Athenry gets its ancient treasures back after 160 years. The corporate insignia, a gavel-like brass mace and a heavy brass seal, were first brought to notice in 1875 when the two objects were exhibited by the Rev. James Graves, the noted antiquary, at the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, in Dublin. At the time they were “in the keeping of John Blakeney, Esq., of Abbert, Co. Galway, whose family were formerly the patrons of the borough [of Athenry]” and were lent for display through the good offices of Mr. W. F. Wakeman, the well-known artist and antiquary, and the Rev, Mark Perrin, Rector of Athenry, Wakeman’s father-in-law. Both objects were briefly described, in the Society’s Journal for that year, and the seal was illustrated.
In 1899 W.F. Wakeman described and illustrated “The Mace of the Ancient Corporation of Athenry, County Galway” in the same Society’s Journal. After that the Athenry insignia seem to have disappeared from public knowledge until in June 1963 when they were brought into the National Museum of Ireland, for examining, recording and apparently also with a view to offering them for sale to the Museum, by the then-owner, Mr. H.C.A. Blishen, M.B.E., then living in his home called ‘Athenry’, on the Isle of Wight. They were recorded and photographed in the Museum but not purchased. Involved in the recording was Etienne Rynne, at the time Assistant-Keeper in the Irish Antiquities Division there. Some years later, Mr. Rynne was appointed Lecturer in Celtic Archaeology at University College, Galway and choose to live in Athenry. Taking a great, if predictable, interest in the medieval remains in the town he kept in mind the ancient mace and seal which he had handled several years earlier and it was always his wish and that of the people of Athenry to try to recover them for the town.
In September 1993, with Athenry’s fine castle restored by the Office of Public Works, Athenry had eventually a place in which the mace and seal could be housed in safety. It was decided to contact the Blishen family. Prof. Rynne on behalf of the Archaeological and Historical Society of Athenry wrote to Mr. Blishen recounting Athenry’s interest and hopes but the letter, illustrated with the National Museum photograph of the mace and seal, was returned unopened, as Mr. Blishen was no longer resident at the Isle of Wight address.
In August 1966 Finbarr O’Regan, co-ordinator and editor of ‘The Athenry Journal’, decided to publish in the summer edition (Volume 2 Number 2) this letter illustrated with the National Museum photograph of the mace and seal. The annual Medieval Festival of Athenry, organised by The Athenry Women’s Group was on, and the publication aroused much local interest. One of the visitors to the Festival was Tom Bermingham, an expert on the history of the Berminghams who founded the town of Athenry in 1235. He decided that he would endeavour, on his return to England to trace the Blishen family and to find the present whereabouts of the Athenry corporate insignia. Tom Bermingham was as good as his word and contacted the Chancery of St. James in Buckingham Palace where he learned that Captain Henry Charles Adolphus Blishen was made MBE on the 15.12.1944 and died on the 29.01.1980. Shortly afterwards contact was made with his son Mr. Anthony 0. Blishen, of Richmond, London, who now owned the mace and seal in his possession. Their history now emerges: It is thought that a corporation existed in Athenry by 1310, and that the town was administered by a portreeve and burgesses. Certainly, the portreeve and burgesses received a royal grant of privileges in 1564, which constituted the instrument under which the borough was governed up until the dissolution of such bodies in 1840. The portreeve and burgesses also elected two members of the Irish parliament until disenfranchised by the Act of Union in 1800. The sum of £15,000, paid in compensation for that act of disenfranchisement to the members, was paid to the trustees of the marriage settlement of Theophilus Blakeney, one of Athenry’s sitting members at the time. The Blakeneys of Abbert were landed gentry and the family’s political connection with Athenry is a matter of record. They profited from the Act of Union at a time when the fortunes of many of the landowners of Ireland were on a downward trend.
When the corporation was dissolved in 1840,
its last portreeve was Theophilus’s son, John Henry,
a Justice of the Peace and High Sheriff of Galway.
The mace and seal of the town thereupon passed into his keeping
and then, to all intents and purposes, disappeared from sight, reappearing only briefly at the end of the century. The Blakeney family declined in economic status throughout the century, and its dispersal was hastened, perhaps, by litigation, childlessness and early death. The estate then passed to John Henry’s younger brother Robert Edward, who first intended to sell the timber alone, but was eventually obliged, in 1919, to sell the house and land as well. Neither of the two brothers had children and Robert Edward’s heir was his younger (by some 20 years) half-brother, Henry Robert. Dispossessed, he left Ireland, the home of his family for ten generations, fought in the First World War, was badly shell-shocked and died of this condition in his 40s, leaving a widow and three small children. He had only one son, who also died in his 40s, but childless. The senior branch of the family was thus extinct in the male line. Henry Robert’s eldest child, however, was a girl, Joan Cecile. In course of time she and her husband, Charles Blishen, recovered as many as they could of the Abbert possessions, including the mace and seal, that had passed from her uncle through her father into the hands of her now deceased younger brother. On her death, in 1983, they became the property of her eldest son, Anthony Blishen. Mr. Blishen had been considering, for some time, how best to dispose of the mace and seal upon his own death. The Irish connection was fading and it did not seem right to him that objects, which were locality specific, should continue, as it were, in exile. At this point serendipity played its hand, for he was contacted by Mr. Tom Bermingham and it was swiftly agreed that, provided that the town of Athenry could provide an appropriate home, Mr. Blishen was more than happy to return the mace and seal to the town. Mr. Blishen saw himself more as a hereditary keeper in the old Irish tradition of sacred reliquaries than as an owner of the insignia and was more than willing to return the treasures to Athenry “if they were assured a good home”. This wonderful news coincided with the setting-up of The Athenry Heritage Centre in the former Church of Ireland church. This church was built, on the site of the medieval parish church of Athenry, in 1828, with the aid of a gift from the late Board of First Fruits, a body which owed much to Dean Swift and is also remembered as the church in which William Frederick Wakeman and Frances Alice Perrin were married. It was also a coincidence that John Henry Blakeney was one of the first churchwardens of St. Mary’s. It was deemed an eminently more suitable final resting-place for the insignia than Athenry Castle. The way was now open for the return of the mace and seal!
Negotiations were put in train and in April 1998, Professor and Aideen Rynne travelled to London on behalf of the people of Athenry to meet the Blishens. It was arranged that Mr. and Mrs. Blishen would ceremonially hand over the mace and seal to the people of Athenry when the Heritage Centre was finally ready to receive them. The Athenry Heritage Centre was officially opened by An Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, on Friday 07.05.1999. Mr. and Mrs. Anthony Blishens travelled over to Ireland in July and presented Athenry with its long-lost (160 years) corporate insignia, the mace and seal, on Saturday 04.07.1999. The Presentation took place in the Market Square of Athenry at 8.30 p.m. The successor to the portreeve and burgesses of the corporation of Athenry in its capacity as the locally elected town body is the present Athenry Community Council. It was thus to the Chairman of the council, Mr. Gerry Burke, that Mr. Anthony Blishen, great-great grandson of the last portreeve, handed the mace and seal at a ceremony in the town square on 24 July 1999. Mr. Eamonn ÓCuiv, Minister of State at the Department of Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht and the Islands and Mr. Noel Treacy, the Minister, for Science, Technology and Commerce attended the ceremony as did a very welcome Tom Bermingham. Before a large gathering of Athenry people Professor Rynne, as adept in address as in archaeology, explained the historical, political and cultural significance of the mace and seal. Indeed the mace, a clenched fist cast in antimony, might well double as a handy weapon. Both Mr. Treacy and Mr. ÓCuiv welcomed the insignia’s return and paid tribute to the generosity of the donor. Mr. Ó’Cuiv also remarked that the event was part of the process of improving relations with Her Majesty’s Government. Mr. Blishen restored the insignia to Athenry at the same time reviving his own family’s connection with the town and Gerry Burke accepted their return with gratitude whilst Brian Walsh, Manager, on behalf of the Heritage Centre, guaranteed their safe-keeping. The insignia was then carried into the Heritage Centre where they were installed in the case specially prepared for them. Finally, Madelyn Brody, chairperson of the Heritage and Tourism Company praised all concerned in the ‘Grail-like ‘search for the Mace and Seal and especially commended the generosity of Anthony Blishen for his unselfish gesture and said that there would be always a place for the Blishens in the homes and the hearts of the people of Athenry. Later Mr. Blishen remarked of this auspicious event that it marked the fading of the remembered residue of the animosities that be-devilled the relationship between the Anglo-Irish landlords and their tenants. Generation succeeds generation and brings understanding. He mentioned that Carnaun National School, whose ‘excellent web-site’ is worth a visit, has recently been involved in a symposium on the Lambert Family of Athenry, which included its connection with Edward Carson. One would not expect the Carson connection to be a popular theme in this part of Ireland at the moment, he said. It is a sign of the growth of understanding that the theme has been treated seriously, sympathetically and objectively. Father King, of St Mary’s Parish Athenry, wisely calls it ‘remembering our roots’. So too, the Blakeneys, landlords no longer but remembered roots, both sides of the Irish Sea. Madelyn Brody’s gift from The Heritage Centre to Mr. Blishen was our newly published book ‘the Lamberts of Athenry’.
We had the Lamberts of Athenry and the Blakeneys of Abbert! And now we welcome the Blishens of Athenry!
A description of the mace and seal by Professor Etienne Rynne:
The mace is in the form of a clenched fist with short forearm, mounted on a long, polished wooden handle (relatively modern). It measurer about 11 inches in total length and weighs 1lb 1/4oz. Gavel-like, as Wakeman points out “It was not intended to be used as a toy, or to grace a civic procession. It was a weapon which, when need required, might prove highly persuasive in the hand of a ‘pretty’ man who preferred action to verbal argument”. The seal is circular in outline, attached to a (relatively modern) wooden handle by four rivets through four semi-circular perforated projections evenly spaced around it. It bears an engraved design of a castle or town-gate surmounted by turrets and two bearded human heads fixed on spikes, thought perhaps to represent those of Phelim O’Connor, King of Connacht, and Teige O’Kelly, King of Uí Máine, both of which, along with many other Irish chieftains, were slain at the Battle of Athenry in 1316. It is inscribed + SIGILLUM: CONMUNITATIS: DEhENRI and it measures 4 1/4 inches in total length, the brass seal being 1 3/4 inches in diameter and 1/3 of an inch in thickness. A 14th-century date is generally accepted for both objects, making the mace the oldest in these islands.
A report in The Tuam Herald, Saturday, July 24, 1999 by Tony Galvin:
This Saturday the final chapter of the Mystery of the Missing Mace will conclude happily when the long lost Athenry Corporate Insignia, the 14th century Mace and Seal, returns to home after a 160 year odyssey.
The story of the tracking down of the treasured items reads like a detective story with Athenry’s resident archaeologist Professor Etienne Rynne playing the role of the persistent sleuth who finally tracked down his quarry. Indeed the description of the said items could have been culled from the grizzliest of detective tales. The mace itself is 11 inches long but one authority points out that it was not intended as a toy or to grace a civic procession: “It was a weapon which, when need required, might prove highly persuasive in the hand of a pretty man who preferred action to verbal argument.” The seal depicts a castle or town gate with two bearded human heads fixed on spikes, thought to represent Phelim O’Connor, King of Connacht and Teige O’Kelly, King of Uí Máine, who were slain along with thousands of their followers at the Battle of Athenry in 1316. Let’s hope there is not a sequel entitled The Curse of the Missing Mace. The mace first went walkabout around 1840, reappeared in Dublin in 1875 and went missing again in 1899, not turning up again until it was brought to the National Museum of Ireland in June 1963 for recording and was offered for sale to the museum at the time. As chance or fate would have it the then Assistant Keeper in the Irish Antiquities Division of the museum was none other than Etienne Rynne who was involved in the recording of the details of, the mace and seal. His career then brought him to Galway as a lecturer in Archaeology at UCG and he set up home in Athenry where he soon became an authority on the town’s history and archaeology. He maintained an interest in the location of the mace and seal but finding a suitable home for these valuable antiquities proved an obstacle in the path of finally bringing them home for good.
Then with the restoration of Athenry Castle Prof. Rynne felt that at last there was a suitable setting to house and display the items and he contacted the last known owner to inform him of the good news. A letter was sent to H.C.A. Blishen at his home on the Isle of Wight, appropriately named “Athenry’ to inform him of the interest in Athenry of having the mace and seal returned. But fate intervened again. The letter was returned unopened. Mr. Blishen was no longer resident at the Isle of Wight address and was untraceable. There matters rested until 1996 when a visitor to the Athenry Festival noticed a piece on the mace and seal published in The Athenry Journal (by Finbarr O’Regan). The visitor was Tom Bermingham an authority on the Bermingham family which founded the town of Athenry in l235 and he promised Prof. Rynne that he would take up the hunt for missing items. Now the real detective work began. After chasing up a few unproductive leads Tom Bermingham contacted the Chancery of St. James in Buckingham Palace where he learned that Captain Henry Charles Adolphus Blishen was made MBE in 1944 and died in 1980. Drawing another blank he resorted, in best detective tradition, to the obvious and looked up the name Blishen in the telephone book and before long he was speaking to Anthony 0. Blishen and the lost mace and seal were found yet again. And this time Athenry’s luck was in. Professor Rynne explains: “Fortunately for the people of Athenry Mr. and Mrs. Anthony Blishen considered themselves more as hereditary keepers in the old Irish tradition of sacred reliquaries rather than owners of the Athenry insignia and are more than willing to return the treasures to Athenry if they were assured a good home and not locked away in a chest.”
Last year the professor and his wife flew to London to meet the Blishens and were able to assure the couple that Athenry’s new Heritage Centre was the perfect and most appropriate last resting place for the wandering mace and seal. And so this Saturday the 160 year odyssey will finally end when the Blishens travel to Athenry to officially hand over the town’s Corporate Insignia at a special ceremony in the Square at 8.30 p.m.
Written by Finbarr O'Regan
Published here 05 Feb 2021 and originally published 2000
Page 009 of Medieval Athenry
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