Athenry under Seige – Easter 1998
The heads on this seal are traditionly thought to be those of Feidhlim O’Connor, King of Connaught and Teige O’Kelly, King of Uí Máine. They were killed in the Battle of Athenry in 1316
“And when Fedhlim (O’Conchobhiir) heard that William Burk had arrived in Connacht from Alba, he commanded a muster of his people to one place, to expel him. Donncadh” Briain, king of Tuadh-Mumha came with his followers. O’Maelichlainn King of Midhe, O’Ruaire, King of Breifne; O’Ferghail, King of Commaicne; and Tadhg O’Kelly, King of Ui Maine and many more of the sons of kings and chieftains of Erinn, came in his muster. They all went to Áth – na – Ríigh, against William Burk, Mac Feorais and the other foreigners of Connacht; and a battle was fought between them at the door of the town, and the GAEIDHEL were defeated there, and Feidhlimidh O’Conchobhair King of Connacht and undisputed heir presumptive to the sovereignty of Érinn, was slain there and Tadhg O’Cellagh, King of Ui Maine and twenty eight persons entitled to the sovereignty of Ui Maine, fell there”.
Thus recorded the Annals of 1316, of one of the greatest and most decisive Battles in the History of Connacht, the Battle of Athenry. It signalled the end of Gaelic supremacy in Connacht even though the O’Connors were to continue to harass the Normans in later years. Many of the leading Gaelic chiefs and kings were among the thousands who fell at the historic battle and it was to set a trend for the town of Athenry which was to become the focus of many conflicts in the future.
The greatest of the Norman families in Connacht were the Burkes who could trace their family back to Charlemagne, Holy Roman Emperor of the 9th century. William Burke had defended the Town in 1316 but ironically, the 16th century saw the Burkes who had pursued ambitions of their own, attacking the town when Richard and Ulick, sons of Clanricarde in 1577, sacked the town and burned the Dominican Abbey. Athenry being strategically located was an obvious target and the next attack came from the native Irish. In 1596, Red Hugh O’Donnell, Prince of Donegal, rampaged south and having burned Sligo, did likewise to Athenry. The night before his attack on the town, his army camped in a wood a few miles away and this area came to be known as Doire Dónaill (Derrydonnell) the wood of O’Donnell. One aspect of O’Donnell’s attack was that O’Donnell’s soldiers inserted their swords in the wall of Athenry and used them as a ladder to climb over the wall.
In 1651, Cromwell’s army captured Galway following a nine month siege and as was their want, destroyed the stain glass windows in Galway’s oldest and most historic building, St Nicholas Collegiate Church. Today in this church may be seen two faceless statues, a testament to the ire of the Cromwellian soldiers and it is said that persons of extra sensory perception can see the hoofmarks on the floor of the church where the invading army were alleged to have stabled their horses. Athenry did not escape the attentions of the Cromwellian puritans and the Abbey of that town which for some years previously had enjoyed the status of a university, was partly destroyed and also used for the stabling of horses.
The attacks by the Cromwellian forces marks a clear dividing line in the history of Galway and Athenry. The Catholic merchant Princes of Galway were dispossessed and the city went into a long decline and its defensive walls, like Athenry, were no longer an important factor in times of war. The harsh Penal Laws depressed the catholic merchants and in the 19th century both Athenry and Galway were devastated by the famine and extreme poverty and deprivation became commonplace.
Throughout its history, Athenry, perhaps because of its central location, had been the object of attack many times. In the 20th century, it once again became a focal point for military activity and during the 1916 Rising, volunteers were very active in the area and one of the leaders, Liam Mellows, commanded the Agricultural College as his base for his well organised campaign in Co. Galway and the town returns many connections with this noted patriot.
During World War 2 an American air-force plane, carrying a general, three of his officers and the pilot, had gone off course. The pilot, unaware of his position, spotted an area of flat ground and managed to affect a landing. Suddenly, the plane was surrounded by soldiers wearing helmets very similar to the Germans and shouting in a language which was completely unknown to the Americans who emerged from their aircraft, with hands in the air, to their great surprise they discovered that the language spoken by the soldiers was Irish and that their plane had landed at the Agricultural College, Athenry. The general and his officers were later allowed to “escape” to Northern Ireland.
Not all the invasions of Athenry were of a military or violent nature. During the early part of this century and indeed up to the sixties, it was a tradition in Galway City for hundreds of the citizens to travel to Athenry on the 15th August and to pray at Lady’s Well. Sadly, this is now a thing of the past, in some small way, perhaps a victim of the materialism of the times. The annual pilgrimage to Athenry led to a rather comic exchange between Galwegians who when asked if they were going to Athenry and enquired for what reason, were informed that it was in connection with St Patrick’s Day and the colour green. The full text of the reply would not be suitable for sensitivities of the readers of this journal.
In recent times, almost all of the invasion of Athenry have been to attend the ancient and glorious game of hurling at Kenny Park and only last year a massive attendance of over 15,000 came to see the Banner and the Tribes do battle.
Athenry, like Galway, has survived its own history and has emerged as the vibrant town of today in the heart of Co. Galway.
Written by Jim Casserley
Published here 29 Mar 2023 and originally published Easter 1998