Athenry – A Medieval Heritage Town

By Etienne Rynne

Source: The Thomas Davis Lecture on RTE Radio 1994.

Photos: Gerry Ahern

Athenry, fifteen miles east of Galway city, has a past that goes back several millennia. Quite apart from polished stone axe heads from the general area; other prehistoric objects found locally include a fine late Bronze Age spear-head and bronze shield, and the bronze chape from an early Iron Age Celtic sword-scabbard. The region also featured prominently in Early Christian Irish history, notably nearby Tysaxon (Tech Sachsen, the Saxon’s house) where Balan, who came to Ireland with Colman after the synod of Whitby in A.D. 664 founded a monastery.

Important Historical Role

The region no doubt played an important role in early history, the river ford which gives Athenry (Baile Atha an Riogh) its name clearly being significant: it is where the east-west route along the Esker Riada, across the narrowest part of Ireland, crosses the most westerly possible direct south-north route. It played a similar role in much more recent times when Athenry became the main east-west – north-south junction on the railway network. However, it is only with the coming of the Anglo-Normans in the late twelfth century that medieval Athenry began to exist, at least in theory – in 1178 the title baron of Athenry was created for Piers de Birmingham, making it the premier barony of Ireland, well before 1235 when Richard de Burgh, lord of Connacht, granted a charter to Meiler de Birmingham, second baron of Athenry, who founded the actual town.

Meiler de Birmingham built a fine strong castle overlooking and guarding the river ford. He also instituted an adjoining strongly defended town, which included a large parish church, a central meeting-place (the market square), and a few short years later a fine Dominican priory. That the ford was important to the Irish too is perhaps to be seen by what is probably the earliest historical reference to the town, namely the attack by the O’Connor’s in 1249 – when the Irish mile to the south-east of the town is believed to have associations with this battle and is still a major site of pilgrimage on 15th August each year.

Eventful History

Due, no doubt, to its strategically important siting, medieval Athenry has an eventful history. It was raided many times by the Irish and in August 1316 was the scene of a major battle between the newcomers under William de Burgh and Richard de Bermingham, and the Irish, under Felim O’Connor, king of Connacht. Victory went to the townspeople, a result which so severely affected Edward Bruce’s irish campaign that it changed the course of Irish history. In the 1570’s the sons of the earl of Clanricarde attached Athenry and ‘so damaged the town that it was not easy to repair it for a long time after them’, according to the Annuals of the Four Masters. The lord deputy, Henry Sidney began repairs about 1576 when, apparently it was decided to reduce the town in size by about a half: a map dated 1583 shows this dividing wall, but as less than half finished, despite which for all practical purposed the present residential area within the walls is still more or less confined to the northern half of the town. The Clanricardes attacahed again in 1577, ‘setting the new gate on fire … and driving off masons from working on the wall’. In 1597 Athenry was again sacked and this time so severely destroyed by Red Hugh O’Donnell that is never really recovered; the town became fossilised, with the result that Athenry today is the classic Irish Medieval town.

Medieval Treasures

Athenry still retains not only its medieval castle, parish church, Dominican priory, market cross, and typically medieval street plan, all within its medieval town walls, but also the base of the bargaining cross in the fair green, two medieval bridges across its river, the Clareen, the remnants of a pre-reformation church dedicated to St Brigid, and a working forge, all immediately outside the town walls; there is also a uniquely triangular in plan dovecote within the town, but this is post medieval (18th century) in date. The five major medieval monuments within the town, however, are of sufficient importance to deserve individual description – after all, they are what make Athenry an outstanding Irish heritage town.





Athenry Castle

For almost five centuries Athenry Castle has been abandoned, roofless and in a ruinous state. In 1990, however, the national monuments branch of the office of public works started work on its restoration. The restored castle will be used, among other things, as a heritage centre to explain the town and immediate vicinity to interested visitors and scholars. The reconstruction has just recently been completed and now resembles something approaching its appearance shortly before its abandonment in the 15th or 16th century when the de Berminghams are said to have moved into a more comfortable dwelling in the town square.

Athenry castle consists of a keep and surroundings curtain-wall or bawn. The original keep, built about 1235 by Meiler de Bermingham, was low and squat, the roof being at the level of the present second floor. Shortly afterwards, probably by Piers, Meiler’s son who succeeded him in 1252, the castle was raised in height by another storey; in the 15th century the gable-ends were raised to accommodate a new and higher roof rising above the battlements.

Entrance to the castle was by external wooded stairs leading to a decorated doorway in the east wall at first-floor level. Two narrow but fine windows remain at this level, both decoratively carved like the doorway; such carved work is unique to Athenry castle though quite common in ecclesiastical buildings of the late 12th / early 13th centuries. Also unique to Athenry castle is that over its doorway was a small stone-built canopy-like affair, presumable to provide shelter for visitors at the door.

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 uppermost room at whatever period of construction, the smoke escaping through a Louvre or opening in the centre of the roof. It is no wonder the de Berminghams moved eventually from it to a more comfortable town house in the square.


Town Walls

The town walls of Athenry are easily the finest medieval town walls surviving in Ireland. They enclosed an area of about 28 hectares (69 acres), thus putting medieval Athenry into the top group of Irish walled towns regarding size. Until 1979, when eight monstrous, shiny grain-silos were erected immediately to the south of the town, Athenry was the only place in these islands where medieval town walls could be viewed as they were intended to be viewed, that is across open fields with the town snugly ensconced behind.

While the original town defences probably consisted of an earthen rampart with outer fosse or moat, and a wooded palisade on top, a three-year murage grant was obtained in 1310 and the walls, for the most part, date from that period. There is a tradition, recorded by the Galway historian James Hardiman in 1820 that the walls of Athenry were built over of profits gained from the sale of arms and armour taken from the fallen after the battle of Athenry in 1316, but this is clearly fantasy. The threat occasioned by the battle, however, probably did give rise to a strengthening of the walls, perhaps by the addition of the towers which are not bonded into the wall and this may be later, secondary additions.

Built of mortared stone, the walls are thin, averaging about 1.1 metres (3.5 feet) in thickness. The presence of an 8 metre (26 foot) wide, flat-bottomed, originally water-filled moat outside the walls adds to their height when seen from the outside. They averaged about 4.5 meters (14 feet) in height originally, but this includes an outer breastwork or parapet on the top which thus created a wall-walk whereby defenders could move around the walls, defending the town from vantage-points other than the wall-towers and town gates.


North East Tower


The finest of the surviving wall-towers is that at the north-eastern corner of the town. It is 10.1 metres (almost 33 feet) high and like the others, was built with a solid base. It has two entrances, one from the top of each adjoining wall so that the defenders could pass through the tower as they patrolled around the town walls. Within the tower is a short stairway leading to a partitioned room which had three internally-splayed windows allowing those within to survey the outer faces of both adjoining walls and also the area straight out from the tower itself. The other towers were all no doubt basically similar.


The North Gate (circa 1900-1930)


The North Gate after restoration in 1977

Town Gates

Though the map of 1538 shows only four gates into the town, one in the west wall, two in the south wall and one in the east wall, it seems unlikely that there wold not have also been on through the north wall, judging from the present street plan which seems to be the same as that originally laid out in medieval times. However, the only surviving gate in Athenry today is right there: the North Gate, or The ARCH, as it is more popularly known. It has some architectural features which would suggest that is might indeed be of late date, including evidence for a thick and heavy portcullis and a ‘murder hole’ which  strategically placed to allow defenders to hurl stones or spears down at attackers under the arch attempting to destroy or lift the portcullis.

On the 1583 map the four other gates are named: ‘Nicholas Gate’ through the west wall, ‘Loro Gate’ and ‘Spitle Gate’ through the south wall and ‘Brittin Gate’ through the east wall. Loro Gate, nowadays called ‘Swan Gate’ after a public house which is thought to have stood nearby during the last century or two, opened on to the old road to Galway. Spitle Gate clearly gets its name from a hospital which must have being within that part of the town, where is would have been well away from the inhabited part of Athenry thus segregating the sick from the populace in an effort to avoid the spread of contagious diseases. Why Nicholas gate was so called is not known, but Brittin Gate got its name from that of the owner of the land there in the mid-13th century, Sir Robert Braynach, his name deriving from Breathnach, a Briton or Welshman.


Parish Church

The de Birmingham’s built a parish church for themselves and their followers, soon after their arrival. By the late 15th century the church required considerable repairs, and in 1484 Archbishop Donal O’Murray of Tuam suppressed the rectory and vicarage and made the church collegiate with a small community of eight secular priests and a warden.Ninty years later it was destroyed by the Earl of Cranricarde’s sons even though the mother of one of them is said to have been buried there!

A sturdy cylindrical column of 13th to 14th century type can be seen embedded in the south wall of the nave, while the remains of the tracery in the northern transept and the sculptured corbel and the piscine in the southern transept indicate a 15th century date for them. From this one can deduce that the original 13th century parish church was a wide rectangular structure consisting of an aisled nave and chancel, and that when the church became collegiate its aisles were demolished, the arches separating them from the nave blocked up, and the two transpects added, thus giving it a cruciform plan.

In 1828 a small rectangular church with a particularly elegant spire at its western end was built by the Church of Ireland in the chancel. This remained in use until 1967, and for the past few years has served as a scouts’ den, but now is being renovated for use as a Heritage Centre.


Dominican Priory

Normally, in Ireland, Dominican priories were built just outside the town walls, but not in Athenry, but this may be explained by its being sited on the other side of the river from the rest of the town, even if just within the walled area. In 1241 Meiler de Bermingham, founder of the town, presented the site to the Dominican Friars so that they might build an abbey – reputedly at the request of St Dominic himself, the saint, however, had died in 1221, 20 years earlier. Strangely enough both the native Irish and colonising Anglo-Normans co-operated in the sponsoring the construction of the church, and the priory was completed in 1261. In 1324 the front traceried window and, no doubt, a fine west doorway, the former now partly and the latter totally destroyed by a handball alley built into it about the turn of the present century. The choir was lengthening and a north aisle and transept were added about the same time.

In 1400 Pope Boniface IX granted a bull of indulgence to those who visited the priory and who contributed alms towards its upkeep. In 1423 the priory was accidentally burnt, and Pope Martin V granted another bull of indulgence to those who contributed to its repair, and indulgence which was renewed by 1445 by Pope Eugenius. Alterations made during the lengthy period of rebuilding included reduction of the size of the fine east window, replacing its ornamental cusped tracery by the more severe switch-line variety, and the heightening of the roof of the cloistral ambulatory. The major change, however, was the construction of a large central tower, which necessitated strengthening the aisle’s columns and reducing its arches – despite which it fell in 1845. Under the tower was erected a roodscreen, of which there are only three other examples in Ireland.

The priory escaped suppression in the dissolution of Henry VIII, but in 1574 Queen Elizabeth gave the friary buildings and lands to the provost and burgesses of Athenry for all of 26s 6d (£1.32) yearly. In 1627 Charles I granted the priory to four Galway merchants to hold it for the king. These merchants were, however, well disposed towards the friars and the Dominicans were therefore able to re-establish themselves in Athenry in 1638. There followed a brief period of restoration work, the sacristy and perhaps the hagioscope, popularly misinterpreted as a ‘leper squint’ or ‘penitent’s cell’, apparently being additions dated from then. In 1644, due to favourable conditions resulting from the confederation of Kilkenny, the priory of Athenry was erected into a university for the Dominican order by decree of a general order held in Rome. Disaster befell the monastery in 1652 when Cromwellian soldiers wrecked the buildings, and in 1698 the priory was formally closed by the penal laws.

In the mid-18th century the cloistral buildings were demolished and a barracks built there for a regiment of English soldiers who are recorded to have broken or defaced nearly all the tombs and other carved stones in the priory. In 1819 the soldiers were replaced by a police militia which later become the Royal Irish constabulary who were later transferred to a new barracks built for them in cross street. In1892 the priory of Saints’ Peter and Paul was taken into state care as a national monument no.164.

The Dominican priory is noted not only for its varied history and architectural remains, but also for one of the finest and most interesting collections of medieval grave slabs in rural Ireland, it also contains some fine wall plaques and two important and imposing tombs.


Athenry Market Square


Market Cross


Crucifixion-Front image on the Cross

Market Square and Market Cross

In Athenry’s square is an unusual monument consisting of a steeply stepped pyramidal base on which is set a carved socket-stone with an upright, rectangular sculpted stone in it its top. Though known as the Market Cross, this monument does not really present the appearance of being a cross, despite the carvings of a crucifixion on one face of the upright stone. It is however, the last remnants of a fine late medieval Gothic cross of ‘tabernacle ‘or ‘lantern ‘type. Such crossed, dating from the 15th century are well known in Britain and elsewhere in gothic Europe, but for Ireland the Athenry monument is a unique example. These crosses get their name because instead of a transom as a cross-head they have a rectangular swelling, which has an appearance vaguely resembling a lantern or tabernacle. Almost invariably such crosses have a plain, tapering shaft set into a sculpted socket which is on top of a large and often quite high stepped pyramidal base. The Athenry market cross fits into this general pattern, except that the long shaft is now missing.

On the top of the stepped base is a virtually square block, the original socket-stone for the now missing shaft. It is carved with, among other things, two opposed jani (mythological quadrupeds with single horns which they could swivel around to face their enemies); these latter resemble those on the doorway into Clonturskert abbey, near Ballinasloe, which is dated to 1471 and which thus helps date the Athenry cross. With its now missing shaft, the total height of the cross would have been something in the region of 5 metres (16 feet) – a truly impressive monument indeed. The Athenry market cross is, furthermore, the only market cross of any type in Ireland which still stands in its original position.

The purposes of market crosses is two-fold, primarily to give the town a central focal point and secondarily to serve as a place where bargains struck at the market would be sealed. Although the market cross in Athenry is clearly of late 15th century date there can be little doubt that it must have had predecessors, probably of wood. Historically we know little about the Athenry market except that in 1629 permission to hold a regular market in the town, and a fair in October was granted by Sir William Parsons, whose name is still applied to the fair green, with the base-stone of its bargaining cross, just outside the town to the south-east, close to the former gate leading to Galway.

Athenry today and in the future

And what about Athenry today and in the future? There are plenty of good things going for Athenry, but also some which are less than fortunate – bad, in fact. The good includes the facat that the townspeople are at long last beginning to appreciate their past and the medieval monuments which make the town unique. This good, however, is counteracted by some thoughtless and unfortunate recent buildings which lessen the value of this medieval inheritance. Chief among these is the cluster of eight unsightly metal grain-silos erected in 1979 almost slap up against one of the finest stretches of the town walls; these now present visitors approaching the town from Dublin and Limerick directions with a truly unwelcoming and ugly sight.

The Kenny Memorial Park, one the better GAA grounds in the west of Ireland and for many years the training centre of County Galway’s highly successful hurling teams, should certainly be classed as a ‘good thing’ for Athenry, but it also offends – by the grandstand built not so long ago almost back-to – back with the town wall, the roof of which remains obstinately visible from the outside.

Another real plus for Athenry is ‘West rail’, a locally based group which organises steam-train excursions between Galway and Athenry during the summer months. They have persuaded Iarrod Eireann to repaint the railway station in a darkish green, thus bringing it back to something more closely resembling its past. But once again all this is somewhat spoilt by the removal of the slated roof of a fine mid-nineteenth-century stone-built goods-transference building.

Nor did the closure of the station as one of Ireland’s main railway junctions in 1976 help: no longer can one travel by rail from the west northwards to Claremorris and Sligo, nor southwards to Ennis and Limerick, without first travelling across the Shannon – ridiculous! Athenry by its very siting is a natural junction between east-west and north-south, and, as already mentioned, was always regarded as such, the town owing its very existence to that fact. Indeed, it was the arrival of the railway there in the mid-19th century which started the town’s revival and gave it a real chance to regain something of its former status.

The railway bridges between Athenry and Galway were clearly built to take two lines of tracks, though whether the second line was ever laid or was laid and later lifted, is unknown to me. Either way, its absence has undoubtedly proven the greatest handicap to Athenry’s growth; it removes any realistic chance Athenry had of becoming a really viable commuter town for Galway. But while there’s life there’s hope, and Athenry is looking ahead with optimism to the future.

Town’s Name

Before finishing, a word or two about the town’s name. The name of the town is an Irish one; Baile Atha an Riogh, which indicates that the ford must have been of importance in pre-Norman times. As no kings are known to have ever had any connection with the region at any time, the name should be translated as ‘the town of the river’s ford’, rather than as ‘the town of the King’s ford’ as it generally is ‘Rige’ is an ancient Indo-European word for a river; many rivers are called the Rye, including one joining the Liffey at Leixlip, and others in Yorkshire and the Isle of Wight – indeed, the River Rhine may likewise have derived its name from the same term. This may, furthermore, explain the present-day pronunciation of the town’s name’ it would surely be ‘Athenree’ were kings involved.

Yes indeed, kings or no kings, the town has had a great past and can confidently look forward to a great future. As an archaeologist I’m glad I chose to live in Athenry.