Article Source: ‘Walled Towns of Ireland’.
Photos by Gerry Ahern and Donal Taheny were added to the article
Inland W, riverine; at ford, as name implies, near ancient esker route ways of E Connacht lowlands; the stream is small but flows into an inlet of Galway Bay, 12 km to W, where the outport of Stradbally developed; Athenry is 20 km due east of Galway on route from Athlone (55km) and Dublin, 37 km S of Dunmore with which de Berminghams were also connected and 16km NW of Loughrea, the seat of de Burgos from whom de Berminghams held their manors; developed as the first of the Anglo-Norman Connacht towns in the early 13th century beside the castle, on an almost level site at 38-40 m OD.
Photo: Gerry Ahern
Town Wall (1) 1250m (over 50% of total) survives, if reduced and rather overgrown, in a continuous stretch of W, SW and SE walls from near W gate, interrupted only by sites of SW and S gates (and 2 minor breaks) and ending 125m N of SE corner tower; (2) 125m from N gate to beyond NW corner tower and a further short remnant to inner angle of the wall line there; (3) fragments of town wall in backs of houses in River Lane, S of castle. The towns defences were described in some detail in 1920-1 by Knox and Redington who gave the following measurements and details (6-8)-height, inside 12-15 feet (3.5-4.5m), outside c.20-23 feet above ditch (6-6.7m), thickness 2 feet (0.6m); wall loop-holed near SW gate. Gate–North survives as an isolated structure astride the street; but its single, rectangular tower ruined, especially at top and on E side; the archway, is narrow (sufficient only for single traffic), has been restored and is slightly pointed (illustrated K+R; Fleming 1914 sketch 37). It is similar to the central part of the surviving gate at Kilmallock.
Fragments of Gates-(1) jamb wall, 15 feet (4.5m), of Briton’s gate beside castle; (2) jamb wall of possible near SE tower (K+R 6-7).
Photo: Gerry Ahern
Towers-6 circular or curved survive, 3 at corners –SE, SW and NW- and 2 towards middle of W and 1 midway on SW wall; The SE (Fleming sketch 38, after Westropp) is the best preserved and, unlike the other corner towers, is largely external rather than ‘in the wall’, over which it rises spectacularly, c. 3m with loop-holes (as the French tower does at Waterford). There are signs of a battlemented top and K+R (6) claim it had a vaulted roof; the other towers are now modest ruined structures but the mid-mural ones project as half- moons, like the N mural towers of Wexford.
Photo: Donal Taheny
Fosse + Ramparts – sufficient remains in the little developed S two –thirds of the town to suggest that the fosse, which is artificial, was once complete, linking up in the NE with the castle moat and fed by the small stream which enters the town there. There is clear vegetational change where it survives, suggesting that it was once wet (1840+1895 references). There is evidence on the E that it was bounded by an outer rampart which again may have been complete originally. In a cross-section(K+R7) Through the site of the town wall E of the Dominican friary the outer rampart was shown to be almost as wide as the inner, which backed the wall, but only half as high (under 1m). The inner rampart, which also existed for most of the circuit (K+R 4), accounts for the difference in height of the inside and out aide wall, but in some areas it might be partly natural, utilising local, but slight, differences in ground level (1835 reference).
Photo: Gerry Ahern
Castle– D-shaped inner bailey wall is largely intact, surrounds a rectangular keep and has 2 round corner towers on E side overlooking the river, between which the E town wall joined; the N town wall joined where the bailey wall is now broken and probably near a SW tower on the W side (K+R 13-15). It was therefore, an integral part of the town defences acting like a gigantic corner tower (covering c.0.25 ha. in area). It dates in stone from 1238 and probably was built before the town stone wall. The S bailey wall, which is within the town, has been excavated slightly but no moat was found there and is thought un-likely (Foley 1972) Name survival – North Gate.
MAPS 1576: ‘Lord Burghley’ (PRO SP63/55/74) – rough plan of county and town. 1538 J Browne: ‘Plat of Athenry’ (PRO SP 63/104/34)-‘exact’ plan showing proposed inner wall. 1841 OS – marks wall and names 5 gates but some names are different from those on current OS.
WRITTEN DESCRIPTIONS 1567:
‘I was . . . presented with the keys of the town to keep . . . as they are so impoverished by the extortion of the lords (sons of Clanrickarde) about them, they are no longer able to keep the town. The town is large and well walled . . . there had been in it 300 good house-holders, and since I knew this land, there was 20, and now I find but fewer . . . and they ready to leave’ (Sir H Sidney, CSPI 330). 1574: ‘fair, large town, well walled with strong towers’ (Review of Connacht towns originally built by Anglo-Normans: CCP IV opp.476).1576: Athenry, totally burned by Clanrickarde sons (1574), ‘I took order for the re-edifying of the town – taxing the adjoining country for £2000 – ‘I have cut the town almost in 2 parts, it being before almost as big, with a fair high wall, as the town of Calais’ – recently lost. The Clanrickardes attacked again in 1577, ‘setting new gate on fire . . . and driving off masons from working on the wall’ (Sidney report to Prive Council: CCP 11 50; McNeill 141). 1598: ‘all (of town) ruined save the wall’ (Anon, Hogan ed 1878. 1614: ‘(it is said) elder than Galway, a town, as it seems, built by the English whilst they had their swords in their hands and kept themselves in close garrison against the attempts of the Irish. But after the English lords had planted themselves in strong castles abroad, the town became abandoned and utterly decayed . . . yet the walls stand still, large in compass and very fair’ (Sir Oliver St. John, Description of Connacht: CCP V 295), 1698 – 9: ‘one or two miles off Athenry, walled by King John, looks imposing but town very poor, close up’ (Dunton – MacLysaght 1969, 327). Strip of ground 18 feet (5m) all round ancient walls said be corporation property’ (MCI 290). c. 1840: ‘surrounded by a wall of considerable strength, enclosing an area of 25 Irish acres . . . originally surrounded by a ditch into which the river was conducted. This ditch is still traceable on the E and S sides where water still flows through it. The wall was defended with towers and 6 gates – Briton’s Castle, Spiddle, Lara, Nicholroe and Temple. All these gates are now destroyed excepting the N (Briton’s) and part of the Castle, which are much injured’ O’Donovan: OS Letters 408).1895: ‘arch-way of small, gate tower is modern . . . ramparts have lofty slender, round towers at salient points and are surrounded by a moat once filled by a stream’ (Westrop, who lists 5 gates – Spiddle for routes to NW, Swan to SW Laragh near abbey, Castle and Briton’s to N – based on OS map ).
ILLUSTRATIONS: Seal of Athenry, depicting battlemented, single storey gateway. ? 13th century (Bradley 1985 pl. 17 ll).
TOWN RECORDS 1572: ‘to G Bodkyn, by concordat, in consideration of his offer to defend the walls of Annrye town from being broken down by earl of Clanrickarde’s sons and other rebels – £20’ (Anal Hib lV 1932, 298).1584: R Fowler, J Browne and other citizens petitioned Queen ‘to enable them to bring over English artisans and tradesmen to settle in the town, to rebuild and improve it and to support a sufficient force for its future protection’ (Hardiman 94 – 5 note‘t’ quoting Rot. Pat. 26 Eliz).
MURAGE: the only known murage charter was granted for 3 years from 1310 (CP 43; MCI 287) on the same basis as the charter to Adare which referred to a stone wall. There is a tradition that the spoils of subsequent major battle between the Anglo – Normans and the Irish in the vicinity were used to finance the walling (Hardiman 54). While this may be discounted as fanciful it should be noted that the murage grant would have lapsed by then, and the Athenry walls were by any standards a major undertaking. Subsequent murage measures refer to the difficult years of the late 16th century when the town suffered twice at the hands of the, by then, rebel Berminghams/Clanrickardes. Apart from those funds already referred to for 1572 and 1576, a cess was imposed on the county, the provost was ‘allowed to summon, array and assess all persons within and without the liberties in defence of the town 1574 (CPSI 37; MCI 287), and the earl of Clanrickarde was fined for his sons’ attacks (Canny 1976, 113). Other charters: none known although the murage charter shows that the town was administered by a ‘bailiff’.
Athenry was among the 11 towns represented at parliaments from 1380 (IHD 6D). A fair grant was made to Bermingham in 1244 (CDI I 2674). A provost is mentioned in some of the 16th century documents and the 1584 application seems designed as a forerunner to a new charter.
PERIOD: Anglo – Norman – at latest by earliest 14th century on murage evidence; by tradition attributed to King John (c. 1840 reference). Tudor – repaired and reduced in size from1576 with internal wall (1583 map).
AREA: 28.5 ha (? Reduced to 12–14).
PERIMETER: 2000m (? Reduced to 1250). 16th century Inner wall = 500m.
SHAPE: irregularly 5 – sided, widening southwards.
STRUCTURE: not known from maps but surviving sections suggest a simple stone wall, with loop-holes and an inner rampart rather than a wall walk.
GATES: 4 – 5 main+1 – 3 postern + 1 – 2 S inner gates made in 1576. N North ^ + (surviving–rectangular, slightly splayed to base, 2 stories above broad pointed, modernised gate arch, ruined top). Castle^ / Briton’s ^+ (? postern). E Brittin* / Laragh ^+ S Spittle * (? postern for mills; K+R postulate a SE postern for friary). SW Loro* / Spital ^ / Swan ^+. W Nicholas* / Chapel or Temple^ / Spiddle +. (Sources of names – *1583 and current OS maps. ^ OS Letters c. 1840 and K+R.+ OS 1841 map and Westrop.)
TOWERS: 6 -8-6 surviving, circular at corner or semi-circular along wall from NW anticlockwise to SE corner, +? additional 2 on destroyed part of E wall. Castle: at NE corner.
RAMPARTS: inner and outer, probably complete.
OTHER SITE STRUCTURES: it seems unlikely that the small stream that runs through the walled area of Athenry was ever of use for navigation but Stradbally, near its mouth in Galway Bay, seems to have acted as an outport (NH III 13, quoting CPR 1401 – 5, 134 ); Athenry merchants also had special rights in Galway (Hardiman 204, quoting 1536 by-law) and were encouraged to settle there when the town was devastated in the late 16th century (NHI III 13 – 14); the stream was used for milling (1841 map) and also fed the fosse of the town wall and castle. The castle, dating from King John’s reign (1199 – 1216) and so called King John’s Court (OS map 1841), is sited on a natural rise and defended the ford. The parish church is between the castle and the cross formed by the main streets, where the market place probably was. The Dominican Friary (fd.1241) is across the stream but inside the E gate. Suburbs: even today there is little of Athenry beyond the town walls except around the railway line and to the S, and in 1841 (map) there was only a row of cottages beyond the S gate at a corn mill beside the stream; K+R (map 8 -9 ) considered that there was an outer bailey to the castle to the N and alongside the stream, beyond which an E suburb was surrounded by a rampart, the W side of which is also the site of the town wall (Castle to SE tower.
There is no doubt that Athenry was a walled town with gates, towers, fosse and ramparts, thanks largely to its fossilisation following the O’Donnell attack of 1596, which completed the devastation begun by the rebel de Berminghams 20 years earlier. (The accounts say that the gates were burnt, the invaders were repulsed at the castle but took over the mural towers and burnt the town except the church, abbey and castle – Hardiman94). The documentation is however slight, a single medieval murage reference, so that, if it were not for the extensive survivals, doubts might well be raised as to whether Athenry was ever walled. Such doubts would be fuelled by the undistinguished site – inland by a small river that does not even have a name – although the area generally lacks prominent rivers, and by the existence of a substantial castle which might be deemed to have been sufficient defence for a small town. Athenry as a focus of esker route ways, actually falls into the category of Anglo-Norman towns whose sites had an earlier significance, and thus were necessary to hold, rather than those that were of potential entrepot or military – strategic value (vide Naas and Kildare). Athenry, therefore, serves to suggest that murage documentation, however slight, should generally be taken at face value and lack of other references or physical remains should often be seen as accidental rather than significant.
Athenry is also interesting intrinsically, both because of its sheer size and its subsequent reduction in size. The two are, of course , not related but Athenry is unusual in that many other Irish walled towns were, by contrast, extended. In size it lay between the major port of Drogheda Louth (32 ha.) and the more comparable, seigniorial inland town of Ardee(25ha.), the former walled early and the latter possibly as much as a century later. Also Athenry was twice the size of Galway. As probably the earliest Anglo-Norman urban foundation in Connacht, Athenry’s size may be attributed to optimism and possibly a degree of seignorial competition between de Bermingham and the overlord de Burgh, who developed Loughrea (c.19 ha.) as their caput, as well as Galway. Athenry, developing at the castle in the early 13th century may have been surrounded by an earthen rampart topped with a wooden palisade, hence the tradition of a town wall dating from King John’s time. This may subsequently have been used as the basis of the wall dating from 1310 murage, or perhaps an earlier grant now lost. If so, it is interesting that by then the large circuit was maintained. The size alone would tend to suggest a date coincidental with relative prosperity and /or an ambitious lord. It certainly does not look like the walled circuit of a colony under threat unless it was seen as a major garrison and refuge centre, the land being intended for safe pasturage and the storage of crops. When Athenry became the concern of central government in the later 16th century, either directly or through the Presidency of Connacht, the size was reduced in half, to make it easier to garrison and perhaps to enclose the area actually settled – the current OS map marks a leper compound in the S underdeveloped part.
There are relatively few problems with regard to the details of the circuit. The 3 areas where the wall has disappeared are not major problems – at the W gate the short missing stretches of the wall are marked by property boundaries of buildings facing on to the street; the same is true W of the North gate; between this and the Castle Gate site a row of buildings seem to have been built in the fosse, backing onto the town wall where fragments may still exist; much less of the wall survives on the E side but N of the E gate the line is marked by River Lane, and remnants of the wall survived there recently in some cottages; while to S of the E gate much of the ramparts still exists, showing that the new boundary wall to the Dominican friary area is c. 200m inside the line of the town wall.
There remains the question of the line of the inner, 16th century wall, marked on the 1583 map as apparently at the S limit of the present and 19th century built-up area. It is not possible to be sure to what extent it was constructed but its line may survive –(a) in W/E property lines from between the 2 W towers which link up with an unnamed lane leading towards the stream opposite the Spa Well in the friary grounds, where no comparable line exists; or (b) slightly further S in a line formed by a combination of property boundaries and Clark’s Street, which links N/S Chapel and Cross Streets – again the line seems to fade out in the friary grounds, or at least does not agree with that of the Browne map; or (c) it may have run slightly further S still from S of the 2 towers, from where a lane leads to a minor break in the W wall, but there are no suggestive lines to the E of this.
There are also some problems concerning the names of the gates, the complexity and confusion of which are outlined above, and the status, main or postern, of a few. The N, W, E and SW gates are well established, although the 1583 map does not show the S, which is not indicated on the 1841 OS. It may have been superseded by the SW gate or have been a postern gate to the mills on the river outside. Cross Street probably originally led directly to it. Of more interest is the Castle Gate, a small fragment of which survived into this century. Again, it may have been essentially a postern because it is close to the N gate, this time for the castle, but it was not actually in the castle wall. At least one inner gate was made for the 1576 wall, presumably on Chapel Street, and possibly a postern or a second main gate on Cross Street too, but it is not known how long they survived nor where they were located.
The street system is clearly linked to the 4 main and 2 subsidiary/postern gates. It is basically, therefore, a cross concentrated in the W of the town with developments in the centre. These give an alternatively, staggered N/S line from the Castle gate (N) and the castle itself along the E side of the church grounds, and then from the market place at the church southwards to the S gate by the stream. The market place at the junction of the E/W and 2 N/S streets shows signs of having been an open triangular space, later colonised but retaining its essential shape, with a narrow link street, Burke’s Lane. Within the central area between the approximate line of the 1576 wall and the main E/W street, there are a number of E/W link streets/lanes. Both the N/S streets seem to widen in the area suggested for the 16th century wall and Chapel Lane does so towards the W gate too.
The town wall is a townland boundary throughout except where the new friary wall has replaced it. It is also, as indicated already, a property boundary not only in the intensively developed NW but throughout its length, either as the end wall of buildings in the NE, as the end of property plots in the W which face onto the main N/S street, and as field boundaries in the S and E, except again by the friary. There the new wall lies inside it and outside, beyond the fosse, there is an extramural road parallel to the wall from the SE corner tower to the E gate. In the NE corner the town fosse on either side of the castle seems to be the site of 2 short streets, but there are no streets related to the NW or W walls. There is however a street linking the 2 S gates, although it is not strictly parallel, but it does add some weight to the view that the S gate was a postern, which may indeed have gone out of use in the later period as the ossified street leading from it to the centre of the town suggests.
The core of Athenry lies in the NW quarter, with the NE side from the castle to the friary via the stream being more open, and the S half of the medieval walled area being composed of large fields and the occasional house. There are small extra-mural extensions at the W and, more recently, at the SW gates but the town is largely bounded by the town wall as it was reduced in 1576. Beyond this may still be seen the rest of the medieval town wall, a monument to the optimism of the early years of the lordship. Clearly, Athenry would repay major archaeological investigations, given its long and unusual history and good survivals, many of which are in ‘open’ sites.
The histories of Galway town by Hardiman 1926 and O’Sullivan 1942 are useful for Athenry but there are no books specifically devoted to it.
The Knox and Redington 1920 (K+R) article is the most useful.
Westropp, T J: Notes for a visit. JRSAIXXV 1895, 297 – 302. Blake, M J: Athenry Abbey, JGAS I 1901.
O’Donovan, J: Ordnance Survey Letters (RIA MSS.) JGAS VI 1909,130.
Macalister, R A S: The Dominican church at Athenry.