‘I was . . . presented with the keys of the town to keep….as they are so impoverished by the extortion of the lords (sons of Clanrickarde) about them, they are no longer able to keep the town. The town is large and well walled, . . . there had been in it 300 good householders, and since I knew this land, there was 20, and now I find but fewer . . . and they ready to leave’ (Sir H. Sidney, CSPI 330).
‘fair, large town, well walled with strong towers’ (Review of Connacht towns originally built by Anglo-Normans: CCP IV opp.476).
Athenry, totally burned by Clanrickarde sons (1574), ‘I took order for the re-edifying of the town’-taxing the adjoining country for £2000 – ‘l have cut the town almost in 2 parts, it being before almost as big, with a fair high wall, as the town of Calais’-recently lost. The Clanrickardes attacked again in 1577, ‘setting new gate on fire . . . and driving off masons from working on the wall’ (Sidney report to Prive Council: CCP II 50; McNeill 141).
R. Fowler, J. Browne and other citizens petitioned Queen ‘to enable them to bring over English artisans and tradesmen to settle in the town, to rebuild and improve it and to support a sufficient force for its future protection’ (Hardiman 94-5 note ‘t’, quoting Rot. Pat. 26 Eliz). Murage: the only known murage charter was granted for 3 years from 1310 (CPI 43; MCI 287) on the same basis as the charter to Adare which referred to a stone wall. There is a tradition that the spoils of a subsequent major battle between the Anglo-Normans and the Irish in the vicinity were used to finance the walling (Hardiman 54). While this may be discounted as fanciful it should be noted that the murage grant would have lapsed by then, and the Athenry walls were by any standards a major undertaking. Subsequent murage measures refer to the difficult years of the late 16th. century when the town suffered twice at the hands of the, by then, rebel Berminghams / Clanrickardes. Apart from those funds already referred to for 1572 and 1576, a cess was imposed on the county, the provost was ‘allowed to summon, array and assess all persons within and without the liberties in defence of the town 1574 (CSPI 37; MCI 287), and the earl of Clanrickarde was fined for his sons’ attacks (Canny 1976, 113).
Other charters: none known although the murage charter shows that the town was administered by a ‘bailiff’.
Athenry was among the 11 towns represented at parliaments from 1380 (IHD 64).
A fair grant was made to de Bermingham in 1244 (CDI I 2674).
A provost is mentioned in some of the 16th century documents and the 1584 application seems designed as a forerunner to a new charter.
‘all (of town) ruined save the wall’ (Anon, Hogan ed 1878).
‘(it is said) elder than Galway, a town, as it seems, built by the English whilst they had their swords in their hands and kept themselves in close garrison against the attempts of the Irish. But after the English lords had planted themselves in strong castles abroad, the town became to be abandoned and utterly decayed . . . yet the walls stand still, large in compass and very fair’ (Sir Oliver St. John, Description of Connacht: CCP V 295).
‘one or two miles off Athenry, walled by King John, looks imposing but town very poor, close up’ (Dunton-MacLysaght 1969, 327).
‘Strip of ground 18 feet (5m) all round ancient walls said to be corporation property’ (MCI 290).
‘surrounded by a wall of considerable strength, enclosing an area of 25 Irish acres . . . originally surrounded with a ditch into which the river was conducted. This ditch is still traceable on the E and S sides where water still flows through it. The wall was defended with towers and 6 gates – Briton’s, Castle, Spiddle, Lara, Nicholroe and Temple. All these gates are now destroyed excepting the N (Briton’s) and part of the Castle, which are much injured’ (O’Donovan: OS Letters 408).
‘archway of small, gate tower is modern . . . ramparts have lofty, slender, round towers at salient points and are surrounded by a moat once filled by the stream’ (Westropp, who lists 5 gates-Spiddle for routes to NW, Swan to SW, Laragh near abbey, Castle and Briton’s to N-based on OS map).
Illustration: Seal of Athenry, depicting battlemented, single story gateway, ? 13th century, (Bradley 1985 pl.17 II).
Town Records 1572
‘to G. Bodkyn, by concordat, in consideration of his offer to defend the walls of Annrye town from being broken down by Earl of Clanrickarde’s sons and other rebels-£20’ (Anal Hib IV 1932, 298).
(Extract from ‘Walled Towns of Ireland’ Avril Thomas 1992). There is no doubt that Athenry was a walled town with gates, towers, fosse and ramparts, thanks largely to its fossilisation following the O’Donnell attack of 1596, which completed the devastation begun by the rebel de Berminghams 20 years earlier. (The accounts say that the gates were burnt, the invaders were repulsed at the castle but took over the mural towers and burnt the town except the church, abbey and castle – Hardiman 94). The documentation is however slight, a single medieval murage reference, so that, if it were not for the extensive survivals, doubts might well be raised as to whether Athenry was ever walled. Such doubts would be fuelled by the undistinguished site-inland and by a small river that does not even have a name-although the area generally lacks prominent rivers, and by the existence of a substantial castle which might be deemed to have been sufficient defence for a small town. Athenry, as a focus of esker route ways, actually falls into the category of Anglo-Norman towns whose sites had an earlier significance, and thus were necessary to hold, rather than those that were of potential entrepot or military-strategic value (vide Naas and Kildare). Athenry, therefore, serves to suggest that murage documentation, however slight, should generally be taken at face value and the lack of other references or physical remains should often be seen as accidental rather than significant.
Athenry is also interesting intrinsically, both because of its sheer size and its subsequent reduction in size. The two are, of course, not unrelated but Athenry is unusual in that many other Irish walled towns were, by contrast, extended. In size it lay between the major port of Drogheda Louth (32 ha.) and the more comparable, seigniorial inland town of Ardee (25ha.), the former walled early and the latter possibly as much as a century later. Also Athenry was twice the size of Galway. As probably the earliest Anglo – Norman urban foundation in Connacht, Athenry’s size may be attributed to optimism and possibly a degree of seigniorial competition between de Bermingham and the overlord de Burgh, who developed Loughrea (c.19ha.) as their kaput, as well as Galway. Athenry, developing at the castle in the early 13th century, may well have been surrounded by an earthen rampart topped with a wooden palisade, hence the tradition of a town wall dating from King John’s time. This may subsequently have been used as the basis of the wall dating from the 1310 murage, or perhaps an earlier grant now lost. If so, it is interesting that by then the large circuit was maintained. The size alone would tend to suggest a date coincidental with relative prosperity and/or an ambitious lord. It certainly does not look like the walled circuit of a colony under threat unless it was seen as a major garrison and refuge centre, the land being intended for safe pasturage and the storage of crops. When Athenry became the concern of central government in the later 16th century, either directly or through the Presidency of Connacht, the size was reduced in half, to make it easier to garrison and perhaps to enclose the area actually settled. The current OS map marks a leper compound in the S undeveloped part.
There are relatively few problems with regard to the details of the circuit. The 3 areas where the wall has disappeared are not major problems – at the W gate the short missing stretches of the wall are marked by property boundaries of buildings facing on to the street; the same is true W of the North gate; between this and the Castle Gate site a row a buildings seem to have been built in the fosse, backing onto the town wall where fragments may still exist; much less of the wall survives on the E side but N of the E gate the line is marked by River Lane, and remnants of the wall survived there recently in some cottages; while to S of the E gate much of the ramparts still exists, showing that the new boundary wall to the Dominican friary area is c.200m inside the line of the town wall.
There remains the question of the line of the’ inner, 16th century wall, marked on the 1583 map as apparently at the S limit of the present and 19,h century built-up area. It is not possible to be sure to what extent it was constructed but its line may survive- (a) in W/E property lines from between the 2 W towers which link up with an unnamed lane leading towards the stream opposite the Spa Well in the friary grounds, where no comparable line exists; or (b) slightly further S in a line formed by a combination of property boundaries and Clark’s Street, which links N/S Chapel and Cross Streets – again the line seems to fade out in the friary grounds, or at least does not agree with that of the Browne map; or (c) it may have run slightly further S still from S of the 2 towers, from where a lane leads to a minor break in the W wall, but there are no suggestive lines to the E from this.
There are also some problems concerning the names of the gates, the complexity and confusion of which are outlined above, and the status, main or postern, of a few. The N, W, E and SW gates are well established, although the 1583 map does not show the surviving N but does show the S, which is not indicated on the 1841 OS. It may have been superseded by the SW gate or have been a postern gate to the mills on the river outside. Cross Street probably originally led directly to it. Of more interest is the Castle Gate, a small fragment of which survived into this century. Again, it may have been essentially a postern because it is so close to the N gate, this time for the castle, but it was not actually in the castle wall. At least one inner gate was made for the 1576 wall, presumably on Chapel Street, and possibly a postern or a second main gate on Cross Street too, but it is not known how long they survived nor where they were located.
The street system is clearly linked to the 4 main and 2 subsidiary/postern gates. It is basically, therefore a cross concentrated in the W of the gate (N) and the castle itself along the E side of the church grounds, and then from the market place at the church southwards to the S gate by the stream. The market place at the junction of the E/W and 2 N/S streets shows signs of having been an open triangular space, later colonised but retaining its essential shape, with a narrow link street, Burke’s Lane. Within the central area between the approximate line of the 1576 wall and the main E/W street, there are a number of E/W link streets/lanes. Both the N/S streets seem to widen in the area suggested for the 16th century wall and Chapel Lane does so towards the W gate too.
The town wall is a townland boundary throughout except where the new friary wall has replaced it. It is also, as indicated already, a property boundary not only in the intensively developed NW but throughout its length, either as the end wall of buildings in the NE, as the end of property plots in the W which face onto the main N/S street, and as field boundaries in the S and E, except again by the friary. There the new wall lies inside it and outside, beyond the fosse, there is an extramural road parallel to the wall from the SE corner tower to the E gate. In the NE corner the town fosse on either side of the castle seems to be the site of 2 short streets, but there are no streets related to the NW or W walls. There is, however, a street linking the 2 S gates, although it is not strictly parallel, but it does add some weight to the view that the S gate was a postern, which may indeed have gone out of use in the later period as the ossified street leading from it to the centre of the town suggests.
The core of Athenry lies in the NW quarter, with the NE side from the castle to the friary via the stream being more open, and the S half of the medieval walled area being composed of large fields and the occasional house. There are small extra-mural extensions at the W and, more recently, at the SW gates but the town is largely bounded by the town wall as it was reduced in 1576. Beyond this may still be seen the rest of the medieval town wall, a monument to the optimism of the early years of the lordship.
Clearly, Athenry would repay major archaeological investigation, given its long and unusual history and good survivals, many of which are in ‘open’ sites. (Avril Thomas, The Walled Towns of Ireland, Irish Academic Press 1992)
Written by Finbarr O'Regan
Published here 05 Feb 2021 and originally published 1999
Page 016 of Medieval Athenry
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