Athenry, Older than the Normans – 2002

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Despite all the indications of its Norman influence, there are signs in Athenry, of a much more ancient heritage. Kieran Jordan previews Fr. tom O’Connor’s forthcoming book!

The people of Athenry are proud of their Norman heritage andjustifiably so. The signs are there to be seen. The Castle has been restored, the Priory is in good repair and the walls are among the finest inIreland. But Athenry has a much moreancient heritage that few are aware of.

The signs of this are also there to beseen, although not as clearly or asvisibly as the Norman influence. Thesesigns of ancient heritage are intownland and local names, in remnants of linear embankments and ringforts,in factually based folklore and little known documentary evidence. Let us now take a closer look at some of this evidence.

The Queen’s palace

Townland names are a good placeto start with and none better thanCaheroyan (Caher Roighan; Palace ofthe Queen). In Norman times there was no Queen, so this reference mustbe to pre-Norman times. Kingsland is another Royal connotation in townland names. Loobroe (Lugh Bhrú) is also hugely significant in terms of its Celtic significance, dedicated to the God Lug. Sliverua (as it is written onseveral maps) is pronounced locally as Sli Bhrú, again significant in terms of‘ Bhru‘ being a burial ground. Another local name of huge significance is Reilig na Ri (Cemetery of  the Kings),an area in the townland of Boyhill,with a particular location there known as Fert Meabha (Mebh’s Grave).

Ringforts

Have you ever looked at the linear embankments just outside the walls of the town? A moat has been suggested, but this doesn’t quite fit as in places the walls are built on top of one of the embankments. Not your typical moat! In addition to these, many other linear embankments can be traced surrounding the town. In the 1930s Martin Finnerty described in detail one such embankment which was several miles long and constructed by digging a canal 20 feet deep, constructing a stone arch at 10 feet and covering this with 10 feet ofearth. It was 10 feet wide and 10 feet high. Sadly, no trace of this remains today. However, vestiges of othe rembankments still exist in many areas.

Dotted along these embankments are many ringforts of stone or earth. One fine example of these, known as RathCruchu, stands well preserved beside the new cemetery. Taking all this into account, the suggestion that Athenry was an important settlement longbefore the Norman invasion, is reasonable.

Celtic tribe  

In the folklore of the countryside around Athenry it is widely held that these linear embankments were built by the Fir Bolg (Belg), a Celtic tribe that invaded Ireland around the 1st Century A.D. The mythological construction of the embankments by the ‘Magic Wild Boar’ is also well recorded. In fact, the plain around Athenry is known as ‘Magh Muc Dhruime’. Based on the existing evidence (and that destroyed over the years), there must be a factual basis to this folklore.

King Art

The earliest geographic source relating to Ireland is the 1st/2nd Century map of Ptolemy, the Greek geographer. On this map, right where Athenry stands today is the word Auteni, which can be translated as Home of the Kings. Is this a coincidence or is there more to it than that? Other documentary evidence relates to The Battle of Athenry (Magh Macruime) about the year 200 A.D.

This Battle was fought by King Art, who, with his army is supposed to have left Tara of Meath one day and have been killed at Athenry the following day. Not possible. Now have him leave Turoe (8 miles East in Bullaun) one day and be killed at Athenry the following day.

Perfectly possible. Turoe and Tara share the same Irish name, Temhair. Similar embankments to those found around Athenry surround Turoe Hill. A mound at Turoe was known locally as Cruachain Airt, the burial place of King Art. The Turoe Stone, Europe’s best example of Celtic La Tene art was found at Turoe. The list goes on.

No stranger to royalty

Fr. Tom O’Connor has collected this evidence for Iron Age Royal centres at Athenry and Turoe over a forty-year period. During that time, he travelled the county talking to people about the linear embankments or ‘double ditches’ or ‘mootes’ as they were called. In his extensive research on the ground he has traced and reconstructed an elaborate series of linear embankments that centre on Athenry and Turoe, but which can also be traced throughout Galway. To a large extent he has used the knowledge of local people, old Ordnance Survey maps, ancient documentary records, folklore and archaeology to piece together the ancient history of the area. In his forthcoming book ‘Hand of History: Burden of Pseudohistory’, which will be published shortly, Fr. O’Connor explores this evidence in great detail and relates it to the current thinking on Irish history. There are some surprising findings and conclusions, none more so than the fact that, almost 2000 years ago, long before the Normans, Athenry was an important Royal Centre of Power.

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About this record

Written by Kieran Jordan

Published here 14 Jul 2023 and originally published Summer 2002

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