Developing Athenry since the 13th Century – Easter 1998

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Martin Fitzpatrick, archaeologist, examines the impact of development projects on the medieval town of Athenry.

Any visitor to Athenry today would be immediately struck by the level of development projects underway within the town and its immediate environs. It appears that with new houses and new inhabitants we are growing at a pace unprecedented in our history. For most other towns in the country this would be the case, but not Athenry. Our present buoyancy and development is more a resurgence and reawakening of something which commenced as far back as the 13th century,

Athenry from its foundation was an important town which by the middle of the 13th century was a thriving Medieval centre. The existence of a castle, parish church, Dominican Friary, street layout and a market place is a testament to this.

In the 14th century, development extended with the town of Athenry being walled and historical references suggest the community and town flourished during this period. However, by the 16th century the town had shrunk in size and was then the recipient of the vengeance of the Earl of Clanricarde’s sons who attacked and burned the town.

The demise of Athenry was eventually sealed by Red Hugh O’Donnell in 1596. Only the castle, Parish church and Dominican Priory escaped his destruction but the town of Athenry never recovered or regained its former glory. The 17th, l8th, 19th and indeed much of the 20th century has seen changes to the town but on a very limited scale.

Now as we stand at the brink of the 2lst century, Athenry is witnessing an urban development unparalleled since the 13th century. While this investment is welcome, we should be aware that if not properly regulated it will see the expansion of the town to the detriment of our heritage.

Despite our turbulent past, Athenry remains today as one of the best preserved Medieval towns in the country. The walls remain intact for large sections, the Dominican Priory survives ‘while our market cross is still in situ. The street pattern, while often proving problematic to drivers, has remained undisturbed since the 13th century. The castle has been rebuilt and plans are afoot for a Heritage centre. Our awakening to and appreciation for the rich heritage of the town is encouraging but our concerns and interests must extend beyond the upstanding archaeological remains.

Because Athenry town has, in the past, shrunk in size there is a strong likelihood of evidence of our past surviving beneath the surface in the area enclosed by the walls. What survives is anybody’s guess, but it is likely that the remains of house foundations, refuse pits, industrial areas and workshops lie underground. It is therefore, imperative that all proposed developments within the walls of Athenry have an archaeological input. In recent times this input is being insisted upon by  both the Planning Authority and the National Monuments Service.

Next to nothing is known about the form of medieval housing in Athenry. It is possible that some medieval buildings may be concealed behind the plaster of modem facades and it is desirable that no building within the walled area of the town should be demolished without a quick inspection. It is important to know what sort of buildings the medieval inhabitants of the town lived in and how these changed through time.


Care must be taken to avoid development close to areas of specific archaeological significance. The Castle and Dominican Priory are national monuments in state care and are protected by The National Monuments Acts l93O – 1994. As such it is unlawful to interfere with these buildings. The town walls and surrounding moat, wall towers, North gate and all archaeological monuments in the town should not be compromised in any way. The accompanying map highlights the area of archaeological potential within, and immediately adjacent to, the town walls.

What is required is an awareness and appreciation by the people of Athenry for the unique history of our town. Six hundred years ago Athenry was a flourishing medieval town with an infrastructure envied throughout Ireland. Today it appears that the town is again flourishing and much of the infrastructure of the town, in existence in the l3th century, survives today. It is our responsibility to ensure the continued preservation of these unique monuments.

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About this record

Written by Martin Fitzpatrick

Published here 22 Mar 2023 and originally published Easter 1998

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