The name of the town is an Irish one, Baile Átha ‘n Rí, thus indicating that the ford there must have been of importance in pre-Norman times. As no kings of any note are known to have been connected with the area at any time, the name should perhaps be translated as ‘River Ford’ rather than as ‘Kings Ford’, rige being an ancient Indo-European word associated with rivers. The river at Athenry is ‘The Clareen’ which, in turn, gives its name to Clarenbridge where it enters the sea.

The history of the town can be seen through its monuments. The earliest remaining building in the town is the Castle, built at the ford by Meiler de Bermingham, probably shortly before 1240. This castle, one of the finest 13th century castles remaining in Ireland, now consists of a three-storied keep (the gables were added to its top during the 15th/I6th century) surrounded by a strong curtain-wall which had two corner-towers and a corner-buttress near the strongly fortified gate – the keep not being centrally placed, but overlooking the curtain-wall at the north-east, obviated the necessity of a defensive tower there. Athenry Castle has being restored by the Office of Public Works.

Meiler de Bermingham also caused the Dominican Priory of SS. Peter and Paul to be erected in Athenry. The Priory was started in 1241 and finished in 1261; Meiler died in 1252 and was buried there. The Priory underwent various destruction’s, burnings, restorations and enlargements during its long history, the various phases being clearly apparent in the different architectural and sculptural styles to be seen in the present ruins. The Priory still contains much of note, particularly important being a fine collection of 17th century graveslabs and wall-plaques. Some of these are particularly interesting, notably the graveslab of John Burke and his wife which bears the date 12th October 1627 and also some fine interlaced work typical of the ‘Celtic Renaissance’. Also worthy of note is a slab dated to 1631 which has not only some interlace carved on it but also an axehead and some other tools. Likewise of special interest is the graveslab dated 1682 commemorating a blacksmith called Tannian which is not only carved with a large cross, but also with two bellows, a horse-shoe, an anvil, a hammer, and a pincers. Other graveslabs have carvings of ploughs or parts of ploughs, thus indicating the farming status of those commemorated.

The walls of Athenry are easily the finest medieval town-walls remaining in Ireland. A three-year murage grant being obtained in 1310, it would appear that the town was originally walled in or about that time. History, however, records that the town was walled after the Battle of Athenry on the 10th of August 1316, when the Anglo-Normans under William de Burgo and Richard de Bermingham severely defeated Phelim O’Connor, King of Connacht, who was aided by the Princes of Thomond, Meath, Breffny and Commaicme, the defeat seriously affecting Edward Burce’s Irish campaign. The record may, however, merely mean that the walls were rebuilt of stone, the earlier walls being most probably of wood, or, alternatively, that the existing walls were fortified by the addition of wall towers.

The Arch circa 1850 – Joe Coyne

Only one of the five town-gates now remains, the North Gate, and it may be a late 16th or early 17th century addition. Most of the wall still stands, together with five wall-towers (the footings of a sixth were accidentally destroyed some years ago). The town-walls of Athenry were not of a good military character being very thin, but nonetheless they had ramparts on the top; the main defense, however, was a deep and wide moat, traces of which can still be seen outside the walls. The walls, towers and moat, were built to provide protection and to lend status to the town.

The remains of St. Mary’s Collegiate Church, the former parish church of Athenry, dates from the mid-13th century. It has often been incorrectly identified as the remains of a Franciscan Friary, due to a 17th century mistranslation of the Latin name for Adare, Co. Limerick. Apparently founded about 1240, it became Collegiate by order of Atchbishop O’Murray of Tuam in 1484; it was destroyed in 1574 by Earl of Clanricard’s sons. In 1828 a church with a particularly elegant spire was built in its chancel and was in use by the Church of Ireland until very recently.

In 1629 permission to hold a regular market and a fair in October was granted to Sir William Parsons, Bart. The market was held each Sunday within the town, at the spot where the remains of a very fine market cross still stand. This cross is unique in Ireland, being of “lantern” or “tabernacle” type, and it dates from the late 15th century. The fair was held immediately outside the town-walls, close to the gate leading to Galway. The side of this fair is marked on old maps as “Parson’s Fair Green” and can be located by a large stone which has a rectangular socket cut into it, obviously to take a cross at which bargains would be sealed.

In February 1597 Red Hugh O’Donnell sacked the town, following which Athenry descended into a continuous decline – briefly halted in 1644 when the Dominican Priory was revived as a University – to be finally put down by the Cromwellians in 1652. The coming of the railroads in the 19th century, making Athenry an important junction, revived the town, and it has ever since then been slowly finding its way back to its former importance.

 Mace and Seal of AthenryThe mace as shown is of very singular design, being a clenched fist couped below the wrist, solidly cast in bronze or antique brass and mounted on a stout ashen handle. It is probably the oldest object of its class (a civic mace) to be pointed to in the British Isles. The metallic portion measures 4.25 inches in length and 3.5 inches across the knuckles. The handle is about 7 inches long and looks very old, but has probably succeeded an older one. The weight of the whole mace is 1 lb.  Compared to the Athenry Mace many others would have been designed for ceremonial use more than anything else.

The Athenry Mace was not intended to be used as a toy or to grace civic procession.

It was a weapon, which when need required might prove highly persuasive in the hand of a man who preferred action to verbal argument.

The Seal which at present is riveted to a modern ash handle bears a castle, from the battlements of which rise two human heads fixed on spikes.

These heads were very well designed and characteristically cut, bearing all the marks of the Irish mode of wearing the hair and beard. No local tradition points to the reason of these ghastly trophies appearing on this most curious civic seal; but history records that two great battles were fought hear, in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, which may well have given cause for this singular device.

Visit Athenry Arts and Heritage Centre to view the Mace and Seal of Athenry

Editor’s note: It was the custom to raise the heads of falen enemies on spikes over castle gates as a reminder to others not to tempt fate. 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.  Thanks to the efforts of Professor Rynne and a letter in the Athenry Journal the Mace and Seal are now at home in Athenry’s Heritage Centre.  

In Athenry’s Market Square is an unusual monument consisting of a steeply stepped pyramidal base on which is set a carved socket-stone with an upright, rectangular-sectioned sculpted stone on its top. Known as the Market Cross, this monument does not really present the appearance of being a cross, despite the carving of a crucifixion on one face of the upright stone. It is, in fact, the last remnants of a fine Late Medieval Gothic cross of Tabernacle or Lantern type. Such crosses, dating from the 15th century perhaps mainly from the second half of that century, arc well-known in Britain (mainly, in England, Cornwall and south Wales) in Northern France, in Germany, and elsewhere in Gothic Europe – but for Ireland the Athenry monument is a unique example such crosses get their name because instead of a transom as a cross-head they have a rectangular swelling, generally with a pointed roof-like top, which has an appearance vaguely resembling a lantern or tabernacle. Almost invariably such crosses have a long, tapering generally plain but chamfered shaft set into a sculpted socket which is on top of a large and often quite high stepped pyramidal base. These crosses are not crucifixes though most bear a crucifixion scene carved on the main face of the tabernacle-like part.

Market CrossThe Athenry market cross fits into this general pattern, only the long shaft and roof-like portion now missing. The pyramidal base consists of four steep-steps, well built of large stones (also a low, step-like surround of concrete at ground-level). Excluding the concrete surround, the base measures 2.46m. by 2.38m. at its bottom, and the steps, from the bottom upwards, measure 48 cm., 49 cm., 44 cm. and 52 cm. in height, giving an overall height of almost ( just over 6 ft.). On the top of the stepped base is set a virtually square stone, 40 cm. by 41 cm. and 26m. high, clearly the original socket-stone for the now-missing shaft. Its lower 14 cm. is vertical and plain, while its upper portion is sloping and carved with, among other things, a stag, a winged quadruped, fighting and other dog-like animals, an angel holding a long scroll diagonally across its body, and two opposed jani (mythological quadrupeds with single horns which they could swivel around) with interlocked necks; these latter resemble those on the doorway into Clontuskert Abbey, near Ballinasloe, dated to 1471, which thus helps date the Athenry cross. The upright stone now set into the socket-stone is the tabernacle / lantern-like part of the cross, though now missing its top and bottom. Enough of it remains to show that it was a finely-carved piece, with two wide faces (the front and the back) and two narrower ones on the side. All faces are recessed the recesses surmounted by crocketted and pinnacled arched two over the front recess and one over each of the others. The front recess contains a carved cruciform scene, with Our Lady and St. John standing on either side of the cross. The back recess contains a carving of the Madonna and Child, while the two side-recesses are flat and plain – such undecorated recesses are quite common on crosses of this type and were almost certainly intended for a painting of a saint or religious scene or symbol; indeed, the whole cross-head and its socket-stone may well have been coloured originally

The proportions of the sculpted heads to the tapering shafts of a sample of such crosses varies greatly, but averages out at about 1:3. As the incomplete head of the Athenry cross is 69 cm. high, and was originally about l0 cm. more, it can be estimated that the shaft would probably have been something  in the region of 2.25 m. high. Judging from the measurements of the base of the cross-head (30 cm. by 20 cm.) and those of the top of the socket-stone, the shaft would have been about 25 cm. by 15 cm. at its top and 40 cm. by 41 cm. at its bottom. With such a shaft the cross would look something like the accompanying drawing.    To restore the Athenry market cross is a definite possibility and would be a relatively easy matter. The result would be a unique, for Ireland, and an outstandingly impressive  monument. While the overall height would be in the region of 5m. this would not be excessive for monuments of its type, many of which are considerably higher (as also are many of Ireland’s high Crosses).

Athenry CastleFor about five centuries Athenry Castle has been abandoned, rootless and fallen into a ruinous state. In 1990, however, the National Monuments Branch of the Office of Public Works started work on its restoration, following on some minor excavations within the curtain wall.  While it is not yet quite certain for what purpose exactly it will be used when restored, the State, insofar as it has expressed any plans at all towards its ultimate use, apparently intends to use It as a sort of state storehouse, in the nature of a museum or display centre for loose sculpture at present lying around the National Monuments in the region, carvings which might otherwise be stolen – as some years ago was the well-known St. Dominic in Athenry’s Dominican Priory. The restored castle will also be used as a heritage centre to explain the town and immediate vicinity to interested visitors and scholars. Athenry Castle consists of a keep and surrounding curtain-wall or bawn. It was built shortly after 1235 when Richard de Burgo, Lord of Connaught, granted a charter to Meiler de Bermingham. Most accounts give about 1238 as the date, but some suggest as late as 1250 – I believe it must have been built by about 1240, because in 1241 Meiler was sufficiently well ensconced there to invite the Dominicans to come and build a priory in the town.

Athenry CastleThe remains reveal at least three main phases of buildings. The original keep was low and squat, the root being at the level of the present second floor. This can be seen by the two large holes (for draining away roof-water) halfway up in each gable.  Shortly afterwards the castle was raised in height by another storey (also 13th cent. c.1250), while in the 15th century the gable-ends were raised to accommodate a new and higher root rising above the battlements.  The present basement vault is an insertion. Entrance to the castle was by an external wooden stairs leading to a decorated doorway in the east wall at first floor level.  Two line windows remain at this level, both carved like the doorway – such carved work is unique to Athenry Castle though quite common in ecclesiastical buildings.

Athenry CastleAlso unique to Athenry Castle is that over its doorway was a small canopy-like affair, traces of which remain; this consisted of slabs projecting from the wall above the doorway. Access from the first floor to the second floor was by a wooden stairs (as no trace of any other stairs remain, this must have been so), and from the second to the third floor by an intramural stairway (within the east wall, beginning roughly above the doorway). The main room (first floor) also had a garde-robe or latrine at its north-western corner, consisting of a projecting ‘room’, only part of which still remains. The keep was built close enough to the north-western part of the surrounding curtain-wall to allow it to overlook the wall, thus making a wall-tower at this point unnecessary. Wall-towers, however, ware built at the north-east and south-east corners of the curtain-wall, while the south-western corner was fortified by the gate (now a modern replacement, but undoubtedly originally strong and adequately fortified). The castle seems to have generally been cold and dark; there are no windows at second floor level, and no fireplaces anywhere, the fire was probably centrally placed In the upper room, the smoke escaping through a louvre or opening in the centre of the roof.  In the 15th century the Berminghams moved from It to their town house near the market cross In the square.

Athenry Castle
A sketch of Athenry Castle 1793