Athenry Castle – August 1996

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Having landed in Co. Wexford in 1169, Norman warlords and their armies of knights soon began to push across Ireland, forming small but powerful colonies as they went. The brave but unorganised native Irish were no match for the military skill of the most efficient cavalry in Europe.

Before long strong Norman Castles, protecting settlers and their stock in this hostile country,  came to dominate this Irish landscape. And, in 1235, at the crossing point at the Clareen river at Átha ‘n Rí, Meiler de Birmingham, the 2nd baron of Athenry, built his castle.

The earliest castle was simply a low, squat keep (main tower) surrounded by a strong curtain wall, but about 15 years after it was completed, Meiler’s son, Piers de Birmingham, raised the height of the first floor room to provide a much higher, and probably more fashionable, interior.

This was the principal living room where the baron held court, entertained his friends, and decided on the fate of criminals. As there are no traces of fireplaces in the castle today, there was probably a central hearth area with smoke rising to the rafters and filtering out through a covered opening called a louvre, set in the roof.

The extra height of the castle also gave defenders a better view of the surrounding countryside.

At the back wall was built a garderobe or toilet. This was basically a small room projecting back from the wall with an opening onto a pit on the ground below. The remains of what may have been the original banqueting hall are incorporated into the south-east curtain walls.

Sometime in the 15th century, the castle was raised once again with the addition of two more floors and gable ends to raise the height of the roof. We know very little about why this latest alteration was made, but it is possible that the function of the castle had changed to that of a general barracks and the alterations were to accommodate extra soldiers. Until this time the main hall had a wooden floor covering a basement which could only be entered by a ladder from the hall, but as part of the new building work, stone vaults and an external doorway were inserted into the basement. The entrance doorway to the castle remained at first floor level.

With the new floors blocking up the roof space, the central fireplace could no longer be used; and with no windows at second floor level, the castle was even darker and colder than ever. Around this time the de Birmingham family moved to a more comfortable town house near the market square.

Protecting the town and castle are some of the finest town walls in Ireland. Surrounded by a wide, water filled moat and guarded by a series of circular towers, they were first built in about 1310 and enclosed an area bigger than that contained within the walls of Galway.

Five gates led into the town, though only one, the North Gate, still remains. The name of another, Sparra an Spidéil or Spital Gate, tells that there was once a hospital in that section of the town. This was as far as possible from the main inhabited area so as to keep the sick apart from the rest of the population.

Until modern times Athenry developed very little after it was attacked by the O’Donnells from Donegal in 1597. As a result the town’s original layout has survived remarkably well, leaving us with the finest and most authentic ruins of any Irish medieval town.

Excavations at Athenry Castle, Co. Galway by Cliona Papazian with contributions by Brenda Collins and Margaret McCarthy.

Eight areas within the castle walls were opened for investigation in advance  of the proposed conservation of the castle and the construction of visitors facilities by the Office of Public Works.

The excavation uncovered evidence of the construction sequence in the Castle Hall: although the exact location of the original entrance to the Castle could not be archaeologically determined. Excavation of a cess pit adjacent to the garderobe yielded substantial faunal and macrogossil (plant) remains.

Athenry Castle is one of the first non-urban medieval sites to produce such remains and the analysis of these offers a unique insight into diet, and to some extent the economy of a medieval castle.

The excavation was undertaken by the author on behalf of the National Monuments Branch of the Office of Public Works in advance of the proposed conservation of the keep and the construction of the visitors facilities and reception area. Excavation commenced in July 1989 and continued for eleven weeks. The excavation team consisted of post-graduate members from the Archaeology Departments of the Universities of Galway and Dublin and of local labour.

The aims of the excavation were to determine the nature of some of the visible structure remains and to uncover the line of the western wall of the hall. Although the modern entrance to the castle probably corresponds to the medieval entrance way, no visible remains survive of the gate-tower. It was hoped that excavation would uncover evidence for a gate/guard-tower. Eight areas, all within the curtain walls, were open for investigation (see Figure).

The medieval features uncovered are broadly contemporaneous with the first phase of the construction of the castle and probably date from 1235 – 1241.

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About this record

Written by The Office of Public Works

Published here 04 Nov 2022 and originally published 1996

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