also unique in the fact that it still stands in its original position. More about the Market Cross.

After the Cromwellian invasion the lands of Athenry changed hands according to the Book of Distribution.  Over the following centuries these lands remained in the hands of Anglo Irish landowners.  Traces of this can be seen in the numerous tower houses and “big” houses dotted around the countryside.  Famine in the mid 1800s brought death, eviction and emigration to more than 50% of the population of the district.  Many of the landowners were forced to sell their estates, others evicted tenants and turned the estates into cattle and sheep ranches. After a succession of Land Acts at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century the Government enabled the tenants to get back the land and many of the people came to the Athenry area from the congested districts of Claregalway and Lisheenavalla.  The new owners cleared and reclaimed the land, built new houses and dividing walls and an industrious and thriving farming community grew up in the area.

Also, in the mid 19th century the revival of the town started with the coming of railway.  This brought much prosperity to the town and surrounding area until its closure as a main railway junction in 1976.  However it is still the main Dublin to Galway Line and with the advent of Westrail local steam train excursions to and from Galway and the recent use of the north south line by the Forestry Dept. there is still hope.  Agriculturally Athenry became a leader in the 1960s with one of Ireland’s major Co-op Marts being set up there and with its “Creamery” which is now a major part of Mid-West Co-operative Group.  Modern industries include Byrne Mech., M.J. Quinn, Fahy Engineering and Brody Engineering all of which are light engineering plants.  We also have Coffey Construction, Athenry Crystal and C & F Tooling.  Mellowes College Athenry and Teagase have also played a major role in the development of the agricultural business in Athenry.  The local Credit Union, which since its beginnings in 1966 has grown enormously. Its present share assets of 18 million indicate the growing confidence of the Athenry Community in the town’s future.

Confidence in the future can also be seen in the provision of education for the youth of the parish, now a major industry in its own right.  All the national and second level schools have been rebuilt or renovated and these coupled with the Teagasc Resource Centre provide the youth of Athenry with a high standard of education.  Over the years local voluntary organisations have endeavoured to improve the quality of life of the parish.  These vary from the Agricultural Show Society (107 years old) to the Vincent de Paul Society, Community Care, Community Games, G.A.A. and, more recently, very successful organisations such as The Project Society, The Women’s Group, The Festival Committee, The Tidy Towns Committee, The Heritage Company and, of course, The Athenry Parish Development Steering Committee, which is well on its way to co-ordinating the ideals and strengths of the parish.

Compiled for The Athenry Parish Development Steering Committee by Finbarr O’Regan 1995

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About this record

Written by Finbarr O'Regan

Published here 16 Feb 2021 and originally published August 1995

Page 013 of the The Lamberts of Athenry Book archive.

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