by Etienne Rynne
For about five centuries Athenry Castle has been abandoned, roofless and fallen into a ruinous state. Last year, 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.
Photo of the reconstruction by Gerry Ahern
While it is not yet 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 safe 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.
Photo of the reconstruction by Gerry Ahern
The restored castle will also be used as a heritage centre to explain the town and immediate vicinity to interested visitors and scholars. The reconstruction is well under way at present, with the roof in place and virtually finished, and when complete will restore the castle to something approaching its appearance shortly before its abandonment in the 15th century – by that time it had already undergone at least two major changes, alterations which are still visible in its very structure.
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 Birmingham. Most accounts give 1238 as the date, but some suggest as late as 1250 – I believe it must have been there by about 1240, because by 1241 Meiler was sufficiently well ensconced there to invite the Dominicans to come and build a priory in the town.
However, the remains reveal at least three main phases of building. The original keep was low and squat, the roof being at the level of the present second floor, as can be seen by the two large holes (for draining away roof-water) halfway up in each gable. (See Photo, left). Shortly afterwards the castle was raised by another storey (also 13th century – c.1250?), while in the 15th century the gable – ends were raised to accommodate a new and higher roof rising above the battlements. The present basement is an insertion.
Entrance to the castle was by an external wooden stairs leading to a decorated doorway in the east wall at 1st floor level. Two fine windows remain at this level, both carved like the doorway – such carved work is unique to Athenry castle though quite common in ecclesiastical buildings.
Also unique to Athenry castle is that over its doorway was a small canopy – like affair, traces of which remain (made of slabs projecting from the wall above the 1st floor doorway).
Photo by Gerry Ahern
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 intra-mural stairway (within the east wall, beginning roughly above the doorway).
The main room (1st floor) also had a garde-robe or latrine at its north-western corner, consisting of a projecting ‘room’, only part of which remains.
The keep was built close enough to the north-western part of the surrounding curtain-wall to allow it to overlook the wall and thus made a wall-tower at this point unnecessary. Wall-towers, however were 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 2nd 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.
Incorrectly sometimes called “King John’s Castle” (King John died, aged 50 in 1216 before Athenry was founded), it is much more correctly “Bermingham’s Court”, that is to say Bermingham’s residence.
Leask’s drawing is, I believe, inaccurate in a couple of details. There is no evidence for a “Fore-building”, for instance – it seems he misunderstood the traces of the door canopy, thinking them to be traces of where a lean-to was attached. His drawing shows only one of the large draining-holes at 2nd floor level- overleaf is a copy of his drawing with the other matching hole drawn in, and also with three sketches showing main phases of the castle’s construction.