Thoughts on the Ancient Defences of Athenry Town

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Some fine remains of the ramparts which formed the outer banks of the water-filled  moat which once surrounded the town Athenry from the earliest times still exist. A fine example can be seen along that  portion of the wall adjoining Brady’s field (traditionally known as ‘the rampart’) on the north-western side of town. Even today, this dried up section of the  moat is up to nine or ten feet deep in places.

Equally interesting and visible from the  road is the section running from the front of Eamonn Madden’s forge, along the town wall to the tower in front of the old pump house and between the Mid-Western Farmers Co-op and the town wall, down as far as the river.  This marks, more or less, the original course of the  river from the foundation of the town in 1241, and not straight through the town as we see it today (even though a lesser stream may have done so).  Instead it followed a line from the dam at the castle, down to what was the ‘Britton Gate’ (in front of Madden’s forge), one of the ancient gates into the town. At this point a hump- backed medieval bridge existed until the 1950s when it was flattened. Some of the stones from this bridge form the wall on the opposite side of the road to the forge and the river followed the course of the moat as described already.

There are a number of interesting features attached to this section of the moat. Somewhere around the 1860s Robert Erwin, the then owner of the mill, situated at the dam opposite the castle undertook to cut a wide and deep diversion of the river straight through Abbey Row and the Spa (as we call it today) in order to increase the head of the dam and thereby increase the productivity of the mill. This unnatural breach of the town wall to allow this diversion is still plainly visible at the point between Leonard’s Lawn and Monaghan’s field. As a result of this diversion the river bed between the mill and the bridge at Madden’s forge dried up. This patch of riverbed was a no mans land and in post famine poverty families began to squat there. Subsequently a small number of stone cabins were built there and it became known as “River Lane”; it was inhabited up until the late 1930s. The stony bed of the river and a few of the houses were visible until the recent landscaping of the park. Slight traces of the rampart of this section can still be seen in Madden’s field from the river upwards.

Just below where the river cuts through the town wall and before the humpbacked bridge below the pound on the west side of the river is the site of the old mill.  My father told me that originally the corn mill was outside the town walls.  Due to a long seige the town ran out of ground corn.  After this a mill was constructed inside the town walls.  It is possible that the mill near the ‘pound bridge’ was the original and the inclusion of a mill at the castle probably brought about an earlier deepening and cutting of the river through the town.

The importance of the River Clarin in the selection of the site for the town of  Athenry cannot be underestimated. Having built the walls and dug out the moat filling it with water would have been a relatively simple task: a dam at the castle, splitting the river and causing it to flow around, either side of the town and rejoining just below the town above the old mill at the ‘pound’ end of town just below Prospect, would have been the obvious course. The moat could be flooded at will so that in ‘peace time’ the water would be let run straight through to facilitate milling and other attributes. In the days when combat was largely hand to hand, it is easy to imagine how formidable a defence was afforded by the ten-foot deep, twenty-foot wide moat filled with muddy water in conjunction with well fortified high stone walls. The defender had all the advantages. The stretches of the moat remaining are just as important a medieval features as the walls themselves, though, less obvious at first sight and therefore warrant equal protection against destruction.  It is sad to note that attempts are being made to fill in certain sections. Perhaps, at some time in the future, the Board of Works might consider reconstituting even one stretch of the moat before it vanishes completely.

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About this record

Written by Charles Taylor

Published here 09 Feb 2021 and originally published August 1995

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