Athenry Castle

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Athenry CastleFor about five centuries Athenry Castle has been abandoned, rootless and fallen into a ruinous state. In 1990, however, the National Monuments Branch of the Office of Public Works started work on its restoration, following on some minor excavations within the curtain wall.  While it is not yet quite certain for what purpose exactly it will be used when restored, the State, insofar as it has expressed any plans at all towards its ultimate use, apparently intends to use It as a sort of state storehouse, in the nature of a museum or display centre for loose sculpture at present lying around the National Monuments in the region, carvings which might otherwise be stolen – as some years ago was the well-known St. Dominic in Athenry’s Dominican Priory. The restored castle will also be used as a heritage centre to explain the town and immediate vicinity to interested visitors and scholars. Athenry Castle consists of a keep and surrounding curtain-wall or bawn. It was built shortly after 1235 when Richard de Burgo, Lord of Connaught, granted a charter to Meiler de Bermingham. Most accounts give about 1238 as the date, but some suggest as late as 1250 – I believe it must have been built by about 1240, because in 1241 Meiler was sufficiently well ensconced there to invite the Dominicans to come and build a priory in the town.

Athenry CastleThe remains reveal at least three main phases of buildings. The original keep was low and squat, the root being at the level of the present second floor. This can be seen by the two large holes (for draining away roof-water) halfway up in each gable.  Shortly afterwards the castle was raised in height by another storey (also 13th cent. c.1250), while in the 15th century the gable-ends were raised to accommodate a new and higher root rising above the battlements.  The present basement vault is an insertion. Entrance to the castle was by an external wooden stairs leading to a decorated doorway in the east wall at first floor level.  Two line windows remain at this level, both carved like the doorway – such carved work is unique to Athenry Castle though quite common in ecclesiastical buildings.

Athenry CastleAlso unique to Athenry Castle is that over its doorway was a small canopy-like affair, traces of which remain; this consisted of slabs projecting from the wall above the doorway. Access from the first floor to the second floor was by a wooden stairs (as no trace of any other stairs remain, this must have been so), and from the second to the third floor by an intramural stairway (within the east wall, beginning roughly above the doorway). The main room (first floor) also had a garde-robe or latrine at its north-western corner, consisting of a projecting ‘room’, only part of which still remains. The keep was built close enough to the north-western part of the surrounding curtain-wall to allow it to overlook the wall, thus making a wall-tower at this point unnecessary. Wall-towers, however, ware built at the north-east and south-east corners of the curtain-wall, while the south-western corner was fortified by the gate (now a modern replacement, but undoubtedly originally strong and adequately fortified). The castle seems to have generally been cold and dark; there are no windows at second floor level, and no fireplaces anywhere, the fire was probably centrally placed In the upper room, the smoke escaping through a louvre or opening in the centre of the roof.  In the 15th century the Berminghams moved from It to their town house near the market cross In the square.

Athenry Castle
A sketch of Athenry Castle 1793

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Written by Etienne Rynne

Published here 05 Feb 2021

Page 005 of Medieval Athenry

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Caheroyan, Athenry, Co. Galway, Ireland


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